While wandering through Mass Effect 2, I was struck with the vitality of the world. Circa 2004, the main attraction of a multiplayer environment relative to single player worlds was that single player worlds felt dead. Multiplayer, on the other hand, had vitality but also the annoyances of dealing with other people and their inevitable failure to be perfect friends, or perfect foils.That problem can be reduced by Social Engineering (SE): Designers use policy (sometimes enforced by code) to optimize an individual's experience when dealing with others. Judging from ME2, the problem of dead single-player worlds can be addressed successfully using a suite of tools involving digital storytelling, emotive animations, deep conversation scripts, and a strong responsiveness of the emotive/relational space of characters to the protagonist's actions. Altogether, let's call this bag of tricks "Artificial Emotion" or AE. It's not a new term, indeed Professor Turkle has paved the way here, as before.
As the market for fantasy evolves, these two approaches to improving happiness seem to be facing off.
The issues extend far beyond the game industry. In this area as in others, the game industry is charting territory that business and governments will deal with soon enough. If developments in SE dominate those in AE, look for a future of massively-linked online communities whose policies produce much more happiness than offline communities. If AE wins, look for a future involving isolation pods. Most likely, we will have both. As for offline existence, SE advances might translate into better governance in the real world - better companies, better neighborhoods, better schools. AE advances seem less likely to help the offline world.
Life in the soon-to-be-launched Old Republic may combine the best SE and the best AE in one world.