June 2007 | Main Page | August 2007

IBM'ers invade TN

Hursley But only because we've asked them to invade for a bit and they've kindly accepted our invitation.

Ian Hughes and Roo Reynolds will be guest-blogging here for August.  Ian and Roo work at IBM's Hursley Park campus in the UK (photo at right courtesy shawdm).  More info on IBM Hursley here.

Ian and Roo are both IBM Metaverse guys, as you'll can see from their bios:

Ian Hughes a.k.a. epredator potato in Second Life is an IBM Consulting IT Specialist who has worked on leading edge emerging technologies for the past 17 years, a programmer since he was 14. As a gamer he has seen a massive increase in the capability and design ethics within games and the rise of online gaming. In 1997 Ian started working on all things web, changing his perspective on the technology and the business due the much richer mix of people involved in the web revolution. Graphic Designer, Producers and Programmers all having to work together.

At work he has seen and been part of the Web 2.0 revolution has a top rated blog inside IBM and jointly writes http://www.eightbar.com outside. As a digital native his epredator persona spans many places, blogs, Eve Online, Xbox Live, Twitter, Flickr etc.. He is now officially an IBM Metaverse Evangelist having led in band of colleagues into Second Life for the past 15 months with a view to understanding what the social, business and technical implications are of virtual world technology used with a web 2.0 mentality and user generated content. What makes this work now? What has caused the massive increase in usage from 70,000 to 8 million registrations in a year and a half. How can business become involved without killing the spirit? Who are we online? Where are these new metaverse platforms going?


Andrew (Roo) Reynolds is a Metaverse Evangelist based at IBM's Hursley Park laboratory in the UK. He is part of a team which facilitates the use of Virtual Worlds within IBM. This work is made all the more enjoyable thanks to a large world-wide community who are learning to collaborate and get things done in totally new ways.

He was previously an Emerging Technologies Specialist in which his role included attempting to keep on the early-adopter curve.

While acknowledging there are not enough hours in the day to claim to be an expert in everything, Roo still reads and writes far too many blogs and tries to keep his eyes open.

As well as contributing here, Roo maintains a personal blog at rooreynolds.com. Read his full bio there.

We're looking forward to hearing their thoughts on the future of virtual worlds, or whatever else they'd like to talk about.

Comments (13)

How do you explain virtual worlds to people who don’t know anything about them?

Next week I am going to be moderating a panel called "From the Laboratory to the Virtual World" at the annual meeting of the American Accounting Association, which brings together over 3000 accounting professors from the US.   I figure that over the three days of the conference, I will be asked 300 times "What in G-d's name is a virtual world??" 

What would you say to a business academic with no prior knowledge of virtual worlds—and only limited knowledge of video games?  100 words or less!

The first comment  indicates my own first attempt.

p.s.  Here are some panel details.  I will be speaking about my WorldsForStudy project, and describing the state of affairs in Second Life financial marketsJames Grimmelmann will be talking about organic institutions for performance evaluation and loot division in games like WoW.  John List, an extraordinarily prolific economist who conducts “field experiments” will be talking about his own recent forays conducting experiments in Second Life.  We should be able to lure people to the session-- the panel immediately follows plenary addresses by Nobel Prize winners Robert Lucas (macroeconomics) and Vernon Smith (experimental economics). 

Comments (38)

All Bets Are Off

Linden Lab has recently changed their policy about gambling in Second Life, effectively banning it (find a clutch of news reports here). The specific demands, in terms of policy and regulation, that gambling and other significant-stakes gaming make on virtual worlds have drawn my attention on TN before. Here I'd like to ask TN-at-large the following: What do you think the effects of this policy are likely to be on SL? On virtual worlds in general (if any)?

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Item of note: CBS to broadcast game play

Eye The New York Times reports that CBS will broadcast footage from the World Series of Video Games on 7/29/07 at noon. There are, of course, other cable channels that cover games, but they're decidedly niche. And as frequent game reporter Seth Schiesel notes, it'll be a first to have some guy channel surfing for a golf match suddenly come upon Guitar Hero II and WoW on the tube. With the shrinking impact of any one TV outlet, I don't know if this qualifies as a watershed moment, but it's still a major network covering gaming (and an MMO, to boot), so it sounds like at least a minor milestone.

I'll be watching just to hear the announcers explain to America why a mage would iceblock (because ice mages are irresponsible aggro-pullers on boss fights).

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Financial Market Meltdown in Second Life?

Well, my foray into SL has made for an interesting July.  It only took 10 days from the time of my Panel Discussion on Second Life Financial Markets for a major scandal to erupt. 

After someone with inside information blew the whistle,  I posted some raw details on how someone [allegedly] hacked into the banking account for the World Stock Exchange.  After a little more due dilligence, I reported the accusation that WSE attempted to cover up the event.  Today, I analyzed the rather timid response of the  SL Exchange Commission, a group that is attempting to develop regulations for SL exchanges.  The WSE has still yet to reopen, either because software development is behind schedule, the exchange is worried about a run, or because they truly don't have enough cash on hand to handle withdrawals.

So here are my questions to Terra Novans.  If, in response to my prior posts on TN, you thought SL markets were a game, are you having fun yet?  If you thought they were not a game, what do you think will be or should be the legal outcomes here? 

Finally, what do you think of the following proposal?  I pull together a group of students here at Cornell from computer science, business/econ, and law, and give them academic  credit to design, develop and ultimately operate a regulatory enterprise that would scope out appropriate requirements on the operations of exchanges, required disclosures (from both exchanges and listed companies),  and the like. 

p.s.  There is a fun video on the markets here, completed before the scandal broke.  Fortunately, the key message is  "caveat emptor."  Also, note my argument that the markets seem more like toys, rather than games--they are functional, they simply have less capacity for both help and harm.

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Anti-Social Contracts

Why do we let contracts govern virtual communities?  Contracts are private law.  Communities need public law.  Contracts are about helping two (or a few) people negotiate their preferences.  Communities are large numbers of people, who shift in and out of the community, and really don't have time for all that negotiation.  For communities to really thrive, as Greg Lastowka remarked to me recently, "we need to get beyond the EULA."   So I wrote an article about it.

Here's the gist.  Communities need legal relationships that run between every member of the community and every other member.  Some examples -- it turns out that everyone in the world is obligated not to hit you.  (Tort law.)  Similarly, everyone in the world is obligated to not walk on your land.  (Property law.)  They didn't sign any contract to say so, the law imposes those requirements on everyone.

Contract law cannot create those background, default rules, not without a lot of hassle -- and hassle is called inefficiency by the overeducated.  (Imagine creating the "no-hitting rule by contract -- walking down the street, saying to each person you meet: "Do you agree not to hit me? Sign here.")   In contract law, the basic idea is: "if you didn't sign it, you're not bound by it."  The problem is that virtual world EULAs, as they currently exist, eliminate and replace almost every other source of community, background, default laws -- tort law, criminal law, certainly property law, and even constitutional law.  EULAs attempt to replace those rules with contractual provisions.

A thought experiment: Let's say you and I agree that I will buy your watch.  We've made a contract.  That contract works because there is a background legal rule that says I own a property right that already binds the entire world. 

But here's an example of a contract that doesn't work: Let's say you and I agree that everyone else who reads this Blog has no property interest in their watches.  Private property in watches, you and I agree, doesn't exist.

Wait a minute -- we can't DO that.  And that's precisely the problem we're seeing with EULAs right now.  EULAs all over (except Linden's, SOE's Station Exchange, and a few others) eliminate private property in virtual property.  Another example: WoWGlider is getting sued based on Blizzard's pretty risible restriction stopping any third party software from interacting with WoW.  (Oooookay -- is Blizzard's next target Microsoft?  'Cause my operating system sure interacts with WoW.)

Ok, so that's the first point -- contracts can't create community-spanning obligations because communities are porous at the edges.  Even if you force everyone to sign contracts with the community service provider as they enter the world, players can't enforce those contracts against each other.  All those "Code of Conduct rules are completely unenforceable against other players because, of course, you didn't sign any contract with those other players, only with the community service provider.    Ever been harassed, and thought "wow, they signed a contract saying they wouldn't do that."?  Turns out they did, but they didn't sign it with you. And, of course, the contract doesn't bind parties outside of the world who never signed the contract -- which (according to their claims) comprises the majority of RMT middlemen.

Second point: if EULAs can't create the rules of the game, what should courts turn to?  Well, NFL employment contracts certainly don't create the rules of the game.  What does?  Community custom and practice. 

At first blush, this may sound nuts.  But think about it -- isn't the most important fact in the WoWGlider case the fact that *everyone* uses third-party software?  Can you imagine high-end raiding without CTRaid?  Should a judge really construe the contract between Blizzard and me to (1) bind MDY (makers of WoWGlider); and (2) eliminate third-party software?  Probably not. 

I'd love your comments -- sending me emails at jofairfi at indiana dot edu would be fantastic.  Constructive criticism is of course welcome -- and comments that help me support my arguments are even MORE welcome!

Comments (72)

Legs wide shut

I’ve finally found the least sexual, most wholesomely family values orientated part of Second Life.


Welcome to Playboy Island.

OK, a bit of hyperbole, but in a moment you’ll see what I mean.

Thing is, I’ve probably missed the boat with Playboy. Maybe it never really had much to do with sex at all. Certainly from its showing in Second Life and from what I see in the UK, Playboy as a brand has about as much to do with sex as Harley-Davidson has to do with motorbikes[1]. That is, the brand iconography is so far removed from its original purpose that it’s off in a world of its own, a simulacrum of a sexual trope or something like that.

The one cute thing about Playboy island is its profile in the mini-map. It’s a bunny, of course. After that it’s branded clothes and trinkets. There are videos on the second floor but these all seemed to be a wholesome, if pneumatic, gals talking about their first date. You can sit and watch these on Playboy beds replete with pose balls. Pose balls I should add that put you about a foot away from the person you are with in what actually looks more like a booth in an old-school diner than a bed.

There is e-commerce integration though. Click on an image of this month’s magazine and it opens up the web site. That would be the integration I guess. No reference to Second Life or anything to contextualize where you are other than the subscribe button. Even thought there is an electronic version it does not seem to be delivered through SL and I could not find an option to buy in Lindens.

In a place that is all about sex, the one thing you can’t buy at Playboy, or so it seems, is sex. But of course Playboy is not about that, at least not in any obvious way.

And there’s the problem. Second Life is about sex in very very obvious way. It’s an economy that grew on sex. An, all permutations you can prim, sex. A, people standing around with an air of board contempt watching each other virtually doing it, sex.

Which is surely the problem for Playboy. Compared to the paranoid conservatism of US mainstream media Playboy stands as something acceptably naughty. In Second Life it’s a nun. And not in a naughty skimpy nun outfit kinda way, but in an honestly shocked at the sins of the world way.

The Island was of course completely empty for most of the time I was there.

So I started to search for other ‘sex brands’. Hooters, Hustler – even brands that don’t start with H; not one could I find. May be SL is nu-sex, a DIY sex that is undercutting corporatization of sex (but more of that in another post).

What disappointed me most of all was that I could not find Trojen or Durex. Surely it’s a very small step to make a place famous for flying penis into a place famous for flying condoms. SL is place you can fun with sex so why not get in there, get down and dirty and start talking about safe sex.


[1] according to a 2006 SEC filing licensing was both the fastest growing and highest margin of Playboy Inc.'s three business Units.

Comments (20)

When (virtual) worlds collide

I wanted to write about this last week, but I was afraid. Like many fans, I was waiting for the final Harry Potter book to be released, so that I could see how J. K. Rowling's series ended, hopefully answering questions such as where Snape's real loyalties lay, and what, of course, would happen to Harry in the final pages. And perhaps responding to such common fears, a few days before the book was released, curious messages started appearing on game chat boards around the Internet, warning users about posting spoilers, such as this message on the Allakhazam boards for FFXI: "depending on the severity of your spoiler, your post count, and account status, posting a spoiler on this board will result in a punishment ranging from a 72 hour mute to a complete banning from the site". What we appeared to have was the incursion of one virtual world and its secrets, into the realm of another, or many others. Or maybe it was an acknowledgment that our various worlds, realms, etc, are hopeless intermixed and confused these days. So much for magic circles?   

Going back to my lead, I was afraid, like many others, that my pleasure for the book would be spoiled. My friends and I joked that we were going to cut ourselves off from Internet access from the moment the book came out until we finished reading. And for my part, I did so. No email, no web browsing, by god no games forums, and no Facebook. I didn't want a spare comment, innocent or otherwise, spoiling my surprise.

I've written elsewhere about why gamers cheat in games, and one of the reasons that many *don't* is because it can ruin the surprise in a game--the unexpected turn of events, the ending, great dialogue, etc. Fair enough- I was always the person who didn't want to peek at her Christmas gifts early. I appreciate the surprise. But what was significant with this book release was how difficult it would be to keep that element of surprise intact.

I couldn't merely indicate to my family and nearby friends that I didn't want to know what happened to Harry and Hermione et al. I couldn't be sure that merely skimming email subject lines wouldn't be problematic. Facebook friends' status might give something away. Hanging around in Bree in Lord of the Rings Online might result in some random /ooc or /advice comment about the book's plot. I had no social contract with such a wide group of people to prevent random information slipping through. The innocent or malicious could equally broadcast to a large group with ease.

Tying this to virtual worlds, I believe we've hit a point (or probably long since driven past it) where we can no longer claim separation between our various worlds. There is no "space apart" unless it's a space shared by perhaps 3 friends cut off from the rest of the planet. We have networked ourself to share, to communicate, and when we wish to *stop* the communication, for whatever reason, we discover just how difficult and messy and intertwined our channels have become. So while it's easy for us to celebrate the 'new connectedness' I think we also need to acknowledge when connectedness can become a problem, in both trivial and nontrivial matters.

That doesn't mean necessarily mean doom or gloom, or alternately a bright and shiny future. It just means an altered form of connectedness (I refuse to say a web 2.0 future). If I call in sick I don't just need to stay home anymore- I should probably also stay off IM, forums, etc. So, other thoughts on what this all means? It certainly doesn't mean bad things for Harry--sales of Deathly Hallows are the highest yet for the series.

Comments (27)

Questions, Questions...

Continuing the theme of asking Terra Nova readers questions that journalists ask me, recently I was interviewed by the Guardian's game blog and asked this:

If you could take over control of one major MMORPG - which would you choose and what would you do with it?

My answer didn't exactly endear me to 8.5m World of Warcraft players, but never mind what I would do, what would you do?

Comments (82)

H2 '07 Event Roundup

I'™ve just updated our Conference List. As there is so much virtual world related event goodness in the second half of this year I thought I would do a quick and very personal round up of where the hot spots are for the global conference jet set. Also, like Dan'™s post, there'™s some shameless pluggin'™ gwan down.

Edinburgh Interactive 13 - 14 August, Edinburgh, UK
I'm running a panel on virtual worlds as societies vs commercial services. There will also be a talks on Virtual Reality TV and a Second Life how-to by TN alumni Dr Jim Purbeck Purbrick [ed.18/7/7/ sorry Jim /me blush].   

Digital Interactive Symposium: Edinburgh 15 August, Edinburgh, UK
OK, I'll fess up I'm co-creator / organiser of this. It's an industry academia mash-up™ because I think that will be a very fine thing. We have a panel on virtual worlds and regulation from a EU perspective  expect tax, communications law and other EU directives to be covered: IBM, Offcom, Jessica Mulligan, the Edinburgh Fringe festival to retire to in the evening  who could want more!

State of Play V: Building the Global Metaverse 19 - 22 August, Singapore
Obviously /the/ pointy headed event of the year for those in the know, locating it in Asia this year is genius. Hmm, and an EU one next year perhaps?

Second Life Community Convention 24 - 26 August, Chicago, US
While other Virtual World conferences obsess about and sometimes feel a bit guilty about it, the SLCC is about SL and has no shame. From that thing that happened after SoP in NYC and they good time we had in a pub in London the other year SLCC has all growd up and is now a fully fledged event for the business and fun minded that what to get deeper in to SL. An it just has to have the hands down best after-show parties, ones even an EvE evening might struggle to match. 

Austin Games Conference 5 - 7 September, Austin, TX, US
People, even people that are not on the organizing committee, keep telling me that this year is the year to catch Austin, especially if you missed SXSW and don'™t know quite how cool Austin is. It'™s more tech focused than the other events listed here, but understating practice does actually come in handy sometimes.

Serious Virtual Worlds  13 September, Coventry, UK
A new entry from the UK, and another very welcome event looking at the ˜serious ™ end of virtual world applications. There are few details yet, but it'™s worth keeping an eye on especially if you are EU based. 

DiGRA: Situated Play September 24 - 28, Tokyo, Japan
The party event of the year for Games Studies scholars, already my Hello Kitty budget is not big enough. If past DiGRAs are anything to go by this will be a huge sprawling conference with paper that range from the tepid to the inspiring.

Virtual Worlds Fall ™07 10 - 11 October, San Jose, CA, US
The West East {ed. 24/7/7/ East OK, East East East, I got it now] Coast Virtual Worlds event goes East West [ed. 20/7/7: thx Mark. Did someone move San Jose when I was not looking or do I just not know left from right?] for the fall. The NYC event earlier this year was, for many, more of an event  marking the popular arrival of virtual worlds as a medium (something many of us have known for some time) than anything else. The East Coast's  version is ridiculously star-studied with luck it will tell the audience something other than things they either fail to comprehend or already know.

AoIR 8.0: Let'™s Play 17 - 20 October, Vancouver, Canada
This year AoIR gets game. For the last few years the Association of Internet Researchers'  annual get together has been infiltrated by a crack squad of game studies scholars intent on spreading insidious ideas like the fact that virtual communities might exist on more than just BBSs (at the first event I went to non of the virtual community panel had ever heard of virtual worlds).

Virtual Worlds Forum 23 - 26 October, London, UK
More EU goodness: not content with the East Coast / West Coast ding dong that the Virtual Worlds  group has established in the US, there is now a UK based event by the ˜Virtual Worlds Forum  that will cover very similar issues but with a uniquely European focused, global outlook.

Comments (7)

What's Going On....

People log in and go to a place in cyberspace for a reason. Recent posts suggest that this place doesn't have to exist before they go there (and it could disappear when they leave). Each place, though will have a tone or atmosphere to it. To some extent this is the result of the software developers' intent, but many systems allow the user varying degrees of control over this atmosphere. I remember when it was a big deal that AW had implemented fog. Not a computer game fan myself, I didn't understand why this would move people. In retrospect, I think they wanted the worlds to look like their favorite games and they recognized that implementing fog can make for more intimate spaces, and I think they just wanted more control.

When I read Scientivore's post about navigating through digital graphic data to a place that was pleasing, I visualized it in 3D in my head. I probably did that because I thought of this as a way to optimize the amount of data I could put in my picture?

I have seen in working with people building worlds that the setting is extremely important. Sort of the initial conditions. It's also tough to force people outside of their comfort zone on their own, but if you give them a blace and empty space and allow them to make places in it, you will see some very interesting things.

Some people will enclose themselves and create a comfortable background. Others figure out how to cast extra light on their objects, and some get into transparencies. We talked about gloomy spaces that are highly designed, but what are the abstract principles here?

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KISS and Diablo

1996 was the year that saw Diablo I (D1).  2001 witnessed the sequel,  Diablo II (D2).  These computer games  in (arguably) most ways were polished but unoriginal (RPG-hack-slash,  "gee, I have seen this before", etc).   Given this view, why the splash?   D1 especially, seemed to have been a preoccupation for many (including yours truly) back then.  The difference, I think, was the internet play service Blizzard provided - Battlenet.

Cooperative and high-adrenalin dungeon crawling was never so easy.

Fast forward a bit to 2007.  D2 on Battlenet is still here.  I still jump in on rare occasions for a bit of nostalgia.  Yes, MMORPGs are much more sophisticated places than Diablo/Battlenet ever pretended to be.  Yet the world of D2, I think is a lot more nuanced than one might at first think.  The funny thing about networked environments, even simple ones, is that some will find a way to flourish.  Consider the Battlenet ladder system. 

The Wikipedia describes the Diablo/Battlenet in this way:

The main highlight of Diablo II as it relates to Battle.net was that the game was completely client-server based. The game was no longer simulated on each player's computer, but instead was run on Blizzard's server (as it was in Diablo I). This also meant that all of the character data for the game was stored on the Battle.net servers. This effectively put an end to cheating as it had been known during the period of the original Diablo. The game also had an open character feature on Battle.net which stored the player's character on the client. This allowed players to play characters locally or on a LAN, and then use those same characters on Battle.net. However, any open games played on Battle.net were not protected from cheating by other players since they could have modified their characters locally... There was also expanded ladder support including a "Hardcore" ladder which listed players whose characters would be removed permanently if they died in-game.

One detail to note about the ladders is that they are periodically "reset", meaning that every ladder ends at some time and a new one is restarted with fresh characters (to date, there have been 3 resets) .   The old characters can be retired back into the pool of non-ladder player characters - this is the route that the gear earned in ladders finds its way back into the rest of game.  Teemu Mäntylä  recently looked at the effect of ladder resets on the Diablo II economy in "Diablo II economy in chaos as Ladder season ends." 

A virtue of the reset in the D2/Battlenet universe is that it appears to have kept a relatively simple ladder ecosystem robust enough to navigate a number of tough hurdles that  more sophisticated and resource-endowed virtual worlds have a hard time confronting:

1.) Hacking (cloning game artifacts).

2.) Recycling a static pool of content to the benefit of new and old players alike.

3.) Preventing player disparities (in stuff they have acquired, etc.) from becoming permanently enshrined in the world.

4.) Managing play-balance to compensate for (then compensate for the over-compensation, etc.) of (3.).

Perhaps it is simpler to just pull the plug once in a while rather than trying to build-in clever (but never clever enough) design and mechanisms to get around these problems in long-lived virtual worlds.   The KISS principle, indeed.


P.S.  "Ground hog day" arguments, and the various flavors of world resets are certainly not a new idea - e.g. see Richard's "In this instance."

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See you in Singapore

This is in the nature of a Shameless Plug (tm):

I'm one of the organizers of the next State of Play Conference which is running in Singapore August 19-22. The conference program is looking pretty nifty (if I do say so myself), and we're about to announce a day of workshops on topics including "Managing identities in virtual worlds", "Educational applications of virtual worlds" and "Commercial applications of virtual worlds". Registration is open now, the food will be fabulous, the hotel is gorgeous and cheap, Singapore is a great place, and you get to spend some time with the best people on these topics in the world.

You should attend. You'd be crazy not to.

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Our avatars, ourselves

WoW is depressing me, and the end of this post has a guess about why. But first, some science:

Last year, Nick posted about new work coming out of Stanford, related to his excellent dissertation. The gist of the study was that our offline rules of social distance extend in online spaces, i.e. avatars stand apart from each other just like people do offline. Since then, Nick, Jeremy Bailenson and Byron Reeves (all at Stanford) have continued to plow ahead in this area. The work keeps pointing to our offline tendencies working similarly online. It turns out that millenia of evolution might be a hard habit to kick.

It gets odder below the fold...

At the recent International Communication Association annual conference in San Francisco, the Stanford folks were joined by Frank Biocca of MSU and Kristine Nowak of UConn on a fascinating panel on the latest and greatest in avatar research.(fn1) My reaction to the collective evidence presented is that it tends to support Nick's "Proteus Effect,"  which suggests that people react to avatars--and importantly to behave while in them--as they would when interacting with similar offline figures.

Evidence from other labs supports this phenomenon. Among the more interesting is work by Merola, Pena and Hancock of Cornell, who found that people playing avatars with dark clothes behaved more aggressively (seen at ICA '06 and still waiting for the journal version!). Yet more support came out this week as Nowak found that people are uneasy interacting with avatars of uncertain gender, supporting Reeves and Nass' past work that humans interact with unknown agents (robots, avs, whatever) and seek to establish these things, in this order:

1) is this thing human?
2) what is its gender?
3) is it compatible with me intellectually and socially?

So that's all pretty fascinating stuff. Now add the question that will surely drive poor Richard batty: does anyone really role play? The answer, from a very scarce pool of data and studies (e.g. this one)--and a quick look at the percentage of RP servers among MMOs--is that it's a small fraction of people who actually do so. Sure, we could debate that and derail the thread, but let's just run with it as an operating assumption, ok?

I'm going to take a stab at why this is all very sensible when viewed collectively. We are the products of many thousands of years of evolution, and although we're all subject to "nurture" and social effects, there is the tremendous weight of evolution driving us and our interactions. It's hard to de-train millennia of time on the savannah.

So what's the sound bite that one can share with a reporter or one's non-SL-traveling grandmother?

You can take the person out of the real, but not the real out of the person.

Now, that's my potshot at humans and virtual worlds. Maybe you buy it and maybe you don't. But if Nick is right and his Proteus effect can be extended even farther, there are a lot of implications for virtual world residents and operators. How far does this "humanness" extend? Will it govern how much, why and when people interact? Are we all pavlovian machines to be manipulated once understood?

Bear with me for what will seem like a digression: After growing up in sunny California, I lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan for 6 years. The first 6 months there were totally depressing, and it took me a long time to figure out why. It was the grey sky. The sun refuses to shine for weeks at a time in Ann Arbor, and as awesome as the town is, I still found myself bummed out and tired. Here I was, subject to the evolutionary patterns of my gene pool, and in need of one of those shiny full-spectrum light boxes to fight off S.A.D. How lame! And the lights worked like a charm. It turns out I am lizard-brained enough to respond to external stimuli with behavior. Who knew?

At the top I sad that WoW has been depressing me, and here's one odd reason why. I spend a lot of time in Shattrath City, where the sky is perpetually grey and somber. Hanging out there is like Winter in Ann Arbor. Yech! Now, to test this theory, I asked all of my guild mates what their favorite zone was. 90% said Nagrand. Why, I asked? Oh, it has great quests they said. Sure, that might be it, but I see great quests in every zone. But Nagrand also happens to be the zone with the brightest sunlight, and the greenest grass. In short, it's the savannah. And virtual or not, it does seem to do the trick. Heck, half of the quests are hunting migrating animals. Maybe Blizzard tapped some pretty deep code by accident?

(fn1) Further proof that the field of communication is an excellent vantage point for virtual world research.

Comments (53)

This Just In:
EA CEO Says "We're boring people to death"

Ea_games As reported today by the Wall Street Journal (and covered by various other sites), Electronic Arts CEO John Riccitiello has come to the conclusion that "we're boring people to death... For the most part, the industry has been rinse-and-repeat. There's been lots of product that looked like last year's product, that looked a lot like the year before."

This will come as no great surprise to anyone who has looked at, played, pitched, or developed computer/video games in the past several years.  For an industry that runs on creativity, we've done pretty well at limiting its scope whenever possible.   The exceptions (Katamari, the Wii) are more notable for their rarity than for their flashes of inspiration.  And from EA, there's been astonishingly little original work at all.

So does Riccitiello's epiphany really mean anything?  More below the fold.

Now a cynical way to look at this quote from an EA CEO is through this always fun lens:

"I'm shocked, shocked to see all these derivative sequels!"
"Your Madden/Sims profits, sir."
"Oh, thank you very much."

And, having worked at EA, having both participated in and heard the tales from others of the Sisyphean task of getting original -- or even slightly non-derivative non-sequel -- games developed, I admit to a bit of skepticism here.  After all, EA is a huge publicly traded company that has a responsibility to its shareholders not to take wild risks with the company valuation.  Of course, what this risk- averse mindset breeds is ... well, years of rinse-and-repeat games that bore people to death (and lead talented developers to go elsewhere or leave the industry in frustration). 

A far more hopeful way to look at this is to see this as a strong opening salvo by EA's new CEO in his first in-depth comments to the press (as the WSJ said), indicating a foundational change of direction at the world's largest developer of computer and video games.  Not that I'd expect to see cash cows like Madden football go away, but maybe, just maybe, a few more original games will be allowed to grow without being simply tossed aside to feed the current (and nearly all long-in-the-tooth) franchises. 

And I don't just mean Spore.

Sure, Spore is great.  Or will be.  We hope.  EA is certainly betting a lot on it.  And I hope the terrific team that's been working on it for years hasn't been creatively corralled into a tiny uninteresting space (or doomed by griefing-by-Internet as players release a deluge "inappropriate" content into the wild). But even if this game is all it's been built up to be, one dramatically new creative game every 5-10 years makes them a bit too rare, IMO.   I'd hope to see new, creative games popping up even from big game houses like EA, and not just in the casual space that Riccitiello mentions (though there too -- does anyone really need another Zuma clone?).

Maybe, just maybe, we'll even see virtual game worlds coming out of EA and other companies that dare to move beyond the "rinse and repeat" of the past decade.  EA signaled its interest in this sector when it acquired Mythic a year ago (and put at least some effort into finally, finally revitalizing the old war horse Ultima Online).

So what do you think?  Is Riccitiello's statement a new standard planted firmly in the fertile soil, a rallying point for all those starving in the desert of game creativity, or is it just another PR statement by a BigGameCo CEO that will be blown away by the dessicating winds of corporate reality?

Personally, I see this as something of a challenge: it's terrific to see EA's CEO owning up to the derivative, boring, if also often profitable games they've been churning out.  Can they keep the profitability while increasing freshness and supporting creativity?   Time will tell.

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Spaces and Places

I lecture in a Fine Arts course that was first called "Telepresence," then "Playing with Space and Time," and is now more soberly referred to as "Studio in Space and Time" as it moves toward a more permanent place on the course roster. Space and place; this is one of the tensions we try and explore. Places occur in spaces, but what are they? Sometimes I have to go back to the dictionary to get this kind of simple fact worked out in my head.

Although as a fringe academic, I occasionally think of concepts like the origin of zero as a placeholder in number systems (we have a Mayan pyramid maze to teach the Mayan number system and it early origin of this approach), most Westerners at least seem to think of places in geographic terms. Wikipedia and Webster confirmed this. We seem to need places to go in Cyberspace, whether its a Web page, Facebook or a 3D MOG. URLs are locators. Tagging is connecting. I suppose that you could visualize a tagged 2.0 site and that everyone would start at a different place.

If Context is King (which I think I agree with), then what is the kingdom? Is this a fluid concept?

Maybe place is taking on an association with something crafted for a purpose by a person or group of people? and Tone was mentioned. Yes, virtual worlds can be used artfully to set the tone for your encounter with digital information. This can be very powerful.

We talk about Cyberspace in landscape terms and in terms of volume (terabytes these days). An accessible terabyte of data might be spread out on servers around the planet. It's place is merely the access point, and could be different for different applications.

Back in 1992, a computer scientist friend suggested that I read David Gelernter's new book "Mirror Worlds: or the Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox...How It Will Happen and What It Will Mean" in preparation for my new job. This was my introduction to the concept of Cyberspace and it still resonates for me. When I think of Cyberspace I think of something more like outer space, no gravity and boundless dimensionality, or some kind of toric structure -- there must be a lot of eddies that circle back on themselves? Gelernter's tuples are trucking around running errands -- going places--, maybe running the world, with occassional input and output to the human dimension.

So I am stuck on a visual interface to Cyberspace; that's the kind of person I am, but I don't see the point in using only 3 dimensions, 4 with time thrown in. A friend of mine did a visualization of the distribution of plankton in a fishery in the North Atlantic. It shows a 3-dimensional volume in a cartoon way, with a ship motoring in a pattern over the ocean as the major current moves the volume of water and clouds of plankton downstream. This adds time to the space. He did this to show the irregularity of the apparently regular path of the ship's sampling path. Then he threw in another dimension. He used transparency to indicate the statistical value of the data (determined by other factors). So that's five dimensions that are easy to show while you are still in a landscape metaphor, a very distinct place.

If you have a resource like Flickr, how do you really look at it? you can explore it as a bunch of linked places, but how do you get a handle on the space and what are its other dimensions?

There are so many wonderful interfaces being designed by information scientists and they are fascinating to play with. Interactive network visualizations come to mind and they range from the Visual Thesaurus to starbursts created to give insight into genomes. How do these relate to our landscapes? We can certainly integrate them into virtual worlds in fun ways, but is there a continuum between them, or are they necessarily discrete approaches to information space?

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Panel Discussion on Second Life Stock Exchanges

This Friday, I will be moderating a panel discussion in Second Life (as my alter-ego Beyers Sellers).  The goal of the panel is to allow the panelists to describe the current state of the markets, and what they would like and expect to see in the future (particularly regarding regulatory and non-regulatory ways to strengthen investor confidence). 

I will be asking questions on my own behalf, and also on behalf of audience members and any others who cannot attend.  So Terra Novans, what questions would you like to ask this august panel? 

Keep in mind that the panel is not the venue to name names of people you believe are untrustworthy, nor to ask why you lost 3000 Lindens in ABC Company on January 12th, etc.  (Come to think of it, Terra Nova probably isn't the right venue for that either.)  Instead, this is a forward-looking discussion about what could be done better in the future, and what progress will require from exchanges, possible regulatory bodies inside and outside Second Life, and whether/should Linden Lab take any active role. 
Here are the details:

Panel Discussion on Second Life Financial Markets
A Metaversed Geek Meet
Co-sponsored by Dr. Dobbs Journal, Information Week and Cornell University
Dr Dobbs Island, Noon SLT, Friday, July 13th.

Maelstrom Baphomet, COO of AVIX
LukeConnell Vandeverre/Sinatra , CEO of WSE
Arbitrage Wise, CEO of SL Capital Exchange (a proposed exchange)
Mystik Boucher, CEO of Mystik Designs, listed on WSE
TraderJohn Susa, Chairman of SL Exchange Commission
OliveEue Sholokhov, CEO, SL Business Bureau
Beyers Sellers, Cornell University Professor (moderator)

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Where's the Beef?

As a scientist, science communicator, and artist, I got into virtual worlds as a means of communicating scientific data; I got to play in the first CAVE installation at Supercomputing in the 90s, put VRML data worlds online in ‘95 (no one could see them, of course). Now I am most to see how teens and tweens create their own places (from homes to playgrounds to knowledge spaces and games) and how teachers and other educators adjust to seeing this new medium as a tool for more traditional learning—is this changing? I think so, truly. But the question remains: Where’s the Beef?

While I am excited about creating interactive worlds on the model of MOGs, I think our greatest success at Cornell is the development of and our experience with the SciFair Model, a process model. This model is based on common sense and observation of the how people adjust to and colonize the public worlds of Active Worlds and now Second Life. What it comes down to, is virtual worlds are all about people and we leverage this social appeal to get kids of all ages to learn to use the medium for thoughtful self expression. To do this, we have to provide “baby steps” that are fun and meaningful.

This is not the place to start spouting educational theory But the keywords for our projects are “contstructivism”, “situated learning”, “affinity groups”….. with a little critical thinking and a bunch of 21st Century and foundation computing skills. There, the keywords are set for the search

>SciFair is a part of SciCentr.org (www.scicentr,org –check out the movies.) Scicentr.org, was founded as a virtual science museum (no bricks and mortar), which is a sustaining member of the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC). The original fantasy concept for SciCentr is a landscape scale space on the model of “the 1929 Worlds Fair meets George Jetson.” That concept emerged in 1998 and it still holds, but it isn’t built … yet…. Check out Kevin Lynch’s wonderful small book, The Image of the City (1960) http://www.csiss.org/classics/content/62 to help you think about applying his basic concepts to virtual worlds.

At Cornell, we now focus on designing and supporting learning experiences (primarily using and within virtual worlds, but not just Active Worlds) for a variety of audiences. We are getting ready to launch a service learning course in Computing and Information Science with a lab component, CyberYouthFair (CYFair), aimed at attracting students from across the University. We also are working with a school district to design a staged process of engagement with Social Studies and computer literacy for 6th grade. This district-level collaboration has real potential across the curriculum both for addressing the pervasive problem of student engagement , and for introducing students to computing and even algorithmic thinking earlier than we have been able to do until now.

In my posts this month, I would like to talk more about:

1) the importance of developing technological tools for evaluating the content created by students and their engagement with virtual worlds as affinity spaces.

2) letting go of the traditional landscape metaphor in creating places, and

3) what it is like to work directly with a school district committed to integrating this technology into school day and after school learning.

If you are interested in something else I might have experience with, let me know.

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Elves 1, Cars 0

Next Generation (and several other online outlets) reported today that publisher NCSoft will be shutting down their MMO Auto Assault at the end of August. Citing low subscriber numbers-- "down to only one server"-- the game will close less than a year after its release in April 2006.

I've never played the game, and apparently none of you have either. I ask: if you did play, why do you think it failed to achieve decent subscriber numbers? And whether you did or did not, do you think that fantasy and sci-fi will continue to dominate the MMO market, at least for the foreseeable future?

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Ted & Arden in Chronicle of Higher Ed

Imho, a nice milestone for virtual world studies in academia.  Here's the link

Unfortunately, it's a subscription-only article, but if you have access or can find it on the IntarWeb, it's a nice write-up of Ted's career, the Ludium, and virtual world scholarship.  TN is also mentioned: "On the blog Terra Nova, Mr. Castronova and his colleagues in academe and industry regularly sound off on many of the same issues debated at Ludium II. Mr. Castronova helped found the blog, in 2003, in order to build on the idea that virtual worlds can be more than mindless fun." 

So, hey, let's all keep building on that idea: virtual worlds can be more than mindless fun!  :-)

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