Book Review: Play Between Worlds

It's no surprise that massively multiplayer online (MMO) games have caught on. They're unique to the video game industry in how they portray social interactions. In fact, they rely on that element to draw players into their worlds. And, beyond the capabilities of one's avatar, whether it be orc, human or goblin, there's a lot more to MMOs than people realize. Author T. L. Taylor's goal in Play Between Worlds is to make sense of it all.

After an appropriately brief history of the MMO genre (going back to text-based MUDs), Taylor begins an academic approach to explaining EverQuest. Her experience is the centerpiece of the book, a four-year romp through the game's world of Norrath along with some additional material to beef up the page count. Taylor succeeds in making it apparent to the reader that EverQuest and its ilk are something entirely different from what people typically expect a video game to be all about.

Her opening chapter details experiences at an EverQuest convention, a great way to show off the often intense feeling of camaraderie formed between MMO devotees. Subsequent chapters address a wide variety of topics that have been brought up over the years in relation to EverQuest such as its impressive in-game economy, lawsuits, family playing, and even racism.

The volume of information included is impressive. For all but die-hard players, much will be surprising. Taylor's writing style, while rather like that of a textbook, does well in documenting even basic MMO terminology like "level up."

A chapter on female gamers is of special interest. Taylor handily dispenses with the stereotype that women don't play games. Female MMO gamers exist, and they play a lot. Those who still view gamers as nine year-old basement dwellers will share her amazement at the variety of people attending conventions. However, Play Between Worlds doesn't just mention the players, it tells us how and why they play.

There are fascinating stories here, including that of a family with four separate computers - one for every member of the household - all questing together at the same time. Taylor's discussions with players she's met or played with add to the book's appeal. Including the perspectives of other players also keeps the work from being a mere recap of Taylor's EverQuest experiences.

Thankfully, the author's exploration of topic includes how the EQ community has grown, fought, and struggled. There is mention of numerous skirmishes between the playing (and paying) MMO community and the game's developer. There is also research done at length of the phenomenon of actual real world money being used to boost characters and the controversy surrounding that practice.

Beyond Taylor's near-exclusive focus on EverQuest (other MMO's are discussed only sporadically), there's not a lot missing from Play Between Worlds. The only notable omission is her failure to address MMO addiction, a controversial aspect of the genre which manages to find its way into the mainstream media with increasing regularity. To be fair, there are portions of the book where this is implied, such as Taylor's discussion of players having multiple PCs with multiple copies of the game running at once in the same room, but she never directly addresses the issue of obsession.

Beyond that, Taylor's somewhat arid writing style may turn off readers hoping for something a little more approachable. As for veteran MMO players, they will likely have experienced through game play most of what is discussed in the book. However, anyone looking for MMO basics as well as some great game anecdotes will find Taylor's work engrossing. This still-fresh gaming genre provides plenty of room for thoughtful analysis and T. L. Taylor handles the topic with obvious affection for MMO's and their devotees.

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