In some ways, “massive” is the perfect word to describe online gaming. It communicates a certain heft – a suggestion that our games have not just become larger, but gained shape and substance. As massive gaming models have become more prevalent, the term has only increased in usage, finding its way into a bevy of acronyms each more weighty than the last: MMORPG, MMOFPS, MMORTS, etc. Even in debates on how best to classify these games – do we stick with the oddly truncated “MMO” or the accurate but somehow lopsided “MMOG”? – there is always the assumption that whatever else these games may be, they’re certainly massive. It’s the one M to rule them all.

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But while “massive” has become central to discussions of online gaming, it’s also proven to be ambiguous. The term itself is confusing: For all its claims to girth, “massive” is not just a matter of size, but of continuity. Through dedicated servers, massive games are maintained continuously, irrespective of the presence of players – a trait known as “persistence.” According to this definition, a massive game is not simply large in terms of players, or even sheer in-game territory. To be massive is to be large in scope.

This breadth of design often lends itself to larger games, but that’s not always the case. The first few games to aspire to massive levels of play were large in spirit, if nothing else. The term itself was popularized by the team behind 3DO’s Meridian 59. Used by CEO Trip Hawkins to describe a new plateau of gaming, Meridian 59‘s “massiveness” was quite modest by current standards – though the game attracted more than 25,000 players to its public beta, individual servers could only host 250 players at a time. Whether or not 250 people is “massive” is largely a matter of perspective: It makes for a decent party, but a lousy riot. Cop cars don’t flip themselves, after all.

Then there is the uncomfortable fact that, by this standard, games have been massive for quite some time. The concept is old enough to predate the popularization of such fancy things as “the internet” and “graphics.” Consider the lowly MUD, or “multi-user dungeon,” back when MM was just M. Early text-based MUDs networked across precursors to the internet such as ARPAnet, resulting in a low-fi version of the same model: a persistent multiplayer gamespace. So it isn’t just that massive environments weren’t always particularly large – it’s that games were massive before we’d even started sizing them up.

From its outset, the idea of massive gaming has never seemed to entirely fit the reality. It began as a mythic chalice of game design, more hype than fact, spurred on by the promise of something truly colossal on the horizon. Servers creaked under the burden of Brave New Worlds, with Brave New Numbers to match. But today, increased connectivity has turned massive gaming into something of an inevitability. Massive games are now so pervasive that they face the opposite problem – there simply aren’t enough players to populate the glut of similar games that have sprung up.

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Though the number of dedicated players of massive games is enormous – and by all accounts growing – it is also finite. Where massive games were once a novelty, there is now a plethora, a lone cluster of stars transformed into a multiverse. And here lies an irony of design: The spaces built to accommodate our gaming have grown so big as to be cavernous, swelled so full as to seem curiously vacant. In an unplayed MMORPG, the only thing that’s massive is the silence.

There is something oddly melancholic about visiting these abandoned games. It’s like walking through a ghost town – all around you stand enormous edifices, once hubs of life, now derelict. In the corners scamper a few stragglers who continue to nibble away at the game like vultures picking at the last bits of a carcass, but even those diehards are dwarfed by the empty space. In the midst of all this stark nothingness, a lone NPC stands, a solemn witness to a passing era. As if oblivious to the entropy surrounding him, he beckons you over.

He wants you to go kill some rats.

As pitiful as these failed games are, they serve to dispel a massive myth: that if you build it, they will come. If an empty game is massive in no sense of the word, it casts the meaning of the term even further in doubt. Is a game massive in premise or in execution? Are ideas of what makes a game massive simply hypothetical, or defined by actual function? It’s at this point that questions of massiveness skirt from design to community and become practical considerations rather than simply market buzzwords.

Just as classically massive games have mushroomed, so too have other models of gaming expanded to include connectivity and persistence, smudging the definitions even more. How do we classify games like Nintendo’s Animal Crossing, which couple chiefly solitary gameplay with the type of continuous gamespaces that were once a hallmark of massive play? Though this experience of continuity is largely an illusion – the game only appears to persist between play sessions – it raises questions concerning the riddle of virtual existence: If a weed grows in town, and there’s nobody around to see it …

And what about games that suggest a massive space but don’t assert it outright, the games that support communities but don’t seek to contain them? From the newest iterations of Pokémon on the DS, which utilize increased Wi-Fi connectivity to create a global trading network, to the endless creativity harnessed by the open-content model of Little Big Planet, we’re witnessing a new generation of games that communicate depth in a few deft strokes. Though we may play alone, we can glimpse something ponderously large – the fringes of a great and teeming mass.

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Nowadays, nearly any act of networking serves to redraw the bounds of play to epic scale. From Xbox Live to online leaderboards and forums, there is the presence of community. Even sites such as The Escapist serve to promote massiveness in presence and purpose. Where games once operated in isolation, today they support cultures in their own right. Through the omnipresence of the internet, “massive” becomes a matter of course: Any game, so long as it is played, shared, discussed and critiqued, maintains a sort of persistence – only now, the world that they persist in is our own. Put another way: We have reached a point at which any game may be massive.

Cast in this light, the “what” and “where” of massive games may be impossible to pin down – as a reflection of our massed play, it is dynamic, shifting with trends as games come and go. Though developers can create specific games to accommodate this crush of play, it is the players who may come to decide how these spaces coalesce in both the content they support and the communities they create. It is not only play that is persistent, but also the products of play – our creativity and our culture.

Just as massive games have swelled from dozens of players to tens of millions, the term itself has grown a thousand fold, branching out in new directions. It might seem that in an age of connectivity, the notion of a massive game may be redundant: The moment everything is massive, nothing is. But rather than outgrow the term, it seems we’ve grown into it. For years, the hand-me-down ideas of our wired future never seemed to sit properly, but gaming technology has progressed in leaps and bounds, and grown to fit these futurist fantasies. Now, with a clearer sense of who we are and where we’re going, it begins to make sense. It isn’t games that are massive. It’s us.

Brendan Main hails from the frosty reaches of Canada, where the only thing massive are the moose. When not flipping cop cars, he blogs at www.kingandrook.com.

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