Online games possess a number of characteristics similar to those in digital library and other online services. Awareness of these characteristics can provide:
Online games represent the leading technological edge of the entertainment sector. Such games now attract many thousands of players, often collaborating or competing in a lag-free and visually rich environment while simultaneously using an array of data manipulation and online communication tools.
The past five years have seen a rapid growth in academic interest in computer and video games, especially online games. Conferences, peer-reviewed journals, bodies and academic organisations such as DiGRA  have sprung up and matured. This interest crosses many academic fields, including psychology, economics, sociology, computer science, geography, history, media and cultural studies, and education.1 For example:
A quick perusal of the proceedings of the International Conference of the Learning Sciences ... and the Computer Supported Collaborative Learning organisation indicates the widespread interest in online communities and virtual worlds within the field of educational research .
There are many factors behind this increase in academic attention, including:
These, and other factors, correlate to aspects of digital information service development and use. Like online games, digital information services are also online "always on" services which are simultaneously accessed by many people. The current interest in Web 2.0 also highlights parallels between online games and the emerging generation of more open and user-manipulated online services.
With the arrival of the next generation of video consoles which will increase the number of people playing online games this article provides a brief overview of contemporary aspects of online games, and the people who play them. Also examined are those aspects of online games and gaming that have direct parallels with digital library and other information services, and how some of the principles of Web 2.0 map onto current online gaming practice.
2. The games
Online games are ubiquitous. Most PCs and other ICT devices, such as mobile phones and digital personal organisers, ship with pre-installed client software for online games. Windows XP, for example, comes with a range of online board and card games such as Backgammon, Checkers and Hearts. Selecting one of these games connects you to a server where players of similar strengths are automatically selected and matched against you. A pull-down menu of 20 to 30 phrases such as "hello" allows for rudimentary communication with opposing players. Though these types of games are visually and technically simplistic in comparison with some of the online games we will discuss later, the facts that they come "as standard" and are free to use mean they are likely to be some of the most widely played online games.
Computer and video games are not a new phenomenon: the first such digital games were created on university mainframe computers around 50 years ago, with games available for use in the home by the masses since the mid 1970s.
Arguably, since the early 1980s and the first "crash" of the video game market, the PC has been the predominant platform for digital game play. As the hardware technology has advanced, so developers have been quick to exploit new functionality and processing power in order to create games. Inevitably, the ability of PCs and other devices to access the Internet has led to the development of Internet-based "online" games.2
Earlier games, restricted (by today's standards) by the low processing power and graphical abilities of PCs, tended to be text-based in both input and output. MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) games were a particularly high profile type of online game, where the player navigated around a set of locations, solving problems, accumulating items and encountering other (real) players and computer-generated characters.
2.2 MMOGs and MMORPGs
As technology has advanced, online games have evolved into a number of genre, the most well-known being the MMOG (Massive Multiplayer Online Game). This is a computer game that enables hundreds or thousands of players to simultaneously interact in a game world. Typically this kind of game is played in an online, multiplayer-only persistent world. Some MMOGs are played on a mobile device, typically a phone, and are thus called Mobile MMOG or MMMOG or 3MOG.
The highest profile form of MMOG is the MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game). In a MMORPG, the player is represented by a pre-configured avatar, controlled by the player. Typical activities involve exploration of a three-dimensional landscape, encountering other characters, communicating, trading and fighting.There is a growing body of research into these games (and the people who play them). For example, several researchers are examining their application to education; Steinkuehler  discusses several factors of MMOGs that can potentially be harnessed for learning:
MMOGs and MMORPGs are played by large numbers of people and represent the most technically advanced form of contemporary online gaming. Consequently, the rest of this article focuses on this type of game.
2.3 Characteristics of contemporary MMORPGs
They are notorious for their peculiar combination of designed "escapist fantasy" yet emergent "social realism" : in a setting of wizards and elves, dwarfs and knights, people save for homes, create basket indices of the trading market, build relationships of status and solidarity, and worry about crime.
The world typically consists of free-roaming open areas, as well as smaller locations such as caves, dwellings, shops and temples. Many of these smaller locations are associated with a specific function, e.g., you would enter a bakery in order to purchase some bread.
Players are categorised either by the type of creature they are (e.g., person, elf, dwarf), and/or by their role or trade (hunter, trader, wizard). The player sees him or herself in the landscape represented by an appropriate avatar. The avatar can carry a number of items (usually weapons, money and food), and has a set of status levels, e.g., a current health percentage level, physical (combat) strength, spell power.
Players can spend their time exploring the environment. However, most MMORPGs feature a number of quests or challenges, which are based around a loose storyline (to increase authenticity). Typical quests involve finding an item or killing a particular creature. Easier quests can be undertaken by individual players; rewards for successful completion are typically monetary, or an increase in overall player status to a higher level.
More difficult quests often require several players to form a team (or "clan"). The group of players meet through using the in-game communication systems, and devise a strategy for how they will complete the challenge. Difficult challenges can lead to players being killed off e.g., by a much stronger opponent; when this happens, the avatar is regenerated, though the player has usually lost some items e.g., all of their in-game money.
In order to maintain player interest in the game (and thereby preserve revenue streams), MMORGP maintainers regularly introduce new features, such as special challenges or quests, or new areas of the environment to explore. Most new features merely provide an additional optional diversionary task for players. Others can cause significant changes to the game. For example, the maintainers of World of Warcraft introduced an "illness", obtained by being splattered with infected blood when killing a particular creature. However, the illness (unintentionally) developed into a plague that crossed species barriers and struck down the avatars of many players.4 The BBC reported :
Many online discussion sites were buzzing with reports from the disaster zones with some describing seeing "hundreds" of bodies lying in the virtual streets of the online towns and cities.
2.4 Spontaneous economies
One of the more reported attributes of MMOGs is the accumulated wealth that the more popular games can generate. Edward Castronova, the pre-eminent economic analyst of online games, estimated in 2004  that the economic activity within and around EverQuest made the game comparable to a country such as Namibia in terms of average GDP per player/resident. He notes that:
We are learning that people get deep enjoyment from building up a stock of goods out of nothing ... Players like going out and finding iron ore, smelting it into iron, hammering it into a sword, selling it for some gold pieces, so they can buy new clothes. Each of those steps is emotionally satisfying. Economics is fun. And everything that is fun will stay in games, without question.
Some players sell such items on Ebay and other auction sites. The information arising from such sales helps in calculating game currency to real world exchange rates,5 and other economic behaviour such as market stability and inflation. Estimates as to the amount of (actual) wealth generated vary wildly (the figure of $800 million annually is quoted by several sources, e.g., ); fraudulent activity has led to MMOG maintainers such as Sony moving to set up online item trading services within their games.
In addition to this wealth generation are the various forms of market-based enterprise that spring up around games. One notorious example is that of so-called "Chinese Farmers" , who accumulate money and items in a game either on behalf of another player, or to sell on to (real world) companies for a profit. Similarly, some players employ people to work their characters through the more mundane and lower parts of an online game , progressing through levels ("levelling up").
3. The players
The enduring stereotype of a game player (especially of online games) is that of a teenage US boy involved in solitary gameplay within his room. Recent surveys indicate a very different model of player, with no singular demographic or age-point being predominant.
Bruce Woodcock's independent analysis website  gives subscriber figures (people who pay to play a particular online game) and estimates for some of the more popular MMOGs:
As of November 2005, the developers of World of Warcraft (see screenshot 1) claimed it was the most subscribed single MMORPG in the world, with more than 4.5 million active subscriptions .
The average age of game players has slowly increased over the past decade. Various surveys and anecdotal evidence put this age at somewhere between late 20s and mid 30s. The ESA puts the average age at 30 .
However, of more interest is the range of ages of players, especially players of online games. While online game maintainers are often coy about releasing specific demographic data, surveys indicate a wide spread of ages, often associated with particular genre of games. For example, the International Game Developers Association  stated in 2005:
Who is the casual online games player?6 The answer is everyone. Even though market research shows the majority of the audience today is women 30-45 years old, one can see all ages and gender playing online games and buying downloadable games; from young males playing casual sports and arcade games to seniors playing online bridge. Casual game players play these types of games as they seek diversion, socialization and competition.
The most recent Project Massive  survey of game players also indicates a broad spread of age ranges, tapering gradually to senior players.
While males make up the majority of players of certain genres, e.g., sports titles, other genre and modes of gameplay have attracted larger shares of female players. The ESA  state that 56% of online game players are male (with, of course, 44% being female). A US survey of 3,600 people  who had played online games within a 3 month period found that women over 40 occupied a significant proportion of the sample. In addition, this particular demographic:
...spend the most hours per week playing online games (9.1 hours or 41 percent of their online time vs. 6.1 hours 26 percent of their online time for men). These women were also more likely to play online games every day than men or teens of either gender.
MMOGs tend to attract significant percentages of female players (20-30%+); the research conducted by Taylor  suggests that the social spheres provided by games such as EverQuest can be more inviting and pleasurable for female players than those provided by offline games.
Other research and surveys indicate that females are forming significant proportions of the player spectrum of some games. For example:
Services like Yahoo Games, MSN Zone and Pogo attract tens of millions of users and at any given time will have 150,000 to 200,000 simultaneous players each. On top of that, for many services over 50% of their users are adult females, a demographic that has historically shunned video games .
Most online game players are based, not surprisingly, in North America and Europe. However, several online games have proved particularly popular in other individual countries. For example, the large majority of the players of Lineage and Lineage 2 are based in South Korea and surrounding countries. The maintainers of Ragnarok Online claimed in earlier 2005 to have over 17,000,000 paid subscribers in mainly South Korea, Japan and Thailand. Though the figure is certainly in the millions, the company-quoted figure is disputed.
4. Characteristics of online games
4.1 Technical robustness
Online games that allow many thousands of people to simultaneously play and interact obviously require a significant infrastructure. At the turn of the decade, Ultima Online was played for more than 160,000,000 man-hours in one year . A slow service can prove frustrating over a period of time, and discourage players from continuing, as can an unreliable service.
A typical MMOG needs to be hosted across several, sometimes many, servers. As a player moves around the game environment, so they move from one "zone" to another, and thus their system presence is transferred to the server appropriate to their new zone. One frequently occurring problem is that of overloading, where a particular zone is very popular and becomes the "home" of many players. Maintainers solve this problem by either redistributing the zones around the servers, opening new zones, or creating appealing quests or challenges in different zones to tempt players away from the overpopulated area.
Security is a major issue with MMORPGs, and takes many forms. More malicious practices involve trying to crash the game, or cause large-scale chaos or disruption. More benign practice involves finding short-cuts or quicker methods of increasing the status of your player than those allowed through the game structure. Online game maintainers allocate significant effort to various security and fairness issues, to avoid disenchanted or disrupted game players leaving en-masse to other games and to avoid the associated revenue implications that accompanies loss of players.
An interesting parallel between a digital library and an online game concerns the data they hold. The primary data object in a digital library may be a book, journal or article, the instances of which number many thousands or millions. Associated with each instance is a set of data (e.g., title, ISBN, authors, location, price, the actual content)
The primary data object within an online game is the player. Each instance of a player is associated with a set of data (e.g., name, password, character type, current location, level status, health status, amount of in-game money current held).
The key difference between digital library data and gaming data lies in how transitory the data is. Most of the data concerning an article held by a digital library will not change (though some, such as price and location, will). Within the online game, various forces act on a player resulting in significant changes to the associated data. The very act of moving changes a player's location, while engaging in battle will change various health, weapon and strength attributes. Even if the avatar is doing nothing, other forces, e.g., an attack by an enemy, will affect the attribute values associated with that player.
From a technical perspective, at any one time a large quantity of data is changing. A major event in a game (for example, the aforementioned "plague" in World of Warcraft) results in large quantities of data held by the game changing rapidly.
The interface for a digital library service is typically based around making it easy for information to be located and presented in a clear and unambiguous format to the user/reader. An online game fulfils a different kind of remit, providing a "real world" representation to the user/player, in addition to various data to enable him/her to survive and prosper in this world.
Comparison of the four full-size MMORPG screenshots in this article reveals a number of features common to many such games:
As can be seen, this is a considerable amount of related, though varied, information. As well as being graphical and textual, information can be audible.
Much of the displayed data is also associative, or based around proximity criteria. Avatars are displayed that are close to yours, as are structures in the game such as buildings. This is comparable to online bookstores providing details of books bought by people who have made similar purchases to the ones you have made, or digital libraries displaying search results and books by the same author.
4.4 Subscription models
The classic model for subscribing to an online game is to purchase the initial client software, and then to pay a monthly subscription. However, while this is typical for most of the main MMORPGs, other payment models exist, such as either paying only for the initial client software, or receiving it free and paying a monthly or usage time-based subscription.
Free online games, even MMOGs, exist. These tend to be developed by amateur teams of people. Because of the considerable costs involved in maintaining the technical infrastructure and software of a MMOG, free versions of such games tend to be of a lower quality.
The key difference between payment models for online games and digital library services is that, in the former, the user pays for the pleasure or experience of using the system. In the latter, typically the user pays not for using the system, but for quantifiable items (articles, papers) selected by the user.
4.5 Exploration and location activities
Both digital library and online gaming services offer users the ability to explore (or see what is in there), and to locate things. With online gaming, exploration tends to be a more passive, indulgent experience, where location of something specific (person, item) is usually tied in with a quest or mission with a tangible reward.
The key difference between "location activities" in digital library and online gaming systems is that, in the former, the user has no time or event constraint. However, in games, the player is existing and reacting in "real time". Activities such as exploring a hostile terrain to locate a particular item are fraught with danger. This minimises the opportunity for reflection that users of digital library services have during location activities.
Passive exploration activities undertaken by game players and digital library and information service users share a much greater similarity. At an emotional level, these activities elicit curiosity and discovery; for example:
The ability of a game or service to facilitate such exploration depends on factors such as the openness of the data within the system, and the tools and interfaces available to the user. These factors are increasingly discussed within the context of Web 2.0.
5. Web 2.0
Web 2.0 is a concept based around online services being more openly exploitable (in benign ways) by users, customers and online explorers. For example, while early websites were little more than a set of static pages, Web 2.0 online services allow users to add or enhance content (e.g., to add reviews to a book in an online bookstore), create communities of conversing users, and access and repackage data using a number of methods and applications. While Web 2.0 is often debated in relation to online commercial services, the concept is also applicable to online digital library services.7
Paul Miller describes Web 2.0 as a set of principles . Some of these principles can be mapped onto online gaming functionality.
Web 2.0 is participative ... Web 2.0 applications have been quick to spot the value of user-generated content.
Massive Multiplayer Online Games increasingly allow players to develop user-generated content which becomes part of the game. For example, within the game Project Entropia, a player purchased an island for £13,700 (around $20,000) of real money . He recouped his money by selling land to build virtual homes as well as taxing other gamers to hunt or mine on the island.
Outside the game itself, many players generate game-related content. Internet-accessible content takes many forms, including:
The amount of game-related content can be considerable. A November 2005 Google search on "World of Warcraft" returns 11.5 million hits, while a newsgroup search found 31,000+ postings and a Technorati search found 60,526 blog postings.
Web 2.0 applications are modular, with developers and users able to pick and choose from a set of interoperating components in order to build something that meets their needs.
Some computer games offer toolkits so players and other developers can create new levels, content or formats. For example, the toolsets available with NeverWinter Nights have allowed a college in the UK to create an award-winning curriculum-based educational environment  which is being used by several other educational establishments.
In addition, there are instances of technology moving between the online information service and online gaming sectors. For example, Ludicorp developed a community-oriented, browser-based massive multiplayer online game called Game Neverending . Some of the tools within this game were redeveloped to form a multiuser chatroom with file-sharing capabilities. This evolved into Flickr , the digital photo sharing service. Eventually, Ludicorp closed down Game Neverending to concentrate on the rapidly increasing demands of Flickr.
Web 2.0 is about sharing ... content and ideas.
Collaborative play within online games is often essential to player progression. For example, a player may need a particular weapon or piece of information (e.g., location of another character); this information can be given by another player, or traded for other information or items. On more difficult quests, team play and collaboration are often vital; for example, it may require several players working together in a coordinated manner to slay a particularly strong monster.
Web 2.0 is about communication and facilitating community.
Systems where players can communicate are commonplace in online games. Examine the screenshots from World of Warcraft, EverQuest and Star Wars Galaxies. At the bottom of each is a dialogue area, where typed comments from players in near proximity appear.
Typed dialogue can also appear elsewhere on the screen; the Star Wars Galaxies screenshot shows a "speech bubble".
Online video console-based games in particular place a heavier dependency on sound-based communication. As consoles do not normally use keyboards, systems such as the Xbox live online gaming service use headphone and microphone systems, allowing players to verbally converse (and insult) other players and opponents.
Web 2.0 is smart; applications will use knowledge of us ... to deliver services that meet our needs.
While playing an online game, a large amount of information can be accumulated by the game provider about each player, such as their actions, reactions, items they possess, what they have achieved, places they have visited. How games use this data differs widely; for example, some games allow you to access specific areas of terrain only when several personal criteria have been met.
Digital Library services often store basic data e.g., username, password, to enable readers to maintain an account or profile. Some offer further data capture and usage functionality. For example, the New York Public Library Digital Gallery  provides an ongoing "Search History"10 listing, as well as a listing of images selected in the current session.
Retailers have collected and exploited personal profiles and shopping information for a number of years, through mechanisms such as supermarket loyalty cards. Retailers trading through online shopping services have also developed methods of alerting customers to particular products that they have calculated through accumulated data to have an increased probability of purchase. For example, Amazon  highlights personal recommendations, as well as "Customers who bought this item also bought" associations based on other people's shopping behaviour.
Web 2.0 is built upon trust ... placed in individuals ... or in the uses and reuses of data.
Online games typically provide a "sandbox" environment where players can explore and interact as they see fit. Onerous restrictions on the ability to experiment reduce the game enjoyment, and ultimately the number of players. Therefore, game maintainers strive to achieve a balance between trusting the players with this freedom, and putting in safeguards and restrictions to prevent abuse of the game environment or other players.
Most Digital Library systems do not allow readers to change primary data e.g., the location of a book. However, an increasing number entrust users to add information to a particular object. For example, the Find in a Library WorldCat service allows readers to submit reviews of books , and give a rating out of five; the Amazon online bookstore  offer a similar function. While (unlike in online games) people using Amazon or Find in a Library cannot interfere with other people's data/submissions, there is an element of trust in that the service provider relies on readers providing fair reviews without ulterior motive e.g., a publisher submitting a number of glowing reviews.
Wikipedia  offers a higher degree of trust, in that readers *can* interfere and change information provided by other readers. Alternately, they can provide false information themselves. As with online games, a system of checks and balances and a team of (human) monitors are required to reverse malicious actions, settle disputes and deal with users who persistently abuse the service.
The computer game sector is, and always has been, one of rapid development and enhancement. This presents the dual problems of being time-consuming in order to keep up with developments, and being difficult to predict future gaming environments or products. One particular area where online games may develop and flourish is that of "Thin Games" . These are entirely web-based games which (at least in theory) apply Web 2.0 concepts to game development.
Though digital library systems and online games provide extremely different services, there is much that the development community of each could learn from the other. Both types of "always on" service, used by millions of people, involve simultaneous participation by many distributed online people, accessing and affecting large quantities of data. Technical, interface, and communication attributes from online games are of relevance to the developers of online information and commercial services. Some tools, developed for games, are being used by such services. It will be interesting to see whether there will be a further take-up, or cross-pollination, of concepts, technologies and ideas between these sectors.
Thanks to Jonas Heide Smith at the Centre for Computer Games Research , IT University of Copenhagen, for the high quality screenshots.
1. Until the last few years, the study of digital games in education was confined mainly to small-scale psychology and sociology academic research projects. However, funding bodies and national education policy makers in several countries are now investigating the use of such games in curriculum-based learning, with a particular focus on the quality of content, delivery and models of learning. For example, in China the Shanghai Science and Technology Education Commission recently announced  that it would allocate 1 million yuan for educational computer games (online and offline) and cartoons, which would be used in 1,500 local elementary schools. In the US, several recent initiatives have injected significant funding into this area. For example, Maryland Public Television has recently  been awarded a $15 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to create a series of digital learning games and simulations and other online tools to boost math instruction, reading comprehension and vocabulary skills.
3. One notable exception to this is the Star Wars Galaxies online game, the environment of which is based on the locations in the film series.
4. There are a number of interesting parallels between how this particular effect spread through the in-game population, and current theory as to the likely spread of avian flu and other pandemics.
6. A casual game player is (hazily) defined as one who plays occasionally or regularly, but not frequently. People who play games frequently, e.g., several times a week or daily, are often labelled "core" or "hardcore" players.
9. An interesting and well-known example is "Red vs Blue" , a weekly downloadable film. The writers of the script "act" out each scene using characters within, and footage from playing, the Xbox game Halo.
10. The explanation on the Search History function reads: "Your most recent 50 searches can be reviewed and accessed from this page. Saved searches also include previously visited "linked queries" (for example, the Subject or Name links on Image Detail pages). Searches are stored only during your current search session."
 Steinkhuehler, C. A. Learning in massively multiplayer online games. Paper presented at the International Conference of the Learning Sciences (ICLS), Los Angeles CA. 2004. <http://website.education.wisc.edu/steinkuehler/papers/SteinkuehlerICLS2004.pdf>.
 Seay, A.F., Jerome, W. J., Lee, K. S., & Kraut, R. E. (2004). Project Massive: A Study of Online Gaming Communities. In Proceedings of ACM CHI 2004. New York: ACM Press, pp. 14211424.
 Steinkuehler C. A. Cognition & learning in massively multiplayer online games: A critical approach. Presented at the Learning Sciences Colloquium, University of Wisconsin, Madison, January 21 2005.
 Steinkuehler, C. A. (in press). Cognition and literacy in massively multiplayer online games. In D. Leu, J. Coiro, C. Lankshear, & K. Knobel (Eds.), Handbook of Research on New Literacies. Mahwah NJ: Erlbaum.
 Kolbert, E. Pimps and Dragons: How an online world survived a social breakdown. The New Yorker, May 28, 2001. <http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/?010528fa_FACT>.
 World of Warcraft press release. Blizzard website. <http://www.blizzard.com/press/051028-burningcrusade.shtml>.
 Essential facts about the computer and video game industry. Entertainment Software Association, 2005. <http://www.theesa.com/files/2005EssentialFacts.pdf>.
 2005 Casual Games White Paper. International Game Developers Association, 2005. <http://www.igda.org/casual/IGDA_CasualGames_Whitepaper_2005.pdf>.
 Project Massive online survey of game players. Results of the 3rd survey, game player section: <http://www.projectmassive.com/player_results3.html>.
 New study reveals that women over 40 who play online games spend far more time playing than male or teenage gamers. AOL press release, February 11th, 2004. <http://media.aoltimewarner.com/media/cb_press_view.cfm?release_num=55253774>.
 Taylor, T.L. Multiple pleasures: Women and Online Gaming. Convergence: The Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 9(1), 21-46, 2003
 The Online Game Market Heats Up. Summary of DFC Intelligence report, 2004 <http://www.dfcint.com/game_article/june04article.html>.
 New York Public Library Digital Gallery. <http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/index.cfm>.
 Review of Love and Zen in the Outer Hebrides, submitted by John Kirriemuir, to the WorldCat Find in a Library service, December 1st 2005. <http://www.worldcatlibraries.org/wcpa/oclc/39551790&tab=reviews>.
 Reviews of The Stornoway Way, submitted by readers to the Amazon online bookstore.
 PC games, cartoons to enter classroom. ChinaDaily news, 13th November 2005. <http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/2004-11/13/content_391237.htm>.
 Maryland Public Television to Create Digital Learning Games. Association of Public Television Stations, 24th October 2005. <http://www.apts.org/stories/mpt_digital_learning.cfm>.
 Castronova, E. Virtual worlds: A first-hand account of market and society on the cyberian frontier. CESifo Working Paper Series No. 618. Center for Economic Studies and Ifo Institute for Economic Research, California State University, Fullerton, December 2001.
Copyright © 2005 John Kirriemuir