This week’s response for my Virtual Worlds class largely deals with James Gee’s book “What Video Games Have to Teach us About Learning and Literacy.” If you want to know fully what I’m talking about, you may need to pick the book up.
James Gee essentially defined a “semiotic domain” as a specialized knowledge and a “lifeworld” as a generic type of semiotic domain which everyone has to some degree knowledge in, which allows us to be able to communicate with each other. I find these definitions somewhat lacking, even if I had tried to pin down the definitions better. The basis of this then becomes that all knowledge is either general or specialized, which doesn’t really work in the real world. Gee made a point of several semiotic domains throughout the book including video games, science, and linguistics. And then went on to describe the difference between the domains of sociolinguistics and theoretical linguistics, two very specific specialized domains. What Gee essentially did here though is he created 3 types of domains, each with varying levels of specialization: A general domain (his lifeworld), a categorical domain (Science & Linguistics), and a specialized domain (sociolinguistics & theoretical Linguistics). Now I’m sure that Gee would likely argue that of course this is how it works, every little thing can be its own domain. After all, he explains that “there are many lifeworld domains” (36). However, I think you lose a lot if you don’t distinguish the different levels of domain, so much so that I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that even the three I suggested are largely simplified.
For instance, I bet many people in this particular class will likely talk about MMOs having their own semiotic domain because they cannot understand much of what is going on in World of Warcraft, and of course to some degree they are right. However, they are also incorrect as they are thinking a more specialized type of domain, whereas the MMO domain is actually categorical. What this means is that once each individual player goes from one MMO to another, that player will still likely know what is going on in each individual game, but that does not guarantee it. There is in fact a categorical knowledge that exists between every MMO game that allows a certain level of understanding for all the players in general. However, each individual game’s domain can vary greatly.
When I first started playing Dark Age of Camelot shortly before its launch in October of 2001, I first noticed the differences that can exist between games. People were spewing out all sorts of new terms that I had previously never heard, I didn’t know what the heck they were talking about. Terms like oop, agro, add, baf, etc made it a very difficult transition to this game for me, even though I had seven or eight years of MMO play behind my back at this point. These terms were never in my vocabulary largely due to the fact that previous games I had played were either too simple to have monsters bring friends (baf translates to bring a friend), or that were more solo friendly to understand the kind of skill that goes into a fighter needing to hold the aggro, and for secondary fighters to pick up additional monsters who aggro (add). The world had somehow changed in the matter of downloading this one game. But in reality I had started to experience a brand new semiotic domain within another domain that I was already quite experienced in.
I can see this shift again in World of Warcraft, but it is a shift backwards, it is more a shift into a player that I had been six years ago when Dark Age of Camelot had first come out. People don’t know anything about what other people are saying or how to even play the genre. And what needs to be realized here is that this is largely due to the fact that this particular game is meant for people who have never played the genre before and is a solo game more than anything else. So we have a domain in which lacks much of the semiotic knowledge that a player from a game like EQ, EQ2, or DAoC would be very proficient in. As an example of this, I had entered World of Warcraft with the intention of being a griefer, someone who plays to ruin another player’s fun. However, I have since largely given this up due in part to the fact that there are very few players around in the WoW newbie areas, but also because those players who are there are griefing. I have been barraged with players inviting to groups or guilds or opening trade panels without so much as even saying hi first. And I have suffered the fate of having my kills consistently stolen from me. These are just a few of the ways that a player can grief in a PvE world, but the problem is that the only players I have met thus far in World of Warcraft have done this. I am sure most of them do not intend the grief; they probably think this is a normal behavior. Some of the players may not even know what griefing is, or that it is morally wrong to take someone else’s kill away from him. Heck Constance made a comment on my previous paper which made me question whether even she knows what griefing is.
The point is, we are living in different domains and this is where the barrier is coming from. To borrow another example from Constance, in the last class she told everyone to embrace newbiness and then spelt newb on the board “Noob.” I was stunned; I didn’t know what to say. Here my professor in virtual worlds, had misspelled a word commonly used in virtual worlds to describe someone who is new to them. Yet I understood what she meant, and knew full well that noob is a variant of newb. This is very semantic, and I realized she didn’t actually misspell the word, but most people use newb not noob and this caused some confusion. My only explanation for this is that maybe through her play in Lineage (a highly player verses player game) or through her play in World of Warcraft (a game with many many many adolescents), the 1337 speak variant of the world had crawled into her vernacular. In most MMO worlds, this is a big no no… you do not speak 1337, this is looked down upon and is grounds for dismissal from many guilds in fact. So to me it is more than a little disturbing that she is teaching this variant to new players to be looked down upon by, but maybe this isn’t a big deal in WoW.
I also thought Gee’s lifeworld theory in general was the weakest point of his semiotic argument. What this part of the theory really did was muddied the waters. Semiotic domains were clean until this point. By making the statement that there even was some general domains that everyone knew, Gee got himself into trouble. It wasn’t long until he had made the claim that lifeworld domains were going extinct, and then he totally lost it. The reality of the world is that lifeworld domains can never and will never go extinct. If they could, they would have gone extinct years ago, probably shortly after the birth of modern culture in ancient Greece. By saying that kids do not know as many lifeworld domains because they are more specialized in domains like computers and video games is to also say that the adults aren’t the ones who are specialized. I bet if the kids went and talked to each other about video games, even if they hadn’t played the particular game in question, they would understand each other. It seems to me, this is by definition a lifeworld domain. The reality of the situation is that lifeworlds, like every other living beast, evolve in the world. Just because grandpa doesn’t understand the merits of playing Pikmin, doesn’t necessarily mean that the child playing pikmin isn’t in the lifeworld domain when doing so. In the modern age, playing video games, and knowing how to operate computers is part of a lifeworld domain, one most people of a certain age are part of.
This is really the key to Gee’s whole argument on the extinction of lifeworlds that he himself seems oblivious to. I have several nurse friends whom haven’t touched a video game in years, maybe since their childhood with Super Mario Bros. However, if I asked them to sit down and play a video game today, while there may be a learning curve due to the changes, it probably wouldn’t take as long as it would for grandpa, and they certainly aren’t unfamiliar with the concept. In fact, I can talk to these nurses to some degree about the complexities of video games and computers and they can follow a long to a certain extent. But if I started going on about the same content with my mother who was born in an age far before the concept of video games and computers took flight, she would be as clueless as the grandfather.
This is akin to riding a bike. You can put down the bike and not ride it for years, but still be living within a domain that knows how to ride it. Yet, I wouldn’t consider this a specialized domain, even though Gee may. I don’t consider it specialized because even though most Americans don’t ride a bike, I bet most know how to. Yet it has to be specialized, and by specialized I mean something that only a few have access to the knowledge. Because if it weren’t, it would mean that lifeworlds would not be going extinct because I guarantee that if you took someone from a time before the bike was invented, he would not know how to talk about the bike with the intricacies the way someone who knew how to ride one fluently the way a modern American might. That is not to say the average American would be able to talk to Lance Armstrong and understand the way he talks about bikes, but that is to say that there is still a common talk when it comes to bikes.
And what does Raph Koster’s theory that the ideal community size is no bigger than 250 people mean to the lifeworld theory? (http://www.raphkoster.com/gaming/laws.shtml) or is this just the size of which it takes for a lifeworld to be created?