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Utopian Sociality. Online.

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The metaworld Ultima Online was designed to foster 'tight communities' of inhabitants. So ware users frequently say it has done just that. Yet many users spend most of their time online alone, engaged in practices of self-realization,
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  Utopian Sociality. Online.  Nicholas J. Long, University of Cambridge This is a pre-proofed version of the text made available under a green open access policy. The final version can be accessed in The Cambridge Journal of  Anthropology 30 (1), pp. 80-94. Any queries can be directed to the author at N.J.Long@lse.ac.uk Abstract  Ultima Online was one of the first commercially successful massively multiplayer online computer games, designed to foster a sense of Ôtight communityÕ amongst users and often spoken of as doing just that. Yet many users spend most of their time online alone, engaged in practices of self-realisation, individuation, and skill maximisation. Drawing on WildeÕs utopian writings, I suggest that Ultima Online  has fostered an emergent sociality of sympathetic individualism Ð but that characterizing this as ÔcommunityÕ, ÔfriendshipÕ and ÔcamaraderieÕ also allows users to engage with seemingly opposed communitarian tropes of the good life. This offers a counterpoint to prevailing conceptions of utopian sociality within Utopian Studies, and affords insights into how ethical imaginations influence emergent forms of human sociality. Keywords Ultima Online; sociality; individualism; sympathy; Wilde; virtual ethnography; utopia; ethical imagination Bio  Nicholas Long is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, where he is also a Junior Research Fellow at St CatharineÕs College. He is the co-editor of Southeast Asian Perspectives on Power   (2012, Routledge), and author of the monograph  Being Malay in Indonesia (forthcoming, NUS/KITLV/University of HawaiÕi Press).  These were dark days for WhiteKnight. i  He had been a dedicated user of the massively multiplayer online role-playing game Ultima Online  since the winter of 2000. Most evenings, and at least once a week, he would switch on his modem and log on to the fantasy-themed metaworld of Britannia Ð a world full of computer-animated creatures and landscapes, as well as hundreds of user-controlled avatars, of which WhiteKnight was but one. The opportunities that life in such a Ôvirtual worldÕ offered him had once felt dizzying. He could enjoy the typical pursuits of a role- playing game, such as learning magic or battling hostile computer-controlled creatures, whilst simultaneously interacting with a large number of other people who are logged into the game at the same time as him. Moreover, Britannia was available to log into twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week Ð provided he kept paying his monthly subscription fee. ii  But by March 2004 he was beginning to feel it might be time to move on. He logged on to the Stratics message boards Ð the principal online forum for Ultima Online users, where one could discuss all aspects of the Britannian experience - and started a new thread with the bleak heading ÔShould I quit?Õ 2004 had been a bad year for WhiteKnight. An upgrade to the Ultima Online  software had resulted in a series of  bugs, inadvertently losing him several of his most treasured items and 5 million gold  pieces. He also had serious worries about the gameÕs future having heard that several senior programmers had resigned Ð a consequence (he speculated) of Electronic Arts, Ultima Online Õs parent company, relocating premises. ÔFrankly,Õ he wrote in his post, Ôthe game just isnÕt as much fun as it used to be, or as it  should   be.Õ The responses he received were mixed. Some people encouraged him to leave, arguing that he shouldnÕt be paying money for something if he wasnÕt having fun. But others actively defended Britannia, suggesting instead that it was the player who  needed a fresh approach. One suggestion was to create a new character from scratch: Ôyou will experience a freedom unlike that ever felt before... [and] get back the magic and fun of UOÕ. Another poster suggested that he take a break, maybe even play another Ômassively multiplayerÕ online game: Ôyou might find a wonderful new exciting virtual world out there or   you might even discover that UO was best after all and returnÕ. Several people tried to advise him, drawing on their own experiences: in each case they said that they, too, had tried giving up Ultima Online  (either out of disillusionment or because of changing life circumstances, such as a new job or relationship) but had found that they could not stay away. One poster admitted that she had Ômissed the camaraderie too muchÕ. WhiteKnight, persuaded to stay, decided to revitalise his experience online by starting up a character on a different ÔshardÕ Ð one of the twenty-nine distinct copies of Britannia accessible via the Internet. The reason so many copies had been created was so that Ultima OnlineÕs 250,000 users iii  could access Britannia via a server that was located geographically close to them, thereby speeding up connection time whilst also dividing bandwidth requirements. But for WhiteKnight, this manoeuvre also introduced an appealing degree of variety to life in Britannia. Each shardÕs version of Britannia had begun as an identical physical landscape, including large swathes of forest, caves and mountains full of wild animals and hostile creatures that users can choose to evade, attack, or domesticate, and towns created as Ôsafe areasÕ Ð from which attacking enemy creatures are blocked by the software code. But these had  been transformed into uniquely differentiated versions of Britannia by user activity Ð most notably via the creation of secondary (and less safe) urban areas in expanses of open land across Britannia, where users have built and furnished their own houses, spaces that can be used for private conversations, public parties, or the solitary   processes of decoration and housework. Furthermore, each shard played host to its own distinct collectivity of avatars. This last point was a crucial factor in WhiteKnightÕs decision. He explained that he hoped moving shard would afford him exciting new social experiences and a chance to meet new people and make new friends. It would be fair to say, then, that the way he anticipated the sociality of the new shard played a central role in his decision to maintain his Ultima Online  subscription. And yet his ultimate course of action reveals how little weight the social relations that he had established over three years of living on his current shard actually carried. Those were relations that he was happy to sacrifice because the loss of five million virtual gold pieces had stopped life on his shard from being ÔfunÕ. So what is at actually stake in ideas about, and  practices of, online sociality in this incipient virtual world? And could this have anything to offer to the study of sociality more broadly? The sociality of utopia WhiteKnightÕs case exemplifies a broader puzzle presented by Ultima Online . Created in 1995, launched in 1997, and still on sale today, it had been specifically developed by its US-based designer, Richard Garriott, to foster sociality infused with community spirit, friendship, and joy. In their biographical account of GarriottÕs life and work, King and Borland (2003: 13-14) trace this back to his teenage experiences in a summer camp held at the University of Oklahoma, where he was invited to join his peers in a game of Dungeons and Dragons. This dissolved the ÔmiserableÕ feelings of ÔawkwardnessÕ that had characterised his initial experiences of the camp, replacing it with a Ôfeeling of communityÕ that the young Garriott would be unable to forget.  Rather, he would seek to cultivate it in his school, in his neighbourhood, and eventually Ð they suggest Ð through the world at large: Richard had hit on an essential truth: even if he spent long hours alone in front of his computer writing code, the games he was starting to create were essentially social in natureÉ HeÕd spent most of his life in a family and a wider community of friends and neighbors who supported each other in the craziest projects they could come up with. His weekend role-playing games and the computer games he based on them created their own tight communities. As he grew older and his games touched hundreds of thousands instead of just dozens of people, those communities would be replicated on a larger scale (ibid: 20).  Such a vision draws heavily on ideas that proved very powerful in the Europe and North America of the late twentieth century: that ÔcommunityÕ offered a desirable and fulfilling means by which human beings might interact with each other; that it was foundering in the face of an increasingly atomistic, individualised, and competitive culture Ð a phenomenon often attributed to ÔneoliberalÕ variants of late capitalism; and that the Internet offered an important opportunity to Ôbring people togetherÕ in one place, thereby revitalising society and rekindling community (see e.g. Star 1995). These were certainly tropes that played a prominent role in how Ultima Online  was marketed by Electronic Arts. Their promotional material draws heavily on usersÕ experiences in order to entice prospective consumers to take the plunge and enter Britannia Ð offering such testimonies as Ôthe magic of UO for me is the magic of all the friends I have made, and the new ones I meet every single day!Õ iv  Users I interviewed (within the game) echoed these sentiments, and academic analysts of Ultima Online who have worked with users of the software concur that the principal
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