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Empirical Framework of User Motivations

Having an empirical framework of what motivates people to play MMORPGs provides the foundation to differentiate players from one another, as well as to explore how these differences shape in-game behaviors, how these groups of players interact with each other, and how the design of an environment impacts its appeal to different players.

Richard Bartle postulated a framework of 4 types, and I’ve tested the model empirically by running a factor analysis on a battery of “motivation items”, but I’ve never been happy with those results. I reanalyzed the data recently after understanding factor analysis techniques more, and realized I should have been using oblique rotations instead of orthogonal rotations. But then I also fiddled with using a principal components analysis versus a factor analysis (MLA).

The PCA/oblique analysis revealed 6 elegant components that were very interpretable:

1) Relationship: Make Friends / Offer and Give Support
2) Grief: Scam / Taunt / Annoy / Dominate
3) Immersion: Story-Telling / Role-Play
4) Escapism: Escape / Vent / Forget RL Problems
5) Achievement: Achieve / Accumulate Power
6) Analyze: Rules / Mechanics / Mapping

The problem is that the “Analyze” component doesn’t show up in the EFA/oblique (the other 5 do + a Leadership factor) suggesting that the “Analyze” component is explained by the remaining 5 factors, and doesn’t contribute to explaining the correlations between the “motivation items” even though one could create an “Analyze” component and measure it reliably. So there is and isn't an "Explorer" type depending on how you want to look at it.

One interesting finding was that the “Relationship” component explains a difference of 10 hours (bottom of page) between players who scored in the top versus the bottom quintile of the component. The “Escapism” factor came next, explaining 7 hours. So, the “drive to achieve” doesn’t appear to be a primary differentiator between low and heavy use players. Now, they may be hanging around but they’re not the “power” gamers, just that they spend a lot of time in the world. The other elegant thing about this framework is that it applies well even to more social MMO environments like There.com.

Thoughts? Comments? Other potential motivators to test?

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Sims Shadow Government

So, I'm going back on my promise not to post anymore on politics this week. This is too choice to ignore. Peter Ludlow et al's fabulously fabulous Alphaville Herald has just posted an interview with SnowWhite, the head of the Sims Shadow Government. It absolutely boggles the mind. I won't say anything about it here. Res ipsa loquitur (or, as we lawyers say, "The thing speaks for itself.")

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First Sign of an MMOG Downturn?

Rubies of Eventide, a respectable fantasy role-playing title, will cease operations by the end of the year (thanks Warcry). Launched in June, the world was down to about 800 users at last count.

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700,000 Thais Play Ragnarok Online, Despite Curfew

From BBC News via Slashdot: Ragnarok Online, the Asian sensation, now has three-quarter million users in Thailand alone. The government's crackdown on adolescent gaming after 10pm does not seem to be affecting user numbers - more evidence that virtual worlds are the playpens of grownups, not kids.

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Power To The People

Ok, I promise, this will be my last post this week on politics in-world:

Andrew Phelps, over at Corante's Got Game reports on the killing in Everquest of Kerafyrm, also known as The Sleeper. This supposedly unkillable beast was defeated by in a battle that "...lasted approximatively 3 hours and about 170-180 players from Rallos Zek's top 3 guilds were involved." The Sleeper was designed to be practically unkillable, with a mind-boggling hundred billion hitpoints.

Ok, so now tell me that political direct action (and concerted-and-centrally controlled user response from within guilds) is not a powerful, undesigned feature of these games.

What to make of this I have only the vaguest idea. But never let it be said that the people don't have power over the gods. They just need to be given the appropriate challenge.

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Fascism Is Fun

In all of the debates around governance and virtual worlds, there has been this assumption that what we were working towards, what inevitably must happen, is some ideal form of egalitarian pluralism. Democracy, but better.

What if that's all wrong? I realize this is heresy, but here's the thing: We've bent over backwards to provide the players with the tools for creating democratic structures. Yet what have we seen them actually create? Oligarchies, plutocracies, cults of personality, tribes, cartels, militaristic feudalism, just about everything but democracy.

When I posed this question at State of Play's "Society and Games" panel, one member of the panel was obviously non-plussed. Having just pitched the concept of a pure social game, where the players would create the rules and be truly free, she was asked "What if the players choose to implement a fascist state?" Her response was that she would not allow it, thereby illustrating the "finger on the power button" principle in its starkest form. Even the egalitarians cannot put down the reins of power.

But I'll pose it again: What if democracy, although apparently a workable way to keep the state from trampling on the rights of individuals, is just a historical accident, a way of marketing the power of the state that makes it easier for the governed to accept their powerlessness? What if studying the societies of MMOG's proves this? What if the ideal state really is the platonic benevolent dictatorship?

Hitler was a madman, but there was a reason that the German people followed him: He provided a strong arm, surely steering the ship of state. Mussolini was not mad, and until he failed them by losing, the Italians loved him. He made the trains run on time, he forged order out of chaos, he made them strong among nations for the first time since the Roman Empire.

Perhaps there are better ways to make a state responsive to the needs of the governed than democracy. It's certainly a highly inefficient form of government, and only rich societies seem to be able to afford more than the thinnest veneer of democratic forms to hide their real power dynamics. Perhaps our idealogical blinders are preventing us from seeing the glaringly obvious: Power is its own justification, Might Makes Right, and people just want to be on the side of the winners.

Even in this era, we have examples of enlightened, benevolent dictators. Marshal Tito kept the Balkans peaceful for the entirety of his life while playing the superpowers off against each other. Singapore has as complete a despot as can be found, yet the people are healthy, happy, and for the most part wealthier than most of their democratic neighbours. And in online games, maybe Fascism is Fun.

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Class action lawsuits?

Here’s a question for the lawyers out there… *

In the olde days, customer service in virtual worlds was performed by volunteers. In return for a free account, you had super powers in the virtual world which you used to sort out complaints from your fellow players. This is how it was for many years, and things seemed to work.

Then, in 2000, as a result of a successful class action lawsuit brought against AOL by its unpaid volunteer moderators, things changed. A bunch of Ultima Online players were inspired to bring an action against Electronic Arts, claiming that they too should be paid at least the minimum wage for their time spent servicing customers. This contemporary article describes the then state of affairs.

As a result of this lawsuit, virtual worlds stopped their volunteer programmes almost overnight. Nowadays, customer service staff are paid for their time (not that this stops them from burning out and leaving after 2 years).

So, the question: how come virtual worlds in beta test with 20,000 or more volunteers performing directed, unpaid work (often to schedules) can’t also claim minimum wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act?

Richard

* I am not asking your professional opinion, so don’t send me a bill if you answer – you’re “volunteering” it.

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Reminder - EQ Researchers Meet Today


Just a quick reminder that the in-game EQ researchers meeting is today, Saturday Nov 22, at 3pm U.S. EST/9pm Central European. The meeting will take place on the Bristlebane server in the Butcherblock Mountains right outside the city of Kaladim. In EQ tradition everyone is encouraged to start a lvl 1 dwarf and we will then meet up for drunken races and fireworks shooting (whadacombo!) ;) Look forward to seeing folks there!

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Terra Nova Welcomes Celia Pearce

With her extensive experience in immersive experiential design (see her Interactive Book), Celia brings a perspective that views virtual worlds as worlds first, games second. She occupies key positions at Game Studies, the dominant peer-reviewed journal in this area; the Digital Games Research Association; and IGDA. Currently, Celia heads up the arts layer of CalIT2, the University of California System's primary intiative in information technology research, and she also has a leadership role in UCI's forward-looking Game Culture and Technology Lab. Putting all these hats together, she's been involved in deploying the Game Research Grid, a massively multi-user online grid-based game system; look for the opening on December 16 at UCI. She will be posting as soon as all of these activities leave her a little time - around December 2008 or so. Celia, weclome!

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Democracy, Shmemocracy

At the risk of picking up on something which has already been addressed elsewhere, I want to spitball about the concept of democracy in virtual worlds.

Yes, yes, we all know the arguments: users want democracy but can't be trusted to exercise it; democracy is not fun and so doesn't belong in a game; it's the developer's world, and they spend a lot of money to build it, and if users don't like the absence of democratic involvement well, they can take a hike. Of these, the only one that I ever bought was the idea that it was the developers' world and they could set the rules.

In another life I wanted to be an architect, and these days I still spend too much time reading about urban planning and the like. And I keep getting echoes of the same sorts of issues there as I see in VWs and politics. So take as one high-profile example, the discussion about the buildings and the memorial at the WTC site. Now, Larry Silberstein has the right to rebuild the buildings, and as long as he complies with zoning requirements, no-one can tell him what to build or what it should look like or how many million square feet of leasing space it should have. So why do millions of people (New Yorkers generally, relatives of victims, firefighters everywhere, etc) think they should have the right to be involved in the decision? Because they feel like they are affected in some meaningful way by the decision, and so should have a say. It doesn't matter that they won't be putting up a single penny of their money to build the new buildings, they still feel "democratically" tied to the outcome.

Why is then that, when the initial Silberstein-approved plans met with such disapproval, that Leaping Larry S and Governors Pataki and McGreevy agreed that it would be a good idea to establish a competition, and allow for participation from New Yorkers, relatives of victims, etc? The short answer is that it was good politics. Larry S can tell everyone to go to hell, but in the end it becomes a difficult political football if he doesn't provide for the processes of consultation and involvement, even if in the end he pretty much ignores it.

Now, to me, involvement in decisions in virtual worlds feel a lot like the processes involved in urban planning. Many ordinary Joes and Jills (users) feel they should have a right to be consulted in decisions that affect them, even as property developers (game developers) chafe at the idea of other people telling them what to do with their building (world/game).

In offering this observation, let me say two things. First, I think that it demonstrates a fundamental decision of mine to buy the "this is a world" concept. A number of really smart people--Greg Costikyan, Eric Zimmerman, Raph Koster, maybe even Ted Castronova--keep insisting that these are games in some meaningful sense, not worlds, and that this is the secret to understanding why concepts of political philosophy (or law) just don't apply here. Thing is, I just don't buy that. I don't want to try to defend why here, but I will another time. But it's important to understand this point, because one simple way of arguing against this is just that this stuff doesn't matter, or is reliant on some quasi-philosophical conception of games as separate from moral decisions in other contexts. This is, as they used to say in my moral philosophy classes, bollocks. But let me leave that argument for another day.

Second, I'm not trying to defend a normative claim here that "we MUST introduce democracy to MMORPGs". I'm just making a descriptive claim that people tend to have expectations of political involvement in a number of arenas outside the usual "Pull lever #214 to vote for Schwarzenegger." And games designers can continue to ignore this as long as they like, and it will continue to be a cap on their long-term success. It may be that politics is too messy to code well, but I doubt it. And I suspect that the key to the next paradigm-breaking VW is politics and community, and not user-created-content (as I kept hearing all the time at the State of Play conference)

(Hmm, my self-imposed "Keep Posts Short" rule just got busted wide open)

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New Rules For Prospective Authors

If you are interested in authoring here, please seek professional counseling. If that doesn't help, read the 'About Terra Nova' page for our policy regarding invitations.

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Chinese Gamer Sues for Lost Items

China Daily News, via Slashdot: SHUILIU0011 stole Li Hongchen's weapons. He wants them back, plus $1200. Zhang Qingsong, partner with Beijing Puhua Law Firm, has evidently not read Hunter/Lastowka and argues that the items are not property. However, Wang Zongyu, associate professor at Renmin University of China, has attained enlightenment on this question. We wait breathlessly for the judge's opinion.

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Virtual World Currency Exchange Launches; Use Gold Pieces to Buy Simoleons

Brought to you by Gaming Open Market, the exchange plans to cover Ultima, Sims Online, There, EverQuest, Camelot, Star Wars Galaxies - together over a million users - and of course the US dollar.

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State of Play Generally

Ren Reynolds asked us to start a thread on the State of Play conference, for general comments and observations, ideas and thoughts. So here it is.

Of course, there are already active threads on property issues, the Second Life announcement (aka property issues) and politics and governance stemming from the conference, if people prefer to comment there.

Update: (from Greg L.)right.gif
Wanted to point out that Greg Costikyan has a great and long post over at GDAC (no permalink available) which sort of recaps what I thought was one of the most interesting unresolved debates to emerge at the State of Play -- should law and society treat VWs as games or as something else? (And also be sure to see the responses from Raph K, Stewart B, and Phil R, clarifying their positions in the comments field.)

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The State of Play: Warriors Revolt

The State of Play Conference was too rich with new concepts and directions to be usefully summarized in a blog. One thread that caught my mind's eye, though: users of virtual worlds and the owners seem destined to a long and bitter struggle for control. Tellingly, we return from the conference to news that the Warriors of EverQuest are on the verge of open rebellion.

More on that below. First, the conference. Energized. I was shocked both at the number of people and the fact that there were many standing in back of the room through entire panels. I've never been at a conference where the subject matter was discussed continuously from 7AM until midnight every day. And one thing we all agreed on: virtual worlds matter. It was not necessary to haul out the arguments for significance that most of us have been using over and over and over: "Virtual worlds are growing in importance and people spend their whole lives there and it's richer than Bulgaria and avatars are better than bodies for some purposes and and and yada yada yada." How nice to be able to spend our time actually talking about the subject.

At one point the discussion began to focus on raw political questions. If the users don't like the owners, and vice versa, what happens? The old-school answer, from the days of MUDs, is pretty simple: Press the 'Off' switch. However, we heard from several of the lawyers (Jack Balkin in particular) that if the assets in the world were big enough to matter (as we all believe they will be, someday), a bankruptcy court might seize the servers and press the 'On' switch. At that point the question arises: who is going to run the world then? The court? The users?

Imagine the following power transition: Conflict between owners and users gets ugly. User protests make such a mess of the world that the owners no longer find it profitable. They turn the world off. Courts or legislatures turn it back on again and hand it to the users. Or instead: owners, anticipating the final node of the decision tree, respond to user protests by giving them what they want.

Far-fetched? Well, it seems that quality of life and fairness issues involving EverQuest's Warrior profession have driven the Warriors to the brink of mass protest. Players with warrior characters will log in at fixed times, in large numbers, and spam all major chat channels in the world with canned statements of grievances. It would be, to say the least, incredibly annoying and disruptive to other users.

The protest was announced on November 7 and originally scheduled for Tuesday, November 18. On November 14, Alan VanCouvering, EQ's Community Manager, announced in an interview a major overhaul of melee combat systems (read: warrior issues). The overhaul will be described in detail on November 24. After polling their constituents, the warrior leaders have now postponed the protest until December 2. Whether it happens will depend on the policy announcement on the 24th.

This looks like Autumn 1989 in a glass bottle. Evidently, the State of Play is itself in play.

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User-created content

In case it slipped under the radar this weekend, there is an article by Dave Kosak over at GameSpy which uses the recent Second Life announcement as a jumping off point in a discussion about user-created content and the future of MMOGs in general. The majority of it is made up of quotes on different angles of the subject but it's pretty interesting and has some good tidbits from folks like Wright, Mulligan, (our own) Rickey, etc. The article is part of a longer series on MMOGs. Also (courtesy of the link at /.) an article on TSO (may be old news to some but I'd not seen it yet).

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Some Level Up thoughts

I've finally caught up a bit from my trip to Utrecht and figure now is a good time to sneak in a conference report while most of the group is in New York for the State of Play conference (which I really look forward to hearing about). As has been mentioned a few places the conference was great and it was terrific to meet up with so many interesting researchers. The keynotes and papers were good, though I admit wanting to see a bit more diversity in what is framed as the major questions of the field. I've been thinking about the imagined user who haunts the central approaches. I confess this is more an impression than a fully researched argument but I often feel that some of the meta-debates leave the terrain of the actual user, and actual practice, a bit undetailed and without context. There is structure, there are rules, there are stories, there are texts... and real players, culture, industry, etc. seem to inhabit a kind of unarticulated hidden space. Might it be that there is a third set of meta-concerns, approaches, methodologies so far a bit absent - not in practice but in terms of foregrounding - that can inform the field more actively? The common points of departure, "game" and "story", which have structured much of the concerns thus far could be broadened out to include the player (and culture), meaningfully described/analyzed/theorized. Just to be clear, this is in no way meant as a slight of what we have so far, but maybe it's time for things like sociology, economics, anthropology, psychology, law, history, etc to emerge more strongly. I suppose, of course, I'm preaching to the choir a bit by writing this here. It's been great to see work in those fields turns up at recent conferences and journals and I look forward to when we begin to see these approaches shape some of the meta-debates in game studies. I briefly ran my thoughts by Espen (sharing an office is handy that way) and he didn't disagree, even suggesting (with a kind of playful seriousness) that what is needed is a "second paradigm conflict." Heh, I'm not sure that I'd go that far but it's an interesting issue. Is game studies at a place (or should it be) where central theoretical/methodological frameworks can be fruitfully added to by the social/human sciences? How can, and does, the work of those of us in these fields effect some of the theoretical debates we have been encountering thus far? How are concepts, approaches, frameworks that often dominate the field challenged/supported/extended by the inclusion of this type of work? And just as importantly, what is lost or goes missing when we don't foreground work in the social/human sciences? He of course pointed out that the burden for such a thing rests with those of us doing work in the area and I certainly agree. I wonder too though how such an endeavor can be supported structurally. I think we are seeing good inclusions in the Game Studies journal for example, and tracks at various conferences where such work is presented. It will be interesting to see if there is some way the dichotomization of the theoretical terrain can be unsettled a little.

To this end I will just mention some work at the conference I found particularly interesting. A group of researchers from Taiwan - Holin Lin, Chuen-Tsai Sun, Honghong Tinn, Chheng-Hong Ho - presented several papers on the social context of games including Lineage and Ragnarok Online. Sun/Lin/Ho's paper "Game Tips as a Gift" was particularly interesting in that it explored console gamers widespread use of strategy guides/walk-thrus and located their production and circulation in various social networks. We have examples of the way playing MMOGs is a fundamentally social activity but I think it's quite interesting to situate console gaming in a similar context. I wonder, does anyone actually game alone? And are the boundaries of cheating quite messy when we start seeing the widespread use (across genres and platforms) of things like hints, tips, walk-thrus, guides, etc.? I've begun to think that defining "game space" too narrowly misses the ways gaming is only possible because of these larger contexts. It certainly seems the case that a good number of games and genres are only playable, or are the most enjoyable, when all kinds of "extra-game" practices and knowledge get used. In this regard, the panel on participatory culture with Andrew Mactavish, Sue Morris, and Cindy Poremba, was very good. The presenters focused not on MMOGs but on FPS's, The Sims, and modding culture. Each detailed out fascinating ways players are involved in what Sue calls "co-creative" media - where playing the game fundamentally rests on a mix of player/company technologies and practices. Mactavish presented some great points not only about the ways the modding community is supported through tools, but simultaneously kept in check through them (and EULAs) as well. Without watering down important differences, I came away from Level Up thinking that a lot of what we've been talking about in relation to MMOGs is happening in variations amongst the FPS and console community as well and that they all stand as important examples for making sure we include actual players/cultures as part of the theoretical foundations the field gets built on.

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Second Life Announcement

We're here at the State of Play Conference and I'm blogging live (so excuse the absence of html).

Philip Rosedale, the main guy at Linden Labs, just announced that Second Life today has changed its Terms of Use to allow users to retain real world property rights in the virtual world products they produce. This is really really encouraging and really really important.

More later. Gotta prep for my paper...

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Don't Fear the Tax Man

Recently, in the thread that would not die, our esteemed colleague Ted Castronova raised the ominous possibility that real-world governments may soon be levying taxes on virtual-world transactions. In response it was noted that at least one highly profitable merchant of the virtual is already paying taxes on the dollars people pay him for his wares, but it seems what Ted was referring to was something more unsettling: the prospect that the IRS may decide to tax even in-game transactions -- where not a penny changes hands -- as a form of barter.

This sounds nutty, but it's definitely within the realm of possibility. Take a close look at the IRS rules on barter, as I did a few months back, and you'll see that once the fair market value of virtual items is acknowledged, there's really no form of in-game trade that can't, in theory, be taxed.

Having made that argument, however, I'd like to suggest that everyone now take a few deep breaths and repeat after me: In practice it's not going to happen.

Call it wishful thinking if you like, but give the tax system some credit. There are reasons barter is taxable, and among them is the risk that, if it weren't, significant portions of the economy might go underground, into an untaxable black hole of dollar-free wealth production. Now ask yourself: How much do virtual economies contribute to this risk of runaway revenue loss? Not a lot. Virtual economies can and do grow, but there's a limit to how much they can cannibalize the rest of the economy, and that limit is this: Until the day Domino's starts accepting EQ platinum for pizza deliveries, no one can actually live inside a virtual economy. Even then, pizza-for-plat will be as obviously and easily taxable transaction as dollars-for-plat already is -- and that should be enough to satisfy the IRS.

Not that the IRS is ever satisfied, of course. Wherever wealth is created, government likes to have its cut, and it could well decide that the $100 million or so in in-game transactions going on annually (at a very rough guess) is not beneath its dignity to pursue. I suspect, though, that it wouldn't take long for the government to reconsider.

Remember, after all, what happened on the eve of baseball slugger Mark McGwire's record-breaking home run 5 years ago: An IRS spokesperson, noting that the record-breaking ball would instantly be worth at least a million dollars, told the New York Times that whoever caught the ball and did the right thing (return it to McGwire) would instantly be subject to a gift tax of hundreds of thousands of dollars, at least according to the letter of U.S. tax law. The White House press secretary promptly declared this judgment "the dumbest thing I've ever heard" -- and the IRS duly issued a statement absolving the prospective ball catcher of any such liability.

The tax man doesn't much mind looking cruel and ham-fisted, apparently; but he hates to look ridiculous.

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"I challenge thee to a duel"

The State of Play Conference is coming up shortly, and I've been reviewing some of the draft papers. Ethan Katsh's paper on dispute resolution is interesting, because he connects his research on eBay's dispute resolution mechanisms to the virtual property issue.

eBay has a semi-automated dispute resolution mechanism which is provided by SquareTrade. It handles literally thousands of eBay disputes per day, and some of these, according to Ethan K, involve assets from the virtual world. Julian, of course, had little help from eBay when he was defrauded in-world, because of their clearly stated indifference to virtual assets for fraud claims. But eBay's dispute resolution system provides some advantages: (1) it's quick and cheap, (2) it is tied to real world reputation and is relatively robust at attempts to game, and (3) it's backed up by the might of an important player in the online space.

Of course, it's not the only way to resolve disputes. You can have sabers at dawn, or matched duelling pistols with seconds, if you want. But is that what we want? How should we resolve disputes and conflict that occurs in-world? Ethan's paper presents a number of models, but there must be others.

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Patent nonsense

Enthusiastic wannabe developers of virtual worlds who are currently putting together their business plan might be surprised to discover that there's a 1986 patent that covers video game networks. Which ones? Well, pretty well all of them - except those created prior to the patent's application date of September 1981, of course, which are neatly excised from the equation.

This patent really is as wide-ranging as it sounds. Its mid-80s language is no handicap: it was successfully employed against Nintendo for networked Game Boys despite describing itself in terms of coin-ops. It's also been applied to virtual worlds.

OK, perhaps it would be more precise to say a virtual world, given that I only know of one instance where a virtual world company has gone public over it. This was Electronic Arts in defence of Ultima Online. Despite acting as an expert witness for EA, I was never told how the case ended. According to a brief summary buried deep in the lawyers' web site, however it transpires that the case was "resolved through settlement".

I mention this not because I'm wondering how many virtual world companies are quietly paying licence fees to stop themselves being taken to court (although I do wonder that). Rather, it's because of late I've seen an increasing trend for new virtual world developers to stress their "patent pending" technology in an effort to raise the financing necessary to write and operate the fruits of their labour. By the time these patents are granted, other people will be using the same ideas (arrived at independently) and may suddenly find themselves facing a stiff licence fee or being forced to stop using the technology altogether.

Better jump on that bandwagon before it runs you over.

Richard

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The Mechanics of Trust

Trust is an important element in the strength of the social fabric – it defines and is defined by how individuals choose to interact with each other and the quality of the relationships that form. One could imagine manipulating trust in a world by manipulating the mechanics of the world. For example, the cost of death is probably correlated to the level of trust in a world. This is because the more expensive dying is (in terms of gold or xp), the more you need to place your trust in other players, and the stronger are the bonds that form.

But what about manipulating trust on the interaction level instead of the mechanics level? “Transformed Social Interaction” is an emerging concept in VR research that recognizes that we do not have to be constrained by the physical constraints of interaction in a virtual reality precisely because everyone sees their own version of reality. So we could implement non-zero-sum gaze very easily (where avatar A maintains eye contact with avatars B, C and D all at the same time). And we know from the psych literature that eye contact enhances learning, persuasion and attraction. So what if we tweaked eye contact in groups to be non-zero sum for 50% of the times when someone speaks? Could we enhance the overall trust in a world?

We could even do some pretty simple textual implementations. Imagine a simple algorithm that looks for the words “thank you” or “thanks” in a message and just tags on phrases like “I really appreciate it”, or “This means a lot to me.” Trust in physical societies or companies are bound by the local culture and tradition, but in virtual worlds we can manipulate not only the mechanics of the world but also the rules of the interactions themselves. In an MMORPG where you care about the quality of the relationships that form (since a lot of people are playing for the interaction and not the content), maybe what’s important is understanding and manipulating how trust forms.

I would be interested to hear other people’s ideas on how one could manipulate the formation of trust in a virtual world.

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Online, A First Kiss

A diary of intimate social interaction in There. In There, avatars can do what our bodies would do in these moments, at least to some extent. Predictably, what entices some, annoys others.

Still, no other world has traveled so far along this road. We all know what the final destination is.

From first-person shooters, we learned that the addition of graphically mediated physical interaction to violent combat situations greatly intensifies the user's experience of fighting. Now we see that virtual touching of a different kind has similar effects, indeed, apparently intense enough to redirect social interaction and change the nature of the society along the way.

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The Coming MMORPG Crash, Or Not

GameSpy gives a brief review of 16 (16!) major new virtual worlds scheduled for release in the next 12 months or so. This adds to a market already loaded with big-hit recent releases Sims Online (currently re-vamping itself impressively) and Star Wars: Galaxies (clearly a high-quality offering). Meanwhile, new social worlds like Second Life and There crowd their way forward, old veterans Ultima Online and EverQuest hold on to their users, and Asian games continue to expand rapidly.

Is the growth rate of user interest fast enough to make all of these games winners? No! User interest can't possibly grow that fast. It would defy economic reason. Surely a crash looms.

Of course, if user demand doesn't rise quickly enough, we know that this crash won't be like other crashes. Worlds won't shut down. Once the development costs are sunk, it doesn't take many subscribers to keep the lights on.

Rather, the main effects would be:

1. Media coverage: Right now this medium enjoys a great deal of positive whuffie, but it won't if several major releases tank. Expect many negative stories and commentary over the next two or three years.

2. The pipeline would dry up. The main real effect of a crash will be to close off new development deals. Don't expect major new worlds in 2006 or 2007.

Here's the contrarian view: I thought the crash would be here already, in Q4 2003, and that SW:G and TSO would have been the end of UO, and that World War II Online and Earth and Beyond would have been long gone. Nope. They're all chugging along nicely; just today I saw WWII Online on local store shelves in healthy numbers. In other words, this market continues to amaze. It already defies economic reason. Maybe it will eat all of this supply glut and continue to burn onwards. That's what needs to happen to sustain exponential growth. And it just might do that.

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Terra Nova Welcomes Richard Bartle

Dr. Bartle's credits include inventing the things we're are talking about, and ... and ... hmmm. That's enough said, isn't it? But as it happens, he's also the source of the explorer-achiever-socializer-killer taxonomy of MUD players, and has written the new and authoritative textbook on Designing Virtual Worlds. Dr. Bartle - he's been going by 'Richard' around here - has a time perspective that is unmatched in the industry, and we are happy he's agreed to lend that perspective here. Welcome!

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Addicted to Games? Let Oprah Help

Yes, you can be a poster child for yet another lost generation. Here's the casting call. Me, I'm holding out for Dr. Phil.

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Media and VWs

I'm not quite sure what to make of this, except I love it.

Sitting Duck Radio has a vision:

"The vision that we have for the DUCK is for it to become your online gaming radio station. No matter what game you are playing online, we want you to turn to the DUCK for your radio listening pleasure."

I love this in many, many ways. First, is the simple fact that this kind of specialized media is possible at all. Thank god for the net. But for the purposes of this blog, I love that these sorts of developments bespeak the emergence of social lives in virtual worlds that are important enough to the participants to warrant their own radio station! So, not only do we have the textual news reports of Alphaville Herald and Hamlet Linden, now we have virtual world radio. If we work very hard, perhaps we can be like Korea and get TV devoted to it.

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Social Histories

After noting Ted's post on The Alpahville Herald, I had a look at their mission statement. Very interesting, especially (at least for me) inasmuch as they're doing something very different from us here: they're documenting the social history of one world and indeed one shard of that world. In years to come social historians, theorists, statisticians, economists, etc etc etc will all give thanks for resources such as these: deeply embedded accounts of what actually happens in-world. As Ted has noted elsewhere, it's really really hard to do research in these worlds, because they're so opaque to non-participant inveestigation.

Which leads me to ask whether there are other local histories or social accounts of various worlds. Where does one go to find out, for example, about the economic system of AC2, the social stratification of AO, the politics of There? My off-the-top-of-the-head list would include accounts of lambdamoo (and not forgetting Julian), EQ (though there are a number in this category), UO, Second Life, and now TSO. And there are the various gameboards like IGN or Stratics that are helpful but involve a lot of wading (not to mention pushing up the gain on the l33t-filters)

So where else is the social history of these worlds being written?

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The Alphaville Herald - All the Sims News That's Fit to Print

A number of virtual worlds have company-sponsored 'news' feeds, but they're often digital infomercials (though sometimes not). With the founding of the Alphaville Herald, however, a virtual free press comes into existence. The Herald is an independent news service focusing not on Home Town, USA but on Alphaville, TSO (The Sims Online).

Is the Herald truly free? Witness:

"One of my sims (Doctor Legion) foolishly took a job in a robot factory. Now he/she/it is hounded by M.O.M.I. for absenteeism...The joke is that we are slaves to the machines, but given the dynamics of this place (we sort of *are* slaves to machines) and our uneasy relationship with Maxis, this joke IS NOT FUNNY."

M.O.M.I. is "Municipal Observation and Management Incorporated," TSO's governing nanny, straight out of Brazil (the movie not the country). But, as Alexander Hamilton said in defending poor John Peter Zenger, "the laws of our country have given us a right to liberty of both exposing and opposing arbitrary power (in these parts of the world at least) by speaking and writing truth."

Whatever part of the world they occupy (indeed, which world?), free Sims sleep easier tonight, knowing that they now have a tireless defender deploying the full powers of the public press! On, Alphaville Herald! On!

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First Glimpse: Big Markets Inside Virtual Worlds

Internal data from Second Life give us outsiders our first glimpse at the volume of trade inside virtual worlds. It's big. Really big.

Over a one-month period, the users of 2L had a stock of 8.35 million Lindens (L$) and used it to conduct L$19.2 million in trade. Economists call the ratio of trade to the money stock "velocity;" in this case, it's 2.30.

Economists also tend to assume that velocity is constant. It's the turnover rate of a single unit of currency and is determined by the efficiency of market institutions. Second Life doesn't seem enormously different than any other world in this regard, so let's assume the velocity is about the same in other worlds, such as Norrath.

Data from Norrath in Summer 2001 indicated that the typical user had about 7,700 platinum pieces (PP) in cash. At that time, EverQuest had 400,000 users and the exchange rate between PP and dollars was 100:1. This means that the total money stock was (7700)*(400000) = PP3.08 billion. Using a velocity of 2.3, total in-world trade would have been PP7.084 billion. At the then-current exchange rate, that comes to $71 million.

So, a game like EQ has $71 million monthly in in-world trade. Current data from eBay suggest that the combined export-import trade for all US games except EQ - games whose total populations nonetheless well exceed EQ's 400,000 - is only about $1.3 million monthly. Evidently, in-world trade is much greater than out-world trade.

The figures for EQ suggest that each user does about $18 of in-world player-to-player trade monthly. That number feels about right (seriously! I've actually played EQ quite a bit). If we think about the market as a whole, we have upwards of 10 million people in the various worlds right now. At $18 per person per month, that's an aggregate in-world trade volume of $2.2 billion annually. According to UN data, that volume of trade would make virtual worlds the 144th largest economy in terms of GNP, right up there with Malta and Albania.

On the other hand, this number is such an extreme telescoping of assumptions as to have little merit in an absolute quantitative sense. We only have the velocity number - the keystone of all this - because Philip Rosedale of Second Life was kind enough to let me see it. It's frustrating that we don't have better data, and that we're forced to put together this crazy-quilt patchwork of assumptions to get even the most basic feel for what's going on. (If you're the proprietor of a big game and can see how some of these data, if released, could benefit the entire industry, get in touch.)

However, these data do yield convincing evidence of a qualitative, if not quantitative, nature: Whatever we see on eBay is dwarfed by what's happening inside the games. A great deal of value is changing hands out there. And it's all denominated in gold pieces.

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