December 2006 | Main Page | February 2007

Proceed and Permit

Looks like we have found Get A First Life’s (GAFL) strongest supporter – Second Life. OK, Linden Lab. A link in the footer of GAFL’s page asks for “comments or cease and desist letters”.

So Linden’s lawyer sent one.

But not the letter that anyone might be expecting. Rather than ordering GAFL to stop it provides a brief legal defense of the right’s of parody under US law.

Before anyone gets cynical about this ‘master stroke of PR genius’ that the LL folk dreamed up in their Dr Evil bunker, c’mon give them a break – it follows Linden’s long standing ethos of IP use and, best of all, it’s funny.

Here it is in full:

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Synchronized Punditry About Second Life

Clay Shirky, Beth Coleman, and Henry Jenkins have decided to coordinate simultaneous blog posts discussing Second Life.

Clay's post on Many-to-Many, entitled Second Life, Games, and Virtual Worlds, addresses two questions: "Will Second Life become a platform for a significant online population? And, second, what can Second Life tell us about the future of virtual worlds generally?" No, it's not an SL-bashing piece. Not in the least. What it is is a thoughtful, lengthy exploration of the questions he poses. His conclusion? That the promise of immersive virtual worlds will not be met with today's technologies, and that "as a result, games will continue to dominate the list of well-populated environments for the foreseeable future, rendering ineffectual the category of virtual worlds, and, critically, many of the predictions being attached thereunto."

Henry's post, A Second Look at Second Life, responds directly to some of Clay's previous criticisms of SL press coverage, but shifts the focus: "I care only a little bit about the future of virtual worlds. I care a great deal about the future of participatory culture. And for the moment, the debate about and the hype surrounding SL is keeping alive the idea that we might design and inhabit our own worlds and construct our own culture. That's something worth defending."

Unfortunately, Beth's post has yet to make its appearance on her site, but I'll update this post once it does.

The posts are intended to be the beginning of a coordinated conversation. According to Henry, "After corresponding with Shirky and with my colleague Beth Coleman, it was decided that we would offer some new statements about this controversy across our three blogs today and respond to each other's posts in about a week's time. We also agreed that we would post links to the other posts through our sites which would help readers navigate between the various positions." I'll certainly be watching this interchange with interest.

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RMT to disappear forever. Just kidding.

From fellow muckrackers at Slashdot, we learn that eBay is going to enforce its ban on MMO RMT.

Will this have any discernable impact on the financial traffic? Will it simply move it to less savory locations?

Will players actually behave any differently, or will the fluidity of online markets make this just a blip on the radar?

And has Sony, with the Station Exchange, just started to look a little bit smarter?

Weigh in, dear reader.

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Virtual World Tours

Lisa cites Ta-Nehisi Coates (Time magazine) "show(ing) off his avatar, guild, travel options, a few locations, and other favorite things in WoW via Time's animated photojournalism format. "  For those of you unfamiliar, it is a great way to get to know a place  (narrated photo essay).

I guess, for it to be possible to have a mass-audience tour, a tour-satire must also be possible (for WoW, the South Park episode (abbreviated)?).

Alas, what of virtual tours of other virtual worlds, why so few?  Sure there are plenty of fan or guild/tribe videos.   Yet few of these have the breadth to speak easily to an outsider.  I suppose the blame lies with the fans who are preoccupied with making videos they want to see.

Your (counter-) examples?


Just a few fan videos plucked from recent Terra Nova posts,  for contrast:

Leeroy Jenkins videoWoW.  Nick Yee's presentation including an explanation of the significance of Leeroy to an outsider.

First hostile doomsday device fired, video.   Eve-Online.   "Dr. Strangelove."

Oakland ARTCC Flightsim video.  VATSIM.  "Lights will guide you home."   

Serenity Now, videoWoW.  "The Price of Serenity."

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Dragon Kill Points and Posner

Posner seems quite interested in our little corner of the metaverse.  He invited our own Edward Castronova to his Rational Models colloquium to give a whitepaper that we co-wrote on Dragon Kill Points.

I think the paper, although meant to be a fun exploration of the phenomenon, could eventually have some serious use.  DKP systems route around the new fad in online regulation, which is to target trade by targeting the money supply.   In virtual worlds, this can be as extreme as making items non-tradeable.  But DKP systems show that even where goods are "soulbound," and therefore not tradeable at all, we find a strongly functioning market in points that allocate the resources quite nicely. 

Also, the piece at least raises serious questions about "soft law" (sometimes called norms, although that's a term of art in a lot of disciplines, and therefore loaded) in virtual worlds: DKP systems are community generated, self-enforcing rules.   Courts that think they can import law from the outside and not consider the laws generated inside the virtual world had better think twice. 

For those disinclined to click, here's the abstract:

This piece briefly describes the self-enforcing and non-pecuniary resource allocation system used by players in virtual worlds to allocate goods produced by a combination of player effort (the effort required to organize a group and overcome challenges) and the game itself (which "generates the good" – the input here is the time of the design staff). For historical reasons, these systems are commonly called DKP – Dragon Kill Points. The following is an attempt at a fun, not a thorough, discussion of the subject and some of the puzzles it raises.

Comments, either here or to the authors privately, would be wonderful.

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SL Economy Misunderstood Again

A whitepaper is making the rounds claiming that the Second Life economy is a ponzi scheme. I wasn't sure whether to blog this at all; the SL economy is so obviously not a mere scheme that it's hardly worth opposing the notion. But what's interesting here is not that the SL economy is not as liquid as, say, the economy of the United States. It's that serious consultants such as Randolph Harrison would go into SL expecting the economy to be as liquid as that of the United States. What a silly expectation. Wonder where they got that idea?

Second Life has about 10,000 - 20,000 concurrent residents right now, explosive growth from the under-5,000 levels experienced much of last year.  Nonetheless, that's a small village. Imagine Mayberry, in isolation, with the occasional Don Knotts figure setting up a bank.  Ha: The consultants walk in and expect to find perfect price arbitrage. Ha Ha: When they exploit the arbitrage opportunities to winnings that exceed the local GDP, they expect to cash it all out. Fark: When the markets won't support that, they think they've discovered a con game.

It's not a con game. It's a village-sized market. In fact it's a tourist attraction-type village: the big numbers of the people you see are one-time visitors. Newcomers are arriving in droves. Land speculation is rampant. But it's not thick; it's tiny. Not a ponzi scheme: a little mini gold rush.

If there's a con in any gold rush situation, it's not in the local economy; it's not in the value of gold. Gold is real and valuable. The con comes in when people are told there's lots of gold when there isn't. I am not sure who is most responsible for the hype now surrounding Second Life. Nonetheless, the flood of articles and reports have not been very responsible in terms of putting SL's size in perspective. The fact is, a small thin economy can produce surprisingly large sales figures as the dollars whiz around from the dry cleaners to the auto body shop to the greasy spoon diner. If Mayberry posted its numbers, they'd also be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per week. However, big economies are in the hundreds of trillions. Reporters don't have a feel for what those numbers should be; and apparently they got the impression that SL's economic numbers made it a candidate for the G-7.

I certainly have tried to put things right, telling every reporter  that whatever the economic stats seem to imply, the concurrent user numbers for SL are still small, dwarfed by two orders of magnitude by the fantasy games. I tell them that fantasy game economies are based on far more mundane and reliable production processes of enchanting, harvesting, and armor-crafting: good, solid crafting of useful items and services rather than wild speculation about future dwell. For this, I have suffered, criticized for not giving SL its due. But I was trying to help, actually. I don't think SL is going to enjoy the backlash that's now coming, led by Mr. Harrison's piece and Clay Shirky's. Hype is such a dangerous marketing tool. A two-edged blade with rebound.

All in all, it's disappointing. 2007 may become known as the virtual world crash. That was the year when all the serious people decided that everything they heard about virtual economies was crap, just because SL turned out to be more like Mayberry than Manhattan.

On the other hand, who cares. While the serious people decided it was all hype, the game masters continued to crank out virtual worlds and thereby sucked more and more real energy out of the mainstream economy. By 2012, macroeconomic effects became evident.

Whatever is said about SL, the portal to fantasy continues to widen, and that's what will determine the future of this space.

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Dreaming of An Educational MMO

Finally, via Joystiq, a productive use of time for those of us who worry that repeatedly whacking monsters is not actually contributing to improvements in our zen… Or maybe it is, but soon it will be possible to learn Chinese in Zon – The New Chengo Chinese MMO, and we'll be able to both get zen and spout koans right and left in their intended language! And maybe even be able to play someday with our  millions of  Chinese fellow WoW fiends, or at least lambast the gold farmers appropriately...

The new MMO even includes a 20-page design document complete with learning objectives!  Here's an excerpt:

The new Chengo Chinese will be a massive multi-player online game, consisting of four virtual worlds: “villages”, “towns”, “cities” and “cosmopolitans”. The four virtual worlds will progress with increasing complexity, advancing from ancient times to modern times and from countryside to cities. Those different virtual worlds represent a variety of cultures and living styles, and teach different cultural contents and language in correspondence with learners’ language proficiency and cultural knowledge. Learners will start with “villages” and advance into “towns” after they grasp a certain level of Chinese language and cultural knowledge and reach a certain point.

The game will be an open platform. Players could exchange and trade their points, and could accumulate points with knowledge acquired and social services provided to others. For instance, players can gain points through helping others solve problems.

The players can choose five career paths in this game, which include: scholar, businessman, kongfu master, officer and historian or archeologist. Players encounter different experiences based on their individual career choice. Furthermore, players with different career goals co-exist in the virtual worlds and interact with each other. In addition, the game also contains many artificial intelligence ‘robots” (i-bots) that can interact with the players.

The new Chengo Chinese will provide at least 1000 learning activities, each activity presenting learners with Chinese culture-, society-, geography-, and history-based learning opportunities. Each activity will take at least three hours, and thus the new Chengo Chinese will provide learners with 3000-hour Chinese language and culture learning contents.

Now I, like a few others, have adopted the approach that rather than put education in our MMOs, we should look at the learning that can be found in the ones we already have. I've also tended to think that we should spend more time studying learning cultures before jumping in too excitedly into the educational MMO space.  But as Henry Jenkins reminds us, there is momentum to be found in the serious games movement, and the associated money might dry up  if we don't 'get serious about serious games'.

Hey, maybe the Firefly MMO will do a collaboration with these guys so all the Brown Coats can learn Chinese for real.  Now that would be really shiny.

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Virtual World Has Billions of Residents

It's called First Life. Read a beta review here.

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Go Pats!

This is the weekend when the New England Patriots face-off the Indianapolis Colts in the play-offs, and I am a partisan.  In Beantown now, folks are giddy.  So much so, that news on the subject often qualifies as running a Madden Football 2007 simulation of Sunday's game and reporting the result (Fn1).

Sports themes seemed to have been washing ashore on Terra Nova for quite some time.  Just recently there was the Red Sox maestro angle, earlier this year I suggested that MMORPG Player-versus-Player combat (PvP) was more like sports than, well, "war".  One year ago, at about this time, I dragged Doug Flutie and his "Drop Kick" into the cookery.  Throw into this broth a series of discussions over the past several months in and about this topic and I'm breathless:  are MMORPGs indeed more sport than game, or vice versa?

The first task is to define sport and game in such a way that a meaningful contrast can be drawn.

To this end, I've searched high and low for a sensible definition and distinction.  Most sources seem caught up  in an assumption of physical exertion that clearly would not support my claim.  So in the great tradition of debate I've continued my search for better sources.

I am glad to be able to report that the Department of Philosophy of West Virgina University introduces the wisdom of a fifth grader (Brynn) who seems to offer a way forward.  An MMORPG might be a sport, or so it would seem by her sensible analysis.  Read it there, the detail work is A+, but for those short on attention consider the highlights, the four theories she considered:

(BT1) An activity is a sport and not a game when the activity requires considerable physical effort.

(BT2): A competitive activity is a sport and not a game when the winning and losing is determined by times and/or scores.

(BT3): A competitive activity is a sport and not a game when the activity is an Olympic event.

(BT4): A competitive activity is a sport and not a game when the activity could be an Olympic event.

Which one do you find most relevant? BT2 caught my fancy:  how do you "win" an MMORPG?  Where I will eventually get to is a claim that MMORPGs are profoundly misunderstood by gamers and just about everyone else.  Namely, everyone is fixated on their "gameyness."  If an MMORPG is sport and not a game what would that mean for the sorts of discussions and analyses that one often attributes to them?  Perhaps nothing, perhaps everything.

I have a few ideas, but will save them for after Sunday's game.  Go Pats!


Fn1.  Here is's (Boston Globe online) contribution  "Pats edge Colts ... in Madden 2007 utilizes video game to predict New England triumph".

/Ed 1/24.   2000 ABC forums discussion on "Sports and Games" - nicely introduces points raised in comments below.

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I Love the Smell of Burning Crusade in the Morning

My main interest in virtual worlds remains the way in which they serve as an accidental laboratory for studying historical change in societies over time, and in particular, the evolution of emergent, accidental or unpredictable structures and practices.

So there's this thing called "The Burning Crusade" that I've heard about. Maybe you have too? Let's make this an open thread of sorts for collecting and commenting on reports of transformation or novelty in the social structures within World of Warcraft. I have a few initial thoughts below the fold.

1. As always, anybody who has been in a beta test (or just is a perceptive guesser) could make an economic killing if they prepared properly. For example, for the first five days or so of the expansion going live, anybody who stockpiled runecloth and brought a character within nothing but stacks of runecloth in his bags to Falcon Watch or the Temple of Tehlamut could probably sell those stacks directly to characters trying to skill up their first aid at the trainer for premium prices of five or six times the pre-expansion norms on the Auction House.

2. There are also new markets. A few of the extremely powerful bind-on-equip green items I've gotten can be equipped by level 57 characters. I would think that these would now command premium prices on the Auction House once things settle down in a bit as they will allow a level 57 character to dominate the pre-Outland quests and so on that they must complete. Any portal mage could probably open portals 24/7 to the capital cities back in Azeroth and make huge amounts of money.

3. This connects to one of the most crucial changes. All of the pre-existing content of the game for levels 1-57 remains important, as of course does the new content of the starting areas. There will be substantial cohorts of Blood Elves and Draenei (the race whose spelling may be the most non-intuitive word ever to be typed into chat boxes frequently: it's the new "rouge", without a doubt) who will still need and experience this content. But unless I'm missing something, all of the level 58-60 content laboriously created by Blizzard for the original game has become instantly irrelevant. I don't think there will be anyone in Molten Core, Blackwing Lair, UBRS and so on, unless it's massively geared-up level 68+ characters doing it for shits and giggles in bizarre combinations, much the way that players have been experimenting with killing Onyxia with the smallest possible number of uber-geared characters. If you had to be level 60 to get to Outland, then I think the existing endgame instances would still have some play in them, at least the 5 and 10-person ones. But with level 58+ eligible to go, those are now pretty much going to be empty until a huge mob of Blood Elves and Draenei are doing them at level 56-57.

4) This isn't just because Outland is new, it's also because the paradigm for playing in Outland (so far) strikes me as an unvoiced confession of the design mistakes made in instances like Scholomance and Lower Blackrock Spire. I may change my tune later on, but Hellfire Citadel as an instance is fun, intense and short, plus players who really do want to have a lengthy, unpleasant experience playing an instance will have the opportunity to customize the difficulty level of the instance.

5) So far the only really new practice I've seen isn't exactly new, but with the intensity of players pouring into Outland in a single wave, tagging mobs for quest credit is once again a competitive art form that has spawned an interesting moral discourse in its wake about what's fair and unfair. That's already ebbing a bit as the next wave of quests starts to disperse players at the leading edge of the mass population of levellers.

So, TN readers: your own observations and discoveries so far?

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The Green Monster

Curt Schilling's MMOG startup venture is attracting a great deal of attention (e.g., see 1., 2.), less for its proposition than for its messenger.  Over the years Curt has built a considerable reputation in the off-season as a dedicated online game player and ferocious advocate of MMOGs to the mainstream.  From my perspective, as significant are his contributions to a declining board wargame culture (Advanced Squad Leader):  it is hard to dress this up as fashionable.  I guess it must be passion.

Most of us would probably agree that this will be a "tough row to hoe."   There must be far easier (less risky) ways to earn a return on investment than launching an MMOG. 

As for the messenger, successful or not, a benefit of diversity can be subtle: more people involved in the same activity can drive folks to consider a broader range of views.  Or at least drive everyone to explain themselves more thoroughly.


Green Monster Games.  P.S. for those of you unfamiliar with Boston, consider this other Green Monster.

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Where are you?

Using a new web mash-up [1.], you can view via a browser the location of a pilot in the Virtual Air Traffic Simulation Network (VATSIM).  Their location is offered on Google Maps along with other information on their flight plan.  Try it [fn1]!  In general it seems rare to find virtual worlds that offer location information on its participants, especially to outside viewers.  True, why?

I would suppose three reasons for the scarcity:

A.) Developers in general don't like to expose external access to in-world information:  worries about server impact.

B.) In some game worlds such information can lead to an unfair advantage.

C.) Privacy concerns.

As for VATSIM.  Given its relatively small player base and the highly cooperative nature of its world (see fn2), A + B wouldn't seem to be large factors here.  As for privacy, well, in a cooperative world where the goal is to participate and keep an interconnected system talking to each other and moving efficiently - privacy would seem like an alien idea.  And anyway, as Dan pointed out earlier, if you were a truly private person, "Mike Fright" (below) likely would have selected you out of the VATSIM world.

But for the other worlds?


[1.]  VATSIM Flight Tracker,  ProgrammableWeb.

fn1.  Give it a go! 

a.) Go to the VATSIM Flight Tracker (URL above), follow the link.

b.) Go to the VATSIM site, select the Pilots Online link (upper left)  and grab a flight number off of the VATSIM network billboard and use that to try it out in (a).

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.

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Brass Buttons

In Walter Lord's account of "the greatest escape of all time" [1.], on May 27, 1940, Captain Tennant left desk duty in London, found his way across the channel where he was hastily appointed SNO (fn1) of Dunkirk.  There he helped restore discipline among the disorder of "Tommies."  His success was in part attributed to his uniform.  Does your uniform in your virtual world impart any authority? 

In Walter's words (bold-type added):

(Tennant) was invariably successful, partly because the ordinary Tommy had such blind faith in the Royal Navy, but also because Tennant looked like an officer.  Owing to the modern fashion of dressing all soldiers alike, the army officers didn't stand out even when present, but there was no doubt about Tennant.  In his well-cut navy blues, with its brass buttons and four gold stripes, he had authority written all over him.  (Pg. 97).

The first challenge with finding a virtual world analogy is identifying the source of authority. Two obvious (though imperfect) sources that come to mind are:

A.)  The developer (who can annoint themselves and other players with special priviledges/powers).   

B.) Player organizations (e.g. guilds) can have special identities and hierarchies that may convey authority to others and to their members.  So for example, a particularly uber-guild may be revered by others outside the guild for, well, I guess, their uberness.

The second challenge is to identify cases where there are uniforms involved.  So for example, a guild may coordinate on clothing and colors and gear.   The officers of another guild may coordinate on fashion.  Etc.

Do you have any good examples?


[1.]  The Miracle of Dunkirk.   Penguin (Non-Classics); Reprint edition (March 6, 1984).

fn1. Senior Naval Officer

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Open Source and Open Predictions

Today’s Second Life Open Source announcement seems like a good time to follow up 0.500 average from last year with a new set of fearless predictions for 2007. So, here we go:

1) Intel and AMD’s battle in the MIPS/watt game will take servers below 30 watts/core

2) Second Life’s peak concurrency, currently at 25,000, will reach 150,000

3) Graphics cards will be released with small batch rendering and unified texture memory thanks to John Carmack and others

4) A Second Life development company, such as Electric Sheep or Rivers Run Red, will surpass 100 employees

5) Exchanges within MMORPGs and virtual worlds will still not be taxed until converted into real-world currency

6) At least one Presidential candidate will use Second Life to build a community around issues rather than simply holding a single press conference

7) AACS will get pwned and at least one major Hollywood studio will experiment with downloading unencrypted DVDs

8) Relay for Life will raise over US$200k in Second Life this year

9) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will have more US$ sales [edit: thanks Chris] on its release day than any book, movie or video game in history

10) Dmitri will agree that I have won my quarter by the end of the year

And, of course, the free one is that the Open Source viewer will be used in ways that none of us would have predicted.

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Jimmy Tolkien

By reason of the small people who live in my house I watch more Jimmy Neutron than is good for me ("Brain Blast,  I've got it!").   While planning this summer's obligatory costume party (the final Harry Potter book), a contrast drawn between JRR Tolkien and JK Rowling stuck.  Tolkien and "small people" come on the heels of David Brin's "Why Johnny Can't Code".   Hang on...

I recommend reading David Brin's article in full.  It is well-written and provocative - no attempt will be made to introduce the full song here.  However, consider this tune:

...quietly and without fanfare, or even any comment or notice by software pundits, we have drifted into a situation where almost none of the millions of personal computers in America offers a line-programming language simple enough for kids to pick up fast. Not even the one that was a software lingua franca on nearly all machines, only a decade or so ago. And that is not only a problem for Ben and me; it is a problem for our nation and civilization.

Lambda the Ultimate offers a smart technical discussion on the relative merits of Basic (or Logo, RUR-PLE, Scheme, PASCAL, or fascinatingly, 3d CAD languages).   Slashdot also offers its usual broad range.

Rather than going to any of those places now, what has got me pegged to this keyboard this late evening is the Tolkien one I heard earlier: whether or not LOTR is "better" than Harry Potter it does at least portrays a more complete world.  I take the argument to be a technical one:  LOTR has more pieces crafted to fit together tightly.  More pieces with more laws governing their fittings, I presume, means a more convincing world.

In the Ruby Slipper discussion, a point raised by Greg on Why Johnny Can't Code seems too good to let go.   Does the creator of a game, the programmer of its code, understand its world better than a mere-consumer can ever?    Perhaps a mere-consumer has fewer reasons to understand the pieces and their laws, however contrived.  And perhaps contrived laws and components are better than none at all.  It also likely doesn't help that Johnny never reads the manual.

I've always wondered what Jimmy Neutron's parents did.  Perhaps if I were forced to write their LUA scripts in that plastic world of theirs, we might even get along. 

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2006 Predictions Review

Once again it is time to review my predictions from last year. I attempted to reach a bit more as it seemed inappropriate to be batting over .500. How did I do?
1) A winning candidate in the 2006 US Congressional elections will have campaigned in an MMO or virtual world
Nope. Came close in some ways and it looks like we'll be seeing more interest going forward, but this didn't happen. 0 for 1.
2) Apple's share of the PC market will double to 5%
And then some. 1 for 2.
3) Second Life's peak concurrency, currently at 5000, will reach 20,000
Barely but we did it. Perhaps more interesting is that we had only reached 5k by asking our residents to log in at the same time, so our actual concurrency was more in the 2 to 3k range. Thus our concurrency, like several other published metrics grew by nearly an order of magnitude in one year. 2 for 3.
4) WoW will end 2006 with fewer players than it has today
I think this was wrong, but I haven't seen any recent WoW numbers. Anyone know? 2 for 4.
5) Peter Ludlow won't send me an autographed copy of "Only a Game"
Sadly, I'd have happily lost this one if I got the signed book. Instead, 3 for 5.
6) A Second Life resident will begin selling a service for exporting SL items to a Fab Lab (such as Berkeley's Squid Labs) in order to create them in the real world
At least one that I know of. 4 for 6.
7) A Virtual Research Foundation, based in a virtual world or MMO, will be created to gather games and virtual world research, create research standards, and provide funding to researchers
Alas, this didn't happen yet, although Ted got some great funding to build a game, which is very cool. We'll see what 2007 holds. Hopefully it will be like my prediction about real-time collaboration in a CAD tool, which came 3 weeks late for me last year. 4 for 7.
8) The US Democratic Party, in an attempt to capture the "family values" vote, will demonize games during the 2006 election cycle
Wrong. Although there was some of this, it was not a driving issue in the elections. 4 for 8.
9) A business or service in a virtual world will successfully file for a trademark
Lots of rumors about this but I haven't heard of any that were completed. 4 for 9.
10) A Terra Nova author will testify before Congress about virtual worlds
Dmitri ftw! 5 for 10.

So, .500 for 2006. Next week I'll post my fearless predictions for 2007.

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