I love it when I discover utterly bizarre and wonderfully unique worlds on the Internet previously unknown to me. And of course, as is so often the case, I did so when browsing Wikipedia. Specifically, in the article about NetHack which I check occasionally for updates to this deeply fascinating comptuer game classic, I found a reference to another game called Kingdom of Loathing I head never heard of. The article is pretty informative, though I think the intro written by the game’s designers gives you a better feel for the game. 😉
Essentially, KoL is a browser-based role playing game and online community, but instead of fighting giant rats or hordes of the undead, your enemies are sabre-toothed limes, ninja snowmen, and fluffy rabbits. Items (“filthy corduroys”) and character classes (“disco bandits”) are equally bizarre. But what is the most surprising (and perhaps concerning) is the number of active players. The KoL community is huge, with more than 2 million messages posted to the game’s forums, and thousands of players logged in at a time. The community is further sustained by large fan websites, “clans”, and frequent real-life meetings. The game is financially supported by donations and merchandise.
What makes it, to me, more fascinating than other similar browser-based game communities is the incredible level of surrealism and satire. It is in some ways a complete abstraction of certain RPG core principles like quests, skills, levels, magic, all these elements being replaced by jokes and nonsense. The visuals are literally doodles and stick figures, and interactivity is limited by the minimal browser interface. Still, in spite of the lack of an environment that could possibly be immersive without additional drug use, all the core RPG mechanisms seem to be as addictive as ever to its user base (though I would imagine that the humor also helps).
Within Wikipedia, factions often dispute the usefulness of articles about “non-notable” web phenomena like this one, because they tend to not receive significant coverage outside the web’s micromedia. I’m glad Wikipedia has an article about KoL, especially because no other place would provide me with a neutral, comprehensive summary of such a bizarre subculture. Indeed, I hope that the wikisphere will encourage and drive original research into these topics — not in Wikipedia itself, but in other spaces like Wikiversity and Wikinews. Even within Wikipedia, I hope the bias against using primary sources in documenting projects like KoL will decrease. Indeed, as I mentioned previously, I think wikis have the potential to take referencing to new levels.
And why, you might ask, is it even important to understand such an obscure, silly phenomenon? Why is it important to understand gaming culture, furries, or TV fandom? Should we not dismiss such embarrassing cultural idiocy, and lead humanity towards a golden age of a new enlightenment? I believe in the latter, but not in the former. If we want to advance as a species, we must understand what makes us tick. We must develop models that help us to explain why people form online communities around the idea of hunting menacing citrus fruits. If we can accurately predict these motivations and their underlying patterns, we can make use of this knowledge to build sustainable communities dedicated to human progress. Should, for example, a project like Wikipedia make use of RPG-like mechanisms to build motivation for routine tasks? Probably not, but right now we are stumbling in the dark when it comes to predicting the effects particular mechanisms might have, because we have no empirically sound framework to place them in. We can use trial and error, but the more errors we make, the harder it gets to justify more trials.
Information gathered about a project like KoL should eventually be part of a massive database with an overlaid ontology which allows us to compare it to similar communities (online and offline), analyze growth patterns, see relevant case studies of conflicts and procedures, and so on. Psychologists, economists, sociologists, historians, neurobiologists, and researchers from many other disciplines ought to work together in developing unified models we need to engineer the rules and structures of networked communities systematically towards certain ends. That will require science itself to mesh into a networked community, independent of institutions and disciplines. We see the early beginnings of this in the wikisphere, but also in the open access movement with PLoS leading the way in web-based innovation of the scientific process. But there are still great challenges to overcome, ranging from proprietary licensing and closed data over institutional vanity and academic arrogance to short-sightedness in policies for communities like Wikipedia.
And that’s why you should care about ninja snowmen.