December 2007 | Main Page | February 2008

Survey for Emory's Virtual Worlds Conference

As Ted Castronova has already announced, a fascinating conference is coming up at Emory University, called  "Virtual Worlds and New Realities."  There are going to be a number of panel discussions (the last of which will be broadcast live into Second Life and on Second Life Cable Network as part of the Metanomics weekly interview series.) 

To spark discussion on the panels, the conference organizers have asked me to distribute the following survey links.  Even if you are not going to attend the conference, we would love to have your responses to the key questions, which address research questions, research methods, collaboration opportunities, and “commercial, social and political possibilities.”

The link to the survey is here.

Below the fold, I list the questions themselves, and give my stab at some of the answers.  You don’t have to write as much as I have—after all, your responses will be private (unless you want to post them here publicly, as I have.  I am sure that just a few bullet points would be a great help.

1. QUESTIONS THAT MATTER: What research questions or inquiries are important with regard to studying virtual worlds in the next several years (think 2008-2015)?

I answer this question from several directions.  First, what research questions can virtual worlds help us answer?  Virtual worlds are particularly valuable for studying economic and regulatory issues.  The power of virtual world economies is shown quite clearly by high degree of market activity in user accounts and assets, even when explicitly banned by the Terms of Service.  Thus, I hope and expect to see virtual worlds used to answer basic policy questions, like:
--How does tax policy affect investment and economic growth?
--How do financial regulations (including those governing insider trading, market transparency and financial disclosure) affect capital flows and economic growth?
--How do markets and economies behave in the face of lax (or non-existent) regulations?

The second direction is to consider what we need to know about virtual worlds in order to conduct more effective research on other topics (like economics, as described above).  This leads to questions like:
--How can we make virtual world roles entertaining enough for players that we can build a large and committed subject pool, while not violating the tenets of experimental economics (which emphasize that all participants are motivated primarily by financial incentives)?
--How does the use of avatars affect individual behavior, particularly in business/economic settings? 
--How can researchers implement experimental controls over participants in virtual-world experiments? Challenges include identifying participants uniquely, controlling participant-to-participant communications during and between research sessions, etc.

A third direction is to study how for-profit, not-for-profit and governmental enterprises are using and should use virtual worlds for education, simulation, research, outreach, marketing and other uses?  Virtual worlds seem to be particularly amenable to entrepreneurship, so this should be a focus of study as well.      

Finally, for the political animals out there:  how will virtual worlds affect democratic institutions in the real world (by allowing community building, etc.)?  What governance works within virtual worlds?  And how do we ensure egalitarian access to virtual worlds, which currently require pretty expensive hardware and internet connections?

METHODS: What research methods and approaches are valuable in the study of, and study in, virtual worlds?

Research on and in virtual worlds is exceptionally interdisciplinary.  I have found my training in business, behavioral economics and experimental economics extremely useful.  But lately, I wish I were a macroeconomist!  Sociologists are also making great headway, and I think as they start working with econometricians, we are going to get some fascinating looks at the networks that arising in these spaces.

Legal and political issues loom large in the metaverse.  Sometimes these groups don’t play so well with social scientists (who are almost always data-driven these days, while legal/political researchers are more qualitative).  I think virtual world research provides some opportunities for collaboration here, because it is easier to do comparative analyses (virtual worlds may differ less from one another than countries in the real world do).

I just walked out of a 3-hour meeting on survey research, much of it devoted to the difficulties of conducting phone surveys in a cell-phone world.  What will surveys in virtual worlds be like?  My head hurts just thinking about it!

COLLABORATIVE INITIATIVES: What might be some ways to effectively establish more multi-university and multi-institutional research, both with regard to studying virtual worlds as well as using virtual worlds to facilitate research collaborations?

Many of us have been talking about a <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supercollider"> "supercollider model"  </a> for virtual world research—an attempt to get massive funding to create a platform for virtual worlds that researchers of all stripes could use.  Of course, the original supercollider project failed, but the model seems more likely to succeed given the relatively low cost, rapid translation into commercial application, and distributed financing (one problem with the supercollider was that it had to be in one location, raising the question of who would get to/have to host it.)

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OK, I’m out of time and steam right now, but I wanted to get this post started.  I will add my answers to the remaining questions as a comment later on.  Here are the questions, which address "commercial, social and political possibilities will influence the design, adoption, applications and implications of virtual worlds":

What, with regard to the current state of virtual worlds, is important and noteworthy to you?

What interesting institutional changes might take place as virtual worlds spread with regard to business, government, and society?

How might virtual worlds change the socio-political environment and nature of human interactions?

What radical changes with regard to virtual worlds might we expect in the two to five year horizon, or beyond?

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Santa Clara / Recent News

Below are some recent mainstream media stories on virtual worlds for those who might have missed them.  Thoughts, comments, and links to other things welcome, as always.

Before that, though, if you should happen to be in Santa Clara County on Friday (the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, specifically), I'll be there as part of a panel talking about how trademark law should work in virtual worldsSee this page.  Much more interesting, though, are the other folks who will be speaking, such as Richard Stallman, Alex Kozinski, Marty Roberts (GC of Linden Lab), Chris Kelly (Chief Privacy officer of Facebook),  Zahavah Levine (Chief Counsel of YouTube), and a whole bunch of other people rather fancier than myself.  Apparently, you can attend for free, although they encourage you to donate $10 to pay for cheese and such.

Now onto the news...

The Wall Street Journal on the Second Life Banking Crisis

"When virtual environments first started, they were viewed as libertarian dreams with no interference," says Behnam Dayanim, a lawyer who specializes in Internet law at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP in Washington. "As companies that sponsor these environments become more accountable to investors or regulators, they are starting to encounter real-world limitations."

The New York Times on Kid's Virtual Worlds

Club Penguin, where members pay $5.95 a month to dress and groom penguin characters and play games with them, attracts seven times more traffic than Second Life. In one sign of the times, Electric Sheep, a software developer that helps companies market their brands in virtual worlds like Second Life and There.com, last week laid off 22 people, about a third of its staff.

ABC News: Can Web Worlds Teach Real Life?

Proponents of online research counter with figures that the audience for today's "massively multiplayer" games mirror the general public far more closely than most other video games. And in hopes of quelling the skeptics, several studies are attempting to see if reality shines through in the online worlds of pixels and pixies.

The BBC on the Habbo Theft

A Dutch teenager has been arrested for allegedly stealing virtual furniture from "rooms" in Habbo Hotel, a 3D social networking website.

(And click here for a similar hacking/virtual property story from Japan.)

Wired (Julian) on Griefers

Pwnage, zerging, phat lewts — online gaming has birthed a rich lexicon. But none, perhaps, deserves our attention as much as the notion of the griefer. Broadly speaking, a griefer is an online version of the spoilsport — someone who takes pleasure in shattering the world of play itself.

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President of the United States

In 2005, one of the major remaining candidates for the US Presidency proposed anti-game  legislation whose wording indicated many of the biases and inaccuracies that have re-emerged in the Cooper Lawrence incident. Today, that candidate's web site says nothing about video games. While I don't consider myself all that deeply in touch with the gamer webspace, it seems  that I haven't heard anyone taking a position for or against any of the candidates based on the candidate's views about gaming. Is this because their positions on games don't matter? Or is it because gamers don't vote? Or have I just failed to see political stances that are, in fact, out there.

Gamers: Do you read sites like GamePolitics and the Entertainment Consumers Association? Who do you support in the current contest, and is gaming policy part of your position? Is gaming even a relevant issue now? Do you vote at all? How have these questions been answered recently in the elections of other countries?

My name is Edward Castronova, and I approved this message.

Comments (34)

Metaverse U

WHERE: Annenberg Auditorium, Stanford University
WHEN: Saturday the 16th and Sunday the 17th of February 2008
WEBSITE: http://metaverseu.stanford.edu

There are lots of good people attending this, and it looks like a solid event.

Details below the fold.


Stanford Humanities Lab (SHL) is thrilled to announce the Metaverse U conference at Stanford University. This two day conference will be held on February 16th and 17th 2008 and feature speakers from a range of disciplines spanning industry and academia. Our lab has worked in virtual worlds for some years now and have seen interest in the space grow exponentially in recent years. We believe that the time has come for an event to tell the interesting stories from the evolving metaverse. The current generation of spaces is part of a larger historical picture and many lessons have been learned over the years. Our ultimate goal with Metaverse U is to create a broad conversation about the pressing question of what the metaverse should be.

Metaverse U's list of speakers includes Raph Koster (Metaplace), Brewster Kahle (The Internet Archive), Jeremy Bailenson (Stanford University), TL Taylor (The IT University of Copenhagen), Cory Ondrejka, Tony Parisi (Media Machines & Web3D), Jon Brouchoud (Wikitecture), Wm. LeRoy Heinrichs (Stanford Medical Center), Rebecca Moore (Google Earth), Parvati Dev (Innovation in Learning), Byron Reeves (Stanford University & Seriosity), Kari Kraus (University of Maryland), Christain Renaud (Cisco), Mike Liebhold (Institute for the future), Daniel Huebner (Doppelganger), Vladlen Koltun (Stanford Virtual Worlds Group), Howard Rheingold, Henry Lowood (Stanford University)

For more information please visit: http://metaverseu.stanford.edu

Registration is open at: http://metaverse.stanford.edu/registration/register-now

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MacArthur Series on Philanthropy and Virtual Worlds

From the release:

The USC Institute for Network Culture and Global Kids present a discussion on Virtual Liberties: Do Avatars Dream of Civil Rights?

12:00p.m. PST on Monday, January 28, 2008

Please join the USC Institute for Network Culture and Global Kids for the first event in an upcoming series on philanthropy and virtual worlds.

The event, "Virtual Liberties: Do Avatars Dream of Civil Rights?" will be held on the USC Annenberg Island [ http://slurl.com/secondlife/Ilha%20de%20Intercambio/9/22/29 ] or on the Global Kids estate [ www.tinyurl.com/2m4dnpSecond ] on Second Life at 12:00p.m. PST on Monday, January 28, 2008.

Jonathan F. Fanton, President of the MacArthur Foundation, will chair a discussion about the avatar civil liberties. Joining him will be Robin Harper, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Business Development from Linden Lab, and Jack Balkin, professor of Constitutional Law and the First Amendment at Yale Law School.

Prior to their remarks, Douglas Thomas, Professor at USC and Director of the Institute for Network Culture, and Barry Joseph, Director of Global Kids' Online Leadership Program, will give updates on and announce a dramatic series of programs as part of MacArthur's year exploring philanthropy in virtual worlds. Thomas and Joseph are MacArthur grantees.

Comments (34)

The Lifetime to Master

It's taken me five years of on-again, off-again but often substantial playing of poker (don't worry, mostly not cash games) to really understand some of the game's concepts that I read about when I was playing but didn't properly understand.

Ludological scholars are right to insist, in this respect and others, that games require attention as games, that they have a character or nature that is intrinsic to games and not to texts or performances or sociality. Poker has a "deep game" that is not spelled out in the rules, but which powerfully sorts out the losers and the winners, given a sufficient number of rounds of play.

What's the "deep game" of virtual worlds, those that have at least some game-like character?

Poker really has two deep games that are not visible in its explicit rules. The first doesn't take a lot of play to understand or appreciate, and some players can never get good at it because they lack the capacity to do so. That's the ability to read another player's patterns of play and emotional posture, to look for his or her characteristic "tells". This is a cultural game, a social game: if you're good at it, it's because you can import sociality or emotional intelligence into the infrastructure provided by poker's rules. You can even do it online, where there are no faces or bodies to look at. The game's rules still play a role in using this skill correctly, and so does luck in terms of where the loose and tight players in a game are in relationship to oneself. I have gotten a bit better over time in reading other players, but people can be geniuses at that aspect of the game in a day, or never get any better at it in a decade.

The other deep game has to do with the value of position. This is structural, it's a consequence of the ruleset, but it's not visible in the rules per se. Every poker guide and handbook you can read will lay out this aspect of the game, but I think it is very hard to understand fully how and why it matters until you have played  a great deal, and played in games where players have at least some respect for the stakes on the board. (E.g., the chips are real money, or played for real money.)  In hold'em poker, there are hands you simply don't want to play ever from some positions that might be worth playing aggressively from another position, in dynamic relationship to the size of your own stack of chips versus others on the board.

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Virtual worlds have a sociality game deeply embedded within in them, obviously. And as with poker, some players excel at this game from the beginning, in a variety of ways. Both scammers and guild leaders may be excellent social players, in their own fashion. Some people will never get good at it. But precisely because virtual worlds are so robust in their social dimensions, I think it's right to argue, as Constance Steinkuehler, T.L. Taylor and many other scholars have argued, that virtual worlds actually teach sociality, that many players improve in some dimensions of their social intelligence over time: in their functioning within organizations, in their coordinated response to collective action problems, in setting personal goals and achieving them through social networks, in communicating with other individuals. We can make fun of the dysfunctionality of a lot of people playing in these worlds, and even thirty minutes spent in the Barrens tends to make one feel that some players are losing rather than gaining social intelligence in virtual worlds. But I still think the social context of even a simple virtual world runs along so many more axes than poker, and is so much more mimetic to the real world, that this deep game can be learned quite well and often is. (The deep social game of poker, in the end, is limited almost entirely to performing lies and reading lies. Unless you're cheating or flirting, it's doesn't involve other kinds of emotional or social connection to the players. )

The other deep game, however, strikes me as rather like poker's: it is about the hidden, emergent, or unintended consequences of the rules or code that govern play in the world. This is where most of the discourse about "cheating" in virtual worlds lies, and where most of the moral debate about how they are meant to be played ultimately centers. Players frequently discover that some aspect of play has unintended consequences that are disproportionately advantageous. A character's powers can be used in some novel fashion that renders that character nearly invincible versus certain opponents. A computer-controlled opponent has some unexpected vulnerability that makes it a risk-free source of reward. A tactic interacts with the virtual physicality of the landscape in some surprising fashion.

Sometimes this behavior is straightforwardly banned or forbidden, and the game's code amended to prevent it. Sometimes the designers compliment the players for having discovered this deep aspect of play, and it rapidly becomes the new standard. Not too long ago, my own World of Warcraft guild was in Karazhan, working on some new trash mobs as we climbed up the tower, and somewhat coincidentally, we found out that a particular tactic that was not mentioned in WoWWiki removed some of the need for careful coordination around clearing them. (The tactic is now in WoWWiki, I noticed.)

So does this "deep game" require a lifetime to master? Yes and no. It does in the sense that you have to have played two or more of the commercial virtual worlds that have come out since Meridan 59 to understand where the opportunities for this kind of play are likely to exist, and more importantly, how to protect knowledge about these kinds of discoveries for as long as possible while also being knowledgeable about what kinds of discoveries may trigger designer intervention and even designer punishment, relative to the established behavior of a given developer. (E.g., in the first Asheron's Call, you could pretty much try and get away with anything without fear that the developers would punish you for it, whereas Blizzard is known to crack down fairly hard on players discovering unforeseen or emergent aspects of the gameworld in many cases.)

The problem is that because virtual worlds are almost entirely built on the same basic rule-structure derived from DikuMUD, and because their representations of physical and graphical environments are ultimately so similar, this deep game becomes more and more known to larger and larger numbers of players over time, all the more so since World of Warcraft has evolved into the new template for all subsequence virtual-world games. But unlike poker, this is not a deep game that opens up a vast new domain of contingent decisions for players that help to further distinguish or individuate them in their style of play. Once you fully understand how position works in poker, you do not play the same as everyone else who understands position. You simply make better decisions about your own style of play, craftier decisions about how to take the kinds of risks you want to take, and how to apply the deep game of position to the deep game of reading the psychology of other players.

The deep game of "find the unintended aspects of play and arbitrage the living hell out of them" in Diku-style worlds, on the other hand? It actually forces a convergence of play styles and limits the social variety of players over time, which is why the debate about this form of play stops being about rules and starts being about morality. That alone is a good reason for designers to think about the Diku template again. When players discover the deep game, you want it to be a new source of fertility, not a barren monoculture.

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My Tiny Life Now Free

About ten years ago, when I was wandering around the library at the University of Virgina looking for something that would teach me about the shape of community online, I found My Tiny Life.  I pulled it off the shelf and started with the first few pages in which the author confronts a RL server in Palo Alto that happens to contain LambdaMOO. 

It's a wonderful little depiction of a person trying to reconcile a vibrant and rich virtual world with the "silent, bone-white" machine that houses it.  After reading those pages, I was hooked.  I had found the kind of writing and subject that made me sit down on the floor right next to the bookshelf -- I didn't want to expend the time or energy to find a table.  I wasn't the only person affected this way by reading My Tiny LifeE.g. Larry Lessig's blurb on the back cover says: "Dibbell's story is why I teach cyberlaw."

Well, the main point of this post is that Julian has made his wonderful book available as a free download.  You can get it here, in a very spiffy PDF file.  The Web is now a richer place.

The secondary note is that Julian would like to make MTL even freer.  Yet he hasn't managed that trick yet because apparently there's a little problem with the phones at HarperCollins UK.  Explanation of that here (and that page also includes his reasons for wanting to  release the book for free).

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Sleep is cancelled

Over the holidays I found myself notified by those above me in an alliance in the game world of Eve-Online: "sleep is cancelled"  (pg 18, cited document below).  I wondered, how did it come to this:

  1. How did the fortunes of my tribe in that game world sour to this point;
  2. How many times can an alliance ask for its members to sacrifice a night, a weekend, even if a virtual empire hung in the balance?

I think the answer to these questions is complicated, but they both strike a deeper chord - at a deeply politicized 0.0 alliance game.  Simply put, political tension on a number of interconnected levels drives the purpose and mechanics of the large-scale alliance game in Eve-Online.

We've discussed much of this in the past, here, in the ongoing series on the Eve-Online alliance game  (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. 7.  8.  9. ), as we will do too in the future.  I've started a parallel process of pulling together discussions past and future into a more complete set of documents.  An early draft is cited below:

A View of Politics and Morale in Eve-Online  (1.6mb PDF).  

Below the fold are a few footnotes.

1.) This is a draft document in the early stages of development.  Comments here - or here (better for less general audience comments) are welcome, as well as examples if you are a player.

2.) This version of the document relies heavily on the "GoonSwarm versus Band of Brothers" (a dominant super alliance) struggle in-game for example.  However, what goes on in the smaller alliances, I think, is sometimes more nuanced.  To be introduced in a later version.

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Sub-Prime Crisis in Second Life

Real-world regulators are already seriously considering action against  high interest rates for poorly-collateralized loans with high default risk (so called "sub-prime" mortgages).  Well, Linden Lab has moved strongly to eliminate a class of such loans, with a twist:  the banks are paying the high interest rates, and are the ones that tend to default on their depositors.  Here is the key statement in the Linden Lab policy regarding inworld "Banks" (their quotes):

As of January 22, 2008, it will be prohibited to offer interest or any direct return on an investment (whether in L$ or other currency) from any object, such as an ATM, located in Second Life, without proof of an applicable government registration statement or financial institution charter.  We’re implementing this policy after reviewing Resident complaints, banking activities, and the law, and we’re doing it to protect our Residents and the integrity of our economy.    (Full text here.)

My analysis and predictions below the fold.

Now, I am  on the record in Technology Review (registration required) for arguing that "I hope regulators will give markets such as Second Life's enough freedom for us to learn something about how to regulate real-world markets, and when not to try." I justify my position by pointing out that

"In medicine, we assess the effectiveness of a drug partly by denying it to a control group. But the high stakes of experimenting with deregulation of large real-world markets make it hard to get much empirical evidence about what kind and degree of regulation make the most sense, or what practices, in the absence of regulation, are most successful in protecting investors and fostering liquid markets. That's one reason Second Life excites economists: at little cost, they can create a regulation-free control group."

Well, that is clearly not to be, for banks anyway.  The stock exchanges, and the firms listed on them, are a different matter.  First Linden's FAQ (registration required) says: "As of today, this policy is generally focused on objects and schemes that involve real-time transfers of L$ and payment of interest or rates of return.  Exchanges may or may not do this, so they may or may not be covered."  This gets tricky, because right now most or all exchanges are inextricably tied to interest-paying brokerage banks (in which traders store their money and shares).  In theory, the exchanges could pay 0% interest on their brokerage accounts.

Permitting equity markets would be consistent with part of Linden Lab's reasoning for shutting down banks:  that bank's interest rates are "unsustainable." Equities, by definition, don't pay a fixed interest rate, but just provide a residual interest in the profits of the firm.  So they can't be unsustainable.  But the other part of Linden's argument is that (from the FAQs above) "Depending on what statements these so-called “banks” make, and what depositors’ expectations are, they raise the possibility that banking or securities laws may apply.   If so, they would need to be chartered or registered with applicable real world regulators, and to our knowledge, none of them is."  But many of the firms listing stock would probably be exempt from SEC registration anyway, much like the securities on Pink Sheets.  Perhaps they would just need to have a lawyers letter stating they are exempt.

I continue to hope that Linden Lab will let the exchanges run.  But what do you think? And which of the following predictions I have heard in the last 2 hours do you think will come true (my view in parens)?






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Foozles I Have Known, Quests I Have Done

Working off of a post by Raph Koster, I set down some of my own thoughts on the games of 2007.

Now I want to think a bit further about the content of game experiences, specifically in virtual worlds.   

[Spoilers for the game Bioshock, if you haven't played it yet.] For all my frustrations with the riding-on-the-rails aspects of Bioshock's gameplay, I'll give it this much: I was emotionally engaged by the conflict with the first "boss" of the game, Andrew Ryan, but also had a strong emotional reaction to the revelation that both my character and myself had been manipulated by "Atlas", the seemingly sympathetic ally who helped the protagonist get to Ryan and kill him. Of course, the ride-the-rails aspect of the game structure means that you never had a choice but to follow Atlas' promptings, nor do you have any choice but to seek revenge against him, if you want progression through the gameworld. Nevertheless, at certain points in the first half of the game, I genuinely wanted to kill Ryan, a structure of feeling I experienced as within rather than outside of the fiction of the game.

I have a hard time thinking of NPC antagonists in virtual worlds who inspire any kind of emotional reaction which is a part of the gameworld itself as opposed to within the outside framework of guild or player sociality. This is partly because nothing that these NPCs do has any dynamic consequence to the gameworld itself. If a major NPC boss in a virtual world took stuff from characters, raided guild banks, destroyed travel junctures, removed resource spawns, and by killing that boss, you could stop it from doing so, that might be different. Or even if the boss had done something within the game fiction that was more emotionally meaningful instead of stereotypically dark-lordish or lore-incomprehensible.  It's hard to get too worked up about Illidan in World of Warcraft's Burning Crusade, for example. Even within the context of Outland, it's not altogether very clear what Illidan has done that makes him an enemy to players besides being a big fat (if very challenging) loot pinata. About the last virtual-world NPC antagonist I remember that seemed to have a kind of tangible emotional connection to player's experience of the world itself were the olthoi and the demon Bael'Zharon of Asheron's Call.

The nature of a given boss battle and the visual look of a boss can give virtual world players some sense of emotional narrative. Exceptionally pesky or challenging bosses are a special pleasure to defeat. There are some curious undercurrents to a few repeated conflicts because of the look or feel of a boss. I'm always a bit struck when my current WoW guild, with a fairly large number of academics as members, celebrates downing the Maiden of Virtue in Karazhan by saying things like "The bitch is down" and so on. (Not criticizing: I trash-talked that bitch myself before we put her on farm status, and I still think she's a bitch for withholding the drop that the guild is still coveting.)

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The same thing mostly goes for quests in virtual worlds, the key gameplay infrastructure which composes a good deal of the experience of most such worlds.  But it is thinking about quests that begins to make me wonder whether the current crop of worlds is really selling us short, because the odd exceptional quest here and there makes you realize that there could be more emotionally engaging experiences even within the DikuMUD structure. World of Warcraft has a precious smattering of oddball or special quests that tend to be imaginatively involving, sometimes even if you've done them a number of times. For example, I love the questline that gains the player access to the daily quests of Ogril'a, in which the player is crowned "King (or Queen) of the Ogres". The conclusion of the event is almost a better reward than the access to a new money-producing grind. Lord of the Rings Online has done a good job, I think, of integrating some quests into the storyline of the book Fellowship of the Ring, to the point that some players (well, at least me) feel an interest in seeing what happens next in the central storyline quests.

By now, most virtual world players are familiar with the typology of the typical questlines, just as we know what bosses great and minor are likely to be and to do. The kill quest. The Fed Ex quest. (My young daughter asked me while playing Toontown a few weeks back: 'Why don't these shopkeepers ever leave and do some of this stuff for themselves'?)  The drop quest. The escort quest. Our familiarity is part of what precludes most of us from emotional connection even when the text of a quest is especially well written. Just throw players a slight wrinkle in an ordinary level-up quest and watch the general chat blossom with "Where is Mankrik's wife?" or on the Hellfire Peninsula, "Where is the assassin?"

So let me ask two questions:

1) Is there anything that a boss or major NPC could do in game-fictional terms within the current conventions of most virtual worlds that might make players feel a strong emotional desire to defeat that boss?

2) Are there stock structures or types of reasonably implementable quests which might be: a) more emotionally engaging than the current range of stock quests and b) a good way to diversify the current range of stock quests?

Both questions might get a boost through looking at non-game fictions. What do antagonists do in other narratives that makes them hateful, that gives the audience a desire to see them destroyed or defeated? What kinds of stock narratives in non-game fictions are absent from virtual world games? (Boy/girl meets boy/girl, loses boy/girl, gets boy/girl; mentor puts young hero through training exercises more engaging and enigmatic than 'kill 100 womprats'; protagonist seeks elaborate revenge or has to right a reversal of fortune, and so on.)

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World of Answercraft

Amazon.com has had, for about a year, a beta feature/forum called Askville.com.  According to the web site:

 What is Askville?

Askville is a place where you can share and discuss knowledge with other people by asking and answering questions on any topic.  It’s a fun place to meet others with similar interests to you and a place where you can share what you know.

An online Q&A community is not exactly a new idea.  There's the defunct Google Answers and the non-defunct Yahoo Answers.  And see USENET, that virtual community where netizens still share and discuss knowledge, ask and answer questions, and all that good stuff.

What's intriguing about Askville is not the substance of the exchange, but the incentive structure they have wrapped around it.  There are experience points and Quest gold that can be earned by answering questions.  For instance, if you look at the charts on that FAQ page, you'll see that in order to be a level 4  user on Askville, and get a 20 gold payout bonus, you'll need to have 1,500-2,999 experience points.  The real innovation here is that Amazon is apparently targeting all the Gygaxians out there.  Is that a good idea?  Is it a fun idea?

The promoted incentive in Askville is to have fun leveling up and earing Quest gold.  Quest gold is supposed to be valuable at an upcoming website, Questville.com, but the opening of that site has been delayed a bit and it isn't clear exactly what folks will be doing at Questville.  Maybe you'll be given a quest to do combat with 10 mechanical Turks.   Maybe you'll be tasked with setting information policy for the bookstore of Babel.  The possibilities are endless.

In the meantime:

8.      Can I redeem my Quest gold for anything, such as money?

Except for any special limited time redemption offers that we may make available from time to time, Quest gold are not redeemable for anything at this moment.  Once Questville.com launches we hope to have exciting new ways to use your Quest gold.  Until then, keep on stocking up on your Quest gold!

Hmm -- but why do we want that Quest gold if we don't know what we'll be doing with it?  At another point in the FAQ, the site states "collect as many Quest gold as you can and show everyone how active and helpful you've been on Askville."  So Quest gold signifies your degree of altruism?  Well, actually, there's a potential monetary payout as well.  Quest gold was recently redeemable for Amazon gift cards of up to $100 value.  So collecting Quest gold shows everyone how active and helpful you've been, plus how likely you are to possibly earn a $100 gift card.  Interesting.

Tech Crunch took note of all this a year ago.  Virtual World News made mention of it over the summer, which caught some attention among the virtual worlds blogerati, and recently Alice Taylor picked it up, then James Au from her, and then yesterday Nick Carr pointed it out.

Carr says: "One thing's for sure, anyway: If you can pay your workers with virtual money, you've got a helluva labor strategy."  Yep.  As Nick Yee has pointed out, there are actually a bunch of interesting things that might be done by harnessing large scale play behaviors.

Amazon's World of Answercraft (the promised Questville) is interesting to me because I'm finishing a symposium essay (for this symposium) on the topic of user-generated content and virtual worlds. One thing I'm interested in exploring is the tension between what I'll call: 1) market economies, 2) reputation economies, and 3) ludic economies. 

Market economies are just what you'd normally think of as economies.  Reputation economies are not as well defined, but essentially they add the twist that the primary capital consists of social status and influence -- I talk about what I think the term might mean in this post at Madisonian and a bit more in this paper.  As for ludic economies, I don't have a short or long definition of that term (yet) but you can probably guess  at the gist of the idea -- it is related to the acquisition and transfer of what Mia calls "gamer capital" in her recent book and ties into some ideas that Thomas has worked on in this essay.

One of the interesting things about reputation and ludic economies, I think, is that the modes through which reputation and ludic capital are acquired and dissipated are quite different from what one sees in idealized market economies.  For instance, complete market transfer of one's reputation to another is generally not possible, though endorsement and community membership might be described as a type of exchange.  Reputation is also not understood as universally fungible, but is instead situated in the context of particular communities and even specific personal relationships.   See the microfamous.

As I implied in this post, virtual worlds are structured in ways that create incentives for the pursuit of reputation and ludic capital.  Though they are profitable for owners as online services, game economies based on Quest gold and such are primarily ludic arrangements where status is earned only according to investments and accomplishments obeying the set rules of play.  (Cf. The Mitchell Report.) 

Part of the issue with the RMT, I think, is that market economies have always existed in an uneasy tension with both reputation and ludic economies.  Reputation can be lost when a person "sells out".  Games are almost always constrained by rule sets that prohibit market economies from intruding into certain aspects of play.

As I'll be writing about in the essay, and as other have observed, so-called Web 2.0 efforts often seem aimed at monetizing reputation economies indirectly.  Essentially platform owners seek to find ways, and sometimes do find ways, of profiting from online communities that are premised on sharing or non-market competition. 

As I explain in the Digital Attribution paper, this has interesting  implications for how we should react to some of the rhetorical claims of Web 2.0 proponents.  While there is no inherent contradiction between the pursuit of fame and money (often they go hand in hand), there are quite different rhetorics surrounding the pursuit of play and social reputation versus the pursuit of market wealth.

Carr has been an astute observer of the gaps between rhetoric and practice here.  He claims that many Web 2.0 models amount to sharecropping the labors of sharing communities.  So I find Carr's confusion about how to read "Quest gold" very interesting.  He says:

In July of 2006, I entered into a quasi-wager with Yochai "Wealth of Networks" Benkler about the ultimate economic structure of the most popular social media sites. I predicted that the dominant sites would pay for their content - that they would, in Benkler's terms, be "price-incentivized systems." Benkler predicted that the sites would be pure "peer-production processes" existing outside "the price system."

So what happens if people get paid with virtual gold: Is that price-incentivized or not? I would argue that it is. If you're working for gold, whether real or fake, you're putting a price on your labor. I mean, if you take beads in trade for something of value, then the beads are money, right? But of course I'm biased, being a participant in the wager. Maybe Benkler would argue that fake gold is more like a token of esteem or a gift of the heart than like a wage.

Ah, there's the rub.  The question we might ask is: why would this matter?  Other than for tax purposes or interpreting the language of wagers, do we really need to place those beads neatly in one of two boxes: money or esteem?

If you can exhange Quest gold for an Amazon gift card, then it is money.  But if it also "show[s] everyone how active and helpful you've been on Askville" then it is also something else--a token of esteem.  So, like many status markers out there that people might pursue (e.g. the Nobel Prizes or an NFS grants), Quest gold belongs in both boxes at once.  Prizes have valences in market, reputation, and ludic economies. 

So Carr's question is a bit too binary.  He seems to devalue ludic rewards and prioritize the balance sheet as the ultimate authority.  The most interesting thing, for me, is looking at the ways these various forms of capital are permitted to interrelate and looking for instances where their exchange is permitted or prohibited (e.g. payola).

One of my observations in Digital Attribution was that Benkler's claims about peer production often idealize  reputation economies and gloss over their complicated dynamics.  When we look at reputation economies we often find winners and losers following predictable incentive models in ways that seem rational and self-interested.  Practices can be sharp and injustices can occur.

While Benkler seems to conflate the absence of pecuniary exchange with the presence of a superior social order (based on, e.g., norms of sharing and collaboration), it isn't clear that peer production (or Quest gold production) changes that much at all from a normative perspective.  Reputation and ludic economies feature a different form of capital, but human nature remains the same.  Even if we accept that we're in a transition from away from a "price system" for certain forms of information online (which I think is correct), what do we stand to gain and what do we stand to lose from that transition?

So I'll be interested in seeing if Amazon can make World of Answercraft into something interesting.  Here's a question (perhaps I should post it to Askville!):

Q: At this point, Askville wants Quest gold to signify status, potential money, and gaming success.  Is that type of currency confusing? Is it fun?

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