Emergence of content in game worlds is a hot topic, here and elsewhere. In an earlier Terra Nova discussion (A virtual world compiler?) John Arras posted a thoughtful and detailed reply. It is worth highlighting here, not only for the benefit of our RSS readers, but also for the provocative points it raises.
John would appear to be interested in capturing the engaging quality of backdrop-scenario based "player quests" in generated worlds (e.g. how to have this "emerge" from the interactions of a simulated society of NPCs). He asks the question, and makes this point:
Is it possible to replace the meaning and context and detail given by handcrafted quests within a static world with less detailed quests in a dynamic world if the dynamic world quests actually impact the state of the world? ...I don’t think it’s been done, but I think it’s possible... I think the main problem is that there isn’t an easy solution, and getting to a good solution will take a great deal of effort and a lot of failures.
John's strategy, in part, seems to be to recast the "lingua franca" of a very large sim-society into an object-based resource "language". It is about crafting with the basis for interaction, reasoning, and transaction between sim-folk. They may manipulate, manufacture, trade objects. It is a grotesquely consumer-based life for these sims, but he claims this crude language is all that is now scalable to vast sim worlds ("I don't believe it's possible to have huge numbers of NPCs that converse at a high level...Instead the meaningful communication takes place in the form of the creation, transfer, and use of objects...").
This would appear to be in contrast to, say, a deeply nuanced societal narrative based on other dramatic flames and desires, ala, say Henry V:
O! for a Muse of fire, that would ascend The brightest heaven of invention; A kingdom for a stage, princes to act And monarchs to behold the swelling scene. Then should the war-like Harry, like himself, Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels, Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword, and fire Crouch for employment. But pardon, gentles all, The flat unraised spirits that hath dar’d On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth So great an object: can this cockpit hold The vasty fields of France? or may we cram Within this wooden O the very casques That did affright the air at Agincourt?
If to extend John's work beyond the objects of resources and crafting is to enumerate and formalize the relationships elements of a societal narrative into other kinds of objects and transactions... Then from these grammars we may see horses arise and kingdoms emerge: "A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!" Perhaps, one day.
In the Warhammer thread there is mention of the MMORPG Gold Rush. So I got to thinking: who is actually making really money out of all this - and how much?
- You want to know the number of servers they run in China – you got it.
- You want to know the sales commission paid last quarter – you got it.
Anyone got similar data for other publishers?
What do you make of the numbers?
Frans Mäyrä of DiGRA and the University of Tampere Hypermedia Lab has just launched an interesting Master's Course in Digital Games Research and Design.
The course is distance learning based (no you have to go to Finland) and materials are provided by the likes of: Richard Bartle, Jessica Mulligan, Jesper Jull, Gonzalo Frasca, Espen Aarseth and Katie Salen – which is pretty much a top team of practitioner / theorists.
So if you fancy taking this stuff _really_ seriously check out the admissions details.
Here is the announce. Please check the accreditation details if you are looking to link this with other studies.
Online Master's Course in Digital Games Research and Design, 2004-2005
The Master's Course in Digital Games Research and Design is a course module series that uses the resources of several disciplines to address the digital game as a medium of high cultural importance. It aims to educate participants in academic game studies and in conceptual game design fundamentals, by exploiting their practical and theoretical connections.
The course is intended for students, researchers, new media professionals, creative professionals working in the audio-visual industry, teachers and others wishing to specialize as experts on computer games. It comprises of 14 months of distance learning course modules at an intermediate level (between BA and MA), which can also be studied individually. The Master's Course is designed to be studied as a part time course with an estimated workload of thirteen hours a week. The course modules are provided as a part of a pilot project aiming at creating a full game studies degree. Currently the 15 study week credits (15 Finnish credits/30 ECTS) are provided with a diploma that serves as a certificate of full authorization and compatibility with the University of Tampere Hypermedia Studies courses. The course can also form a part of an MA course at the University of Tampere. Accreditability and compatibility with courses of other universities may be possible but have to be discussed individually by the student with the university in question.
Module 1: Introduction to the History and Culture of Computer Games
(3ov/6 ECTS, September 6th 2004 – October 24th 2004)
Module 2: Introduction to Theories of Games and Play
(3ov/6 ECTS, November 1st 2004 – December 19th 2004)
Module 3: Analysis of Games and Playability
(3 ov/6 ECTS, January 10th 2005 – February 27th 2005)
Module 4: Game Design Fundamentals
(3ov/6 ECTS, March 7th 2005 – May 8th 2005)
Module 5: Project Work
(3ov/6 ECTS, September 5th, 2005 – October 30th)
The online course materials and exercises will be provided by scholars and experts of high international repute. These include:
Espen Aarseth, Denmark;
Richard Bartle, United Kingdom;
Matthias Bopp, Germany;
Gonzalo Frasca, Uruguay/Denmark;
Jussi Holopainen, Finland;
Aki Järvinen, Finland;
Jesper Juul, Denmark;
Andreas Lange, Germany;
Frans Mäyrä, Finland;
Jessica Mulligan, USA;
Britta Neitzel, Germany/Finland;
Claus Pias, Germany;
Katie Salen, USA.
Each online module will be tutored by one teacher and tutors. The working language is English.
For more information on course contents, pricing and admissions (open now), go to: http://www.uta.fi/hyper/gamestudies/
Britta Neitzel, tel. +358 3 215 8313, email@example.com (currently on
Frans Mäyrä, tel. +358 3 215 7933, firstname.lastname@example.org
As I mentioned previously, I'm going to be presenting at the DCC04 workshop on Virtual Worlds. This audience provided an opportunity to move away from the legal and economic discussions and to focus on the role of place in Second Life. The paper is here.
In earlier papers I've talked about the use of economic motivations to provide context within a general, user-created world. This paper explores a different set of ideas, namely that factors that lead to a sense of place -- such as modeling on the real world, travel, land ownership and a constant influx of new land -- also provide a crucial context and motivator to creation and community formation.
WO, a virtual world aimed at the powergamer set, was aborted this week. An analysis suggests that the graphics were not good enough, but also that the cost to finish, even after two years of development, was still $30 million. The financial bar seems to be rising.
For those who just get the RSS feed, there has been lots of buzz in the comment fields on virtual property issues lately: The "GOM Off-line" thread is up to 75 comments as of this post, with Jamie Hale participating, and Richard's post of his "Virtual Property Overview" is up to 41 comments, with lots of wild analogy-slinging. You know, it's almost starting to feel Slashdotty around here.
So in the spirit of comment field ascendancy, Barry Kearns, who commented quite a bit on both threads, has contributed the following discussion fodder regarding the value of blanket "morals clauses" in MMORPGs:
Many high-profile endorsement contracts, as well as employment contracts for many customer-facing job positions, contain a "morals clause". Such a clause allows for the termination of the relationship between the parties, if the employee engages in personal behavior which might reflect poorly on the organization with which they are associated.
Morals clause violations have been upheld in court cases as viable and enforceable contract provisions, and allow organizations to effectively distance themselves from representatives who engage in behavior that is not congruent with the public image that an organization wishes to maintain.
Recent discussions on Terra Nova have touched on the ethics of VW EULA provisions that reference out-of-game behaviors by players. Some players wish to exercise personal freedoms, while at the same time many VW operators wish to maintain full creative control of their environment... which includes the ability to remove any "disruptive elements" from their worlds solely at their discretion.
Is it time for VW EULAs to introduce a "morals clause", making explicit the notion that VW operators consider it "fair game" to cancel a gamer's access if they disagree with the solely "outside world" choices that a player makes?
Would you be more or less likely to patronize VWs that implemented a "morals clause" provision into their EULAs?
Some additional links/thoughts to add to the mix:
2) See the EULA-topia discussion (and the Grimmelmann post) from back in December.
3) Ren notes that some EULAs already have the functional equivalent of these clauses -- vague language such as "violating the spirit of the game" might do the trick. And I'll add that "service can be terminated for any reason" clauses in EULAs are not uncommon for many online services.
4) What percentage of players would ever decide whether to play WoW or COH based on the language in the EULAs that no one seems to read? Isn't it true that designer governance issues are largely tertiary to the motivations of "mainstream" MMORPG gamers?
Jon Orwant's EGGG: Automated Programing for Game Generation (IBM Systems Journal) is about generating games from a high-level (abstract) language. The cited paper is based on his dissertation (MIT, 1999). This is interesting work for many reasons; one aspect is that in order to design such a language, you need to worry about the features of games.
Jon describes EGGG's purpose as:
(letting) designers describe games in as few words as possible, while still retaining the precision that the underlying engine needs to render the language. The language is expressive (users can create almost any kind of graphical two-dimensional game) and concise (statements are short and powerful; debugging is easy because users can see the entire game on one page)...
Jon gives the design criteria as follows:
- Game descriptions should be brief.
- Easy games should be easy to generate, and hard games should be possible to generate.
- The EGGG engine should contain as little a priori information about particular games as possible. It should be easy to create variations.
- The EGGG engine and the games that it generates should be portable across platforms.
- The games generated by EGGG should be easy to modify.
- EGGG should not take a long time to generate games, and the games that it does generate should not run so slowly that playability is affected.
It turns out that Ramesh Srinivasan et al. (MIT Media labs) have an idea of a Community Compiler. Their idea is based on Orwant's work in as much as they hypothesize a similar high-level language that could drive generation of "communityware".
Ramesh sees EGGG as important for several reasons. One of which is that it decouples the rules of a game from its implementation. With a Community Compiler, they imagine empowering participants with the ability to experiment and iterate on community design. Or in their words:
we hope that community members engage in the “iterative process of trial and error” and achieve fluency about the domain: their community.
Echoes of Lambdo-Moo perhaps.
Is a hypothetical "virtual world compiler" powerful because it could on the fly generate customized worlds for communities of participants. An uber instancing machine? For those of you familiar with John Arras' work, he has demonstrated at the last two MUD-Dev conferences work with automatic world generation algorithms. Here, I imagine there to be a fundamental similarity and yet a basic difference: should community be first shaped by world, or vice versa?
After taking the designs of Mrs Jones into the virtual world, RRR (via their Virtual World site SpaceThinkDream), are now travelling in the opposite direction with the launch of Future Fashion 04 – a competition to find new design talent in a virtual world and catapult them onto the physical catwalks of New York and London (let's hope they land a little more elegantly than you do when dropped from a great height in SL).
Categories are: Sports Wear, Evening Wear and Avant Garde – so sharpen you pixels.
Just in case anyone thinks there is a conspiracy – there is!
I’m one of the judges.
Editors Sidney I. Dobrin, Cathlena Martin, and Laurie Taylor seek proposals for a new collection of original articles that address the use and place of space and ecology in video games. Full details here.
This collection will examine video games in terms of the spaces they create and use, the metaphors of space on which they rely, and the ecologies that they create within those spaces. This collection will address the significant intersections in terms of how and why video games construct space and ecology as they do, and in terms of how those constructions shape conceptions of both space and ecology.
Sample topics listed include "Creation of communities within artificial lands (often in MMORPGs, like Everquest homes and communities)". The topics listed remind me of these two posts by Peter Berger.
And, as a bonus, read some back and forth comments on the CFP here.
Erin O'Connor asks:
Notably absent from the questions above: "What does an essay collection on the ecology of video games have to do with the discipline of English?" and "Why is this study originating from within an English department?"
Which eventually leads, through a series of intermediate steps, to this wry comment from George Williams:
Florida taxpayer: Say, what's this I hear about you studying video games?
English professor: Not me. I'm writing a book on irony and ambiguity in Shakespeare's sonnets. Nothing but the canon for me.
Florida taxpayer: I used to think you all were "effete, out of touch, self-important, and resoundingly irrelevant," but now I see I was completely wrong. Why, what Florida taxpayer would fail to see the relevance and importance of your topic? Carry on, then.
One of the risks of the term "virtual worlds" is that people tend to associate it with the discredited term "virtual reality." Well, maybe that bug will be a feature someday -- our friends at NASA say all that gloves and helmet stuff didn't come to fruition as quickly as we all hoped, but that we shouldn't feel free to write it off completely. Article here. (Caveat: Obligatory Matrix references to be found.)
Gaming Open Market have just gone off line while they investigate a ‘fraud’.
The first report of this seems to be on Andrew Mactavish’s blog. The GOM site currently states:
- GOM is Offline
We are temporarily closed dealing with a recent incident of fraud. For those of you waiting, PayPal withdrawals will be paid out this morning. Currency transactions will be handled as usual.
We\'re sorry for any inconvenience this might cause, and we\'ll be back up and running as soon as possible.
I'll post if I find out more.
I guess if you are easily offended you really shouldn’t read on.
Sex has always been a part of virtual spaces, just as the link between technology and sex goes back to ancient times (here I’m thinking of things like contraception, sex toys, and all the way back to the use of tools to create of artefacts symbolic of fertility) and is of interest to futurologists (see Trudy Barber's research on Computer Fetishism and Sexual Futurology). The use of virtual spaces as part of sex play: TinySex (see definition here) is well documented by writer such as TNs own Julian Dibble (see My Tiny Life) and Sherry Turkle (see: Life on the Screen).
But here I want to report on the creation of spaces where sexual content or themes are purposefully designed in – in particular the current interests in heavily sexualised MMORPGs. The old cliché goes that each generation believes it invented sex, but of course there is nothing new about sex in video games (see: Game for Sex Vol. 1 A Retrospective on Sex in Videogames) or MUDs (see MUD Connector's category listing for Sexually Orientated MUDs).
What sparked this thread off was news of two new sexually orientated MMOs going into public Beta: (you really don’t want to click these links if you’re going to be offended or embarrassed by nudity – oh and they sound, so you might want to go mute if your going there – OK, you’ve been warned so don’t blame me!) Red Light World and Sociolotron.
Red Light World is a virtual version of Amsterdam’s red light district and has picked up a fair amount of publicity (see: Wired's Virtual City of Smut Now Online) we even got a mail shot at the TN virtual office! In the interests of full disclosure I will state that I have not downloaded RLW – but from what I read it is a 3D space where you shop, visit partner sites and meet people i.e. virtual porn, TinySex and dating. The commercial question for RLW is whether this is enough, is 3D just a gimmick that may ultimately be less efficient way of adult content and other adults or is there some reason to add ‘space’. Also if RLW is to survive, it seems to need to attract women, and, well – judge for yourself.
Sociolotron is rather different, it is a full on role play game with combat, crafting, points systems, oh and sex, lots of sex, especially BDSM with options for rape and consequences such as disease, death and pregnancy. It also has a strong political side with like the choice of democracy or tyranny being part of the game.
In one of the version of my ethics of computer games piece I discussed the notion of rape in computer games, arguing that from certain ethical stances it is wrong to include it irrespective of its graphical depiction e.g. if raping is represented by the white dot, turning the blue dot to red, and the aim of the game is to turn as many dots red as you can – then daeontologists (those that believe that the basis of ethics is rights and duty, rather than, say, consequences) are probably going to tend to judge this as immoral. However when I wrote this I was considering single person player games, Sociolotron is multi-player, so this changes things – but in what way? On the one had people may argue that because the ‘text act’ involves another person it is much worse, on the other hand (assuming that all players are consenting adults) there is consent; moreover this all operates within the magic circle a space where taboos are explored. To paraphrase Sutton-Smith in The Ambiguity of Play: not only is this not rape, it’s also not not rape. So do we decry Sociolotron as immoral or applaud it for going where, at least some, adult games really should go?
Sociolotron also serves to highlight the absences in other games. The range of emotes in Star Wars Galaxies, for example, while limited are certainly not completely sexually neutral, see: /leer /hold, /nuzzle, /kiss and /snog. Given that the history of TinySex tells us that players really don’t need any inducement or help to add sexual content, it is interesting that MMOs that want to appeal to a wide audience include even a hint of sexuality. Though interesting SOE have commented on the ‘married’ status flag that they have not integrated the status into game play as this forces them to take a position, one way or another, on the issue of gay marriage (something that there was some debate about in Sims Online).
Also on the subject of relationships, an entirely different MMO related service has recently launched: mmodating.com, which is pretty much what is says on the can – an online dating service targeted at MMO players. Given the propensity of MMOers to meet in-game and then hook up off line its going to be interesting to see if this service can make it (on the commercial side the model is: free to register, pay to communicate).
I really have no idea where all this is going. I imagine that we will see more sexual content in some MMOs – it’s another facet of mainstreaming, and I’m sure we will see relationships becoming an even stronger element in all virtual worlds, but where next, you tell me.
A white paper I wrote for Themis in April, The Pitfalls of Virtual Property, finally made it to their web site this week. It describes in lay terms some of the issues that commodification raises with regard to virtual worlds.
Most of the arguments will already be familiar to readers and authors of this blog - indeed more familiar to some of them (Ren, Ted, Greg & Dan for sure) than they are to me. I'm therefore somewhat more embarrased than usual to mention it here, but blatant self-promotion is blog policy...
PS: Due to .doc-to-.pdf translation problems, some em-dashes are missing and footnote 9 has gone walkabout.
From the September 11 Commission: "In the fall of 1999, training for the attacks began. Hazmi, Mihdhar, Khallad and Abu Bara participated in an elite training course at the Mes Aynak camp in Afghanistan. Afterward, K.S.M. taught three of these operatives basic English words and phrases and showed them how to read a phone book, make travel reservations, use the Internet and encode communications. They also used flight simulator computer games..."
Emphasis added. Full text available through the New York Times (registration required). A virtual world implementation could only have made the training more effective.
I'll tell you what I want, what I really really want – remote access to my favourite MMOs’ that’s what! And it looks like my wish is finally being granted.
Second Life has just announced the release of the thrillingly titled v1.4 which includes a feature that goes by the equally awe inspiringly acronym XML-RPC. What this means is that 2L is now connected to the outside world enabling things like vendors to mange their stores remotely.
Similarly at the recent SWG Fan Fest, the developers were asked about remote connections to servers that would allow such things as: finding out who is online, receiving SMSs when structures needed to maintained etc. While the panel would not discuss any specific features they did confirm that SOE / LucasArts are working on some form of mobile access to the game – w00t.
What’s more, during the 11hr flight to LA (for which I and the other transatlantians got a Galaxy Quest Stylee ‘Give him a big hand, he's British’), I got to thinking – now if the airline offered an in-flight remote access service to my favourite MMOs I’d pay a _lot_ for that, in fact I might even upgrade to business for that.
There has got to be a business case in this somewhere. I’d love to play via my mobile phone – just think of the hand set sales, the air time, the service charges, the expansion of the market into the time-poor / cash-rich casual gaming sector.
If this can happen for Law, what else can it happen for? Researchers of which other academic disciplines ought to be interested in virtual worlds but as yet aren't? Are there any fields that you think would be of such benefit to virtual world specialists that we ought to "invite them in"?
Personally, I'd like to see what researchers in History and Politics would make of virtual worlds. I also think that anthropologists should be more interested than they currently seem to be.
What do you think? And how should we go about letting these people know what they're missing?
After six months of feedback on my original whitepaper on why digital worlds and the real world need to be tightly linked, I've written a new article that focuses on the two most common discussions topics: the right to play and intellectual property (new paper here) Originally written for DCC04 Workshop on Virtual Worlds: Design and Research Directions, I ended up liking the paper but decided that it wasn't appropriate for the workshop. However, it dovetails nicely into the many TN discussions about these issues.
At the ComWork symposium Julian introduced a catchy proposition. Juxtaposing an image of a group of some of the most prominent MMOG developers with that of the U.S. founding fathers he asked us to consider the similarities. Both groups operate(d) around questions of governance, normative behaviors, how to sustain vibrant communities... basic social contract questions. So I'm left to muse about what we might make of the recent "EverQuest Guild Summit." This past weekend Sony invited 60 guild members and community leaders (note: a lot of these were the hard-working people who produce all that "auxiliary" material like maps, item databases, and class helpers that makes EQ playable) to discuss a variety of matters related to the game and customer service. I remember when I first gave a talk about culture and ownership in EQ several people commented that Sony was so at the far end of things in terms of inattention to customers and "big hammer" solutions that it was almost unfair to see what was happening in the game as pointing to any significant issues we might generally face in the MMOG world. I disagree of course. EQ, like all games, circulate in a broader culture and work with, and through, all kinds of conventions (legal and otherwise). They may be extreme, but they do tell us something important. So here we are several years later and they are holding an intensive event soliciting player input on matters from game structure to service. It's probably no real surprise. EQ players have made some interesting attempts at group organizing (recall the Steel Warriors protest for example). The leap from communal action to "summit" is one we've seen before... offline.
One of the other images Julian showed was a fairly typical one if you've been to any Fan Faires - a room full of people facing a line of developers and vying to get a question asked... and waiting for the devs to answer. So how do things like guild summits change the terms? From the write-ups of this weekend's event it sounded like a combo marketing-focus group-user feedback-community management deal. It's a familiar line around here that players matter - and not just in the simple yeah-you-need-'em-for-revenue-way. They give games life, they tweak them, they extend them, they break them, they fix them - in some meaningful way, they make them. What is striking as you read the reports of the event is how pleased the participants seemed with it, how they felt really listened to (the replies to the reports by non-participants are more diverse). I certainly know I would've loved to have seen how it played out in real-time ;) So, is Sony just wising up and doing a really savvy job of bringing opinion-leaders into the fold? Or does the summit represent something more than that - a fundamental shift (or potential one) in how games might be developed and run? Of course, what makes Julian's initial provocation linking founding fathers and MMOG devs an interesting thought experiment is that we would then have to consider how much room will be given (and where) to complimentary issues like speech, privacy, ownership, freedom, and protection.
At EQMac the author writes, "Smedley had us all sit down, then proceeded to start off the day. He informed us all we were there to help SOE. That they wanted player input on what to do to make the game better, and they promised to listen." SOE has always tried to walk a very fine line - "You're in our world now" combined with benefitting enormously from players feeling deeply invested in that world. Investment that, I would argue, often produces some sense of ownership. So I read that quote with some ambivalence... is helping SOE the same as players helping themselves? I don't want to over-dichotomize it of course, so let me pose it this way - what can (or what will) the future look like for the relationship between players and MMOG companies? Or players and devs? And yup, I think the distinction is probably crucial. Will we mark the EQ Guild Summit as a defining moment in the development of these spaces?
(There are lots of interesting factoids in all the various reports so they are well worth the read. Several writeups, including those from Stratics and PlanetEQ, can be found off the main Sony page linked above. In addition to the EQMac one cited check out EQGUI, Graffes, and the Mobhunter review which has a bunch of links to other reports.)
[Ed: I'm posting this for Alan Stern, a regular TerraNova commentator and a law-type-person at U.Conn]
Over on Slashdot there's a story: Is The Xbox The Cause Of The PC Gamer's Downfall? While the article discusses "whether the Xbox has grabbed much of the development effort and talent from the PC gaming scene," the comments to the article raise an interesting question. Without a doubt, consoles, coupled with falling prices, a bevy of beautiful games and an ever-increasing load of developers, have helped make gaming (in general) a much more prevalent (and affordable) past-time. Throw in technology add-ons such as Xbox Live and the Playstation 2 Network Adapter and consoles start looking more and more viable.
With the "recent" releases of Final Fantasy XI and Everquest Online Adventures for the PS2 and their increasing player-bases, one can only wonder if this is a sign of things to come. Notwithstanding the possible effects current consoles are having on PCs (or vice versa), is it
only a short time until we are presented with additional console-based or console-accessible virtual worlds? Is this part of the next stage in virtual world evolution? (And for dramatic flare..) Will this expansion be what finally brings MMOGs to the masses?
At the recent SWG Fan Fest, Haden Blackman (LucasArts Producer of SWG) discussed SOE / LucasArts’ anti-eBay’ing strategy - but he wasn’t giving much away.
According to Blackman, speaking at the first 'Developer Round Table' conference session at the Fan Fest, SOE / LucasArts are highly active in pursuing out of game sales. He stated that the priority is the sale of player-characters i.e. accounts, rather than objects or credits. He also confirmed that they track in game financial transactions and look for unusually large ones, and noted that they regularly issue ‘take down notices’. Moreover a number of accounts, including Jedi ones, have been terminated.
Blackman also stated that SOE / LucasArts are working with ‘an outside agency’ in the pursuit of eBayers. The ‘agency’ was referred to on a number of occasions during the Fan Fest, but never named – sounded a bit sinister at the time.
Well, we’ve wondered here what MMO developer / publishers are actually doing to crack down on eBayers – and now we know.
I wonder if the type of detailed transaction pattern tracking that credit card companies use will start to be applied to in-game transactions. Back to the panopticon model, would the knowledge of observation, however successful or not it is, reduce the amount of eBaying?
What do you mean by a "virtual world"? While on the one hand, it is unlikely we can (or even want to) pigeon-hole our virtual world experiences and visions into neat (and irksome) boxes. But on the other hand, it is still useful to calibrate ourselves once in a while. So. What do you mean by a virtual world? What are the basic features you require of a "virtual world" to be one. To get the ball rolling, consider Richard Bartle's delphic words (Designing Virtual Worlds, New Riders Publishing, 2003).
In this context, a world is an environment that its inhabitants regard as being self-contained. It doesn't have to mean an entire planet: It's used in the same sense as "the Roman world" or "the world of high finance."
So what about the virtual part? Not to get too philosophical about it:
Real. That which is.
Imaginary. That which isn't.
Virtual. That which isn't, having the form or effect of that which is.
Virtual worlds are places where the imaginary meets the real.
At TN we seemed to have tampered with the edges of this meaning. For example, we have collectively agreed to limit our virtual worlds to ones with (lots) of human players. Accepting this for discussion here, let me ask:
- What features do you minimally require of a virtual world?
- Can some of these features substitute for others, which ones? For example, would you be alarmed if all your guildmates were replaced by chatter-bots... and you didn't know it?
- Have your expectations evolved? PBEM a vw, once? What about tomorrow?
Now the extra-credit question. If you believe in the "MM" (as in MMORPG) requirement - what about instancing? Take it to an extreme. Is Diablo (Blizzard) on Battlenet a virtual world of 40K players? And what about City of Heroes, what if you logged on one day and everyone was on an (instanced) mission? Would you still believe?
"Us" meaning China in this case. This China Daily news story doesn't really answer the question posed by its headline, but it does highlight some of the recent examples of social problems with virtual property and addiction in Chinese MMORPGs. To wit:
On March 6, 2004, a 31-year-old Legend of Mir II addict literally dropped dead after playing the game non-stop for 20 hours in a Chengdu internet café. Soon after this tragedy, a Shanghai online game player suffered serious burns in an attempted self-immolation after the Shanda Customer Service Department expropriated his virtual equipment for The Legend of Mir II that he had bought from other players for 10,000 RMB [ed. approx. $1,200]. On April 11 the first case of online virtual currency fraud, to the tune of 15,000 RMB [ed. approx. $1,800], was exposed by Dalian police.
But that’s a problem. If everyone is a Jedi it just won’t be cool anymore - and just think about what will happen to the eBay prices.
SOE / Lucas Arts' way round this is the biggest buzz here at the SWG Fan Fest right now.
The solution is stunningly simple – limit the number of high level Jedi. The system, called Force Ranking, will have a pyramid structure with a fixed number of places. Players holding top positions are expected to be the hard core of the hard core - miss a few days of play you will most likely loose your position. Light Side Jedi are expected to vote for positions, Dark Side fight for them. The dev’s commented that the Light Side politics could get really ugly.
The extra-game economic outcome of this looks like it will become effectively impossibly to sell the most valuable characters. Top Jedi will be far from anonymous and highly skilled in technical and social side of the game, what’s more players without the skill or dedication just won’t be able to play at the highest level.
Update: I asked a dev panel about whether the new system was an anti-eBay idea – they did not exactly answer this but seemed to appreciate the effect that it could have. An interesting point that one brought up was the way that it sits outside the general paradigm of a persistent world i.e. in worlds you generally progress. The down side of simple progression is that it creates virtual-artefacts that are tradable, the highly dynamic system means that the value of a character drops massively if it traded. The issue is whether people will accept the level of continual dedication that playing at the highest level will require – we will see.
I would have let this go without posting on it, but the amount of pickup has been extraordinary. Reuters reported yesterday on Second Life's virtual real estate sales. It is a pretty good survey of the last few months as well good coverage of Gaming Open Market and comments from a SL land baron. It's been picked up by /., cnn.com, usatoday.com, msnbc.com and others. The concept of virtual real estate resonates with people in a really powerful way.
A week or two ago (okay, confession: I am delinquent on blogging this), Kurt Squire & I participated in an 'issues workshop' at the annual conference of the American Psychiatric Association entitled 'OnlineVideogames: Psychopathological or Psychotherapeutic?' I was surprised to find that this was the first time the topic has been formally broached by APA clinical psychiatrists, especially given the amount of air time (and anxiety) given it by the industry (e.g., Damon Watson's session at GDC this year entitled 'Massively Excessive: Addiction or Irresponsibility?'). Either way, these folks may very well be the new face of the movement to 'medicalize' the issue of mmoging.
Here's a barebones (mildly editorialized) overview...
by Jeffrey Wilkins, M.D. @ Cedars-Sinai Medical Center [Co-Chairperson]
Dr. Wilkins, one of the main forces behind the symposium, .... uh, well, introduced everyone. And made the point that the claim that 'online videogames matter' is obvious...
Ultra-Brief History of Online Videogames
by William Huang, M.D., Cedars-Sinai Medical Center
Dr. Huang gave a hyper-condensed summary of historical and economic significance of the internet, videogames, and online videogames - the 20 minute version. Way too much for me to blog and mostly known by this fair community.
Internet Addiction and Gaming
by Dr. Maressa Orzack, Harvard University
Dr. Orzack's first main claim was that MMOG addiction & internet addiction & computer addiction are all same thing. Then it got ugly - a few highlights follow...
* The need to use the computer to experience pleasure, excitement or relief.
* Loss of control when not on the computer resulting in anxiety, anger, depression (She then told a horror story about some teenager playing EQ who, after dying online thanks to an interruption from his younger brother, became so furious that he threw the little tyke down the stairs, ending with "Thought that would give you an example on how strong urges can be...")
* Craving the newest hardware or software (OMG I'm 3 outta 3)
* The need to spend increasing amounts of time or money on computer activities in order to get the same effect.
* Lying about the type of activity
* Lying about the amount of time spent
* Risking the loss of relationships with family and friends (Then she told another horror story about an unemployed dad at home forgot to take care of his two kids, ending with "need i say more.")
* Jeopardizing financial, career, or academic goals (thank god I get paid to game)
* Failure at efforts to stop compulsive use
* Physical health suffers (She then told about a patient she had who used depends in order to stay at the game screen. And for the first time ever, I thought 'yes, there is such a thing as mmog addiction.)
Do you suffer from five or more of these symptoms? Then you suffer from addiction. *cough gasp ahem*
Characteristics of users at risk
* social phobias
* shyness or low self esteem
* other addictions
* Aserger's syndrome
* Instant messenging
* blogging... (with vivid 'depends' example in mind, I stopped taking blog notes on this talk here)
Videogames and Violence
by Stephanie Steward, MD & Henrik Zakari, MD, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center
Dr. Steward asked the $64k question that seems to come up, at least in my experience, every time I talk about games to those who don't play: Do videogames with violent themes influence behavior? Unlike the media, however, she gave a fairly fair and balanced discussion to both sides of the debate. The only problem, in my small opinion, was how she defined the sides. In the one corner, she place the "violent videogames teach violence" camp, largely consisting of the military and police academies (and hysterical mothers and news-starving media and Anderson et al. and...); in the other corner, however, she put a lesser known, stranger opponent: a kind of "aggressive play is natural and inevitable... an outlet to deal with violence..." sort of thing (a 'Killing Monsters' kind of take? no reference but seems to be hailing back to Jones & Ponton stuff). Given her subsequent (viewer shocking) display of a screenshot from Postal2, it seemed the notion of what constituted 'violent videogames' in the first place was taken as obvious. What all this had to do with online gaming, I wasn't sure. But, Steward & Zakari's summary of the debate, even if the terms aren't exactly those I recognize (after all, I can come up with several opposing-purported-link-btwn-videogame-and-violence arguments), is certainly worth addressing.
Educational Use of Videogames
by Dr. Kurt Squire & Constance Steinkuehler, Constance, University of Wisconsin
Kurt and I were basically there to talk about the educational possiblities of games. Of course, I shamelessly used it as a platform to criticize the metaphors often used to frame the 'MMOG addiction' issue and argue that we need to consider virtual spaces as a critique on society rather than a critique on gamers [slides 18.5MB]. Kurt then illustrated the range of learning possibilities made available through games and drew a parallel between games and Harry Potter 'addiction,' asking the question, 'how can the formal school system respond in ways that won't render them completely irrelevant?' He then discussed contemporary innovations and issues in game design and illustrated his point with Revolution, a multiplayer game he has been working on with the Education Arcade people at MIT.
Online Videogames in Mental Health
by Jack Kuo, M.D. @ Cedars-Sinai Medical Center [Co-Chairperson]
After this long series of presentations focused on risks & possible benefits, Dr Kuo followed with a discussion of applications: specifically, the use of virtual reality in clinical treatment of various disorders such as phobias, ADHD training, etc. There are some obvious advantages to using VR in such work: consistency of stimuli, hierarchical challenges, greater ecological validity, etc. He ended his discussion with suggestions for how MMOGs might be used for treatments that require features such as group scenarios (such as teamwork training) and not just individual ones. Pretty cool stuff. Quite honestly, if this APA workshop represents the new move toward 'medicalizing' the issue of excessive gameplay, then I want Jack to be the one in front with the flag.
Clay Shirky, god of group interactions and social software, has posted an essay on governance in VWs/MMOGs that came from his presentation at the State of Play conference. In the paper he asks "What would happen if we wanted to build a world where we maximized the amount of user control? What would that look like?" It's a fascinating question, especially in light of the on-going control issues of game developers (compare Second Life's ceding of control to their users, with the crackdowns on eBaying that are in the news these days).
Gonzalo Frasca and Mirjam Eladhari have posted some great pictures from the Com Work symposium at ITU Copenhagen, where four of our Terra Novans presented and six attended. Link, link, link. Quite a fine, happy, healthy-looking bunch of 1337 VW 5ch0l4rz...
Are Player-versus-Player (PvP) MMORPGS more fun, do they make better business sense? Recent TN discussions circle: "Griefing (too much of a good thing?)", "NPCs (if they weren't so busy as rubbish...)", and even (obliquely): "Addiction (is avatar suicide brinksmanship just a perverse variant?)." Discussion from earlier this year on Gamemethod frames the two schools of thought (pro and con) as follows.
PvP+ Player conflict is necessary to make the game world challenging and adds an integral human influence...Monster AI isn't good enough...Real sense of excitement.
PvP- Power gamers ruin the fun and immersion... (Griefers)
Admittedly Gamemethod likes PvP (disclosure: I do too), nonetheless, they make a provocative claim. Namely that most MMORPGs cater to PvP- crowd because they are risk adverse and because it is harder to get right. In so doing they neglect a largely untapped resevoir of folk who really itch for it.
So I ask. Are there legions of folk out there in the wings ready to become MMORPG players, if only someone could get the PvP secret sauce right?
With Fizik's permission I've posted screen shots from my recent tour of Avalon in Second Life.
The first three shots show the Mrs. Jones clothing gallery. An avid Mrs. Jones collection wearer was nice enough to model a few pieces for me. And yes, most of them would give the wearer very unusual tan lines in RL ;)
The remaining images relate to Avalon's artists in residence. They have living quarters and a sculpture garden with some interesting pieces. The most intriguing one is a cat surrounded by a flock of birds. It looks like a still sculpture, but Fizik told me it's actually a moving sculpture with an extremely slow motion setting. You can't see the sculpture moving but every time you come back it's progressed to a different position. The early 20th century Italian futurist movement lives on in 2L.
I didn't really get a shopping mall vibe from Avalon. The Mrs. Jones gallery was definitely commercial in the sense that there were logos and products prominently placed throughout, but it felt more like a funky SoHo boutique than your average American mall.