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Studying Real-World Business in Virtual Worlds

Hello, Terra Novans!

I am delighted to have this opportunity to post some of my thoughts on TN, and look forward to reading your responses.

Let me start with a little self-promotion:  download Worlds For Study—Invitation, subtitled “Virtual Worlds for the Study of Real-World Business (and Law, and Politics, and Sociology, and…)”.  In that paper, I spell out my vision to create a platform on which researchers and educators can create serious games for studying real-world business and related topics.


That vision might sound familiar (at least to those who have followed academic discussions of how virtual worlds can be used).   But my goal seems to differ from what others are proposing.  So this first post will place relatively heavy emphasis on what I am not trying to do. Let me know if you think my impressions are correct, and what my apparently unusual focus might mean for structure and success of WFS.  (read more….) 

I want study the real world, not virtual worlds

The founders of Terra Nova (Ted, Julian, Dan and Greg) have written fascinating articles about how to think about economics, crime, intellectual property rights, and freedom in virtual worlds.  But my goal is not to study virtual worlds in their own right.  Instead, I want to use virtual worlds as a laboratory in which to examine the law and economics of the real world.  Is this impossible?  I don’t think so.  Virtual worlds are not so different that we can’t draw clear lessons from them to the real world.  I agree that it is hard to study the airline industry in Second Life, where everyone is teleporting or flying as they please….but if we had our own platform, we could give avatars and goods both mass and size, so that transportation is expensive. 

I am an experimentalist, not an econometrician

In his hugely popular article on the economy of Everquest, Ted Castronova approaches virtual worlds as a traditional empirical economist, observing what occurs “naturally” in the virtual world and drawing conclusions.  In contrast, I want to create new worlds for controlled experimentation. To me, this is a tremendous advantage of virtual worlds.  After all, it is hard to experiment in the real world.  (The SEC is unlikely to settle the dispute over insider trading rules by saying “insider trading is legal for these randomly selected firms, but not for the others.”)  But it would be possible to create one world in which insider trading is legal, and another in which it is not.

I am primarily interested in the suits, not the talent.

In many industries, people distinguish between “the suits” and “the talent.”  The talent are the artists, architects, engineers, programmers and musicians who design and create the stuff that the suits invest in, package, market, distribute and compete over.   My impression is that the vast majority of educators in Second Life (and there are lots of them) focus on the talent.  Then there are a lot of suits, but they are not particularly interested in education—they are too busy making trying to make money.

But virtual worlds are ideal for studying suits, because they have robust economies, even when game developers don’t want them, and because you can capture all of the data on how the suits interact to allocate capital, make decisions, etc. 

Are there really so few business educators in SL, or have I just not found them?


I want structured RPGs, not unstructured ones.

Although you never hear the term “serious games” in academic circles, experimental economists are essentially serious game designers.  (Vernon Smith earned the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics for “for having established laboratory experiments as a tool in empirical economic analysis, especially in the study of alternative market mechanisms.”  Would he have gotten the Nobel Prize if he said he was designing games for people to play?)

But it doesn’t look like there are many people in the virtual world community who want to create a platform that would support serious games. As I look through the landscape of virtual worlds and middleware platforms, I see

Neither model will work with academics, because academics want control, and lots of it, whether they want to conduct games for education or research. I would argue that Smith won the Nobel in large part because he thought so carefully about how academics could impose controls to test economic theory more carefully. Experimental economists have basically created( very) tiny structured RPGs for research and teaching.  So the unstructured games ‘Lion’ games aren’t going to be very popular among those who are closest to bring current research and teaching practice into virtual worlds.

Structured RPGs allow lots of control.  But there really isn’t a way to get large numbers of academics to play someone else’s game.  Everyone is going to want to create their own, to address their specific research question, to teach a favorite topic their way, or to meld the details of the game to their textbook.  So what is needed is a platform that makes it relatively easy for academics to create their own RPGs within virtual worlds.  Think “World of Bizquest” where any academic can set up their own quests and dungeons (instances).  The academics would be demi-gods who could create content, but the students/subjects would be players with only limited ability to do so.  Something like this (described in WFS-Invitation):

Now, maybe they would earn inworld currency for their performance in the dungeon (which they could use as they pleased in the larger persistent world), but experimental economists would simply pay participants cash.  Since players are not coming out of the dungeon with an all-powerful Vorpal Sword of Ludemia, I don’t see much interference with the economy of the larger world.

Is this simply impossible?  Do Active Worlds or Multiverse provide an answer? 

Tying it together

OK, I have come right out and said it: I am limit limiting my interest in virtual worlds to what they can tell us about the real world, rather than emphasizing how interesting they are in their own right; I want to control those worlds to run experiments, rather than letting people do as they please and observingt the results; I want to focus on the suits instead of the talent; and I want to create structure in RPGs. 

So some final questions for Terra Novans:  am I just too Luddite, conservative and unimaginative for virtual worlds?  Am I describing a valuable niche product that will blend well with all of the other far more outré directions being taken by those with broader vision?  Do others share my interests?

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Bragg and IGE cases

Many many legal happenings on virtual property and assets. First off, the judge in the Bragg v Linden case has dismissed Linden's Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Jurisdiction and Motion to Compel Arbitration. Lots to say about this Order, but I need some time to digest it. Also, a South Florida law firm has brought a consumer class action on behalf of US WoW subscribers against IGE for their gold farming activities. Much to be said here in a bit.

The highpoint of my brief reading to date is the opening paragraph of the Order in the Bragg case:

This case is about virtual property maintained on a virtual world on the Internet. Plaintiff, March Bragg, Esq., claims an ownership interest in such virtual property. Bragg contends that Defendants, the operators of the virtual world, unlawfully confiscated his virtual property and denied him access to their virtual world. Ultimately at issue in this case are the novel questions of what rights and obligations grow out of the relationship between the owner and creator of a virtual world and its resident-customers. While the property and the world where it is found are "virtual," the dispute is real.

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Hey, Who Filled My Ivory Tower With Carbon Monoxide?

Sorry, kids, but I just really needed a post with this title.  Did you all read this beauty (scroll down to 'Terrifying Teachers') buried in comments?  Freaking awesome.  They have no idea just how terrifying we are.  Muahhaha!

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Design From Soup to Nuts

The discussion of Nate Combs' recent post about the current hubbub over at EVE Online made me think a bit about the process of design in virtual worlds. Many scholars with an interest in synthetic worlds  have studied some aspect or another of design, and some of us have done design work at some level or another. There are also a number of articulate designers who provide a window of some kind into problems, issues and processes in design. There are entire curricula devoted to design, and books written to accompany those curricula.

But do we have a lengthy, detailed narrative account of the design process  from initial concept to live management of a single major existing commercial synthetic world, basically an insider's history of an existing world? I can't really think of anything that comes close, just fan-dancer glimpses of the underlying flesh and bone behind existing games. There are  studies of Second Life underway that might address this, but I think the kind of sub-creation and user participation that is a basic part of Second Life, not to mention the much more consciously introspective attitude of Linden,  makes it very different than the other synthetic worlds out there in processual terms.

Why does this matter? Partly because I think players and scholars alike have very little grasp on the conceptual vocabulary involved in design, and I think that often makes for complicated antagonisms between developers and those with an interest in the products they develop. When live management teams have to deal with a crisis in a given synthetic world, they're often not trusted by players precisely because players have almost no ability to conceptualize what's going on inside the design process.

Most film scholars and even film audiences  can tell you about the division of labor involved in making film, from best boy to director. Moreover, a lot of film scholars can even match aspects of the finished product with particular kinds of craftwork, both technical and aesthetic. There are many films where we have extremely good narratives, some of them from the filmmakers, some from other writers, about the entire production process that created and circulated the film. Scholars who study film also often have at least a rudimentary understanding of the business of film-making. I'm not saying that film theorists and scholars make use of all this knowledge. In fact, many go out of their way to deny that this kind of information is relevant to the interpretation of film, in the same manner that some literary critics would argue that the intention of authors or the historical conditions of book production are not important to the interpretation of a literary work. Even when this knowledge is not put to direct use, it makes film and literature familiar and comprehensible to both critics and audiences.

The labor and managerial processes involved in game design, particularly for major commercial synthetic worlds, are considerably more opaque to outsiders. Sometimes I think they're  even opaque to insiders, that the scale and complexity of these projects makes it difficult for top-level creative and technical directors to have a good grasp on the day-to-day fundamentals of a game's design, while the coders responsible for particular features don't have a good sense of what is happening in other aspects of the design.

It seems to me that everyone interested in this field would benefit if a future synthetic world project included from its initial stages some kind of process of introspective, narrativized documentation of its own development. Who did what kinds of work, when did they do it, how were decisions made, what kinds of directions were considered and rejected, how did the organizational chart of the project get elaborated over time, what kinds of creative and technical input did the team wish they had but couldn't find, how was feedback from testers actually evaluated, and so on. This kind of information isn't that hard to generate if it's made a formal part of someone's daily work process, part of normal best practices. Game Developer's postmortems  would be a good basic model, if they were fleshed out in a much longer and more diaristic fashion. Looking at the concept art for Half-Life 2 also gives you some sense of how rich a more fully realized and introspective account of synthetic world design could be.

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June Guest Robert Bloomfield

RbWe're very happy to have Robert Bloomfield guest-blogging with us on Terra Nova this June. Robert is a Professor of Accounting at Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, where he directs both the Business Simulation Laboratory and the Doctoral Program.  Trained as a behavioral game theorist, he has published the results of laboratory games and markets in journals representing most areas of business, from accounting and finance to organizational behavior, psychology, marketing and operations.

Rob became interested in virtual worlds when he was chosen to lead an academic research initiative for the Financial Accounting Standards Board, which sets accounting standards for US businesses.  Realizing that traditional laboratory settings would not be able to capture the vast complexity of the US economy—with many people making difficult decisions as they interact with complex institutions and with each other—Rob searched for an alternative.  The result of that search was the Worlds For Study project, which seeks to create a platform in which people can create serious games for business research and education. Rob describes the goals of the WFS project here.

Rob is also a resident of Kingsfield Island in Second Life, where he goes by the name Beyers Sellers, and is currently working with The Vandiver Group on a short movie, filmed in Second Life, that will introduce business academics to virtual worlds and WFS.

We'd like to thank Rob for joining us -- we look forward to the discussion!

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June Guest Peder Burgaard

Peder We're happy to welcome Peder Burgaard as a guest blogger on TN this June.  We asked Peder to introduce himself to the readers.  Here you go:

The last six months I have been on sabbatical from my day job at Innovation Lab, a Danish based think tank on emerging technologies & trends, to study business strategies and virtual world potentials, and have been fortunate to work with IBM’s Metaverse Evangelists in the UK and key personal from the 3D Internet & Virtual Business Opportunity group in the states and various IBMer’s in Second Life, for my masters degree in Information Science at the university of Aarhus, Denmark.

When I am not immersed in the metaverse or working the day job, I am surrounded by context aware audio games on audio augmented children’s playgrounds and is the co-founder and CTO of a startup (stealth mode still) working on a prototype due Q3/Q4 this year (and looking for investments! :-)).

Past experiences have been a very inspirational six months stop at Institute for the Future, Palo Alto, also a think tank on emerging technologies & trends, were I accumulated knowledge on forecasting methodologies and client implementation of future foresights to present insights. I have also had a short period as a contributor at We-Make-Money-Not-Art.com and was guest blogger for the official SuperNova2006 conference blog.

I’ll finish off with a promotion of Innovation Lab’s virtual world conference LifeLike – Virtual Worlds September 26, 2007 where I am program co-Chair. Speakers are still to be announced. Those unable to attend LifeLike in person will not be neglected and can tap into the live webcast from all the conference sessions during the day.

Thanks for joining us, Peder!  We're looking forward to some interesting discussions!

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June Guest Bob McGinley

BobWe're happy to have Bob McGinley joining us this month as a guest on Terra Nova. Bob is an Executive IT Architect for IBM working in Global Middleware Services. As an Application Architect with a background in software design and development, he has a knack for delivering large complex systems. Bob has developed several large scale government industry applications using a variety of development methodologies, coding languages, and system platforms. His career is now focused on simplifying and teaching web development to enhance development efficiency.

When he isn't teaching, Bob works on developing new artificial intelligence technologies using the principles of evolutionary systems. J2Evolution.com is a blog site dedicated to Bob's passion for using evolution to teach machines to learn and then use these machines to benefit society. He is designing an Evolutionary Container, a Java environment built to evolve virtual organisms and eventually virtual life. His current research is in the area of neural network design and probability inference engines.

Bob and his family live in Olympia, Washington where they frequent the surrounding mountain ranges enjoying backpacking, skiing and snowboarding. Bob is always open for a thought provoking discussions and brainstorming, so feel free to visit his blogsite at http://www.j2evolution.com or email him at mcginle AT us.ibm.com.

Thanks for joining us this month, Bob!

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Structuration, Synthetic Worlds-Style: LOTRO and Emotes

Anthony Giddens' theory of structuration maybe gets less frequent use than it deserves in part because it is ultimately rather commonsensical. Agency and structure are a loop, in his view; we can only understand why things happen in human societies by combining an attention to the microscale of individual practice and action and the macroscale of social structure across broad expanses of time and space.

A fairly large percentage of my interests in synthetic worlds ultimately come back to structuration as Giddens describes it. In fact, I think synthetic worlds are the ideal focal point for a study of structuration in action. Try to apply it to the unmanageable complexity of a given human society in motion, and the kinds of practical limits that have to be placed on the analysis can feel arbitrary. But synthetic worlds come with manageable boundaries that are intrinsic to them: the rules or structures governing social and economic activity are knowable, the cultural histories behind and within the players are specific, the economics of the industry that produces them are specifiable, and you can study the evolution of a synthetic world from an initial condition in a way that is never possible in the ongoing history of real-world societies.

So with this prologue in mind, a sketchy report from the field, in this case, Lord of the Rings Online.

I'll probably have more to say about LOTRO over the next month or so here at TN, but for the moment, a narrow point. Turbine has invested considerable effort trying to get the feel of their gameworld to match the mood and feel of Tolkien's world. Hardcore devotees of the lore aren't likely to be satisfied, but I'm much more impressed than I expected to be, particularly with the way that the gameplay interweaves with the storyline of the first book of the LOTR trilogy.

One consequence of this commitment is that the available emotes in the game are much more visually and expressively restrained than those in World of Warcraft. Yes, you can do a handstand and a few other mildly silly things, but /dance makes your avatar do nothing more than clap and tap his feet. No elf pole-dances. There are some nice combinatorial emotes that involve inventory items, primarily smoking pipe-weed and playing instruments.

This is completely appropriate, given that LOTR is not a particularly whimsical fiction (with the exception of some of the hobbit-material, and LOTRO has plenty of hobbit hijinks in its quests), whereas Warcraft has a long history of whimsical and silly threads running through it.

I'm interested in the consequences for player behavior, however, and how that might be an interesting illustration of structuration in action. In my experience so far, when in groups doing quests, you see very little of some of the behavior that is common in WoW. In WoW, when players are bored for various reasons, the use of emotes tends to rise, as do what I would call "nervous action" (such as rogues jumping around and around a group of players who are waiting for another party member to arrive). In LOTRO, from what I can see, a group of players who are bored waiting for a party member to arrive rarely use emotes except for smoking pipeweed. If there is "nervous action", it tends to be moving out from the instance entrance to kill nearby mobs.

Now assuming that this is in fact an accurate observation on my part--and I fully expect that some commenters may report that they see huge groups of champions jumping around and doing handstands outside of the Great Barrow--here's a case where we could probably talk intelligibly about specific kinds of explanations that would variably emphasize the prior structure of the gameworld, the contingent agency of players, or the contingent intersection of the two over historical time.

To wit:

1. Maybe the emotes ("structure") intrinsically direct themselves to more naturalistic uses consistent with the "magic circle" of the fiction because of how they look and relate to the gameworld's overall aesthetic. Maybe they contain within themselves a clear message from the designers about their use, and make clear that doing handstands in front of barrow-wights while you wait for a lore-master is, well, not really the right thing to be doing.

2. Maybe the players have a prior cultural understanding of the aesthetic of Tolkien that informs their sense of what appropriate expressive action within a Tolkienesque world ought to be. They therefore know that hobbits and dwarves can be silly, but that warriors from Gondor and high elves rarely are.

3. Maybe the intersection of the structure of the emotes and the orientation of players is producing a culture of gameplay over time in LOTRO, that the more you go to instances and don't see a lot of silly emoting, the less you're inclined to do silly emoting yourself or get a sense that it's not on.

4. Maybe LOTRO is drawing players because of the core mythos who have little experience with the conventions of synthetic worlds and therefore don't know what an emote is. (Last night in the Great Barrows, I ran into several players who didn't know that they had emotes, so anecdotally this seems possible to me.)

5. Maybe players aren't bored yet, and therefore aren't exploring the small paratextual or secondary systems of play available within the gameworld, and therefore the culture of emote-usage in LOTRO is still very much in flux.

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Topic A.  Personally speaking.  My view is to to err on the side of regulation and back it with enforcement.  Reason:  people have a sad habit of cheating.  I guess the FDA is in the thick of it.  Claim: the pathologies of online gameplay can be seen as a lesson of the foibles of under-constrained folks  (/edited nc).

Update 6/2/2007   Links capping Topic-A from comments below:

Topic B. I cite a few short essays and wonder the meta-question:  is online gaming a profoundly geek activity?

Topic A. 

Endie has posted a story on yet more conflict-of-interest in Eve-Online.   This is a follow-on to an earlier discussion about how "mixing it up" might slip into dubious antics.  See TN:  "It's so easy, Gamemasters."

While this story is new to me, I do respect Endie.  Straighten me out on the record if need be.

Topic B.

I recently posted on my personal board several geeky pieces on the relationship of software to beauty and games (fn1.).  The gist of which might be summarized for here, thusly:  creation in software is a creative process, it might even be a game, it is at least art.

The meta question for here is this.  Do MMORPGs have a profoundly deep affinity with its software, are they kindred spirts of sorts.   In other words do the famously claimed "geek ghetto" and user-created content and all its flavors in MMORPGs suffer a deep relationship to the process of software?  Geeks, not by accident.

I'll leave that to you to decide.




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Virtual reality and higher education: Another perspective

Immersive Education sample, Egyptian environment, screenshot courtesy Aaron Walsh A few weeks ago, I posted an interview on Terra Nova with Rebecca Nesson, who is using Second Life as a platform for distance education at the Harvard Extension School. While SL has been adopted by Harvard and more than 100 other schools worldwide, it is not the only online virtual reality environment that is used for educational purposes. There are other virtual world/virtual reality technologies that can support instruction and classroom activities, and this week we will get a perspective from someone who is using these alternate technologies to teach. The interview is with Aaron Walsh, a programmer and instructor who has used modding software and other tools to create VR classrooms for courses at the Woods College of Advancing Studies at Boston College (the inset photo is from one of his experiments, and depicts "students gathering in the virtual Egyptian environment"). His VR classes are part of a larger effort that he is leading to develop a standards-based educational platform called Immersive Education.

I first met Walsh in 2000, when I took two of his programming classes at Boston College. He subsequently invited me to participate in some early development and planning work surrounding his Media Grid initiative, and as part of these efforts I was able to take part in several Internet-based VR classroom demos in 2003 and 2004. However, Walsh noted in an email that he has been involved in VR development since the early '90s:

I began my work in virtual reality and immersive 3D environments while running the Advanced Technology Center (ATC) at Boston College. Around 1991 or so Paul Dupuis, my manager, and I built a personal VR system using stereo goggles, a Macintosh computer and a Nintendo Power Glove. This was back in the days when 3D on personal computers was practically unheard of, and texture mapping wasn't even an option. Crude, flat-shaded shaded polygons and wireframes ruled the roost. Striving for realism I began researching the potential for viewing digital video in stereo by splitting Quicktime movies into stereo pairs, one for each eyepiece. Around this time I became obsessed with the potential of realistic virtual reality, and developed digital media caching techniques for virtual reality and 3D that I contributed to the Web3D standards community in the late 1990s. From that point on I spent the majority of my time developing international standards for 3D and virtual reality as chairman of related Web3D Consortium and Moving Picture Expert Group (MPEG) working groups, and now with the Media Grid and Immersive Education.

In the interview, Walsh talks about some of the specific technologies he uses for his classes, as well as some of the benefits and challenges of conducting online classes in virtual reality. He confirms Nesson's observation that some students who have a tough time expressing themselves in the real world can really blossom in virtual environments, but notes that other students much prefer the traditional, face-to-face classroom experience. He also has a lot to say about the growing problem of addiction to virtual reality, which he classifies as "immersive illness."

Below is the full transcript of the interview, which was conducted via email earlier this week:

Ian Lamont: You've been teaching a course called Discovering 3D Graphics and Virtual Reality at the Woods College of Advancing Studies at Boston College. Some of the class is spent in a virtual world. What is the world or VR environment, and what are the types of activities that students take part in there?

Aaron Walsh: I teach three graphics courses at Boston College, all of which involve meeting with students online in virtual reality. Two of these classes (Discovering 3D Graphics and Virtual Reality, and Advanced 3D/VR) take place almost entirely online in virtual reality. I spend the first few classes working with the students in person, ensuring that their computers are setup properly and are ready to go, and after that we transition into virtual reality for the rest of the semester.

In these classes students learn the fundamentals of 3D computer graphics, virtual reality, and video game technology. They learn how to build 3D objects and virtual worlds, and how the combination of 3D/VR and rich digital media technologies are fundamentally re-shaping computer-based entertainment, education, and socialization.

We use the term "Immersive Education" to refer to the combination of 3D/VR and digital media specifically for learning. We started Immersive Education many years ago using the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) standard, and in 2003 transitioned to the commercial Unreal 2 game engine which has been our 2nd generation technology until today (which we use in combination with VRML, Extensible 3D (X3D), Flash and QuickTime). The current platform has served us very well, but it's at the end of its life and we're now in the process of selecting a new 3D/VR platform as part of the open Immersive Education standardization process. Educators and students who have taken courses using virtual environment technology, regardless of the specific 3D/VR technology they're familiar with, are encouraged to participate in the open standards process through ImmersiveEducation.org.

Lamont: Why not use Second Life?

Walsh: Second Life is a candidate for the new Immersive Education platform that we're defining today, but it wasn't a viable option for the previous generation which we selected in 2003. Some of our requirements at that time included: a stable cross-platform (Windows and Mac) platform; integrated text and voice chat; the ability to host the environments and server-side runtime on our own servers; content ownership; support for industry-standard authoring tools (such as Maya); the ability to modify (mod) the environment to support custom behaviors, and so forth. These and other criteria are being applied as we select and standardize the next generation of Immersive Education, and today Second Life is a leading candidate whereas in 2003 it wasn't even close.

Lamont: What have been some of the challenges and advantages to using virtual reality as a platform for education?

Walsh: There are many, on both sides. A major challenge has been related to student hardware, as it's extremely difficult to ensure that every student's computer setup is up to snuff. This has become much easier now that the majority of students have relatively new computers that sport modern graphics cards, but in the early days of Immersive Education we were dealing with students who had computers that rolled off the assembly line in the late 1990s. For the first few years we simply could not have the majority of our class meetings in virtual reality since too many of the students had sub-par computer systems, but that's mostly a non-issue today. Spotty network connections are also a challenge, especially when it comes to voice chat, but that's also becoming less of an issue since most of our students are participating either from dorms (which have high-speed networks) or from home where they have DSL or cable. The bandwidth issue is practically a non-issue today.

Another major challenge is in the presentation of learning materials inside of (through) the virtual environment itself, such as pumping videos or interactive Flash content through an object in the environment. Initially we wanted everything to be "in world" meaning we wanted all learning materials to be presented inside of the environment itself, thinking that a single seamless environment would be best. And while that may be the case for the entertainment industry, where you usually don't want to take the player out of the game or environment, it's not necessarily the case for education. For education there's no reason why all content has to be delivered inside of the virtual environment. In fact, it can be quite restricting to do so. Why not simply open a browser window when necessary, allowing students to use a wide variety of learning content that can't (and probably shouldn't) be shoehorned into the virtual environment? Doing this allowed us to incorporate Web pages, interactive Flash content, Quicktime VR and videos, and a wide assortment of rich learning materials into our online classes that wouldn't have been possible otherwise. And the students don't mind or care; they're learning, using a mixture of digital media. The virtual environment is merely the foundation that we build around, but it's just one part of a much larger picture.

Aside from these technical challenges there are a host of human-oriented challenges, not the least of which is the issue of taking real-world human-to-human personal contact out of the equation. For the most part students and teachers are used to meeting in person in a real classroom. Removing the classroom and the personal contact that comes with it can be a real challenge for some students, and while most don't take very long to adjust some never get completely comfortable with the virtual alternative. But for every student that would prefer a real-world classroom there are just as many, perhaps more, who love meeting in virtual environments. We often see cases where shy students who are quiet in person become very verbal and fully participant in the virtual environment, so there can be some real advantages in this respect as well.

A challenge that concerns me the most is lurking on the horizon, one we don't yet understand the full scope of. As Immersive Education and other forms of personal virtual reality become more realistic and compelling we're going to see "immersive illness" become more common and more difficult to deal with. Although this is an issue today we're somewhat protected by the limitations of today's personal computers and game consoles (they just aren't powerful enough...yet), but in another decade or more it'll be a different story altogether. Nobody knows exactly what impact insanely realistic, media-rich virtual reality will have on society. We're already dealing with early forms of immersive illness, such as addiction, alienation, mental schisms, and more, but today it's not a problem that affects a large percentage of users. We don't see massive problems today for a number of reasons, including rather low-quality virtual environments and limitations on how much time we spend in these environments. But what happens when the visual and audio quality becomes indistinguishable from reality, the technology becomes truly mainstream, and a substantial portion of education takes place in such environments and not in a real classroom? With massive power comes massive problems. Last week I was asked how big this problem will be, and I responded that nobody knows for sure but I'd estimate that the at-risk population can be calculate by adding the percentage of people with addiction problems to the percentage of society that suffer some form of mental illness. That's a big chunk of society. Is it all gloom and doom? Certainly not, but it's a grand challenge we're not even remotely prepared for today. As with other disruptions society will eventually adapt, but I think we're in for a very rough ride.

Other advantages include the time saved in traveling to and from class, which can be significant for students who live off campus. I've had some non-traditional students live over an hour away from Boston College, meaning they waste more than two hours traveling ever time we have class in person (on campus).

It's also worth noting that the "fun" factor can't be denied. Most of the students I've spoken with about their experience with these classes say they're the most fun they've had, and that they look forward to being in virtual reality each week. We're dealing with a generation of students weaned on video games, so it should come as no surprise that they enjoy learning in what amounts to a game-based learning environment. Giving students a educational experience that they not only enjoy but are very enthusiastic about is definitely an advantage.

Lamont: You recently received an award for promoting "Immersive Education" at BC, and are now trying to spread these concepts to other institutions. What does Immersive Education entail, and what does it offer other instructors and educational institutions?

Walsh: Yes, that's true. Students at Boston College nominated me for a Teaching with New Media (TWIN), which I was awarded last year, for my work with Immersive Education. Although I've been working in virtual reality for over 15 years it's only been over the past few years that we could teach classes online using this technology. Outside of playing video games this was the first time that most students really had a chance to dig in and learn about interactive 3D and virtual reality, and the response has been outstanding and very encouraging. But it's just the start. If Immersive Education were a human I'd argue that it's barely crawling, and there's a lot of work still to be done until it reaches its full potential.

Immersive Education is an application of the Media Grid (http://MediaGrid.org) that combines 3D/VR technology with digital media to bring distance learning and self-directed learning to a new level. Unlike traditional distance learning, Immersive Education is designed to immerse and engage students in the same way that today's best video games grab and keep the attention of players. Immersive Education combines interactive virtual reality and sophisticated digital media (voice chat, game-based learning modules, audio/video, and so forth) with collaborative online course environments and classrooms. Immersive Education gives students a sense of "being there" even when attending class in person isn't possible, practical, or desirable, which in turn provides faculty and remote students with the ability to connect and communicate in a way that greatly enhances the learning experience.

We're now in the process of selecting the next generation platform for Immersive Education, around which international standards are being established. Making Immersive Education open, extensible, freely available and fully documented will make it possible for any organization or individual to use it. This goes beyond the technology platform itself, and includes best-practices for teachers and institutions to follow as well as student-faculty ecosystems that organizations can employ. I'd encourage teachers and students to participate directly in the Immersive Education standardization process by visiting ImmersiveEducation.org and sharing their virtual learning experiences with the group (be it with Second Life or any other virtual environments).

Lamont: Do schools really have the technology resources, staff expertise, and funding to get involved in Immersive Education?

Walsh: The vast majority don't, at least not today, which is why we're focused on making Immersive Education an open standard that's easy to use, well documented and free. But that alone won't do it; best practices and student-faculty ecosystems are necessary as well, and so are communities of support. The vast majority of educators simply don't have the time, funding, or expertise to create and use virtual learning environments today. This probably won't change, which is why it's necessary to eliminate the cost and reduce the complexity.

The syllabus for Walsh's Discovering 3D Graphics and Virtual Reality course can be found here. Feel free to leave comments or questions below.

Comments (15)

UO RIP? Not So Much

The demise of Ultima Online -- now nearing its tenth anniversary -- has been widely predicted, even here on Terra Nova over two years ago.  Multiple abortive attempts at revamping the game have been made within Electronic Arts (heck, I was on the second one and that was nearly five years ago).  It has long seemed to many industry watchers that UO would eventually ride off into the MMO sunset, carrying its still respectable playerbase with it. 

Well, apparently not.  UO is a Kingdom Reborn. Spiffy new 3D graphics, same top-down viewpoint.

So, apart from celebrating the refurbishing of this venerable title, what does this say about the useful lifespan of an MMO?  Clearly if a successful virtual world can last for even five years, much less ten, it's an amazing entertainment property from a business/investment perspective.  But from a gameplay and community perspective, is UO still viable for those who are not already die-hard fans? 

Can MMOs effectively live forever (with enough facelifts), or should they at some point gracefully retire? 

Comments (12)

MODs for MMOs for the Hearing Impaired

The other day, Samantha LeCraft posted a reply to one of my posts

Get involved in the WoW modding community. Learn how to create add-ons for WoW, and see if there are others within the existing WoW mod community who would be interested in collaborating on a mod. Personally, I would start with a mod that translates sounds from combat to directional visual cues, as that is something that isn't already included in WoW and is, from what I know, one of the few barriers to the deaf playing WoW (since nearly all communication in WoW is text based already). Don't bill it as a "special interest mod". Mention the applicability to deaf players, but also point out that it would be useful to hearing players who don't have headphones or a sound card, or who have to turn off their sound due to roommates or children, or even just for that added edge in combat. Once you've created the mod, put it up for download at a place that will show the number of times it's been downloaded. Then come back here and tell us of your progress. You never know, Blizzard might be listening.

This is an excellent suggestion, although one that requires quite a bit of people power. As of right now, we have only one member that has the experience with creating MODs for the hearing impaired: Reid Kimball who created an amazing MOD for Doom3 (yes, I realize that is not a MMO) that allowed for not only verbal closed captioning but also ambient sound closed captioning (it was also nominated for a MOD award at the IGF).

Reid tried the other day to post a suggestion on the WoW forums to try and see if there would be some support in helping him create a MOD for WoW but because he is not a player of WoW (and, therefore, does not pay for the online service), he was not allowed to post. We're writing Blizzard to see if they can make an exception in this case, as it makes the case that there are people WILLING to work on MODS or at least share their expertise that could make the game more enticing for those 3 million people in the United States alone who are unable to hear. But in the meantime I thought that I would introduce you to Reid as a resource for those interested in learning more about accessibility for the hearing impaired in MMOGs here at TN.

Reid also suggested a design exercise for MMO devs and users:

Play your favorite MMO one of two ways and report back their results. 1) with all sounds off for 10 minutes or 2) close their eyes for 10 minutes and listen to the sounds trying to recognize what they are hearing. I'm curious to know what they learn.

So there's your game accessibility summer homework assignment. :)

{Addendum from Reid: I spent zero money developing Doom3[CC]. It only took time on nights and weekends while I worked a full time job. It has been downloaded over 19,000 times since release. If I had charged $5 dollars for it I could have profited $95,000 dollars. That's a one year salary for a talented programmer in some parts of the US, who could make huge impacts at a company.}

Comments (21)

What? What do one button games have to do with MMOs?

So right now I'm mainly talking about gamers with mobility limitations (could include a whole range of things) but a lot of these controllers can help those with severe learning disabilities depending on the level of the game and the type of learning disability.

Yes. I am advertising a service but at the same time I'm letting you know about a resource called One Switch by London game enthusiast and SIG member, Barrie Ellis. Not only does he sell accessible gaming solutions in his shop, Barrie has helped the DIY (Do-It Yourself) hobbiest with a DIY page with detailed information and also a blog. But something you really need to look over is his excellent page on physical barriers in video gaming: problems and solutions.

But let's back up. I know. What's all this switch stuff? And why should anyone at TN care about it? I see it as a complement to sites like AbleGamers, places where gamers with mobility disabilities in particular can find out more about accessible gaming peripherals. Many people with mobility disabilities can type using assistive technologies and many more can have a friend remap controls to work with, for example, head gear that controls the cursor and button clicking. For those creating user created content in Second Life, creating a one-switch arcade might attract a large number of mobility disabled SL-ers.

To quote Barrie:

Inaccessible controllers and inaccessible games are the bane of many disabled peoples lives. Many games have too many buttons to remember, are too fast, and have very little help to offer the player at all. Many games won’t allow people to use their favourite controllers, nor change the layout of their controls in a useful way. These barriers cause frustration for many. Games a person might desperately want to play, frequently prove to be an unrewarding, uncomfortable, or impossible challenge in reality. Disabled people regularly facing these barriers are novice gamers, physically disabled gamers, learning disabled gamers and many children up to the age of eight." [Note: Michelle's note -- Club Penguin that Mike Sellers posted about at TN could be a gold mine for children with some disabilities as some switch gaming and motion sensor controllers could work well with such sites]

One-switch games have been the "great new discovery" by the mobile phone game folks as "one-button" games (because really...do you like playing mobile games that use even more than two or three buttons?). Imagine a time in which MMOGs find their way in some capacity (perhaps they do already) to mobile phones -- wouldn't an easier input design be a plus?

Barrie also has links to one-switch accessible games including the excellent Strange Attractors by Ominous Development that was awarded a nomination for Most Innovative by the Independent Games Festival at GDC 2006)

Eric Walker of Ominous Development has this to say about the idea of one switch meaning "easy":

"Strange Attractors was created for a 'One Switch' competition. Just because the only button used by the game is the space bar (and Esc to exit) doesn't mean the gameplay isn't complex and unique. Remember, not everything that is simple is easy!

By pressing the spacebar, you activate the gravity drive of your craft and create an attractive force between yourself and the other objects in the game. Your goal is to sling and bounce yourself from the bottom of the level through the portal at the top.

I have never personally seen anyone play this game and not laugh out loud."

Word on the street? Strange Attractors 2 is on the way!

Comments (3)

Welcome to AbleGamers

In an effort to increase the face value of my game accessibility posts for the MMOG community, I've asked for some additional assistance from the game accessibility community and was reminded of AbleGamers, a fairly new site run by Mark Barlet,  a Disabled Veteran and avid gamer, primarily as a host for reviews of the accessibility of MMOGs.

Mark includes accessibility reviews of several MMOGs -- more are coming. I'm trying to get him access to a few for review purposes. But for now, we have these:

There's also an interesting editorial on some recent efforts by Blizzard that incidentally closed off accessibility for many gamers with mobility disabilities called Wanted Adventurers: Disabled Need Not Apply and talks about a decision from Blizzard to disable the ability for gamers to use  "add on features" that many mobility impaired gamers needed to play. And the disturbance to a community of gamers who now find them locked out of the game that had originally provided them with the ability -- through community created add ons -- to access the game. I have no news as to whether this feature has been added back but I've been told that it hasn't (please correct me if I'm wrong!)

A few of us took a TN commenters suggestion of going to the WoW forums to see if we can find people interested in joining us in an accessible mod. The trouble is...none of us have accounts because we don't play WoW so we couldn't even post the request on the forum. Sure, I understand that they want to have a community for, well, the community of players. But what about the community of would be gamers that are a little leery of spending money for the game and then then monthly fees only to find out that they can't do anything? Perhaps we've missed something and there is a forum for people who would play but can't to post -- anyone around here know about a back door somewhere?

Comments (3)

Must See PVP

I've never been a sports nut.  But last week, as I found myself obsessing over frame-captured video of the World of Warcraft Arena semifinals, I realized -- MMORPGs may plausibly give us the basis for the next set of semi-participatory sports.  Here's an example of two top-level players going toe-to-toe (I've skipped most of the videos because they are grainy and accompanied by very angry music.)  Let me explain.

My basic thought is that we watch what we play.  And if one tenet of this community is that people are playing interesting new games, we might see a shift in what we watch.

That said, what really drove the point home was my own interest in watching "sports."  I've never had the slightest interest in watching other people play games.  It seemed odd -- why watch, if you're not playing?  And yet I find myself watching these grainy, music-wracked clips with enormous interest, straining my eyes for pointers, watching how they move (mouselook? WASD?), watching the combinations, the keyboard setups, you name it.

I think that Blizzard is not unaware of this, and is attempting to turn Arena into something with a heavy footprint beyond the bounds of the game.  Can't play? Tune in to the EU qualifying round, courtesy of Art of War.  And, according to Ming, the upcoming World Finals between Grammar Police and The Fighting Mongooses will be must-see-PVP.

Comments (17)

There's Gold in them thar... Penguins

Clubpenguin Club Penguin is, as you probably (or really should) know by now, a great example of a true second-generation MMOG.   It's cute, cuddly, great for kids, and plays right in the browser (no dynamically mapped shadows in sight).  It uses a combination of free play, subscription ($6/month), and item-based sales to generate revenue.  Oh and there's no download, no retail, no spattered blood, blue elves, or female cat things overflowing their strangely armored bustiers. 

Supposedly, New Horizon Interactive, the company that developed and runs Club Penguin from sunny Kelowna, BC, Canada, has turned down investment funding thus far -- with their approximately 50% gross margin, they just don't need the money.  And, according to Paid Content, the company spurned an acquisition offer by News Corp for $200M.  According to that site, they're now being courted by none other than Sony for (reportedly) $450M. 

That's a lot of penguins.   

As PaidContent points out, $450M is about 7.5x CP's projected 2007 revenues of $60M, so it's not a stratospheric price from that point of view.  But, if this is at all accurate, it's a clear indication that the true commercial legitimacy and monetary value of MMOGs and virtual worlds -- those that make money anyway -- is beginning to be understood. 

What does this mean for the future of MMOGs?  Are behemoth 3D role-playing games going the way of the brontosaurus or is Club Penguin itself an anomaly? 

Personally, I think it's extremely heartening to see a game like this so clearly rewarded.  The market is changing, and this is primary evidence for it:  The audience demographic is broadening; the gameplay is breaking out of "kill monster, get gold;" graphics are moving beyond ponderous if ever-more realistic 3D; and development methods are finally moving beyond mis-applied rough extensions of what's (sort of) worked in single-player games.   I don't think mainline/first-generation MMOGs are dead, but I do think this sort of value-recognition in Club Penguin is more of a bellwether than an anomaly.   The dinosaurs aren't gone, but the small mammals (or well-dressed flightless birds, as the case may be) are starting to claim their due.

Comments (7)

Teaching in Second Life: One instructor's perspective

Earlier this month on Terra Nova, a thread started by Aaron Delwiche discussed aspects of teaching and learning in Second Life. He is not the only academic who has realized the potential of Second Life to serve as a platform for instruction. The virtual world is already being used at 125 colleges, universities, and schools worldwide, according to the Second Life Educators Wiki (thanks to Barbara Z. Johnson for the link).

Rebecca_nesson_2007 The thread and the wiki prompted me to look at how Second Life is being used at the Harvard Extension School, where I am currently a graduate student. In 2006, the Extension School and the Harvard Law School launched CyberOne: Law in the Court of Public Opinion. This course in "persuasive, empathic argument in the Internet space" included weekly sessions and assignments in Second Life. I did not participate in the class, but had wondered about the virtual classroom experience, which I believe was the first of its kind at Harvard. Last Friday (May 11, 2007) I was able to interview Rebecca Nesson, one of the course instructors for CyberOne, to find out more about the challenges, tools, and interactions she observed while teaching in SL. I transcribed the entire interview, but in this Terra Nova post, I am only including the sections that relate specifically to teaching in Second Life (the full unedited interview, which also includes several Harvard-specific questions and answers, is available here).

It was interesting to see how she led the classroom sessions, and handled some of the challenges that arose using the SL interface. The CyberOne experiment was apparently successful -- in the spring 2007 semester, the Berkman Center and the Extension School held another class in Second Life, Internet and Society: Technologies and Politics of Control, and this fall Nesson will teach Virtual Worlds at the Extension School.

Without further ado, here are the questions I asked, and Nesson's answers. I have included a brief version of Nesson's bio at the end of the post. Feel free to add your own observations about teaching/learning in Second Life (or other virtual worlds) to the comments.

Ian Lamont: Aside from [connectivity] issues, what was the feedback [you heard] from people about the Second Life interface?

Rebecca Nesson: Overall it was very positive. I would say that there was a definite arc to it. At the beginning, there was a certain amount of Second Life culture shock, where people try to get acclimated about how to use the interface. The first impression that a lot of people had about it was that it was a very chaotic environment in which to have a class discussion because everyone talks at once and there's no threading in the discussions. When you read the transcripts of the discussions, they can seem fairly disjointed and that felt a little disorienting to people right at the beginning.

We all got used to it over the course of the semester, and also got much better at it. One of the things that we brought to the class with us are years of built-up experience of how one is supposed to act in a class as a student and an instructor. And a lot of those norms — like, raising your hand and waiting for someone to stop speaking before you begin speaking — they just dont make sense in the Second Life environment because it would just take way too long to have a discussion.

And as a result we were basically faced with the challenge of having to develop a whole new set of classroom norms that worked in this environment. Once we got that going, everyone got much more comfortable with the environment. By the end of the semester, people were really enjoying it.

There were some people who had a much easier time expressing themselves in the Second Life environment, than in the more formal writing [assignments] and turning it in on our courseware website. So for those people, it really opened up the distance education experience to have this other method of being able to express themselves and interact with the instructor and other students.

And there were some students on the other side of things who were very comfortable writing traditional response papers and had a harder time in the spontaneous, more interactive discussions that we were having in the classroom environment in Second Life. So all in all, that's a major improvement. I would prefer for my classes to be available to a wider range of learning and styles of expression.

Lamont: You just said that some people found it easier to interact in Second Life. Why do you suppose that is? Does it relate to their personalities, or the fact that they're used to typing IMs?

Nesson: Let me be clear. I don't necessarily mean it would be easier for them than acting in real life. This is just opposed to them acting in their normal way in a distance education class, interacting mainly through a website and through email with their instructors.

I think that the Second Life had quite a lot of advantages for people. One of the main things is that Second Life really allowed us to create a sense of class community — something that develops fairly naturally in a face-to-face class. So students appeared at class and had that chance to meet each other, something that rarely, if ever, happens in distance education classes [using] previous technologies. And that helped keep students engaged in the class.

And having a physical representation of their "selves" through their avatars, whether it looked like them or looked like something completely different, was quite important in having them establish relationships with each other. Because it gave people a way to express something of their personality that wasn't necessarily directly related to what we were doing in the class. And it just was the icebreaker for people beginning to relate to each other and make comments about somebody's cool dress or something like that and get a little conversation going.

So having the class have a sense of a community, and being a little bit social for most students really adds to the experience. It certainly added to the experience for me. I think that probably helped to draw in some students.

Also, we tend to think of Second Life as a less expressive environment than face-to-face environments because at the moment we don't have the ability to easily do gestures and facial expressions or even to really direct our gaze really well.

It does in other senses offer people a wider range of ways that they can express themselves, and that was something I was excited about. Early on, when I was writing on the blog, just finding that some students just really seemed to take to the creative aspects of the environment and really try to use the unrestrained environment and really try to violate the laws of physics as part of their way of existing in the world, and it just gave them a range of expression that doesn't really exist when you are typing out a response paper and turning it in.

Lamont: What surprised you in terms of the creative aspects and the things that they did in the classroom sessions?

Nesson: I guess what surprised me was that I had sort of a typical narrow view of what Second Life was going to be like. I was thinking of it as a big improvement over a chatroom but I hadn't really considered as something that had potentials that really went beyond what I had experienced with other technologies. I think that it's not until you spend some time in there that you start to get a sense of the way in which it's different, because it's kind of hard to pinpoint, to put into words, what exactly is making the difference.

So I would say the biggest surprise for me wasn't the way that some people were expressing themselves, but the experience of all of us running our classes in a text-based environment. I expected that to be only a hindrance, and at the beginning it did seem like a hindrance, it seemed a little chaotic, and it was something that we had to get used to. But as we progressed in the class, it became clear that running the class in a text-based environment has a whole lot of advantages over the face-to-face environment that I just hadn't anticipated.

The first one that was really striking, was that in all my years of teaching classes, there are always some students in the class who are very hard to get to speak up. You can ask them a direct question, but basically, unless they are put on the spot, these students will not volunteer their own opinions in class, and I think that there are various reasons why people are reticent and don't want to do that. Sometimes I think people are shy and don't want to be put on the spot — all the conversation stops, and everyone turns to look at them. In some cases, students for whom English is not their first language, it really can be an intimidating thing to have to extemporaneously put together English sentences like that in a classroom environment.

In Second Life, that problem of students not participating in class discussions just totally disappeared. And when I thought about it, these reasons, these challenges of speaking up in a regular class went away in this environment. In Second Life, when you want to contribute something to the class discussion, you just go ahead and start typing it in your chat box, and nobody turns to look at you, even if they do notice that your avatar is doing the typing motions, they are not actually looking at you, it's just your avatar, and your avatar is not doing anything embarrassing. When you are ready to enter your comment into the conversation, you just hit enter. And it doesn't have that moment where everybody stops and looks at you. Your comment just goes right into the conversation, along with everybody else's. So i think a lot of the anxiety that goes along with the public-speaking aspect of participating in class discussions, is just removed in this environment.

On the flip side, we didn't have any trouble with students who dominate the discussion. There's always been the phenomenon of the student who ends every sentence with a conjunction in order to not stop their comment, and you can do that as much as you like in Second Life, and it doesn't stop anybody else from participating in the discussions. What's nice about that is very frequently people who usually speak a lot in class have a lot of very good things to contribute, and it's hard as a teacher to shut somebody down in order to make space for other students, especially if you do feel that you want to be encouraging of their interest and enthusiasm. And this just takes away that problem as well.

So for me the idea that I would actually end up almost preferring to run a class in a text-based environment to a voice-based environment, that was a huge surprise.

Lamont: In Second Life, or a virtual world, or any chat environment, don't you have students who are really stepping over each other, and it's impossible to sort out all the questions that really need to be answered?

Nesson: Well, it turns out that that was not a problem, and I think there are a few reasons for this. First of all, over the course of the semester, I developed some skill at moderating this type of group discussion in this type of environment. Basically, what happens is you have a few different threads of discussion that start, and the job of a teacher or discussion moderator becomes continually trying to weave the threads together, so that you don't end up with a discussion that's too fragmented. Because if it's too fragmented, it's as you described — it's just a bunch of disconnected things going on.

But you also have some help as a moderator, from just the natural effect of trying to participate in one of these discussions. If there's a lot going on, you have to put a fair amount of energy into reading the discussions and sorting out what's happening. So even if there are a lot of people, it's not that easy for everyone to be adding some totally different thing all at once. People sort of tend to stay on one topic or another, especially if the moderator is doing her job well.

But that said, we definitely did break the class up into smaller groups for discussions fairly frequently for exactly this reason — just like with any discussion, it's just much more effective if you have it with smaller groups.

Now that Linden Lab has open sourced the viewer for Second Life, there are quite a few possibilities open to make this management task easier. Right now when you chat in Second Life, everything just goes into an undifferentiated chat history. But it would be possible to add some simple threading technology to help identify different threads in the discussion and make it easier to follow. Perhaps even some moderation tools that would let the moderator modify what was going on in the discussion in some reasonable way. I am not exactly sure what that would look like.

Lamont: In virtual reality classroom environments, what's your perspective on grading and evaluating students?

Nesson: It's really no different than in a regular face-to-face class. For CyberOne, we obviously had to know the real-life identities of the students who were in our class, in order to grade them. For some people, who wanted to keep their other avatars anoymous, they created a new avatar to take our class. From my perspective, I expect that it is the actual student who is operating their own avatar, and I grade them just as I would in another environment.

Lamont: What types of tools would help you be a better educator? If you could magically create or program some tools or objects or something in Second Life that would help you teach, what would they be?

Nesson: I'll tell you what we used that were really great. We had a video screen which was wonderful and also streaming audio, which was great. If you want to use any lecture-type material in Second Life, those are total must-haves.

Then we aslso used a basic slide projector, which is similar to having PowerPoint, and that obviously can be useful. I didn't use it all that much.

One thing were using right now in the Internet and Society course which I am not teaching, but other people at the Berkman Center are teaching, is something called the Question Tool, which is a great tool that the Berkman Center has developed. How their class works is that it's webcast live into our classroom in Second Life. So students who are taking the class from a distance can attend the class in real time and watch it and they can sit with the other students in Second Life.

And the way that they can participate in the class is through the Question Tool. How it works is that anybody who wants to can post a question on the Question Tool, or they can vote on somebody else's question. And the Question Tool organizes the questions from the top of the page to the bottom of the page, in order of popularity [depending on] how many votes they've gotten, so the professor then has access to this list of questions or comments coming from the student audience that's sorted in a way that's actually meaningful in terms of their level of relevance and interest to the students in the class.

One of the things that's really cool about it for the Internet and Society class is that students who are physically in the classroom at Harvard Law School and the students who are in Second Life are using the same instances of the Question Tool so that they're interacting directly with each other through that. So that is one great tool, and it's not actually in Second Life, in the sense that you do everyithing in Second Life. Right now, we just have it set up so that there's an object you click in Second Life and it takes you to the Web page, which is the interface for the Question Tool.

The main thing that doesn't exist in Second Life and I can't for the life of me figure out how one could program, is something that's more like a blackboard. A free-form writing tool is something that I would really love to have. As a person who studies Computer Science, I am frequently wanting to draw all kinds of diagrams on a board if I am teaching students about Computer Science, and there's really no way to do that in Second Life. So you have to simulate doing everything you want to do like that, using slides, and the problem with that is when a question comes up, and you need to give an example that isn't already on your slides, there's not really any good way to do that in Second Life right now.

The full, unedited version of the interview, which includes four or five additional questions and answers, is available here.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, Nesson will be the instructor for Virtual Worlds, scheduled for the Fall 2007 semester at the Harvard Extension School. Nesson is currently a candidate for a Ph.D. in Computer Science at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, where she studies computational linguistics and conducts research in the area of synchronous grammar formalisms and applications to computational semantics and machine translation. Nesson is also a 2001 graduate of the Harvard Law School and an affiliate of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society.


Ian Lamont's Terra Nova interview with Boston College instructor Aaron Walsh: Virtual reality and higher education: Another perspective

Comments (6)

Bringing Sexy Back

What if you held a party but no one showed? Or...the problem with the word "accessibility."

It's been so great to see so many responses to my posts on game accessibility so far! So I have a question for the readership -- "accessibility" is a non-sexy word and for years the IGDA Game Accessibility SIG has tried to reach out to the industry in so many ways...but slap that word "accessibility" on to the title of the session...and we end up with the same people in the audience -- the choir. And so we want to get the word out on the street. We have solutions, even some VERY easy solutions that can be put into game designs without much trouble.

This year at GDC 2007 I had the honor of working with some top notch designers -- Ernest Adams, Sheri Grander Ray, Brenda Brathwaite, Noah Falstein, and Ellen Beeman -- at a session called "Accessibility Idol." They were each challenged with designing a game assuming their entire audience was mobility impaired. The idea of this first came up at GDC 2006 (where we had our usual couple people in the audience) we'd thought that one way to increase our visibility was to get some well known designers behind our mission.

Well, things don't always go the way we envision them to and we had a lot of things going against us when we ran the session at GDC 2007 (a two hour time slot with the second hour competing against Raph Koster and others), the GDC flu that caused people to go to hospital, etc). But we'd hoped that we'd have more people at least initially in the session to see what these industry vets would come up with (they could have run out the door once they realized what we were doing but they weren't there to begin with). So what gives?

A similar thing happened to us at our session to the Serious Games folks -- the choir was back again, the choir that knows about the US 508 laws that require media used in government offices and in the classroom be accessible (psst...people using SL in your classes...what is a "reasonable accommodation" that would give someone access to your virtual classroom? The ADA also requires that we make the physical buildings we hold our classes in accessible...why not the virtual buildings?). Now there's nothing wrong with having the support of the choir -- we're glad to have them! But we also want new faces. Because the choir already knows what we're going to say and the choir is also frustrated that major game companies don't send a single employee to come to one of our sessions and learn about how to implement, hell, closed captioning! Ernest Adams, who has really started to rally for more attention to accessibility in the industry, was extremely shocked by this after being our sole attendee at a session at a conference a year back.

Back to the matter of Accessibility Idol (whee...yes, I like to jump around when I blog)...Brenda Brathwaite is not one to mince words and she said to me "Honestly? If you called the session 'flaming pile of shit: don't come' I really believe you would have had a big and very curious audience." I remarked back: "That...and locking them in the room." Well, I probably won't go to that extreme when we put in our GDC 2008 proposals but we do need something sexier, something that gets people in the room whether they like it or not. :) Some have suggested that we exclude the word altogether and call ourselves "games for all" and demonstrate how accessibility features can also be usability solutions (which we do try to do as often as we can). This is tricky territory and also has the potential to lose the original message that gamers with disabilities are out there and these are the amazing things that they need to do and are WILLING to do to play your game. THESE are your die hard gamers.

Interestingly...the Entertainment for All (E for All) Expo -- the so-called new E3 -- has been remarkably (markedly?) silent to date when I've emailed them numerous times about the possibility of showcasing accessible games, controllers, advise at E for All -- all the things that companies seem to want to know about and learn from but the "All" in their expo title seems to be a bit of a farce.

Hello ESA? Ground Control to Major Tom? Worldwide, the number of disabled people is twice that of the population of the United States. Adding to that...gamers are aging (yes...age brings about lessened abilities), disabled gamers are playing (see tomorrow's blog post about that), and there are some die hard disabled gamers who will spend MORE on the cost of an accessible controller than the price of most consoles and a couple of games. "All" should mean..."All." If not, then just call it "Entertainment for Some." Or "Giant Media Event That's Pretty Much Just Like The Old E3." Because that's what you really mean.

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Accessible Sex in Games

As I was reading the comments on the allegations of rape in Second Life, I started thinking about sex in games in general. Recently on the Game Accessibility listserv, Richard Van Tol from AudioGames.net (amongst other affiliations) brought up this news story about an accessible porn website for those with visual and hearing impairments (pornography that includes closed captioning and audio descriptions).

But there's always a darker side, isn't there? Richard also pointed out another recent news item about a blind South African man who is facing prosecution for "listening" to child pornography. If convicted, he would be the first person in the world to be charged for accessing child pornography on the Internet without being able to access it visually.

Both Richard and his colleague Sander Huiberts have given a lot of thought on the issue of audio games, particularly audio games designed for the blind (see also Drive  and Demor, which they developed or helped develop -- I encourage you to check out those games, by the way). But getting back to the main point of Richard's original post was censorship in games -- specifically, what do terms like "blood and gore, intense violence, and nudity" (a la the ESRB Ratings) mean when we are talking about a game without any visuals -- only audio.

So I went straight to the expert on sex and games, Brenda Brathwaite, who had this to say:

"...there's no clear cut dividing line when it comes to stuff like this. Due to the way that games are rated (a panel of three individuals, each with some training in ratings and experience with children), the individuals try to reach consensus on a rating based what they're reviewing and the context in which it appears. So, it's not strictly limited to visuals. Lyrics in songs have affected ratings. A game in which a woman moaned in the dark (i.e. a black screen) would still be sexual content."

It seems that, yes, audio cues are also included in the rating system so an audio game with explicit sexual themes that went commercial would probably have a hard time getting away with anything less than an "M" (Mature) rating, if it didn't automatically get the "AO" (Adults Only) rating. And I don't think it takes very much sexual content to cross over to AO -- as Rockstar Games found out when their GTA "mod" was unveiled a while back.

The majority of game companies fight hard to avoid the AO rating so that they don't find their games banned from the Walmarts of the world. The industry cries "censorship!" each time a game is about to cross that line. At the same time, I've (unfortunately) been asked this very annoying question over and over about game accessibility: But isn't it GOOD that most games are not accessible so that we can protect those with disabilities from the sex and violence in games?

Sigh. So while my group fights an industry that hears "game accessibility" as a form of censorship or control over or "dumbing down" (not my words) a game, there's a whole other group of people who agree for completely different reasons that companies should not make their games accessible. How can an industry that (in US terms at least) stands behind freedom of speech while at same time stands firmly inaccessible? What good is freedom of speech without an audience? What good is freedom of speech without giving ALL people the freedom of CHOOSING whether or not they wish to participate in your message?

These are tricky times, my friends.

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April Showers Bring...May Finals?

I've realized that May was not the best month to guest blog, especially when I had about 100 students and their final projects to grade. But that's all over now and I apologize for the gap in my posts and will now try to overload you with information about game accessibility for the remainder of the month! Stay tuned!

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Early Bird Registration for Ludium II Ends Today

Register at https://www.indiana.edu/~swi/reg/

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The Dark Side of User-Created Content

Everyone loves user-created content in virtual worlds. It’s the flavor of the month and a key feature in several new and upcoming worlds. It’s arguably what has made Second Life so popular. Linden Labs has estimated  that it has the equivalent of 5100 full-time content creators working for it on content, all for free! How can that be a bad thing?

Some friends and I were talking about this recently, and the question came to me: if everyone loves user-created content and SL is so popular, why do so many people complain of the place feeling so lonely?

The answer: it’s the content, stupid. 

Here’s the deal: according to a recent Information Week article, Second Life has about 34 terabytes of user-created content in it – houses, clothes, hair, and tons of other stuff. That’s a huge number, but by current storage standards not really that big of a deal: if you spread that out over everyone who has ever signed up, it’s only 5.4Mb per user. Looking at SL’s recent 30/60 day login numbers, that’s still only 20-30Mb per active user. And looking at this a slightly different (and probably more relevant) way, if only 5% of everyone who’s ever signed up for SL has contributed content, that would average out to about 11Mb per person.

A more relevant number in considering the complaints of emptiness is SL’s concurrent usage. These numbers seem to vary between 25K-35K; call it 34K on the high side to make the math easy. This means that given the amount of user-created data, for every concurrent user there’s about a gigabyte of content available.

You can think of this as a sort of virtual population density. Simple ‘space’ in a virtual world doesn’t necessarily matter, but amount of data-per-user does. Too little data and people have nowhere to go and little to see; too much data per user and the world becomes too large for people to effectively find each other.

To put this in perspective, World of Warcraft has a max server population of around 3000 people, operating on about 10Gb of data – a density of about 1 person per 3.3Mb (0.0033Gb), or 300x the density in SL. SL has a concurrent population (“per server” equals 1, since SL is all in one world) of about 12x that of WoW – but the world size measured in data is about 3400x!

In other words, the average population density in SL is like playing in a world the size of WoW’s Azeroth – but containing only nine other people. Clearly, this raises all sorts of issues regarding finding others and building community.

Now here’s the twist: SL is growing fast, as they continue to highlight on their site and in their PR. More people are, presumably, creating new content all the time – that “virtual staff” of 5100 full-time content creators chugging away all the time. And it is fast exceeding, or has already exceeded, the number of people actually available to use the content as it’s created. More and more empty houses and castles and the like are lovingly constructed as monuments that few will ever see, and each becomes another wall between users, diluting their presence more and more.

It seems unlikely that the pace at which content is created by users will decrease. And, given that none of the old content goes away, this means that the content-per-user ratio progressively (and non-linearly) worsens. As this continues the world becomes larger and larger, and somewhat paradoxically, seemingly more and more empty.  This is the “500 channels and nothing on” or “ten million blogs and nothing to read” problem writ ever larger as the new content flows in faster than there are people there to interact with it.

One final issue is that if your world relies on user-created content there’s no way to throttle that content for performance. In many virtual worlds its possible to get a hundred or more people together in the same place, which creates great dynamics for chatting, trading, fighting, etc. In SL, it’s all but impossible to get more than a dozen or so people together unless they start doing things like “taking off their hair” – that is, disabling their more intricate user-created content. What this means is that even if people do manage to find each other, the unbounded complexity of user-created data puts a low ceiling on the number of people who can get together, and thus limits the social dynamics that can emerge.

The upshot is that worlds that depend on user-created content a) suffer from progressively worse dilution of the user population; and b) limit the number of people who can get together when they do find each other. This is not a strong recipe for building effective, long-lasting community.

Okay, so let’s back off of SL in particular: this is an issue for anyone who hangs their success on user-created content, as many appear to be doing now. The question becomes, how do you give your users the ability to create whatever they want without those creations diluting and limiting the population density, thereby reducing the opportunity for the experience of community that brings people back? How do you prevent users’ self-expression from being the thing that turns your world into a socially empty and uninviting wasteland?

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Selective bombing of RMT in Korea

On wednesday in S. Korea, the RMTing of the game money,  game items in Poker-like MOGs and the RMTing of game money, game items produced by the illegal way of copying, adaptating, hacking or abnomal game-play in MMOGs are banned by the Game Industry Promotion Act.

The word 'abnormal play' is surely relating to some workshops whrere BOT programs facilitated.

Meanwhile, in the sphere of MMOGs, RMTing of game money etc earned by normal play remains out of govermental regulation(except the possibility of taxing). So there are worries about how to distingush between normal and abnormal one. I humbly think the underlined object of those articles is not to suppress illegal workshop overseas directly but to check/prevent native intermediaries from connecting with the workshops.

Belows is former TN post with reference to the act.


And here are the extract of the act that I translated personaly & informally.

*Game Industry Promotion Act

<Article 32:  Prohibition of illegal circulation>

① No one should not do behaviors that disturb the game-work circulation order listed as follows.

#1~6 (abbreviation)

#7. do business for exchanging or mediating exchanges of, and repurchasing outcomes that be obtained through playing games. The 'outcomes' mentioned include points, freebies, game money(used as virtual currency in games ) that circumscribed by implementing decree of this law, and the likes that discribed by the decree.

<Article 44:  Punishment>

Any person who has committed an act falling under the provisions of subparagraphs 1, 4 or 7 of paragraph ① of Article 32 shall be sentenced to imprisonment for not more than five years, or fine not exceeding fifty million won.

**The Implementing Decree of the Game Industry Promotion Act

<Article 18-3: game money etc>

The game money that circumscribed by implementing decree of this law, and the likes that described by the decree means any of those listed as follows.

#1.  when playing a game, a game money that functions as instrumnent of betting or allocating, or that is obtained by contingent methods.

#2. a game money or data like game item(in games, used as instrument for game progressing)that was used as the replacement of or swap for the game money listed #1.

#3. a game money or data like game item that is obtained by illegal copying, adaptating, and hacking the game program or that is gained through abnomal game-play.

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MMO Voice paper out

HcreWe had some pretty lively discussions on the VoIP issue, in which I alluded to a paper that was under review. It's now through the peer review process and in press, so is both public and vetted.

This journal (Human Communication Research) does not allow electronic posting for 12 months. If your library has a subscription, you can get the article in a few months. Yet they do allow me to email copies on request. So, if anyone wants a pre-press copy, you can email me at dcwill THE-AT-SIGN uiuc.edu

The abstract:

This paper reports the results of a controlled field experiment in which voice communication was introduced into an existing online community (an online gaming guild within the popular game “World of Warcraft”), comparing a mix of voice and text with text only. Quantitative results suggest increases in liking and trust due to the addition of voice, as well as insulation from unexpected negative impacts of text-only play. The findings are discussed with respect to social capital, cyberbalkanization and the general computer-mediated communication literature, with special attention paid to SIP theory.

For those unfamiliar with a pre-press copy, note that the figures are at the end of the file.

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State of the Field 2007: Graduate School Edition

So, within the space of a week, I got three queries from undergraduates who want to study synthetic worlds and video games as graduate students, from a humanistic or social-scientific perspective. I'm fielding more and more of these kinds of questions as time goes by, which I think is only a little bit about undergraduates knowing that I'm interested in this field and more about rising numbers of future academics wanting to study in the field.

So I'm keen to survey TN readers: what would you recommend?

My basic starting position is that whatever interdisciplinary program a potential Ph.D candidate might choose, they must also develop a convincing disciplinary profile if they have any interest at all in remaining in academia. There are very few junior-level jobs advertised for "interdisciplinary scholars specializing in interactive media, video games and synthetic worlds".

So right off the bat, I think that means you have to go to a place where you can also work with mainstream disciplinary scholars in disciplines like: cultural anthropology, communications, cultural studies, literary criticism, film and media studies, education studies. 

This is all for doctoral candidates who want to study games rather than make them  (though there are people who do both).

Appearing as a legitimately "disciplinary" person in one of those fields might stretch one pretty far away from the most intellectually interesting and methodologically useful ways of studying synthetic worlds and video games, mind you. For example, as a graduate student in your average cultural anthropology program, you'd already have one strike against you for not going off to a materially challenging fieldsite and another strike against you for trafficking in media and cultural studies. So you'd have to find a place where there are advisors who are enthusiastic about bridging those worlds not just while you're studying, but who are able to frame what you do for the wider discipline in their reference letters in a way that makes it acceptably "normal".

Beyond that, when I'm advising undergraduates about graduate study in any field or discipline, I tend to say that they need to look for programs that have strong institutional backing, a critical mass of faculty,  a couple of faculty who are generous advisors, and least important, a generic reputation for excellence across disciplines. So there are people who I think are just fantastic in this field as advisors, but where they're relatively isolated for the moment. It helps a lot for a graduate student to have at least two or three direct advisors or mentors and for there to be a wider institutional world they can draw upon.

All of this being said, the institutions that come to my mind most readily in the United States include the following:

Georgia Tech
Carnegie Mellon
University of Pennsylvania

I think at least some of these would involve study in programs that aren't centrally known for work on video games or synthetic worlds but where my reading of the faculty and programs there suggests that a student who wanted to do that kind of work would be enthusiastically supported.

There are institutions outside of the US that would be as strong or stronger than any of these programs: the Center for Computer Games Research at Copenhagen, a number of British universities, some Australian institutions, but a lot of the students I advise feel pretty strongly about wanting to stay in the US for graduate study.

So what am I missing from this list? (This is largely my reason for the post: I feel like my sense of the on-the-ground resources in the field is pretty scattershot.)

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3D media in 3D worlds

One of the 3D characters from Dire Straits 1985 music video There was a watershed moment in the history of Western pop culture in 1985. That year, Dire Straits released a music video ("Money For Nothing") that was partially made with 3D, computer-generated imagery. There was a big buzz around this; I remember friends remarking about the "high-tech" appearance of the 3D characters, even though the animation looks primitive now.

Fast-forward 10 years. Toy Story became the first Hollywood film to be made entirely in 3D. The animation was far more sophisticated than the Dire Straits video, but there was still buzz about the fact that Toy Story was made using 3D animation. In the August 31, 1995, issue of The Guardian, Bob Swain called Toy Story "the first totally new movie experience of the digital age."


Now 3D animation is a staple of television and film. The inset image is a photograph my daughter took of one her favorite DVD programs, an episode of a Korean TV series dubbed into Mandarin called Pororo, the Little Penguin. She doesn't know how it was made. Nor does she make any distinction with other favorites produced using traditional animation, such as Bambi, or live-action television, such as Barney. She simply likes what she sees.

I mention these examples to illustrate the shift in popular views of 3D animation. This technology was once remarkable. It is now so common that it is taken for granted. Hollywood movies, kids' programming on television, and even advertisements are the most conspicuous examples, but these may soon be joined by a crop of next-generation 3D media formats that are being developed by academic labs, hobbyists, and a few adventurous media companies.  Examples include Video Mods, NewsAtSeven, and Machinima. I recently wrote an essay about these and other emerging media technologies, "Meeting the Second Wave: How Technology, Demographics, and Usage Trends Will Drive the Next Generation of Media Evolution," but what I am interested in discussing with the Terra Nova community is how these formats, programs, and characters might be integrated with virtual world experiences.

We know that people make friends, form teams, and respond to pitches for products and services within virtual worlds, paralleling experiences in the real world. Is it reasonable to assume that other real-world communications habits -- such as listening to, watching, or interacting with mass media -- will be transferred to virtual spaces in the years to come? If so, what 3D formats will be able to gain traction, and how will the personalization options and creative freedoms available in virtual worlds lead to new formats and usage patterns? In Second Life, there have been some very creative marketing experiments using interactive 3D buildings and objects. But why don't we see Pororo, Buzz Lightyear, the cast of Red vs. Blue, and other 3D "stars" in Second Life or other virtual worlds?

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KidSpace Stamp

The virtual world industry should create a set of best practice standards for the operation of spaces for the under 18s.

It should further certify those operators that meet them thus raising the overall level of safety in online spaces and reducing confusion in the market place.

A couple of the comments I got on my ‘The winner might be’ thread combined with a few off-blog conversations I’ve had and a some presentations I’ve seen recently suggests to me that there is a fair amount of tension related to how virtual worlds for under 18s are managed.

Two things I can mention publicly are Dave Ricky (of Orbis Games) comment on the previous thread “until very recently [Linden Lab’s] procedure for keeping out children was less than a joke ,,,we're one of the few game operators that is *really* COPPA compliant”; and just about every presentation by Dr Jim Bower of Numedeon who given any opportunity talks about the safety measures taken in Whyville.

Of course no protection scheme is perfect, indeed some might be actively harmful and act to the detriment of kids; what’s more any scheme of certification has the potential to be so watered down and industry-back-patting that it’s rendered worse than meaningless leading people into a false sense of security.

But the possibly of doing something badly is not, in and of itself, a conclusive argument for not trying to do it at all.

It seems to me that right now the industry is small enough for meaningful operational standards to be promulgated and for some sort of association and publicly recognizable mark to be created.

Size I think is important as one of the challenges here is the international nature of these spaces. Dave mentioned COPA, fine, but that’s a US thing, I’m not in the US, I’m not sure if it would meet the guidelines put out by the UK government or which are better. If I were a parent I would want to know whether my countries guidelines were being followed or if there were some international standard that they all complied with. So if nothing else such an organization could help with international guideline education. 

There would be problems if one or more high profile world failed to meet the standard and arguments ensued – but would this be a bad thing, a bit of industry mud slinging around online safety does not seem the worse thing in the world to me.

I’m sure there are a zillion practical reasons why this is a dumb idea – feel free to point them out.

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Building the Beast

One of the central features of the public securities market is that it forces the disclosure of all manner of information that otherwise would be commercial-in-confidence that would never become public. David Grundy alerted us to the recent prospectus by Interplay which details the financials for the development of the MMO version of Fallout.

The headliner is the cost structure for developing and publishing a high-end MMO, for a total cost of US$75M. A few interesting aspects of this...

My fave aspect though is the use of Bruce Sterling's mmorpgchart as part of the presentation since we all know how difficult it is to get accurate numbers about subscribers in this space.

Interesting stuff.

Oh, and for those who really want to dig into the financials of Interplay, all of their SEC filings are available here.

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And the winner might be

Age play

At the start of the year I suggested there might be a backlash against Second Life and listed a number of potential themes that this might take (Countdown to SL Backlash) . Just to remind readers I noted that neither the backlash nor the hype was deserved or a direct result of the actions of Linden Lab but more a phenomena of the media.

What I suggested we might see is: “,,, 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,,,” and I went on to say in conjunction with something highly negative and listed a range of alternatives that the TN readers added to. These included:

Currently google news is listing 27 stories relating Second Life to child sex. Sources include the BBC and several respectable UK news papers (UK news loves child porn as Brass Eye ‘exposed’ a number of years ago).

As the BBC says: “The investigation follows a report by a German TV news programme which uncovered the trading group and members who pay for sex with virtual children.”

wadayoumean ‘uncovered’. Everyone who knows SL has known about Age Play in SL since it pretty much started. So as I say, this really is to do with the media’s perception of SL and nothing to do with any particular change in it or the practices associated with it.

What maybe viewed as a more serious charge is that people traded child porn (as opposed to simulated child porn – the laws on which tend to differ wildly from country to country), though blaming image trading on Second Life would just be silly, heck it’s not even that good as a social networking site and certainly not a places in which you would actually trade images of anything.

My favorite current headline is from I4U news: “Second Life not save for Kids”. Not safe for kids eh, you recon? I dunno, maybe that’s why it’s adults only. 

For those with money riding on this I’m not suggesting we are looking at full backlash yet. It’s more a mild spanking. But things could start to get silly.

Why this is interesting is because of that other type of media effect. The effect the media as a body of people has on us as a society.  As I keep saying. There is nothing new in this story, no actual facts that anyone did not know about. And while I don’t want to diminish the harm of child porn, I do want to recognize that it exists and is traded through email and BBS systems in no doubt in much greater volume than anything remotely related to SL. Certainly the media is happy to pick /this/ sotry up, though if you read the SL Herald you will see at least two stories dealing directly with the subject just from the last 6 months.

Thus the question is why this story , why not gambling or the others I listed, and why right now?

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Organizing the Virtual Organization

Wikipedia defines a 'virtual organization' as one that exists 'as a corporate, not-for-profit, educational or otherwise productive entity that does not have a central geographical location and exists solely through telecommunication tools'.  Since the 1990s, virtual organizations and teams have seemed like a panacea for a lot of problems that arise from RL collaboration (real estate, travel costs, time wasted commuting, etc. etc.), but there hasn't been all that much useful data on what makes a virtual organization or team work well, despite the fact that there are many that are majestic examples of virtual organization (and more notably, self-organization) that flourish beyond anyone's wildest expectations.  Likewise there have been horrible failures resulting from efforts to contrive a successful organization in a virtual setting (think of some of those horrible groupware experiments).  And while  I suppose there are those who might debate whether MMO play constitutes productive activity or not, it does seem clear that the skills one develops via participation in MMOs might be hugely relevant to other types of virtual organizations.

It came to my attention several years ago that some virtual organizations can be more efficient than ones where people meet face-to-face on a daily basis.  People who work away from other people tend to spend less time filling the day with idle chit chat, and as people only tend to interact when there's work to be done, the social fabric tends to be less affected by the evils of gossip, back-stabbing, and other icky stuff that arises when people need something to pad out their 8-hour workdays.  Not to mention, of course, that being able to go to work in bunny slippers makes employees way loyal.  But some seem to think that virtual teams are more challenging than ones that meet F2F.  I'm not sure I believe this.  I think a virtual team/organization can work just as well, if not better, providing that the participants have the requisite skills for the specific type of participation facilitated and challenged by virtual environments and distributed teams.  So how do people learn those skills?

Stanford's Summer Institute at Wallenburg Hall is offering a course this summer,  Building Effective Virtual Teams: Tools, Techniques, Best Practices, and 'Gotchas' for Creating and Leading Distributed Teams that guides managers through an ' intensive workshop' that focuses 'on distributed teams in multiple locations, especially off-shored or outsourced teams. New tools and methodologies as well as key research conclusions will be covered for what works and what has been awkward, difficult, or even disastrous'.  There is a mention of 'immersive environments' that facilitate (presumably productive) interaction.  Do they mean virtual worlds?  Some of the screenshots have a Second Life feel, that's for sure.  The problem, as I see it, is that virtual worlds tend to be much more loosely organized than virtual organizations that center around some sort of specific collaborative activity. Now we all know that MMOs can be rife with all the drama (and more!) that we might see in a RL workplace, but  I started thinking... what does the average MMO organization have in common with other virtual organizations?  In fact, can MMOs be a training ground for learning to function well in distributed workforces, telecommuting situations,  'loosely-coupled' business ecosystems, the open source movement, etc?

For those of us who have spent large portions of our careers participating in various online spaces and collaborating with others from afar (I, like many others, co-authored a book chapter with someone I have never met in person, and have also participated in various distributed projects with people I never see F2F),  it can be easy to take these skills for granted.   But what are  the things that are critical to being part of a distributed team?  We've talked about leadership and management skills before, but what about being a good participant/contributor? Here are a few critical skills I can think of...

Autonomy - this is the obvious one.  With no one looking over your shoulder (physically, at least), being able to work independently and being personally accountable are hugely important.

Communication - this facet demands literacy in a range of communication approaches.  Fluency in the intricacies of online commmunication, like text-based email, is even more important when that is the only modality through which co-workers experience someone.

Trust - engendering trust when one is out of sight and out of mind means developing a track record that demonstrates accountability and responsiveness.  A sensitivity to the importance of developing social capital can help increase one's awareness of how they are perceived by others, a factor that can help them manage their personal brand.

Flexibility – Moshowitz (1994) calls this ‘combinatorial freedom', referring to an ability to  take on  different roles as different needs arise.  From a management perspective, it means being comfortable hiring more generalized workers, and knowing how to identify and leverage a range of strengths.  Anyone who rolls combo characters like healer/damage dealers knows  exactly what this is all about.

Are there others?  I'm off to edit my resume. 


Mowshowitz, A.  (1994). Virtual organization: A vision of management in the information age.  The Information Society, 10, 267-288.

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(Artificial) Intelligence in Virtual Worlds

In Richard Bartle's recent item on First Principles a number of interesting discussions have come up that deserve to be looked at on their own.  One of these is the question of whether artificial intelligence (AI) is necessary, preferable, or even possible in online worlds.   What do you think? 

To specify 'AI'  a little more, in this context I'm specifically not talking about state machines with canned, repetitive behaviors, better path-finding, or bots that know how to strafe well (I'm also not questioning whether player behavior in most online worlds qualifies as 'intelligent'!).  Nor does 'believable AI' require super-human intelligence or passing  any variety of Turing Test; the bar for what works in terms of believability is (thankfully) still pretty low.  So let's consider characters at least as believable in context as say, those in Oblivion, but whom you might not likely confuse for an actual human player. 

The future of AI in simulations and online worlds seems to be in creating non-player characters (NPCs) that feel like believable characters -- they have personalities, relationships, emotions, etc.  In some areas people have started calling this "artificial psychology" to differentiate from the now more traditional path-finding/state-machine AI. 

A number of people (including my company) are pursuing "artificial psychology" as a technology and as a way to open up new forms of simulation, training, and ultimately gameplay.  It's a difficult area, no question, but a huge amount of progress has been made in this area in the past few years.  Some people seem excited by this prospect, while others see it (as evidenced by a few comments and emails on TN) as a waste of time. 

So what do you think?  Is AI/AP potentially useful, or should we just leave populating online worlds to actual humans?  Should MMOs use believable NPCs, or is the current vending machine variety sufficient?  Would having an actual relationship with an NPC change your gameplay or how you view your place in an online world?   

Rather than trying to predict when we'll see believable characters or dismissing this as impossible in the next twenty years, I'd like to hear people's thoughts on what they'd hope to see, what they see as useless, and how you think virtual worlds might change if the people who do live in them -- the actual residents, the NPCs -- interacted with you and with each other more as people than as cardboard cutouts.   

Are intelligent, believable NPCs a necessary part of making more immersive online worlds, or just an unnecessary, even quixotic, frill?

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Rape in...yeah, you know...

Ça plus ça change. But please, when discussing the foundational work in this space can we all agree to get Julian's surname right? It's spelt "Dribble", or if you prefer to render it in the original Flemish, "Drivel".

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First Principles

Because we haven't had a crazy, abstract, whacked-out design thread for a while...

One of the things that bugs me about virtual worlds (game-like ones in particular) is how the paradigm doesn't really change much. We still get designers discussing what classes and races their world will have, without having considered whether they need classes or races at all.

So here's a question: given the absolute minimum that you need to have a virtual world, how can you extend that in ways that don't take us back to Second Life or World of Warcraft?

I guess I'd better define what I mean by "absolute minimum" first, huh?

OK, well for a virtual world you need a world (obviously) and players. The players need to be able to do things to or with each other; they also need to be able to do things to the world, which in turn should be able to do things to them.

That's about it.

Yes, I know, there are a bunch of assumptions embedded in there. Here are the main ones I think I make:
i) To count as a world, its existence has to be independent of that of the players: it continues to run when you're not there. In other words, it has persistence.
ii) There are absolute limitations on the actions that can be undertaken in the world: it has a physics. Because the world is virtual, the physics is implemented via computers.
iii) Players operate within the physics: each represents an individual within the virtual world. They have a character (or avatar if you prefer).
iv) Because players exist in the real world but their characters exist in the virtual world, there must be synchronisation. Virtual worlds therefore have to operate at speeds close to real time.

That really is it.

So, given this starting point (or your own), where can we go that we haven't been to before?


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College students create social networking and dating site for Second Life

Next Tuesday (May 8th) from 8:00 am to 9:15 am (PST), students in the virtual world promotions class at Trinity University will share hard-won insights that should be useful to anyone who is building and promoting an institutional presence in Second Life. Students will talk openly about the lessons they learned while designing SLeuth: a social networking service that links new residents with mentors, friends and potential dates.

The student presentation will be held in the amphitheater on Metaversatility Island. (Note: Other than the fact that I am the professor of this course, SLeuth is in no way connected to Metaversatility.)

Metaverse development consultancies, advertising agencies, and non-profits, please take note. This is a wonderful opportunity to connect with thoughtful college students who now have hands-on experience designing and promoting virtual world content. During the past semester, these students have explored community building, 3D modeling, viral marketing, machinima, blended reality events, and the challenge of integrating in-world content with web applications. In these early days of the Metaverse, it is very difficult to find people of any age who can claim first-hand exposure to virtual world development.

Everyone is welcome.This event has much to offer to newcomers planning their own virtual world development projects, and the student perspective should be intriguing to more experienced residents and virtual world researchers. To make sure that we save a seat for you, please send an e-mail to delwiche.trinity@gmail.com or send an IM to Carbonel Tigereye in Second Life.

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A Virtual Slice of Tax Law

800pxsupreme_pizza At the State of Play/Terra Nova Symposium in New York last fall, Bryan Camp of Texas Tech School of Law gave us a primer on tax law as it relates to virtual worlds. I never knew that listening to a tax professor could be so illuminating and fun (really). Now he has written a paper giving a similarly engaging overview of the issues as they relate to SL and WoW.

And to think his elegant solution may be ruined by pizza...

The paper contains loads of useful information for us non-law types, in particular such helpful nuggets as the tax law distinction between imputed and gross income and how it may be the appropriate spot to draw the taxation line for virtual worlds. For Camp, it makes pragmatic sense to distinguish between activity within the worlds as, in a way, non-taxable diversions, and the taxable events that only happen when the "fourth wall" is broken. As he puts it (pp. 64-65),

The breakdown of the magic circle, the feared commodification of virtual worlds, can only come about when, like Pinocchio, the virtual becomes real. That will happen when economic activity in Second Life begins to displace economic activity outside Second Life. The most likely evidence of that will be when account owners gain the ability to trade Lindens for real goods and services that are useful outside Second Life, beyond the fourth wall, when you cannot tell the players from the audience...When online exchanges outside of Second Life -- such as Amazon.com or Staples.com -- start accepting payment in Lindens, that will mark the erasing of the magic circle. At that time Second Life will become a barter club and Linden Dollars will cease to be a unit of play and will become Trade Credits. Whether or when that time will come I have no idea.

Professor Camp, meet Pizza.net. If this press release is to be believed, that fourth wall may be broken very soon...by the pizza guy. Residents are apparently up in arms over SL's technical challenges, but who can argue with the appeal of a slice?

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Evaluating virtual population projections

I am a great believer in the potential of virtual worlds as platforms for communication, interaction, discovery, and entertainment. But I am also a realist when it comes to appraising related technologies and user interest in virtual worlds. In this post, I'd like to talk about population projections, and how technology may limit the development of virtual worlds in the next few years.

First, let's take a look at some recent virtual population projections. Earlier this year on Terra Nova, Cory Ondrejka predicted Second Life would reach a peak concurrency of 150,000 by the end of 2007 -- a six-fold increase over the peak level at the beginning of the year.

And just a few weeks ago, the research firm Gartner projected that "80 percent of active Internet users (and Fortune 500 enterprises) will have a 'second life,' but not necessarily in Second Life" by the end of 2011.

Certainly, virtual worlds have been growing in popularity since the beginning of the decade. Some MMO gaming platforms have millions of active players, and the rise in the number of Second Life residents in the past year alone has been nothing short of spectacular: As of the end of April, Second Life's "Total Residents" topped 6 million, after reaching one million accounts just six months earlier (the chart here was generated from Second Life's economic statistics, published by Linden Lab).
Will this trend continue? Can we expect the number of users/residents for individual virtual worlds to double every few months, or every year? Will hundreds of millions of people also have a virtual presence in just four-and-a-half years, as Gartner suggests? If not, when will a majority of "active Internet users" also be active virtual users?

In my opinion, growth in virtual platforms will continue, but at more restrained levels, owing to demographic usage patterns and technical limitations. For instance, in the United States, converting 78 million baby boomers to active MMO gamers or SL participants will be difficult. Most boomers are well below retirement age, and finding the time to join virtual worlds in between existing family and work responsibilities is difficult. Moreover, the boomers, and for that matter, people of all ages already have ample leisure time distractions, including television and traditional Internet use. And even if millions of boomers suddenly wanted to plunge into virtual worlds, perhaps attracted by some killer virtual app or community, would they be able to do so?

I don't think so. Technology would be a barrier, both at the personal level, and at the platform level. Consider Second Life. It is built on an infrastructure that cannot easily scale. Even though millions of people have registered for Second Life, peak concurrency is below 40,000 concurrent users, and many who have attempted to join gatherings of more than a few dozen beings have experienced rendering problems, jitter, or session cutoffs.

In terms of personal technologies, the rapid adoption of mobile, compact computing devices over traditional, desktop PCs will reduce virtual exploration and adoption for many users. While an Alienware laptop is certainly capable of displaying Second Life or WoW in glorious 3D textures and high FPS rates, the standard Dell, Lenovo, and Apple laptops that most people buy don't have dedicated GPUs, and in my experience, the CPUs are not adequate for rendering 3D worlds. I use a 2006 IBM ThinkPad T41 at work, but it chokes on SL, with CPU utilization rates running above 90% when the SL client is connected. The only way I can have a smooth Second Life experience is by using a desktop machine that was purchased for video and audio production.

Beyond laptops, the current generation of mobile devices are not capable of handling virtual worlds. The cutting-edge Apple iPhone sure looks cool, but its browsing capabilities will be unable to extend to virtual worlds when it launches this year -- not only are the on-board processor and screen too small, but also the wireless connection is intended for voice and low-impact multimedia use.

That's not to say the situation is hopeless for portable devices. Moore's Law has been an accurate predictor of processor advances for the past 42 years, and if it holds, the low-end laptops and mobile phones of the year 2012 or 2017 may actually be able to handle virtual interactions.

What do others think of adoption rates, considering some of the demographic and technological issues discussed above? What other data points and factors need to be considered for evaluating Gartner's projection for the year 2011, not to mention Cory's prediction for the end of this year?

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If you're online, no one knows you're disabled...

I've said this statement and so have others and for many computer environments this can be true and hopeful. But what about those who cannot access an online gaming environment because the menu system the game used didn't work with the assistive technology they were using? Or what if the gamer, due to the type and/or severity of their disability felt awkward joining in because they were afraid that they'd feel the need to disclose their disability to explain certain things such as having to game at a different pace? If you do not have a disability, do you feel the need to disclose other factors about yourself such as gender, race, or sexuality in order to give others reason to understand your style of gaming? Probably not, unless you are playing at a role that is not your reality.

But I wonder how many people "play at" having a disability in a gaming world. Is it viewed socially as somehow more or less acceptable than saying that you are female or male when you are not? This is not to say that being either male or female is a "disability" but it does bring with it certain assumptions -- right or wrong -- about the person you've chosen to go into battle with online. This is also not to say that if someone were to disclose a disability that other gamers would run away as fast as they could. I don't believe that people, in general, are that...well, evil. But if a gaming experience is to include social interaction, a person who types more slowly and/or prone to making wording errors (for example, I do, as a gamer who has dyslexia) might be seen as a more frustrating gaming partner/clan member. I, too, might feel -- and I'm not sure that this is the right word but it's the one I'll use for now -- "guilty" about being the one who slows down the group.

Thoughts? How can we make MMOGs more inviting and accessible and playable and, yes, FUN for those with disabilities?

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PBS to Broadcast Game Accessibility Story

For those lovers (like me!) of PBS, check your local listings for a program called Quest tonight. KQED in San Francisco filmed the special and it will be airing at 7:30pm tonight (Tuesday, May 1st) on the US west coast. Tonight's episode entitled, "Videogames for All," will chronicle the efforts of the IGDA Game Accessibility SIG to spread the word about accessibility issues for games. If the episode is not broadcast in your area, fear not, it should posted on Quest's website, http://www.kqed.com/quest/ today or tomorrow. Or call up your local PBS station and request an airing (I did!).

Update: Here's the direct link to the video!

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What do we MEAN by "game accessibility?"

The word "accessibility" is a mean one. It's confusing and can mean so many different things such as lack of access to technology due to poverty or "usability." But what I mean when I say it (and others in my group, the International Game Developers Association's Game Accessibility SIG) is making games accessible for gamers (or potential gamers) with disabilities.

Sure, words like poverty and usability are not excluded from this -- often assistive technology that works with game consoles is expensive (sometimes equal or more than the cost of the consoles themselves...and I'm even talking about the ultra expensive PS3!) and certainly accessibility solutions have been solutions to usability problems (think of "curb cuts" -- ramps up to a curb that were designed for people with disabilities but are also useful for those on bikes and parents pushing baby strollers). But these words add to the confusion and some think that we mean both of those things and NOT disability accessibility.

Add to that terms like "universal accessibility," which, ideally is about accessibility for everyone no matter what. Now you have more problems on your hands because not only are we talking about games being accessible to all...but we are talking about "games" -- and games are supposed to be *fun.* Can we create something accessible AND fun for all? That's a tall order and one that I know my colleagues in serious games have had to deal with when students are introduced to an educational game and react with "what's this? This isn't a game? It's not fun? The graphics are crap."

But there's a bigger problem with that word, accessibility. It's not sexy. I often find myself talking to people about accessibility and I've found myself surprised by the gambit of reactions, ranging from false interest to absolute horror. A few years ago at Game Developers Conference (GDC) 2005, I walked around the expo floor looking for game peripherals that might be useful as accessible controllers for those who have physical limitations or middleware that could work with a console to help someone with low vision or color blindness have control of the font size and color schemes. When I approached vendors, even I was rather shocked by the reactions of "oh no...we don't want to be known as an accessibility company -- we're all about gaming."

Yes. I know. Wouldn't a group that's "all about gaming" be interested in increasing their market share? These were companies trying to get off the ground and naively I assumed that having MORE reasons that your product can solve a variety of issues for ALL gamers would be golden. Thankfully, things are starting to change...the emphasis on "starting." More companies are taking an interest in accessibility but change is not quick. It can be very disheartening to put everything you have into a presentation to see a low crowd turnout and face being rejected the next year by the conference because "obviously no one is that interested." Because in the end...you can have a million promises and assurances that people will be there but when push comes to shove, knowledge is "guilt." If you learn how to create more accessible games and peripherals, then the fog has been lifted and now you know who you are excluding and you have a choice -- join the fight or keep it to yourself.

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Game Accessibility?

To start off my guest blogging month, I thought that I'd send everyone a few links in advance so that readers can learn more and (hopefully) join in on the conversations about making games accessible for gamers with disabilities. So this is sometimes done at the end of a paper or a tv show ("for more information...") but I'm going to start out this way because I'm outrageous like that.

Some places you'll want to explore (and more links will be provided later, don't you worry!):

So with that...I'll let you explore a bit and then we'll start the conversation about the field of game accessibility! I hope you'll join me!

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