Animating virtual worlds: Emergence and ecological animation of Ryzom's living world of Atys
First Monday

Animating virtual worlds: Emergence and ecological animation of Ryzom's living world of Atys by Paul Manning

Ryzom is a long-running (from 2004–present) science fantasy MMORPG (henceforth MMO) set in the science fantasy game world of the planet Atys, an entirely organic “rootball” teeming with alien life forms. The most oft-cited distinctive properties of Ryzom in the MMO world is the way creates not only an immersive sense of “worldness”, but a living, breathing, organic world. The game world is not only a richly animated “world” like all MMOs, but the aggregate of these animations also produce a sense of life, a “living world”. Following Silvio (2010) in particular, I ask how and when the properties of animation — understood in the narrow sense as a medium or media form — can produce a broader sense of “animacy” (Chen, 2012), a lively affect of “animatedness” [1]: how and when animation (movement) is read as life; how an animated world becomes a living world. Specifically, why is it that in the animated world of Ryzom, as in animated cartoons, the animation of animality is central to this transition from animation to life: why the reading of animated “movement-as-life tends to settle on cartoon animals” [2]. The “immersive” feeling of Atys as a ‘living world’ is displayed in the “emergent” animation of animals, particularly the ways that animals interact via “ecological” algorithms of predation and mutual care. animations which players explore as part of the emergent living worldness of Atys.


Animating virtual worlds
Ecological animation: “How Ryzom creates the sense of a living world”
Fantasy worlds and living worlds: Lovecraft, Miyazaki ... and Attenborough?
Of creators and creatures: The romance of emergence
Silly Meks and interested Bodocs: Interactive animals of the player umwelt
Abjection and projection: Technomorphic homins and anthropomorphic animals
Conclusion: Life on a dying world



Animating virtual worlds

For a number of years now I have been occasionally playing — and occasionally writing about playing (Manning, 2017, 2009; Manning and Gershon, 2013) — an older science fantasy online game originally designed by the French company Nevrax called Ryzom (Figure 1). Ryzom is one of a cohort of so-called massively multiple online role-playing games, MMORPGS or MMOs for short, which appeared in 2003 to 2004 in the wake of the success of Everquest (1999). The defining feature of MMOs as a kind of online environment is that they involve a large virtual community of players who embody themselves as virtual avatars and interact in a persistent online “world” that is autonomous from their off-line social worlds. Thematically, these autonomous worlds tend to have fantasy or science fiction settings, often taking the form of an actual fantasy or alien world. For this and many other reasons MMOs are often called “virtual worlds”. This particular cohort of virtual worlds, “the class of 2004”, includes more successful, and more extensively studied, games like World of Warcraft, the most popular MMO, as well as the science fiction universe Eve Online, whose player population is larger than that of the country that hosts the game servers, Iceland, as well as non-game virtual worlds like Second Life.


Nevrax promotional image for Ryzom as a living world
Figure 1: Nevrax promotional image for Ryzom as a “living world”.
Note: Larger version of figure available here.


This particular cohort of virtual worlds were in many ways exemplary objects for the first generation of ethnographic internet studies and game studies (Taylor, 2002, 1999). They presented autonomous “virtual worlds” that served as prototypical digital “field sites” for virtual ethnographies; exemplary ethnographic monographs include Boellstorff (2008, on Second Life); Taylor (2006, Everquest); Pearce and Artemesia (2009, Uru); and Nardi (2010, World of Warcraft). The constitutive properties of these worlds — for example, the pseudonymous “plural existence” and the sense of immersion and presence in an alien world afforded by avatar embodiment (Taylor, 2002, 1999) — seemed exemplary or emblematic of the properties of the Internet or “cyberspace” as a whole, and at the same time, as games, they were central for the developing discipline of online game studies.

Since that time, virtual “worlds” and online “games” have become less entangled, so it is worth trying to understand why it was so easy in this literature to elide “world” into “game” and vice versa. Games of the MMO variety involve a kind of “spatial storytelling”, their picaresque narrative emplotment is heavily dependent on their “settings”, usually fantasy, science fiction “narrative worlds” (Jenkins, 2004; see also Ōtsuka, 2010, on narratives and worlds). The setting involves both fictional genre or franchise they remediate which gives the players their core set of expectations, as well as the core expectation that this setting will take the form of a named “world.” Most MMORPGs are fantasy games set in fantasy worlds (Everquest — Norrath, World of Warcraft — Azeroth, Eve Online — the worlds of New Eden).

Here Ryzom is peculiar in that it is a science fantasy game set on the alien world of Atys. The idea of a setting as an autonomous imaginary world is something inherited from fantasy and sci-fi genres: Atys is a world in the same way that Middle Earth is a world. The typical settings of science fiction and fantasy are emphatically autonomous imaginary worlds — literal planets — separated from our own world, products of what Tolkien (1947) famously called “subcreation”, what Ursula Le Guin (1979) called “Do it yourself Cosmology”. So the autonomous virtual world has an oft-rehearsed media genealogy that goes back to genre fiction fantasy worlds via their direct ancestors, tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) [3]. MMORPGs remediate RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons, replacing the tabletop game with an online one. In this process, the game enters the digital world of the computer and the Internet, and the autonomy of the imaginary world and the autonomy of the world of the computer or the online space of computers become mutually reinforcing: as online research in the late 1990s in North America emphasized fundamentally escapist fantasy tropes of anonymous liberating “cyberian apartness” [4], the digital or computational “life on the screen” (Turkle, 1995) as something radically separated from off-line embodied life in “meatspace”, it’s easy to see how tabletop fantasy games morphing into virtual fantasy worlds like Everquest would become paradigmatic for online research as a whole.

In much MMO research, therefore, a primary source of concern was not just the world as a site or setting for a game, but “worldness” as something that could be appreciated in its own right, as a complex media object having a sense of autonomous reality, in which the various layers of the media world, the richly animated 3D pictorial spectacle, the interactive world of mobile non-player-characters, mobs or NPCs, as well as the digital community of other players, all hung together (Klastrup, 2009). A living world in which players embodied as digital avatars could find a lively sense of real presence, immersion, as well as ideally a world that was lively enough on its own to show emergence, and of course draw an equally lively player community. Designers see themselves as creators of worlds (see also Jenkins, 2004), not just games, they exhort players not to “play the user interface, play the game ... [We want you] to look at the world not the bars” [5].

I threw words like “lively” and “living” in there several times just now, which is poor style but allows me to pounce on my thesis, which is that what makes worldness is life, liveliness, animation, animatedness, animacy. The pictorial world must become a lived, and living, world. In this article, I am primarily interested in one dimension of the animation of the virtual world, the problem of what I will call “ecological animation”, the animation of a virtual world which is also a “living world”, a world of an alien second nature. A “living world”, depends on a sense of emergence deriving from the non-human agency of animated nature and animals. In other game worlds, emergence is seen as something deriving from human playerly agency, but in a living world, animating emergence derives from non-human actors, the animals, of the world. The ecological animation of the world in turn influences the kinds of narrative involvements and styles of game play the players can have with the world, which are also ecological. Ryzom has a so-called “sandbox” narrative structure, that is, the narratives the world affords are themselves “emergent narratives” (Jenkins, 2004), the game mostly lacks the predesigned narrative scenarios (instancing, missions, dungeons) of most other MMOs. Essentially Ryzom players spend their whole game life in a set of emergent interactions with nature, an endless cycle of scouting, foraging, hunting and crafting. For players, the fundamental genre of play is a kind of digital remediation of cyclical hunter-gatherer activities that place a solitary wandering homin (the local term for the humanoids of Atys, in game terms “playable race”, but mostly used to mean “player-character”) against a backdrop of an immersive, emergent alien nature.

My focus on ecological animation here complements my earlier work on character animation (Manning, 2017; Manning and Gershon, 2013) and the re-animation of the world of Atys as a whole (Manning, 2009). While Ryzom players seem to experience the world of animated animals, the alien nature of Atys, as an immersive and lively world animated by a mode of animation of “ecological animation”, they experience a fair amount of anxiety about the “sociological animation” of the human social world of Ryzom, the player community, whose animating presence is betokened by avatars, or as players call them, toons or homins, who are warmly animated by living, breathing humans. Here the sense of animated living worldness of the whole world depends on the animation of the characters that inhabit that world. Most of this work (Manning, 2017; Manning and Gershon, 2013) has focused on micro-level problems of animation of player controlled avatars, and specifically situations of “multiboxing” where players control not just one character, but many, so that some characters are experienced and animated as being somehow “human” presences (“main characters”), and others, called “alts” (for “alternate characters”) or “bots” are animated in ways that systematically seem to deprive these avatars of humanity. As the use of “alts” proliferated in the Ryzom community, not every homin avatar indexed the warm animating presence of an off-line human. The proliferation of certain kinds of “parasitic” or “robotic” character animation techniques called “multiboxing”, by which a single player controlled many “alt” character avatars simultaneously, seemed to threaten the sense of animacy of the world as a whole and its player community: as these new types of not-quite-human animated entities proliferated, player avatars, homins, gradually lost their sense of animating humanity, and the whole world came to seem somehow more desolate, like a deserted planet haunted by robotic ghosts, “soulless bots” (Manning, 2017). In the face of these new modes of animation of avatars like multiboxing, players adopted practices of policing the boundaries of humanity of homins, drawing a magic circle around the humanity of the player community largely by reinscribing humanity of the player-character in the Cartesian criterion of the ability to use language, and abjecting alt and bot homins, along with non-player-character (henceforth NPC) homins, from humanity by their lack of capacity for language. Seemingly inherently sociological acts like greetings became not just acts expressing human sociability (“how are you?”), but also simultaneously technological acts of “bothunting”, in effect Turing tests asking “are you human?” Similarly, players developed codes and practices of differential animation to help distinguish those player made avatars (toons) that were real human presences (“player-characters”) and those that were not (“alts”): The fact that alts do not speak, and are not spoken to, is the result of a normative practice players have innovated to animate alts in such a way that there is little chance of mistaking them for human presences or “main characters”: alt animation is abject animation, in that it avoids specifically human, or humanizing, subject-like behaviors, particularly those involving speech. The alt character becomes as silent as an NPC. Thus, differential practices of character animation of player made avatars (toons) produce an “animacy hierarchy” with living speaking player-characters at the top, partially animated, usually silent, abjected “alts” obediently following their main character in the middle, and completely silent automated “bots” at the bottom alongside game internal automata called NPCs (“non-player-characters”) and “mobs” (“mobile objects”).

Alongside the threatened robotic death spiral of the player community, the world of Atys is also always threatened with global extinction: Atys has been, from the outset, a kind of Lazarus world. As a corporate property in the real world, Ryzom has always led a precarious existence: designed by the French company Nevrax, its launch was eclipsed by the World of Warcraft, hampered by its extreme complexity and difficulty, leading to a precariously small, but extremely, almost fanatically loyal, player community. The game shut down because of bankruptcy and transferred ownership more than once, giving rise to a lively campaign to save the world by liberating the game world and the software, making Ryzom as an experienceable world and underlying code into a political object for the free software movement (the “Free Ryzom Campaign/Project” of the Virtual Citizenship Association; see Manning, 2009) .The precariously continued animated life of Ryzom the game, and Atys the game world, has thus always been in question, which precarity has kept the question of its continued life alive, so to speak. Each time that the servers shut down Atys becomes an object for a different set of practices of re-animation: as a lost world, and object of mourning comemorated in melancholic machinima, or the object of a campaign to reanimate this world, restore this world to life, precisely by liberating the software of which the world is composed (Manning, 2009). Here the ways that Atys is imagined as a “living world” in an almost animist imagination of worldness come into sharpest view in its moment of death, in the permanently elegaic sense of yearning for a world that was lost and found, and always seems on the very verge of extinction.


The planet Atys or Rootball
The planet Atys or Rootball
Figure 2: The planet Atys or “Rootball”.




Ecological animation: “How Ryzom creates the sense of a living world”

Ryzom is a long-running (from 2004-present) science fantasy MMORPG (henceforth MMO) set in the science fantasy game world of the planet Atys, an entirely organic “rootball” teeming with alien life forms (Figure 2). The most oft-cited distinctive properties of Ryzom in the MMO world is the way creates not only an immersive sense of “worldness”, but a living, breathing, organic world. The game world is not only a richly animated “world” like all MMOs, but the aggregate of these animations also produce a sense of life, a “living world”. Following Silvio (2010) in particular, I ask how and when the properties of animation — understood in the narrow sense as a medium or media form — can produce a broader sense of “animacy” (Chen, 2012), a lively affect of “animatedness” [6]: how and when is animation (movement) read as life; how does an animated world become a living world? Specifically, why is it that in the animated world of Ryzom, as in animated cartoons, the animation of animality is central to this transition from animation to life: why the reading of animated “movement-as-life tends to settle on cartoon animals” [7]. As I will show, when discussing animal entities in particular Ryzom players move easily and fluidly from using a technomorphic language (a narrow “language of animation”), speaking of them as “mobs” (from “mobile” objects [8]) to a way of speaking that reads this animation in a zoomorphic or theriomorphic language (a “language of life”) in which these “mobs” become living, breathing animals of various kinds that actively interact with each other and players. While all avatars, humanoid and animal, are susceptible of being read as lifeless collections of pixels animated by algorithms (“technomorphic” readings), for some reason the sense of liveliness of the planet as a whole seems to rest on the “ecological” animation of animal others as living beings.


The layered ecology of Atys
Figure 3: Designer sketch: The layered ecology of Atys.
Note: Larger version of figure available here.


The design of Ryzom encourages reading the game world Atys in immersive ecological terms as another, alien, nature in a number of ways. Not only does the world have a rich ecological lore having to do with flora and fauna living in diverse biomes (Figure 3), some of which is consequential for player interaction for the world (knowing where specific species are found in specific seasons), but the open-ended “sandbox mechanics” of the world (where there are few instanced “dungeons” and no pre-established narratives such as quest lines that players must follow to speak of) encourage player-characters to engage in self-directed “sandbox” game play that interacts naturalistically with this ecological lore (“hunting and foraging”). [9] The audio-visual experience of the diegetic game world emphasizes immersion, so there are very few potentially disruptive features of the game user interface (“glowing question marks” indicating NPC quest-givers, interactive objects, and the like) embedded in the visual field (Jørgensen, 2009) that might remind the player that this immersive “world” is, after all, a game, nor is there any “extradiegetic” background music outside of the cities, just the sounds of nearby animals.

But in addition to these very general properties of a game world (lore, sandbox mechanics, immersiveness), Atys is experienced by players as a richly animated, living world. In a longish forum post entitled “how Ryzom creates the sense of a living world” (Katriell, 2009a), a player named Katriell, an organic intellectual of this organic world, describes how the sense of Atys as a “living world” arises specifically from an assemblage of different kinds of animation that work in tandem to produce a general sense of life. I cite more or less the whole text in more or less the order in which it was given, as I will return to it frequently, so I have numbered the sections [10].

  1. There are ‘seasons, day/night cycles and weather. All of which have actual effects on the world and its inhabitants.’ For example ‘there are migrations depending on season, which makes travel challenging because you need to figure out a safe route through a given region for each season.’

  2. [Unlike a standard fantasy world,] ‘The animals are herbivores and carnivores, not undead and grotesque monsters. The only things that could be considered monsters are Kitin, giant insects who are the enemy of the playable races and can be considered a non-playable race.’

  3. ‘The animals ... interact with each other: carnivores and Kitins hunt herbivores; some herbivores defend each other or even other species of herbivores and some run away when a fellow is attacked; when attacked by another mob, sometimes a creature stands and fights and sometimes it tries to run away.’

  4. ‘Animals also interact with players: a curious herbivore may target a player and run up to them to sniff them. The Yubo is a particularly interactive animal, begging at players and peeing on their shoes.’

  5. ‘Nothing just stands around waiting to be killed ... well, unless it’s one of several combatant plant species, in which case it can’t move.’ This is related to the humanoid (homin) NPCs, who ‘go about their own business. Civilians wander the cities, hawkers and prospectors and hunters and so on traverse the wilderness, tribes patrol, and bandits attack anyone who approaches their camps.’

  6. ‘Animals have assorted idle animations that add realism and liveliness to their behaviour, including sleeping, eating, etc.’ ‘Many details and environmental effects in the world make it seem alive. Trees and grass sway in the wind, small patches of fog form, insects flit around, spores drift up from the ground — some of them beautifully luminescent, and much more. Grass isn’t the only microvegetation, nor is microvegetation evenly distributed; in some places flowers abound, and in others, a diversity of ground cover is scattered around.’

  7. ‘Breathing. Everything breathes — player-characters, NPCs, animals, Kitin, and even the planet itself in its own way.’

  8. ‘A unique world. Atys. It's a planet consisting of a giant spherical plant, teeming with alien life and growing. According to its slow growth pattern, the surface is just beneath the newest layer of branches (the Canopy). The branches comprising the surface have, for the most part, grown massive and close, their bark becoming ostensibly similar to the crust of a normal planet. Beneath that, there are many layers of roots, the highest of which is known as the Prime Roots. There, the animals are pale and the flora is often bioluminescent.’

Katriell specifically locates the uniqueness of Ryzom in the way it produces an immersive sense of an organic living world, a world of autonomous nature “teeming with life” that “goes about its own business.” Not only does the world present a richly imagined mythological and ecological lore (8), including a bestiary of different types of science fantasy animal “mobs” (sentient plants, animals and Kitins) (2)), but this science-fantasy “ontology” — by which I will only mean a typology of (animated) things that exist in the world — is ordered into a naturalistic “ecology” of relations between these types (predation, mutual care, etc.) (3–5) [11]. According to Katriell’s account, the key difference between Atys and a standard average fantasy world (Everquest, World of Warcraft) lies precisely in this organic naturalistic linkage between the ontology and the ecology that characterizes Atys which stands in sharp contrast to the simple ontology (human players versus non-human NPC/mob monsters) and equally simple ecology (generalized enmity (“aggro”) and mutual predation between human player-characters and NPC “mobs”) found in most MMO worlds. In Ryzom, “the animals are herbivores and carnivores, not undead and grotesque monsters” (2), and consequently enter into a more complex ecology of relations both with each other (3) and with players (4). As a result, the animals of Ryzom “do not stand around waiting to be killed” (5): they wander, they are interactive both with each other and with players in ecological relations of predation and mutual care, and the audio-visual field is full of life, motion and sound.

Of the varied kinds of animation that contribute most to this sense of lively animatedness of the world, Katriell dwells on the animation of animal (“mobs(” at some length (2–6), and specifically, the interactive nature of animal animation (3–5). Of all the different kinds of animations, then, that contribute to Atys as a living world, I will ultimately focus in on this one single question: What is it about the animation of animality, an alien nature, both in terms of ontology (types of beings) and ecology (types of relations between beings), in particular, that is so central to the sense of a living breathing world?



Fantasy worlds and living worlds: Lovecraft, Miyazaki ... and Attenborough?

The unique reputation of Ryzom in the world of MMOs stands first and foremost on its attempt to model a certain kind of setting, a “living world”, within the context of a “virtual world”. Normally when we think of an MMORPG like Ryzom, Everquest and World of Warcraft, we speak of the medium as a “virtual world”, a persistent three dimensional graphical world in which players embodied as avatars can interact with each other and kill a bunch of “monsters” or “mobs” and gain loot and experience points [12]. MMO “virtual worlds” as a genre of game are then subcategorized as to what kind of world — what fictional genres (fantasy, science fiction) — they evoke (Jenkins, 2004), creating genre-based expectations for players, “fantasy” being the most common by far, giving the peculiar result that virtual worlds and fantasy worlds seem almost synonymous.

What is unusual about Ryzom is that it is not only grounded in an unusual kind of “worldness” [13], in that it is a science fantasy, rather than fantasy, world, but that it also has strong links to another kind of “worldness” with a parallel (and overlapping) intellectual prehistory, the so-called “living world” of artificial life research (Helmreich, 2004, 1998; see also Turkle, 1995).

In gaming usage (see Sweetser, 2006) and discussions, “living worlds” are usually said to have some of the following collection of “properties”: (1) Sandbox: that it would have “sandbox mechanics” (an interactive mechanics that afford player freedom of action and expression rather than overdetermining it with rigid plots and narratives); (2) Emergence: that a world based on finite algorithms could paradoxically show unpredictable “emergent”; properties; (3) Ecology: in particular that would have some simulation of a truly organic ecosystem or ecology, representing an autonomous nature whose entities interact not only with the players, but with each other; and (4) Immersion: all of these things making possible complete immersion [14].

The sense of autonomous “worldness” of both these bounded digital worlds, virtual worlds which are games and computational worlds which are simulations of life, depends in part on the popular notion of “cyberian apartness” that dominated Internet research of the 1990s [15], the ideological image of the computer or PC Internet as a bounded sovereign cosmological space, a “world”, that was also potentially an autonomous ecological space, another “nature” (Helmreich, 2004, 1998). This sense of “cyberian apartness” is based in part on the way the landline PC Internet produced a sense of opposition between online and off-line worlds that is not found in the mobile Internet (Ito, 2005), a world apart from embodied everyday life. At the same time, the cosmological notion of autonomous imaginary worlds in both traditions bears an equally strong debt to the imaginary worlds of science-fiction and fantasy literature and tabletop RPGs like D&D, specifically J.R.R. Tolkien’s influential idea of imaginary worlds as “secondary worlds”, “sub-creations” modeled on the original creation of the real “primary world” by an omnipotent creator [16], or what Ursula Le Guin (1979) called the “do-it-yourself cosmologies” of science fiction world-building [17]. There are thus some commonalities between these two fantasies of autonomous “worldness”, both of them are founded in part on the fantasy of the computer or Internet as a bounded digital space that “can be life-sustaining worlds” [18]; on the other hand, the idea of an autonomous fantastic world as a kind of “sub-creation” prominent in both these discourses owes an intertextual debt to cosmological premises of Creationist narratives (meaning any Western religious cosmology which begins with a moment of creation [19], “sometimes directly, sometimes channeled through the medium of science fiction”) [20].

While fantasy computer game developers often saw themselves explicitly as engaging in a kind of secondary sub-creation, remediating the imaginary worlds of science fiction and fantasy literature via tabletop role playing games like D&D [21], designers of artificial living worlds (with some of the same proximal science fiction and fantasy genre influences [22]) were producing what they considered to be simulations of generic (though often read in genetic terms) life itself, perhaps not even simulations, but perhaps a new form of life, emergent from a new physics [23]. These “living worlds” were imagined no longer as “toy worlds” but as realities [24]. These self-enclosed, dynamic and autonomous “worlds” were defined by their capacity to display emergence, in which a small set of rules (usually called the “physics” of the world) would produce complex and unexpected outcomes: for such sub-creators, emergence was the tell-tale sign of “life” [25]. When a world has these additional properties (particularly emergence), what results is a “living world” or a kind of “second nature”.

In the artificial life paradigm, the term “world” is often used as synonymous with “nature” in various senses [26]. Both terms denote a bounded autonomous space with its own rules (“physics”) and a capacity for emergence: “a world or universe is a dynamical system capable of generating surprising emergent properties” [27]. Emergence makes it a living world: it is not merely graphically animated, but actually alive. Secondly, many of these worlds are “second natures in the sense that they are human constructions but also in that they are modeled after first nature” [28]. Lastly, after creation, the second natures of secondary worlds are separate from human agency, they become like first nature conceived of — in a naturalist ontology (Descola, 1996) — as an inhuman wilderness, as a pristine autonomous world separate from, defined in opposition to, human agency, nature as an autonomous “all-purpose metaphysical Other” [29]: “Nature’s independence is its meaning, without it there is nothing but us” [30].

Such a model of a “living world” emerges within a different, digital computational context (in which the computer, rather than the PC Internet, is a “world” with its own native physics and its own resultant lifeforms), but there are complex intertexts shared between these two parallel conceptions of “worldness”: on the one hand, as Helmreich notes, some programmers drew on their creative experiences as D&D game-masters (world creators; see Jenkins, 2004) to imagine their relations to their creations [31], and, on the other hand, many “sandbox” SIM games (SimEarth and SimLife) which clearly grow out of this living world simulation paradigm [32]). Therefore, it is not too surprising that game designers also have sought to create “living worlds” within their “fantasy worlds”: immersive, sandbox, worlds that exist autonomously from players, that show emergence [33], where players’ actions have real effects on the world, richly animated ecological worlds in which mobs do more than spawn and then sit around waiting to be killed by passing players. Emergence, in particular, is a key metric of achievement of “living worldness” in both projects. Ryzom stands at the intersection of these two kinds of worldness, and accordingly displays both kinds of emergence. On the one hand, it is a conventional virtual world, of the science fantasy genre, on the other hand, the representation of a kind of artificial life, an encounter with a living alien nature, a “second nature” which is nevertheless mimetic of “first nature”, is central to Ryzom’s immersive sense of worldness.

In an interview in 2002 before launch, Nevrax Producer David Cohen Corval named three different figures as the primary intertexts that inspired the “tone and atmosphere” of Atys: American weird fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft, Japanese animated film director Hayao Miyazaki, and BBC television wildlife expert Richard Attenborough [34]. Lovecraft is cited for the hybridity of realism and otherworldly terror that are central to the aesthetics of weird fantasy, and not, for example, for his cosmic monsterology. Miyazaki is cited primarily for his effect on the visuals and sounds, though one might argue the idea of a science fantasy universe in which most of the technology is essentially organic or pre-industrial (windmills) in one way or another is strongly redolent of Miyazaki [35]. Looking at the design artwork for some of the proposed whimsical and anachronistic science fantasy technologies of Atys, and one feels that Miyazaki might well have co-imagined them (Figure 4).


Design sketch of Miyazakian technology (not implemented)
Figure 4: Design sketch of “Miyazakian” technology (not implemented).
Note: Larger version of figure available here.


One could imagine anyone designing an unusual non-Tolkienian science fantasy setting starting with influences from Lovecraft or Miyazaki, but citing as a major influence Sir David Attenborough, writer and narrator of nature programs such as BBC’s Living Planet, comes as a bit of a surprise. Nevrax Producer Corval explained this explicitly in terms of immersion and presence, as a shared property of Attenborough’s Living Planet and Ryzom’s “living world”:

[Attenborough] communicates a feeling of total presence among the flora and fauna. I have never experienced such immersion anywhere else than in his programs, and Ryzom definitely had to give that same feeling of total presence in a living environment. The world of Ryzom is alive and it shows. The setting is alive, and in that regard, Attenborough’s works have been a major influence. Nature clicks, and makes sense. It is important for the setting of the game to be immersive, and there is also a strong dependence with the gameplay that needs a rich substance to feed on. [36]

Ryzom is designed in such a way that the “emergent” gameplay of the players, the bottom-up, self-directed “sandbox mechanics” of hunting and foraging, “feeds on” the emergent ecologies of the setting, the richly animated and interactive “mob behavior” which produces an immersive sense of the living nature of Atys. Just as the design sketches of technologies (not all of which were implemented) capture a kind of Miyazakian feel — relying on more natural technologies like wind power — so too the design sketches of creatures shows a pervasive aesthetic of naturalism, they are like leaves from a naturalist’s notebook (Figure 5). Indeed, this sense of ecological naturalism of design is so strong that one kind of player “event” includes botanical tours of each of the biomes of Atys. Ryzom, then, seeks to create living worldness out of animation by the interaction of two parallel forms of emergence, staging two revolts of creatures against their creators: emergence as a property of the human players of Ryzom (sandbox mechanics), and emergence as a property of the non-human animals of Atys (artificial life).


Design sketches for a Pufferbird (not implemented)
Design sketches for a Felminkas (not implemented)
Figure 5: Design sketches for a Pufferbird and Felminkas (not implemented).
Note: Larger version of top figure available here.
Note: Larger version of top figure available here.




Of creators and creatures: The romance of emergence

The crucial linkage between these two kinds of living worldness lies in the way “emergence” describes a certain qualitative transition between animation to life in both kinds of world. The property of emergence is located within a quasi-religious cosmology that divides agency, the source of all animation in the world, between two sources — “Top down” control of the Creator and self-organizing “bottom up” emergent behavior of the Creatures [37]. As Malaby shows, an unbridled faith in emergence as a self-legitimating process, or even a romance of emergence, pervades the culture of game designers, since it resonates so strongly with the tenets of what Malaby calls “techno-liberalism” [38], a liberal (but not neo-liberal) political ideology that combines a distrust of vertical (“top-down”) authority, along with an almost libertarian sense that bottom-up emergent properties of complex systems are legitimate “just by virtue of being emergent” [39].

In a non-MMO living world (the kind considered by Helmreich, 2004, 1998), there is only one dimension of emergence: the designer of the world, the writer of code, is the law-giving God, who literally creates the creatures (cellular automata) of that world and gives them the capacity for emergent “life”, a simple set of “top down” rules that can generate complex surprising “bottom up” outcomes as creatures interacted ecologically: an early example of such a world was TechnoSphere, a graphical universe filled with the ecological interactions of little wheeled creatures spawned by casual human participants:

Importantly, these complex systems can emerge from a relatively simple set of rules. We hoped that complex and unpredictable behavior would emerge from these rules, but as TechnoSphere was our first foray into artificial life we were concerned that we might end up with a digital ecology that either drifted into stasis or was prone to wild fluctuations in population ... The self-organizing artificial life systems that we have used in TechnoSphere depend on a “bottom-up” approach, with behavior emerging as artificial creatures interact, rather than on us imposing “top-down” control on behavior. [40]

To the extent that they can surprise their creator(s), creatures from cellular automata to the wheeled animals of Technosphere display a qualitatively autonomous form of agency of their own, emergence, that magically transforms them from robotic automata to living creatures.

Obviously, in an MMO game, the developers collectively assume the role of God in creating a world whose stuff is algorithms and animations. But the world is populated with two different kinds of creatures: on the one hand, there are those NPCs and mobs that are themselves entirely creatures of the code, the algorithms or scripts that give them their life, and on the other hand, there are player-characters, who, as their hyphenated names suggest, are socio-technical hybrids of two kinds of agency: the social agency of the offline player is partly enabled and constrained by the technical affordances of the avatar which the designers of the game created, but they are also off-line human agents whose agency with respect to the game and one another as players the designers also seek to enable and constrain partly technically through affordances of the game, as well as other more moral, social and legal forms of suasion, such as an end-user license agreement (EULA). The player-character is a socio-technical object, a mediator between the animations controlled by the offline player (sociological animation) and the algorithmic animations of the game world (technological animation). As I have shown elsewhere, the animation of the player-character may accordingly alternate in animacy between anthropomorphic “player”, the servile, silent “alt” follower, and technomorphic “bot” (Manning, 2017; Manning and Gershon, 2013).

In the case of an MMO that is a living world, emergence can be a property of both the non-human creatures (NPCs, mobs: “nature”) and the human creatures (player-characters: “culture”). In the case of a standard MMO, emergence is nowadays primarily used to discuss the way the affordances of the game enable and constrain forms of player (creature) behavior (play, sociality) that the designers and developers (the creators), did not intend. The term afford(ance) is key, because term is typically used somewhat casually to emphasize the ways that a technological artifact can potentially be used in ways other than the way the creator scripted it: we move from a language of technological determination of human agency (script) to a language of constraint and potentiality: affordances do not determine, they “enable and constrain.” In other words, when we talk about the affordances of technological artifacts, we are alerting the reader that we are about to tell stories of emergence: “the possibilities for action that emerge from the affordances of given technological forms” [41]. This is why the term “sandbox” is associated so closely with emergence, since sandbox mechanics, which allow players to choose not only their own means to an end, but their own ends, affords what Jenkins (2004) calls emergent narratives: “a kind of authoring environment within which players can define their own goals and write their own stories.”

Whether it celebrates life in cellular automata, or it celebrates human creativity in the face of technological determinism, emergence is a sign of a particular form of animation, life, and moreover, it has all the agentive properties valorized in liberal-to-libertarian subjectivity and political organization: it is “creative”, “bottom up”, “self-organizing”, and so on. Because it represents a kind of bottom-up creative resistance to the power of technological determinism, the celebration of emergence risks being folded into a much more general “romance of resistance” “a tendency to romanticize resistance, to read all forms of resistance as signs of the ineffectiveness of systems of power and of the resilience and creativity of the human spirit in its refusal to be dominated” [42]. But, as Nardi, et al. [43] point out, for some pioneering designers, the single-minded romantic celebration of emergence as life and liberty incarnate, what we could call “the romance of emergence”, instead becomes a form of “tyranny of emergence”:

Emergence was a common outcome: the two pioneers pointed out that players will take whatever affordances are offered to them and appropriate them creatively to their own ends. At the same time, they warned of the ‘tyranny of emergence’: while we all aspire to letting cultures form themselves in a bottom up fashion, we can never forget the ‘hand of God’ on high which rules over everything. In the context of these environments, we thus must ask ourselves, who is the designer and what are the limits of leaving things to shape themselves? [44]

There are good reasons, of course, to pay attention to emergence. Forms of emergence which pit player creativity against the technical affordances of the rules created by the developers, producing both social norms definitive of player communities and technical explorations — licet and illicit — of the possibilities of the game system, as well as socially emergent attempts to contain these emergent technical explorations within social norms, have been productive sites to explore game cultures, and they are, appropriately, the stuff of game ethnography (see for example Pearce and Artemesia, 2009, 2007, in particular).



Silly Meks and interested Bodocs: Interactive animals of the player umwelt

We know that they are ... drawings, and not living beings.
We know that they are ... projections of drawings on a screen.
We know that they are ... miracles and tricks of technology, that such beings don’t really exist.
but at the same time:
We sense them as alive.
We sense them as moving, as active.
We sense them as existing and even thinking!
       — Sergei Eisenstein (1988) on Disney

When we say that they are “mere automatisms,” we project as much as when we say that they are “loving creatures;” the only difference is that the latter is an anthropomorphism and the former a technomorphism or phusimorphism. — Latour [45]

However, while Ryzom is certainly no stranger to complex forms of player emergence constitutive of gamer practice and game cultures (Manning, 2017; Manning and Gershon, 2013), accounts of players like Katriell and developers focus instead on the emergence not as an exclusively human property (culture), but a property of the agency of the world of nature, and of player interaction with that world, connecting player creativity (emergent “sandbox” gameplay) with the interactive emergence of a living gameworld. That the world of nature is emergent (a living dynamic ecology), in short, gives rise to specific forms of emergent gameplay (sandbox mechanics), resulting in a kind of explicitly ecological form of gameplay: an endless cycle of hunting, foraging, and trekking between isolated, often forlorn wilderness spots, where one might walk or dig for hours among the animals and not see another homin for hours. Unlike other games where most “mobs” are equally “aggro” (dangerous, apt to attack) and have the same “aggro range”, in Ryzom knowing which animals are dangerous carnivores (“high-level aggro”) and what their triggering aggro range is, is crucial to safe travel between hunting and dig spots:

travel is a real challenge. Especially in regions with dense high-level aggro, it is thrilling and interesting to wend your way between packs, watch out for predators being dragged into your area by fleeing herbivores, and bear in mind that different carnivore species have slightly different aggro ranges. (Katriell, 2009b)


Ecological animation
Figure 6: Ecological animation (“curious” Arma herbivore interacting with player-character mounted on a Mek (Mektoub) (screenshot by author).
Note: Larger version of figure available here.


Travel engages knowledge of the ecology (knowing which creatures are carnivores, which herbivores) as well as keen observation, local travel conditions are emergent effects of season and ecology: an area full of herbivores is often safer than an empty area, because the presence of herbivores may index the absence of aggressive predators, while empty areas may be empty because of the presence of a particularly aggressive predator. Different kinds of animals react differently to player interlopers: Local herbivore “mobs” like Mektoubs (“Meks”, animals which exist both as “tame” player pets and as “wild” creatures), Bodocs or Armas might become “interested” in a homin who is hunting or digging, and cluster about them, getting in their way (Figure 6):

Nonea says: I kill a few meks with acid bomb. So another one runs up to me to see what’s going on.
Nonea says: Silly meks.
Winxy says: worse is when you’re digging and suddenly all mobs around seem to be SO INTERESTED in what you’re doing
Lorik says: i had a bodoc sit directly on top of my node a few mins ago so that i couldnt get to it :S
it just strolled to right over top of it and sat down :P

However, as Katriell notes, a player who feels safely out of aggro range of predators, digging among such friendly, curious herbivores may find that these herbivores are “fleeing” a carnivore and have “dragged aggro” outside of its normal range. Thus, fairly simple interactions can lead to emergent effects that are read in ecological terms.

As these examples, player eagerly attend to the animation of animality and quite un-self-consciously read animal animation as life. Setting aside self-conscious role-playing for a moment, players have two registers in which to talk about animated animals in the game. They can talk about them in technomorphic “game systemic” terms (the language of animation), using terms like “mobs” that describe such creatures in terms of motion and sources of motion (“mobile objects”). Or they can talk about them as living animals (here I would tentatively replace Latour’s anthropomorphism with zoomorphism or theriomorphism), for example, reading animated movement as being full of life and emotion, speaking of “silly meks” and “interested bodocs” (the language of life).

Returning to Katriell’s account adduced above, Katriell explicitly refers the sense of Atys as a living world to the richness of its different kinds of animations that serve as affordances for reading life into the landscape. Katriell spends little time discussing player-character avatars, whose animation is a problematic hybrid of off-line player agency and online algorithm (Manning, 2017; Manning and Gershon, 2013). She shows comparatively little interest in the liveliness of the animation of homin NPCs, other than to mention that they (including quest-givers NPCs and merchants) have a propensity to wander about, which is unusual for NPCs in such games. Katriell is primarily interested in animation that is localized in the world as nature: that is, in the landscape or the animals (“mobs”) in the landscape. It is not the liveliness of the homins — player-characters or NPCs — nor even the community of player-characters (the prototypical referent for the term homins), that makes Atys a “living world”, but the non-homin animations localized in the “mobs” and the landscape. Atys thus delineates a strong division between a cultural world of hominity and a non-homin nature. Players redistribute this terminology to reinforce distinctions of animacy. Homin, nominally the term for any avatar shaped like a playable race, whether player-character or non-player-character, is used almost exclusively to refer to fully human player-characters, and is frequently used in the plural to address the whole player community when logging on: “Hello Homins!”, Non-player avatars are distinguished by their form: the term NPC is used to mean homin-shaped non-player avatar (shaped like a playable race), and the term “mob”, is used to mean animal non-player avatar, where in other gameworlds they are used more or less interchangeably for anything that isn’t a player-character. In these careful referential practices, a regular “animacy hierarchy” (Chen, 2012) emerges: homin (humanly controlled homin avatar or toon) > NPC (automaton homin avatar) > Mob (automaton non-homin avatar). Nestled within this hierarchy of animacy based on human shape and human agency, there is a further subhierarchy of homins based on the capacity for language, here toons, player-characters that are “main characters”, are fully languaged subjects, secondary servile “alt” characters are carefully abjected from their potential incumbency to subject, they seldom speak and are seldom spoken to, and fully automated avatars (player-made bots and NPCs) are completely silent others (Manning, 2017; Manning and Gershon, 2013).

If the animation of homins doesn’t draw too much interest, this is partly because relative to animal mobs, homins of all kinds simply aren’t very lively. Homin NPCs show little in the way of animation beyond idle animations, wandering, standing and “aggro”. Player-character toons (avatars) are peculiar in the vast fluctuations of animacy they display: for example, when the animating player is AFK (away from the keyboard), they have no animation at all beyond idle animations, becoming “ghostly absent presences” [46] and the servile animation of alternate characters (“,alts”,), which are parasitic on that of the main character, can appear to be like “soulless bots” (Manning, 2017; Manning and Gershon, 2013). Both kinds of homins, by virtue of their humanoid appearance, and attendant failure to display the animation expected of humans, appear to fall into a kind of “uncanny valley” of animation where all one notices is the telling absence of human animacy. Animal mobs, by contrast, are far livelier than homins, not only in terms of lively movement but in terms of sound: homins (player or NPC) are silent, mute presences, neither speaking nor yet making noises, in a soundscape animated by the noises of animals. Animal mobs, too, are highly interactive, they take a lively interest in their surroundings, while AFK player-characters react to nothing, even if they are attacked, and wandering homin NPCs show no interest in the goings on in their vicinity.

In contrast to the mute and inert world of homins, the non-homin landscape of Atys, “nature”, is full of lively noise and animation. Some of this animation is purely algorithmic and is purely aesthetic, having no game consequences: the seasons, the weather, the trees and grass swaying in the wind, the forming of small patches of fog, the insects flitting around, the spores drifting up from the ground all help to “make the world seem alive”. The diverse “idle animations” of animals sleeping and eating adds “realism and liveliness to their behavior”. The aggregate effect of these animations shared between the landscape, mobs, NPCs and player-characters is a general sense of lively non-localized “animatedness”: “everything breathes — player-characters, NPCs animals, Kitins ...” [47]

Within this purely aesthetically animated landscape, Katriell attends to animations localized in animal mobs as a primary source of immersive experience in an alien living world. Katriell [48] suggestively uses terms like interact and interactive to describe this dimension of animated animality. While swaying trees and flitting insects are not separately animated entities at all, but really animated images, they do not belong to the umwelt of the player, the perceptual world which is also part of the effector world, the world the player can interact with consequentially [49]. While these are a purely perceptual part of the animated landscape, animal mobs as other define the player umwelt, they are both animated images and also real others, they resist, they interact with each other and with players, in the limiting case, they can kill and be killed. Sleeping and eating are “idle animations”, they are purely aesthetic algorithms — mere images of activity — intransitive actions that happen by themselves and have no consequences, but activities like hunting, defending, attacking, sniffing at, peeing on are interactive — transitive, and real because consequential.

In game terms, animal mobs as interactive animated actants (I borrow Latour’s term actant to mean any non-human, that is, NPC or non-player, actor) differ from purely aesthetic animated actants like flitting insects in that they are autonomous “mobile objects” separate from the landscape: they therefore can be “targeted” or “selected” (place the mouse over them and click on them, and a visual “target” will appear around them). Targeting is a precondition to all other forms of interactive animation with an actant (attacking, waving at, following, peeing), for any actant A to interact consequentially (“performatively” in Nardi’s (2010) sense) with another actant B (attack, wave at, follow, pee on), first A must target B. The relationship is potentially reciprocal: If you can target an actant, chances are you can also be targeted by that actant: if anything targets you, it is said to be “looking at you” because a small eye appears next to their name (Figure 7). Small plants, insects and birds can only be looked at as part of the landscape — they are purely visual entities — while other animal mobs can interact with players and other animals: they can be looked at (and targeted), and they can look back.


Seeing and being seen
Figure 7: Seeing and being seen: This creature (Ploderos) is both targeted (purple circle) by the player and also targeting the player (the eye) (screenshot by author).
Note: Larger version of figure available here.


Animal mobs are actively interactive, both in the number of kinds of actants they will interact with and the range of different animations they display in these interactions. This emergent interactivity turns the animation of animality into an animated ecology, an umwelt. In standard MMO games the scripts for mob or NPC interaction essentially are variations on the technomorphic language of “aggro”, which can be used as a verb (“aggro” meaning “enter or cause to enter, a hostile attack state”), a collective noun (“aggro” in the sense of a bunch of “aggroed” mobs who have the same target; “dragging aggro”, when one is the target of following aggro and one “drags” it across the map so that it might kill others), and adjective (mobs which attack unprovoked are “aggro”, those that don’t are “non-aggro”). While Ryzom NPCs can be described in terms of this limited technomorphic vocabulary of “aggro”, the range of relevant others, and kinds of emergent interactions, resulting from “aggro” with animal mobs in Ryzom are much more complex, leading to aggro being read in richly vivified narrative terms. Their interactions with each other are read using an ecological language of predation and mutual care: “carnivores and Kitins hunt herbivores; some herbivores defend each other or even other species of herbivores” [50]. They interact with players, herbivores in particular display a non-hostile “aggro” (at which point an “eye” will appear by the herbivore’s name bar, just as it does on a carnivore who is about to attack you), which players read as friendly “curiosity”: “a curious herbivore may target a player and run up to them to sniff them” [51]. Sometimes so many “curious” herbivores gather around a player that it makes it impossible to dig (Katriell, 2009a).

These complex interactions, emerging from a few simple algorithms based on “aggro”, lead to complex and interactive “animal” behavior. As a result of these interactive affordances, it is common for players to talk about the emergent animations of animal mobs in terms of lively intention rather than in terms of the reductive game-systemic terms of algorithms.

Hekla says: I honestly would rather see recipes as magic than find out the formula behind them. So I choose to see it that way. Like critter migrations, well, that’s the way nature works. Critters migrate from season to season. And Mektoubs will come to you for help when a Vorax is on them. They’ll bring the Vorax over, of course, but it’s the intention that counts.

Importantly, emergent interactive behaviors of mobs, like a mob (Mektoub herbivore) who “drags aggro” (a Vorax carnivore) onto a player is read in terms of vivified narratives of mutual aid (“Mektoubs will come to you for help”), and automatic movements of animals in the landscape (seasonal “critter migrations”) are read as being part of the equally automatic cycles of the natural order (“the way nature works”).

Players often narrate the animated interactions of animals, in terms of ecological scripts of predation, here, and express emotions of sympathy and disgust based on this reading:

Ariella says: so ... i just watched 2 puckas and a tyrancha pick on a poor lumper lo[l]
Ariella says: now i think the pucka is eating the dead body O.O
Hechicera says: yes, they do that
Ariella says: lol i never paid attention. thats kinda gross
Hechicera says: makes perfect sense
Hechicera says: they're carnivores

Animals are not mere “monsters” standing around waiting to be killed, but nonhuman (non-homin) others who exist autonomously of players’ need to kill them, part of a non-homin ecology, an autonomous world of animal interactions of predation and mutual care, an autonomous “second nature” whose computer algorithms are at the same time “how nature works”.

The key to this animated nature is emergence. New players are often surprised by the relatively emergent nature of Atys compared to the impoverished motivational repertoires of the worlds that they are used to, where all interactions with NPC mobs are variations on “aggro”. A player new to Ryzom, Alkazin, is asking other players general questions about the gameworld, and translating the terms of Ryzom into general gaming terms, the technomorphic “language of animation”, while in reply the other players freely translate animal animation as signs of animality, animation-as-life.

A key affordance for this reading of animation-as-life is the “eye” I mentioned before (Figure 7). If an avatar or mob is targeting you, it displays an “eye” on its name bar. If you see an eye, then you know that entity “is looking at you”. A new player, Alkazin, wants to know if this eye indicates “aggro”, in other words, if the creature is about to attack him. Alkazin uses standard MMO terminology from the technomorphic “language of animation” — “targeting” and “aggro” — which locates this animation within the algorithmic world of the game engine. By contrast, the other players constantly reassign this animation to “life”, imputing living animality to animation. The “eye” is a narrative affordance that mediates between “animation” and “living animality”.

Alkazin says: does the eye on a creature’s health bar indicate aggro?
Naicha says: no
Naicha says: means he is looking at you
Mainpixels says: it means they’re looking at you either as friendly or food :)

Based on how the category of aggro works in a standard MMO game, Alkazin had assumed that when creatures “come up to him”, this meant “aggro” and so he attacked them. He was surprised therefore to find that if he left them alone, they eventually would go away.

Mainpixels says: yeah, I love creature responses ... very lifelike ... some are just curious and come up to you without attacking, and others will attack one on one others as groups and also some have varied ranges. there are also periodic migrations of some creature herds so a safe place now may be unsafe later aggro-wise



Abjection and projection: Technomorphic homins and anthropomorphic animals

Players seem to deny humanity to mute humanoid NPCs, and abject incompletely animated “alts” from humanity by denying them language, so that “alts” and NPCs, with their uncanny combination of outward human form but their double silence, lack of animating human language or animal noise, fall into the uncanny valley (Figure 8), but they happily impute lively animality to non-humanoid “mobs”. But what are we to call this simultaneous abjection of alts and NPCs and the happy projection of life to the animal mob? If it is an animal, is it anthropomorphism to impute to it affects, intentions, emotions? If it is an animated “mob”, a mobile object, is it animism to treat it as a living, breathing, feeling, animal? While most of us — apart from some Cartesian naturalists and behaviorists — are happy to impute emotions (and possibly mind) to animal others (Sanders and Arluke, 2007), we treat the absence of emotional interiority as the defining feature of the technomorphic computational others [52]. Perhaps we are more selective with technological imposters on the human form or condition than animal imposters: there is no equivalent for a Turing test for detecting robotic cats and dogs. The attribution of animal animacy (affect, emotion) to animal technomorphs (animal mobs), then, is not as jarring or “uncanny” as the absence of human animacy (language) in humanoid homin technomorphs (NPCs, toons).


Abject homins and cute Yubos
Figure 8: Abject homins and cute Yubos: The “uncanny valley” of Ryzom.
Note: Larger version of figure available here.


However, as with real animals, so too with animal mobs, the terrain of sympathy is very uneven. Within the world of animal mobs, some animals are more affectively engaging than others, and they gain the bulk of sympathy and projected animacy: while monstrous insectoid Kitins and sentient plants elicit little sympathy, herbivores, who after all domesticate “aggro” into mere curious sniffing, are the particular site of the elaboration of animal affects. Katriell singles out a small cute herbivore called a “Yubo” as being a “particularly interactive animal”, since its native “curiosity” manifests itself in a wide range of affectively engaging animations, including “begging at players and peeing on their shoes” (Figure 9).


Curious Yubo sniffing a player character
Curious Yubo peeing on player character
Figure 9: “Curious” Yubo sniffing and peeing on player-character (screenshot by author).
Note: Larger version of top figure available here.
Note: Larger version of bottom figure available here.


Yubos are not only described as deliberately peeing on our shoes, but they are particularly weak and helpless herbivores (players find the idea of “aggro yubos” to be intrinsically funny), there are strong taboos on killing yubos, and indeed some players will pause what they are doing to protect yubos from potential predators. Talking about inflicting pointless violence on Yubos (“punching a yubo to death”) or role-playing eating BBQ Yubo legs elicits in turn exaggerated displays of horror, censure for the player and pity for the “poor Yubo”. New players are advised to “have fun, make new friends and avoid the kitins ... and be nice to yubos”. My own guild frequently had a message of the day that read: “Don’t harm the yubos and have a good day. Hugs!”

One might suppose that ability to be killed, “killability”, would be in some sense prima facie evidence of animacy, making “killable” animal mobs more real, more alive, than creatures like insects that cannot be killed. But while ability to be killed is the extreme limiting evidence of animacy, the animacy of a creature is also measured affectively, morally and ethically within rules about whether or not you are allowed to kill it [53]. In this sense affectively engaging Yubos are more animate, indeed more human, than monstrous kitins (Figure 9): Yubos are the prototypical “cute” animals, just as insectoid Kitins are the prototypical monstrous others, so Yubos are enclosed within emergent social taboos against the PVE (player versus environment) violence that otherwise defines the relation of players to animal mobs, particularly Kitins. These taboos that protect yubos are likened to the norms that protect players against PVP (player versus player) violence: one player compared killing players, particularly those low in health, in PVP zones as being an act singularly lacking in honour, “like killing a yubo ... .” [54]



Conclusion: Life on a dying world

Galini says: gn Atys
Meagon says: Night Galini
Dean says: I have a question!!!
Dean says: why everyone says “Night Atys” instead of “Night Homins”?
Meagon says: cuz the planet is alive
Neva says: they are talking to the yubo and kitin as well?

Dean, a new player, wonders why Galini logs off the server for the night with a conventional “g[ood]n[ight]”, but not addressed, as is usual when one logs on to the server, to the human collective of homins — the player community — (“Hello Homins!”), but to the non-human collective of Atys (“Good Night Atys”): because the planet itself is alive, Meagon explains; they are addressing every animal from cute yubos to monstrous kitins, Neva concludes. Players often speak of Atys as a “living planet”, as offering a kind of deep sense of immersion and presence, where the game lies not in the excitement but in the serenity its sense of worldness provides, the sense of being among the alien animals of another nature. The play that emerges from this living worldness flirts with animism, treating the planet as a social other.

This sense Atys as a living world was thrown into sharp relief paradoxically in its absence, when Atys disappeared for the first time in 2007, and the homins said “good night” to Atys for what they thought was the final time [55]. During this period, players such as Katriell reported elegiacally their yearning for this lost world, which was not a yearning only for a lost game, or a lost player community, a lost culture (compare Pearce and Artemesia, 2009), but a yearning for a lost animated world of nature, a yearning for

a relaxing serenity I’ve found nowhere else as all around the animals go about their business, fellow homins dart by, insects flit, fog and luminous spores drift from the ground, the trees and grasses sway, the weather changes ... (Katriell, 2008)

The server shut down of 2007 was the first in a series of freezes, each of which turned the world from an experienceable living umwelt into an object of mourning and yearning. But where some said farewell, others sought to revive Atys. After the first collapse in 2007, the project of reanimating Ryzom was undertaken by the “Free Ryzom Campaign”, a crowd-funding project of the Free Software Foundation and the Virtual Citizenship Association which sought to, in effect, free an MMO world, to liberate Atys as a world and as a software object Ryzom and to re-animate it as a truly free world: both the world and the code that animates that world were to become some of the first software objects to become freed in this sense (Manning, 2009).

To conclude, the popularity of the hybrid worldness of Ryzom, which is both a fantasy world of a typical MMO and a “living world”, a modeling of an autonomous nature, lies to a great extent in the way that the animation of the non-human alien animal world, the animation of an alien second nature, affords an engrossing sense of immersion and presence, where the animation of humanoid avatars does not. Ryzom presents an image of a fantastic alien nature on a far off planet, but also a pristine nature that is increasingly divorced from our own experience. This paradox of proliferating representations of animality against the extinction of real animals, informs all contemporary media, as LaMarre argues:

in an age of massive extinction, in which the majority of nonhuman animals seem on the verge of disappearing from our world entirely, our media abound in images of animals. It is as if those vanishing animals return to us in spectral form, proliferating across media platforms, as cartoon characters, electronic pets, animatronic and SFX creatures in films, on stickers, in ads, on book covers, in a vain attempt to mark their presence at the moment of their global disappearance. Much of our zoosphere is currently in danger of such a spectral existence, condemned to survive only on film and in other media, and it is hard not to see the proliferation of animated animals across media (and their transnational movement) in terms of a global panic formation: our attempt to capture animals and their nonhuman animality before they disappear actually is part of a process of erasing their lives and life worlds while frantically retaining them in spectral form. [56]

It is against this paradoxical background I read the mournful yearning of players like Katriell for the animated living world of Atys. End of article


About the author

Paul Manning is Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Trent University in Canada.
E-mail: paulmanning [at] trentu [dot] ca



All figures were drawn from Ryzom open source materials except where listed otherwise. I would like to thank Tom Boellstorff, Robert Brightman, Kate Dougherty, Arij Friis-Sheepers, Ilana Gershon, Pei-yi Guo, Courtney Handman, Stefan Helmreich, Lucifer Hung, Hirofumi Katsuno, Paul Kockelman, Jeremy Leipert, Anne Meneley, Liam Mitchell, Shunsuke Nozawa, Debra Occhi, Alejandro Paz, Teri Silvio, Eitan Wilf and many others for comments and encouragement on various versions of this article at different times and places. The author would also like to thank his fellow homins and the collectivity of Atys for inspiration to write this paper. All errors are my own.



1. Ngai, 2004, pp. 89–125.

2. LaMarre, 2013, p. 119.

3. Boellstorff, 2008, pp. 37–38; Taylor, 2006, pp. 22–28; Veerapen, 2013.

4. Ito, 2005, p. 8.

5. Nardi, 2010, p. 80.

6. Ngai, 2004, pp. 89–125.

7. LaMarre, 2013, p. 119.

8. Nardi, 2010, p. 10.

9. The category of “lore” in the everyday parlance of MMORPGs tends to denote back story material which is materially useless to gameplay (Nardi, 2010, p. 89). Usually extensionally it tends to also mean specifically sociological or cultural themes like legendary or mythological back stories (Krzywinska, 2006), some of which might be explored in gameplay in what Jenkins (2004) calls “embedded narratives”. What is interesting about Ryzom is that gameplay is strongly guided by ecological themes rather than sociocentric narratives (missions, quests), and that while game lore has a fair dose of mythology, much of the game lore is ecological in form (for example, botanical excursions as a kind of event).

10. All quotes from forums and in game chat will be reproduced exactly as originally written except added material in brackets [] and omitted material in ellipses ... Player avatar names are treated as being de facto pseudonyms. (Note that in Ryzom players’ usage of standard MMORPG terminology, NPC (“non-player-character”) and “mob” (from “mobile object”) are not interchangeable terms for killable “monster”, NPC usually means some sort of non-player avatar that belongs to a humanoid (homin) “playable race” (so henceforth I will call them homin NPCs as opposed to homin player-characters), and the term “mob” is essentially synonymous with “animated animal” (so henceforth I will call them “animal mobs”): when killed, NPCs “drop” finished objects (“loot”), animal mobs “drop” “mats” (raw materials) for crafting finished objects.).

11. Descola, 1996; Chen, 2012, p. 89.

12. See Taylor, 2006, p. 30; Nardi, 2010, p. 12.

13. Taylor, 2006, pp. 25–28, Klastrup, 2009.

14. All these properties are listed, for example, in a thread started by Doctor Overlord, posted 23 March 2011 — 08:23 PM, at to-you/page__st__30

15. Ito, 2005, pp. 8–9.

16. Tolkien, 1947; Boellstorff, 2008, pp. 37–38, 57.

17. Helmreich, 1998, pp. 91–92; Helmreich, 2004, p. 292.

18. Helmreich, 1998, p. 65.

19. Compare Viveiros de Castro, 2004, pp. 47–48.

20. Helmreich, 2004, p. 28.

21. Taylor, 2006, pp. 21–28; Boellstorff, 2008, pp. 35–39; Nardi, 2010, p. 12.

22. Helmreich, 1998, pp. 91–92; Helmreich, 2004, pp. 292–293.

23. E.g., Helmreich, 2004, p. 285; Turkle, 1995.

24. Helmreich, 2004, p. 281.

25. Helmreich, 1998, p. 66; Helmreich, 2004, pp. 279, 283; Turkle, 1984, pp. 277–284; Turkle, 1995, p.125–148.

26. Helmreich, 1998, p. 80.

27. Helmreich, 1998, p. 66; Helmreich, 2004, p. 279.

28. Helmreich, 2004, p. 277.

29. Marx, 2008, p. 17.

30. McKibben, 1989, p. 58.

31. Helmreich, 1998, p. 91; Helmreich, 2004, p. 292.

32. Helmreich, 1998, pp. 85–86; Helmreich, 2004, p. 289; Turkle, 1995, pp.167–170.

33. Salen and Zimmerman, 2003, pp. 158–171; Sweetser, 2006.

34. Interview, 2002, at

35. LaMarre, 2009, p. 61.

36. Interview, 2002, at

37. E.g., Prophet, 1996, p. 343; Turkle, 1984, pp. 279–281.

38. Malaby, 2009, pp. 16, 56–57.

39. Malaby, 2009, p. 56.

40. Prophet, 1996, p. 343.

41. Hutchby, 2001, p. 30 [added emphasis].

42. Abu-Lughod, 1990, pp. 41–42.

43. Nardi, et al., 2008, p. 61; also Nardi, 2010, p. 70.

44. Nardi, et al., 2008, p. 61.

45. Latour, 1992, p. 163.

46. Boellstorff, 2008, p. 117.

47. Katriell, 2009a, pp. 1, 6, 7.

48. Katriell, 2009a, pp. 3–4.

49. Uexküll, 1992, p. 320. Cf. Nardi’s discussion (2010, pp. 52–93) of video game worlds as a “visual-performative medium” parallels this what Uexküll calls the umwelt. Similarly Klastrup (2009) defines worldness as arising at the intersection of an aesthetic, game and social elements.

50. Katriell, 2009b, p. 3.

51. Katriell, 2009b, p. 4.

52. Turkle, 1984, p. 62.

53. Turkle, 1984, pp. 58–59.


55. Its servers closed in 2007 before reopening a few years later under a new owner.

56. LaMarre, 2008, p. 81.


Games cited

Blizzard Entertainment, 2004. The World of Warcraft (MS Windows).

CCP Games, 2003. Eve Online (MS Windows).

Cyan Worlds, 2003. Uru: Ages beyond Myst. Ubisoft (MS Windows).

Nevrax, 2004. Ryzom aka The Saga of Ryzom (MS Windows).

Sony Online Entertainment, 1999. Everquest (MS Windows).



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Editorial history

Received 12 October 2017; accepted 12 May 2018.

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Animating virtual worlds: Emergence and ecological animation of Ryzom’s living world of Atys
by Paul Manning.
First Monday, Volume 23, Number 6 - 4 June 2018

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