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Oct 16, 2003

Comments

1.

See also the in-beta Puzzle Pirates, a very different MMOG where the "action" (bilging, carpentry, sailing, navigating, shooting the cannons, sword-fighting, etc.) takes place in simple, addictive puzzle games. They make no attempt to be realistic and operate at a level of abstraction slightly higher than the 3d-type worlds, but it is cool nonetheless.

2.

Earth and Beyond and EVE implement spacecraft avatars. I've read some complaints about that, but think about it: the avatar is a vehicle, a travel mode. In a space game, or a seafaring game, the vehicle is a ship.

3.

I doubt there will be much difference. As long as you can project your identity to something, that something becomes you for the time you are projecting yourself (or an online alter-ego). Weather it is a G.I. Joe "action figure" you are holding in your hand, a pixellated depiction of a fantasy character you hold with your mouse, a banana peel on your table, or an abstract symbol you imagine. It also doesn't really matter that the G.I. Joe is made of plastic by Hasbro, the pixellation made by the Tolkien estate and delivered by nVidia, the banana peel a patented bioengineered plant, or the abstract symbol just a doodle. It all becomes you when you project yourself onto it.

BTW, depending on the specific ship type and the language used (and synonym picked) boats can be female, male or neutral. As an example, a "Frigate" in spanish is female, but a "Cruiser" is male.

4.

I did some consultancy sessions for a pirates virtual world about 3 years ago (the project is dead now, so I'm allowed to talk about it). There, the player took on the role of a ship's captain, controlling the ship while at sea but a character while ashore. The most interesting thing was that you could sink ships but the captain always managed to escape. Thus, although your character could never suffer permanent death, many of the beneficial effects of PD were nevertheless present because your ship was at the bottom of the ocean. You had to do the start-from-scratch thing, but didn't have that "oh god oh god oh god I'm DEAD" moment that makes PD so inordinately distressing.

Another option, by the way, is to have players represent crew members of ships. This is how some of the Star Trek MUDs work. You don't own the ship, you work on it as part of a unit. This is a formalised version of the party configuration set-up that tends to emerge anyway in most virtual worlds that have character classes.

Richard

5.

I think different classes of avatars might well have different rights. As a somewhat extreme example a "chair" avatar could expect to be used by others, carried from place to place, and used or ignored as others please. Essentially by agreeing to be a chair the player is giving up freedom of movement, etc.
(In exchange for what I can't hazard a guess, but who knows...)

Similarly a boat cannot expect to be allowed in a tavern designed for humanoids.

It's a different thing to say that a player "is" a boat if it's just the control system that changes while the player's avatar is on the boat. If the boat is sunk is the player's avatar freed to swim or sink? In such a case I'd say it's less about the rights of boats and more about convenience of control...

BTW I love the justification that I'm learning about real-world geography. ;-) I've always maintained I'm studying economic and social systems...

6.

Ian McGee>I think different classes of avatars might well have different rights.

I'll be SO GLAD when this "avatars have rights" idea is dead and buried...

Do bots have rights? If so, what are they? Why wouldn't the same rights apply to all unintelligent lumps of software, like operating systems and payroll databases?

No, bots don't have rights. Yet if I wrote a bot that played a virtual world, the avatar it was playing would?

Avatars have NO rights. PEOPLE have rights. (Bots might have rights when they have sentience, but right now they're way short of that.)

Avatars are tokens. If those tokens represent people then the people they represent may have some rights over how those tokens are represented. Tokens themselves have no rights, though.

Richard

7.

Stewart: Thanks! I installed the beta last night -- neat stuff... yohoho!

DS, Richard, Ian: I admit I was being a provocateur with the question of "boat government." At the severe risk of being turgid, here's what I was thinking: 1) Any potential player interest (legal or normative) in a technological extension of the self within a represented environment is of course contingent upon the capability of that extension of self to interact with the environment and the extended selves of others, and that capability is inevitably a design decision within the control of the proprietor of the environment's code.

Obvious, right? So this underscores the idea that world designers must enable virtual communities to exist and their design decisions on interactive capabilities are essential to the vitality of the society. The boat avatar example perhaps shows how (properly) alien virtual society might seem when the members of the society don't look like people.

2) The degree to which any potential personal (legal or normative) interest derived from virtual "presence" can be intuited by the player or perceived and recognized by others, and the psychological impact of interactions with technologically extended identities, is also directly contingent upon design decisions.

This just underscores that the Bungle story would not have been the same (would perhaps not have even been a story) if the avatars in question had taken the form of boats. Presence/Projection into the avatar construct -- to the extent and degree it exists -- is strongly enabled only when the extended self appears in a familiar human form.

Hopefully, the reader is still awake.

8.

I was kinda riffing off the boat government comment, but there's an undercurrent of serious thought here. ;-)

FWIW I think the virtual world is capable of granting rights to avatars within the context of those worlds, and the rights granted can be specific to the type of avatar. If the VW grants the rights, and the rights exist within the VW, then I don't have a problem saying the avatar has rights within the VW.

Richard, as I understand it there are rights for animals and corporations IRL...

9.

"Presence/Projection into the avatar construct -- to the extent and degree it exists -- is strongly enabled only when the extended self appears in a familiar human form."

Don't want to get too picky with terminology, but want to make sure the idea gets across correctly. I do agree it is *facilitated* (not enabled) by a familiar human form, but not a prerequisite. My main point was exactly that: You can project your identity/self onto anything, including a totally stationary banana peel.

Hmmm.. Banana peel rights anyone?

10.

Greg Lastowka>world designers must enable virtual communities to exist and their design decisions on interactive capabilities are essential to the vitality of the society

The role of the designer of a virtual world is absolutely critical - so critical that I spent 10 months of 2003/2003 writing a book about it. The designer's effect on the vitality (and, indeed, viablity) of a society is hugely important, but it's NOT the ultimate aim of virtual world design. It's not even the key to understanding virtual world design - more important is to know WHY people play. Community and immersion are major ways to promote (or demote) people's reasons for playing, but neither is itself the heart of the issue.

Thus, it's with some ambivalence that I read your clarification post. On the one hand, it talks about presence and the perception of identities, both of which are important ingredients in the mix. On the other hand, though, it doesn't really get a grip on the fact that these are just some of the ingredients and there are other ones that are just as important. Neither does it recognise that each ingredient is there for a purpose which is related to why the recipe is being followed in the first place - a recipe created by a designer who KNOWS why each component is there, and is thus confused by your stating it like it was news. The recipe was't created about the ingredients; the ingredients are there because of the recipe.

Continuing with this rather lame analogy (I apologies, but it's the best I can come up with on the spur of the moment), the designer is the chef. The designer knows why each ingredient is there, what the effect each ingredient has, and the quantities in which they need to be present. The designer HAS to know this, because the designer created the recipe. If the designer's understanding only extends to using an ingredient because it's present in other folks' recipes, they're reducing their chance of creating something people will want to eat. If the designer aims to create a particular combination of flavours in order to achieve a particular effect, they're going to wonder what's going on when someone spots the combination and starts second-guessing why it's present.

Designers aren't perfect, but they do have an understanding (intuitively at least) as to how their designs fit together. The boat example might serve to make some of these intuitions more explicit, so non-designers can appreciate the thinking behind them. However, all this stuff IS understood already.

Hmm, I think I may have over-ranted ...

Richard

11.

DS: Let me just note here for the record -- I have a hard time projecting myself onto a banana peel. :-)

Richard: First of all, you are Richard Bartle -- meaning you have over 20 years of experience with virtual worlds, you practically invented the medium, and you've written a book that I haven't read that will certainly be the authoritative text on virtual world design. So, in my tradition of such comments, "I am not worthy..."

Second, re my "stating it like it was news" -- I'm sorry if I conveyed the impression that anything I have said here is news, whatever "news" is. It was never my intent that this would be a "news for designers" post, or a "design advice" post. I'm usually more interested in "olds" than I am in "news." We've got a different agenda and audience here than Slashdot Games, GGA, Gamasutra, Skotos, MUD-Dev, etc... I am afraid I will regularly post things with the full expectation that many people may know more than me about important aspects of the topic, and that discussions like this, where I learn something, will be the result.

Now to respond: You're approaching the "avatar boats" issue from a designer's perspective. Since you consult and write books on virtual world design, this makes sense. Even without having read your book (yet), I am well aware that designers think seriously about issues of presence, immersion, community, economics, ownership, etc., as part of the goal of building businesses and selling a product (the soup your chef is making.)

However, while I can and willl certainly learn more about that acquired wisdom, my own agenda is one step removed. I'm interested in what role, if any, politics, law, property, philosophy, etc., etc., can/do/should play in massive social virtual environments.

I know *some* designers are interested in that issue -- but the goals of virtual worlds as corporate entities and works of authorship just *may* meaningfully diverge from the goals of greater society. Like many people, I'm actually wondering if, when, and how that might happen.

12.

"DS: Let me just note here for the record -- I have a hard time projecting myself onto a banana peel. :-)"

Alright, I know my examples were extreme to illustrate the point, but it can be done. The "I'm banana peel" thought has a higher barrier of entry than something more familar like a human form, but it is nontheless achievable.
This is a continuum of experience, there is no place where your identity suddenly can't project anymore. It gets increasingly difficult to suspend disbelief, but never impossible. Think about the continuum: a human, an elf, a treefolk, a stationary live tree, a hanging fruit, a ripening banana, a discarded banana peel... Ah...The wonders of the mind. :)

13.

Greg Lastowka>you've written a book that I haven't read that will certainly be the authoritative text on virtual world design

Ah, well that would explain why several of the discussions going on here rehearse arguments that went on some years ago elsewhere .

I guess it could legitimately be argued that some people might develop a greater understanding of the issues if they participate in a debate directly. People will learn more if they discover answers for themselves, rather than if they're told them. In this case, all this is healthy support for the future promise of virtual worlds.

However, it might also be argued that people engaged in debate should at least be aware of the fact that there was earlier debate. The "gender bending" thread here, for example, seems to have developed from an interesting note about stats into a restatement of views that were prevalent among textual world players circa 1993 before their debate moved (painfully) on. People can learn things from the past without having to repeat them.

As for my book being the authoratative text on virtual world design, well I suppose it is, given that it's the ONLY one on the subject out there right now! Unfortunately for me, few people seem to think that knowing how to design a virtual world is at all a prerequisite to developing one. For evidence, compare the Amazon sales rankings for "Designing Virtual Worlds" and "Developing Online Games"; they share a publisher, DOG has been on sale for 3 months longer than DVW, yet as I write DOG has a sales rank of 3,104 and DVW is at 21,549.

>I'm interested in what role, if any, politics, law, property, philosophy, etc., etc., can/do/should play in massive social virtual environments.

So are designers, which is why all these topics (and more) are discussed in my book.

Anyway, I apologise for my misunderstanding of what this site is all about. I'll shut up now..!

Richard

14.

Richard,

First of all, please please don't shut up -- the site is certainly not supposed to be about Richard Bartle not throwing in his 2 cents. Obviously, you've got very valuable insights to offer. You can lower your expectations, however, that everyone here has read everything there is to read about virtual worlds.

We're an intradisciplinary group. Certainly the MUD-Dev list and hypertext scholars have been kicking around certain issues for awhile. However, economists, lawyers, sociologists, psychologists, philosophers, and legislators have not focused much on these issues -- so your sense of what might be "old news" for certain sets of people is certainly not old news for others. Ted, Dan, Julian, Nick, TL, and certainly the designer commentators including you, are all bringing different perspectives to the table. So there is a real value in repeating and referencing and discussing things here that have already been discussed before in other contexts.

And there are some new things with MMOGs as compared to MUDs. E.g., re Nick's statistics on EQ gender-bending -- I understand that this has come up before in MUDs (your "Sue" story and Julian's "Samantha" chapter being often cited examples in the literature). But note that some of the explanations for this are different in visual VWs -- some of Nick's male respondents say they like looking at female avatars. That explanation doesn't map well onto MUD gender-bending, imho...

15.

On the other hand, I'd like to second Richard's frustration at the re-invention of the wheel that often goes on. At an early stage in my work on this topic, I became painfully aware of how very old many of my alleged 'insights' actually were. And how it must frustrate anybody who's been working in this area for a long time to see this suddent new interest just because some guys in Texas figured out how to make it all visual.

But the fact is, when I talk to audiences, this stuff is still all at the 'AHA' stage.

Here's what has to change: In the past, there would be a discussion among developers and players, and there would be insight and understanding, and that insight would be used to design the next generation of games. And whenever a new pseudo-smart player would happen along and see these games for the first time, she would have that 'aha' moment and engage in the discussion, be told that it's all old hat, and then, having been infected, go join the developer community and make the next generation of games. As a result, the lore never got out of the developer community. When guys like me stumbled in in April 2001, it was all new and exciting, even though it was 20 years old in many ways.

I think things are different now. None of the people running this site have made games (I DM'd a bit, but, it was bad). We're lawyers and writers and professors. That means that when we go through the slow, laborious process of re-learning, yet again, the old insights from the game community, this time the knowledge is going to do more than improve things in the game community. Rather, it is on its way out, into the broader intellectual world. And if we do this job right, the knowledge will eventually have some impact on the way laws are written, the way agencies are run, and (dreaming here) they way good lives are led.

And if blogspace lives up to its hype, what we write here is becoming a book, a book that future generations of 'AHA'-infected people can peruse before starting yet another thread on a topic that Lambda-MOO's citizens beat to death in 1993. OK, maybe this terrain has been traversed a thousand times already. But let's go over it one more time and hope that the increasing number of records about it (this blog, Bartle's book, and so on) will allow us to finally move on.

16.

Richard, by all rights you ought to be more comfortable here than I am. You're the one with the higher degrees, I'm the high-school dropout who frequently displays contempt for the hallowed halls of academia.

Most of my contempt is actually for the dabblers and dilletantes who spend years engaged in pointless excercises of mental masturbation and ancestor worship, not for academia as a whole and certainly not for those who actually are trying to move forward the state of human knowledge. And, to be honest, there's probably some envy involved and I crave validation by the more respectable institutions.

But what's your excuse? You at least speak the same language, operate in the same environment. I'd think you'd feel encouraged, *finally* VW's are getting recognized as a new social force. No matter what happens, you're always going to get cited as a pioneer in that.

--Dave

17.

Just a few random thoughts on the can of worms opened in this thread, which probably no longer fits well with my original, happy-go-lucky piratophilic posting.

1) Some of the illustrious TN contributors *have* written computer games. However, it is no contributor's day job. None of us (currently) are Stewart Butterfield, Raph Koster, Dave Rickey, Richard Bartle, et al. and we are very happy to have you all talking with us, since we're thinking about what you're doing.

2) Academia is not monolithic. E.g., Law professors, sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, cognitive scientists generally don't meet with each other, don't publish in the same places, and don't read each others' work. The majority of academics stay in their discipline, or more accurately, in their sub-sub-discipline. The incentives to do otherwise are weak. Which leads to the practice of cross-disciplinary idea-mining -- e.g., a group of scholars in X discipline will "find" old ideas from economics, cognitive psychology, sociology, etc., put them into their own jargon, and viola! -- a worthy contribution to their field. Actually I think this is a good thing. The various academic disciplines have incentives to be myopic, making their turf more insular, more jargonized, more intimidating, more immune to outside understanding. It leads to job security -- e.g. "We have no idea what they're talking about. They must be smart."

So that's a long way of saying that telling an economist or lawyer "please stop re-hashing old game designer debates" is a bit like me going over to Greg C's website and posting: "Please stop talking about copyright and intellectual property -- I've already done that, why haven't you been paying attention? [Cite to my various law review articles.] :-)"

3) I want to reiterate for the record that I'm a lot less into new/old distinctions than some of my illustrious brethren.

https://terranova.blogs.com/terra_nova/2003/09/we_had_some_dis.html

Maybe it comes from teaching high school in Central Asia for a couple years -- maybe it was my college indoctrination in postmodernist thought. But in any event, I can't separate knowledge and understanding from each individual's subjective experience of the same. And I'm agnostic (if not downright skeptical) re mythologies of progress.

18.

Greg Lastowka>But note that some of the explanations for this are different in visual VWs -- some of Nick's male respondents say they like looking at female avatars. That explanation doesn't map well onto MUD gender-bending, imho...

What can I say? "Look at page 536 of my book where I cite a survey from Kathryn Wright on womengamers.com that discovered 14% of the men surveyed played female characters in part because they looked better (non-sexual aesthetics) and 23% of them did it in part because they were visually stimulated by them (sexual aesthetics)"?

Edward Castronova>what we write here is becoming a book, a book that future generations of 'AHA'-infected people can peruse before starting yet another thread on a topic that Lambda-MOO's citizens beat to death in 1993.

So let's say it becomes a book and the AHA-infected people DON'T read it? I already wrote a book that AHA-infected people can peruse before starting yet another thread on a topic that LambdaMOO's citizens beat to death in 1993, but no-one reads it. They're even proud they haven't read it! What makes you think your blog is going to suffer any better a fate?

Dave Rickey>I'd think you'd feel encouraged, *finally* VW's are getting recognized as a new social force. No matter what happens, you're always going to get cited as a pioneer in that.

I don't care whether I'm cited as a pioneer or not. VWs would have been invented without me - in fact they were, several times. You're right, though, that I do care that VWs are getting recognised as a new social force. I guess what's bugging me is that some of the recognition is branching off lines of inquiry from the wrong places.

When cross-gender play was written about academically for the first time in the early 1990s, several points were made that had been known for maybe 6 or 7 years. OK, those points hadn't been published, but we'd had the debate and knew how it would turn out. However, academics in a number of disciplines seized the points raised in the early articles and went off at a tangent on them. It took them years of working through the arguments to their own agendas before they finally came to the conclusions we could have told them anyway - if they'd asked. It would have been SO much better if they'd started from that position in the first place.

This is what I fear here. We have lawyers and social scientists looking at virtual worlds, bringing something new to VW study, but then only looking at questions for which there are already established answers. Having these old debates is not some rite of passage that people have to endure before they can be accepted as "experts"; I wrote my book so people could avoid all that and hit the ground running.

Greg Lastowka>telling an economist or lawyer "please stop re-hashing old game designer debates" is a bit like me going over to Greg C's website and posting: "Please stop talking about copyright and intellectual property -- I've already done that, why haven't you been paying attention? [Cite to my various law review articles.] :-)"

I can't speak for Greg, but personally I would be quite pleased if I had a blog (which I don't) that was struggling with some legal issue and then a poster referred me to a series of papers on the subject that explained it all for me.

I doubt we're going to get much further here. I misunderstood TerraNova's interest in commentary on VWs, but now I understand where you're coming from. I have a few lingering doubts that other people might also think the blog is more heavyweight than you intend, but my constant plugging of my book isn't going to change that .

Once this thread has died, I'll keep quiet. Well, quieter...

Richard

19.

Richard,

1. I cited to Nick to say that the VW gender-bending issues have changed since they were "beat to death in 1993". You cited to the Wright study done in 2000. I was not claiming that you don't have something in your book about gender-bending in visual virtual worlds, but simply saying that virtual avatar gender-bending is an evolving practice and we can't directly import answers from MUDs into contemporary VWs. And, to be preemptive: I know you know that already, and you probably have a page cite.

2. I'm sure Greg wouldn't mind me posting a comment pointing to my own scholarship about digital copyright. Maybe he would even be interested in reading it. But my point is that I wouldn't criticize him for posting a blog entry on a topic that I've spent many years studying, thinking about, and writing about. I'm happy, not bothered, that he's rehashing my issues, precisely because he brings something new to the table and it doesn't bother me to see new discussions of old issues.

3. I agree with you that we're not going to get much further here. Despite my best efforts, I'm starting to argue, though I have no clue why I should be arguing.

20.

Greg Lastokwa>my point is that I wouldn't criticize him for posting a blog entry on a topic that I've spent a many years studying, thinking about, and writing about

I already apologised twice for this misunderstanding. You want me to do it again? OK.
:apologises.

I thought this was a cutting-edge blog that took a new look at virtual worlds from a serious perspective. Instead, it's a cutting-edge blog that takes a serious look at virtual worlds from a new perspective. OK, my mistake.

The rest of this post is a rant in response to two of the points you raised. It's a meta-post that doesn't strictly speaking fit the blog's remit, so feel free to ignore it (I'll certainly calm down quicker if you do!).

OF COURSE things have changed since virtual worlds went graphical. The main change isn't so much the graphics as the fact that there are orders of magnitudes more players in single incarnations of these virtual worlds as a result of the introduction of graphics.

The difference between textual and graphical virtual worlds is like the difference between silent movies and talkies. Once sound came out, it killed the talkies pretty well stone dead. That didn't mean knowledge gained in making silent movies was suddenly inapplicable "because some people like movie stars for the way they talk". Neither did it mean that people who grew up making silent movies were incapable of accepting progress.

You can legitimately dismiss textual virtual worlds as old hat because frankly, yes, the concept itself IS old hat (although there is some very exciting work going on in them for those who care to look). You are wrong, though, to dismiss as flotsam what has been discovered about these worlds.

Look into the future when the virtual world equivalent of colour in the movies comes along - let's say it's VR hardware (gloves, goggles etc). You, an expert in B&W worlds - and most likely also in the new, colour ones - may be very keen to encourage more research into this exciting phenomenon. It's going to come as a bit of a jolt, therefore, when you discover that researchers new to the field start dismissing as evolved-away all the work done on black-and-white virtual worlds, not even caring to look at it first. THIS is what's frustrating me here: no-one seems to want to look. Actually it's worse that that; people seem to want NOT to look.

As a final example, let's return to your point that "virtual avatar gender-bending is an evolving practice and we can't directly import answers from MUDs into contemporary VWs.". Yes, you're right, we can't - even for those text MUDs that have only 2 genders. However, do we learn more from studying why people play cross-gender in graphical worlds without looking at why they did it in textual worlds, or from studying it for graphical worlds while also looking at why they used to do it in textual worlds? If we went for the former, we'd never notice the fact that the figures are broadly similar despite the differences in visual presentation. We might therefore draw some conclusion about the number of people who play cross-gender based on how attractive avatars look, unaware that the chances are these people would have played cross-gender anyway.

OK, rant over (unless you want to push my rant button again?).

Richard

21.

"THIS is what's frustrating me here: no-one seems to want to look. Actually it's worse that that; people seem to want NOT to look.
"

Ignorance? Clean-room approach? Gigantic egos?

Any clue?

22.

Richard,

I agree with everything you just said!

And I'm going to read your book!

And I hope this is a happy ending to the thread!

:-)

Greg

23.

A bit of a late response; I was out of the country.

As a serious student of MUD history, I have to agree with Richard in that it gets annoying to hear people state the obvious (to an active developer, at least) and claim it as a major revelation. "Wow, customer services is HARD!" "Players sure can be bloodthirsty!" "Hey, who knew that people would harass other people?"

The main reason I post to places like this is because I want to share my knowledge and experience with other people. I want them to get past the initial stages of simple discovery so that we can go about advancing the state of the art instead of rehashing 10 or 20 year-old debates.

DivineShadow wrote, "Ignorance? Clean-room approach? Gigantic egos?"

I suspect it's the first tempered with a generous dose of the third. People don't realize how much literature IS out there (even if it's widely scattered and not very well organized), so they don't go looking for it. I mean, MUD-Dev is still a relatively hidden resource to most people. And, as Richard said, some people wear their ignorance like a badge of honor. There are a lot of resources for people if they are interested; I know because I looked for a lot of them many years ago when I decided to study up on what had become my chosen career. I knew from my experiences with text MUDs that online worlds weren't something that was invented a few years ago.

Egos also play a large part in it, I think. People see the problems other games have and become haughty. "Of course I can come up with the perfect design that eliminates griefers, allows for free-for-all PvP, and retains customers for many years. Previous developers were just too stupid to share my brilliance!" (Not to name any names here. ;) Completely ignoring the harsh realities of such design decisions and how they affect all other aspects of the game. So, said group gets a generous serving of humble pie while the rest of the developers shake their heads sadly, easily able to predict the outcome.

Anyway, I'll stop ranting here, since it's mostly tangental to the original blog entry.

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