Back in 2015, long before the first iteration of r/place — a celebration of the collaborative chaos of online spaces — Reddit ran another curious experiment called r/thebutton.
The now inactive page once housed a big red button at the top of its feed next to a 60-second countdown. Each individual user could only press the button once, an action that would then reset the countdown.
After just over two months, the countdown reached zero for the first time – when no user pressed the button before the 60 seconds were up. As a result, r/thebutton was archived and closed for further activity, having served no purpose.
Both r/place and r/thebutton exhibited insane tribalism among their users that seemed to manifest outside of the online space itself.
If a user pressed the button for a specific ten-second interval, they would be assigned a colored “style” next to their username, fueling a fabricated hierarchy of factions within the community.
While loyalty forms these factions, a sense of community and belonging sustains them. This type of factional warfare is somewhat endemic to online spaces that invite interactivity. The invitation to interact is also an invitation to corrupt.
But this corruption is not always negative tribalism. Bypassing game developer goals can also be a powerful act of community building and collaboration.
Create new conversations
In games, interactivity exists on the scale that the developer of a virtual world will allow. If a developer provides more freedom to their users, they provide more ways for users to interact with each other and with the world according to their own goals and objectives.
In the virtual worlds of first-person shooter video games (think Call of Duty or Halo) players know that an allied player crouches then stands up repeatedly tries to say hello. A quick response by crouching down or standing up is like saying hello back.
With no way to have their avatar say hello online, players have circumvented the confines of virtual space to do so anyway.
(Strangely, if the player is a member of the opposing team, this same gesture is offensive and sexually suggestive.)
Users have manipulated and circumvented the rules of this world in order to fulfill a number of parallel – even opposing – purposes according to their own needs and desires.
Shaping our own worlds
In a conversation I once had with Adelaide-based narrative designer and game developer Damon Reece, I asked Damon what game they’ve been enjoying lately. They regaled me with an anecdote about sea of thieves (2018).
In this game, players have to take on the role of a fierce pirate competing with other marauding bands of pirates. Damon and their friends ignored this goal and instead invited other players aboard their virtual pirate ship for drinking, dancing, and general fun.
In video game terminology, an “open world game” like sea of thieves is a virtual world open to the free movement of its players.
This freedom means that the possibilities of these worlds are dictated as much by the communities that occupy them as by the developers who build them.
In Grand Theft Auto V (2013), the highest-grossing media product of all time, players are expected to focus their efforts on building their own criminal empire. That’s the game’s advertised goal, and the fictional city of Los Santos is a virtual space designed to facilitate it.
However, the online metropolis is also home to car dating communities, police actors, photographers, social clubs, filmmakers and protesters.
Some of these are intended consequences of the game’s robust design, but most are the result of like-minded individuals collectively shaping their shared online spaces.
In a wide range of virtual worlds, users have time and again rearranged the space to suit their needs.
Online spaces, like offline spaces, evolve to meet the demands of their users. For better or worse, they are fundamentally democratic spaces shaped by the communities that use them.
Where these online spaces diverge from their offline counterparts is in their overall accessibility and near total anonymity.
It is difficult to imagine a democratic space occupied not by faces or bodies but by usernames and avatars, and this is precisely the form of democracy offered by virtual worlds.
Timothy Williams is a PhD student at The University of Melbourne. This article has been republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here.