Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Exploration in MMORPGs

Bonnie Ruberg over at Gamasutra has an interesting interview of Clint Hocking concerning the virtues of exploration in games. I think this might have some value for those of us who believe that a Star Trek MMORPG must have strong exploration content.

I thought many of Hocking's comments were pretty insightful, and I'm in general agreement with him on the value of exploration as a style of gameplay that's worth attracting through appropriate content.

However, there was something about his observations I'd like to comment on. Hocking expressed some confusion over the fact that the explorers he'd read about didn't fit the interviewer's ideas about who's more likely to explore. He also seemed puzzled about why people travel to unknown places.

Exploration in games is a subject that's been of special interest to me for a while, so I may be able to suggest an answer: exploration isn't just about geography.

In other words, I suspect that the problem is definitional. In Ruberg's transcription of her interview, Hocking consistently describes exploration as a "spacial" [sic] activity. I think that's too cramped a definition. Yes, the most obvious kind of exploration is that of landscapes, of places, of physical geography. But exploration is by no means limited to geography -- "to explore" means to reveal the hidden places on any kind of map, whether it's a topographical landscape map or the abilities of a strangely glowing sword or a structural model of the interaction of magical forces.

I've talked about this at length elsewhere, so I'll just summarize here: Exploration is about discovery. It's about converting the unknown to the known.

Physical exploration is certainly one important mode of discovery. The relatively concrete nature of geographic exploration is what most gamers think of. It's natural to think of "exploring" in terms of specific places that can be exposed on a map, especially if that information can be possessed and thus has economic value. This is a very visible aspect of many of the stories told in the Star Trek: Voyager series, in which the namesake ship did a lot of physical traveling.

But there are other kinds of exploration that, although they're perfectly valid forms of discovery, don't get as much attention as "exploration" because they're more abstract and therefore harder to see.

One real-world example is science. Forming a hypothesis, devising an experiment to test that hypothesis, revising a model to conform to accumulated data -- this is absolutely a form of exploration. Studying how things work in order to improve one's understanding of the rules of the game... that's as much exploration as climbing a mountain. VOY and TNG were classic Star Trek in this respect; many stories were driven by a character's desire to improve his or her understanding of how the world works.

In MMORPGs, crafting is best understood as a form of exploration. "Crafting" in this sense isn't manufacturing or crafting-for-sales, which are primarily competitive-accumulative activities that appeal to a different kind of gamer. The kind of crafting I'm talking about is the creative act of thinking of a new thing and bringing it into the (game) world through the power of one's understanding of constructive systems. It's tinkering with systems to see how they work and thereby to gain the power to make a specific thing. The crafter who makes things, not to get rich but because the knowledge of how to make new things is interesting and worthwhile in and of itself, is an explorer.

And so is the person who engages in what I've called "ethical exploration." We fill in the dark places on the map of human behavior by puzzling out the right action when confronted with a situation that challenges our principles. That's not only an important kind of exploration, it's also the source of our greatest literature. Learning who we are could be the most important form of exploration of them all because it's what gives meaning to everything else that we do.

I think looking at "exploration" in this somewhat brighter light could resolve some of the confusion Clint Hocking expressed about why some people enjoy this kind of activity.

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