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Oct 24, 2003



Any subject with enough depth and complexity to keep surprising is worth taking seriously.


"Power corrupts, and absolute power is actually pretty neat."
-- John Lehman, Secretary of the Navy 1981-1987

I've got god-like power over my own pocket universe, you think I'm going to give it up without a fight? ;-)

Serously, the question isn't if they are games or worlds, but how they can manage to be both. It's the old question of the social contract, being replayed in an environment where the "state" has the power to do anything to the world, but no power to force the people to stay and accept our rule.

They are serious because many take them seriously. They are not, because many (even among the developers) do not. No matter how great the time investment, no matter how strong the social bonds, the players can and do decide to simply pack up and leave.

I think that is their strength, rather than their weakness. It's the fact that no matter what happens in the game, you can ultimately escape it simply by hitting the power button and walking away. It's that patina of make believe that both conceals and reveals, that makes it possible to transcend the limitations of the real world.



I'm going to agree with Dave here. I think it's entirely possible to see them as both playspaces and social spaces.

Unfortunately, some people will refuse to take virtual worlds seriously if viewed as playspaces. It's like the struggle for comics books to be taken seriously as literature. Even though there are some comics that exceed mainstream novels in literary content, most adults still think of comic books as something for children. People still think of video games as either for children or for immature adults.

It's a bit of the chicken-and-the-egg. Serious studies of virtual worlds will lead to greater legitimacy. However, serious studies will only happen on a larger scale if virtual worlds are seen as a legitimate medium. In the end I think it's wortwhile to study them, even if they are "only" (or primarily) playspaces.

My thoughts,


"there are some comics that exceed mainstream novels in literary content"

Um, and this is a point in comics' favor? :)

I do agree, though. I think I could argue that various forms of entertainment have gone through this process. Look at the theatre in early 17th century England, for one example. The Puritans managed to get it banned for a couple decades. Now it's seen as serious, so serious most mainstream folk are a bit reticent about going, though movies are okay.

And, of course, it gets reams of scholarship, even in comparison to the vastly more popular and more produced movies.


I've given more talks about this stuff to serious audiences than I can count. Just this past weekend, it was to a group similar to Dan's, a select body of alumni advisors to my college. Most people are just boggled, but they are persuaded something significant is happening here when they learn that venture capital and policy makers (including a few in the five-sided building) are following things closely.

If these worlds are turning into a popular forum for human congregation, that's going to upset any number of apple carts. The only question is, how many.

Consider the fact that processing power is likely to continue its exponential growth over the next century. Do you believe that the only effect of this will be that our video games will get prettier? If so, stop wasting your time on Terra Nova. Nothing to see here; move along.


Seems like we've all had a recent experience along these lines. I was talking with a number of scholars in the legal academy during the past few days, trying to explain the implications of community game spaces for law.

Those discussions re-affirmed for me the conclusions in the Law of the VWs paper, which I think has two prongs: 1) the law needs to take these environments seriously for a few reasons (Blacksnow and South Korea, e.g.), but 2) for a number of other reasons, the law should not become aggressively engaged with the regulation of these environments. The EULAs and the "this is no different than Monopoly" reactions give me some hope that law will *not* do this, and that social regulation and law will therefore emerge (as it seems to be emerging) from within the environments, in response to the needs of the in-world communities.


"...Consider the fact that processing power is likely to continue its exponential growth over the next century. Do you believe that the only effect of this will be that our video games will get prettier? If so, stop wasting your time on Terra Nova. Nothing to see here; move along...."

How can I put this without provoking a violently defensive response?

I can't. It is going to tick you people off no matter how I put it. So here it is.

Recent advances (over the past ten years or so) have not resulted in any quantifiable improvements in gameplay. All they have provided is bigger, prettier game spaces. The NPCs are just as stupid, the player options are more numerous - but no more varied or interesting, the game worlds are just as static and dead, the "storys" are just as uninspired as they ever were. Doom actually provided more of a feeling of RPG-like immersion with its' skeleton of a backstory than most RPGs that have been put out in the last decade. A few of them were superior, but most were not. Most were crap.

Technology will not replace, repair, improve, nor substitute for a lack of creative imagination. Sadly, the quality most missing in today's games has nothing to do with megabytes or megahertz.


Actually, I was going to put in a proviso to that effect, B. You know, there's no guarantee that processing translates to immersive worlds; the critical link is the game design community. Would we be here if Carmack had never been born? Or would the 3D thing only have happened ten years from now?

But let's leap forward 100 years. Technology does not advance gradually. There are spurts and slow periods. Maybe we are in a slow period, still digesting id's engines.

Where will tech advances come next? Well, just think of what 100 years of AI design might produce. I mean, in my lifetime, I've seen combat AI evolve at a breathtaking pace, from the Maoist tactics of Space Invaders to Camelot's scout-aided PC-hunters. I wonder how other people judged the significance of Asheron's Call 2 and Camelot introducing pets that group and give and take orders among themselves ... that seemed like a major advance to me. At the World of Warcraft booth at E3, I was startled to see a schoolmarm leading a group of children through the streets.

I agree that processing and pretty graphics do not make a game. But I fully expect that the game designers who have come up with these marvelous worlds in the space of just a decade - using dial-up for the most part! - will make good use of the processing power and bandwidth that's on the way.


B. Smith wrote, "Recent advances (over the past ten years or so) have not resulted in any quantifiable improvements in gameplay."

Leaving aside the fact that it's hard to quantify an intangible thing like gameplay ("Meridian 59: Resurrection, now with 60% more gameplay!"), I will disagree with you. However, I know where you're coming from: Graphical advances have taken the spotlight from most advances in gameplay. Games have not become more fun so much as become more complicated. I will discuss from this point of view.

I tend to be a bit heretical in my game development beliefs; I'm a programmer (by training) that believes that technology should not drive games. I think that there should be a strong focus on gameplay and making the games fun for a target audience.

The problem is that the market does not reward ugly games that are fun. As graphical advances occur, games must keep up in order to compete. My own game, Meridian 59, currently uses a DOOM-type software rendering engine. Most people absolutely refuse to play the game because it "looks old and ugly". I can have the most astounding gameplay available in a game, but unless I can catch a potential player's eye, it's all for naught. Therefore, one of our biggest projects currently is to rewrite the rendering engine and introduce new effects to the game like dynamic lighting. I guarantee you that this will increase the number of people that will check out Meridain 59.

You simply cannot convey as much information about the gameplay as a few screenshots can convey about a game's production values. A sexy screenshot on the back of the box is going to get more sales than a box with plain screenshots. Therefore, companies focus on graphical improvements while maintaining the current level of "good enough" gameplay because it sells. Focusing on excellent gameplay at the expense of graphical presentation is the best way to make sure your game never makes the "best sellers" list in today's market.

Examples of this abound. Independently developed games have really limited resources, so we're not usually able to pour money into top-notch graphics. Indie games are usually a lot more willing to try "innovative" designs to some success. M59's current incarnation is as an indie game, and our focus on a solid PvP game is pretty rare in the industry these days, as people loudly declare that PvP kills a game.

Same thing applies to single-player games. Wizardry 8 was by most measures a great game; it suffered because the game was in development for a long time and the graphics engine was old. Might and Magic 7 (a wonderful game, in my opinion) was passed up by the market because it looked too much like M&M 6 and used an "ugly" graphics engine.

Until the market rewards great gameplay over flashy graphics, you're going to continue to see graphical advances take precident over gameplay advances. There's only so many dollars in the budget, you know.

Edward Castronova wrote, "I agree that processing and pretty graphics do not make a game. But I fully expect that the game designers who have come up with these marvelous worlds in the space of just a decade - using dial-up for the most part! - will make good use of the processing power and bandwidth that's on the way."

Ah, the myth of broadband. Most of the knowledgable people I know think that broadband penetration is going to remain low for the near future. Planning for fat pipes to every home will only lead to crying.

I'm also not as optimistic as you are. We already have incredible processing power at our command. Meridian 59's server software was written to run on a single-processor 200 MHz machine with 256 MB of RAM (a REALLY beefy system back in the day!) Text MUDs ran on even more primitive hardware with more limitations. Each machine in the cluster of more modern games is more powerful than the computer that M59 required. Shadowbane runs on mini supercomputers, even! Yet do we really see worlds that fully exploit this magnatudes of power we have now over what we had in the past? Not really, in my opinion.

My thoughts,


As I’m one of the growing bad that take this stuff terribly seriously then I guess I \ we are least qualified to say whether MMOs should be a serious object of study. Having said that. . .

Cultural Studies Argument
I think there is the general cultural studies argument that: if enough people do something enough of the time then it is worth of study as its significant human activity – evaluations of intrinsic artist, moral worth do not enter into this argument as it is predicated on behaviour.
To challenge this claim one could argue that MMOs are actually not a significant activity either in terms human time spent building or using these worlds or their economic value. The question then becomes whether one believes that MMOs have reached cultural critical mass that make them worth spending grant money looking at.

Real Value Argument
Looking for a moment at the value issue (shameless plug warning) in my AoIR paper I argued (based on Mine, Ted’s and TLs work) that the structure of MMOs is such that ‘real world’ economic consequences were inevitable. That is they generate tradable value and value is (always) real and serious.

Trajectory Argument

Lastly, I tend to use a ‘trajectory’ argument. That is MMOs are places where communities intersect with code and other laws , so, in so much as virtual communities are important to study for the multiple ways the shape communities in general, MMOs are worth studying. From my own perspective, I see virtual identity as an aspect of civil society that is increasing in importance, and MMOs as well developed intention of identity thus the way that laws do or do not apply to VWs, the way that they are or are not governed I think has wide importance.

For the me playspace thing just adds a layer of complexit to everything, that, to be frank makes this one of the most fun areas of study around/.


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