Between Work and Play: Protocols of Friendship and Community in Text-Based VR

Charles J. Stivale
Wayne State University, USA
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Abstract: Much has been made in recent years about the potential within text-based "virtual reality" for the creation of "community" (or comMOOnity, in the case of MOOs), and also about the ways in which these intersections and interactions constitute valid forms of work despite (or sometimes because of) the possibilities for play. With these concepts in mind - work and play and community -- , I want to look at two different sorts of "mobile citizenry" as well as similar but quite distinct "media states," through the creation of community on MOOs.

Over several years and different research projects, I have reflected both on the "rhetorical" involvement of interlocutors within these real-time chat sites on the protocols inherent to such extended involvement. The dichotomy of "work and play" particularly has piqued my curiosity since, as Richard Lanham as pointed out in The Electronic Word, a "new rhetoric of the arts" obtains increasingly in the burgeoning electronic technologies, one based on a "bi-stable decorum . . . rather than on a stable, unselfconscious transparency" (1993, 14). Lanham provides a matrix to envisage the poles of this decorum, as follows (1993, 14):

              -Unselfconscious              Self-conscious
Object : <---- Transparent ---------------- Opaque ------>
Viewer : <---- Through ---------------- At ------>
Reality: <---- Biogrammar ---------------- Drama ------>
Motive : <---- Hierarchy ---------------- Play ------>

Rather than embrace this bi-polar model, I take it as a starting point to discuss "virtual worlds" within MOO-sites in which participants engage the text by means of this constantly shifting perspective, at once immersed within a constructed environment in order to engage in pixeled dialogue and activities via text (what Lanham calls a "prosaic use of language," 1993, 76), and yet also interacting with, and thus (self-)conscious about, the tools at one's disposal (moving toward what Lanham calls "poetic use of language"). We may link these poles, of course, to Lanham's "motive axis," fluctuating between the "serious" purpose of hierarchy and the "playful" game orientation. And yet, just as with the AT/THROUGH oscillation, there is a mix between "work" and "play" that needs to be accounted for more fully, preferably in reversed order than that presented by Lanham, as follows:

             Unselfconscious              Self-conscious
Object : <---- Transparent ---------------- Opaque ------>
Viewer : <---- Through ---------------- At ------>
Motive : <---- Play ----------- Hierarchy/Work --->

For Lanham's alignment, respectively, of play/hierarchy with self-consciousness/unconsciousness seems contrary to the immersive enjoyment of looking-THROUGH (play) and to concomitant interactive manipulation of looking-AT (hierarchy/work) that occurs through online activity of MOO-sites.

The locus of citizenry that pertains to the synchronous online domain provides the main focus on both the work/play, AT/THROUGH dimensions. To do so, I want to consider briefly what I contend are two extremes of these conjoined dimensions. On one hand, LinguaMOO has been conceived in communitarian terms from the start as a virtual space that founds its pedagogical, work-related potential precisely on various manifestations of the performative and of play. A number of precise examples will help me make this point, taken from the collective history of Lingua MOO's efforts to gather discussion sessions and collaborative research groups under its aegis. I argue that in such a site -- enhanced enormously by the ongoing initiative to link pedagogical MOOs together -- the potential for cyber-community is maximized, enabling truly intercultural and global exchanges and learning. Yet, this emphasis on the pedagogical, work-related end of the immersive spectrum does not preclude the performative and playful aspects, ad I will provide examples of this through different protocols of play and performance that grace this MOO site.

The other extreme in the performative/pedagogical dimensions is, of course, LambdaMOO, in which the constant mobility of personages and the consistent expansion of the site offer a broad array of examples of play as work (through programming) and work as play (through the enormously creative and humorous development of virtual "object" and "locales"). In terms of community, the possibilities of exchange are certainly no less than in LinguaMOO, but they tend to be more random, more social, and certainly more playful and performative. However, another facet of the citizenry question is the "tiny-political" dimensions, that is, the many questions and controversies in governance that have assailed LambdaMOO for most of the decade. Here the obvious referent is the "rape in cyberspace" incident (or non-event, depending on one's perspective), recounted in several versions by Julian Dibbell, most recently in My Tiny Life (1998). My own contribution to studying the vagaries of cyber community, "help manners" (1997), emphasizes the extent to which creative play can be hampered by cyber-feuds that all too painfully come to emulate similar altercations in work-related environments "in real life." In any event, this presentation will suggest that the form of community emerging within this site is ever expanding, constantly renewed, and that the contributions to the site, lasting (work-related) or ephemeral (playful) tend primarily toward the performative, yet with the pedagogical turn, at the very least, of providing a site for global encounters and, in the best circumstances, of expansion of consciousness.

About the Presenter: Charles J. Stivale is Professor of French and Chair of the Dept. of Romance Languages and Literatures, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI USA. His fields of research include nineteenth and twentieth century French literature and cultural studies, contemporary critical theory, computer-mediated communication, and Cajun dance and music.