« Nation shall speak unto virtual nations | Main | Google’s virtual world »

May 14, 2006



Cory wrote:

On the other hand, you could build a space in Second Life that showed how to distribute the food or introduced you to the people getting the food. These places allow you to engage in discourse about the problems and challenges, rather than playing through a fixed experience that encodes one set of beliefs.

How do "these places" allow people to engage in discourse more advanced than that which takes place on forums attached to a single player game? .



Er, the World Bank couldn't afford the price tag for the game they wanted to make. Obviously there's plenty of smaller games that could be made.

Nor did I see myself as throwing cold water on Alice's comments, and I am curious as to how you got that reading from the post. Rather, I was advocating that the BBC do more stuff very much like the broadcast event: bringing reach to serious games via the immense audience that the BBC can provide.

I therefore assume (perhaps mistakenly) that the impetus for this post actually comes from the extended discussion with Prokofy Neva over on my blog, and most specifically the comments that you referenced in your own blog post yesterday.

Sure, people can spend time making decent single player games that teach about food distribution. On the other hand, you could build a space in Second Life that showed how to distribute the food or introduced you to the people getting the food. These places allow you to engage in discourse about the problems and challenges, rather than playing through a fixed experience that encodes one set of beliefs.

Simply put, because if your goal is teaching as wide an audience as possible about food distribution, a web-accessible, low bandwidth, low tech-requirement, easy entry client that is instantly entertaining is a more likely way to achieve your goals? One lightweight game like Food Force on a BBC website would be exposed to probably three orders of magnitude more people than SL has an active users.

This does not mean that the SL effort is not worthwhile. I am not putting it down at all.

It's clear to me that I will need to write a more extensive post on the whole social world versus game thing, but let me briefly address your final comment:

How much farther can we go when we truly become comfortable thinking beyond games?

Obviously, quite a lot farther in some directions. But if your goal is audience reach, then entertaining the user is the avenue to getting there. You cite people using the web 20 to 1 over games, which is absolutely valid. But even a cursory glance over the top websites shows that it isn't user-created participatory content that is doing that, it's old-fashioned broadcasting of entertaining information. The conversations then accrete around that seed.


Raph> Simply put, because if your goal is teaching as wide an audience as possible about food distribution, a web-accessible, low bandwidth, low tech-requirement, easy entry client that is instantly entertaining is a more likely way to achieve your goals?

I don't know. I hope that we see more research on the subject, actually. I have no doubt that the web game will gain more penetration, but the assuming that translates directly to education is not a given.


This is a reply to a post made by Cory on his blog, referenced by Raph above, and in line with the discussion here. I wasn't sure whether to post this here or over on his blog -- so at the risk of fracturing or duplicating discussion I'm going to do both (following Cory's references to a post by Raph on his site in his post, which Raph referenced above!). We have a blurring of the blog-o-sphere going on.

Cory, we (you, Raph, and I) agree and disagree on some fundamental issues. In this case I side mainly with Raph. Not because I know only game environments online, but because, having tried developing non-game environments and seen others do so, and having looked extensively at the psycho-social issues involved in the usage of such environments, I believe his points (from his blog, see below) are correct. Now I know you disagree: you wouldn't be in the business you're in otherwise. So to some degree this is a futile exercise, but OTOH I thought that some of the things you said above merit a response.

Raph said:
I personally believe this is a mistaken take on things. I’ll be bold and say:
- no, it’s demonstrably less fun, to the vast majority of people, in SL than in most any of the gameworlds

You dismissed this with your own question: How many people use the web versus gameworlds? (Being generous to the games, it's 20 to 1)

Sure, but that's a straw man. "Web" doesn't equal social worlds so inserting it here is irrelevant. How many people use game worlds vs. non-game social worlds? Conservatively there are about 100 times as many people regularly using online game worlds over social worlds (far eclipsing even your 20:1 ratio for web to game usage). The ratio of people who find non-game worlds to be more enjoyable/satisfying hasn't changed dramatically from what I can tell since the days of OnLive, ActiveWorlds, Blaxxun, WorldsChat, ClubCaribe, etc.

Does this mean there's no market for non-game social worlds? No. But claiming it's anything but a tiny portion (less than 1%) of the online game market isn't borne out by the numbers.

Raph continued: - the gameworlds have historically been what has driven adoption in virtual spaces

On this there seems to be little debate.

- the gameworlds have historically been what has driven lasting innovation

You responded: I still find the claim that innovation is happening in gameworlds somewhat challenging. Given the number of announced gameworlds trying to pivot onto Second Life innovations -- user creation, collaborative creation, user markets, content markets, pay-to-play, no subscription, digital delivery, single shard, streaming content delivery -- what are the innovations in the gameworld space?

I can think of game worlds that innovated in most if not all of those areas prior to SL, and which have explored them more fully with exposure to and learning from orders of magnitude more people. I'm not sure on what basis you claim SL to be the innovative leader in any of those areas other than broad-based user-creation of functional (scripted) content. In that area SL stands above the rest.

Online game worlds do seem to have entered an innovative pause, I agree. World of Warcraft represents a phenomenal aggregation and polishing of prior innovations (along with some of their own, such as their early gameplay), and many games in development seem to be taking a similar approach, backing off of major innovations in favor of the tried-and-true. OTOH there are many innovative game worlds in development and I'm sure they'll continue to be the leading edge of online adoption.

As to your question, what are the innovations in the gameworld space?, off the top of my head I can think of significant innovations in areas such as business models (even subscription was innovative at one time!), server technology (many, as I understand it, surpassing SL's server structure), 3D rendering, AI, user interface, server and client-side scripting, micro and macro social structures (housing, guilds, corporations, allegiances, etc. - though this is an area where early innovation has not been extensively built upon), and methods of responding to and working with active populations in the multiple hundreds of thousands or higher.

Finally, you said: As to the question of fun or usage, debating it does seem a little silly. Second Life has show gentle exponential growth since it launched. Either that trend will continue or it will not. If it does, exponential growth combined with the fact that we address a much larger market than games means that we will dwarf gameworlds. If not, we won't.

You and I have been over this before. I don't think it's "silly" to consider this when game-world adoption outstrips SL's adoption by 100x or more, as they have historically done. I don't believe that counting 90-day trailing numbers presents an accurate picture of an online space's user base (much less counting everyone who ever logged in, as some other social communities try to do). 7-day trailing numbers appear to be a more accurate picture of actual active users. 30-day trailing numbers work only if you posit that a large portion (or even a majority) of the population check in just once a month and yet still feel that they are an active part of the community and contribute as such (monetarily and otherwise).

Alternatively you could discuss ARPU (average [monthly] revenue per user) which I hope/suspect will emerge as the only way to discuss apples-to-apples comparisons between online worlds, taking into account the entire spectrum of users from one-time registrants to free-riders to true believers. By that measure, for example, if SL continued its "exponential" growth to 1M registered users overall, it's residents would still have to generate an ARPU of about $95 each month to equal WoW's ARPU. That doesn't seem likely to me to happen any time soon (OTOH an ARPU of about $4 on a 1M installed base equals a "standard" MMO with 250K subscribing users, so there is some merit to non-subscription models even with large numbers of free-riders).

Going back to where I started, we seem to have a sort of religious divide opening up in online worlds between game and non-game adherents. To me that's unfortunate. I hope SL is successful and that we see many mroe non-game worlds (or worlds within SL or similar environments).

But I have come full circle in my belief that if this happens it is at least twenty years away. Not because games are inherently cool or anything like that, but because people consistently and demonstrably (by orders of magnitude) prefer spaces with embedded entertainment value over those without. I don't see the psycho-social realities underlying this changing any time soon, though there may be generational effects that we don't yet see. And despite having worked on this problem heavily in the late 1990s, I still don't see any rational basis for claiming that non-game worlds will soon, if ever, overtake game-worlds in terms of user adoption or penetration.


I'll have to say that the "Games for Public Diplomacy" didn't seem that appealig to me as a project. I at first studied it enthusiastically and even thought of trying to commission a group of residents to place an entry in the contest, but then I had to think: why go and invent games that are more contrived or more difficult or simpler than just Second Life itself?

That is, instead of using "food scarcity" as a contrived idea that you produce and script, you can just jump in SL itself and use existing variables like scarcity of prims or good FPS or CPU power, or scarcity of prime waterfront land or whatever. Do people merely need to learn how to plan for and react to food scarcity as with the UNDP game? Or do they need to have ways of thinking more about the kinds of relationships between famine and lack of freedom that Amartya Sen wrote about? Simply buying a sim and making an international community in SL to go about achieving some goal, even limited in scope in some civic-action agenda, might be a way of testing this.

I'm going to try this myself soon and see if organizing around alternatives to the G8 meeting in St. Petersburg this summer, inside SL, makes sense, using SL the way you use Internet sites like Meet-Up or networks like ICARE.to

I'd truly like to believe in SL as being a new medium and communication facilitator. I can see here and there where it can be useful for meetings and for experiences in relationships with people.

But when I saw Pathfinder Linden's (John Lester's) presentation at the Berkman Center conference, I was baffled, since I thought he'd be giving some new examples from the considerable work he is doing with educational institutions about new ways of teaching and communicating.

Instead, it was the old "dragon avatar flies around" story. He talked about the "shared dream" of SL -- that you get on SL and share your dream, a kind of lucid-dream-in-the-making where other people walk on and off stage accidently or purposefully. But..what is the dragon's dream and the fox's dream...about?

He showed a build inside SL on Berkman Island that looked *just like the real world space* where there were avatars watching Pathfinder on a big screen. So we all had the "WOW" moment (it's getting a little tiresome now by about round 50 since last year started these "mixed reality" things) where we could see Pathfinder on a big screen, showing us on a little screen, where we were him watching a big screen...etc.
like matrioshka dolls to infinity.

And...the thing was only about itself. That's what bothers me about so many of these breathless demonstrations and walkthroughs and discussions at this stage, the thing being about itself. I'm still waiting for SNOOPY Zamboni's (Jerry Paffendorf's) pink sneakers to touch down right in my living room through a deft combination of Google Earth, Skype, and Second Life, but all that's going to happen maybe is we're going to have RL meatworld coffee on 2nd Avenue.

Of course, we've all talked about how SL helps stroke victims or gives content-creation jobs to third-world kids. That's not *media* though. Or is it? I've often thought to myself "just because it's on video doesn't mean it's media." Where is the *broadcasting* that happens in or through SL? Where is the communication of ideas?

Well, actually inside SL itself, the broadcasting capacity is about like the Soviet Union's, circa 1961 or something. There is only the big drop-down blue text screen that the Lindens use to deliver terse messages like "there is a malicious replicating script and a grid-wide crash, please log off" or "come to the community round table in Pooley at 4 pm". When the state is ready to auction off those state-owned blue-drop-down airwaves, hey, I'm there!

SLTV was a failed experiment that has been discussed on the forums but not really properly analyzed...but let's just say it's an awfully hard, labour-intensive, and resource-heavy trying to make even 2 hours of tv to be streamed on demand.

There are things like InfoNet, which is a resident-run business delivering notecards and texts that the Lindens leased to be able to deliver their own LL info and policies and which is used by some residents. It had a monopoly in all the infohubs by virtue of having a proprietary script to deliver notecard contents across sims, until I inspired one fellow to make his own competing service to do this, and then started a tiny competitor myself called InfoNut that reaches at least 50 locations with client/server set up with an open-source script I encouraged Static Sprocket to make and then tested with him.

Of course there is Metaverse Messenger and the Herald, which are PDF files or blogs on the Internet.

But..*inside* SL, the only residents who have succeeded in reaching the entire world with "news" are those that create griefer balls that self-replicate across all sims and crash the entire world. That's the only "broadcasting" residents have achieved in 3 years, and not surprising, given state control of the internal world's airwaves and heavy control of the forums.

(In fact one could go off on a little side discussion here about how the lack of options for participating in, and influencing, the public discourse in the world, is one of the things fueling griefing. Let's not make too much of the terrorists' unhappy childhoods, however.)

Like in Belarus or Uzbekistan though, interesting things are happening with samizdat, self-published material outside the blue-screen state's control. People are making little machinimas about their friends or even their ideas or tutorials about how to learn and distributing them. FINALLY Gutenberg is in the world with the ThinC Press and a huge boom of books -- mainly of the pornographic and self-help type to start, but there are comics and bodice-rippers and serious poetry too.

Of course podcasts, on Second Cast, are getting very popular. They depend not on inworld distribution but outworld Internet and blog word of mouth and inworld group IMs, I guess.

The group IM offers the most hope for broadcasting. I see affinity groups with 750 people in them, mainly the free sex types, that are broadcasting, even if you don't like what they broadcast coming in your ear all the time.

Anshe has Dreamland with 500 people on it, I have groups like Ravenglass with 250 tenants in them. Of course, the scope for these groups is limited to avoid spamming, but people do discuss very interesting issues of the day, like the balance between security and openness and public commons on private islands, given the rampant use of bounce scripts, and the issue of whether consumer boycotts should be organized against competitors, whether age play should be tolerated and all kinds of local issues like that.

It's not the Berkman Center obviously with heady topics like today's discussion of India's role in technology, but group IMs, especially if they can reform them (as they promise) to hold out some hope for this -- if there was a way to leverage the group IMs inside SL, to the offline groups like Yahoo Groups outside SL.

Now...could any of that inworld activity be leveraged for anything broad-cast related in RL? The supposed intersection between public media, public broadcasting, public diplomacy, public games that is "happening" in SL isn't really *happening* so much as it is being discussed, with a few little groovy events where you get a free t-shirt.

The question is what can really happen with these games/spaces in terms of public broadcasting? We had at least one experiment where an NPR affiliate came and had a discussion within SL but it was about...the virtual worlds themselves. See, it's just all still at the "about itself stage". I'm waiting for it to become more.


Nowhere did I claim the SL (or social worlds in general) currently had more users. What I did point out is that use of various online and social media for non-MMORPG reasons is very common.

This thread -- as opposed to my SL blog post -- was raising a specific question around learning and public diplomacy: namely the tradeoff between themed games and the creation of public spaces. It was a tradeoff that the USC conference made really clear and one that doesn't have clear answers. The State Department still looks at exchanges as the pinnacle of public diplomacy because they work. Do virtual worlds and/or MMOs accomplish the same thing? We don't know (yet). Nor do we really know the tradeoffs of virtual worlds versus game worlds -- does the fiction help or hurt, for example?

These are the tradeoffs between for public diplomacy/public media in choosing between game worlds and virtual worlds (this was my other blog post, colored somewhat by the Raph - Prokofy discussion). In that, there is no question the game worlds are massively ahead in adoption compared to virtual worlds, but it is worth looking at the other reasons for people to be online and in communities. MySpace, Friendster, etc have significant user bases, though Mike will correctly point out their low/negligible ARPU.

Mike, I would point out that claiming UI, AI, or graphics innovation in game worlds is ignoring that those innovations largely come from single player games. Also, claiming that any game world is cutting edge in terms of server, network, or streaming technology is generally met with tolerant smiles from the Akamais, Yahoos, and Googles of the world. And speaking of -- we can debate ad infinitum whether SL/Linden Lab is innovative or not, but I'm pretty sure that we've pulled the pieces together in a way that is working -- yes, we have *lots* of work to do yet -- and proving the space interesting enough for Google come in and validate it in a big way. Can't wait to get the time to write importers for all those pretty SketchUp models once Google has figured out how to clean up the geometry.

Per a comment from Raph on the other thread: I'm not casting you as an opponent -- that would be silly. I am simply disagreeing with your strongly staked out position that game worlds are the end-all, be-all of the space. They are certainly a maxima currently, we simply disagree about whether it a local or global one. You pays your money and takes your chances.

Mike and I already have a permanent agreement to disagree pact ;-)

Finally, re Prokofy's comments about Pathfinder's presentation: it was going to audience generally unfamiliar with these spaces, so I suspect that he intentionally tried to bring them along gently.


Cory O > I'm pretty sure that we've [Second Life/Linden Lab] pulled the pieces together in a way that is working...proving the space interesting enough for Google come in and validate it in a big way. Can't wait to get the time to write importers for all those pretty SketchUp models once Google has figured out how to clean up the geometry.



Can't wait to see it Jerry.

The greatest test of Second Life as public media is its capacity to bridge beyond itself. So far its been somewhat successful: our print comix from SL to RL Camp Darfur got a great response this weekend and every demo we've offered of SL has brought a new level to our public dialogue on interactive media and activism. Avatars are "activated" when they visit Camp Darfur. Numerous RL activists have come to our events through SL and the feedback loop has been very positive as we push for Darfur awareness in RL media. The many blogosphere hits for SL Camp Darfur helped build that momentum, mostly because of griefer attention. It's really no different than the evening news on TV: build drama and people will want to participate.

Our media output and interactivity feels limited and incomplete; I am less adept at scripting and viral movements than SnoopyBrown or Prokovy and we could use Cory's programming skills! Ethan Z and I have been going back and forth with this crew on the usefulness of building public democracy tools inworld....while we have a long way to go recent media coverage has shown that we're bridging that awareness gap. Darfur is quickly becoming a household word, and indirectly our scouts have been working hard behind the scenes to keep this issue in the news. What we see in SL is only a small part of that story.

Camp Darfur will be empty and incomplete until we learn to build useful media that can build those new homes for 2,000,000 displaced. Camp Darfur Comix is a start, along with our awareness-oriented machinima in production and the numerous Camp Darfur exhibitions going on around North America this spring and summer. I know we'll get there eventually, but there's 100,000 avies out there still trying to keep the boxes off their heads....


I have a basic SketchUp -> SL exporter working. Early days, but it proves the concept.

The comments to this entry are closed.