The Bolo Game: Exploration of a High-Tech Virtual Community

Eric G. Moore, University of Michigan
Sanal K. Mazvancheryl, University of Michigan
Lopo L. Rego, University of Michigan
[ to cite ]:
Eric G. Moore, Sanal K. Mazvancheryl, and Lopo L. Rego (1996) ,"The Bolo Game: Exploration of a High-Tech Virtual Community", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 167-171.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 167-171

THE BOLO GAME: EXPLORATION OF A HIGH-TECH VIRTUAL COMMUNITY

Eric G. Moore, University of Michigan

Sanal K. Mazvancheryl, University of Michigan

Lopo L. Rego, University of Michigan

[The authors would like to thank Prof. Aaron Ahuvia, for his guidance and comments, without which this paper would not have been possible.]

INTRODUCTION

The popularity of computer and video games has made it possible for millions of people to encounter these games on a regular or occasional basis. Some people play computer/video games only once, while others are instantly and completely absorbed by it and make them a large part of their lives. The purpose of our study is to use qualitative methodology to investigate experienced computer game players and to try and understand both the motives for playing these games and the effects of games on players lives. We focus on one "community" that we find has been created around a computer game called Bolo. The qualitative research methods used in this study include in-depth interviews of experienced game players, participant-observation of Bolo game sessions, and non-traditional sources such as Usenet postings and material from World Wide Web pages. These sources are combined into an interpretation of the issues and themes which surround a computer-based community at aggregate and individual levels.

LITERATURE REVIEW

From the introduction of Pong by Atari over fifteen years ago to today's high-tech animations from Nintendo and Sega, the rapid pace of technological developments have made electronic games increasingly accessible. This ease of access created a demand for a variety of games to satisfy the heterogenous tastes of players. Computer and video games can be found on a wide variety of topics, but much of the media attention about games is focused on the huge popularity of games with a high level of violent content such as Mortal Kombat and Doom. Despite the violent nature of some games, the overall field of computer and video games has experienced a spectacular increase both in number and variety of games, and these games are popular across a wide spectrum of users. Such popularity is reflected on the immense success of companies such as Nintendo and Sega (which compete in a huge $7 billion market), as well as through the approximately 40% of all U.S. families who now own PC's.

Games are believed to provide positive experiences, including pleasure, amusement, self-fulfillment through successfully completing the game, and the communal feelings associated with participating with other players. One of the key features of such games is that they abstract from reality and allow the players to experience new worlds and present novel challenges to explore and overcome. The experiences provided by games can be so enthralling to some people that games become an essential part of the players lives and are a significant outlet for leisure consumption.

In order to explore the different dimensions that might be involved with leisure consumption (we are implicitly assuming game playing as a leisure activity), we now turn to the Celsi, Rose and Leigh (1993) framework. According to this theory, the forces that drive leisure consumption are based on a dramatic world view that is inherent to the development of modern Western societies. This dramatic world view is based on the interaction of conflicting social forces which lead to the build up of both physical and psychic tensions in the individual. These tensions threaten the individual's control and place within the society with the final outcome of inducing a loss of autonomy and diminishing the individual's sense of self. These opposing macro social forces can have a dual nature where some are protagonist and others antagonistic, with possible examples such as good vs. evil and life vs. death. These conflicting forces build up physical and psychological stress which must eventually be released in order to resolve the conflict and this is done through the choice of leisure activities.

A similar approach was taken by Lyng (1990), who builds on the Marx-Mead synthesis (see Mead, 1934a) and introduces the concept of edgeworking. Lyng believes that the synthesis provides a social psychological explanation for risky leisure consumption. Again, the development of modern Western societies is the starting point and members of society fail to develop the social self as a consequence of the social divisions and class separations introduced by the industrial revolution and labor specialization. Consequently, the ego does not develop because there is no notion of group and belonging within this fragmented society. This situation is often characterized as "oversocialization", where societal needs and priorities overcome individual necessities and wants. Under these particular conditions, and according to Batuik and Sacks (1981), the social world becomes obscure, both in terms of understanding as well as in terms of actions to the individual. This is a consequence of the fact that individuals no longer feel responsible for their own destiny, and truly believe that their own life is just one of many within the society.

As a consequence of these societal changes and transformations, the individual feels alienated from society and this induces a search for the self outside the typical social groups of family, religion and the local community. Cushman (1990) has argued that this has led to the formation of the empty self, in a world that is lacking in community and tradition. It is therefore not surprising that the individual feels a deep sense of disconnectedness. He or she then seeks to address these shortcomings by reshaping their political, cultural and social forms and relationships. Such an individual therefore has an incentive to try and forge new groups where he or she feels a sense of belonging, an integration function that used to be performed by the groups in conventional society. One particular setting that is said to provide the development of the self is leisure consumption. This can be seen as the reason for the proliferation of special interest/activities groups which then become social communities.

In addition to the macro forces driving the search for the self in outside groups, Celsi et al. (1993) introduce complementary internal variables to explain the individual motivations behind leisure consumption. These variables represent inter- and intra-personal motives, ranging from normative motives to self-efficacy motives and hedonistic motives. Celsi et. al (1993 ) trace a path of motivations starting with normative motives which lead to trial and stress the ideals of thrill and survival. Later, the motives move to self-efficacy, which stresses pleasure and achievement and lead to group identity. Finally, hedonistic motives introduce a sense of community and stress personal identity and flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1985). Flow is usually interpreted as a state of mind in which the individual is extremely concentrated on a small set of stimuli. One important consequence of flow is the distorted notion of time and space experienced. The concept of flow is seen as very important to the success of leisure consumption through the sense of absorption within the experience.

Several studies have explored risky leisure consumption activities (skydiving, Celsi et al. (1993); river rafting, Arnould and Price (1993); drug and alcohol abuse, Thompson (1974)) and the findings seem to provide support for the dramatic world view and oversocialization in modern Western societies. Additionally, supporting evidence was also found for the individual's search for a sense of belonging and self-fulfillment and the formation of groups of individuals in non-traditional settings. The members of a river rafting expedition (Arnould et al, 1993) form a "communitas" (a sense of community that transcends typical social norms and conventions) with their own set of norms, rites of passages and emotional attachments. Similarly, the skydivers in Celsi et al's (1993) group did share such a sense of communitas, most evident from their reaction to the unfortunate death of a member of their group. In a related context, Ong (1971) argues that in the post-modern world, the pervasiveness of various forms of media has made reproducible the community of orality. Members of celebrity fan clubs also talk about how important being with other members of the community is to them (O'Guinn, 1991). These groups or communities, and more particularly its members, are often characterized as exhibiting certain characteristics and behaviors such as flow. These findings suggests that leisure consumption could eventually give rise to the formation of communities (Celsi, 1993; Arnould, 1993), with specific and purposeful rules and behavior. These communities, though unconventional in a sense, are also very real and based on some tangible shared real life experiences. In that sense such a group is not radically different from say a group of friends who share common interests and do things together. To understand what such a community might be and what it might represent, it is essential to try and comprehend the reason for its' existence.

Ray Oldenburg proposes in his 1989 book, The Great Good Place, there are three essential places in people's lives : the place we live; the place we work; the places we gather for conviviality. He called the last of the above, "third places", which he described as follows:

" Third places exist on neutral ground and serve to level their guests to a condition of social equality.. they are taken for granted and have a low profile...The character of a third place is determined most of all by its regular clientele and is marked by a playful mood, which contrasts with people's more serious involvement in other spheres."

He further argues that the decline in the informal public life in America means that lifestyles are affluent, yet are plagued by boredom, loneliness and a sense of alienation.

In his book, The Virtual Community, Howard Rheingold (1993) takes an interesting look at such subcommunities. He feels that cyberspace is one of the ways in which people can find others with similar interests through discussion groups and personal interactions on-line and perhaps choose to later meet them in real life. In a phenomenon paralleling our actions in a traditional community, where we search through our pool of neighbors and professional colleagues, of acquaintances and even acquaintances of acquaintances, in order to find people who share our values and interests, virtual communities exchange information about one another, disclose and discuss our mutual interests, and sometimes become friends. One difference is that in a virtual community one can first directly go to the place where our favorite subjects are being discussed and then get acquainted with people who share our likes and dislikes. In this sense, the topic is the address. One cannot, in real life, walk up to strangers and look for people who like avant-garde Finnish film makers or who have two kids and live in Sacramento; you can however join a bulletin board on these topics. Because we cannot see one another in cyberspace, physical appearances are less important in such communities, (probably the first human community where this holds true), and people can choose who they want to be. Ironically though, people often end up revealing themselves much more intimately on cyberspace than they would be inclined to without the mediation of screens and pseudonyms and the importance of this shared sense of trust.

Our research will investigate a community of game players to explore the macro issues of the sense of community and the individual level search for the self and for flow experiences in the group of computer gamers who choose to play Bolo. This area of exploration was a logical avenue for us, as the literature on leisure consumption and the literature on computer games have not addressed such issues together before.

METHODOLOGY

Bolo is a multi-player tank game, developed by Stuart Cheshire, that is typically played over a network or through the Internet. The goal of the game is to capture various strategic targets such as pill boxes and supply bases and to prevent the opposition from obtaining these strategic targets. Each game takes place on a battlefield or "map", composed of water, ground, trees and pavement. There are only a few simple actions that can be performed by the tank in the game (such as move, shoot, and build structures), but they are flexible enough to allow an extremely varied game play.

The game of Bolo was chosen for this study because it is a multi-player game and is very interactive. In addition, there is real-time conversation capability that plays an important role in the game and there is an existing group of dedicated, experienced gamers who play regularly. Bolo was also a convenient game to research due to the ease of access to players and the availability of Internet-based resources for data collection purposes. The flexibility of the game environment and the large amount of communication between players in the game makes Bolo an excellent game for our study. One of the researchers had extensive previous experience with Bolo and was accepted as a fellow player/observer rather than only as a researcher. From this position as a participant-observer, data was collected in an unobtrusive manner about player attitudes toward the game and issues involving the game.

DATA COLLECTION METHODS

The exploratory nature of the study provided an opportunity to collect information from a variety of sources to build a theory about experienced computer game players. The approach used, called grounded theory, is based on the idea that the process of data collection and data analysis should serve to reveal the relationships and major issues involved (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). The data gathering process was carefully designed to utilize multiple sources, which were then combined in the interpretation. These sources included in-depth interviews of experienced game players, Internet postings, and participant observation of direct player-to-player communication while interacting in game settings.

IN-DEPTH INTERVIEWS

The initial investigation was a set of individual interviews conducted with three experienced male computer gamers. The average age of respondents was 25, and they had an average of 12 years of computer game experience. All of the respondents had completed an undergraduate education and each was pursuing an advanced degree. Each was familiar with many games, including having played Bolo extensively. The subjects were informed of the goals of this research project and each was asked to discuss their experiences of playing games over their lifetime. The interviews were designed to reduce the impact of any preconceptions that would influence or distort the interviewing and analysis processes by using relatively unstructured interviews and letting the respondent shape the discussion. The interviews lasted 45 min. to 60 min. Each interview was taped and then transcribed. Both of these were done by the authors themselves, ensuring maximal involvement. An initial interpretation of the responses from these individual interviews led to the exploration at the aggregate level from additional sources.

ADDITIONAL DATA SOURCES

There are several sources that we accessed to gather more information about the community of Bolo players. There are three main sources. First, the various archives on the Internet such as /umich.edu/game/war/bolo contain the files to run the game, map files created by other players that allow different battlegrounds, and additional software and text files to help the players. Second, the Usenet newsgroup rec.games.bolo is a central location for the players to communicate with each other, to post notices about upcoming Bolo tournaments, and to discuss topics of interest to the community. A new World Wide Web site http://student-www.uchicago.edu/users/vboguta/bolo/bolo.html, contains links to the software archives, data files explaining strategy techniques and game advice, and screen shots of interesting game events. These sources of information are important to the game players for a variety of purposes including getting the latest game programs, disseminating information about game tactics, discussing various current controversies about the programs or player behavior and in particular about commenting on particular events from recent games.

RESULTS AND DISCUSSIONS

The three separate methodologies illuminated interesting aspects of the issues in a manner similar to observing a subject/consumer in many different settings. The challenge then is to critically interpret the data in a manner that gives us insights into the research issues. We have handled this by considering the results at both an individual level and at the aggregate level. Another way of thinking about this is that at the aggregate level we observe the macro behavior and at the individual level we try to build a set of explanations and identify emergent themes in the light of our observations and existing theories. As mentioned earlier, the data analytic method used is the grounded theory of Glaser et al, 1967.

THE BOLO COMMUNITY: A PROFILE

The demographics of the people we interviewed seems to roughly correspond with the sources of postings on the Internet newsgroups. The Bolo community consists mainly of male (few women are active players) players who tend to be students, research professionals or academics, with ages ranging from 18 to 40. The source computer of the game player is identified for the other players when they are all connected to a game and they can range from university computers to NASA and government installations.

From the postings on the Internet, and for reasons we shall soon outline, it was clear to the researchers that there existed a sense of community among the members of this group. This is not surprising, as the group members shared common passions and had similar demographics and certain psychographics. Some of the more enthusiastic members have planned tournaments where the players can get together for games with as many as 16 players in a single game. Due to connection restrictions that cause games to run very slowly, games are usually practically limited to only six players. Consequently, the tournaments allow for very different styles of games and are very enjoyable for the participants. In addition, they provide an opportunity to meet opponents (who are really other members of their community ) face to face.

COMMUNITY ISSUES

One of the most important issues to the community is the influx of new players. One person recently posted a thread (a internet colloquialism for a thought or an idea ) to the Usenet that new players were possibly being discouraged due to excessive annihilation by more experienced opponents. This was a concern for the community because it depends on having a constant source of players available as older players graduate or lose interest. To address this question, the members of the community created a lengthy discussion on the role of competition in the Bolo community. This discussion provoked many responses and the general conclusion was that competition is essential to the Bolo community. This is an interesting development, which reinforces the fact that such a collection of players is indeed a community. This community has clearly delineated insiders (the existing players) and outsiders (players trying to enter ), boundaries and concepts of authority (do we let them in? ). Further, it is a functioning community able to discuss issues and more importantly come to a consensus. Amazing really, if you consider that no two people in the community have ever met each other. Such communities were called Real-Time Tribes by Rheingold (1993 ). He identifies three fundamental elements that allowed such virtual communities to construct themselves : artificial but stable identities, quick wit, and the use of words to construct an imagined shared context for communications. As we discuss throughout the paper, we do find that such issues are indeed important in our Bolo community.

GAME ETIQUETTE

During the game play, there are informal matters of etiquette that are generally followed by the players. Players who do not follow these conventions are bombarded with sanctions in the form of messages from the other players to correct or change their behavior. One of the most important conventions is that once a game begins, another player should not connect to the game. The entry of the new player often delays the network connection and slows the game play or stops it entirely. Other conventions are to minimize the number of invisible mines laid randomly in the game and to stop playing when one player calls "hold", which is usually when a boss or faculty member enters the room. The last accepted rule of etiquette is to graciously concede a game when you are about to lose. The players could always simply quit and leave the game, but this behavior is considered rude and is often followed by a stream of derogatory messages about the player who left without conceding. Informal conversation before and after the game is viewed by the players as one of the benefits of internet games. This informal advice passed between the players is important for creating connections between the members of the community, as well as providing the less experienced players helpful tips to increase their skill levels. Once again , we find that the Bolo players function as a virtual community in cyberspace.

INDIVIDUAL LEVEL: FLOW / POSITIVE BENEFITS OF GAMES

As referred previously, flow involves extreme concentration on a relatively small set of stimuli and induces time and space distortions on the individuals who experience it. Flow is also seen as being a rewarding experience. We found that all respondents referred to experiencing benefits while playing games with statements such as "It is fun and I check the finder (a program that displays all the current Bolo games on the Internet) and the newsgroups all the time to see what is going on". The thrill of competition is an integral component of playing Bolo. One posting echoes this , "I think that it is fun to really stomp on someone once in a while". The thrill of achieving goals against real-time opponents is seen as both challenging and fun.

In addition, the sense of absorption characteristic of flow was clearly important because all the interview respondents reported intense involvement and distorted notions of time and space. One quote about this sense is, "When you get very involved with a game, the real world frame completely disappears. It happens all the time, especially if the game is new and very intense". One respondent indicated that the sensation is so intense that, " I would play up to ten hours a day on a new game and only take minimal breaks and then go back to the computer".

This sense of flow and time-distortion provided by Bolo and other games is a positive benefit for many individuals. In addition, many players reported that they felt a thrill or rush of excitement while playing games: "I recognize that there is an adrenaline response to some of the games and in aggressive games as Bolo, there is a situation where I feel an adrenaline rush or tension", and "I remember when I used to participate in sports...I got the same kind of adrenaline rush". Thus, beyond simple pleasure derived from playing games, membership in the Bolo community also serves to develop other personal attributes. This is similar to the experiences of other leisure groups examines in the literature (skydiving (Celsi et. al., 1993 ); river rafting (Arnould and Price, 1993 ) ) and also congruent with extant literature (Csikszentmihalyi, 1985).

SEARCH FOR SELF

One of the most important reasons for becoming a member of a community is to be identified as a member of that community. One of the first tasks as a new player of Bolo is to choose a name or "handle". This tag appears on the computer screen during the game play and identifies the otherwise identical tanks. A player can change his or her handle at any time, but the importance of a handle to a player goes beyond simply identifying the tank in the game. This handle from the game extends to his or her persona in the Bolo community. The most advanced players are instantly recognized, with such divers and exotic handles as Black Lightning, MegaWatt, Wintermute, Santa, Hillbilly Bob, Montezuma's Revenge and Pooh. The stability of these nick names is one of the few formal structured requirements of net space. The handle of a player can be changed at any time, but it is considered a breach of netiquette to play under more than three different names. In addition, there is a great deal of status and prestige in a handle that is important to the players. The process of building name recognition takes time and as the player's skill levels increases so does his or her social standing. One person reported that, "I know that there will always be room to improve my Bolo skills as long as I play the game". The different levels of skill give the less experienced players something to aspire to achieve. There have been several attempts to formally rank the players, but at the highest level of skill it is difficult to differentiate between the best players. An important feature of a Bolo game is to have evenly matched players, and the identities and past histories that are embedded in a long-time handle are important in setting up games of players with balanced skill levels. This is seen in the quote, "The best games I've played are the tough ones with very evenly matched teams".

The importance of player skill is a crucial mechanism for gaining recognition in the community. However, there are several other ways to get recognition: building game maps, programming computer "brains" to control the tank and filming movies of exciting moments of game play. The game maps serve as the playing field for Bolo and new variations are constantly being developed. A second area is designing computer programs called "brains" or "bots" that control the tank during the game. Brains can be used for solitary play or to automate certain parts of the game functions to aid the player. A third method involves a brain program called "Spielborg". Spielborg is able to capture the images on the screen as the game is occurring and to play back "movies" of the game action at a later time. These movies allow the individuals to gain greater attention by demonstrating their playing skill or to display interesting or unique game situations.

The above issues of (i ) a search for an identity and (ii ) gaining recognition and acceptance confirm our expectations based on the literature. In particular, the hypothesis that, in advanced industrialized Western societies, due to a fragmentation of existing social groups (Mead, 1934a; Lyng, 1990; Batuik and Sacks, 1981 )and consequent feeling of an empty self (Cushman, 1990 ), people will search for the self in newer and different settings. While there is no reason why such communities cannot form in a varied set of contexts, most of the extant literature reveals that leisure groups are the ones most frequently observed. These groups then develop into communities (Celsi, 1993 ), in our case, the Bolo virtual community.

THE ROLE OF CHANCE

The role of personal skill is important to level of status in the community, but Bolo games certainly have elements of chance which can significantly influence the outcome of the game. However, players tend to downplay its importance and attribute the success to superior player skills. For example, "Almost of the times you play with someone who is better than you, you always lose". While some subjects reported that luck can play an important role in the game outcome, ("When you are playing someone who is better than you, the key is luck"), they still recognize that skills are the most important factor in establishing hierarchy. However, every member of the community is aware that people occasionally have bad days and the importance is skill demonstrated over time. This aspect of such community needs to be investigated further. While Bolo can be thought of as a low simulated perceived risk (leisure ) consumption experience, this did not come out strongly in the data analysis. Whether this is a function of the research limitations, the type of game or confounding effects like edgeworking (Lyng, 1990 ) is a matter to be resolved in future work.

CONCLUSIONS AND FUTURE DIRECTIONS

We are witnessing an important shift in the concept of the self and the nature of interpersonal relationships that define our communities. More conventional social orders and boundaries are fast disappearing, to be replaced by newer and sometimes not so obvious forms of social organizations. Specialization of tasks and advances in technology are some of the contributing factors towards these hidden developments. We have, however, used this very technological change to develop the innovative research tool of Internet searches of posting, newsgroups and bulletin boards. This research tool is both powerful and unobtrusive in nature. These public access resources let us observe the subjects in the most natural environment providing us with rich data and information. While it does not right now have the capability to be used as a stand alone research technique, when used in combination with conventional techniques like in-depth interviews and participant observations it proved to be a powerful tool. In the future with the explosion of data sources on the network we think that this method should be used more often to gain insights that would otherwise be hard to obtain. This methodological innovation is one of the major contributions of our paper.

The identification of a "virtual" community is also, we believe, a key contribution of this paper, perhaps the first time that such a community has been identified in the academic literature in consumer behavior. Our research techniques and analysis have helped us begin to answer such key questions (Rheingold, 1993 ) about virtual communities as : What are the minimum elements of communication neccesary for a group of people to cocreate a sense of community? What types of groups can and do emerge from such interactions? What kinds of cultures emerge when you remove from human interactions all cultural artifacts except the written word and electronic pictures?

While the above are important contributions, more work needs to be done in this ever changing area. It would be interesting to track the Bolo community as it evolves with new patterns of behavior and possibly subcultures. Already there are different groups of players who learned to play using different versions of the game and have different preferred styles for attacking and defending in the play. A typology of the players would be an useful exercise. Further, we presume that many such virtual communities are being formed around the "world" with varying common denominators and the implication of these communities on the development of alternative societal forms will be extremely interesting. Further research should look at these issues and maybe some possible generalizations across cyber communities.

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