Social Networking and Digital Gaming Media Convergence: Consequences for Appropriation in Habbo Hotel

Marie Griffiths and Ben Light

Introduction

In this paper, we raise some of the ethically related challenges faced by users when social networking and digital gaming media converge. Media convergence involves the combining of several different products into one. The Sony PlayStation 3 (PS3) console is one such example – it is, amongst other things, a gaming console, Blu-Ray disc player, CD player, and access point to the internet. We argue that such convergence brings problems of classification, and from this, amongst other things, ethical challenges in appropriation. Classification can be seen as a spatio-temporal segmentation of the world into sets of ‘boxes’ into which things can be put (Bowker and Star 1999). Although ideally classification systems would be consistent, mutually exclusive and complete, the matter is much more complicated. For instance, as Bowker and Star state, people disagree about their nature (leading to inconsistencies), where a particular thing being classified sits (in one or more sections – leading to erosions of exclusivity) and it might be that systems are not necessarily able to accommodate new entrants (they are incomplete). Clearly, media convergence as exemplified by the PS3 console attunes us to the problems of classification. Yet, despite the problems of classification, taxonomy can matter as this can affect how such things that are being classified are given meaning. For example, in defending their business model against the recording industry, Napster’s lawyers claimed that computers were like cassette based video recorders and should be regulated as such according to the 1992 Audio Home Recording Act in the United States (Spitz and Hunter 2005). The Recording Industry Association of America’s response was that this classification was flawed, as a computer was nothing like a video recorder because of its potential other uses. Given the rise of media convergence, this kind of argument arguably takes on interesting importance.

We are interested in what classifications do, who does that work and the ethical challenges that arise as a result. It is perhaps best therefore to set out our stall with respect to ethics at this point. We have purposefully chosen not to subscribe to a particular strand of philosophical ethics as even though there are strengths and weaknesses that come with various bodies of thought, it is well known that any one strand is never going to provide all the answers (Adam 2005; Johnson 2001). Broadly conceived, ethics concerns questions of the nature of morality, its requirements, and its justification (Sterba 1998). Ethics involves classification and thus comes with the complexities that we have already mentioned. For our purposes here then, we are interested in taking the basic features of ethics – a concern with interpretations of morality - and developing an understanding of the ethical issues that arise in the context of the convergence where media components have previously been classified in different ways.

With this as a backdrop, we provide an analysis of Habbo Hotel – www.habbo.co.uk (Habbo), something which is simultaneously classified by developers and members as a social networking site and an online digital game. Of particular interest to us is the relationship (or lack of) between such classifications of Habbo functionality, the meanings ascribed to the classifications of online and offline, and the scamming activities that are performed in this play space. Habbo incorporates social network site features through member profiles, which include text, images, and video created by the member, in addition to comments and chat narratives from other members. Sulka Haro, a Habbo Developer, makes a comparison of Habbo with the social networking site Facebook, and its use of applications, characterising it as a playspace in which you can ‘do stuff with other people’ (Sheffield 2007). However, it is important to note that boyd1 when attempting to define social network site functionality, maintains that defining a category through articulated boundaries is problematic (boyd 2008). Indeed, as Bowker and Star state, classification systems can valorise one point of view whilst silencing others (Bowker and Star 1999). Thus, we can envisage social network sites taking other forms and incorporating features of other classifications of online space. In this respect, Habbo includes features of Multi-User Domains (MUDs) in that members create avatars, which are used to facilitate playing and the exploration of the environment alongside other members. Habbo also incorporates digital gaming functionality as many ‘mini games’ such as Wobble Squabble and Snow Storm are available within the site too. Aside from any other interpretation then, we can see at least two classifications – Habbo as a place to socially network and to play games.

In the next section, we briefly historically contextualise contemporary play and then consider recent debates regarding social networking sites and digital gaming – the predominant ways that Habbo is classified. In particular, we attend to the ethical issues that have been raised in these areas. Following this, we describe our research approach, a qualitative field study guided by the social shaping of technology. We then present an interpretation of our findings which involves an examination of the different classifications of Habbo, how the space is further developed in situ, and the ethical issues this raises. Finally, the paper concludes. Our findings demonstrate that Habbo matters online and offline yet this might not be clear to members, resulting in differing ethical stances. Moreover, this lack of clarity could be attributed to the fact members are simultaneously using a technology of play that involves elements of social networking and digital gaming.

Technologies of Play

Childhood leisure activities have long been known to be fraught with fighting and other such pursuits deemed harmful (Avedon and Sutton-Smith 1971; Fine 1987). Moreover, if we attend to what we might call technologies of play, there are examples of what might be seen as harmful conditions created and subsequent moral panics. For example, it was reported that active secondary markets grew around the collection and trade of Pokemon cards and Beanie Baby toys in the 1990s. Reports of thefts, violent assault, bamboozlement, gambling addiction and greed surrounding these goods were rife throughout the media during this period (Cook 2001). This was fuelled by the production of limited quantities of particular cards or Beanie Babies (some Beanie Babies were also ‘retired’). Such was the demand for rare Beanie Babies, cases emerged of 5 dollar babies being sold on eBay for 1200 dollars. Regarding Pokemon, older or more knowledgeable children cheated others out of valuable cards. Even more dramatically, a 14 year old boy ran over his school mate on his bike and stole 150 of his cards (Cook 2001). Some saw this situation as unethical and filed lawsuits against the manufacturers; others lauded the ‘real world’ lessons learned from it. The technology of play of interest here, Habbo, is classified as a social networking site and as a digital game. In the following sections therefore, we will consider some of the issues associated with these two technologies in order to inform the interpretation of our fieldwork.

In terms of social networking sites, it is important to consider the links between online and offline given that such engagements have been argued to involve instances of online friends meeting up offline (Gennaro and Dutton 2007), and the trajectories of the development of artefacts shifting from the online space to those offline (Fletcher and Light 2007). Moreover, we cannot ignore the use of sites such as Facebook, which allow offline friends to increase the sophistication of their interaction with those same friends online. Social networking tools such as Facebook also allow people to search for past friends and acquaintances resulting in old friendships being rekindled offline. Larsen, based upon her study of Arto (www.arto.dk) argues that such sites can be seen as a continuation of young people’s everyday (offline) lives and thus they try to be as sincere as possible (Larsen 2007). During her ethnography, she observed several actions that led her to conclude that a strong sincerity discourse exists amongst those on Arto. A particular example is what she calls the fight against ‘Fakers’ – those who are felt to have false profiles – such as older men presenting themselves as 17 year old lesbians. Members of the community would post messages stating such members were ‘Fakers’ and sometimes this would also be accompanied by an explanation of how they know this to be the case (Larsen 2007). Whilst we would certainly agree with Larsen that sincerity is an important feature of such interactions, Larsen would most likely agree with us too, that not all interactions are so well intended (as evidenced by the presence of Fakers). Indeed, boyd also notes that even genuine users of social networking sites may engage in deception (change their age/location for example) to avoid the watchful eyes of their parents (boyd 2008). Deception in such networks is thus, of course, not unheard of.

It has been argued that academic and public discourses on digital gaming have tended to focus upon such issues as addiction, isolation and impaired social skills (Yates and Littleton 1999) despite, the isolated studies which suggest they can be a healthy part of adolescent development (Durkin and Barber 2002) and their widespread use as educational tools (Selfe and Hawisher 2007). Indeed, a cursory glance at the internet reveals many studies concerned with the problems of digital games, in particular as related to discourses regarding the portrayal of sexual and violent activities mirroring debates regarding acceptable television viewing and film classifications. Yet, it is important to contrast this with contemporary gaming research within the social sciences which shows that gamers can be incredibly social beings who see collaboration and socialisation as a necessary and integral part of game play (Chen 2005; Smith 2006). Although many games deploy competition to facilitate play, cooperation can also be seen as key – especially in massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). The production of social networks and the circulation of social capital has been argued to be one of the most important aspects of MMORPGs (Kolo and Baur 2004; Taylor 2006). Indeed, it has been argued that cooperation is crucial in any game where opportunistic behaviour on the parts of individuals can diminish the playability or enjoyment of the game (Smith 2006). Contemporary gaming can be a positive social experience – it is definitely our experience as digital game players ourselves! However, multiplayer games can also be rife with tension brought about by social dilemmas (Taylor 2006). Smith (2006) suggests three aspects as particularly important: cheating, grief play (players choosing playing styles that, although afforded by the game code, run contrary to the enjoyment that others can achieve from the game) and irresponsible participation (disrespecting interaction conventions that players must abide by if they wish to keep the playing experience enjoyable for others).

Such tensions within multiplayer games are also intertwined with arguments regarding the ethics of games developers. It has, for example, been argued that by modelling the relation of an act to its consequences, the designer signals social approval or disapproval (Brey 1999). It has also been suggested that games designers decide the set of possibilities and meanings for a game including the atmosphere, interactions, actions and feedback, yet rather than elaborating on ethics, they often rely on free speech legislation to defend their right to not take such considerations into account (Dodig-Crnkovic and Larsson 2005). Irrespective of the responsibilities of games developers, the argument that they define the parameters of a game and by implication, that these are adhered to, is technologically deterministic. It is technologically deterministic because it assumes that the technology will play out in the way the designer intended, otherwise, why the concern regarding their ethical position? However, players do not have complete agency either. The ability to read the affordances (properties and environment of the system) and employ effectivities (actor abilities that allow them to make use of affordances) is dependent upon the users’ interaction with the content and the context of the game they are playing, which in turn is based upon their position in the game based upon the cultural competencies they bring to the table (Yates and Littleton 1999). Thus, a sensible position to take is that gamer and game mutually shape each other as the game is enacted.

Research Approach in Brief

This study is part of a wider research programme aimed at understanding ICTs and Society, in particular social networking and digital gaming appropriation. This particular contribution arose out of the desire to consider what might be deemed anti-social networking and to add some balance to the discussion of such technologically mediated interactions as either wholly good or bad. In common with interpretive research practices, data collection and analysis were conducted simultaneously. The body of theory we draw upon is the Social Shaping of Technology (SST) – for overviews see (Mackenzie and Wajcman 1999; SØrensen 2002; Williams and Edge 1996). SST is based upon a critique of social and technological determinism. It challenges the view that ICT based systems are often reported as being delivered as complete solutions whereby systems are built by involving users to produce a working system that it is used in the fashion the designer intended. If we theorize adoption in this way, it becomes quite a linear process. This has been further linked with the design fallacy – the presumption that the primary solution to meeting user needs is to build ever more extensive knowledge about the specific context and purposes of various users into technology design (Stewart and Williams 2005). Stewart and Williams argue that the problem with this thinking is that it privileges prior design, it is unrealistic and unduly simplistic, it may not be effective in enhancing design/use and it overlooks opportunities for intervention. An SST informed view requires that the appropriation of sociotechnical networks is seen as nonlinear and indeterminate. Such processes are dependant upon who is, and is not, involved along the way. Therefore the analysis of their appropriation must incorporate a wider context that may include for instance - the actors that design, construct and use particular technologies and the norms that shape expectations of its uses (Monberg 2005). To structure our data collection and analysis we drew upon a variety of concepts from this body of work.

  • Relevant Social Groups – those groups who share a particular view of an artefact (Pinch and Bijker 1987)
  • Interpretive flexibility – the potential for different groups to give different meanings to an artefact (Pinch and Bijker 1987)
  • Inscription – the idea that artefacts are constructed, based on a prediction about the worlds in which they will be used (Akrich 1992).
  • Configurational technology – the idea that technologies are not completely specified apriori and require ongoing work in situ (Fleck 1994)
  • Innofusion – the recognition of innovation occurring in the process of diffusion at the local level (Fleck 1994)

Thus, we sought out various groups of people who were defined by their relationship to a particular interpretation of Habbo. Further we aimed to highlight Habbo’s inscriptions and, importantly the processes of innofusion taking place given our starting point was to conceptualise it as a configurational technology.

The Case of Habbo Hotel in Brief

Habbo launched in Finland in 2000 and currently operates in 32 countries. In February 2008 Habbo was comprised of 89 million avatars with 90 per cent of those being registered as between the ages of 13 and 18 (Sulake 2008b). Habbos are customizable avatars that inhabit a simple graphic isometric tile-based environment. There are three main worlds, one based in Canada, another in the United Kingdom and a third in the United States. In 2006 Habbo Home was launched bringing what would be commonly understood as social networking functionality to the site.

Habbos communicate while in the Hotel via a chat system that is dependant upon distance. The tiled floor environment is used as a basis for this. Habbos within five tiles of each other can converse with each, as the Habbos move away the text facilitating the conversation becomes incomprehensible. This system allows several conversations to occur in a small area without the Habbos interrupting each other. Members can meet up with existing friends, make new friends, buy a pet, play online games together, personalize their own home pages or decorate their private rooms with virtual Furniture or ‘Furni’ which is bought with Habbo credits. Habbo provides a catalogue of a wide-range of Furni that can be bought or traded including refrigerators, chairs, beds, benches, toilets, television sets and teleporters. The cost of credits depends upon how they are bought but they range from £3 for 35 credits if bought via a mobile phone account to £1 for 10 credits if bought online using a credit card. The purchasing of Habbo credits represents over 50% of Sulake’s revenue. In 2007, Furni in Habbo Hotel was estimated to have a total value of around USD$550,000,000 (Nutt 2007).

Apart from a wide range of standard Furni available, to buy or trade, rare Furni, prizes or seasonal Furni can also be bought or won by participating in online games. Habbo Hotel encourages Habbos to join in member generated events and official Habbo competitions. Rare Furni such as thrones (costing 25 credits) are available for short periods including Christmas, Valentines Day and Halloween. In October 2007 we found a throne on sale on eBay with an auction starting price of £19.99 even though it is against Habbo rules to do this. Habbos can trade with other Habbos to officially swap Furni if both parties agree. However, trading is supposed to be take place on the Trading Floor. Alternatively, Habbos dupe other Habbos of their Furni and this is referred to as scamming. Table 1 details some fairly typical scams.

Table 1: Scamming Games in Habbo

Email scam Habbos are warned not to give out their e-mail addresses used to register with Habbo Hotel. Scammers send e-mails that are designed to mimic official Habbo e-mail. The e-mail may ask a Habbo for their password and direct them to a bogus website where they are asked to sign in with the Habbo details
Furni Cloning Habbos claim that they can clone Furni by placing it in a certain place or by clicking the mouse a number of times. They obtain member account details to do this and then steal Furni
Gold Digging One of the male Habbos told us a story about how he was scammed by a female Habbo via the process of getting married – a common feature of the Habbo community. A marriage was arranged in one of the Chapels. This included bridesmaids, a best man and a vicar. Even the Habbo’s mother and brother came into his bedroom to watch the ceremony. The Habbo said he was not really knowledgeable about what other Habbos may do to get Furni. He quickly learned. When recalling the incident he said “She was just a gold-digger, the minute we were married she wanted to know how much Furni I had, so I gave her a stool and got away.”
Rogue Decorators Habbos pose as decorators, offer to decorate a room, obtain member account details to do this, and then steal Furni
Virtual Prostitution A relatively new phenomenon is the ‘Furni whore’(male and female Habbos who will offer to bobba for virtual Furni). Bobba is a word used for any expletives in this community. This exercise (apparently) is relatively easy to execute by finding a private room. Habbo has rules against this kind of behaviour, the Habbos cannot touch each other, but this activity may be performed through words. We were told that sometimes ‘the bobba’ didn’t happen once the Furni had been handed over

More ominous antisocial behaviour that Habbo has been unable prohibit are racist and homophobic activities amongst the Habbos. There are some basic controls in place such as the word ‘bobba’ to replace any profanities or ‘hate speech’ that maybe used. The hierarchy of policing the network site is by an overall ‘Hotel Manager’ then there is a ‘Community Manager’ who is responsible for moderation throughout the virtual community, employing the services of in-game moderators or ‘Mods’. If Habbos are deemed to be breaking rules or behaving antisocially they will be either observed first hand by a Mod or reported on so a Mod can deal with the incident. Mods have certain powers, they can send individual Habbos a message which appears publicly in a pop-up window and they can also mute Habbos, ‘kick’ them out of a room or ban them from habbo. Nevertheless this moderation process of empowering Mods with too much influence and authorisation is problematic. Teen forums are awash with accounts of racial, homophobic and bullying activities on the Habbo sites. Accompanying this we found recorded instances of racial activities on You Tube 2 with certain Habbos being banned because they are black or have an afro. There are also images of Habbo post-it notes stuck at the entrance to some rooms saying ‘Whites Only’, alongside these are homophobic comments on the post-it notes saying ‘No faggots allowed’ ‘Gays not allowed’ or that you can catch AIDS or HIV from the pools. Habbo has made no official comment regarding this type of antisocial behaviour but has attempted to help set-up and promote anti-racism groups. They also advise members to report when other Habbos use ‘hate speech or make rude comments about a Habbo's race, religion, gender or sexuality’. The response however amongst the Habbos has been an annual protest in the guise of professionally co-ordinated raids with the objective to crash the Habbo sites. The organised anti-racism raiders are known as the ‘Nigraz.’ The seek to counter the behaviour and existence of the racist ‘Ablinos’ who adopt white skinned albino avatars. The Albino group is reportedly mostly made up of the Mods. The Nigraz are easily recognised with a dress code of black (Armani) suits, black shoes, brown skin and an afro haircut. The Albinos also have a dress code of black clothing but with a black hat and white skin. A publicity campaign is used to generate awareness and interest of proposed raids. The intention of previous raids was for the ‘Nigraz’ to flood every room, to block doorways or pathways and crowd out public areas ultimately blocking the pool areas. There were thousands of Habbos involved in the raids and the attack was strategically planned on a global level, synchronising the raid across different countries. The raids were effective in meeting their objective by crashing several countries Habbo sites. In response to the Nigraz raids the opposing Albino raiders grouped together to fashion the shapes of a swastikas and burning crosses.

Conclusions and Implications

In conclusion, we argue that paying attention to the area of ICTs and society is necessary given its importance within our lives and increased media convergence. Our research highlights the ethical problems that may be associated with media convergence given the prior classification of included components. In sum, Habbo is comprised of social networking and digital gaming activities. Habbo originally started out as a game but has since evolved to included social networking functionality. Moreover, both classes of these technologies have evolved to incorporate features of the other. Thus, social networking includes gaming and gaming includes social networking. This evolution further blurs ethical considerations as social networking might normally be associated with ‘reality’ and digital gaming with ‘fantasy’.

Within Habbo a range of activities are evident that we understand Habbos would not necessarily engage with offline. Such practices appear not to have been intended by the original developers of the space and, indeed, they do not directly promote such practices. Some might, however argue that they fuel scamming by charging for Furni and releasing special pieces of ‘rare’ Furni in particular. The Habbo development team engage in practices, and encourage other Habbos to engage in practices of education to alleviate the problems of scamming. The scamming practices are enacted by a range of techniques deployed by Habbos who consider their actions as fun and nothing to do with the real world. On this point at least, our work suggests that sometimes, online activities are bracketed off from those deemed offline because of how such activities are classified – as social networking or digital gaming.

So what next? Clearly things happen in spaces like Habbo that many would regard as unacceptable, particularly those recent commentators who have dammed teen social networking sites because of issues to do with soft porn and a lack of socialisation. However, these spaces also are incredibly social and are not disconnected from offline activities. Even in our study, Habbo does offer a positive social space online and it also creates social spaces that shift offline too. The implications of our work echo back to more traditional views of how technologies of play are made to work and incorporated into the lives of people in their homes and society. As Cook (2001) suggests, people cannot be insulated and protected from ‘the outside’. They probably never could have been. Thus, maybe the way forward is to continue the project of educating people, as best we can, about the difficulties of determining rights and wrongs and how rights and wrongs may be acted out with respect to new technologies of play. This point is just as relevant to developers of such spaces, as it is the people who use them. Whilst we would not want to fall into the technologically deterministic trap of the design fallacy, developers clearly have a hand in shaping such spaces.

Notes

1 This is not a typographical error – danah boyd prefers not to use capitalisation in her name – see www.danah.org.
2 YouTube – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1JyoQXEdOGAandfeature=related

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