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Countdown to SL backlash

Let’s face it a serious Second Life media backlash is going to happen in ’07. The only questions are – what form will it take and when will it hit.

Place your bets,,,

While at this year’s State of Play: NYC Teh TN Symposium I decided to write a New Year’s Eve piece about a potential media backlash against Second Life. The basis of this is that the media seems to work in a build ‘em knock ‘em down kind of way. Almost irrespective of the actual merits or otherwise of some cultural phenomenon the popular media seem to over hype it, often making claims on its behalf that it would never make or taking claims with the innocence of a new puppy that’s just been given too many artificial colourings. Only to be followed by stories telling us that the bright new thing is not as bright as we all thought, in fact it’s a bit rubbish, but oh, there is another new bright thing to get fixated on (very possibly the young bright thing of ’07 is Raph's new venture (accumulator bets may include this as a specific option (with a bonus for: see Bartle was right all the time it's about building your own world))).

Second Life, it seems to me, has just had too many headlines for it’s own good (and I don’t mean that sarcastically). The other day I went to bed late and put on the BBC World Service the first thing I heard was a program featuring people talking about Second Life, I woke a few hours later to hear The Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 talking about, yes, Second Life.  OK I thought, now it’s getting silly.

Then the Shirky threads started.

Today I got a link to a story linking Virtual Worlds and the possibility of money laundering (yes, I know, it’s not a new angle).

So, I’m wondering when the backlash will be and what form it will take. And by backlash I don’t mean a few people saying SL is a bit rubbish, a lot of people say that already. I mean something like: more than one NYT piece that directly references SL stories saying that either claims are just not true; or that it’s old news and there is a much better mouse-trap; or that there is something horribly negative about it that everyone’s been missing.

My options for the form of the backlash are as follows:

  1. It’s all just sex. sex sex sex I tell you
  2. It's not just sex, it's prostitution
  3. It can be used for hiding / laundering money
  4. Terrorist can use it to communicate / plot attacks using it’s wonderful simulation abilities (though we've talked on TN about how VW's might help the fight against Terrorism)
  5. Age play or Furries or both: when awww kittens turns to ewwww, give us the wholesome wiikitty
  6. OMG children could use it and (see 1) sex, omg omg omg abuse, grooming - shut it all down now
  7. Hold on a moment, we just noticed – it’s not real!
  8. Addiction
  9. Gambling
  10. The numbers are ‘lies’
  11. Better mouse trap
  12. SL is all just brands these days – what’s the point, you have to be a company to have a real presence and all the users are just mindless fodder that escape the real word into a place where they just get bombarded with the same old messages, look Fox News just opened up sim. Virtual O'Reilly bringing his 'culture war to the virtual' that's the last straw, like we needed another one
  13. And the outside bet - no really, it is just as wonderful as everyone says

Anyone want to place a bet on one (1L$ maximum bet) or add some more?

As to timing, hmm, difficult one, I’d say about March ’07.

Lastly, for the avoidance of doubt, this is a commentary on the media, not on Second Life. SL is great, I have my issues with it and Linden - as expressed here, but on the whole it’s a great thing – and you should also try There too! I really don’t think that Linden have caused all this press hysteria, on the whole they have played a good sensible PR game if you ask me, they’ve just got swept up in something, and I hope, really I do, that there is no backlash, that I’m completely wrong and SL goes on to compete strongly with a few other products in the same space. Fingers crossed.

Comments (64)

Ruby Slippers

The New York Times cited Terra Nova this past week.  They highlighted Dan's tongue-in-cheek poke - the 2006 in Review.  Yes, the internet is a murky place.  Don't understand the problem, surely you must get the solution?  Don't grasp the solution, just worry about the community, right?

Admittedly I've been sceptical of e-crowds of late [1.].  After all, who cares if the Mechanical Turk could be used as "a community substitute:"  if you can't aggregate enough wise friends to your site, just hire them  (see also [2.]). 

My grumble could end here were it not for another internet-driven excitement that is bothering me: Ruby On Rails (RoR, Fn1).  Sounds arcane.  Consider it as a metaphor for Web 2.0 and its symbiosis of people and technology, and I will explain my squeak. 

There is a programming language called Ruby.  It exemplifies (IMO) much of what is right about a programming language:  unpretentious, succinct, and above all, flexible.   Much like community it too embraces an openness in ideas and membership that serves it well.  In any case, who can argue with its increasing favor.

Now, somewhere along the way bright folks got this idea of bundling Ruby with a number of other components - a webserver and database, say - in a way that made it much easier to use in applications that seemed suited to the language and how folks were using it.  RoR was born and its attention was geared to those interested in rapidly creating interactive websites, that sort of thing.

When it comes to RoR, it is hard to quibble with the practicality of packaging Ruby with its commonly associated components.   What is not to like with Domain Specific Languages and Model-View-Controller (Fn2)?   Especially in this day and age, software development should be moving towards conceptualizing solutions in terms of a full-stack framework.  Future productivity demands it.

Yet after casually deconstructing Instant Rails one weekend I was struck by how deeply ingrained in the RoR view of the world the database and the limitations of object-relational mapping [3] played.  This leads to this question.  Given an efficient technical paradigm, for better or for worse does that paradigm eventually finds its reflection in the application to the exclusion of alternative solutions?

Or to state it with more subtlety.  If the advantage of an RoR type solution is that (using the lingo) it pushes the complexity of software to the edge cases (in other words, it is really easy to do the usual stuff and really hard to do the unusual stuff), then at what point need one worry about what they are missing by clipping the edges?

I suspect a similar issue with many virtual world implementations.  For example, by relying upon the database for all the persistence and transactional heavy-lifting, the game/world becomes shaped to its way of thinking.  How many times have you played an online game and thought - the reason why they structured an interaction or an object design in such a way was because it was easier to map into the server scripting and ultimately the database?

Think about those edges you are missing.  I'll think about the ruby slippers I wish I had.


[1.]  "Where's the catch."   (TN) On "Henry Jenkin.  Collective Intelligence vs. The Wisdom of Crowds. "

[2.]  "Games with a purpose." (TN) On Luis von Ahn, social algorithms.

[3.]  "Guess my game."  (TN)  On the "Vietnam of Computer Science" and the "Grammar of Gameplay."

Fn1.  Also

Fn2. See also "A Java Parable" and "Tooling around" (TN).

Comments (19)

Anti Anti-Anecdotalism

The recent flurry of attention to SL and its numbers (here, here, here, and, most recently, here) leads me to think that folks might be interested in having a chance to chew through some methodological stuff, along the lines of the "Methodologies and Metrics" panel on which Nic, Dmitri, and I served at the State of Play/Terra Nova Symposium early this month. Below the fold, some tweaked ideas from some emails I circulated among the panelists in preparation for the panel. While I'm not discussing virtual worlds and the methodologies we'd use to understand them specifically, I hope this will be helpful background for such a discussion.

It is hard to get away from a common conception, both within and outside academia, that numbers are the one, true path to understanding. This is part of a set of cultural expectations that are reproduced precisely because they are so rarely challenged. Most commonly, one hears that claims with numbers are "grounded" or otherwise true in a way that other kinds of claims (such as the ones based on the kind of research that Tim talked about here), are not. Claims based primarily on those other kinds of research, particularly on interviews and participant observation, often get branded as "anecdotes", with the suggestion that they hold no real value as reliable claims. Here I would like to push against this association, and help clarify our understanding of what qualitative social science research methods (ethnographic research ones in particular) bring to the table. In short, they are not "anecdotes", and they can form the basis of reliable claims, even without numbers, although as Dmitri and I never tire of saying, having both is better than having just one.

No social scientist, of course, would want to "generalize from anecdotes," but the problem is that often we do not really understand what that means; or perhaps it is more accurate to say that across the academy many scholars (not to mention the public at large and policy makers) do not know enough about methodology (this is true of both qualitative and quantitative methods, and more broadly about exploratory versus experimental research), and therefore these charges are in essence a political move meant to marginalize the other side's research that can succeed because of that lack of broad grounding. From my conversations with everyone involved with TN I have never felt that we (as a group of authors) were particularly prone to make these errors, but there is no question that it finds its way into the discussions on TN, as in the recent threads.

The goal of all social science is "generalization" in a sense, but the legacy of positivist thinking about society (that it is governed by discoverable and universal laws) has left us in the habit of thinking that the only generalization that counts is universal. It is always interesting to me how some work (especially that done by the more publicly-legitimized fields, such as economics) can proclaim itself to be about the universal despite the fact that only a moment's thinking reveals the application of the ideas to be narrow (to industrialized, capitalist contexts, etc). The strange thing is that this doesn't end up being a problem for those already-legitimate fields; instead, it is largely ignored -- this is what being well situated on the landscape of policy and academic relations of power gets you (to be Foucauldian for a moment).

But of course generalization, in the more limited sense of seeking a bridgehead of understanding across times and spaces, has long been the hallmark of history (the first social science, in a way). The strange thing is how difficult it seems to be for those who would like to criticize methods such as participant observation and interviewing to see the projects those methods support in a similar light to history and its efforts. There is nothing inherently problematic with such claims; they are just as able to inform policy as universal ones, and have the benefit of incorporating more nuance.

So then what is an anecdote? It is a description of an event isolated from its broader context, so no wonder all of us would like to shy away from the suggestion that we are drawing our conclusions in isolation of the broader context. But ethnography (meaning principally participant observation, along with interviewing, surveying, and other methods), to speak of that relevant methodology most familiar to me, quite distinctly does not treat these events in isolation. Brief descriptions are often presented in the course of ethnographic writing in order to illustrate a point concretely, but the point made is only as sound as the degree to which we trust the author's command of the broad array of processes ongoing in the context at hand. How is this credibility established? Through a complex of many, many, many techniques of writing, thick description, peer review (always including experts in that period or place), solid reasoning itself, track record of previous research, etc, etc. This form of generating reliable claims is not somehow "less" viable than other ones, and its strengths and weaknesses of similar scope (though differing in their particulars).

So one of the tropes that one finds in the recent spate of posts about SL and its numbers is the suggestion that only when numbers that we trust are present do we feel that the claims authors make are "grounded". This is not true. As anyone with much experience with statistics knows, the numbers say nothing without the ability to interpret them provided by other kinds of interpretive research. In fact, given the above, if any research has a claim to being "grounded" it is the first-hand research of participant observation.

Even when this kind of contribution from qualitative research methods is acknowledged, however, there is still a tendency to see the claims of work based on them as always and severely limited to a "niche", at least until numbers come along. But a social history or ethnography of a place and time is not this narrow. They are able to make general claims at the level of locale, region, or even nation, and they often do (when done well). The idea for ethnographies is that the ethnographic research method, at root, inculcates in the researcher a degree of cultural competence such that he or she can act capably (and sensibly) as a member of that culture. Supported by observation, archival research, surveys, or interviews (usually some combination), as well as (possibly) prior work, this learned disposition informs an account of the shared disposition of the actors on the ground, and is laid out in the published work (as best one can in writing) as representative of a worldview from a particular time and place. Thus, my claims about gambling in Greece were made beyond the level of the city where I did my research, and I argued for the existence of a cultural disposition that characterizes Greek attitudes toward contingency at something like the national level (without holding too much to hard boundaries).

Of course, these claims are further bolstered by the broadening of one's research methods, whether through surveys, demographic data, archival research, media studies, or any other means that support the big picture. Relatedly, there is nothing about quantitative methods that dictates that they must "stay big." They can be productively focused and narrow as well.

This is not to say that there isn't a limit to the level of generalization for qualitative research that is exceeded by quantitative methods. So, for example, while an ethnography could make reliable claims about Greek culture, I don't think it could about American culture. The reason for this connects to what culture is -- a set of shared expectations, based on shared experience and continually re-made through shared practices -- and why it is far too fragmented and varied across the US for an ethnography to make such claims. But while this is true, the important point is that qualitative methods' levels of claims are not as particularist as they are sometimes made out to be.

I become, I confess, a bit sad whenever I encounter this kind of marginalization in action (for me, it most often happens on interdisciplinary fellowship review panels and the like), because at root it bespeaks a lack of trust across the academy. There is little doubt that there have been excesses across the gamut of methodologies and theories that the social sciences use (reductions to representation, or materiality, or power all come to mind), and perhaps this accounts for the parochialism and suspicion, but let's hope that we don't fall prey to what are more often, in my view, essentially not battles over the nature of sound inquiry but instead part of gambits meant to direct or redirect institutional resources.

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A New Backbone for Our Metaverse(s)?

This just in via CNET...

The (IAVRT) has just announced plans for the Neuronet, an initiative that "will evolve into the world's first public network capable of meeting the data transmission requirements of emerging cinematic and immersive virtual-reality technologies".


"Today, the best and the brightest innovators in the world are pushing the boundaries of virtual reality and gaming. Virtual worlds such as Second Life, The Sims, Everquest, and World of Warcraft continue to attract legions of followers while new game systems from Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft offer near life-like character renditions. In business, companies like IBM and Sun Microsystems are investing heavily in virtual reality business applications. These VR trailblazers, and many others, have been limited by the confines of the Internet. The Neuronet's communication bandwidth and real-time VR and gaming data transfer protocols will enable them to reach their full potential."

Have they really been limited?  I'm not so sure.  But certainly thinking about fancy infrastructure for the MMOs that might exist from 2009 onwards (the date this will be ready for 'consumer applications') must be a good idea, right?

Domain names - .vr (for 'immersive virtual reality neurosites') and .cin (for 'cinematic virtual reality neurosites') - will be available next year...


Comments (8)

Standard Metrics of Use

15_thumbI'm AFK for a couple weeks and I miss a crazy series of threads on SL. Well, as a sociologist/statistician, I'm going to avoid the politics here and simply state what I would like to see for universal metrics of virtual world use--something to get us in the ballpark of apples to apples. The intent, after all, is to have agreed-upon baseline numbers which you then argue about being indicative of something.

I'd like to have measures of these basic things for any given world:
Economic activity
Active users

Here are my potshots on what those would look like:

The first three are cummulative for all accounts/avatars owned/used.

Duration (could also be called "stickyness"): The amount of time the person has been a user of the world, expressed as a population mean with a standard deviation. This would be retroactive time from today, telescoping backwards. The user need not be on every day. Gaps between logins are allowable, with the maximum allowable time gap between logins being 90 days. Use example: "The average user of MegaWorld has a duration of 83 days." The standard deviation of the mean would help explain whether the typical person logged in once and quit or actually hugs the mean.

Intensity: Average hours per day per user. Sure, subject to all kinds of distortions for people who leave accounts logged on for various purposes (selling goods in Lineage 2, e.g.). Nevertheless, pretty useful as an indicator of bandwidth and interest levels and roughly comparable across worlds.

Economic activity A: A binary variable reporting whether the user does or does not pay for access to the virtual world.

Economic activity B: The average amount paid per user per week across the world population.

Multiplicity: Another population mean, an indicator of the number of accounts or avatars maintained by the user. This number would then be used for the previous three to obtain per-character averages. Note that the number could be either more than 1 or a fraction of 1 if the account is shared.

Lastly, I would like to see the term "active users" simply be anyone who has logged in to the world within the past 30 days. Not perfect, but simple and pretty good for an apples-to-apples measure across VWs.

With these numbers, you could calculate a range of use statistics for different users' needs. And, of course, having the raw numbers themselves (rather than means & SDs) to plot distributions would be even better.

I understand the incentives to supply, distort or hide these figures and I just don't care. I want the raw numbers based on these criteria (even if it makes Thomas think less of me ;) ). And sure, we're all subject to using what companies actually decide to disclose, but that's no reason to not spell out a better standard.

No doubt the excellent collection of minds perusing this site can improve on my starter list. The goal is to come up with some series of metrics that make sense across virtual worlds.

And if you want to pile on Clay, LL or anyone else, there are three other threads open that would love to hear from you.

Comments (102)

Furcadia is 10

Furcadia is 10 years old this month.  The significance of this is as Raph sayz:

It still flies under the radar of most of the MMORPG community, in part because the hardcore gamers aren’t interested in yiffing, and in part because it’s like so many other of the niche MMOs: isometric, low-end graphics, and far deeper design than most want to give it credit for.

Gratz to Dr. Cat!

Comments (3)

East of Even

Veteran Eve-Online war correspondent,  Mark Wallace, is at the source of a wave of stories on the Interstellar Starbase Syndicate Operations (ISS).  ISS is a player structure ("alliance") in the Eve-Online universe that apparently is going public with a 500B ISK (fn1) capitalization. 

In an unusual twist,  ISS claims:

(p)art of the company’s goal is to make the most dangerous regions of space ('0.0 space') more accessible to new players or those who do not belong to one of the major alliances, which control most such regions. To this end, ISS has already constructed six outposts that are open to anyone. This is in sharp contrast to other outposts, which are generally used as a base of operations for warring alliances, who offer docking rights only to their allies. ISS’s outposts are designed to be open to all, as a safe haven..."

Is this a new sort of player cooperative - one more harmonious and virtuous than the usual shades of greed-lust and piracy?

I'll leave it to you.  If you don't buy the Hammerstein and Rodgers spin (fr. here):

The farmer and the cowman should be friends... One man likes to push a plough, the other likes to chase a cow, But that's no reason why they cain't be friends. Territory folks should stick together, Territory folks should all be pals. Cowboys dance with farmer's daughters, Farmers dance with the ranchers' gals...

Then, perhaps a place further East would do you.


(fn1.) ISKs - the in-game currency.

Comments (39)

Shirky and Second Life

Seriously, if Clay Shirky weren't just so damn good, I'd feel really bad at how he's doing our job for us, getting to the bottom of the dirty little secret that is the press and its relationship to Second Life.

But really, he is that damn good.

Curse you Shirky. Curse you.

Comments (112)

Games & Culture CFP

For those of you who want to escape family obligations today and tomorrow, tell them that you have to work on a submission for this call for papers!  It's for a special issue of the Games and Culture journal, focused on Gaming in the Asia-Pacific region. Read on for details...

Games and Culture: A Journal of Interactive Media Special issue: Gaming in the Asia-Pacific

As a region, the Asia-Pacific is marked by diverse penetration rates of gaming, mobile and broadband technologies, subject to local cultural and socio-economic nuances. Two defining locations – Seoul (South Korea) and Tokyo (Japan) – are seen as both “mobile centres” and “gaming centres” to which the world looks towards as examples of the future-in-the-present. Unlike Japan, which pioneered the keitai (mobile) IT revolution and mobile consoles such as playstation2, South Korea – the most broadbanded country in the world – has become a centre for MMOs (online massively multiplayer) games and convergent mobile DMB (Digital Multimedia Broadband i.e. TU mobile). 

Adorned with over 20,000 PC bangs (PC rooms) in Seoul alone and with professional players (Pro-leagues) making over a million US per year, locations such as South Korea have been lauded as an example of gaming as a mainstream social activity. In a period marked by convergent technologies, South Korea and Japan represent two opposing directions for gaming – Korea emphasizes online MMOs games played on stationary PCs in public spaces (PC bangs) whilst Japan pioneers the mobile (privatized) convergent devices. These two distinct examples, with histories embroiled in conflict and imperialism, clearly demonstrate the importance of locality in the uptake of specific games and game play. 

This issue seeks to explore the politics of game play and cultural context by focusing on the burgeoning Asia-Pacific region. Housing sites for global gaming production and consumption such as China, Japan and South Korea, the region provides a wealth of divergent examples of the role of gaming as a socio-cultural phenomenon. Drawing from micro ethnographic studies to macro political economy analysis of techno-nationalisms and trans-cultural flows of cultural capital, this issue will provide an interdisciplinary model for thinking through the politics of gaming production, representation and consumption in the region. 

Topics of papers will discuss the region in terms of one of the following areas:

- Case study analysis of specific games and game play

- Is there such thing as a culturally specific aesthetic to the production and consumption of certain games?

- What is the “future” of gaming?

- Emerging and re-occurring productions of techno-nationalism in the region

- New media and experimental gaming in the region

- Convergent technologies and the impact on established modes of game play

- Gendered consumption and production of games

- Government regulations and types of game play

- Pervasive gaming and the role of co-presence 

Deadline for this special issue of Games and Culture: 15th March 2007. Authors should submit all inquiries, expressions of interest and papers to Larissa Hjorth (RMIT University) larissa.hjorth [AT] 

Games and Culture: A Journal of Interactive Media invites academics, designers and developers, and researchers interested in the growing field of game studies to submit articles, reviews, or special issues proposals to the editor. Games and Culture is an interdisciplinary publication, and therefore it welcomes submissions by those working in fields such as Communication, Anthropology, Computer Science, English, Sociology, Media Studies, Cinema/Television Studies, Education, Art History, and Visual Arts. 

All submissions are peer reviewed by two or more members of the distinguished, multi-disciplinary editorial board. Games and Culture aims to have all papers go through their initial review within three months of receipt. Manuscripts should be submitted with four paper copies and electronically in Word or Word Perfect format and conform to the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (Fifth Edition)0,000 words in length. Papers that do not conform to these guidelines will be returned to the author(s).

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Penguins and Puffins

Terra Nova in that game sphere map resurfaced on Raph Koster's blog.  This time embedded within a substantial essay suggesting that Second Lifers are insulated from the broader MMO tradition.

It is a nuanced essay that deserves the visit.  If I had to abbreviate the point, however, I would choose this passage:

...If anything, this reinforces for me a certain insularity that exists; as a whole, the community of SL tends to see SL as highly exceptional, whereas those within the larger cluster don’t. I think in general they see it as part of a tradition that includes AlphaWorld, OnLive Traveller, Cybertown, Habitat, LambdaMOO, and many others. This (and the emphasis on “non-game” and “evil tekkies” and whatnot) has resulted in strange cultural gaps. I worry a bit that the fact that SL as a community largely talks to itself and (yes) the Web 2.0 techie crowd is causing it to become a bit more insular that it ought to be.

Whether or not Second Lifers have established a cultural desire to reconstitute the hermit kingdom is interesting but it also feels like its a red herring to a deeper trouble.

Let me weasel the argument in this way.  What if in the Central Highlands of New Guinea a bunch of tribesmen on a slow season figured out the internet wave, and "Mount Wilhelm!"  someone got this virtual worlds idea.  Super for Tuesday morning fun, preserving tribal heritage and as an elaborate costumed social calculator for figuring out blood-debt, or something like that.   

Whether or not their key designer used to steal looks at Terra Nova or Raph's site on Saturday nights is irrelevant.  If the Mount Wilhelmese think they are different and better with little to learn from the MMO traditions.  Why not, and more to the point, how can one prove that they are not indeed something startling and unique in spite of all the well-trodden points (starting with circa 1993 VGA graphics and 32 point font).

To a casual observer, puffins and penguins as aquatic birds must have a shared evolution.  Yet in fact, they are examples of two species separated by a hemisphere whose evolution converged.  In other words, sometimes things that are alike develop separately (more or less)  from their own distinct elements.  Insist to the penguin, the puffin might, but a penguin it is still unlike.

Comments (31)

Gamers with Disabilities

Michelle Hinn a PhD student at Illinois alerts us to a program running on NPR about gamers with disabilities. She'll be interviewed, among others. It airs on the Weekend Edition Sunday and if you are in the US, it should be on during the second hour of their 8-10/11am show (most of the NPR stations follow this in their own time zone). It'll be archived here.

Comments (6)

2006 in Review

So it's nearly 2007, and this is the point where lazy editors tell their lazy pundits to knock out a couple of hundred words structured around the topic: "Top Ten Moments in X for 2006", where X stands for whatever the hell the magazine/blog/thinget is allegedly about.

It turns out that I'm even lazier than those lazy editors and lazy pundits so instead I figure that you can tell me: What are the Top Ten Moments in Virtual Worlds or MMOGs for 2006? Your response only needs to be a couple of hundred words and of course Terra Nova will pay your usual freelance rate on a per word basis.

And as I sit here on the deck of the "Extraneous Load", the newly commissioned TN yacht, sipping an extremely good vodka gimlet and watching distressingly attractive women swim by, can I wish you all our best wishes for the Season. My only recommendation for this time of year is not to get into a Texas Hold'em game with Constance Steinkuehler...but that is a story for another day.

Comments (11)

What's up with group IM in Second Life?

As a conversation analyst and an active-Second-Life-resident-who-has-logged-in-more-
than-once-and-in-the-last-60-days, I am interested in how communication works (or doesn't work) in Second Life and other virtual worlds. One of the things that has always bewildered me about communication in SL is its "group IM" system. Compared to guild chat in other MMOs, group IM in SL gets surprisingly little use, although there is as much need in SL to find answers to technical questions and find other people to play with.

I have just recently blogged about this on PlayOn where I argue that this under use of SL's group chat channel is likely simply the result of a poor UI design (see details). In a nutshell, compared to guild chat messages in other MMOs, group IMs in SL are much more disruptive of game play (and needlessly so). Consequently, SL players seem to have developed a shared practice of discouraging their use and considering almost any messages to the group "spam." Just imagine if in any other MMO, you asked your guild, "does anyone want to do something?," and you received the response "DON'T SPAM THE GUILD."

Have any other Second Life residents (who have logged in more than once) observed similar practices around group IM?

Comments (32)

Shirky to TN Readers: Help Me Out?

After his piece on Second Life metrics at Many-to-Many spurred a lively discussion here on TerraNova, Clay Shirky has asked that we post this follow-up question here:

I've run across something funny about Second Life numbers, and wonder if any Terra Nova readers can help me out?

I've been trying to figure out how many return users Second Life has since posting my original question. Since the Second Life stats don't include historical Total Users numbers, it's hard to compare the growth of 'Last 60 Days' use with growth in total use. (You'd need the historical Total Users data to separate new signups from return users over time.)

While looking for that data, I came across this Next Net post, saying that a) Second Life has added a million to its registered user count between October 18 and December 14th and b) had only 829,537 people log in in the last 60 days.

How can both figures be true? How can they have added a million users in under 60 days, and have any return users, and still have less than a million logged in in the last 60 days? Since Linden Labs specifically says that the total number does not include "Folks who start the signup process but never complete it", I don't understand how Total Logged In can be less than Total Users Added in the same period? Did 150,000+ people bail after signing up but before even logging in? Or is this something else? Any elucidation greatly appreciated.

Comments (141)

Flying the iguana

Time Magazine's Person of the Year for 2006 is a mashup of you and Web 2.0: "(you) who actually sits down after a long day at work and says, I'm not going to watch Lost tonight. I'm going to turn on my computer and make a movie starring my pet iguana."

The deeper tale of the day, however, must be C/Net's latest on the Virtual Air Traffic Simulation Network (VATSIM) universe: "Into the wild blue virtual yonder."   It again emphasizes the tension underlying Web 2.0 + simulation + people: from the economy of add-ons, to the varied sophistication of user interaction, to their impact on real world systems.   See also Slashdot's related discussion (Fn1) and our previous topics (Fn2).

Thanks, pointers from Greg L and Mark.


Fn1.  From Dec 13, 2006 Washington Post:  "Flying Without Wings, Rule on Simulators Could Change How Pilots Are Trained."

Fn2.  Other recent TN posts on VATSIM (and related):

Playing with a manual.  - The role of manuals and game world design.

Lights will guide you home.  - Role of altruism in cooperative virtual worlds.

Mike Fright. -  On the fear of microphones in virtual worlds

Whale Watching.   - Inconsistencies in world view: impacts to cooperative versus competitive play.

Comments (2)

Site of TN Backchannel Discovered

Rumors of an ultra-secret Terra Nova hideout have been confirmed; a photo has come to light. Here for the first time, a glimpse into the inner sanctum of this dastardly cyber-cabal:  Witness The Terra Nova Hut.

Comments (6)

Nice Company. We'll Take It.

Alex Engel, Community Manager for Nest Egg Studios and formerly a volunteer with CCP and Eve-Online wrote to us on CCP's merger with White Wolf. I'm posting it on his behalf below.


Surprisingly, I haven't seen anything on Terra Nova about the recent merger between CCP hf, the creators of Eve-Online, and White Wolf, creators of the World of Darkness.

"CCP hf. and White Wolf Publishing, Inc. today announced that the companies have entered into a definitive agreement to merge. The creators of the single largest persistent online role-playing world and the world's second-largest developer of offline role-playing, strategy and collectable card games will create the industry's largest independent Virtual World developer ? The combined company will introduce new online and offline gaming products across the science-fiction, horror, and fantasy genres."

What exactly does this mean for the two companies? Well, for one thing, it means we'll see a new World of Darkness MMO from CCP and White Wolf. "Conceptualization and early development has begun to bring White Wolf's World of Darkness, one of the world's strongest gaming properties, into the online world." But beyond the announcement of a new game, it presents companies with a new model for content development. Why spend hundreds of hours creating original IP when your company can buy a world that's already been conceptualized and fleshed out?

At the Oct. 23rd MIT Enterprise Forum, former Turbine Inc. CFO (and current Utix Group CFO) Mark Pover broke down the expenses for MMO developers. In games with active licenses, such as Dungeons and Dragons Online or Star Wars Galaxies, companies can expect to pay up to 10% of their revenue to the license holders. CCP, however, bypasses this entirely with their merger. Now, not only do they get to use White Wolf's license, they also share in the profits from increased sales of White Wolf products related to the game.

This raises an interesting question for established MMO developers: Would it be more profitable to buy out license holders, or to continue paying for usage of the license? For games that look to be very successful, it might be worth it to buy out the IP and retain the licensing fee. Some examples that come to mind are buying out WizKids to produce a Battletech or Shadowrun MMO.


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A Java parable

Once upon a very long time ago in a universe called Sun Microsystems, James Gosling and a project named "Oak" emerged (1991).   In 1995, Oak became Java and "write once, run everywhere" came upon us.  Like virtual worlds - Java started with a big vision.  More than a programming language.  Like virtual worlds it became part of the idom of a networked world.  It is now eleven years old and Java SE 6 is here.  The journey to this point, is a parable for the likes of virtual worlds, perhaps...

In 1995 the idea of platform independence was infectious: why were computer programs so hard to write?  Part of the problem was that for every machine, differences in the underlying operating system, devices, and hardware had to be reflected in the program and its preparation (compilation, deployment, etc.).  That was a lot of bother (and expense) if one had many different machines.

What Java brought to the table was a streamlined object-oriented (OO) language, a network street-smarts, and a Java Virtual Machine (JVM).  The idea behind the JVM was for you to write your program for this virtual machine rather than the underlying real machine: the JVM insulated your program from the vagaries of your "real world" computer (fn1.)

However, for this to work, there needs to be many different JVMs - one for every kind of host.  Each JVM would look the the same to each program, yet each JVM would be created uniquely for an underlying real platform.    Work still had to get done for your program to run on all these different real machines, but the beauty was that it would happen outside of your concern.  By localizing the worry to those who implemented virtual machines, it meant that the (*much larger*) programming crowd that wrote programs for those virtual machines, well, didn't. 

By and large I think the programming language and platform called Java made the world a better place.  Though perhaps its success did not translate into the profits that Sun hoped for, nor certainly the technical home-run many of the early visionaries believed in.   And yes, the purists still grumble.

Sure, browser-based applets turned to a retreat, but on the server Java did flourish.  Yes, the poetry of "write once..." came to mean something more prosaic.   And too, the simplicity of Java 1.0 grew into a forest of J2EE, J2ME, JSP, JNI, Java 3D, JAI, JDO, JDBC, JNDI... to name a few of the extras.  Perhaps this is the price of an umbrella:  you need a bigger one to fit more people beneath it.

Eleven years on there is greater maturity in the Java community and its role. It is more of a practical community than it was in 1995 (less evangelistic).  These days we see a deeper self-governance in the Java community.  There is a Java Specification Requests (JSRs) process.  Furthermore, Sun has said there will be an Open Source Java SE later this year.  Times have changed.

To a careful Terra Nova reader, this tale so far may appear as a metaphor for at least a few virtual worlds and some of their evolution.  Perhaps the evolution of technology and its relationship to people whereever it occurs follows a common pattern.

There is one aspect I wanted to dawdle my last remaining cycles this evening.  In Guess My Game (fn2.) I tried to cap a running discussion we've had over the last year or so as to the nature of virtual worlds relative to their representation in source code.  A subtext has been whether scripting suits virtual worlds.  Think of user-created content (Second Life) and user-modified UIs (World of Warcraft).  Yes, games have had a long tradition with scripting for good engineering/business reasons:  modding communities; managing the separation of concerns of programmers and level designers, etc.   But do such hooks poke holes in a unified world view?

Java SE 6.0, interestingly, has scripting language support.   From here you can see about two dozen or so scripting engines developed (so far).  Thus, an interesting element of Java 6.0 lies not at its center, but at its edges. There is utility in an improved Java but utility is not necessarily excitement: there is excitement (for me) in the exotic mashups.  Consider Jaskell.

If you think this sounds really arcane, you are right.   But this brings me to my conclusion.  In 1995 there was a tight vision about a streamlined language that could write once and run anywhere.  At the end of 2006 I am salivating Jaskell. 

Does a big umbrella suggest the maturity of a platform (fn3.)?

As I mentioned earlier, Java is apparently turning to Open Source.  In fact, an announcement was made in Second Life (see here), of all places.   The symbolism is rich, though I wonder the conclusion, eleven years from now.  And yes, I wonder too of your virtual world.


fn1.  /Ed 12.16.  As some of the comments point out - it is worth noting the distinction beween different types of virtual machines.  The JVM, by this taxonomy, would be considered an application level virtual machine.

fn2.  See also "Tooling Around."

fn3.  Btw, see the TIOBE Programming Community Index for December 2006: " an indication of the popularity of programming languages."

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Shirky FTW

The inimitable Clay Shirky has just posted a wonderful essay about the recent hype on Second Life, and the relevance to our understanding of the New New Thing (tm).

There’s nothing wrong with a service that appeals to tens of thousands of people, but in a billion-person internet, that population is also a rounding error. If most of the people who try Second Life bail (and they do), we should adopt a considerably more skeptical attitude about proclamations that the oft-delayed Virtual Worlds revolution has now arrived.

God, I wish we'd been able to able to buy him when we started Terra Nova. There's no way we can afford him now.

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On Babies and Bathwater

While I think the result of the virtual taxation discussion is going to be the adoption of an entirely non-controversial cash-out rule, I was shocked at the subtext: are we seriously willing to give up private property to avoid taxes?  We need to remember why we like private property in the first place.

Imagine the following virtual world: the government owns everything; players own limited trading rights in personal property, but no rights in real property.  The government is the final owner of everything, and uses its power to keep some people from gaining an unfair advantage in terms of game wealth.

Oh wait.  We're not talking about a virtual world at all.  We're talking about the Soviet Union.   I'm not  making a political statement here, just an economic one. 

Why do we like private property?  A couple of reasons.  First off, if the government owns the property, redistribution often happens to people who are involved in government, rather than people who need the resources.  We'll call this first problem "lobbying," although lobbying is the more democratic manifestation of this problem. 

Second, private property causes private owners to internalize all costs imposed by resource use.  So, if I own a pizza, I may conserve the pieces of the pizza to eat over several days.  But if I share a pizza, I have an incentive to gobble as many pieces right now as possible, before other people get them.   (For the economically minded, this is your basic econ 101 tragedy of the commons.)

Third, private property ensures that property doesn't become so fragmented as to prevent it from flowing in the stream of commerce to people who need it.  If I want to buy a tractor, but one person owns the steering wheel, another owns the engine, and a third owns the wheels, it becomes too costly for me to negotiate with all these people to buy a steering wheel.

All of these reasons apply to virtual worlds.  And taxation doesn't threaten any of them -- in fact the story of taxation is an incredibly good story for us.  Why?  Taxed activities are activities that are generating value.  Do we want virtual worlds to generate value? Yeah!  Taxed activities are activities that are shared by enough people in a society to have recognized utility.  Do we want virtual worlds to take center stage in society? Yeah!

And taxes are not total.  No taxes are 100%.  Seriously, if anyone reading this is willing to give up private property to avoid taxation, please, give me all your property.  I'll pay the taxes on it.

This "let's ditch property to avoid tax" subtext is part and parcel of the "let's eliminate private property in virtual worlds to avoid people from outside the world 'importing' the advantage of their paychecks into the world" approach.  But why don't we collectivize property in the real world as a means of preventing certain players from getting an unfair advantage? 

I mean, if you don't like e-babies, how can you stand debutantes? If you think there's a difference, someone tell me why it's ok that Paris Hilton "imports" wealth into her game o' life through inheritance, but it's not ok that a dentist imports wealth into a virtual world through his real world bank account.

The reason we put up with e-babies and debutantes is because we want to create incentives for people to invest and build.  In the context of virtual worlds we want to create incentives for people to invest and build in virtual worlds.  It's as simple as that.

Are there serious concerns about impacting games?  Yes, there are.  But what an enormous shame it would be if, in order to protect games, we threw away the possibility of a global three-dimensional social context, in which parties invest, build, and work.  Protect games.  But don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Comments (105)

UCLA Mediascape CFP

UCLA's film, television, and digital media e-journal would like to solicit contributions from the TN community for the features and reviews section of an upcoming issue.

Read on for more details...  (but hurry, deadline is Jan 1, 2007!)

Mediascape Call for Submissions:

Mediascape, UCLA’s online Critical Studies journal, is now accepting submissions for the Features, Reviews, Columns and Meta sections of its next issue. This journal, a place for articles pertaining to film, television, new media and other areas of visual culture, is peer-reviewed and published on an annual table. The deadline for the next issue is the 1st of January, 2007.

Submission guidelines and section-specific calls for the next issue can be found on the submissions page of the Mediascape website: 

Any other questions can be directed to Erin Hill (erinhill [AT]

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Playing with a manual

I started this evening researching flight simulators.  A bit later I found the YouTube phenomenon of  Kiwi!

Earlier this summer Don Permedi posted his Master's Thesis project on YouTube.  Nearly four million views later, his tale about the distance one kiwi would go to simulate flight is now internet legend.

Don apparently simulated his kiwi and its flight using Maya and Adobe AfterEffects, yet these tools are hidden to the viewer behind a short minute or two of video.  Consumer PC flight simulators rely upon software such as Microsoft Flight Simulator and X-Plane (Fn1).

These tools come with manuals.

A year ago,  a question was posted on the AVSIM forums (for flight simulation enthusiasts).  One fragment of the argument follows, excerpted:

"I LOVE reading manuals. They often contain snippets of information you'd never discover for yourself or can explain simply ...not only the HOW-to, but also the `why`.

(A)n enterprising simmer could start a private helpdesk, charging a fee for reading the manual for those too lazy to do it for themselves... (or)  for someone to come round and fly it for us, thus creating Flight Passenger 10, but allowing us to observe the lovely wing views the whole flight.

But wouldn't that defeat the objective - simulating flight?

Implied is a tension between designing for what players know versus having them learn what they need to know

Game genres are often conflicted between a desire to innovate and building upon what came before.  Players already in the genre are 'locked-in' and newbies are hindered.  IMO, one consequence has been that game developers were allowed to be less careful with their documentation.  Geekdom in a niche has at least one virtue: there is less to explain.

In any case, I wonder how games and virtual worlds would look if their culture evolved with a less "seat of the pants" view towards knowledge aquisition.  What if players were brought along expecting to read  a manual, a really long one, before they could play.  I suspect there would be more freedom in what developers could design.


Fn1. See  also  TN, "Whale watching."

/Ed 12/11,  see also:

Andy Havens has collected a few thoughts on this post.  The heart of his position is: "I think the separation of "manual" and "game" that exists in many Game Gods’ heads is something that bears reexamining. "  

For me this harkens back to the era of board-wargaming.  The disparity between the number of times I used to lovingly and ponderously set up Squad Leader over the number of times actually played...  Sometimes the anticipation is the adventure.  A few related themes discussed here:  "Is Love and War Turn-based,"  "The World in your Pocket."

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Madden Fooootball

Jon Schnaars attributed to Dan Shanoff  the claim (made in "The Daily Quickie") that "(v)irtual is the new reality" [1.].  The comment was directed to Madden NFL 2006.  Too, Shanoff was also noted to have said "(f)an-dom was a full time job."  We're now up to Madden Football 07 and along comes the Washington Post with a different cross-over...

In the Dec. 5 WP ("A Virtual Chalkboard for Budding NFL Fans") two related arguments are presented:

1.) A game (Madden Football) is good for the NFL (attracting youth with little football background to the sport)

2.)  Players who otherwise know nothing about football learn a great deal about football playing the game.

Jon Schnaars presented the case that Madden Football is an example of Convergence Culture of the sort that Henry Jenkins writes about: "the cooperation between multiple media industries and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want."

I am intrigued by  (2.) above.  It seems to be an example of how one can gain a more in-depth understanding of a facet of the real world via a virtual platform.   What did you learn (or not)?


[1.] Jon Schnaars.  "Football as Madden 07."  The Escapist.  68.

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|\| 4 + ! \/ 1 7 '/ Sillyness

"Three Mages form a PuG only to discover they share the ‘follow yonder star and drop off phat l00t’ quest."

your turn,,,

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The problem with software

My evening start out harmlessly enough, until I found a post of an obscure 1990 paper by Peter Norvig [1.] on quines.  From there I moved to replicating object attacks in Second Life, forkbombs in LamdaMOO,  the game of  self-reproducing programs,  and a charming tale about the toaster and the computer scientist in a kingdom not far from here...

A quine (Fn1) is a computer program that generates  its own source code listing as output (see here for a good overview).  To a small cadre of hard-core, devising quines can be a fascinating game onto itself - the smallest program, most obfuscated, etc. 

Mash-up quines and malice and it is not hard to imagine how we get from a clever sport to self-replicating object bombs in Second Life and a host of other viral ills elsewhere.  Reaching into lore, Lambda the Ultimate has featured smart talk (in comments) about the software foibles of LambdaMOO and software mousetraps that might prevent these (Fn2).

This evening I found scribbled in at the end of Peter Norvig's paper (from here), a fabulous parable  (which can be seen its entirety here) about the engineer and the computer scientist when they confront a toaster.

Spoiler follows: 

"The king wisely had the computer scientist beheaded, and they all lived happily ever after."

Of course the king was naive and didn't realize that if one

"(s)elected a multitasking, object oriented language that supports multiple inheritance and has a built-in GUI, writing the program will be a snap. (Imagine the difficulty we would have had if we had foolishly allowed a hardware-first design strategy to lock us into a four-bit microcontroller!)."

Fooling around aside.  Its fun to think about software at the edges, and there are plenty.  The deal, however, might be this one.   Virtual worlds start with a bag of clever abstractions including a great number of software-induced ones, and eventually gets around to asking the user to imagine a reality.  The real world works the other way around (to the metaphysical).   Which is more "error" prone?

Grand Text Auto just posted a CFP for Tangible Play: Research and Design for Tangible and Tabletop Games at the Workshop at the 2007 Intelligent User Interfaces Conference.

I have a toaster and am contemplating its GUI (humor).


[1.] See ACM citation.  Self-Reproducing Programs in Common Lisp by Peter Norvig, 1990.

Fn1.  After Willard van Orman Quine.

Fn2.  Great points in comments such as "make the connection between the virtual economy and the real economy explicit, you need a rights transfer facility; just limiting object construction isn't sufficient. I should be able to build a vending machine (and its users should understand that when they use it, they're exchanging value for value) - Paul Snively".  Hinted in earlier TN discussion here

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Death & Taxes

Death is avoidable -- or, at least, rezzable -- in virtual worlds.  Are taxes?

State of Play / Terra Nova really started talking about what is looking like the big incoming thing: whether trades in virtual worlds are taxable.

Here's why: being a game doesn't make exchanges immune to taxation (see poker); and the fact that the trade concerns electronically-maintained records in a virtual environment doesn't make the exchanges not real (see the stock exchange). 

So the legal experts on the panel agreed: the current law seems to indicate that not only are taxes due if you cash out, or if you pass the assets at death and are above the estate tax limit on non-taxable transfers, but the law may even reach to tax the value of in-world barter.  Responses to the panel seemed to be along some lines we've talked about before: Virtual property isn't really property, they say, so it can't be taxed.   Another pretty common response was that these are just games, so they can't be taxed. 

In a pretty cool moment, Bryan Camp argued that my work on virtual property was at the root of this problem.  /eep.  But the thing is, whether something is property doesn't determine what rule the IRS will choose to tax it.  We tax capital gains when the person cashes out.  We should tax gold farmers by taxing their gains when they cash out of the world.  Saying that something is property doesn't even begin to tell us whether we're in a pretty good world -- gold farmers get taxed -- or in a pretty terrible world in which gamers get form 1099s in the mail requiring them to report their recently-acquired Misplaced Servo Arm.

One way to look at this is as a purely pragmatic matter.  Remember, the IRS is at least as concerned about tax evasion as it is about deep theoretic discussions of what could be taxed and what can't.  They classify some pretty far-out stuff as property, just to stop people from pouring assets into it as tax evasion.  They don't base their theories of what is taxable on deep theoretic distinctions about property or non-property.   If virtual worlds aren't taxable, some enterprising individual is going to open TaxEvasionWorld, and permit parties to convert their assets to tax-exempt virtual assets.  It could be the wave of the future.

Don't Panic.  /Douglas Adams.  Deep breath.  Reach for your towel.   

What we need to do is talk to the people involved, and convince them that a cash-out rule that taxes gold-farmers is the way to go.  I'm pretty convinced this is how this will go, it's just a matter of speaking with a clear voice.

Finally, I gotta say, there is no way the IRS will NOT develop some policy on virtual world assets -- not at the rate of growth virtual worlds are seeing.  We need to influence policy and protect gamers, not stick our heads back in the sand and murmur "but it's just a game!"

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State of Play / Terra Nova Symposium

The SoP/TN Symposium went off largely without a hitch this weekend, and I'll try to find time to write some observations about it. In the meantime, thanks to everyone who attended and presented. You were great.

Some initial thoughts are available from Raph, Jesper, Mark and Daniel (twice).

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The Trouble with "Addiction"

Normal_passion The problem with the addiction issue is that it often splits people up into simplistic "yes/no" stances with no sensible middle-ground alternatives. When the SF Chronicle did a piece on the plethora of dangers lurking on the Internet (which included online games), they noted that:

The Internet once was seen as a golden "information superhighway" transporting the next generation to the Promised Land. Now it may feel more like a minefield -- seductive on the surface, but seeded with subterranean hazards.

You know there's trouble when allusions to heaven and hell enter any discussion. On the other hand, companies like Wal-Mart use "addiction" to sell games (click on thumbnail). Between this demonization and casual treatment, it may not even be clear what a sensible middle-ground stance would look like.

I've struggled with this issue a lot over the years because it always seemed clear that some people develop problems with gaming, and yet at the same time, I felt that there was something very conceptually misleading about the "addiction" rhetoric. The most difficult part of this is in trying to understand the problem without falling into a simplistic "online games are addictive" framework. And I think it's possible to articulate a way of thinking about the issue that makes sense to gamers, game developers, as well as non-gamers who are concerned about the problem.

In the new issue of The Daedalus Project, I have two articles that deal with the issue. The first tries to reach a sensible middle-ground by complicating the terms of the discussion. For example, does it make sense to claim that "online games cause online gaming addiction" when most behavioral problems (technologically related or not) are typically caused by many inter-related factors? Also included are excerpts from a recent paper in a psychiatry journal that presents a surprisingly nuanced case study dealing with an online gaming problem.

The second piece is an interview with Shavaun Scott, a licensed therapist who has both treated people with addiction problems as well as being an MMO gamer herself. Shavaun provides helpful ways to think about gaming problems from a functional point of view, as well as giving some insightful advice on how to approach and help someone with a gaming problem.

When reporters ask loaded questions such as "Are online games detrimental, addiction-feeding?", there is no 30 second answer that can untangle the conceptual mess, but I think underneath that mess, there is a sensible way of thinking about the issue. I imagine that this is an issue that I will continue to grapple with for a while to come, but I hope that something in these two pieces is helpful to others in framing and conceptualizing what's going on.

Thoughts on either or both pieces are much welcomed.

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Games with a purpose

I rediscovered Luis von Ahn's Google Tech presentation from this summer.  Tim O'Reilly has a good synopsis with excellent comment.  If you haven't seen the video it is worth the look - fun styled, choc-o-block with captchas, online game play, cheating, and yes, human computation...

Earlier this year I mused with some controversy, "social algorithms" (see The "Amazing Mechanical Turk").  I didn't account for the ability to evaluate correctness of the output (even if statistically).  A crowd producing an output may or may not be useful, its just that you have no idea when you judge their process in isolation.

I'd like to build on "Where's the catch".  As David Edery suggested for a game collective ("Members start to alter their opinions based on the opinions of others"), there may be reason to be suspicious of their output if that is all you had.  One needs to be able to measure the output of the crowd for confidence.

Luis suggested that games like The ESP Game are algorithms based on a symbiotic human-machine relationship.  The class of games he describes he calls "games with a purpose" (see also [1.]).  A critical element in the design of these games is to require that the output of an individual be vetted against the output of their partner and the larger history of all participants to judge their efficacy.

It is this sense of "correctness" that seems essential.  Luis illustrates how its enabling mechanic can be exploited for simulated online play by a single player (off-line using recorded inputs from other games).

No, the players  in an MMORPG may not be behaving algorithmically in general (Fn1).  However this is not to say that they may not participate in (or devise for themselves) "algorithmic" processes, or subgames.  As one simple example,  Jeff Yan discussed using captchas in MMORPG settings to nab bots [2.].

One might also begin to imagine larger units of "generate valued knowledge production" (see here) conceptualized algorithmically.  These could exist within the larger social setting of an MMORPG, say.


[1.]  Luis von Ahn.  June 2006, IEEE Computer.  "Games with a Purpose."

[2.]  Jeff Yan.   "Bot, Cyborg and Automated Turing Test."  University of NewCastle Upon Tyne, Computing Science.  Technical Report Series. CS-TR-970.  June 2006.

Fn1.  Although the tongue-in-cheek "Automated Online Role Player" (It's indistinguishable from live human beings!, David Kosak) might have one believe otherwise, on occasions.

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The History of Virtual Worlds

I'm going for a first-time event here: a triple cross-post at Easily Distracted, Cliopatria and Terra Nova. I'm at a meeting on law and virtual worlds at the New York Law School, and there's a really interesting panel discussion of methodologies in virtual worlds. Douglas Thomas just pointed out that when we talk about qualitative methods in virtual world research, we always tend to define that as ethnography, when there are other kinds of qualitative methods that are potentially important, including history.

I think that's right, and it struck me how odd it is that I, as a historian, generally talk about virtual worlds methodology in terms of my habitual dissatisfaction with the tendency of anthropology to visit its own ethical obsessions on all discussions of ethnography as a method. I don't talk about historical narratives or events in virtual worlds, even though what I think is most interesting about virtual worlds is that they are historical, processual, dynamic, iterative.

So what are the methodological challenges of tracing events and processes over time in virtual worlds? Well, part of the problem is that some of the richest quantitative or empirical kinds of data imaginable have been until very recently held privately by developers. Star Wars: Galaxies extensively tracked the history of the construction of housing within their gameworld, but without access to the developer's data, the only systematic conclusions you can make about that process depend upon personal (or pooled) observations and reports. A historian of virtual worlds to date would need to have been there to say much of anything about many of the structural histories of importance.

But this is even true for a narrative of events within games. If a 25-year old graduate student came to me and said, "I want to write about the history of events within Meridian 59 and Ultima Online, about the narrative evolution of the games, about key episodic things that happened", I'd pretty much say that this graduate student is in a worse situation than a historian of modern Africa. The textual sources are going to be extremely difficult to recover in a thorough way because there are both too many and too few; a lot of the rest will only be knowable through oral historical work, or through questioning people through email. I know about Dread Lord Days, and about the way Arwic was in Asheron's Call before secure trading was introduced, and about about Sunny in LambdaMOO and so on. I know about the fetuspult in Dawn. I was there for it all. So I could write that history as an eyewitness, from the perspective of experience. Of course, I could add some sustained archival research, because I know to use keywords like "fetuspult" and "Arwic".

I had a discussion earlier today about a parallel problem in simulations of emergent phenomena, which also seem deeply historical and processual by their nature. It seems to me that knowledge production around such simulations often requires experience, you have to watch a simulation again and again to begin to understand the range of variability in its evolution over time.

So I'm powerfully convinced that the history of any given virtual world, and the history of all virtual worlds, is a crucial part of knowing them in qualitative sense. But I'm also struck that this is actually harder to know than the already-difficult methodological challenges of my major field of specialization, African history, and for various reasons is also harder to know than the general history of online and new media, which are archived in ways that experience and events in virtual worlds is not.

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