Massive, multiplayer online role-playing games foster rich social environments. Within the game, players can interact with other players, make friends, create and cultivate new online forms of community. Using participant observations and content analysis, this study examines the World of Warcraft as an online community, and investigates the degree to which it exhibits characteristics of neo-tribalism.
Massive, multiplayer, online, role-playing games enable enormous numbers of people to simultaneously play, interact, and socialize in an evolving virtual world by means of the internet (Intel, 2008). These games are distant relatives of the paper and pencil role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons and multi-user domains/dungeons. One of the latest such games, World of Warcraft (WOW), has a large fan base and is the current sales leader. According to its parent company, Blizzard (2004), on the first day of WOW’s release, they sold an estimated 250,000 copies and over 200,000 players created accounts. By June of 2005, over two million paying subscribers were playing WOW (Blizzard, 2005).
Like other simulations, WOW is a virtual world. It encompasses several landmasses, ecosystems and terrains, multiple cities, and smaller communities with their attendant economies (both cash and barter), and a wide variety of non-player characters, both human and other. Players can create a virtual identity (a character of a particular race, sex, class, and appearance) and adventure across this world, alone or together, ”…forming friendships, slaying monsters, and engaging in epic quests that can span days or weeks.” (Blizzard 1, p. 1) An individual must first purchase the software and install it on a computer. Then, there is an additional monthly fee to play the game. It requires a high-speed connection for satisfactory play, and a variety of different realms (servers) are available. If offline friends want to play together, they must choose the same realm.
Blizzard provides a variety of support mechanisms for WOW players. In addition to technical and customer support staff, there are extensive FAQs, a web guide, and an early level guide (for new players). In addition, in the Community Section of the website, there are several pages of contests, wallpapers, comics, screenshots and other fan art, plus several web-based forums where players can discuss features of the game with other players. However, there is also extensive guidance provided in the game itself. Players have the ability to talk and send mail among themselves and with non-player characters, and there are a number of helpful features that alert players to the people and places in their immediate environment, and opportunities to join groups (e.g., parties and guilds). Players may also select professions (e.g., mining, alchemy, herbalism) or receive training in skills associated with their particular character.
We first became interested in studying WOW after reading about players of Everquest who had experienced real world problems such as failing classes, marital problems, and suicide (Becker, 2002). Such reports raised questions about the motivations of the people who were playing such games.
Bartle (1996) initially suggested that there are several specific types of people who are motivated to play online role-playing games. However, Yee (2005) argued that Bartle's motivational types overlooked the complexity by excluding changes over time, overlap, or game situations. According to Yee, a better way to understand player motivations is to view them as flexible components rather than fixed types. Consequently, Yee (2005) expanded Bartle's preliminary model and empirically tested the model via player surveys. Each individual player received a score for each component, and thus a researcher could approximate each of the parts of a game that appeal to the player. Yee (2005) used five components to characterize player motivations: socialize, achieve, explore, escape, and grief. Socializers are attracted to the elements of social interactions that occur in a massive, multiplayer, online, role-playing game. Achievers like to meet goals, accumulate items, and/or gain power. Explorers are driven by the game mechanics and the desire to understand everything about the game. Escapists use the game for stress relief, to escape their everyday world, and/or to role-play different identities. Finally, Griefers like to manipulate, dominate, exploit, deceive, annoy, and/or taunt other players. They are interested in causing as much chaos as possible.
Online communities offer individuals the ability to locate (at least in a virtual sense) and interact with other players who share a common identity or interests. WOW was explicitly designed to foster socializing within the game. Within WOW’s virtual world, there are many quests that demand player cooperation. The formation of functional groups becomes a necessity in order to achieve some of the major goals in the game that allow individual players to advance their character’s experience points to higher levels, acquire new items, or enhance their reputation. We contend that the competitive nature of the quests, the inherent mechanisms of virtual socialization, the flexibility of character creation and development, and the rewarding of aggressive behavior against rival factions all promote the development of tribalistic behavior.
In a classic sense, tribalism denotes a social group bound together by family or clan, a particular territory, and a sense of duty to the tribe (Marshall, 1998). Clifford (1886) contended the tribal self was an instinctual mechanism where self-judgment in the name of the tribe was a sign of the common consciousness. However, neo-tribes are dissimilar from traditional forms of tribal definitions because members are not inherently bound by physical territory, family lineage, or the same sense of duty as someone born within a tribe. Neo-tribes are groups and subgroups within the existing social order that decide to divide and form even smaller subgroups or tribes because of the desire to be among others with analogous characteristics. Like classic tribes, neo-tribe members may have a desire to associate with others that share the same ideas, and who wish to pursue the needs of the tribe over the needs of others in society. Perhaps the desire for neo-tribes stems from the desire to return to societal relations that were gemeinschaft in nature.
In WOW, a group of players can create a guild within the game comprised of members within the same faction (there are two competing factions in WOW, the Alliance and the Horde). Guilds are made up of players with similar goals and interests and frequently provide opportunities for social interaction, assistance with quests, and protection from the rival faction. Each guild has a unique name, a logo, color, and the members cooperate in an egalitarian fashion (ideally) in order to achieve similar goals. For some guilds, membership is exclusive and taken seriously. These guilds have their own websites, recruitment applications, trial periods, rules of conduct, and demands for member tithes. With some of the major guilds in WOW, there were sub-groups within the guild that specialized in particular tasks such as member recruitment, item or gold harvesting, guild goals, or helping new members gain experience. We contend that many of the guilds we observed were in essence neo-tribes. Moreover, because of the breakdown of the general player population into smaller, more isolated groups, our observations indicated that there were frequently inner struggles, competition, and the development of an “us versus them” mentality. Eventually, various guilds transformed into neo-tribes becoming openly hostile to the opposing faction and sometimes to other guilds within their faction.
There are other authors, who believe the Internet has the potential to help flatten hierarchies, dilute power from traditional elites, permit new forms of community, make citizen activism easier and more effective, and encourage a generally self-reflective society . From their perspective, Internet technology may also facilitate a positive movement toward neo tribalism. One such view is the primitivist perspective that promotes a return to humanity's social roots. Primitivists believe that civilization itself is the primary threat to the future of humanity. Philosophers like Quinn (1992) and Zerzan (2002) believe the solution to the problems associated with modern civilization is the pursuit of a new tribalism. This movement revolves around what Quinn (1997) argues are the defining characteristics of tribal life: open, egalitarian, and cooperative communities. Quinn argues that civilizations have replaced the essence of tribalism with hierarchy, which works for those with wealth and power, but not for the masses. Zerzan (1994) argues further that humanity's problems started with the embrace of symbolic culture. In his view, culture is not the great emancipator of humanity. Language, numbers, art, and music are merely simulacrum of reality, and technology is not neutral. Instead, technology reinforces the basic values of the social structures, which are established and maintained by those in power. Zerzan contends that the solution is the rejection of civilization, with its signs, technology, and materialism, and a move towards a new tribalism.
Can a virtual tribe create the kind of communal relationships that some people seem to desire? Since WOW and other similar virtual world platforms are ultimately simulations, can a simulation lead to the development of genuine neo-tribes? Baudrillard argues that simulations are “…the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal” (1995, p.1). In his view, simulations no longer try to imitate, duplicate, or parody the real. Instead, simulations are the substitution for the real. Deleuze (1983) contends that not all simulations are merely copies in search of being an equivalent to the original. Instead, some simulations are created by the destruction of old models into bite-sized fragments, and reassembled into random collages, which form an ultimate amalgamation of idyllic imagery. Thus, the simulation becomes a reified entity for some, a fetishism of the abstracted material construct.
One might wish to question the depth and meaningfulness of social experiences within simulated worlds. While some player interactions might parallel the real world (such as reinforcement of the desire to accumulate and consume various objects - e.g., money, points toward level of play, weapons), can they also create social unity, harmony, and feelings of fulfillment? To the hardcore players, the simulation often becomes a visceral entity, creating an organic new space for the simulation's own proliferation and undermining the distinction between it and the reality or virtual reality it represents. The social groups and socialization that exist within it become a simulation where real world behaviors can be shed, and new codes of social conduct can be created to facilitate the needs of neo-tribal interactions.
We began our study with a participant observation phase focusing on hardcore WOW players (defined as people who played at least thirty-five hours a week). We decided to focus first on hardcore players and their behaviors because they appear to be the driving force behind the creation and sustained popularity of these complex simulations. They were also easier to observe since they were consistently online, and made frequent contributions to the WOW social structure. Initially, this involved informal interviews with 34 hardcore players within the game. For access to these players, one of the authors became a hardcore player of WOW for a total of approximately fourteen weeks. Each time there was a break in play, the author recorded field notes of player interactions, common themes, and game observations. At the end of play for the day, we summarized the day's field notes. We organized the field notes chronologically, with the date, time, and place on each entry. We then divided them into separate categories of information: interviews, direct observations, and inferences. (The separation of direct observations from inferences required us to distinguish our observations from our interpretations.) We entered the field notes, and interviews into the computer program Hyper Research, and coded the data based on common occurrences, themes, and interview responses.
Following the participant observation phase, we undertook a careful review of the various materials that are available for WOW (i.e., the printed game manual, the official web-based materials - FAQs, guides, and especially the community forums). We used these materials to supplement the observations and conclusions that followed from the interviews with players.
Time spent playing WOW was obviously an important attribute of hardcore players. Twenty of the players interviewed reported playing five to six hours a day on weekdays and at least ten hours a day on weekends. Fourteen reported playing between eight to ten hours a day. Several players reported that on occasion they had played the game for twenty plus hours at a single setting. When we asked players how they could spend so much time playing WOW, the most frequent reason reported was their status as students. Other reasons included underemployment, sparse homework, dropping out of college, and playing WOW at work. Two players indicated they had even taken vacations to play the game uninterrupted. When discussing time spent playing WOW, hardcore players often conveyed their respect for other hardcore players. For some, playing more than thirty hours a week was a sign of a player's commitment, dedication, and reliance.
On its website, in its software, and in its press releases, Blizzard routinely refers to its subscriber base as the World of Warcraft community. Clearly, the designers built aspects of community into the game and they (or at least the marketers) view all the characters (both the players and all non-player characters) as participants in a virtual community. “The intent is to make you feel like a member of one enormous team, while at the same time setting up the other faction as an enemy or, at best, a rival” (Blizzard 2, p. 1). The WOW rules of conduct try to reinforce cooperation and limit offensive behavior within the faction with specific rules regarding character and guild names and member interactions with other users. According to the Blizzard website, they will not allow names or interactions that may be deemed “...harmful, threatening, abusive, harassing, defamatory, vulgar, obscene, hateful, sexually explicit, or racially, ethnically, or otherwise, objectionable” (Blizzard 3, p. 1).
When we asked the hardcore players about their thoughts regarding the community aspects of WOW, twenty-five of the thirty-four reported they preferred socializing in WOW to offline socializing. They presented reasons such as feelings of strong friendship, group unity, the ability to role-play an alternate identity, hanging out with people that had similar likes, social anonymity, and the ability to ignore disliked people. Several said it was easier to meet people in WOW than it was in the real world. A few reported they had recently moved and did not know anyone in the new community. Thus, WOW was a way to maintain contact with their old friends. Several players also reported they felt more important in the game, were more able to freely express themselves, and that their online friends often understood them better than their offline friends. Several also reported meeting people offline (e.g., dinner, parties, movies) they first met via the game. In a few cases, players reported they “hooked up” with other players.
When we asked the players if their social lives had changed since they started playing WOW, a few said it had not. However, the majority commented that WOW had become, at least for the time being, their primary source of social interaction. Frequently, they reported that WOW replaced other leisure activities like watching television or playing other video games. Nevertheless, some of them insisted that WOW was only a passing phase. Indeed, after the first month of observation, it was common for players to make comments about how they were spending too much time playing the game, or that they would eventually quit the game altogether. Some of the players also related difficulties. One player quit playing WOW because his/her partner left him/her for another person met while playing WOW. A few reported they were losing track of their offline friends. Three specifically indicated that their spouses were getting frustrated with the amount of time they were spending playing WOW. Three others reported they could no longer play WOW because they were failing school.
In our view, there were frequent instances of tribalistic behavior within WOW. Indeed, WOW's structure made tribalistic behavior hard to avoid. For example, the two factions are at war with each other, and it is impossible to communicate or interact in any way with rival players other than fighting them. Moreover, a few months after its initial release, Blizzard implemented a system that rewarded players with honor points when they killed players from the rival faction. Once the system was in place, many players became extremely competitive.
Similarly, the guilds provided opportunities for smaller groups to form. During our study, there were separate guilds created by players for Christians, gays, lesbians, evangelicals, males, particular age ranges, specific playing styles, and for various in-game races. While some of the guilds did either fragment or fold completely during the study period, other guilds were created. The most common reason reported for leaving a guild was the desire to associate with players that had similar identities and playing styles. Also, the founder of one guild claimed he/she no longer wanted to deal with the frequent problems that occurred. On many occasions, feelings were hurt, and she/he had to intervene. He/she also reported having to break up online fights between members of the guild. Some of the players who left the guild also reported resenting other guild members. They believed some members did not contribute enough to the guild, complained too much, acted juvenile, or did not play WOW seriously enough.
There were also numerous examples of individual player cooperation. A majority of the WOW players interviewed reported that they played frequently because of the feelings of group unity, friendship, cooperation, and accomplishment. Some of the players promoted unity among the guilds, and actively argued against infighting within the faction. They believed there was a need for cooperation to successfully fight the rival faction. Frequently, parties consisted of members from various guilds because they thought guild rivalry was a waste of time.
Some hardcore players did not join guilds. One player reported that he/she wanted to avoid the guild social politics that she/he previously had encountered while playing other games. However, many players who were unwilling to commit to a guild instead chose to play with a small group of other players. When asked why they were not part of a guild, they said they did not want the responsibilities or problems that came with guild membership. It was better for them to work together in a small group and avoid any formal structure. Without guild membership constraints, everyone was free to do what they liked.
Based on our interviews and observations, Yee's (2002) research appears to accurately reflect many of the reasons why people play WOW. The motivational components appeared to fluctuate on a frequent basis. The restructuring of guilds clearly occurred as players separated from players they disliked or from those they no longer thought could help them achieve their goals. This frequent abandonment of one group for another resulted in a social environment conducive to a form of neo-tribalism.
The structural environment of WOW also seemed to cultivate some of the negative aspects of tribalism, such as quick judgments, prejudicial behavior, and stereotyping. The anonymity, the ease of avoiding others, and the competitive aspect of the game facilitated quick judgments of other players, especially among the hardcore players. Horde players encouraged the view that most Alliance players were teenage jocks, griefers, and unintelligent. While many players superficially insisted that WOW is just a game, the conversations about players from the rival faction were routinely hostile and extremely personal.
WOW also contains what some might argue are prejudicial or stereotypical overtones. The female characters had exaggerated proportions, wore tight-fitting clothing, and some of the jokes about female characters were distinctly sexual in nature. Similarly, members of the troll race in the Horde had Jamaican accents, and some of the ogres danced like MC Hammer. The Taurens, who resemble bulls, live in tepees, and display several characteristics resembling Native Americans. The only choice of skin color for the human, dwarf, and gnome races was white. Prejudicial conversations were also commonplace in WOW. Some players talked about raping female enemy characters, and the chat channels teemed with racist comments.
Another aspect of WOW that appears to promote negative tribalistic behaviors is the lack of social control and social responsibility. For example, players can continually taunt and harass players they do not like, and that is acceptable as part of the game. When we asked players how they dealt with people they did not like, they reported that they simply kicked them out of the group and ignored them. This is facilitated by the structure of WOW because a player can add players they dislike to an ignore list. Once on the ignore list, the excluded player's communications are not displayed.
To be sure, not all aspects of the WOW community were negative. Several guilds frowned on prejudicial language and behavior. Not everyone used prejudicial language, and some guilds kicked out players because of repeated offensive behavior. Many top-ranked guilds helped new members rise in level, and promoted the norm that guild members should share with one another. Indeed, we encountered players who were altruistic, helped newer players complete quests, and shared with their companions. The camaraderie that existed is one of the key elements that made it difficult for many players to quit the game.
Virtual worlds are clearly not free from real world behaviors and prejudices. Real world stereotypes and cultural identities are frequently built into the game, and they tend to be followed by the players. For the most part, online anonymity allows individuals to avoid what are, in the real world, the negative consequences of being rude or prejudicial to other players (i.e., group sanctions). According to Blizzard's Rules of Conduct, they enforce policies that forbid prejudicial language. However, the company has not published how frequently they enforce this rule (although they did report closing several thousand accounts of people who had sold WOW virtual materials for real world cash on eBay). Thus, in a world where individuals have few limits, can behave as they choose, and can avoid people they dislike, the hardcore players often employed tribalistic behavior. Although some groups displayed high levels of unity and cooperation (which is not inconsistent with tribalistic behavior), there were also frequent occurrences of groups fragmenting into smaller subgroups.
One might argue that the lack of social boundaries and the existence of several cohesive groups within WOW are positive signs of neo-tribalism and social emancipation. Why associate with others who do not share a common identity, goals, or norms? A player can ignore another player he/she does not like, go to another server, or quit the game. Players can also choose to reject all social formalities and focus exclusively on social exchanges with players of similar apparent circumstances. When hardcore players surrounded themselves with players they liked, groups that were open, egalitarian, and cooperative frequently flourished.
Many of the social components within WOW facilitated the adoption of neo-tribalistic behaviors. Making friends, socializing, cooperation, and the creation of new groups (i.e., tribes), along with the competition and excitement that are inherent to the game, are all components of WOW. But, as Yee (2002) suggests, different aspects of the game attract various individuals, and are emphasized in their play. WOW's game dynamics center around entertainment and it has proven its worth in that regard. Nevertheless, without a rebellion of players within WOW demanding that Blizzard give players the ability to cooperate and communicate with any person, regardless of faction, it is our view that the current game dynamics favor dystopian forms of neo-tribalism.
If what we witnessed is any indication of the majority of player social experiences and interactions, such games can also amplify a discourse of separation, competition, and antagonism against players they perceive as different. WOW is a simulation, an alternate world in which players can do pretty much things that are distinctly different from their everyday lives. Is it possible that at some point individuals, who engage in social interactions within a simulacrum, identify that space as more or less real? At what point does it become difficult for players to separate the online and offline realities? If a hardcore player is a cyber-bully in the game, habitually terrorizing other players, is it possible this persona will be projected into his/her offline relations (or, conversely, that it is an aspect of his/her real world personality that is exposed in the context of the game). From what we observed and were told, it appeared that many of the players felt WOW was in some sense real. For some, the consequences of playing the game were real. Some of the hardcore players met offline, would talk about personal problems, and referred to one another as friends. For some, WOW even became their preferred space and the platform for the bulk of their everyday social interactions. The game was a real and important part of their life. While, every player we interviewed insisted he/she could separate and manage the two realities, they also frequently expressed the opinion that WOW life was better than the real world, or at least wished that offline social interaction could be similar to WOW.
We believe it is important to study social interactions within these kinds of virtual communities because the future of Internet communications are likely to incorporate the type of technology in games like World of Warcraft. People already use the Internet to interact with friends and family, and to meet new people. The critical question, from a sociological perspective, is what the nature of those interactions will be, and how they differ, if at all, from real world interactions.
For example, Goffman (1961) contended that modern societies have replaced large rituals for smaller ones in traditional interpersonal relations. The choice of a particular set of rules an individual follows derives from the requirements established within the various primary social groups within which they interact. Thus, an individual develops a concept of self and is shaped by the sum of their everyday interactions within their primary social groups. The self is an actor in an ongoing play constantly responding to the judgments of others (Goffman, 1967). Individuals learn the basic rules of appropriate social interaction, the reading of body language and behavior ritual cues, and conformity to the appropriate social norms. Each individual leans more than one social role, and learns to avoid role strain by audience segregation. If an individual can play a unique role in each unique social situation, they can effectively be a different person without contradiction. This variation of roles is not inherently based on deceit but instead on learning to differentiate appropriate behaviors for different audiences.
There are clear parallels between Goffman’s (1967) dramaturgical approach and the kinds of behavior we observed in WOW. Our concern is the extent to which the neo-tribalistic behaviors exhibited in WOW play can influence the real world interactions of the players. This, of course, is a function of the extent to which the players can segregate their audiences. It is further complicated, however, by the nature of computer mediated communications. Tanis and Postmes (2003) argue that the limited capacity to detect body, language, and eye cues inherent in computer mediated communications has negative consequences. Due to the anonymity of players, the normal behavior rituals, verbal and body language cues, and unclear social norms allow WOW players to interact in manners that are, in some instances, radically different from their real world personas. Further complicating this process, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project (2001), many teens currently manipulate their online identities, pretending to be different people and giving false information to people they communicate with online. We observed this among the hardcore players, and there is no reason to assume it is not widespread. There seems to be a sort of social freedom in the ability of an individual to misrepresent his/her identity in online interactions, and for some a cyberself emerges (Waskul and Douglass, 1997). Identity management and misrepresentation certainly extends beyond teens online, but identity management is in some aspects part of the ritual of the presentation of self.
Similarly, Collins (1981) described how “emotional energies” such as feelings of enthusiasm and confidence are generated and diminished through social interaction. These energies, in turn, affect a range of collective outcomes, broadening people’s mindsets and enabling effective coordination. Others have suggested that the emotions emerging out of social interactions are extremely important in the development of any relationship . Schreff (1990), for example, proposed that a normal social bond involves “reciprocal ratification” where each member of the social interaction recognized the others as legitimate participants in a current relationship. Schreff (1990) and Cahill (1998) further argued that reciprocal ratification of participation involved both feelings and actions of legitimation and the avoidance of conflict. The continued existence of WOW guilds in particular seem to reflect such reciprocal participation, and those that closed were routinely characterized by internal conflict.
There are a wide variety of perspectives regarding the quality of online interactions. Some believe the Internet will revolutionize social interactions, politics, communities, and society by possibly helping flatten hierarchies , dilute power from traditional elites who monopolize information (Moore, 1987), permit new and interesting forms of community (Etzioni, 1997), make citizen activism easier and more effective (Schwartz, 1996), and encourage a generally self-reflective society . Others suggest a darker side of online interactions, maintaining that online interactions can lead to dysfunctional behavior, a lack of community, reduced privacy, a weakened democracy, and social isolation . Some researchers offer a neutral outlook regarding the positive and negative potential consequences of Internet interactions  depending on the circumstances. Our view of the interaction we observed in WOW falls essentially in the neutral camp. We saw both positive and negative elements, and they varied widely across players and their interactions. We tend to agree with the position that computer mediated communications have some exciting and positive applications to social interactions. However, every newly adopted cultural mechanism has the potential to impact everyday “normal” social relations. As with any social change, we believe there is a need to study and understand the impacts that the Internet is having, regardless of whether such changes are viewed as positive or negative.
Based on our observations of hardcore players, we certainly believe guilds were not primitivist rejections of modern society nor a desire in individuals to reach back to a time when group membership was an important element of self-identification. Instead, we contend that online virtual worlds like the World of Warcraft, for some, may be realms where people feel they can achieve a measure of personal success. Thus, individuals who devote tremendous amounts of attention to participating in WOW are exhibiting the desire to excel, even if it means doing so within a virtual world.
While modern society frequently demands that individuals defer their desires for immediate gratification in order to participate fully and achieve recognition (Freud, 1961), WOW provides an alternate pathway. It and others like it appear to allow the individual to avoid potentially painful real world interactions and participate in a form of escapism that, to some extent, fulfills them and provides them with pleasure and a form of status. Moreover, it involves an activity that, thus far anyway, has not been defined as a social problem.
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