September 2006 | Main Page | November 2006

Are we really ready for a global conversation about virtual worlds?

(This posting is about the urgent need to find financial sponsors for State of Play IV: Building the Global Metaverse. Feel free to skip the bulk of the message and cut to the chase.)

San Antonio is not the most cosmopolitan city in the world. We lack an Ethiopian restaurant, and have extremely limited options as far as good Chinese food is concerned. Though we have a handful of (very small) independent  bookstores, we're forced to drive to Borders if we hope to find anything remotely out of the ordinary. We're not on the circuit for hipster college rock bands, and most of the good art house  movies are found only in Austin. We don't even have an American Apparel or a Trader Joe's to call our own.

Some might reach for the word "provincial" to describe this city. Yet, because we have never been close to the epicenter of American power, our perspective is more humble than you might expect from Texans. We've always known that exciting and important things are happening outside our borders. To participate in important conversations about important topics, we know that we must get on the plane and fly to other places.

From San Antonio, there are very few direct flights. As my Mom (a Texas native) once noted, "Even if you go to hell, you've got to stop in Dallas first." Thus, we Texans, like Nebraskans and Coloradans and Latin Americans and Africans and British residents often find ourselves traveling through strange airports with long lay overs. We are used to it.

Ultimately, the transition to a fully globalized world may be  more traumatic for those who live in such cosmopolitan cities as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and Washington D.C. After all, when a community has spent more than a century with a reputation as "the place that others must visit," the perspective of its residents tends to become somewhat myopic. One could even use the word "provincial."

Whether or not we choose to admit it, the American Century is over.

The networked technologies that power our beloved virtual worlds have made it possible to dramatically decentralize physical manufacturing and symbolic labor. Entrepreneurial and creative energies are now as likely to flourish in Hanoi and Mumbai as in Hollywood and the Silicon Valley

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Everyone has a different answer. But few can deny that this is the nature of our global economy in this new millennium.

We are living through an unprecedented world-historical moment. The rate of change is accelerating, with no sign of slowing down. This move toward international culture and global civil society offers extraordinary potential for collaboration and information sharing.
Even now, when faced with distressing ecological and political developments, the rise of global virtual worlds makes it possible for reasonable individuals to cling to a small shred of hope that we can work together to make things better.

With such powerful technologies before our very eyes, one might think that virtual world researchers would widely announce and celebrate these changes. One might expect us to be racing toward projects that use virtual worlds to promote transnational understanding. One might even predict that far-sighted projects such as Global Kids and the Center for Public Diplomacy's Project on Virtual Worlds would be part of a much larger cultural movement.

Sadly, we seem far more comfortable talking about changes unfolding in Azeroth than about those changes emerging beyond our borders. With the exception of a handful of intrepid game designers, scholars, and reporters who have set out to explore the "worlds beyond the West," our field has been remarkably quiet about the global dimensions of play.

In fact, the conversation about virtual worlds is dominated by Western voices. While there are trade shows for the video game industry in Asia, most discussions of virtual world research have been located exclusively in the West to the exclusion of meaningful international participation.

At the 2006 gathering of the International Communication Association in Berlin, the game studies division drew approximately 52 researchers. More than two-thirds were American, and only one scholar from Asia was listed on the conference program. Similarly, at the Digital Games Research Association’s convention in 2005, non- Western guests represented less than 3% of the 200+ speakers. (This is *not* the fault of the conference organizers. These figures simply reflect our current condition.)

It is also interesting to note how many Western scholars and business professionals are overwhelmed by the thought of braving an economy class trip to “the Far East” to meet their counterparts overseas.

International travel is expensive and it takes a long time. Jet lag is no fun, and the economy cabins seem to be shrinking every year.  But what do you think our colleagues from Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa have been dealing with for the past six decades?

In January of 2007 -- we hope -- the fourth annual State of Play conference will meet in Singapore. Entitled "Building the Global Metaverse," this groundbreaking event will convene designers, journalists, scholars, entrepreneurs, lawyers and gamers from around the world to discuss the increasingly global character of virtual worlds. In addition to the usual suspects, we plan to subsidize travel and hotel expenses for attendees from developing countries.

We are running a very tight ship. Economy class airfares. Scaled back meals. Barely any swag. No ice statues, fire jugglers, stilt walkers, or celebrity musicians. All of our organizers (especially our project manager) have volunteered their time to make this happen. Neal Stephenson and Cory Doctorow have waived their speaking fees because they understand the need to pinch pennies.

Despite our frugality, organizing a global conference is difficult undertaking. When Beth Noveck and I set out to plan this event, we overestimated the readiness of our Western colleagues to embrace this groundbreaking project. Five months down the road, we are still trying to raise enough money. We are rapidly approaching a “go or no-go” decision point.

We need your help.

Certain organizations rose to the sponsorship challenge as soon as they heard about State of Play IV, and they deserve to be recognized. Kenyon and Kenyon, Makena Technologies, The Escapist, Asia’s Business Software Alliance and Millions of Us have already made substantial commitments to the conference.

These are not large companies with extensive capital reserves. These visionary organizations have tight budgets, but they agreed to sponsor because they understand where our industry is heading.

Private sector patrons have been joined by academic institutions including Harvard Law School, Yale Law School, Nanyang Technical University and Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.  New York Law School deserves special praise for sharing Beth's brain (which should be classified a national treasure) even while she is on sabbatical. New York Law School has also been willing to put its name and reputation on the line at crucial junctures during the growth of this conference. Key individuals at Linden Lab have been extraordinarily helpful, and have initiated conversations with potential sponsors.

Singapore's Infocomm Development Alliance (IDA) has been a significant sponsor, and other government agencies in Singapore have also stepped in to support this non-profit gathering.
More surprising than the commitment on the part of these small-to-medium-sized entities has been the tepid response on the part of the rest of the community. Everyone is waiting for someone else to take responsibility for making this happen.

(Side note: To be fair, more than thirty sponsorship letters are under review, so other game companies may be on the brink of sponsoring. If so, please don’t hesitate to call me at 210/347-6888).

Two of the most important trends of this decade are (a) the explosive growth of transnational virtual worlds, and (b) the remarkable resurgence of Asia's economies during the past five years. These two trends will intersect in Singapore in January at the State of Play Conference: Building the Global Metaverse.

Neal Stephenson will be on hand to help us make sense of global developments, as will Dr. Jane McGonigal, Cory Doctorow, and Julian Dibbell. They will be joined by an extraordinary slate of speakers including Funmi Iyanda (Nigeria), Sue Yang (Shanghai),

Judge Unggi Yoon (Korea), Frank Yu (Beijing), Joey Alarilla (Philippines), and danah boyd (Berkeley). These are remarkable voices that deserve to be heard. We’ve put together a conference program that will make it possible for them to do this (http://www.nyls.edu/stateofplay).

State of Play IV: Building the Global Metaverse will also feature two workshops. The first is devoted to virtual tax law -- a topic that has captured the attention of legislators throughout the world. The second workshop, sponsored by The Escapist, explores global games journalism and virtual worlds reporting.

This will be an amazing conference. But we need your help to pay for it.

Our game industry is hardly in desperate financial straits. The annual revenue of the games industry in the United States alone outstrips Hollywood box office receipts. Last month, virtual worlds were featured prominently in more than 40 national and global media outlets including Reuters, The Economist, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post, USA Today, CNN Money, Red Herring, The Street, Business Week, CNet, Forbes, International Herald Tribune, Harvard Business Review, and NPR.

Meanwhile, a miniature boom-economy has hit the social virtual worlds. Metaverse development companies such as Electric Sheep, Millions of Us, and Rivers Run Red are racing to keep up with the demand. Some seasoned observers compare the current activity to the spike in attention that preceded the boom in 1994.

My questions to Terra Nova’s writers and readers -- particularly those  in North America -- are very simple: Are we ready for this type of global dialogue about the future of virtual worlds? Are we willing to take the symbolic (and immensely rewarding) step of visiting other countries for a change?

Are we truly ready to speak to the rest of the world as partners and equals? 

If you're connected to an organization that has a budget for such things, we would welcome your sponsorship. If you know of someone else who might be able to help out, we would be grateful if you could pass this message on to them.

If you would like to speak further about sponsorship opportunities, please contact me at any time at +1 (210) 347-6888 or at [email protected]

We can make this conference happen. But we need your help.

Dr. Aaron Delwiche
Assistant Professor (Communication)
Chair,  State of Play IV: Building the Global Metaverse
Trinity University
San Antonio, Texas

Comments (45)

Superstition

B.F. Skinner is well-known for his theory of behavioral conditioning, but one of his quirkiest studies involved inducing superstition in pigeons (1948). 8 pigeons were placed in a reinforcement contraption (i.e., Skinner Box) and were given a food pellet every 15 seconds no matter what they did. After several days, each pigeon had fixated on a particular superstitious behavior. One pigeon danced counter-clockwise, another two developed a left-to-right head-swinging motion, another attacked an invisible object in the top right corner of the cage, and so forth. This phenomenon has also been replicated among high-school students (Bruner & Revuski, 1961). And given that MMOs are a kind of Skinner Box that offer some random rewards (e.g., rare drops), it's not surprising that superstitious behaviors emerge in MMOs as well.

During our weekly meeting at PARC, we stumbled upon the issue of superstition in MMOs. Cabell Gathman mentioned that the current "trick or treat" event in City of Heroes/Villains has some players convinced that there are ways to increase the odds of a "treat" when knocking on doors. Eric then mentioned that in his WoW guild, some believe that it's best for Hunters to be the first to enter an instanced dungeon because Hunters supposedly have better loot tables. I was also reminded of Raph Koster's account of the gibberish ghost language in Ultima Online and how many players were convinced that ghost language could be deciphered and that ghosts answered player's questions.

But the incident that stuck out the most in my mind was the amount and intensity of speculation in Star Wars Galaxies as to how someone unlocked a Jedi character (before the anti-climactic truth was revealed). As in the case of the pigeons, what spurred these speculations was that the game showed system messages to certain players that they were one step closer to the truth without telling them what it was they had done that brought them closer. The sheer creativity and conviction that people had towards the main competing theories was mind-boggling. There was a very well thought out theory involving completion of a chain of specific NPC quests; another involved describing the different requirements for different professions; others focused on unique geographical landmarks that had to be visited. I thought this was actually the most interesting period in the SWG universe because of the player productivity. Unfortunately, the truth (i.e., grind levels, abandon profession, grind again, etc.) was much more banal than any of the main theories.

What's clear is that it's not that hard to create superstitions among MMO players. Several questions come to mind:

- Is encouraging superstition a good thing for an MMO (i.e., leads to player productivity and player-generated content)?
- What is the most interesting case of superstition you have seen?

Comments (92)

The essential paradigm of cyberspace

In 1993 Chip Morningstar penned "How to Deconstruct Almost Anything, My Postmodern Adventure".  This essay recounted his and Randy Farmer's 1991 adventure at the Second International Conference of Cyberspace.   Surprised by an academic humanities audience, they hurriedly reworked their presentation at the last moment - nonsensically knitting together bits of phraseology they heard the day before...

Thus, with these words Chip opened their presentation:

The essential paradigm of cyberspace is creating partially situated identities out of actual or potential social reality in terms of canonical forms of human contact, thus renormalizing the phenomenology of narrative space and requiring the naturalization of the intersubjective cognitive strategy, and thereby resolving the dialectics of metaphorical thoughts, each problematic to the other, collectively redefining and reifying the paradigm of the parable of the model of the metaphor.

Apparently there was humor enough to capture their audience.

To some this story may suggest a schism between a pragmatic view (the "vulgar engineer" in Chip's words) with the abstractions of a rarified species in the Galapagos (the academic, Chip's analogy).  Another take is to view this in terms of the different kinds of disciplines and languages that are in play in parsing a phenomenon as complicated as a virtual world.  Each language describes a different aspect of the proverbial elephant.

A first thought lies with Greg's excellent question (fr: Academic Instincts and Virtual World Studies): "when the longed-for discipline of Virtual World Studies is created on the ground we are mapping out, who among us will be qualified to reside there and to join in the conversation?"

A second thought starts innocuously enough.  It begins escoterically with Peter Van Roy's paper  "Convergence in Language Design: A Case of Lightening Striking Four Times in the Same Place."  It is a paper that audaciously infers what the definitive programming language might look like from case studies.  Peter started by looking at four different programming languages that focused on four strategic and different computing problems.    From these he attempted to identify the common forms between them, implicating a definitive design.  I should point out to our technical readers, there is a strong rebuttle.  Yet the exercise seems useful.

This thought plays out with this virtual world twist.  Pick four examples that cover four different virtual world problems well.    Suggest their commonality and hypothesize a definitive form.  Err, that sounds hard, how about just the features then...

However, it seems to me that the larger issue with this approach were it applied to virtual worlds is the Galapagos problem mentioned earlier.  The examples are too similar because they are all in the same niche having co-evolved together.  Perhaps it would be better to conduct more comparisons from further afield: WoW versus Eve-Online versus Second Life is interesting but perhaps much less illuminating than WoW versus MySpace versus ?

In any case, as a final minor detail, I'll point out that Peter does cite another paper of Chip's [1].  Indeed, everything must be related!

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[1.] Mark Miller, Chip Morningstar, and  Bill Frantz.  "Capability-based financial instruments.  In Proceedings of the 4th International Conference on Financial Cryptography, volume 1962 of Lecture Notes in Computer Science, pages 349-378.  Springer-Verlag, 2000.

/Ed 11/01  From comments below, for another related view on the 1991 event see  The Second International Conference on Cyberspace: Literary Criticism Collides With Software Engineering.  by F. Randall Farmer

Comments (104)

Business and Legal Primer

BlprimeA new chance to add to your game-related tome collection: TN friends Greg Boyd and Brian ("Psychochild") Green are the editors of the Business and Legal Primer for Game Development.  The book is primarily advice for those working in the game industry (not working on MMORPGs specifically) but it features a chapter from James Grimmelmann that gives advice on the construction of EULAs for virtual worlds.  More detail on Brian's blog.  There's also a chapter with some "I wish I knew then" remarks by Richard Bartle, Jessica Mulligan, and other recognizable names.

Comments (2)

Participatory Culture

Henry Jenkins has posted the fifth installment of "Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture:  Media Education for the 21st Century."  A series of posts based on his white paper on youth and participatory culture for the MacArthur Foundation (1., 2., 3., 4.).  Worth the read, worth the visit.  A few scribbles follow...

A participatory culture Henry establishes early on as one:

1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement
2. With strong support for creating and sharing one's creations with others
3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices
4. Where members believe that their contributions matter
5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).

How participatory are MMOGs, especially in light of this quote from Sonia Livingstone?

While to adults the Internet primarily means the world wide web, for children it means email, chat, games-- and here they are already content producers.

Participation = contribution.  What have you contributed to your MMOG today?  Sheer personality only, is that enough?  More, less?

Today's post (part 5) also included discussion on a topic we've sliced here many ways before but whose words seemed fresh today.  It is on the interconnectedness that forms online player experiences (or in Henry's words, "distributed cognition") :

To plan appropriately, players may not need to know what other participants know, but they do need to know what it is those participants are likely to do. Moreover, in playing the games, one may need to flip through a range of different representations of the state of the game world and of the actions that are occurring within it. Learning to play involves learning to navigate this information environment, understanding the value of each representational technology, knowing when to consult each and how to deploy this knowledge to reshape what is occurring. Instead of thinking as an autonomous problem-solver, the player becomes part of a social and technological system that is generating and deploying information at a rapid pace. 

I thought of John Gage's dictim, recast:  the network is the game.

This is tricky in at least one regard.   November's ACM features a special section on "Entertainment Networking."  The story is an old one.  How does one manage the user experience in a distributed environment.  I claimed once the game as network as  a place built only for optimists!

Have a good night.  I'll be covering the ACM material in greater depth later.  Be sure to read Henry Jenkin's posts.   In close I'll poke again, what have you contributed today to your MMOG?

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Update 10/27,  Part 6.

Comments (9)

Why I will never be a Centurion

I must confess: I like PvP, a lot. Perhaps this has something to do with the inordinate amount of time I spent playing Counter-Strike with my friends in college, or just a basic need to show off my 3l33t skills. But the bottom line is that I've been spending a lot of time in World of Warcraft's Battlegrounds lately, trying to climb up the ladder and equip my avatar with a nice armor set.

Here is my problem though: I am at rank 8 (Legionnaire) and I'm stuck. In fact I've been stuck there for weeks. This is really a problem since I cannot complete my coveted armor set until I reach rank 10! But I also have the luxury of some fresh data about PvP play patterns that Nick, Eric and I computed recently - why not look at some numbers and see if they could help?

Using our data we can approximate how many hours of weekly play time it takes to move from one PvP rank to the next (see previous link for the full analysis, and this other post for a more complete overview of the limitations of the data). It turns out that reaching rank 5 (Sergeant Major / First Sergeant) requires spending about 20 hours per week in the game - about the average weekly play time for most MMORPG gamers, it turns out, and pretty close to the maximum I can personally invest in the game. But then the curve ramps up steeply: Legionaire requires almost a 30 hours/week commitment, and Field Marshal / Warlord (rank 13) almost 80 hours/week!

So much for my shiny new armor... I simply cannot compete with this level of commitment. I guess I will have to turn to raiding now (or not). Or maybe I should just wait for the expansion: Blizzard apparently decided to rework the PvP system entirely - a recognition that the current system is broken, perhaps?

Comments (30)

Blacksnow documents

Vili Lehdonvirta over at VERN has posted the links to the documents in l'affaire Blacksnow Interactive. Essential reading.

Comments (10)

Virtual Worlds as non-predatory spaces

Everyone seems to know that the place to find child abuse perpetrators is in the dark corners of society, in the woods, lurking in the shadows on the edge of town and now of course on the internet, in chat rooms and all over mySpace.

This popular truth about perpetrators is indeed frighteningly true; though of course its prominence also masks the fact that most child abuse occurs at the hands of parents, close family and people in positions of trust, not by strangers.

I’m sure there is a mountain of theory about why the typical abuser is depicted as ‘other’ rather than, say, family. It certainly confuses matters. And if public policy follows received opinion, which I fear it does, we face a serious situation.

But within the context of TerrraNova the thing that confuses me is why Virtual Worlds are not getting the blame. I see no rational reason why Virtual Worlds should facilitate abuse more than other computer mediated technologies (which of course means that there must be cases where a Virtual World is implicated), but causal links don’t seem to be the determining factors in what the media chooses to give primacy to.

We’ve had addiction rhetorics, violence, social-isolation, evil Asians or evil East Europeans. But so far no one has tried to pin child abuse on Virtual Worlds – why not?

Comments (29)

Chains of Contract

There's been a lot of contract talk lately -- Bragg's suit is all about the Benja...er...EULAs, Eve is using a new kind of contract clause to penalize RMT, etc.  But can we really create an economy based purely on contracts between games providers and games players?

I have to admit, I'm kind of a pro-contract sort of guy.   But in talking to the media and colleagues about how much work EULAs can really do, I guess I'm coming to a different viewpoint. 

Here's why -- for any rule of law to work, it has to create two kinds of social connections.  First, it has to order relations between the sovereign and the citizen.  In legal jargon that's called vertical privity.  But it also has to create horizontal connections.  This is where the EULAs fail.  If one player harms another, what recourse do they have?  On the one hand, we might say that this is where we kick things back to the common law, and let players have at it in a real world court.  But that's not possible if players have no rights vis-a-vis each other.  What rights would the players take to the courts?

This issue of lack of horizontal rights between players -- PvP rights, if you will -- is increasingly a dealkiller for me in considering whether we can leave virtual worlds to be governed solely by contracts regulating behavior between player and designer.

They do try: Terms of Service are meant to constrain players' activities towards each other.  But that simply doesn't work: imagine if someone walks up and slugs you.  The police decide not to prosecute.  In the real world, you have other options -- there were horizontal rights running between the two of you.  We simply do not run societies in which rights run only between citizen and sovereign.

Ok, so where am I going with this?  I think that the entire range of common law rights needs to be viewed as applicable to virtual worlds -- property included.  The thing about property rules is that they bind third parties who are not signatory to a particular contract.  If someone steps on your land, it's trespass, regardless of whether you signed a contract with them or not. 

In short, I don't oppose EULAs.  They do a lot of good work, and should be enforceable according to their terms.  But EULAs attempt too much -- they try and fail to regulate conduct between third parties, and that's something contracts, by their nature, don't do well.

Comments (38)

Second Life Breaks 1 Million Mark

This morning I had a look at SL's main page and saw that the registration number had topped 1 million. Congratulations!

I know it's not paid users, and the concurrent user numbers are still below 10,000, but this is still a significant milestone.

Comments (54)

Tooling Around

Reginald Braithwaite forwards a couple of obscure essays on the trade-off between static typing in computer languages and dynamic programming ( 1. 2. ) .  Reginald clearly does not like static typing.  We on the other hand on Terra Nova love virtual worlds and all their content.  How did we meet?  Hang on...

Type systems in computer languages are important.  They empower language with predictability and ability to portray abstractions.   Statically typed languages are what most software developers work with.   These type systems don't change as the code is executed are much more predicatable than those that do (dynamically typed languages).

Arguably the practical advantage of a static typed programming langauges can be distilled  down to three letters well understood in programming circles:  I*D*E, or Integrated Development Environment.  One way to think of an IDE is as a tool that allows the developer to experience their code interactively.  With an IDE one can more easily manage, move, execute, and otherwise incrementally manipulate their software development experience.

The other evening when I was watching Nick Yee's Blurring Boundaries of Play I was thinking about his point on how predictable paths and quantifiable (often numeric) experiences in MMOGs is important to many players.  Nick drew the distinction between a messy real world where cause and effect and a sense of progress is often unavailable versus a well-typed and easily factorable virtual world experience where folks prefer to recreate.

How similar is the interface to a virtual world with an IDE for software?  Both strive to introduce modularity and predictability in the user's experience.  As importantly, both work very hard at making their respective user's experience interactive.

Modern, powerful IDEs, however,  leverage statically typed programming languages.   Because the elements of the language don't change based on how it is executed, the code is, well, much more predictable.  Reginald likens this to 'stateless programming' (the language elements have no state based on thir runtime context) and as I suggested earlier laments the strictures imposed by this type of programming style.  One argument he draws upon is the classic one favoring declarative (e.g. rules) based programming over imperative language styles: is it better to focus on the *what* you are trying to do versus the *how*?

In any case, to return this to my earlier analogy likening the virtual world interface to an IDE in worlds today.  If the analogy works, then it would also imply, perhaps, that it can only work because the elements of that world are in themselves static and invariant over time.   Quest lines follow predictable paths.  Mobs are well typed.

Would you prefer a messy world with ambiguous types and what would that mean for the interface?

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See also Guess My Game.

Comments (27)

It Takes a Guild to Raise a Child

In my WoW guild backchannel not long ago, there was a lively discussion of our childrens' experiences in MMORPGs, and the question of what constitutes "stranger danger" in a virtual world context. As a parent of two avid underaged gamers, this is a question of more than theoretical interest to me. On the one hand, I love that online games provide my children with opportunities to learn how to work in groups, to collaborate in order to accomplish tasks, and to understand economic behaviors. On the other hand, like most early online adopters, I've had my share of encounters in which my online friends were revealed to be something other than what they presented as online.

Those of us who play games _with_ our kids have a decided advantage here. We're not dealing with an unfamiliar environment, and while we may not be around for every second of their gameplay, we have a sense of their behavior and actions in virtual environments. We're more likely to know when they're exhibiting "risky behavior," and better able to explain the risks and benefits.

Back in the spring, I wrote here on Terra Nova about the overlap between my professional and parenting roles that occurred when a colleague of mine in Japan had to IM me at work because my son was ninja looting during an instance run with guildmates. At the time I found that more irritating that encouraging, but I've begun to think of that as an example of something both valuable and important. The event touched off a discussion in the guild's officer forums on how to handle the issue of cross-generational play. Several guild members had kids in the guild, and as the guild grew, many new members weren't aware of the age of the players. This led to frustration on the part of the new player, who didn't realize that what they saw as inappropriately immature behavior by some players was in fact entirely age-appropriate. At the same time, those of us whose kids were in the guild found that the increasingly "adult" nature of the guild chat made us (and our kids) somewhat uncomfortable.

What happened as a result was that a number of the guild officers took the responsibility of looking out for the younger players--sending /tells to new players complaining about behavior reminding them that 13yo behavior wasn't inappropriate for a 13yo, and providing a little more guidance and support to the younger players than they might have offered to an adult. ("Sure, I'll run you through Deadmines. Again.")

That, to me, represents the very best of what virtual worlds have to offer to our kids. The guild had become an online village, a place where I knew that even if I wasn't there to play with my kids, adults I knew and trusted were there. A virtual "neighborhood watch." This provided not just security for my kids, but also an opportunity for them to learn. They had role models, people who exhibited the kind of behavior online that I wanted them to emulate.

These days, however, my older son is much more engaged in Second Life. He started using SL because the guild leader from WoW, someone we know well in "real life," encouraged him to come visit his private island. In order to facilitate that visit, I allowed my son to use my SL account, and watched with delight as he began teaching himself complicated scripting in order to build things on the land that our friend had given him access to. But, of course, allowing my under-18 son to use my account was a violation of Linden's terms of service--and as soon as a Linden discovered that he was using my account, the account was deactivated.

SL does have an option for kids ages 13-18, their "Teen Grid," and my son now has an account there. I'd love to be able to interact in that world with him--and to learn from him, since his building skills are lightyears beyond mine. I'd also love for him to continue interacting with all the people I know doing cool things in Second Life. But none of that is possible. Not because I don't want to hang out with him, and not because he doesn't want to hang out with me and my colleagues, but because the Teen Grid is entirely segregated from the Main Grid, and there's no ability to communicate between the two. He can't come visit me, and I can't go see him.

Do I feel as though he's safer as a result? Quite the opposite. To start with, if I'm worried about predators, it seems to me that putting all of the most attractive potential victims in one place with a big sign over their heads that says "TEENS!" doesn't make him a whole lot less vulnerable. More importantly, though, I've lost that ability to have trusted friends and colleagues keep an eye on him when I'm not around--and he's lost the ability to model his online behavior on that of adults that he and I both respect.

I don't mean to slam Linden Labs here--I understand the fear-based and litigious climate that led to their decision to set the grids up the way they did. But I hope that other virtual worlds don't follow their lead in segregating youth away from the adults. We have so much that we can learn from each other, and as a parent I genuinely believe the rewards of these online villages greatly outweigh their risks.

Comments (30)

Blurring Boundaries of Play

Worth noting, a brilliant video presentation by Nick from this summer (PARC forum, July 2006): "The Blurring Boundaries of Play: Labor, Genocide, and Addiction."  It provides a solid survey of the complicated and always intriguing MMORPG landscape.  It is well suited to novice and jaded Terra Novan alike...

Abstract:

Every day, millions of people around the world interact and collaborate via avatars in online games such as World of Warcraft. The marketing and media rhetoric make it easy to think of these online games as fantasy worlds that are somehow cut off from “reality”, but the boundaries of these virtual worlds have always been porous. After a brief overview of what these games are, who plays them and why they play, this talk traces out several case studies in the blurring boundaries of play and challenges some assumptions of what play means in these virtual worlds. Are some players’ virtual jobs more challenging and stressful than their day-time jobs? Can you really be addicted to online games? And in a fantasy world of ogres and elves, why is it that being Chinese can get you killed?

Also featured, the indomitable Leeroy Jenkins.

Bravo Nick

Comments (5)

JEC says don't worry about virtual tax

Gold Via Reuters Second Life, Congressman Jim Saxton (R-NJ), chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, has issued a statement about the taxability of in-game transactions for virtual goods:

under current law, if a transaction takes place solely within a virtual world there is no “taxable event.”

This appears to resolve a question that Julian was a bit worried about a few months ago.  To be clear about what we're talking about here:

A virtual economy is defined as the universe of transactions that occur within an online community, such as Second Life or World of Warcraft. These transactions include the sale of goods and services and take place entirely within virtual economies; there is no real-world or physical exchange. However, a real-world value can often be assigned to such transactions using exchange rates or other methods.

(Nota Bene, we're not the only ones focused on Second Life and WoW.)  Quite interesting, isn't it, that Congress is now paying some attention to virtual world economies?  Go read the press release -- it's a one-pager on very impressive letterhead.

Clearly, virtual economies represent an area where technology has outpaced the law. The goal of the forthcoming JEC study is to help lawmakers understand the issues involved and head off any premature attempt to impose a tax on virtual economies.

Comments (26)

Searching for the 3D tipping point

In the long and winding why do we never talk about SL thread a question that lurked around is whether SL is the basis for a 3D version of the web and the meta question of whether such a notion makes any sense. Just below this post we are raising the notion of a global metaverse from the point of view of its social implications, but I want to talk about product and market dominance for a moment.

This got me thinking about whether SL has already reached that tipping point. Sure it has an infinitesimally small number of users compared to the web or mobile phones, but every day we see yet another brand setting up office .

If you view is that SL has certainly not attained status of de facto standard as the ‘3D web’ - how are we to know when something has? What characterizes the tipping point when a n other wizzy 3D tech becomes the 3D tech?

I’ve already posited that brand following is a key factor, so how about these others as a starter for 10:

Alternately is this all just buzz word piffle?

Is a monolithic 3D web something that is just not going to happen - as, why would it? 3D serves niche purposes it’s not like text and hyperlinking which is pretty universal. What we will have is what we have now, a set of point applications that just happen to share one characteristic – that they utilize what appears to be a 3D virtual world that can be navigated by various representations of the user. The optimal state is a set of such applications each of which is optimized for its given use; the only monolith that may exist is possibly a middle ware platform on which many of these are built. Supposing other wise is a mistake akin to assuming that because, say, Word and Excel share characteristics their optimal state is to be the very same application.

It’s now I realize I should have read the meta-verse road map materials :)

To give a view, rather than posing homework questions for you good readers, I’m going to go for kind of a middle road, no I just re-wrote this - I’m going to say that a 3D standard will emerge. That this will come out of a leading piece of middle ware that will critically bring about interface standards, the key two being ID management and ‘portals’ (the 3D version of a hyper link). I do see what appears to be a set of discrete 3D spaces that are optimized for given uses but I see the growth of ID management and credential portability, such that ‘porting’ from one virtual space to another and that some sort of cross-world identity starts to pull over richer and richer information. Here I’m not thinking necessarily of the digital identifiers that e-democracy types talk about, in that I don’t think they need to be rooted in any offline identity, but rather a cluster of pseudonymous IDs, plus of course some usable notion of ‘guest’ / ‘public’ in each space. The ID I assume (even in guest mode) would also carry an optional payload of attributes, and here I’m not thinking that if you are a lvl 60 in one place you would be a lvl X somewhere else; but rather you may be in space A and B and your IDs in each share the characteristic that they present the fact of your presence in that other space (yes I’m musing into X.509 and extensible characteristics type stuff but I don’t really want to get too tech about this).

So in a way I’m undercutting my own question in that we may not have a single product but a convergence around standards as we have now with html and different browsers, my assumption being that client standards will advance so this can be so.

If There and SL could make a start by letting me port between y’all with having to re-log, that would be fine and dandy.

Comments (112)

Building the global metaverse

Maple Story has more than 50 million players, and most of them live in Asia. Whether they take the form of games, social spaces, or educational environments, virtual worlds are now truly global in scope. The popularity of virtual worlds in Asia is phenomenal. From Thailand and Malaysia to Indonesia and the Philippines, the Asia Pacific region's on-line gaming market generated approximately $1.4 billion in annual revenues last year – a figure that is expected to reach $3.6 billion by the end of the decade. Much of this growth will be propelled by 180 million Chinese Internet users, the majority of whom will play on-line games.

China is just part of the story. Korea is an epicenter of innovation. For example, Cyworld, a South Korean Web community site, boasts one-third of the country’s population as its residents. India is already the region's third largest market for online games and participation in virtual worlds is sure to follow there as in other developing economies. Yet the conversation about virtual worlds is dominated by Western voices. While there are tradeshows for the videogame industry in Asia, most discussions of virtual world research have been located exclusively in the West to the exclusion of meaningful international participation.

There are significant negative consequences to the lack of global dialogue about virtual worlds. The absence of cross-cultural dialogue means that virtual worlds are being set up and run without sensitivity to diverse cultural, legal and social norms.

This lack of cross-cultural understanding does not just harm the industry; it also manifests itself in the social tensions emerging online. Last June, close to 10,000 Chinese players rioted within The Fantasy of the Journey West to protest the presence of what they thought was Japan’s national flag. Two years ago, players of Lineage II teamed up to slaughter game characters perceived to be “Chinese gold farmers.” Meanwhile, thousands of Chinese players complain that Western gamers in World of Warcraft apply racial profiling, excluding Chinese players from social groups based on language skills and recognizably Chinese surnames.

In this era of global virtual worlds, differences in legal approaches to free speech, privacy and intellectual property across cultures also need to be navigated. Companies of one nationality operate virtual worlds with servers located in another country and subscribers resident in a third. These spaces do not respect national boundaries nor should they. We are excited by the possibilities of enhancing cross-cultural interaction and understanding, and this requires that we provide guidance to politicians, courts and legislatures about approaches to virtual worlds. With the trade of virtual assets and currencies across national borders, we need to develop regulatory approaches that understand global technology while respecting local values.

These virtual worlds are crucial building blocks of global civil society. As such, they harbor the promise for relationship-building and cooperation across national borders. Solutions to the cross-cultural growing pains of this new medium require a sincere commitment to transnational dialogue.

State of Play IV: Building the Global Metaverse, the fourth annual State of Play conference on the future of cyberspace, will be held in Singapore on January 7-9, 2007. Organized by Harvard Law School, Yale Law School, New York Law School, Trinity University, and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, this pioneering global conference on virtual worlds invites experts across disciplines to discuss the future of cyberspace and the impact of these new immersive, social online environments on education, law, politics and society. The hallmark of the conference is its multi-disciplinary perspective.

Among the topics explored at this year's conference are:

.       Virtual worlds and cross-cultural cooperation
.       Virtual and digital property
.       Youth cultures in virtual worlds
.       Regulation of virtual worlds
.       Taxation and digital assets
.       Global virtual worlds journalism

This fourth annual event is sure to be our best yet. In addition to a remarkable slate of speakers (including writers Neal Stephenson, Cory Doctorow, and Julian Dibbell and legendary I Love Bees designer Jane McGonigal), we will also host the world premiere of two documentaries on virtual worlds (The Ideal World and Gold Farmers). Conference panels will be streamed live on the web, and the entire gathering will synchronized with mixed reality activities in Second Life, There, and World of Warcraft.

We hope you will join us for this important and vibrant conversation about the future of the global metaverse. For more information, see: http://www.nyls.edu/stateofplay/

Comments (10)

Indentured Servitude

Steven Davis reports sketchy details of a seemingly novel anti-(Real Money Trade [RMT]) twist adopted by CCP (Eve-Online)...

The MMO industry typically enforces EULA provisions banning the trade of virtual assets by canceling the violators account.  It seems that CCP instead is now penalizing the player with an in-game ISK charge.  It is unclear from the reporting that I am aware of whether the penalty involves garnishing the transaction amount only or whether there is also a fine.  Either way, the result can be a player finding herself deep in ISK(fn1) debt.  As was colorfully reported here, a 318 million ISK rock is hard to get out from underneath.

In-game penalties for out-of-game actions, oh my.  Old world debt paid with new world toil?

-----------------------------
fn1. In-game currency.   For some perspective on the Eve-Online virtual market wrt ISKs, as of 11pm  EST Oct 13 2006, IGE is selling 50m ISKs for $ 8.76 US

Comments (15)

Datamining the Forums

When I'm thinking about a particular virtual world, studying it, playing in it, I find it useful to read both official forums and unofficial fan site forums. It's one source of information about what players are thinking, doing and wanting in a given virtual world, one of the visible tips of the larger below-surface iceberg of the sociality and culture of a given virtual world.

I don't find it that hard to use forums for gathering information, nor does it seem to me to be that difficult to recognize the evidentiary limits of the data available on them.

Why, therefore, is the question of what forums are good for such a perennial issue? Why, in particular, do many developers seem to exhibit varying degrees of hostility to forums as a source of information, and cast them instead as a tool for "community management"?

I'm thinking about this question again because of an outbreak of cross-blog conversation between some of the usual suspects in response to SWG developer Chris Cao's irritated response to the SWG forums.

It's conventional wisdom not just among developers but among savvy gamers to bash most forums as misanthropic noise, or to talk as Cao does about people who "play the boards" rather than "play the game". I'm not saying that's incorrect. It's true: a lot of what is said in a game forum is informationally-poor. A lot of the posters do seem to be the kind of people who have scary obsessions and a total lack of proportionality. A decent number of forum habitues spend more time in the forums than the virtual worlds. A lot of them are creeps, assholes, weirdos. A lot of them are cruel or stupid or unhelpful.

This goes as much for the sycophants who praise the game and the developers as it goes for the critics. In both cases, a lot of what is going on is attention-seeking behavior, and one of the elementary mistakes that some developers make (SWG has a long history of this) is praising and rewarding the sycophants. But that falls under the heading of community relations. Or, in the way I tend to see it, under the heading of sovereignty and political power. The sovereign who surrounds himself with fawning yes-men tends to end up going out naked in public to the jeers of the crowd.

Let's talk instead about how you use signal-rich but informationally-poor environments to your advantage. I'm a historian by training, and I think this is one of the basic methodological arts of history. We're data miners who know how to rapidly assess the probable worth of an archive, how to rapidly work through huge bodies of documentation to find what we need, how to read through, in and around sprawling mounds of information.

Reading a given forum for an half-hour or hour every day when I'm focusing on or thinking about a given virtual world, I feel pretty confident about my ability to find nformation that is useful to me and ought to be useful to a live management team. I'll add one qualifier: I'm much better at understanding and sifting through a forum if I'm actively playing in that virtual world. Let me give some examples of the kinds of posts that I think are useful and relatively easy to identify rapidly.

1. Posts that describe major schisms or fractions among the players invested in a virtual world, and the specific issues that are defining or shaping those schisms at the moment. This takes a while to become clear, and actual play helps to spell it out some. But you almost don't need to really read the messages in detail after a while: you can track the back-and-forth motion of these debates just from headers and volume of posting activity. So, for example, looking today at the World of Warcraft General forum, I can see that the long-running divide between casual and raiding players is focusing somewhat around planned changes to PvP. Looking at the SWG forums today, I can see that planned changes to crafting are an important focal issue.

This is information. It doesn't help the live management team decide which faction is correct in its claims. You can't really tell from forums just how many players are speaking for any given faction, and most forum posts aren't going to be articulate enough to actually persuade a developer to think one way or the other. You can't even be sure just how intensely a given faction feels about a specific issue. But it helps to understand where the points of tension are, and why they figure as they do in these kinds of conflicts.

2. Post that give specific and useful information about exploits, bugs, technical problems, major flaws in the game design or structure of play. I have no idea why live management teams from time to time protest that exploits, bugs  and technical issues are best uncovered by other means, save the concern that by posting an exploit, a player encourages its use. No, scratch that: I have a cynical thought about why a lot of developers and community managers take this position. It's because they think these discussions create bad publicity, and because in many cases players are identifying technical issues that the live management team knows about and has no intention of trying to fix. The alternative is worse: that whatever the other information sources about technical issues might be, they're even more informationally impoverished than the forums are. In its early history, SWG's forums contained detailed, informationally-rich information about technical and design problems that developers either ignored or actively claimed did not exist. When live management teams then protest that they can't learn anything useful from their own forums, in this context at least that leaves only two alternatives: that they don't want to be confronted with knowledge about technical issues in a public space (and don't want players to share knowledge between themselves in a public space) or that they're totally clueless. Either way, bad for Zathras.

3. Idiosyncratic posts that are informationally and analytically rich. When I'm scanning a very dense, highly populated index of sources, posts, or information of any kind, I have some heuristics that help me decide where to invest labor in reading or retrieving a given listing. Some of those are personal and non-transferrable, a result of experience or specialized knowledge. But a lot of them are built from basic skills that I think most people can learn. Titles tell you a lot: you watch for unusual phrasing, imaginative use of words, and yes, evidence of literacy. D00dspeak IS a warning signal: it says, don't bother if what you're looking for is a usefully distinctive response to the state of a virtual world, unless for some reason you have a particular interest in d00dish constituencies. Look for posts that are talking about issues that an aficionado of the game recognizes as important, but that don't seem to just repeat common sentiments. The number of responses to a post might be a key: distinctive posts, if they aren't lost in the noise of ordinary posting, often tend to generate a lot of replies. The reputation capital of a given poster is important. Any regular reader of a forum learns to pay attention to certain names and to seek out what they have to say.

In particular, what a developer should be watching for here is the equivalent of Martin Luther's complaints stuck on the door of a church: a manifesto which may galvanize or persuade players to action, which may mobilize players or transform the way they see the virtual world. It's not just that the developer-as-sovereign should be concerned about the political impact of such posts, but also that they may contain valuable insights about what the game needs which the developers themselves cannot arrive at independently.

---------

This last point informs a lot of my private suspicion about why developers often like to rubbish their own forums as sources of information, or see them as a backwater tool for "managing" (e.g., in many cases, placating or misdirecting) their community.

Why do sovereigns in the real world sometimes misread or misunderstand the political communities around them, or rely preferentially on tainted or flattering sources of information? Because, in many cases, they cannot afford to come to know that which they do not want to know. If the developer-sovereign doesn't want to decide how to "fork" the changing state of their virtual world in terms of the antagonisms between factions of players, or if different factions within the development team are themselves competing to influence the world's design in one direction or the other, it may seem best to close one's ears and hum real loud when confronted with knowledge about these debates. If the developer-sovereign has no intention to devote the necessary resources to fix a long-standing technical issue, or cannot find a way to fix a path-dependent design flaw, then it may be best to plead ignorance--which requires claiming that one does not read or cannot usefully engage information found in a public forum. If a powerful manager within a live team has an idee fixe about how a virtual world has to be, and tyrannizes his colleagues on that issue, it may be best for him to pretend that he's never seen any dissenting views from players on the forums.

If a development team clouds the processes by which it considers and dispenses with problems, it can also avoid making concretized promises for which the players will (often unfairly) hold them accountable. Political sovereigns in the real world also mystify the processes through which their specific interventions into the world take shape. That is not just the pragmatics of power: it is also an expectation that we have of authority, and that authority has about itself, that decisions which are utterly transparent, robbed of their mystery, are somehow made threadbare, shabby in their naked instrumentality.

So I don't want to give the wrong impression. This is not a plea for live management teams to subordinate themselves to the democratic will of their customers, to simplistically "listen better", to do community management more adroitly, or even to fully demystify the processes by which they come to decisions. More modestly, I'd only suggest two things. First is to stop rubbishing forums as a source of useful information. If developers really mean that they can't get any information from their forums, then I think they're pretty lousy at gathering information. If they don't really mean it, if this is just a cover for other, deeper issues, then I'd just as soon stop hearing the same old song. Second is that maybe, just maybe, there is a middle ground between the occasional desperate eruptions of information from behind the development veil and complete transparent disclosure of every tiny detail of the development process. That there is a way to communicate through and from forums that goes beyond "management" as a way of soothing customers and into something the relation between the rulers and the ruled. I am not adroitly "managed" if my political rulers tell me that mass media, the public sphere, citizen forums, blogs, and the like are just a load of goddamn noise, or too difficult to parse or listen to, or that there are citizens who "live society" and then there are those annoying bastards who keep insisting on "discussing how to live in society". And yes, yes indeed, there is a bad signal-to-noise ratio in American public culture, particularly in online spaces, but that is not an all-purpose excuse for ignoring what gets said, or listening only to the people who echo that which the ruler already thinks he knows. That doesn't serve citizens well; it does not serve authorities well. It is in no one's best interests. The same goes for virtual worlds. If those who manage them don't know how to listen to their forums, they ought to learn. If they don't want to listen to their forums, however unrepresentative or fractional participation in them might be, they're asking for all kinds of trouble. Demonstrably in the still-young history of virtual worlds, some of them have gotten exactly the kind of trouble they were asking for.

Comments (49)

I Ran

With news of a videogame of blowing up tankers off the Strait of Hormuz, is seems a good time to visit an old question.

To what purpose a game, a virtual world?

Ian Bogost covered the Iranian turn best:

I had a hard time categorizing this entry. Is this a newsgame? Is it an educational game? Is propagandist, or is it perhaps the first example of a videogame-based geopolitical act, wherein the videogame itself serves as part of the Ayatollah's warning? Would it be inappropriate to call this a "diplomacy game"? Some might perceive Iran's gestures as threats rather than negotiations, but doesn't the game itself serve to advance a position in international relations?

Whatever the exact gesture, the politicization of virtual worlds and games is not itself news - witness the recurring examples from China (e.g. cases: bottom-up, top-down).  Yes, Hezbollah had a take, but there was also PeaceMaker...

Sure, Second Life has always had a chaotic political undercurrent - but it is not a game, right?  Is it a media platform? 

The problem with politicizing a virtual arena is that it perhaps discourages a virtual world.  From here:

[does] the politicization of a virtual environment somehow diminish... its worldy-ness... [does it become] a medium with a message.  Truman Burbank (Truman Show) might have thought his place a world, for a while, as did those on the outside looking in might have fantasized it.   Yet lacking the conflicts of otherness and the cacaphony of mixed purposes, could Seahaven have ever been any more than a parody of television?

Ted asked a long time ago whether virtual worlds should be a sanctuary from the real one: "Run away. Run away into the comparatively safe haven of virtual worlds."   Excepting game worlds where a compressed sordid real life analogy seems to be the goal (Eve-Online), at what point can too much art in praise of the real world undermine the virtual world?

I'm still considering this claim raised in No Surrender:

Eve-Online is like real life. 

Eve-Online may or may not be (I said it wasn't in No Surrender).  But consider this claim taken to its limit.  What if a virtual world were as good as the real one.  Would you want to run away, or would you see it as the delight of a world-y world gamer's lifetime?

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/ed Oct 8.  Paragraph + transition inserted above:  "The problem of real world politicization..."

Update (Oct 10).  Also see, Washington Post (Oct 9) - "Way Radical, Dude Now Playing: Video Games With an Islamist Twist."  See also Ed Halter's site, and Dennis McCauley's site.

/ed 7/18/2007 - opening paragraph, old link replaced

Comments (30)

Bragg v. Linden 2.0

Sl_2 The Second Life based Bragg v. L inden lawsuit, previously discussed here, has been re-filed in Pennsylvania state court.  A new press release by the plaintiff is here.  The new 46-page Complaint can be found here.  No comments to offer at the moment, since I haven't read these carefully yet.

Comments (44)

Are Virtual Worlds Good For the Soul?

Dmitri recently received an e-mail from Mike Fred, a Behavior Intervention Specialist who uses WoW therapeutically as part of his work with challenged kids: 

I play WoW with a few of the students from my school. It has proven to be beneficial to the students socially, academically, and therapeutically. In general these students lack social skills. Even when they want to make friends, they often behave inappropriately and tend to push people away. Yet, as these students have gotten involved with playing WoW, they have made social connections - not only with each other, but with other players online. They are all active members of their online guilds… their online relationships are not deep. However, the fact that they make relationships at all is significant. Moreover, two of these students have developed a real friendship.

WoW has proven to be a help academically. One of my students, who has a learning disability, has shown an increased interest in reading as a result of having to deal with the text in WoW. I have also noticed his "tells" and ingame emails have gotten easier to read. One of the important factors in getting children to read is giving them a reason which has meaning for them. For this student, finding out where to go to gather Laden Mushrooms in the Barrens is a reason to work harder at school. 

The most important benefit from playing WoW with my students at school has been the therapeutic effect. It has proven to be a bridge to one of my students who was withdrawn and disconnected from school. He refused to engage with his social worker, and was determined not to work with his teacher. Through WoW I was able to form a relationship with this student. In the course of our game interactions, he would bring up things that had happened during the day. Perhaps as a consequence of the peronal distance afforded by intergame communication, he was able to talk about these things. Over time, he was able to extend this willingness to talk to his teacher in the classroom. I am happy to say that he has taken steps that have started to put him on track for return to public school. In the course of my job, I often deal with students when they are in crisis. I have very little trouble dealing with the kids I play with, even when they are in the throes of a violent tantrum.

 
I asked the TerraNovans if I could be the one to post about this because my Ph.D. research looking at social learning associated with virtual worlds has morphed somewhat into an assessment of the socio-cultural literacies that players develop in order to achieve mastery of a virtual space. In more basic terms, I've become interested in the 'soft' skills (social intelligence?) like communication, team-work, leadership, etc. that players develop as by-products of play, and whether those skills are potentially transferable to real life. In fact, I have just returned from New Zealand, where I was invited to do a keynote at a Ministry of Education conference about these possibilities, especially important there, where a set of soft skills-based competencies (based on the OECD's five key competencies) have been introduced into the formal curriculum - these competencies emphasize core life skills like managing self, relating to others, and participating/contributing. The local media, in particular, has taken quite an interest in this idea, and I spent a few days taking advantage of a whole bunch of opportunities to assuage parental fears about their kids' videogame play (and hopefully making myself a few juvenile gamer friends in the process!). So the reception there, even (or especially) among the teachers, was fantastic, though it has certainly stirred quite a lot of debate, especially as it relates to the transferability to RL bit. 

Aside from my own observations while conducting ethnographic research in various virtual worlds (but particularly City of Heroes/City of Villains), I was encouraged to think about these issues more fully when John Seely Brown introduced Steven Gillett, a Yahoo executive who scored his job in large part because of his experience running a big MMO guild, at the Games * Learning * Society conference last year. And this year, JSB collaborated with Doug Thomas on a related piece for Wired magazine. In the meantime, I have been attempting to collect some data to support these ideas, though not quite the rigorous and longitudinal study this sort of thing really deserves. Still, there are some interesting hints in my data, a survey of nearly 10,000 City of Heroes/City of Villains players, that though based on self-reporting, serves to help generalize some of the things that most virtual world residents have observed anecdotally. 

So when asked to write a book chapter for the just-published Games & Simulations for Online Learning: Research and Development Frameworks, I collaborated with educator Melanie Zibit on our chapter, 'Online Games for 21st Century Skills' [12 MB PDF]. That chapter outlines the hypothesis that online games, particularly MMOs, are excellent practice arenas for 21st century skills. My survey data definitely supports this idea, with about a third of participants acknowledging improvements to their RL skills in areas like communication, team-work, conflict mediation, patience, sense of humor, etc. But some of the most poignant examples came from the open-ended comments: people with Asperger's syndrome, for instance, who have found MMOs a safe place to practice their social skills, or a recent widower who used an MMO to cautiously reintegrate himself into life, or a fellow who sought RL social skills training after being marginalized by his guild. Ted Castranova has referred to this 'socio-emotional therapeutic potential' as 'sanctuary', and I agree that this is a very compelling feature of virtual worlds to the large number of people who find physical reality scary, unfriendly, inaccessible, or just downright unfair  (the mysterious R.V. Kelly 2 covers this ground compellingly in his chapter on the reasons for problematic usage in his book Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games: The People, the Addiction and the Playing Experience)

In addition, there have been a spate of articles about various games and virtual worlds, including Second Life, that have attempted to focus on the pro-social aspects, like the development of skills (in some cases just basic computer literacy) that are potentially transferable.  I appreciate this sort of reporting, because  I think looking at what kinds of benefits can emerge spontaneously from play in entertainment spaces is a nice counterpoint to much of the consternation surrounding the potential of games for explicitly education or training purposes. Gonzalo Frasca, for instance, has been (rightly, I think) raining on the serious game parade, echoing a sentiment many of us have felt: the potential of serious games is perilously close to being over-hyped.  Though most people can see the potential, there is something a bit awkward about trying to take a medium like videogames and stuffing pre-established curricula, designed for a linear and pre-digital context,  into it.  This is a big part of the reason why I got out of e-learning/educational game design and into game research from an anthropological perspective (a la Jean Lave, I like to think, and inspired mucho by Constance's work).  I believe that the key to understanding the potential of games/virtual worlds for learning is to understand what is being learned there already, and how that learning happens. So that's my question to you all… what are people learning? And is it transferable to RL contexts?

One final wrinkle in all of this:

A fair number of my respondents, when asked whether skills learned in-game have had an impact on their real lives, are adamant (!) that an MMO is 'just a game' and has no effect whatsoever on their lives. When I probe those responses, I most often find that it's a statement being made by young males. Does anyone have an explanation for this? 

Comments (36)

Strangelove

In 1964, Stanley Kubrick's cold-war political satire "Dr. Strangelove or:  How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" hypothesized a "doomsday device."  On the 26th of September 2006...

The first player-owned Titan was built, attributed to the Ascendant Frontier Alliance (AFA, Eve-Online).  On October 1st  it was reported that AFA's Titan deployed the first hostile doomsday device seen in said game world.  It's use appears to have been miscalculated and the weapon inadvertently destroyed a great number of the AFA fleet.

Wry remark aside, this event begs at least three questions.

1.) Has there ever been a comparable mass-casualty weapon used in an MMOG by a player against other players?  Disqualified are the inadvertent misadventures, e.g. Virus!

2.) How many times can one use a doomsday weapon in an MMOG before it ceases to be one?

3.) While this doomsday event is tiny compared to what Kubrick humored (~60?  versus "Now I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed, but I am saying no more than 10 to 20 million killed. Tops!") is it still a notable game design accomplishment (all those players contributing those resources for... *bang*) or is it just derivative (Dragon raid anyone)?

See also Kotaku's discussion (including video of the event). 

Comments (35)

Second Life

Sl Why a post on Second Life?  Because you just can't get away from Second Life these days -- putting aside the exact terms of Cory and Dmitri's bet, Second Life is certainly vying with WoW as the apple of the media's eye, the virtual world publicity monger du jour.  For instance, in the past month of so I've personally encountered:

Who knows what others have stumbled across, but you get the point. 

So here we are, supposed to be on top of these things just as much as the above-mentioned luminaries (well, I guess Ted is one of the above mentioned luminaries), but the last time we really focused on Second Life in our discussions here was when Ted was wondering if we should really care about Second Life's security breach.  He opined there that SL is "Web 2.0 more than anything else" and the rest of the discussion took place in the comments.  Before that, I had offered up the fact in August that I didn't actually see Suzanne Vega perform in Second Life but that even if I had I didn't imagine it would have been quite as interesting as people were saying it was.  (I'm sure you all appreciated that deep insight.)

So, to the point: there's apparently all this enthusiasm about Second Life today, as opposed to other VWs, in the mass media and among the digerati.  We've got what seems to be a slight lack of enthusiasm about Second Life (at least lately) here on Terra Nova.  We've been talking about WoW, Eve, Meridian 59, Virtual Laguna Beach, community managers, etc., but not talking much about Second Life.

So what's our problem catching the Second Life wave?  Is this something like MUD-Dev syndrome ('We've already covered that back in 2003!")?  Are we still afraid of promoting Cory's pet project?  Is it time to set up a Terra Nova island?

Update:  In the first comment, Samantha says the call question should be: Besides being covered by other organizations, why should we be talking about Second Life?  How does discussing Second Life inform or develop our collective view of virtual worlds?

Update 2 (Oct 5):  This is incredible:  Endie at Zombie Pirate Ninja Monkey runs the numbers, actually bringing some empirical data about our posting practices to bear on this debate.  ("So what I did was rip every TN article since the beginning of June, using a piece of code that I wrote to extract oil-sector data from the EIA site.") Read the whole post, but here's the breakdown of the last 100 posts: World of Warcraft 29% / Second Life 20% / Eve-Online 6%Thanks, Endie, that's awesome!

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Better dating through MMOs

Meeting potential romantic partners in MMOs is often seen as bad idea.

The case against: the medium is too thin to establish a ‘real’ relationship, there is too high a chance of projection or out-right deception and everyone online is supposed to be playing a role anyway.

At the recent Sex in Video Games conference, artist and now game maker Andrea Fryer spoke up for the medium suggesting that meeting in MMOs has advantages over traditional dating. Here she summarizes the case for romance in MMOs:


The points that Andrea makes are not only interesting of interest for how we view MMOs but also, as she noted in her intervention at the time, may be crucial to the business models of the raft of new online-dating games we keep hearing about. To quote Andrea again “dating is more than just discovering sexual chemistry together”.

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Trust, Contingency, and WoW Guilds

For the last year I've been very involved with a guild in WoW that is beginning, it seems, to break apart (as so many do after their core members reach 60). I've had a fantastic set of experiences that were possible only in this guild, but their apparent loss leads me, now, to reflect a bit on the nature of social groups, trust, and games. (And, it's refreshing, by the way, to write something here shaped more by my point of view as a gamer than by my research interests.)

Perhaps (no, surely) this reflection is prompted by how highly sporadic "being together" as guild members currently feels to me, something that previously marked our activities on an almost nightly basis. It is interesting that, when people talk about how guilds change, and perhaps end, they often point to one external factor or another (like raiding alliances), and this betrays the assumption that the guild, left to its own devices, would do nothing but continue -- that social stability is the rule, and fragmentation the exception. I'd like to push at that idea a bit (actually, a lot), and I begin by asserting that there is nothing in what a "guild" (or similar social group) is that makes its reproduction a given, all things being equal. The solidarity, the trust, that a guild can generate is better understood as a fortunate and intrinsically fragile achievement tied to a specific kind of game practice.

Social groups, including those in games (and the gameness is relevant in a specific way, but I'll get to that further on), are founded and sustained out of shared experience; this much anthropologists and some other social scientists know. Changes in external conditions can affect that experience, but other factors can as well, including sheer changes in size, in the life circumstances of participants, and in changing member interest. Whatever the reason, once that shared experience is no longer achieved (or its prospects highly attenuated), then the fragmentation of the group is basically inevitable.

This is, of course, not necessarily a "bad" thing. As time marches onward, things (people, circumstances) change, and it's probably true that, as Six Feet Under meditated upon, those in Western societies (broadly speaking) are not very good at (accepting, participating in) such endings.

So far, so what. I'm sure that some version of this take on human groups appears unremarkable. But I would like to add in a few wrinkles, which pertain specifically to what a gaming environment means for the above. Consider, if you will, the oft-spoken of analogy of WoW and golf. Isn't it interesting that golf can be played by the same group of people for years and not necessitate that one or more of the group wants to move on? Sure, players may get bored with a particular course, and mix things up now and then, but a group will play the same course hundreds of times. I acknowledge, in anticipation of what I will say further on, that golfing groups are not always so marked by social solidarity; golf can be a means to an end, in which case opportunities to "move on" and play with a different circle, are strategic. It is also the case that, as I've noted before, golf as a social activity is reproductive of class distinction, and therefore what's going on, even for a small, stable group of friends who play for years, is not entirely innocent, when viewed from a broader perspective. But the point is that, for those small groups who do hang together through a game for years and years, it is, from their point of view, very much about the being together, and what is more, the gameness of the domain itself seems to be central to that.

So what is it that makes games powerful generators of social solidarity, and what is it about WoW that complicates that? It is probably not a surprise to hear me move to the contingencies that games generate for the answer. Apologies to Dmitri and Constance, but I think we can do better than pointing to categories like "third spaces.” We can, I think, begin to get at what is intrinsic to game experience and the generation there of trust and belonging. Here's my assertion: the shared and intimate experience of (complex) contingency is a powerful source of belonging and trust. My ideal type for this kind of shared experience is the small-scale, tactically driven, and “real time” mutual coordination demanded of a group that is gaming together. The size here is important; the group must be small enough not to trade off tactical improvisation for strategic organization. Each plyer must coordinate his or her actions with others, and they must do it not simply in a reflective, leisurely fashion, but on the fly, in an embodied and urgent manner; the goal is to be able to act and react as a group, ready to face any new contingency that presents itself.

Of course belonging can be generated in this way in the everyday. Crisis moments, interventions, accidents and disasters -- all of these can and do generate belonging and trust for their participants. But we do not have these opportunities all the time (and we don't necessarily want them!). Life is uncertain, in a broad sense, but much of our everyday experience is routinized and rationalized. We are rarely called upon to improvise in this intimate way with others in order to act. Games, however, are designed to put us squarely in that kind of situation. They are socially legitimate spaces for us to encounter contingency, whether alone or with others, and it's frequently with others that we do it. Interestingly, in games like golf (or bridge, or bocce, or any other game entrenched in cultural practice), the game itself is not designed to change; it is essentially the same over time. And this is probably important, I would speculate, because comparing performance through time (either between players or in considering one player's changing competence) can be a great source of meaning. I think this is what draws many gamers with existing offline ties to make WoW guilds or similar in the first place -- we want to capture the immediate and contingent (protean) feeling of being together in contingent circumstances, something like the frisson that applies when an atmosphere of intense possibility brings those involved closer together.

So, what happens with WoW? As a far more complicated game than most which occupy this space in society, WoW not surprisingly doesn't work the same way (and, it is important to note, it wasn't designed to) as golf. Instead, WoW (and games like it, including most pen and paper RPGs) is a deeply modernist game, one might say, because of the centrality of measured and artificial progress inscribed in the architecture. The acquisition of competence in the game is architected to such a high degree that, while I certainly gain performative competence (in how to move, type, aim, click, etc), much of my progress is folded into hard-coded changes in abilities (skills, levels, until 60). These stand as simulacra of competence, but are really credentials, authorized by the institution that is the software itself. The contrast with a game like golf is remarkable (where similar proxies for competence are restricted to handicaps and technology, like better clubs). This point bears repeating. While small-scale grouping in the complex game that is WoW can be powerfully generative of trust and belonging, the level system works against this by making credentials stand in place of player skill. This means that the shared experience which underwrites groups in WoW is very fragile, because it is not possible when two or more players are at wildly different "stages" in terms of these changing credentials (not coincidentally, in my opinion, disjunctions between player competence and toon credentials are a continual source of meaning in game, such as in the relationship between one's gear, guild affiliation, level, and displayed performative competence).

Nonetheless, the existence of the ladder until 60 provides a shared framework which can anchor, if a group adopts a level cap, shared experience to a great degree. Think about how much those around the same level are thinking about the same quests, the same places, the same gear tradeoffs, the same increasing complexity of their interface, etc. Most importantly, this gets them all experiencing things together, especially when they're in the same group. And they often want to be, because they need to get to the same places. The shared and intimate experience of the contingencies of an instance, realized in grouping (again, at small sizes, where tactics are still important enough not to be sacrificed) lies at the core of meaningful social (as opposed to individual) experience in WoW, and therefore performs much like the golf analogy would suggest. But by being a skeleton around which shared experience can form, the level system (and any cap linked to it) has already sowed the seeds of its own demise, because it cannot be in place forever.

Also, all along, of course, consumption has been inscribed into the game, in the form of items, many of which are soulbound (and, therefore, are indistinguishable from temporary, elective skills/abilities). Once L60 is reached, that system flourishes; items become the new levels. But items, unlike levels, are tied to specific places, and specific kinds of gameplay, and therefore their single-minded pursuit takes players in different directions. After 60, the styles of gameplay (solo, small instancing, raiding, bg) multiply and, most importantly, it is no longer feasible for a group to impose anything like a level cap. The seeds of treating the group as a means, rather than an end, were there long before, but now find full flower as players come to realize in practice (if not in discourse) that their only chance to continue to "progress" is through acquiring (specific) loot (which itself has very clear gradations). This is such an overriding concern that players will willfully sacrifice the powerful experience of small scale and tactical grouping amidst contingency for the large scale and less intimate (because more bureaucratic, strategic – I’ll leave this aspect for another post) experience of raiding, driven all along by material desire.

So what happens to trust and belonging? They begin to vanish. Not because allying with a raiding guild was ill-advised, or because people's interests changed, but instead because the ladder of progress both built that solidarity and then, by shifting wholly from horizontally and universally-shared levels to loot, broke it. I suppose it would have been possible for WoW to have written the game without raiding, making harder and harder 5 (and 10) person instances until they could only be done through perfect execution. But this would have alienated many players who simply would never have been good enough to advance to the end. By changing the post-60 advancement to raiding (and BG), an almost wholly new set of competencies become involved, which allows for the illusion of one grand yardstick of competence that simply isn't there.

In short, belonging and trust are very fragile things, made even more so by a game that keeps changing its "rewards". We should not, I guess, be surprised that the game ultimately makes its players choose between treating their guild as an end in itself, or as a means to an end, and that too many choose the latter to sustain belonging. But I will be disappointed by it nonetheless. Anyone up for some golf?

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