MMO as the Magic Circle
MMO play has been construed as “play between worlds” – “playing back, and forth, across the boundaries of the game world, and the “real” or nonliteral game space” (Taylor, 2006, p. 17). Castronova defined the distinction between play and life in MMOs as a “porous membrane,” such that “people are crossing it all the time in both directions, carrying behavioural assumptions and attitudes with them” (Castronova, 2005, p. 147). Nieuwdorp (2005) in her analysis of the boundary between game and non-game in pervasive games opted for Ervin Goffman's metaphor of the screen which “not only selects but also transforms what is passed through it” (Goffman, 1961, p. 33). The line between play and life is ambiguous.
Limiting oneself to a structuralist view of the original concept of the magic circle may undermine the importance of players' meaning-making process. As Consalvo (2005, p. 10) pointed out, “For many players, playing games is, in some measure, a playing with rules and their boundaries,” thus urging us to construct a theoretical framework that can transcend the “place apart” and take into account the rule and boundary negotiation process of the player.
Pargman and Jakobsson (2006) proposed a weak-boundary hypothesis that incorporated Goffman's (1974) concept of “frames” and Fine's (1983) idea of “frames-within-frames.” Pargman and Jakobsson suggested that game playing led us to create various roles and subframes which, according to Fine (1983) can be a primary framework, game framework, and character framework. The primary framework is “the common-sense understandings that people have of the real world” which is the basis of what we do in our daily life (Fine, 1983, p. 186). The game framework refers to the conventions of the game. This framework is quite similar to Huizinga's conceptualization of the magic circle. Last of the three frameworks is the character framework where players “are not manipulating their characters (game framework) but in which they are their characters” (Fine, 1983, p. 186). Copier (2009, p. 169) proposed that these roles and frames “can simultaneously be related to what we consider to be real and imaginary, game and non-game, online and offline. For various situations, we construct different roles and cognitive frames.” In Pargman and Jakobsson's (2006) opinion, switching between these roles and subframes is something that people do all the time.
Given the above, the world inside the magic circle may be construed differently by players creating meaning out of the context itself (Consalvo, 2007; Malaby, 2007; Steinkuehler, 2006; Taylor, 2006). These special meanings that players attach to virtual worlds take effect when the game starts, forming a new reality as defined by the rules of the game (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004). Hence, we can only make better sense of the magic circle and the segregation between play and life from the players' perspectives. This has a significant impact on players' in-game relationships; because if they do not believe that experiences in-game can be real, then their relationships may be merely a fantasy (Anderson, 2005). In this study, we would like to explore further how players construct the magic circle:
RQ1: How do MMO players construe the play/life boundary in the course of their game-originated romantic relationship?
Stepping out of the magic circle: Facing the stigmatizing discourse
The magic circle of MMOs is not as distinct as Huizinga (1950) imagined. Castronova (2005, p. 147) described the almost-magic circle of these synthetic worlds as a “porous membrane,” protecting the inner world with its set of rules, and yet at the same time, allowing players to cross the barrier, bringing their real life assumptions to the game. Moving in and out of the “boundary or frame that defines the game in time and space” (Salen and Zimmerman, 2004), is in other words, the stepping in and out of the magic circle.
Individuals are highly motivated to make important aspects of their online identity a “social reality” (Gollwitzer, 1986) and achieved this by migrating their in-game identities into real life . However, once players bring their game relationships out of the magic circle, they face real life constraints that did not exist inside the game, specifically the stigmatizing discourse by friends and family. This discourse partly originates from the negative media portrayal of MMOs as a disruptive addiction or a cause of children's aggression (Bowcott, October 2009; World of Warcraft “more addictive than cocaine,” February 2009; Choe, May 2010). Historically, video games have frequently been portrayed in the media as having a negative social impact. Two waves of dystopian frames have first occurred in the 1980s and 1990s. The first wave primarily entailed four key frames: video games leading to displacement of more constructive activities such as reading, contributing to health risks, leading to drug use and theft, while the second wave involved the frames regarding fears of video games' effect on values, attitudes, and behavior including addiction, inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality, and increased violence among game players (Williams, 2003).
Online romance has generally not been portrayed in a positive light either, with concerns for eroding importance of relationships and marriage, or worries about safety and authenticity (Love at first byte, December 2010). Online romance as a sociocultural practice that rides on a new medium, the internet, could not escape the pattern of vilification and redemption that was observed for video games (Williams, 2003). Wartella and Reeves (1983, 1985) posited that negative media portrayals of and research agenda for new media technologies tended to follow a three-wave pattern: fear that the new medium would displace current constructive activities, followed by fear of health effects and then by fear of the effect on values, attitudes and behaviors. In the case of online romance, the first-wave dystopian frame positions it as eroding traditional courtship behaviors and promoting a shift in values as it is argued that in online dating the value of partners has been reduced to commodities to be browsed and chosen.
Nevertheless, we do not expect these negative views surrounding online romance and MMOs to surface within the game itself. Only after stepping out of the magic circle the impact of such opinions from family and friends starts to set in. Indeed, multiple strands of evidence lend support to the significant influence of approval from a couple's social network on a couple's relationship quality (Sprecher & Felmlee, 1992), commitment (Etcheverry, Le, & Charania, 2008; Lehmiller, & Agnew, 2006), and dissolution (Lehmiller, & Agnew, 2007; Le, Dove, Agnew, et al., 2010).
Wildermuth's (2004) study is among the very few of its kind to take a closer look at the stigmatizing discourse on computer-mediated romantic relationships from the standpoint of the stigmatized. She identified the four sources of stigmatizing discourse perceived by the stigmatized: family, friends, the media, and scholarly research, following Katz's (1981) conditions for the existence of a societal stigma.
Currently, there are no studies investigating the perceived stigma players feel when moving their in-game romance offline. Thus, we hope to explore the stigmatizing discourse that MMO players have to manage when bringing their in-game relationships out of the magic circle into real life with the follwing research questions:
RQ2: What kinds of stigmatizing discourse do MMO players with game-originated romantic relationships need to manage when migrating them offline?
RQ3: How do MMO players manage such stigmatizing discourse?