April 21, 2006
A Night in Milliways (final version - first part)
On June 30, 2004, a small group of role-players placed their first posts on a new LiveJournal role-playing game named Milliways Bar. Each mun had a character drawn from a popular-culture "canon" (a novel, play, movie, or television show) which the mun hoped to give new life. In the game, heroes and villains (and some characters who were both or neither) found themselves pulled out of their worlds and brought to a mysterious bar run by an enigmatic Landlord. In reality, their new home was moderated by two (soon to be four) women who first met among the pages of LiveJournal. Milliways, the setting for this “pan-fandom LiveJournal role-playing game,” first appeared in the 1982 science-fiction novel by Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Credit for recreating Milliways as a role-playing community belongs to 'Nny ("Yeah, I nicked the name. I was drunk.") of Cardiff, Wales, and Sophie, of Dublin, Ireland. Two early players--Meg, of Indianapolis, Indiana, and Josie, a recent arrival to Ann Arbor, Michigan--also became moderators a few months later. Though the online community describes Milliways as a bar, not a restaurant, its identity remains otherwise intact as the ultimate tourist attraction, offering visitors a spectacular view of the universe in its final hours.
Two years later, Milliways Bar is a thriving community with over 150 contributing members from the United States, Canada, Britain, Ireland, Australia and South America. The establishment is populated by a colorful mob of characters from throughout time and space. Nearly all of them first came to the bar by accident, walking through a normal-looking door only to find themselves guests of the Landlord. No one has ever seen, much less met, the bar's owner, but day-to-day management of the place is in the hands of Head Barman Bernard Mickey Wrangle (from Tom Robbins’ Still Life with Woodpecker). Most of the denizens of Milliways spend their time drinking, eating, carousing and feuding with their fellow barmates. Some travel the universe (or rather, the "multiverse"), others are ‘Bound’ to the bar. Many will eventually leave to meet their final Destiny, but until then, their journeys eventually bring them back to Milliways, where each character has, more or less, carved out a space for him-, her-, or itself. 
This initial paper is intended to be an introduction to Milliways Bar. It begins with an overview of the many elements that make up the community, then goes on to consider various topics such as how members learn to play the game, how the community regulates behavior, and how identities evolve within the context of the game. Many of the concepts used here to explore Milliways come from the book Communities of Practice, by Etienne Wenger, which has been very helpful for explaining much of what happens inside and outside the game.
Technical aspects of the game
The main ‘stage’ of the community is the LiveJournal "Milliways Bar." When a player (known as a ‘mun’) posts a thread to this LiveJournal he is announcing to other players that his character (known as a ‘pup’) has just entered the bar. Muns who want to have their pups interact with the new arrival can ‘tag’ this new thread with posts of their own, and the muns then trade posts back-and-forth. The thread thus becomes a process of collaborative storytelling, and also a record of that interaction for other players in the game. These threads occupy the main column of the Milliways Bar LiveJournal, flanked on the left by icons of the pups contributing to the thread. On the right hand side of the page is a long column of links. At the top are basic reference and introductory pages. Below them are links to several LiveJournal pages which are used in various ways to support the events taking place on the main page. Below these links are a long list of tags, a recent addition to the page, which allows muns to tag a thread with the names of the pups who appear in it and, if the thread is part of a larger story, with the name of the 'plot' as well.
Figure 1: The Milliways Bar LiveJournal
The supporting LiveJournal pages on the right hand side of the page fulfill a number of functions. The most important of these LiveJournals is “Ways Back Room,” which acts as a bulletin board for the entire community. Here muns can post messages to explain their absence (usually the fault of that annoying thing, Real Life), announce new plots or developments for their pups, or coordinate real-life gatherings known as “Millicons.” In addition to the Back Room, there are also several "Role-Playing
Figure 2: Ways Back Room
Communities,” which are supplementary storytelling journals for specific groups in the bar, such as doctors (“ways_infirmary”) or the bar staff (“ways_office”). Threads posted in these sub-communities are given links to the main page once they are finished so other members of the community can keep up with what is happening in them if they wish. There are also “Plotting Communities,” which are meta-spaces for coordinating elaborate story lines. Each of these communities is based around pups from a specific canon, including the television series “24” (“24_ways”) and “Lost” (“casta_ways”); the Harry Potter books (“potter_ways”); the musical “Rent” (“ways_for_rent”); and movies such as “Dead Poets Society” (“welton_ways”) and the Star Wars series (“far_far_aways”). In addition to all of these, each pup has a LiveJournal of his or her own, which is created by the mun during the application process. Every post in Milliways includes a link (found on the left, directly under the icon) to the pup's LiveJournal page, which allows other muns to refer to it and glean basic information about that pup and his or her canon. Finally,
Figure 3: A typical LiveJournal pup information page
there are several miscellaneous support pages. These include attempts to document the Milliways community, including a “milliWiki” and a “millipedia,” which, unfortunately, have all proven too time-consuming for their creators to maintain for very long. There is, however, a very good “milliDictionary” of community terms; pages used for adopting or requesting pups ("millidoption" and "milli_wanted"); and two pages for posting memorable threads ("milliquotes") and quotes from the chatroom ("milli_crack").
In addition to LiveJournal, most muns use AOL chat rooms to interact with other muns, and nearly all of them use Instant Messaging as well. The largest of the chat rooms is “crackchat” (or “crackways”), described in the FAQ as “the affectionate name we have for our AIM chats.”  Chat and IM give muns a more immediate kind of contact than the LiveJournal pages alone would allow, and make it easier for two or more muns to coordinate the conversation or plot they are constructing in a thread. They also allow a mun to clarify what he meant if another mun does not understand his most recent post. Some muns use chat to signal to a collaborating mun that they have just responded to their post. (This is usually done by typing, “Tag <X>,” where <X> is the name of the other mun’s pup.) But chat is probably most important for providing a virtual space where muns are free to talk about the game, various canons, or anything else that comes to mind. In that respect, they have helped to sustain a sense of community that LiveJournal alone might not have achieved (though chat rooms can also be a source of conflict as well).
Milliways Bar as a ‘community of practice’
The primary activity of the muns in Milliways Bar is collaborative storytelling, and the means by which they perform this activity, creating LiveJournal threads, is a perfect illustration of Etienne Wenger’s ‘negotiation of meaning.’  Wenger uses this phrase to refer to the kinds of interactions that take place among members of the community. It includes two processes. The first is participation, which Wenger defines as, "a process of taking part [in an activity], and also to the relations with others that reflect this process. It suggests both action and connection." (This definition is basically the same as the common understanding of the word.) The second process is reification, in which members "[give] form to [their] experience by producing objects that congeal this experience into 'thingness.'" In other words, when people take an abstract concept and make it concrete, that concept becomes easier to talk about. "When a newscast reports that 'democracy took a blow during a military coup,' or that 'the economy reacted slowly to the government's action,' the process of reification provides a shortcut to communication." 
When muns create threads in Milliways, they are sharing in an activity, and at the same time, they are establishing or furthering their relations with other members of the Milliways community. Yet this act of participation is also an act of reification, because the thread that constitutes that participation is also a record of it. The thread, as a reified object, is available to the participating muns and all the other muns as well, and that means they are able to negotiate with one another about what that thread should "mean" for the pups (and muns) who took part in it. If the events recorded by the thread are important, the thread might also have meaning for other pups (and muns) in the bar as well. Because different members of the community will probably have different opinions about what that meaning should be, Wenger calls their interaction a "negotiation of meaning." The repercussions of a meaning could play out in other threads. In fact, any thread could demand a renegotiation of the meaning of a preceding thread, even if an entirely different set of pups and muns are involved. The pups in that later thread may, after all, be reacting to events that took place in the preceding thread, either because they saw what happened (the virtual space of the bar is open enough to allow people to see what others are doing) or because they heard about it from other pups.
This "negotiation of meaning" brings coherence to what Wenger calls a "community of practice," a community characterized by "mutual engagement," "a joint enterprise," and "a shared repertoire."
There is mutual engagement when many people come together to perform a "shared practice." For Milliways, this means creating threads as acts of collaborative storytelling. To participate in this way, a mun must first “app” (submit an application for) a pup to the moderators, receive approval for that pup, and then introduce her newly created pup into the bar by means of an introductory thread. Then the mun "enables engagement" by announcing the presence of her pup in the bar, and making herself available to other muns so the process of negotiation can begin.
The joint enterprise of Milliways is the collective goal of creating plots and other interactions among the pups that make Milliways Bar a rich environment for storytelling. Different muns may have varying methods for achieving this. Some may resort to humor, others to pathos, still others to some combination of these or to other literary modes and genres. Yet the freedom to improvise in this way contributes to the diversity of the storytelling environment. Muns are also "mutually accountable" to one another because the more they strive to become better role-players (and to help other muns do the same), the more successful and enjoyable Milliways will be as a game. Unfortunately, like any joint enterprise, Milliways is also subject to "external influences." The most important of these is "Real Life," which always puts demands on muns' limited time. Another is inconsistent service provided by internet service providers, LiveJournal and AIM, which regularly disrupts the creation of threads and participation in chat or instant messaging. But, as Wenger suggests, because every mun must deal with these challenges, they also contribute to the muns’ shared sense of community.
A shared repertoire consists of "routines, words, tools, ways of doing things, stories, gestures, symbols, genres, actions, or concepts that the community has produced or adopted in the course of its existence, and which have become part of its practice."  Milliways' shared repertoire is quite rich, with phrases, concepts, and memorable threads. A short review of some of the terms used in Milliways suggests how complex mun' interaction can be, and how conscious they are that they are engaged in collaborative storytelling:
- Canon: Defined by the milliDictionary as the “source material” for a pup. The game accepts a wide range of sources--books, films, television series, graphic novels, online comic strips, and so on—but every Milliways pup must have one. Original pups are not allowed.
- Crack: An amusingly flexible term for anything considered crazy, usually in a (mostly) positive sense. The chat room is often called ‘crackchat’ to reflect the fast-paced and frequently silly exchanges that take place there during its best (worst?) moments.
- Godding: The attempt by one mun to control the actions of another mun’s pup. If this attempt is uninvited, it is considered very rude behavior in the community and will probably result in a reprimand from the moderators. However, if one mun gives another permission to "god her pup," then it can also be a sign of the trust the two have in one another as good muns.
- IC and OOC: (“In character” and “Out of character”) Refers to acts, and sometimes thoughts, attributed to a pup by his or another mun. An act ‘in character’ is considered true to that pup as she appeared in the original canon, and/or as that pup has naturally evolved during her time in Milliways. In some cases--when a pup and a canon is known to several muns--deciding whether a given act is ‘in’ or ‘out’ can be a social process, a true ‘negotiation of meaning.’ That debate can become sharp if an action by one pup has a negative impact on another pup whose mun believes the act was "out of character."
Note: The term "OOC" is also used in threads to indicate comments made
directly by one mun to another mun. There are many reasons why a mun might
make such a comment, but one of the most common is to clarify intention. For
example, if a pup is insulting another pup, the mun may end his post with "[ooc:
sorry, he's really cranky today.]" to show that the insult is intended as an "in
character" act by the pup, and not meant to be taken personally by the mun
- Millitime: Placing a given thread out of the chronological order it would otherwise have in the main LiveJournal. This is accomplished by an announcement made at the beginning of the thread and is usually done to fill in a perceivable gap in a given plotline. While ‘Millitime’ is technically a noun, it is usually used as a verb (“[This thread is] Millitimed to three days ago…”)
- OOM: (“Out of Milliways”) Any Milliways scene that does not take place within the confines of the bar itself. Threads posted in one of the supporting "Role-playing Communities" are OOMs, as are scenes taking place in pups’ private rooms (located on floors above the bar). OOMs may also be used to give a pup more depth, usually by showing the pup responding to established events in her canon which would not be of immediate interest to other pups or which would be difficult or impossible to portray within the bar itself.
- Slowtime: A frequent occurrence when one or another mun must leave the game before they both agree a given thread is complete. The muns continue to add to the thread as opportunity permits during the following days, or in rare cases, weeks. Ideally, ‘slowtime’ continues until the conversation or scene described in the thread reaches a satisfying conclusion. If a period of slowtiming lasts for some time, it may overlap later interactions, putting a special demand on the muns to keep the timeline of events in proper order.
- Whitetext: Using an html element to render text in white, effectively making it invisible against the typical white background of Milliways threads. This might be done for various reasons, but the most common one is to reflect the deepest feelings and thoughts of a pup, including some of which the pup himself might not be entirely aware. Whitetext might also conceal ill-will harbored ‘in character’ by one pup against another.
There are gardens and lawn furniture, thanks to Asar-Suti. There are stables on
one side. There is a greenhouse. And there is a forest. Seasons follow current
earth seasons. It’s just easiest that way, and we tend to sort-of follow Scotland’s
weather patterns, but not precisely by any means….
How much leeway do I really have?
Loads. Some have said the lake is huge; others have said it’s not that big. There
are rocks here and there along its edge, but they haven’t been all that closely
described. If you have a worry about a description, do ping Josie, who is the mod
who tends to handle physical aspects of the bar.
Everything, therefore, is available for negotiation and renegotiation of meaning: the bar, its immediate surroundings, and every event that has taken place there (in the sense that all threads posted in the game become part of the LiveJournal archive). The only constants are the existence of the bar itself, and the simple “Rules” that are always in force: “No violence in the bar. No business in the bar. No sex in the bar.” Muns who decide a given plot or interaction demands their pup resort to one of these must either find a way to ‘take it out of the bar’ (and, therefore, into an OOM), or must risk the possibility of temporary imprisonment by the Security staff. Even in this case, however, the community is sufficiently large that an honor system is in force, with a mun usually contacting another mun (one whose pup is a member of the Security staff) and reporting the illegal act committed by his own pup.
I wish to thank moderators Josie, Meg, Sophie, and 'Nny for their generosity and patience in allowing me to interview them for this study. The starting date for the community was confirmed in that interview on April 8, 2006. The earliest posts are stored in the Milliways Bar LiveJournal archive, as of February 9, 2006, available at http://community.livejournal.com/
Interview with moderators on April 8, 2006; Thomas L. Strickland, "Herding Cats (and Demons and Witches) Managing Milliways Bar," Jive Magazine, March 30, 2005. Retrieved April 8, 2006, from http://www.jivemagazine.com/article.php?
The moderators noted that Wrangle was not the first Head Barman. That honor went to the Harry Potter character Sirius Black, who departed the bar on August 30, 2004. For an amusing example of Milliways' reach into Real Life, see: http://irinaauthor.livejournal.com/
Milliways Bar LiveJournal, FAQ, at http://community.livejournal.com/
A note on the use of pronouns: this paper will typically use feminine pronouns to acknowledge the fact that most Milliways players ("muns") are female. (Thanks to muns Kd, Vivien, Michelle (perfectblue), and Weaves for offering their thoughts about pronoun use in this paper.) In the survey conducted as part of this study, 75 of 83 respondents were female. For survey results, see: http://www.surveymonkey.com/Report.asp?
According to the moderators, the first RP Community was "The House of Arch," which was created for characters from the Neil Gaiman novel and BBC television miniseries, Neverwhere. Unlike the Plotting Communities (which are also devoted to specific canons but which tend to host only meta-discussions of character and plot), the Role-Playing Communities include actual plots and pup interactions.
Thanks to mun Cati for clarifying the distinction between milliquotes and milli_crack. All of these supplemental LiveJournals can be found on the right-hand column of the Milliways Bar main page at http://community.livejournal.com/
Millways Bar, FAQ, at http://community.livejournal.com/
There are differences of opinion among muns regarding chat, and these will be addressed below in the section on regulating behavior.
Wenger's schema is powerful and helpful for understanding Milliways, but it is also, unfortunately, rather dense and not easy to explain. My hope is that this section succeeds as an explanation of his basic concepts and as an interpretation of what is happening when muns take part in the game.
Etienne Wenger, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 55, 58.
Wenger, Communities,55, 59-61.
Wenger, Communities, 72-77; Milliways Bar LiveJournal, Community Information,
Wenger, Communities, 77-82.
Wenger, Communities, 83.
Thanks to moderator Meg for pointing out this distinction.
Thanks to mun Cati for clarifying the double meaning of "OOC."
In the survey conducted for this study, when presented with the statement, "OOMs are just as important for some of my pups' plots as their threads in the bar," 33 of the 83 respondents agreed, and another 27 agreed strongly. (Eight disagreed, and one disagreed strongly.) Although many OOMs are collaborated threads like those in the bar, some muns use OOMs as an opportunity to write scenes or short stories about their pups, often as a way to foster character development. Events taking place in these OOMs can then be used to influence the pups' later actions in the bar.
For survey results, see: http://www.surveymonkey.com/Report.asp?
In the survey conducted for this study, when asked why they typically chose to slowtime a thread, 72 of 82 respondents chose "Time for bed or nap" (many muns participate late in the day or are students with unusual schedules); 49 chose "Real Life" obligations; and 29 chose "Leaving for class or work." (The question allowed respondents to give more than one answer.) For survey results, see: http://www.surveymonkey.com/Report.asp?
Wenger, Communities, 82-83; Milliways Bar LiveJournal, FAQ, http://community.livejournal.com/
Actually, even the existence of the bar is not constant. While the first memorable event in the bar was the "Lake Party" of July 12, 2004, the first coordinated "Plot" was the theft of the entire bar by Carmen Sandiego ("Where in the World?", indeed). Taking place at the end of that summer, it was, as moderator Josie put it, "something that affected everyone. You couldn't ignore it."
Of course, though the rules are always "in force," they are also reifications subject to a certain degree of negotiation. Each mun has her own way of explaining these rules to new pups (and to their muns). Some, for example, present the third rule as "No naked in the bar." In practice, however, muns seem to agree generally about what the rules mean, and in any case, their ultimate enforcement is maintained by the moderators.