Virtual worlds promise to manifest a place. The nature, organization, aesthetic and design of that space will reflect a particular way of thinking unique to the designer; but, when a player enters the virtual world, they know very little about those qualities. A virtual world becomes familiar through a process of acculturation and movement. Moving, or trying to move, can teach a player a lot about what is valued, what is expected, and what is power. Perhaps any geographer or architect will affirm that the shape, material, and boundaries of a space are just a few of the elements that manipulate and encode human behavior with meaning—and the same can be said about algorithmic and programmatic structures that translate computer mouse movement into a walking avatar. Social behavior can also be shaped recursively in a space; players themselves can elaborate upon the structure in the production of culture. Anything is theoretically possible with a computer programming language, and so the design of a virtual world—unlike the design of other cultural forms related to art and entertainment—has the potential to offer players and designers unique dimensions of experience and expression that are multiplicitous and plural.
While only conceptually bounded by the creativity of human imagination, virtual worlds are necessarily limited by frameworks that organize and manifest space, language, and bodies. Theoretically, virtual worlds are new media objects; Castronova argues that they are a technology in and of themselves, characteristically vehicular environments that transport people into a collective fantasy existence (2007: 5). As new media objects, virtual worlds are representatively numerical, modular, and variable; and, they do tend to reconstitute culture in the process of “computerizing” familiar aspects of the real world (cf. Manovich, 2002). As objects, virtual worlds are naturalized as separate entities to the real one; and similarly, virtual identities are naturalized as fragmented and only loosely connected to the material body. Really—so the logic goes—these worlds are simply containers that shape and organize human experience; ultimately, they can be reduced to algorithms and mathematical abstractions that have been orchestrated for affect. Within this operational paradigm, the virtual world is rendered as a discrete object that borrows from the real world, but that does not reflect back into the cultural system from whence it came. What I hope this thesis serves to do, however, is interrogate how a rethinking of the virtual world and the body can more meaningfully understand the symbiotic relationship between the player and the virtual world as co-arbitrators of human experience. This is a political intervention as much as it is a theoretical one. Rather than try to understand what a virtual world is, or necessarily who inhabits a virtual world, I want to turn attention to the boundaries of these spaces to understand what cannot or who cannot exist within a virtual world by virtue of design.
I am centrally concerned with the co-arbitrated constitution of gender within virtual worlds. Designers refract gender politics through their games, and players routinely embrace or struggle with those values. This thesis will argue that the process of constitution is reflected in the language, space, and bodies that inhabit the boundaries of the virtual world of Minecraft (Mojang, 2011). Inspired by the work of T.L. Taylor, Lisa Nakamura, Carol Stabile, María Lugones, and Donna Haraway this thesis will trouble theoretical notions of where the boundaries of the virtual world lie, and how recursive activity in and around the game generates normative cultural praxis. Building parallel to the work of Fron et. al. (2007) and their conceptualization of hegemonic play, this thesis is a textual analysis and discourse analysis that examines the social and programmatic construction of the game by interrogating how code, design, and fan modifications limit and facilitate play in the videogame Minecraft.