Beyond Management: Considering Participatory Design and Governance in Player Culture
First Monday

Beyond Management: Considering Participatory Design and Governance in Player Culture by T.L. Taylor

This article explores relationships between players and the owners of the massively multiplayer online games (MMOG) they inhabit. Much of the language around these large scale communities currently focuses on “management.” Viewing these complex social systems as essentially mechanical in nature has led to a preoccupation with creating or retrofitting systems which can be constantly monitored, tuned, regulated, and controlled. Though the language often turns to things like “cheating,” “griefing,” and “disruption of the magic circle,” the underlying anxiety about unruliness, transgressiveness, and the emergent nature of these spaces as sites of culture needs to be more fully addressed, as well as the early formulations of the “imagined player” that shape the design process. Players are central productive agents in game culture and more progressive models are needed for understanding and integrating their work in these spaces. Drawing on the long tradition of participatory design this piece explores some alternative frameworks for understanding the designer/player relationship are proposed.


Managed Worlds and Productive Players
Formalism, Representation, and the Invisible Player
Considering Participatory Design and Governance
Beyond Management



Over the past several years a vibrant field of computer game studies has emerged. Coinciding with the development of new arenas of study has been the popularization of massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs), bringing virtual environments to a broader demographic than previously tapped with text-based multi–user dungeons (MUDs). While in many ways these developments seem to mark a whole new world for both research and play, there remain useful traditions we can draw on to explore some of the difficult issues scholars, designers, and players face with the emergence of massively multiplayer culture. Rather than just focusing on computer games as stories, rule systems, or entertainment, what analytical ground opens up by considering the ways they are also technologies and lifeworlds? How might we fruitfully draw on critical Internet studies, participatory design (PD), and science, technology & society studies (STS) to address the issue of player involvement in not only the construction, but maintenance of these emerging game spaces?

One point of analysis that helps us unpack the relationship between producers, users, and technologies is in the way the user is considered and framed within the technology and design process (Akrich, 1996; McDonough, 1999; Oudshoorn and Pinch, 2003; Woolgar, 1991). Who do producers picture when they think about, and design for, their target user? What do they imagine them doing with the technology? What do they explicitly hope they don’t do with it? Oudshoorn, et al. (2004) note that,

In the development phase of a new technology, innovators define the preferences, motives, tastes and competencies of potential users and inscribe these views into technical design of the new product. The inscription of representations of users and use in artifacts results in technologies that contain a script: they attribute and delegate specific competencies, actions, and responsibilities to users and technological artifacts. [1]

Rather than a linear, top–down process, ultimately what we find is a complex co–construction of technologies that occurs between designers, users, and the artifacts themselves.

Designers are always already working with a model of the user (sometimes real, but just as often imagined) when they approach the process of creation. This formulation plays a powerful role in how the space is circumscribed for the eventual user in terms of what is deemed not only legitimate use, but more fundamentally, what identities are sanctioned and inscribed within the artifact. Designers construct not only a product, but attempt to embed within it particular forms of use and, by extension, particular users. Actual users then engage in an ongoing act of negotiation with devices and systems, often reinscribing and remaking them. This process can then, especially in the case of MMOGs, simultaneously feed back to designers (not to mention marketing and customer service departments who have their own often competing formulations) which themselves then reorient and adapt. Rather than a linear, top–down process, ultimately what we find is a complex co–construction of technologies that occurs between designers, users, and the artifacts themselves. At the outset, however, we might attend to the original framings that take place and, in the case of MMOGs ask, who is the imagined user at play and what are their anticipated practices? While there are at times progressive understandings of the role and agency of players, I here want to highlight at least four common ways of formulating MMOG players I have seen recur that can serve to limit full participation; players as consumers, (potential) disruptors, unskilled/unknowledgeable users, and rational/selfish actors.

One of the most predominant formulations of players comes through the trope of the consumer. In this model a player’s main power is viewed as residing in their wallet. If they don’t like something that happens in a game world they are free to, indeed should, leave and take their money elsewhere. The consumer model is unable to account in any substantial way for a rhetoric of citizenship or activism that can sometimes be found within these games, or the kinds of deep attachments players express toward their avatars and virtual worlds. The consumer model is mostly inclined to see participation in these games as simply one of many forms of entertainment the player can pick and choose from — the free market in action.

Alongside the consumption model is one in which players are viewed as, if not now, possibly someday, troublemakers. Within the disruption model there is often a strong sense of threat lurking, that the game world is always on the brink of undoing. This model is often invoked by designers to express their concern about the ways griefers, hackers, and cheaters can ruin a game (and in particular, their game) and other player’s experience. It can in its weaker version also express itself through concern that, if not carefully watched and guided into “fair play” structures (often embedded in elaborate Terms of Service and End User License Agreements), players are more likely than not to introduce troublesome elements (be they speech or play practices) into the game. In this model the power of the player is seen as primarily residing in their ability, or at least their ever present potential to, upset the rules and norms of a game (or, just as often, designer–author intent), thereby ruining it.

The third frame players are often placed in is that of the unskilled or unknowledgeable. They are seen as not having particularly refined aesthetic or technical skills, they may not “know how things work,” are viewed as not seeing (or having access to) the “bigger picture,” are not seen as imaginative (in any positive sense), or may not understand game play mechanics more broadly. Players in this model can also be seen as conservative in their play tastes, preferring the familiar to the innovative. Closely tied to the consumerist model, this is also one that imagines players are best handled by primarily serving them up content and structures through which they will ultimately benefit. Their power, if acknowledged at all, is similarly seen to reside in their almost fickle propensity to take their money elsewhere.

Players are not merely consumers of games, but actively contribute to their creation and maintenance as evocative lifeworlds through their engagement with them.

The final model I want to highlight here is that of the player as primarily a rational and selfish actor. In this frame the player is always making very basic calculations, á la the Prisoner’s Dilemma, about what will personally be the most efficient and rewarding outcome in any given situation. The player is not seen as altruistic or community–minded (beyond whatever might be rooted in self–interest). They are basically oriented to their own play needs and are not seen as engaging in broader concerns related to other players or the game more generally. They are often framed as essentially mechanical components that, under specific conditions, will behave in ultimately predictable ways. It is difficult to locate where their power may lie, though the rational actor approach dovetails fairly well with the notion that players ultimately address their self–interest via their wallet.

My intent here is not to argue, of course, that you can’t find instances of players fitting one of these categories. Certainly there are those who grief systems, who can’t construct as aesthetically pleasing objects as a professional designer or artist might, who themselves only think of their play as consuming content before moving onto the next space. It is also the case that players often rhetorically position themselves and others through these tropes. I do want to suggest, however, that these powerful frameworks — whether deployed by designers or users themselves — don’t tell the whole story about players and player culture. These models are often unconnected to actual practices, values, and identities, in turn impeding innovative design practices or critical analysis. Players are not merely consumers of games, but actively contribute to their creation and maintenance as evocative lifeworlds through their engagement with them. And while there are certainly those who cheat and disrupt, the more powerful under–explored phenomenon is the incredible role of socialization in games and the ways players are not only deeply “normed” into appropriate behavior, often coming to internalize the values of the game, designers, and company, but actively seek to improve and develop these game worlds. That game communities are incredibly adept at self–regulating behavior (albeit in sometimes troubling ways) is often understated. We can similarly see several cracks in the notion of “unskilled” or ignorant users. Players hold quite a bit of tacit, often hidden, knowledge on how everyday life in a game is handled and might be thought of as fairly adept. The “tricks” or emergent practices players come up with to make bad interfaces or game mechanics manageable, their contributions to the very workings of the game through, for example, the creation of third–party modifications, or their genre literacy (knowing vast amounts of comparative data across game titles, for example) speaks to their role as knowledgeable and skilled participants. Indeed, quite frequently the general game public makes up the ranks from which future designers, programmers, artists, and community managers are drawn. The notion that players are, for their own good, best kept out of the behind–the–scenes world of design and community administration seems to overlook not only the untapped potential within the actual community of users, but the ways professional communities are already built from that very population. And ultimately we see, when looking at grounded practice, that players are not simply narrowly self–interested but are continually engaged in cooperative and collaborative processes, mediated through the vertices of gift cultures, and embedded in communities. Player subjectivity should similarly not be narrowly construed as one built on simple calculations, but always entangled in the complexity of the play experience which is made of a messy mix of pleasures, pains, multifaceted senses of accomplishment, and deeply contextual renderings [2].

These regressive models — consumer, (potential) disruptor, unskilled/unknowledgeable user, and rational/selfish actor — tend to reinforce a notion that the ultimate task of a designer and game company is to basically provide for and manage a fairly consumerist population of users. In the best sense the notion of “management” can, of course, prompt the industry to face a fundamental fact often overlooked — that players matter and must be attended to. This view is probably best encapsulated by the work of Jessica Mulligan who has done a notable job in highlighting the ways MMOGs, for example, are not just products to be dumped on the market but people–based services that require more care and attention than often given. She and Patrovsky (2003) suggest to developers that,

One of the biggest issues you’ll have to contend with is the players. This issue is unavoidable. You must manage player expectations, have respect for your players, and listen to them as well. You can and should care deeply about them too. After all, these are your customers. Every time they log into your game, they make a decision. With a few clicks of the mouse, they choose to continue supporting you. [3]

While this kind of approach is an important corrective to some widespread problems in the industry, I do want to simultaneously challenge the notion that management is enough because in the worst sense “management” can be a way of reifying the line between designers and users — of dichotomizing “your game” versus “their game” — thereby sidestepping the more complex relationship that occurs between producers, players, and the artifact of the game.

... scholars and designers need to pay serious attention to the role of players in game culture, not simply as consumers or widgets that can be plugged into rationalized systems, but as prime agents in producing and sustaining the very systems they are engaged with.

With this brief setup I hope to provide at least an initial justification for why scholars and designers need to pay serious attention to the role of players in game culture, not simply as consumers or widgets that can be plugged into rationalized systems, but as prime agents in producing and sustaining the very systems they are engaged with. I want to introduce the notion of participatory design, and by extension participatory governance, as a fruitful model to begin to discuss what it might mean to move beyond simply managing player communities to enrolling them into the heart of design and game world maintenance [4]. This is, in fact, not quite as radical a proposition as it may first appear. MMOG worlds are already pparticipatory to some degree. Players aren’t simply consumers but are constructing meaningful experience, culture, communities, and play & technical interventions in these spaces. Through their participation they help shape the technology, as well as alter and extend the mechanics of the games. Unfortunately this participatory core is generally only a partially acknowledged and leveraged fact. While I do not want to necessarily advocate we think of game worlds as nation states requiring some particular form of democracy, nor am I advocating a kind of simplistic “design by committee,” we might consider the role this already occurring participation should take in the broader scheme and, indeed, what happens if we begin to understand this engagement not simply in terms of consumerism but citizenship.



Managed Worlds and Productive Players

This somewhat ambitious proposition does not actually seem to have much of a place in the current state of affairs in the massively multiplayer scene. In 2002 I wrote about some of my findings in Sony’s popular game EverQuest and suggested there were serious issues to be addressed about the nature of player engagement with these worlds and how their emergent culture and practices were being handled by designers and game companies (Taylor, 2002 and expanded in Taylor, 2006). “EBaying,” or the selling of game characters for real world money at online auction houses, was just starting to get some serious attention and Sony had issued a ban on all such activities. They had also taken action against a fan fiction author and were fairly rigorous in their overall monitoring of the game interface (players, for example, were not allowed to go into alt–tab window mode while playing, use third party game mods for controlling their MP3 player, etc.). When I presented this work at a conference one of the comments in the audience came from a fairly well–known game designer who suggested that my findings were more of an anomaly than any kind of early warning. His view was that, to paraphrase, “we all know Sony is the big bad guy on the block” and these issues were more tied to their specific management ethic than to a general trend within MMOGs. This was certainly a plausible explanation and something I’ve thought a lot about over the years. On the one hand I do think there is a kernel of truth to his caution — EverQuest does seem to historically be one of the more severe games when it has come to “managing” player experience in the world. On the other hand, I think we are seeing just as many examples across the now broadening range of MMOGs that serve to show that the issue of emergent culture through players productive engagement with a game has yet to be progressively reconciled with design and commercial interests [5].

For example, one of the most contentious in–game activities we see is that of collective player action. There is a long history of protests within virtual world spaces and we can watch how users of these systems often deploy collective action within online space as a way of pushing designer and company attention to issues they want addressed. Whether it is a demonstration for private housing in WorldsAway (1996) or a naked avatar run to the virtual castle of Richard Garriott (1997), creator of Ultima Online, players have regularly made use of gathering together online as a way of articulating their concerns “up the line.” Unfortunately, there are more examples than not of public demonstrations being met with severe repercussions. Indeed in most instances demonstrating within a game world is framed as disruption and an offense that leads to a player’s account being closed. Most recently we have the example of the Worlds of Warcraft warrior protest (January 2005) in which people gathered to express their displeasure with how their class of characters were being handled within the game system. Using characters created just for this purpose (versus their main avatars) and some with the guild tag “Warrior Union” appended to their name, these players undertook a public demonstration of their frustration (see Figure 1).

World of Warcraft player protest

Figure 1: World of Warcraft player protest (from

The event, publicly announced in advance via a Web site, took place on one specific server in one specific location at a pre–planned date and time. It was not met with a positive reception by Blizzard, the developers and maintainers of the game. Not unlike the kinds of warnings you expect to hear offline from police at unsanctioned demonstrations, participants at the protest were told by a Blizzard representative via the in–game communication system:

Attention: Gathering on a realm with intent to hinder gameplay is considered griefing and will not be tolerated. If you are here for the Warrior protest, please log off and return to playing on your usual realm. We appreciate your opinion, but protesting in game is not a valid way to give us feedback. Please post your feedback on the forums instead. If you do not comply, we will begin taking action against accounts. Please leave this area if you are here to disrupt game play as we are suspending all accounts.

As is often the case, part of the justification for their response was the notion that such a gathering was stressing the technical limitations of the game and thus, for the sake of the other players, needed to be stopped lest the entire server come to a grinding halt. We should not overlook though the ways in which technical constraints are always informed by decisions about what kinds of activities are deemed necessary and legitimate within a space. As has been suggested in previous work, virtual world designers are always wrapped up in embedding values into these spaces, in deciding what activities or forms of identity should be supported (Dibbell, 1998; Kolko, 2000; Pargman, 2000; Taylor, 2003 & 2004). Lawrence Lessig (1999) argues that “The selections about code are therefore in part a selection about who, what, and most important, what ways of life [emphasis his] will be enabled and disabled.” [6] Others have noted that the work designers and technologists do is always entangled with their acting as political theorists and social planners (Callon, 1991; Kling, 1996; Winner, 1999). Game designers are always making choices about what kinds of activities and player identities are to be supported to the exclusion of others. In the case of mass player gatherings, designers could certainly focus technical development on providing spaces for collective action (be it protest or not). The trend, however, seems to increasingly be turning toward developments like “instancing” in which regions of the world are spontaneously duplicated to accommodate smaller groups of players. Rather than tackling the more difficult (and I would argue much more interesting) issue of the facilitation of large scale collective action, MMOG designers are frequently turning toward structuring the technology to privilege privatized space in which smaller groups inhabit multiple duplications of a slice of the game world [7].

The use of protests by players and the corresponding severity of reply (account banning being most typical) highlights the fairly narrow framework player participation is currently framed within. My intent here is not to weigh in on the value of any given protest but instead to argue that we can learn a lot about what is happening at the values level by interrogating the procedures and practices we encounter around this particular phenomena. Helen Nissenbaum (2001) suggests that, “We must also study the complex interplay between the system or device, those who built it, what they had in mind, its conditions of use, and the natural, cultural, social, and political context in which it is embedded — for all these factors may feature in an account of the values embodied in it.” [8] Protests, and the responses that typically meet them, highlight the ways players are continually enmeshed in the various consumer/disruptor/unknowledgeable/selfish frameworks. What is striking is how out of step the tone embodied by these responses to protests are with the actual fact of MMOGs being significantly driven through productive player engagement with the world. If player activity and player culture is seen for what it is — a fundamental necessity for the success of any game — the kind of “top–down” measures that typically accompany player protests begin to look radically insufficient.

An empty massively multiplayer world is rarely something one wants to spend much time in ...

It is, of course, the case that designers certainly acknowledge the necessity of players for their games if, for no other reason, than the market criteria of success. At the most basic, MMOGs are only sustainable through the engagement of players with each other and the creation of emergent cultures within the space. An empty massively multiplayer world is rarely something one wants to spend much time in and, in this regard, players are crucial. But I want to suggest that the labor of players — at several levels — provides core value to games. The power of social networks often extends far beyond simple grouping encounters and even at times operates counter to the wishes of the game owners. In EverQuest (EQ), for example, players are incredibly adept at cycling through their characters and relying on those of their social networks (be it in–game or out–game) to progress (see, for example, Jakobsson and Taylor, 2003). Indeed, it is not uncommon to find players breaking the terms of the End User License Agreement in EQ by sharing their accounts with each other for the purposes of helping their friends and guildmates and emergent player practice can be decidedly at odds with what is laid out by the designers. Jean Burgess (2006) has suggested we might use the notion of “vernacular creativity as both an ideal and an heuristic device, to describe and illuminate creative practices that emerge from highly particular and non–elite social contexts and communicative conventions” and I find this a resonant way of thinking about the lived reality of MMOGs.

This formulation of the value of the player is only the topmost layer most readily seen and, in fact, we can find instances of productive player engagement going to the very heart of the game and its mechanics. Gameplay is often deeply reliant on collective knowledge generated and distributed by the player community. Web sites like Allakhazam offer invaluable repositories of information on monsters, quests, maps, and items — all of which is collectively provided, fact-checked, and extended by the player community. The high–level game, itself impossible without the assistance of other players, is similarly unnegotiable without the help of third–party player–driven Web sites like this. These Web sites should not be thought of as “side benefits” but are core to playablity and as such extend the very boundaries of the game space beyond that created by the formal design team. We might also think of the ways players make intensive contributions to game mechanics and interfaces through serving as unpaid play–testers, software developers via the creation of user interface modifications or other add–ons, and generally providers of vast amounts of feedback through message board sites. The player produced catalogue of user interface modifications surrounding World of Warcraft provides an impressive example not only of the ways players can directly intervene in the technical aspect of the game, but how those interventions reshape the experience of play itself. Consider, for example, what a raid encounter at the high end of the game might look like without the use of the popular CTMod. But we might also note the ways the formal designers of the game in turn appropriate such innovations back into the core game as they update and revise it. The catalogue of productive player activity within MMOGs is actually quite notable and the rhetoric of consumer/disruptor/unskilled/selfish user is deficient in explaining the actual nature of MMOGs and their players. While games like World of Warcraft (or, for that matter, Asheron’s Call) go one step further than EQ did in terms of enfranchising player–producers (for example, via third party development of UI tools), is there more that can be done to (formally) integrate players into the heart of the game?



Formalism, Representation, and the Invisible Player

Despite the immense activity within the player community their invisibility or omission from the structural and organizational aspects of games is one of the more distressing things we often see within “design talk.” Take for example, the interest in the idea of “notating” games. Raph Koster, game designer and former Chief Creative Officer at Sony Online Entertainment, has been at work on such and his desire is to provide a symbolic system which appears to have at least three goals; as a way of trying to understand what makes something “fun,” as a method of system preservation and archiving, and as a tool for troubleshooting bad design (2005). While I greatly admire much of Koster’s work (and others who are pursuing this line), this angle has caused me some pause. For example, he includes symbolic notations about all kinds of aspects of the game, including turn taking, various mechanics, and the like, but generally no representation of the player (see Figure 2). Of course, I don’t think the intent is to erase players as such — he is certainly one of the most vocal designers about their role in the game — and in his framework players are probably more akin to musicians than notes [9]. They are not represented in a score but the assumed executors of such. However, a notation system that imagines it can capture “fun,” can anticipate successful design, or even present an historical snapshot of a game world without the meaningful inclusion of players and context strikes me as a worrying one.

Raph Koster's notation of the game Checkers

Figure 2: Raph Koster’s notation of the game Checkers (from

Admittedly players, their culture, and situated practices, are the most difficult components to conceptualize. They are not particularly systematizeable, rationalizable, or predictable. But that only makes their inclusion into our fundamental frameworks, definitions, and systems a more interesting challenge. Susan Leigh Star (1995) notes that formal representations are particularly vulnerable in not making clear, and thereby reckoning with, what is omitted.

Because formalism tacitly encode biases (what gets left in and what gets put out as unimportant), and because ad hoc work–arounds are not documented or well understood, we know that they reinforce, in invisible ways, the prejudices of their designers. [10]

She suggests we keep in mind the ways the activities undertaken to create formal representations — “abstracting (removing specific properties), quantification, making hierarchies, classifying and standardizing, and simplifying” — are forms of work that, while producing representation systems, simultaneously shape and structure the boundaries of what is seen as knowledge, core practices, and the artifact itself. The difficulty with formal systems is that they are typically unable to capture the tacit, local, situated, sometimes hidden, and ever–changing meanings and practices actual users generate and participate in. While they may afford some assistance in roughly mapping the game terrain, the danger — and indeed one of the ways they render actual players, their practices, and context invisible — is in their being seen as fully capturing or representing the real game or experience of play in any lived way. Star notes that as formalization becomes more refined, there is an increasing risk that the gaps between phenomena and representations become “progressively more invisible, or ‘glossed over,’” that contingencies and ad hoc solutions may be displaced (something she terms “deleting the work”) [11]. Though designers should certainly look for ways to conceptualize their work, to find methods to understand and assist the often difficult process of construction, doing so via frameworks that hide real players, their “situated actions”, and communities, is a potentially dangerous path — particularly so, I would argue, given the ways players are typically framed [12].

On the other side of this are those who desire to capture players through a kind of rational–actor story of their engagement with the game. Just as worrisome as “invisible players” are the models that reduce users to easily understandable and calculable actors, artifacts that can be dropped into a system which is then appraised from a distance. This is often an image circulated not just by designers, but typically by social scientists who hope to create perfect experimental platforms. Both forms seem to me to similarly hide everyday player subjectivity, practices, and culture. My first call then is to thinking critically about the formalisms that get created and deployed, and to how those models can act as powerful artifacts themselves in the construction of design and technologies.



Considering Participatory Design and Governance

The notion that technology users, even seemingly unskilled ones, might be valuable participants in the construction and maintenance of systems has precedent and can provide some interesting opportunities to think about innovation in multiplayer gaming. Starting in the mid–1970s the participatory design (PD) tradition was involved in primarily integrating workers (often through trade unions) into the process of technology development and use in the workplace. Fundamental to much of the early work in the field was a concern for the power relationships between users, designers, and managers. PD sought to give workers a meaningful seat at the design table, enlisting them and their everyday practices into the very heart of the technologies they would use. Even more radically, the very notion that particular systems were inevitable was something also challenged, thus problematizing any determinist orientation (Ehn, 1988).

Over the years PD has morphed and adapted to various national contexts and socio–economic changes such that we might consider the weak and strong formulations of the orientation [13]. Though some would dispute whether the name PD can be attached to it, for the purposes of this piece I will suggest, drawing on the work of Finn Kensing and Jeanette Blomberg (1998), two models. There is a weak form of the approach in which user–participants give designers access to their skills and experiences, but “have little or no control over the design process or its outcome.” [14] Participation is constrained to “those aspects of the project where their input is viewed as valuable” but they cannot initiate spheres of intervention on their own and do not contribute to technology decisions (and for the purposes of this argument, game mechanics or structure) [15]. On the other hand, the strong version of PD is one in which users participate “not only because their skills and experience are considered valuable, but also because their interests in the design outcome are acknowledged and supported.” [16] Participation by users is considered of core value to the success of the project and they are involved not only in the “user experience” side of things, but analysis, design, evaluation and selection of technology, and organizational implementation. Jonas Löwgren and Erik Stolterman (2004) note the multidirectionality of the method, stating that, “Participatory design is a process of mutual learning, where designers and users learn from and about each other. Truly participatory design requires a shared social and cultural background and a shared language. Hence, participatory design is not only a question of users participating in design, but also a question of designers participating in use.” [17] While game designers are typically avid players themselves, I think we might also see this as a call for their participation in the forms everyday non–designer users engage with the space.

There are, of course, several issues we must be attentive to before simply applying this design approach onto games. Given PD was created and nurtured within the labor context and worker’s interest, is it reconcilable with computer games? At the heart of games is a complex negotiation between what the player might like to do and what they must or should do. The rule–boundedness of the world can sometimes legitimately encroach upon the player’s freedom. The predominance of consumer–entertainment rhetoric can additionally make the attention to power relationships and democratizing tendencies in strong PD seem out of place, if not naïve. Game designers are also not simply constructing technologies for play, but involved in aesthetic work. They often understand their own practice as one of artistic authorship. Are these deal–breakers to importing PD, or at least some aspects of it, into the world of MMOG studies and design? I would argue no.

At the heart of games is a complex negotiation between what the player might like to do and what they must or should do.

While those involved in multiplayer game spaces are having fun and being entertained, they are also very often engaged in meaningful and purposeful social and play labor. They create significant material and emotional investments in the world. We should be careful to not trivialize the nature of play — it is often deeply woven with the social, cultural, and political. This is not only the case for in–game activities. As we are seeing repeatedly, the ownership of game worlds by large corporations certainly raises with it important questions about the rights of players more generally. The issue of whether or not players can participate in the creation of systems which may, in fact, pose challenges to them also seems to me more open for reconciliation than is often acknowledged in the design community. We should remember that in work settings employees are regularly called upon to undertake activities they may not necessarily like and PD has been found to be reconcilable with such seemingly oppositional imperatives. And while there remains some tension around authorial intent and how much designers are willing to relinquish control, there seems to be some basic acknowledgement that these are emergent, malleable systems. Many designers readily (although sometimes ambivalently) admit that once a MMOG goes live it is in some sense no longer yours. It begins to grow and develop in relation with player intervention.

Much like architects, who work in the realm of both aesthetics and function, designers and games cannot be untangled from players and actual use. Within architecture there have been some moves made to incorporate users into design though, as Jan Granath (2001) notes, there are still challenges.

Architecture and the architect profession embody both an artistic dimension and a social dimension. The artistic dimension can sometimes inhibit users from involvement in the design process of architecture. This is a result of the conception that art is a private and not a collective activity. On the other hand, the social dimensions of architecture and the social visions of the architect profession encourage architects to constantly try out new methods to involve users in the design activity so that the resultant architectural artifacts might attain a more appropriate and effective design. [18]

Despite this tension, one similar to that within game design, there are examples in architecture and urban planning of successfully incorporating not only users, but a variety of actors, as co–designers. Peter Fröst (2005) suggests, non–professionals can act in “designerly ways,” often generating innovative design cycles. That users need to be formally supported and integrated in ways productive to the design process is key however (Fischer, 2002). Considering ways players are often very invested in the sustainability and health of their game (frequently participating in reasoned debates and discussions about game play issues) can serve as a central building block for a more inclusive process. It is important to not misinterpret the call for player integration as an attempt to sideline the working designer. The framework I am proposing, and that rooted in the Scandinavian tradition more generally, is of the co–construction of technology between multiple actors. While I am paying special attention to the role of players here, my argument should be read as a strategic attempt to critically intervene in what I see as a worrisome trend in how players are conceptualized within design (and sometimes scholarly) communities. Ultimately they need to be given more credit for general game literacy and investment in the good of their game world than they often are [19].

Some game companies and designers have come to realize that they cannot willfully disregard their player communities completely.

In many ways, it is not a question of whether or not PD can be applied to game design, but can the very truncated, weak version now employed be upgraded to a stronger integration of the player into the heart of the game. Right now the current state of formal player involvement relies on a few select practices. Some game companies and designers have come to realize that they cannot willfully disregard their player communities completely. One of the most common ways players are currently enfranchised is through the use of message board systems in which they communicate with not only each other about the game, but also directly with designers and world managers. The use of message boards range, with Star Wars Galaxies being notable for soliciting player feedback on pre–launch game design. As Kurt Squire (2001) notes, designers spent the year before the game’s release having substantive conversations with potential players on various aspects of how the game would actually work, including who should be able to be a Jedi Knight and whether or not Storm Troopers should be playable characters.

While it is certainly the case that a particularly heated message thread can cause the designers some grief (or PR headaches), there is a growing awareness in the value of message boards as a way for design and live teams to communicate and interact with their player base. Though an important tool, the primary reliance on this method can also result in a form of cherry–picking in which only some concerns rise to the surface and are handled. As one commenter to the Squire piece noted, “The feeling I get is that the SWG team is using the community as a ‘sounding board’ for ideas. Then the feedback is used to ‘tuning’ ideas that they have already had. It is a limited form of participatory design, but mainly an attempt to ‘build community’ and market the product prior to release.” [20] It also seems to be the case that the primary labor of communicating with the community is quite often relegated to customer service or community managers who can themselves be organizationally peripheral to the design processes or hold no real decision making power in terms of system design. While some teams have given community managers a central place at the design table, they just as often can find themselves in institutionally weak or disenfranchised positions — acting as beleaguered go–betweens between those with the tools and power to implement change (designers and programmers) and those without (players).

In addition to message boards there is the fairly widespread practice of alpha and beta testing by players. While few companies have built full scale user research groups like Microsoft’s games division has, many heavily rely on a cadre of players to pre–test and play their MMOGs before official launch. There are several factors I think that limit seeing this process (at least on its own) as part of the more ambitious framework strong PD evokes. While some things are certainly tweaked in response to feedback, the heart of the game — its core design and technologies — are simply being responded to by the potential player. This is much more like user–testing than participatory design and player intervention is more like nudging a car slightly on the path it has long since been set on. My second hesitation in overstating its potential though lies in both its (current) demographic and affective limitations. It seems that far too often the pool of testers continues to rely on a fairly narrowly defined segment of the actual playing population. Of course, the broader industry dilemma of finding all those “hidden players” it doesn’t quite know how to tap into (newbies, women, casual gamers) gets directly implicated in the methodology of testing and far too often we simply see the same cohort of players cycle through the various stages of testing across a number of games. This is then compounded by the fact that testers can also feel grateful for being given exclusive previews of games and may themselves want to become game industry workers in a more formal capacity. The affective dilemma some testers may find themselves in (and what it means to a broader conception of “participation”) is worth further consideration.

The growing reliance on message board systems and pre–testing is nonetheless a seed by which another blurring of player–designer occurs. Quite often new members of a design or live team are found within the player community itself. There seems to be some trend in moving people from unpaid beta tester, message–board contributor, modder, commentator/critic, or unpaid community helper into more formal jobs within the industry [21]. In this regard there is a kind of player representation at work, although I would argue a fairly limited one due to the fact that these players are being selectively “bumped up” to employee status by the game managers. Their identities and roles similarly adapt to their new position not just as fan or player, but employee or authority figure. The question of who represents player interests is not a trivial one given the problems often associated with the “I” methodology in which designers simply extrapolate out from their own experience and practices (Oudshoorn, et al., 2004) [22]. We should pay careful attention then to conflating “all designers are players” to “all players are represented by designers.”



Beyond Management

My proposal is that there is an interesting challenge — both in terms of critical analysis and for design — presented to us by looking at PD traditions and the state of MMOGs as vibrant lifeworlds in which productive player engagement is central. Rather than game companies trying to fine–tune how large groups of people are “handled”, I want to suggest that there is something beyond management which attempts to more meaningfully integrate players. Kensing and Blomberg note that “PD is not defined by the type of work supported, nor by the technologies developed, but instead by a commitment to worker participation in design and an effort to rebalance the power relations between users and technical experts and between workers and managers” and in this regard my focus is similarly not on trying to predetermine content and outcome but suggest that process is key [23].

There are several interesting early examples of how this might develop. The first is that of the EverQuest guild summit held for the last two years. Sony Online Entertainment (the current developers and maintainers of the game) has arranged a weekend event in which various members of the EQ community are brought to the San Diego headquarters to meet with and discuss game issues with the designers and live team. EQ has long had Fan Faires, large Sony–organized events across various cities in which players have an opportunity to meet developers face–to–face in moderated panel Q&A sessions but the guild summit represents an something a bit different with its smaller, more in–depth, structure. Part promotional site visit, part serious discussion forum, the guild summit begins to imagine a kind of relationship between producers and players we’ve not yet seen [24]. Though the topics during the event seem to focus primarily on game play issues (to the exclusion of, for example, hotly debated academic ones like intellectual property) it nonetheless represents an interesting attempt to enlist the player community outside of the traditional message–board forums. While the question of representation is key (the participants have been primarily drawn from either high–profile third party Web site contributors or well–established guilds) it is one interesting example of broadening the role of players and player/designer interactions. Indeed, more generally the productive work of modding player communities, and the game industry’s growing reliance on them, signal a blurring between the category of user and producer (Postigo, 2003) [25].

By giving (diverse) players a place at the formal design table, might we see innovations around, for example, avatar representation and gender?

While such examples represent interesting attempts to enfranchise players, I would suggest there are at least two additional levels that have yet to be progressively innovated — the design team and the maintenance of the game world. As previously mentioned, while MMOG designers often acknowledge the value of feedback via message boards this does not go very far in integrating players into the core of the design process. Issues and solutions can be picked or ignored without real recourse and given players hold no formal representation on design teams or within the process itself, their comments are typically responding to existing design choices. While I do not want this to be read as a call for game–design–by–consensus, I do want to ask what might be gained by the serious inclusion of players (or more accurately, player representatives) into the both the early and ongoing design process. By giving (diverse) players a place at the formal design table, might we see innovations around, for example, avatar representation and gender? How rules governing use are constructed? How everyday use practices are attended to within both mechanics and interface?

The second arena players are thus far left completely out of is the maintenance of game worlds. Right now there is no meaningful player representation in adjudication methods around game disputes. While some might argue that formal volunteer player helpers can serve in this capacity, their position can be representationally compromised by their primary role as unpaid game representatives. But how might participatory maintenance of game worlds be implemented so that the emergent culture of players is not simply managed from the top–down but governed, at least in part, through the active participation of the players themselves? As it stands now, players “click away” participatory rights through End User License Agreements and Terms of Service that blackbox notions of the “essence of the game” as determined by the designers and company. Players are banned, often without clear explanation or any kind of reasonable due process (even if narrowly formulated as “consumer rights”). In general, they are given no legitimate voice in handling disputes nor, more importantly, defining what the game and legitimate play, is.

Within PD there are a number of methods and models that might be drawn on. For example, the RAPUNSEL project which is involved in the development of a game for teaching programming provides some instructive examples via its integration of participatory methods, critical technical practice, and values in design (Flanagan, et al., 2005). Though not a MMOG project, their framework is still useful. The implementation of a scaffolded system within the interface (users may work at the command line level or with tiers of graphical representation) supports a diversity of play/programming practices, thus going beyond a single imagined user. They have also chosen to integrate an explicit consideration of the values embedded in the technology and game play and, through a variety of methods in conjunction with not only the project designers, but players, parents, educators, and funders, have generated a core value set — “autonomy, equity, access, creativity, diversity, empowerment and authorship” — to guide concrete design decisions [26]. By using tight, iterative cycles to integrate the feedback of diverse stakeholders this value set is then in constant dialogue with the development process, suggesting paths of innovation and design. While certainly not an easy conversation (as they note, “the social values and the play values had to be continuously aligned”) such an orientation suggests one interesting approach that might be brought into MMOG design [27].

PD has been developing a variety of methods through which to innovate the design process by including a range of actors. One interesting challenge for game designers and world managers is to begin experimenting with some of these to see what might work well within the specific context of play. The use of ethnography to tap into everyday context and practices, prototyping and iterative cycles to generate not only feedback but paths of design not considered, or workshops for the production of new knowledge mappings or troubleshooting might be tested [28]. We could additionally look at how open planning methods, which emphasize the process of design (versus simply the outcome) and its accessibility to different actors, provide an interesting alternative model of dynamic, iterative, and flexible systems (Tellioglu, et al., 1998) [29]. While extending beyond the scope of this piece, it is also worth noting that there is significant companion work to be done in reconfiguring the relationship developers and designers can have to their publishers. Designers often want these more iterative mechanisms but may themselves operate within broader structures that serve to demarcate and limit how the design process can occur. Innovating design then is most likely tied to simultaneously innovating the larger structural (industrial) forms that game development occurs within.

The key here is that players already are active, creative, and engaged agents within games, though this fact often goes unacknowledged or not structurally attended to.

Within the realm of governance things like community arbitration, ongoing representative venues such as player summits, formalized integration of the playerbase into management structures, and potentially third–party adjudication systems could be experimented with. We need design processes that acknowledge and formally integrate the realities of situatedness and co–construction. Lucy Suchman (2002) has suggested we think of “located accountabilities” and the production of collective knowledge rooted in the “specific locations of our respective visions.” [30] While most of this piece has focused on PD as a path into thinking about game design and management, my much broader challenge is in how we understand the construction of technological artifacts and their life in our everyday worlds. Ultimately this is also a critique of the kinds of dichotomous subjectivities we continue to impose on otherwise complicated categories.

Given my proposition that players are crucial components to the sustainability of the game, according them some power and responsibility to govern their own community and world should be a central design challenge. Rather than be overwhelmed or dismissive of such a proposition, there are valuable critical lessons and models we can draw on from existing fields and design traditions. Combined with the already participatory nature of game culture, such a reformulation seems warranted. We might also consider the greater value in providing people with not only access to such processes but the tools and language that recognize and facilitate their role as not simply consumers, but active participants. The key here is that players already are active, creative, and engaged agents within games, though this fact often goes unacknowledged or not structurally attended to. Ultimately there is a challenge for both designers and scholars to rethink simple dichotomies between players and producers, prompting innovations for the future of design and governance in game worlds. End of article


About the author

T.L. Taylor is Associate Professor at the IT University of Copenhagen and the Center for Computer Games Research. She is currently head of the ITU’s study line which provides graduate education on game design, programming, and analysis. She has been working in the field of internet and multi–user studies for over a decade and has published on topics such as values in design, avatars, gender, pervasive gaming, and intellectual property in MMOGs. Her current book Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006) uses her multi–year ethnography of EverQuest to explore issues related to multi–player worlds. At present she is researching the professional computer gaming scene.



Many thanks to the readers who have given me valuable feedback and discussed these issues with me, in particular Sandra Braman, Sal Humphreys Mikael Jakobsson, Finn Kensing, Thomas Malaby and the participants of the Command Lines conference.



1. Oudshoorn, et al., 2004, p. 32.

2. A point to be clear: I am not trying to set up a kind of player valorization with this formulation. As I try to suggest (though it is not the main focus of this particular paper) players themselves often deploy these same rhetorical framings, engage is troublesome community policing, and are by no means “angels.” I do not want to create some implied formulation in which “emergent” or “productive” practices somehow conflates into “radical” or “oppositional.” Nor do I see my critique of these four common formulations of the user in opposition to an analysis that recognizes, for example, the ways many players align themselves primarily to commercial interests or may engage in racist, sexist, or homophobic behavior. My overall intent here to point to some framings I see repeatedly occurring and point to process reformulations.

3. Mulligan and Patrovsky, 2003, p. 216.

4. This is an old debate within the MUD community, a place where a number of influential MMOG designers have roots. As Daniel Pargman (2000) suggests, “To the best of my knowledge only two MUDs have ever been run in anything but [emphasis his] an autocratic fashion, LambdaMOO and MediaMOO” (p. 201). The norm has certainly long been one of “benevolent dictatorship.” How the shift from smaller, more “locally” governed communities to massive corporate–run entities changes the stakes is worth considering.

5. This is not an inherently dichotomous relationship. While I am hesitant to even word it this way I do, however, think that as long as there remains a power differential structurally supported (both through institutional arrangements and the deployment of law) we should not too easily disregard foregrounding the tension.

6. Lessig, 1999, p. 66.

7. Lawrence Lessig (1999) describes a similar way public space is circumscribed and controlled in the way America Online codes chat rooms with a limitation on the number of participants it can have.

8. Nissenbaum. 2001, p. 120.

9. Though the sense that this leaves the designer in the position of composer cycles us back to the old authorship question once again.

10. Star, 1995, p. 101.

11. Star, 1995, p. 98.

12. See Lucy Suchman, 1987, for more on the notion of situated actions.

13. There is another model currently gaining some attention with game spheres, that of “player–centered design.” While I will not spend much time on it here I do want to mention it briefly as another path of consideration/integration of players into game design. I think, however, it is often constructed as too weak a formulation for the purposes of my current argument. It can tend toward relying on things like focus groups or vague notions of player feedback. For a discussion of PCD, its uses and limitations, visit a blog entry I started on the subject at TerraNova ( and Raph Koster’s interesting reply (

14. Kensing and Blomberg, 1998, p. 173.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Löwgren and Stolterman, 2004, p. 152.

18. Granath, 2001, p. 1.

19. When we do encounter the extremes of oppositional player behavior it is often only after long periods of feeling neglected, not heard, or ignored. If anything experience shows that it can take remarkably little to enfranchise players.

20. Squire, “Anonymous Hero” reply, 2001.

21. This is not unlike the kind of transition you’d see in MUD admin communities in which players who proved themselves over time got “promoted” to wizard status. We should not, however, overlook the ways technical proficiency might overdetermine advancement possibilities.

22. Such a position, I would argue, often easily slips into what Lucy Suchman (2002) describes as a kind of “design from nowhere.”

23. Kensing and Blomberg, 1998, p. 181.

24. The closest model I can think of are MUD gatherings in which players, and often wizards, would get together for face–to–face weekends of hanging out.

25. This kind of player–designer interaction is also recounted by John Banks (2002) in his fascinating work on the Trainz simulator software and the fairly expansive role players took not only in providing feedback to the design team, but acted as core contributors to the content of the product.

26. Flanagan, et al., 2005, p. 755.

27. Ibid.

28. For some useful concrete examples see Bødker, et al. (2004) or Löwgren and Stolterman (2004) for PD and interaction design and Sotamaa, et al. (2005) for a test use of the cultural probes method for game design.

29. They make a very important point, however, in noting that design methods are often deeply tied to the kinds of tools and practices practioners are engaged with. For example, architects who work with CAD systems are thus always already engaged in a level of detail which may be outside the scope of users or other interested parties’ competencies. I would suggest that discussions of design methods can never be separated from the tools (and the professional practices that emerge around those tools) employed within the field and thus, innovating design probably also means innovating tools and technology.

30. Suchman, 2002, p. 96.



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Editorial history

Paper received 15 August 2006; accepted 25 August 2006.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2006, First Monday

Copyright ©2006, T.L. Taylor, All Rights Reserved.

Beyond Management: Considering Participatory Design and Governance in Player Culture by T.L. Taylor
First Monday, special issue number 7 (September 2006),

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