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Fair Game: Pop Culture in World Building

Column By Lisa Jonte on June 14, 2013

As I look around at the MMOs I play, and the world building that goes into them, there is one particular element, necessary to believability, that I consistently feel is missing: Pop Culture.

Pop, (that is to say, popular) culture is not a new phenomenon, nor is it a byproduct of the technology age. Throughout human history, ideas (memes) have taken hold of public consciousness, often ruling the day in which they developed. Harry Potter’s trials and tribulations may have been a formative experience for an entire modern generation, but the fictional lives (and fates) of Dickens’ characters were no less compelling for the real people crowding New York Harbor in 1840-41, demanding of incoming ships, “What happens to Little Nell?”

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Before that, authors like Ann Radcliffe and Mary Shelley seized the collective imagination of the Regency era, giving polite (and not so polite) society a scandalous craving for the gothic and the bizarre, via The Mysteries of Udolpho, and Frankenstein. In that same time period, others were slavishly devoting themselves to the “new” romantic ethic of poets like Byron and Scott. In fact, these trends were so much a part of the popular consciousness of the time that they were ruthlessly mocked by Jane Austen, not only in her published work as an adult, but even in some of her earliest stories.)

The way the western world celebrates Christmas may be a tradition now, but it wasn’t always the case. Long before Hallmark cards and stop-motion TV specials, the trappings of yuletide were little more than trendy European fashions that filtered down from Queen Victoria, and eventually encompassed every strata of society, both in England and abroad. The Christmas people celebrate today is a product of Victorian pop culture.

When we think about human nature honestly, we are forced to discard the assumption that people of long ago were somehow fundamentally different from people today. Common knowledge and technology change, but people are people, with loves, hates, indifferences and fixations, no matter the time in which they live. When we think about human nature honestly, we realize that pop culture is an inevitable byproduct of society. So why is it lacking in the created worlds of MMOs?

Certainly there is some small aspect of pop culture on display in every MMO, if only by default, through fashion and architecture. The necessity for a consistent design/aesthetic sees to that.

But what about things beyond the surface aesthetic? What about the people that inhabit these alternate realities? Are there no charismatic individuals to emulate?

“Can you believe Commander Aria’s new dress uniform? I’ve never seen such an extravagant use of epaulets!”

Are there no prevailing trends in food or free time amusement?

“These new salt-and-vinegar tubers from Hodoria are sure popular. Lord Sumner served some at the cotillion last week and now every market stall is selling them.”

Where are the ascendant artists and entertainers?

“If I hear one more bard warbling that damn Justinius Bebierius ballad, I’m going to punch an elf!”

Moreover, of the bits of pop culture we do see, why does it never seem to change? Where are the “losers” still clinging to the fads and fashions of bygone seasons?

“Oh, please. No one matches their ascot to their codpiece anymore!”

If the purpose of an MMO is to be an immersive alternate reality, why should such a crucial part of the puzzle be so conspicuously absent?

Fantasy, contemporary, steampunk or scifi, players should not only be able to distinguish one in-game situation/location from another by the obvious economic and structural cues, but also by the threads that bind the larger societies together. Shop windows in poorer districts should display scaled down versions of the goods players would see in wealthier areas. Banners and bills depicting popular events or entertainers should be found everywhere. NPCs should be discussing the trends of the day, those trends should change within the context of the MMO’s larger story, and players should be able to investigate those trends as an integral part of gameplay.

The opportunities for injecting a pop culture into a made-up world are many. The uses of that pop culture are also many. At its most basic, it creates atmosphere and reinforces for players that they really are in a different world.

More importantly, theme park or sandbox, all MMOs have a story. Unfortunately, there is a growing dissatisfaction on the part of players who feel they are being strong-armed through a game’s linear landscape, with no chance to deviate and no hope of actual exploration. Consciously injecting a popular culture into a game’s structure can help drive the story in both subtle and pervasive ways that don’t leave players feeling like they’ve been led by the nose through its narrative. It would help players navigate invented worlds by adding new layers to NPC gossip and hints, but without seeming contrived or out of place.

I’m told by those who know, that Mass Effect does pop culture brilliantly. (I wouldn’t know, I’m not a big console player anymore.) But the question remains, if a solo game can create its own in-game pop culture, and use it to good effect, why not an MMO? Why not all MMOs?

What do you think? Does the world building in MMOs deserve all the subtlety it can get? Should made up worlds have their own pop cultures? Would it enhance or detract from the gaming experience? Tell me in the comments!

And now, a few responses to last column’s comment thread:

Attend4455 said:  “Maybe the current tropes in video games are just a microcosm or fractured reflection or simplification (depending on your viewpoint) of wider cultural issues.”

Certainly, but I have to limit my observations to both a word count and the overall focus of the site on which my work is published, in this case, a gaming website.

Jeeshadow said:  “…let me also disagree with you on MMO's.  For this is the one field of entertainment that I think actually doesn't insist all male gamers subscribe to this narrow view of manhood.”

Actually, I agree with you here. I do believe that MMOs in general give a wider range for players to find their niche.

Avoxia said:  “This begs the old questions of why people would prefer to play the opposite gender.  I've only played my gender, but I do know that a lot of people choose the opposite one.  Maybe it has something to do with that stereotype?”

Not necessarily. While I usually play characters of my own gender, I do sometimes create a male character; sometimes because I loather the armor choices for female characters, and sometimes for those days when I just want to be left the hell alone. Not once playing a male character has anyone ever insisted I flash them my mammaries.

Velocinox said:  “Uhm... but by definition if you do not have muscles you ARE weak... Literally, and not the modern colloquial for literally, but the strict literal definition of literally, as in literally literally weak... literally.”

No, by definition if you don’t have muscles, you’re a sloppy collection of bones, organs and cartilage in a skin sack. You’re also dead, because the heart is a muscle. Everyone has muscles, but not everyone hyperdevelops them, literally or otherwise.

Until next time, may your escort missions be few and your drops plentiful.

All accompanying images are copyright free, via Wikimedia commons.


Check out more Fair Game columns:

Lisa Jonte / Mother, writer, artist, editor. One time (print and web) comics creator, and former editor of the fem-centric GirlAMatic.com; now a secretive and hermit-like prose writer, (and not so secretive nor hermit-like blogger.) A gamer since way back, (no, seriously, waaaay back) her collection of gaming paraphernalia is older than most game store clerks.

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