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Sep 13, 2003



I like frontier as a metaphor. We now have this space that lies outside the jurisdication of existing States. As such, it's understandably popular for hucksters, escapists, entrepreneurs, the oppressed, and anyone who did not get a fair shake under the Old World's rules. It is malleable, but not completely.

To call these places frontiers is to take them seriously. Our internal debate has been about exactly that: to what extent are these places not play? How is our study of them affected by their play status?

Having kicked this around for awhile, I think I'm settling on the uncomfortably complex notion that these places are sites of play and non-play at the same time. Like a coin that has two faces, synthetic worlds are a single space with two inseparable, simultaneous, and radically different manifestations. I still haven't figured out what that might mean for policy and law.


I don't think anyone has figured out what the implications of this stuff for law, policy, economics, or other meaningful aspects of real life. That's what this blog is for (^.-)

What I find interesting here is once you abandon the idea that these things are just games you realize that they have fascinating internal social features (eg the emergence of justice mechanisms like posses, or arbitration systems) and equally fascinating spillover effects to the real world (eg the sale of in-game assets on eBay).

My feeling about the frontier/game/synthetic/real/etc tags is that they are each useful at times and dangerous at times, leading us to ignore or privilege certain aspects of the system as it suits us. Wanna make VWs appear important: call them "worlds"; wanna make them appear pointless: call them "games," etc.

It would be nice not to label them for a while, and instead try to identify the interesting aspects of these social spaces (another fraught metaphor) without loading the dice one way or the other. Of course, this is completely impossible, and one doesn't need to be a radical pomo theorist to realize that we're going to be arguing over VW labels for a long time.


In these internal debates Greg mentions, I've tended to be the one insisting on calling these worlds games. So I want to make one point clear: I take games very seriously.

I hope, indeed, that among the things we come up with here is a conceptual vocabulary for articulating the seriousness of games and their centrality to culture, society, and, well, civilization.

So far, to the best of my knowledge, the thinker who has cleared the most brush on this project is Johan Huizinga, author of the 1938 classic Homo Ludens (look it up on Amazon yourself; no links allowed in comments, apparently). But having read that classic, which is a good deal less coherent than any classic has a right to be, I must say there's still a lot of work to do.

For now, I leave you with a Homo Ludens quote I have at times thought I might want etched on my tombstone:

"Play cannot be denied. You can deny, if you like, nearly all abstractions: justice, beauty, truth, goodness, mind, God. You can deny seriousness, but not play."


There's nothing like sitting on a plane for 8 hours to help you think about things.

Huizinga said that the one sure way to distinguish play from seriousness was in the presence of moral consequences to actions. In play, there's no Right or Wrong.

I can't get around the fact that play with other people can often generate serious moral consequences. My assault on the dragon is play, but my failure to assist Galahad's assault, with the result that Galahad's $5,000 house gets eaten up - not play?

I think we can identify play moments in synthetic worlds, but many serious ones as well.

at the same time, it's clear that playspace for all is a good thing. that's why a roleplaying world should be enforced as such, and why, in such a world, eBaying and the like rightly deserve opposition.


It seems "game" and "play," like "world," bring us back to definitions and semiotics...


I think we can all agree that we play games and games are the things we play. I can put examples within the game box (e.g. Checkers and Poker), but I have a hard time drawing the outer boundary, at least if we're not scraping the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy in terms of behavioral motivations.

I realize there are contrary perspectives, e.g.:


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