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An attempt at defining the study of folklore in MMOs

Days of our (virtual) lives.

For a blog called MMO Folklorist, I’ve so far managed to go almost a year without writing anything which could confidently be described as a study of folklore. The truth is however that neither myself nor anybody else that I can find has made an effort to define how folklore studies can be applied to the sphere of MMOs (and online games in general).

I am by no means a qualified folklorist, but it’s a field of study which I returned to for many of the essays that I wrote during my Literature & History degree. As such, I feel that I have enough of a grasp on the subject to begin to draw a line between what counts as MMO folklore and what doesn’t.

The term ‘folklore’ itself is a somewhat nebulous field of study which Simon J. Bronner describes in Folklore: The Basics as “bridging humanities and social science perspectives, a hybrid discipline”. Exact definitions and specializations differ between the field’s practitioners, and as usual with these sorts of things, it can all get very granular and unnecessarily (for the layman at least) academic.

In tracing the history of folklore studies, Bronner quotes the Victorian writer and originator of the term ‘folklore’, William John Thoms, whose definition integrated the studies of “manners, customs, observances, superstitions, ballads [and] proverbs”. This list has expanded considerably over the years, and modern folklore studies have embraced aspects of digital culture, particularly the proliferation of memes. Anybody who has played an online game can likely see where Thoms’s list alone could easily intersect with the behaviour and habits of the communities in those games.

There does exist a limited literature on interactions between folklore and videogames, but none of it quite manages to bring the two together in a satisfying way. There are articles about how games can integrate original folklore into their worldbuilding, and articles about games which use real-world folklore in their worldbuilding. While both are interesting articles, they’re about narrative technique rather than the identification of ‘real’ folklore in the sense of it being something which proliferates organically.

Academic folklore studies journals contain a handful of similar articles, with only one article that I could find touching on folklore in online games. Ben Gillis’ “An Unexpected Font of Folklore: Online Gaming as Occupational Lore”, from Western Folklore is a 2011 article which compares the behaviour of World of Warcraft players to that of the American work ethic. The article however seems more concerned with marvelling at the dedication of MMO players than exploring actual evidence of what Thoms would have described as folklore, and the whole thing has that usual sneery veneer which is inherent in non-videogame studies looking in on what they consider to be a lowbrow medium.

At this point, I should confess something: I didn’t just conjure the name MMO Folklorist out of thin air. The idea came after my book on Star Wars Galaxies was used as an example of videogame folklore in an article on Wired, We Need More Videogame Folklorists. The focus of the article is on another book which was published at the same time as my own book, Wes Locher’s Braving Britannia: Tales of Life, Love, and Adventure in Ultima Online. Locher’s book (and its sequel) stand alongside Andrew Groen’s epic two-volume Empires of EVE as perhaps the truest examples of MMO folklore that have been written to date.

Ultima and EVE prove to be the perfect vehicles for such stories. In the wild west early days of the genre, not only were MMOs designed around emergent gameplay and storytelling but player behaviours which are now a given were not yet established. As such, every play session had the excitement of the unexpected in the sense that an impromptu in-game visit from a GM might disrupt the game world, a game mechanic may suddenly be exploited in a way which changes how everybody plays the game until it is fixed, or a roleplaying group may pull your character into a story which was happening only at that moment and would never again be repeated. Such things can still happen in the themepark MMOs which became the standard of the mid-late ’00s onwards, but they’re far less likely.

World of Warcraft was the mould into which all those later MMOs squeezed into but even that game has its own, very famous examples which could be counted as folklore: Leeroy Jenkins, and the Corrupted Blood incident. Like Ultima, Star Wars Galaxies was the kind of sandbox game which led to many happenings that could be classified as folklore. The mysterious method for unlocking Jedi was a source of many of the game’s superstitions and behaviours that in hindsight seem ridiculous, but was, at the time, accepted by a playerbase who were willing to try anything to achieve their coveted prize. One example of this was elder members of the community telling new players that typing “/qui gon jinn” would unlock the path to Jedi. A sort of ‘newbie hazing’, the command would actually boot players out of the game, with the system having interpreted /qui as a shorthand for the command /quit.

If even a loose definition of MMO folklore is to be made, then it stands to reason that certain topics can be ruled out as being within the parameters of such a study. Articles about a game’s mechanics, for example, how combat works, or how say, quick travel impacts gameplay is obviously not folklore. Nor is industry analysis, for example, an article on the popularity of a game, or a review of a new patch or expansion. Slightly more sticky territory is examples of New Games Journalism which delve into online games. Take for example this article which is a kind of POV report on Planetside. This brand of gonzo reporting, which was briefly all the rage in games journalism, but has mostly faded away now is a bit too inorganic to classify as folklore, but there are glimpses of wider player behaviours on the periphery.

The idea of videogame folklore, particularly where it concerns online games, seems to be a fairly wide net then. So why hasn’t there been more writing which falls into the category? Well for one thing it’s difficult to pull together sources. My original intent when writing a book about Star Wars Galaxies was to gather stories of players’ experiences in the game and compile them in a manner not dissimilar to that of Locher’s book on Ultima Online. When it came down to it however most of the stories I received from players were generic in the sense that they were about a fun dungeon run or PvP battle. Good stories, but essentially ones which could be happening in any MMO at any given time. As such I chose to litter examples of the game’s folklore throughout the book, which became more of a visual history than a recounting of specific personal experiences.

Coaxing stories out of players requires the skill set of a journalist, while the act of seeking out elements of folklore oneself requires the skill set of an anthropologist – observing the behaviour of others from just the right distance, knowing when to be in the right place at the right time. Needless to say, the vast majority of MMO players do not have such skillsets. But what of those writing about MMOs on genre websites and blogs? MMO folklore is interspersed in their writing, but it’s often an unintentional addition. Most of us are just hobbyists, sharing our experiences of the games we play and our thoughts on the genre as a whole.

Little of what counts as folklore within the online games we play would warrant an article all to itself, let alone a whole book. There surely can’t be any harm though in trying to be a bit more observant of those small things which happen in our favourite games, and preserving them in some way, whether as an aside on another blog post or article, or even in a quick tweet. The purpose of folklore is ultimately to prevent cultures from losing their heritage. They allow us to celebrate and marvel at the everyday happenings of the past – of how things change and how they stay the same. Online worlds change, and eventually, they fade entirely – we could all be better served by trying to preserve memories of more than that patch that nerfed our favourite class.

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