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[The 'Game Anthropologist' is Michael Walbridge's GameSetWatch-exclusive column about communities built around gaming. This week he notes the commonalities in Massively Single Player Online games.]

Lately some have been arguing that, as far as games are concerned, content is not always king. In the April 2009 issue of Game Developer magazine, Steve Theodore discussed alternative conceptions of games as art. After noting John Carmack's "We're doing entertainment" quote, Theodore writes: "Honestly, not many games can live up to the Romantic ideal [of art].

Recently, Chris Remo pointed out that many games seem to shoot to become epic, and Leigh Alexander suggested that perhaps it's time we stop looking for a “Citizen Kane”. In short: games are games first and foremost, and anything else is incidental.

There is an area of gamingdom that contests the point of content, at least, (though not necessarily art). I refer not to gaming critics, i.e. the “Brainysphere” (which this column has already covered), but to Massively Single Player Online games. The first place I saw the term printed was in the game ForumWarz, though it is certainly not the first of its kind.

A couple I know that plays games both invited me to Mafia Wars on Facebook, an application whose name evokes either a blessing for the bored or a curse for the busy. I received invites from them on the same day.

This wasn’t my friend’s friend or an elementary school memory that were making a request this time--these were very Internet-savvy people, good friends that are well-versed in netiquette who know what stuff online is truly awesome and what is just a fad or yawn. Prodded both by my trust in their recommendations and my guilt for not keeping in touch with them enough, I hesitantly allowed my first Facebook game to be installed on my computer. My wife is playing it now too.

The premise is simple and the mechanics even more so—you are in the mafia, trying to move your way up the ranks. You do this by going up levels by doing varying jobs and by fighting other players. An attack automatically calculates both players’ stats, mafia size, weapons and armors and does a couple of rolls (critical hits, etc.) and gives an instant result. Whoever deals more damage is the winner. The defending player doesn’t have to be there, and simply receives a notification when he logs in.

Jobs are even simpler; you must have the required equipment, and then spend varying amounts of energy; the higher the energy, the more experience and money. There is a chance to collect loot. Both energy and stamina (the ability to fight) are point-based and refill every 3 or 5 minutes, depending on which class you choose.

Players can also buy properties to increase income (which occurs every 54 or 60 minutes, depending on class) and rob/damage other players’ properties instead of fight. Lastly, one can spend stamina to put another a player on the hitlist. Other players can browse the hitlist and collect money for knocking out another player, which reduces said player’s experience points.

I’ve left very little out. All the game is inventory, cash, and point management, with occasional bickering and feuds. He who has the highest level or most money gets to win. It’s a never-ending race to the top in simplified form. An MSO, not an MMO.

Still, the content is highly mafia-oriented; the sheer number of jobs and loot items forces Zynga, the creators of the game, to get creative. Mugging, hits, robberies and murders are what you’d expect, but “Help a fugitive flee the country”, “Sell guns to the Russian mob”, “Move stolen merchandise”, “Influence a harbor official” and “Run illegal poker” game are jobs that indeed Mafia-related, but not the first that come to mind.

The whole thing is watered down because it’s on Facebook (or Myspace, or the iPhone); it’s popular because it borrows heavily (knowingly or not) from MSOs that have come before it. Kingdom of Loathing, started in 2003, has a large mass of writing and plenty of doodles to represent monsters, characters, places, and items. It has Zelda-style puzzles put in Choose-your-own-adventure form, personal shops, guilds, and a grammar test you’re required to pass in order to enter the chat room.

More recent is ForumWarz, a game based on the Internet itself. Unlike Mafia Wars or Kingdom of Loathing, each fight is long and protracted, each turn represented by an attempt to “pwn” forums by trolling, attention-whoring, or whatever else it is your class does.

One loses by having one’s ego deflated by the responses posted. The automatically generated posts written by the people you “pwn” and the moves you do are classic, satirical, funny, and accurate. With ForumWarz or Kingdom of Loathing, you can attack other players, join guilds, and trade loot, but the games and their successes can be heavily attributed to the unique and rewarding content.

There are plenty of other MSOs (Urban Dead being one of them), but the successful ones all have some attributes in common:

--All are based on stats, money, loot, rank, and clans or guilds
--The best extent to which players can communicate with each other is through messages, forums, or chat, all of which don’t occur “in game”
--All require alternative and creative revenue streams, and must be free to play. Methods include microtransactions, merchandising, and donation requests
--Actions or turns are limited so as to reduce server loads and costs. Some regenerate slowly every few minutes, others simple reset every 24 hours
--Must have interesting or popular content, especially if merchandising is a revenue model
--They generally prohibit multiple character creation
-They encourage player-banding by heavily rewarding group associations in order to recruit new players to expand the player base and sustain merchandise sales.

This last point is ironic, since these are essentially single player games, but it forges communities based around the culture of the game. In the case of Mafia Wars, that culture is Facebook, which partially explains why player interaction is limited.

Despite the large focus on content, Mafia Wars’ differences with typical MSOs illustrate an interesting point: even single player games can form and stimulate game communities, and the game design still effects them.

This is why in Kingdom of Loathing, the players are so formal, but in ForumWarz, the players are more likely to be vulgar (though they are still required to play and post nicely). Whatever the choice, MSOs are a rare way to make being a part of a game community free.