[Researcher and digital media professor Celia Pearce reflects on the closing of Makena's There.com, chronicling the rich culture found there and the ingredients for an enduring virtual community.]
Earlier this month, we saw the passing
of yet another virtual world. There.com
was one of the early "second wave" metaverse-style offerings (the first wave was in the mid-1990s), an open-ended social world with user-created content. Born in 2003, the same year as Second Life, There.com was one of the more successful and enduring virtual worlds, with one of the most cohesive long-standing communities of any of its competitors.
I began doing research in There.com in 2004 with a study of refugees from the defunct game Uru: Ages Beyond Myst
, chronicled in my 2009 book, Communities of Play: Emergent Cultures in Multiplayer Games and Virtual Worlds (MIT). I've also conduced a number of other research projects in There.com, one of which was in progress at its closing.
There.com is often compared to Second Life, its better-publicized competitor, but There.com attracted a different audience, and hence, a unique community emerged over its seven-year lifespan. There.com aimed to appeal to the "everyday person," a broad, relatively low-tech audience, in contrast to the early adopter geek who often dominates massively multiplayer games and virtual worlds.
While Second Life has enjoyed widespread appeal, it is very much born of the Burning Man culture, both in terms of its aesthetics and the cultural cache of technical prowess. But There.com was designed with a different audience in mind that also spanned older adults, women and 'tweens, as well as the twenty-somethings who are the standard staple of the genre.
What It Did Right
I often hold There.com up as an example to both my clients and my students for having done three things exceptionally well, perhaps better than any virtual world or MMOG I've seen. First, it had the most expressive and well-crafted avatar design and animation, and the most appealing to women, of any virtual world to-date.
Second, it did a remarkable, if imperfect, job of facilitating bonds between people, the most important ingredient to success. And third, rather than simply giving creative tools to the tech-savvy, There.com opened up creative channels for people who often had no idea they even were creative. It empowered new voices and expression, often in a highly entertaining and unexpected way.
Virtual world and MMOG designers greatly underestimate the importance of a good "fit" between player and avatar, as evidenced by what T.L. Taylor calls designers' often "impoverished" ideas about gender. The appeal of avatar design is a strong factor in a game's initial appeal, including who chooses to play the game in the first place.
Over time, once they "don" one that fits, players can develop strong attachments to their avatars, which is one of the reasons players are often so devastated when worlds close. For many, the avatar is a second body, a social prosthetic, an expression of the self through play that allows people to explore aspects of their personalities that may not have release in other contexts.
Many people use virtual worlds as an escape, but just as often (and sometimes simultaneously), players find themselves inadvertently learning new things about themselves through structured social play. There.com's abstracted, cartoony style, with its lip-synch voice system and its gracefully choreographed set of gestures, movements and emotes, was a "good fit" for over a million and a half people.
Death Of An Avatar
When virtual worlds close, one of the points of trauma my research subjects have cited is the "death" of their character, particularly if they have invested many years in creating it. This is particularly tragic for those of us who use this "second body" to overcome physical, social or geographical limitations.
The people I encountered in my research included a disabled woman who became the leader of a 300-strong group of game refugees, and provided in-world classes for other players with disabilities; a young man whose experience in virtual worlds helped cure his agonizing fear of people; a woman who used the speech affordance of There.com to rehabilitate herself after an auto accident; and two self-described "bubble ladies" (homebound by pervasive environmental allergies), both in their 50s, who became top designers in There.com, as well as best friends.
For people without these constraints, the avatar becomes a vehicle for creative expression and social experimentation. And while the people live on, the avatars through which these personas emerged are gone, leaving players with a profound sense of loss.
But the individual avatar is not the only thing that is lost when a world closes. When my virtual world clients ask me what is the most important aspect to the success of a virtual world, my answer is one word: friendship. The more obvious answer would be "community," but community is built upon a foundation of friendship.
The long-term sustainability of a community rests largely on the social bonds between its members. One of the most important findings of my MMOG research has been that players come for the game, but stay for the people. If the environment does not provide a substrate for social bonding, through its environment, its activities, its social tools and above all its people, it will ultimately wither on the vine.
The success of virtual worlds is comparable to that of the real-world "Third Place," such as a cafe or bar. They need to attract the right mix, then create an appealing environment to which people want to return as "regulars." Similarly, virtual worlds rely heavily on repeat visits. Many of the people I spoke with in There.com's waning days had been "in-world" since the very beginning, including a handful from the pre-release beta test. This is a major accomplishment in a business where the average lifespan of a subscription is around 18 months.
A common problem of games and virtual worlds is attracting the wrong mix of people. There.com managed to attract a highly diverse audience in terms of culture, class and gender (more than 50 percent female) who formed a community that was greater than the sum of its parts.
Finally, There.com did something exceptional vis a vis user-created content: it gave creative voice to numerous people who had no previous experience as artists. Unlike Second Life's uncensored open content policy, There.com had a "gated" approach to user-created content. All player designs had to be submitted for review (for a fee) to be made available in-world.
This was both to protect the company from potential intellectual property violations and also to maintain the wholesome "all-ages" ethos that attracted and sustained a large portion of its population. Players went so far as to found their own in-world university where they taught each other everything from hoverboating (a mode of transport in There) to Photoshop and 3D modeling, to creative writing, and even Native American culture.
People who had no previous history of creative output suddenly found themselves successful designers. Others were motivated to learn computer skills in order to share their creativity with the community. The most successful of these used the revenue from sales of virtual items to support their design habit, or in some cases, as a source of real-world income. Some players used the skills they learned in There.com to effect a career change, such as a woman who was promoted from receptionist to graphic artist after her employer learned she knew Photoshop, a skill she learned and later taught in There.com.
For those who have not experienced life as an avatar firsthand, it is difficult to understand how the closure of a "game" could have such a strong emotional impact. But There.com is not just a "game," and not just a "virtual world." It's also a culture and a community, and massive creative effort that was built up over a period of years by a group of very dedicated players who transformed it from a cartoony "club med" comprised primarily of company-created assets, into a vibrant, creative culture comparable to any culture that exists in the real world.
As an ethnographer who has devoted six years of her life to serving as a kind of emissary and folklorist for the people of There.com, I feel both a sense of loss and a special sense of responsibility. The book I published on the Uru culture in There.com was meant to describe a living, breathing culture. But, as real-world anthropologists know, when a culture is eradicated, anthropology can tragically become history.
My greatest fear is that in the black-and-white, boom-and-bust world of techno capitalism, the demise of There.com will be viewed as an absolute failure rather than a learning experience. Based on the statement of its owner, Makena, There.com's demise seems to be a casualty of the recession. The loss of a few key sponsors, as well as declining developer and real estate fees, tipped the company over the line.
This is not a new phenomenon: virtual worlds have been closing since the earliest text-based and graphical worlds of the early 1980s. What's different is that they are no longer a niche form of entertainment but a pervasive part of the Web 2.0 social landscape. Many of today's numerous virtual worlds rival small and large countries in terms of population, culture and even economics. The largest of these, Finnish-based kids' world Habbo, for instance, has more than 140 million registered users, but there are numerous small and mid-scale worlds as well.
By attaching them to real-world economies, as many have done, they can even impact people's real-world livelihoods. But the bottom line is that virtual worlds, despite the fact that they are growing increasingly mainstream as a cultural phenomenon, are businesses.
Perhaps the biggest tragedy of There.com is not that its creators got it wrong, but that they got it right--right enough to create a sustainable community that flowered more than seven years, but not quite right enough to weather the recession. Although it's no longer possible to experience There.com, creators of virtual worlds would do well to study both its successes and its failures. Because increasingly, if companies cannot continue to build the most successful formulas to create sustainable environments, they can and will break hearts.
[Celia Pearce is Assistant Professor of Digital Media at Georgia Institute of Technology.