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Oct 07, 2006



I'm often asked about the "realism" of virtual worlds -- "how realistic will this be?" This often refers to graphics, AI, or physics models (consider the ability to clearcut your own forest in Crysis, a degree of verisimilitude that's a selling point for the game).

There's a big difference between "believable" and "realistic" -- either of which could answer Nate's question of whether a virtual world is in some way "as good as" the real one. Realistic is, IMO, an ever-receding simulation goal. Believability is qualitative rather than quantitative, but is something we can at least approach on some occasions. To this end, Nicole Lazzaro recently said,

it's not "reality" that players want, it's the stuff that makes them feel deeply - like real stuff does.
To me this gets right to the point: whether a virtual world is meant for entertainment, training, propaganda, or (more likely) some combination, we want it to feel real.

It's easy to say that this is a fixation of those interested in worldy-worlds, and at some level that may be right. But I believe that anyone who is attracted to a virtual world at all wants it to be believable in some respects -- even if that's some form of believable surreality. For us to suspend our disbelief and mentally inhabit a world, even if only for a little while, it has to affect us as the real world does. Otherwise there's nothing emotionally at stake, and no reason to pay attention.


Re: >I had a hard time categorizing this entry. Is this a newsgame? Is it an educational game? Is propagandist, or is it perhaps the first example of a videogame-based geopolitical act, wherein the videogame itself serves as part of the Ayatollah's warning? Would it be inappropriate to call this a "diplomacy game"? Some might perceive Iran's gestures as threats rather than negotiations, but doesn't the game itself serve to advance a position in international relations?

Oh, dear. How to account for calling something like this "fascinating" or having to dwell on categorizing it -- at a time when the Security Council is trying to pass sanctions against Iran? Well, this has to be said -- and I first noticed it and thought about commenting about this problem on the Serious Games list -- the left appears to be ever fascinated with these authoritarian Middle East regimes, and appears to see a bit of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" going on. How else to explain this curious phenomenon where a game from the government of Iran becomes something with endlessly complex and rich layers of textural meaning, but it's wargame equivalent in the West is for mouth-breathing losers?

Ian Bogost and others are willing to get all thinky about this Iranian government's game, to pontificate endlessly whether in fact it isn't diplomacy, or perhaps legitimate -- but they'd never do that for what they'd perceive as its moral-equivalence or opposite.

When a game came out with a name like "The Rapture" that apparently a company sympathetic to right-wing fundamentalist Christians invented that negatively portrayed non-believers as the enemy, everyone on the Serious Games list flew at the game as if it were the epitome of evil. I remember trying to find some way to carve out a space for people on the list to realize that no serious and caring Christians would advocate such a hateful game, and the Rapture was a doctrine of a minority of fundamentalists at any rate, even while repudiating the game -- and being chewed to bits by all sorts of anti-Western apologists for Islamism.

So...For a "Rapture" game, no thumb-sucking pieces about how it might be "ecumenical" in its way, or a "legitimate cultural position" -- there was just the predictable frothing and fuming about something evil. Every bit of benefit of the doubt for the nuclear saber-rattling government of Iran, and never an inch for the "right-wing fundamentalists of the U.S." eh? LOL?

Or to find a more direct equivalent, when there was news coverage (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/9807803/) a game based on the idea of a U.S. assault on Iran made by Kuma, the talk was about how the Iranian government was displeased, and how a website was calling for the game to be removed from the shelves. (Imagine if I were to call for this Iranian government game to be banned now, what an outcry there would be!)

There was no thinky stuff around the U.S. assault game -- it was perceived immediately to be what it was -- playing on various cliches of yahoo Americans wanting to blow up stuff.

Funny, the double standards existing for this sort of analysis.

I can't understand why Ian Bogost would have any "hard time" categorizing a game *made by a government*. Of course it's propaganda, and serves national interests.


Nate asked:
"...consider this claim taken to its limit. What if a virtual world were as good as the real one. Would you want to run away, or would you see it as the delight of a world-y world gamer's lifetime?"

That's at the heart of the question that Nozick was asking when he hypothesized the Experience Machine


Excellent analogy, Endie. The difference, however, may be that virtual worlds, unlike Nozick's machine, are increasingly designed for things other than pleasure. If Nate's proposal of "as good as" is taken to mean "as rich in complex contingencies as" the real world, then I would wonder whether Nozick's refutation would apply.

On the other hand, and importantly, I think it would be formally impossible for a virtual world to contain as full a range of complex contingencies as everyday life, absent the full bandwidth of f2f interaction and its total range of embodied performance. I think the way virtual worlds *begin* to approach this texture of everyday experience is remarkable, and they still can go a lot further, but there are limiting conditions in place.


the double standards existing for this sort of analysis


I hear what you are saying. I don't think it is fair, however, to drag in the entire Serious Games discussion/topic here. If for no other reason than because Ian is not on this blog.

I think an important point which you illustrate well is the difficulty in interpreting purpose in virtual worlds. They are created products that exist in some real context. Hard to get away from that. What are the motives of the actors and the developers? It seems a fair question, even if the latter is likely pretty banal in most cases we discuss here (commercial risk-adverse developers min/maxing investment reinventing WoW, etc..).

If you pushed me here, I would also guess that what is what at work with this Iran case is simple propaganda (sounds like a minor project w/out a lot of sublety). However, it doesn't take away from the possibility - or dare I say it, eventuality - that someone is going to take a virtual world someday to craft a complex and suble argument and pose it to its players for a larger impact. In many ways I think virtual worlds are a medium well suited for intricate, systems-oriented arguments. And no less, its participants seem well primed to parse and consider such. Given such a possibility/eventuality - would such always be mere propaganda?


I think it would be formally impossible for a virtual world to contain as full a range of complex contingencies as everyday life, absent the full bandwidth of f2f interaction and its total range of embodied performance.

Step back for a moment. Why does this have to be true?

If I locked myself in a room in my basement with only IM contact with friends. Why would it be impossible to create a sophisticated and large understanding of what was happening in the RW - albeit one filtered through proxy experiences?

Sure, locked in my basement I might not enjoy the complexity of navigating a car in rush hour or walking in the park etc. But if one thinks of the relevant "complex contingencies" as something different than these...

My point is that "complex contingencies" for a virtual world may different than those in the RW, but why does it have to be any less, well, complex?


It's a suspicion, on my part, at this point, Nate. I don't see any problem with virtual worlds incorporating enough complex contingencies to generate distinctive dispositions for action within them (this is what I alluded to in my comments in">http://terranova.blogs.com/terra_nova/2006/09/my_space_or_you.html">in this thread). This is what makes "world" a powerful term for describing them (as opposed to something based solely on a spatial metaphor).

My skepticism springs from the degree to which, architecturally, virtual worlds (if they are to be at all distinguishable from "RL" in the first place) must rely on a specific and technologized interface, through which a wide but not total range of actual embodied action (and action represented, and meaningfully so, as embodied action in the fuller sense) is one's avenue through which to perform, to act in the world.

These architectural constraints on action happen, of course, in lots of domains for action, whether technologized or not. That is, in a professional domain, such as the law, one is constrained architecturally (and also legally, materially [in the market sense], and through social convention [i.e., culturally]). So, to me, this puzzle appears founded on, in a way, a denial of an inescapable, practical relationship between the virtual world and all other domains of action (including "real life").

That is, the thought experiment is founded on the achievement of a clear break between the virtual and the real. It is, of course, theoretically possible to imagine this puzzle, but that virtual world can only be created in relation to the other domains, and cannot then bootstrap its way into a totality of primary experience.

I'm not certain of this; again, it's a suspicion. But I can't shake the inkling that any virtual world that sought to allow the full range of contingent and embodied human experience would, at least, require a very different kind of interface (one more "natural"; I guess the holodeck comes closest), but would still, imho, likely founder on this version of the "perfect map of the world" problem.


very good


As usual, Prokofy has spotted the double standards of analysis brought to this kind of thing. It's obviously the Iranian version of "America's Army".


The virtual worlds are as real as an inhabitant makes it. It's the same as perceived value of an object. To one person willing to pay nothing for a collectible, it has no value. Another person may value it enormously. To some people it will always be a game, a waste of time. To others it has already become more meaningful than their "RL".


Prokofy is right. Of COURSE it's propaganda, and it's not even trying to hide it. Of course, I also think WWII games are mainly propaganda too. It's just that most people have already accepted the paradigm that the propaganda pushed, so it doesn't feel like propaganda anymore.



I think this question is also worth a thought too...

"The problem of real world politicization of a virtual arena is that it perhaps discourages a virtual world. "

Is this perhaps a trade-off, for the (current) relative poverty of the information flow in virtual worlds, as compared to the default one: that we can enter into a virtual world with some sort of idealism about what this new world is like? A hope it will be better? And thus, at least to non-partisans, a politicized virtual world becomes just propaganda.


I'm with Prokofy on this one. I mean, come on kids. If we want to get beardy on this one, we have to at least frame the question as, "OK. This game is propaganda and what else?" There may be othere interesting things going on here... But it's mostly gubberment spin. Easy to fathom, easy to categorize, easy (for me) to condemn. I'm that shallow.

What makes my brain hurt is trying to figger out what the goverment propaganda behind Katamary Damacy was.


Andy Havens wrote:

What makes my brain hurt is trying to figger out what the goverment propaganda behind Katamary Damacy was.

Subtle propaganda designed to encourage rampant consumerism and prop up the worldwide oligarchy. The only way to progress in the game is to acquire bigger, shinier things that serve to let you acquire yet bigger, shinier things. (Like a DIKU!)



Fixing ital bomb.



Maybe not.


Argh, sorry about that.



In latest update to the post - I cited Oct 9 Washington Post article where

Keith Halper, head of Kuma Games, said his company will create a sequel to the Iranian-made game from the United States' point of view.
"It's propaganda, but it's also a form of debate," Halper says. "We have made a point, they have responded."

I think the key point made here is of the nature of "propaganda" - it may be seen as part of a larger narrative, if you wish.

Its a point also made here (attributed to Ed Halter):

“There’s a very interesting tit-for-tat going on here, a weird kind of dialogue… And what’s disconcerting about it is that the conversation is often reduced to the lowest common denominator of violent action in games, which is in a way very reflective of the overall way things are going right now in real life.”


Before we have "if you build a bomb, we will build two". Now, we are getting "if you build a game the offends, we will build two".

Do we have a brinkmanship in POV video games?

I'm sure the American Army got a lot poeple in a lot of countries riled. Military games usually stayed within the confines of the military. Now, everyone and their sons and daughters can train and participate.

Therefore, I think the next anti-obesity and patriotic form of activity in the USA will be anti-terroist training camps. Why go to band camp, when you can go to combat training?

oh, BTW, Katamary Damacy is also use to provide a cautionary tale about the forces that "acquire bigger, shinier things that serve to let you acquire yet bigger, shinier things".



Every time I see the title of this post, a certain Flock of Seagulls song goes through my head. I sincerely hope that I am the only one with this problem.


Frank said: "Do we have a brinkmanship in POV video games?"


I have often said that I'd love to see a *real* Christian game hit the streets. One that rewards acts of grace and mercy. Not in an overly obvious, strictly sectarian, really obnoxiously dogmatic way... but using some kind of (ahem) propagandistic, metaphor. If Katamary is a metaphor for acquiring stuff... how would we create a game that's a metaphor for giving it away? Christ said all kinds of things that are, essentially, "rules" that could be applied to game mechanics in terms of metaphoric load. "Blessed are the peacemakers." Make some peace -- end some kind of conflict, erase some kind of trouble, make some kind of harmony -- and get points.

So... what would the "Merciful Game Response" be to the "Blowing up tankers off the Strait of Hormuz" game? If some game makers are flaming liberal peaceniks(like myself), who would want a response other than what we've had from certain governments... the "two bombs make a right"... perhaps the game should involve positive distribution of educational and cultural artifcats. A "Peace Corps on Steroids" game. A game where you sneak into the country and convince some members of the press or clergy that blowing up tankers is wrong. A game where you befriend children and set up alternate schools. A game where you start a non-violent alternative movement to do something with a similar goal. Basically... how to respond without violence. With weapons of mercy instead of anger.

That's some propaganda I could get behind.

Katamary Clemency. ; )


"A game where you sneak into the country and convince some members of the press or clergy that blowing up tankers is wrong. A game where you befriend children and set up alternate schools. A game where you start a non-violent alternative movement to do something with a similar goal."

So... a fantasy game?


A game based on the Melanesian Big Man system of competitive giving, perhaps? Ongka is my gaming god.


A more "fun" design would be the 21st century version of Missle Command.

An updated version of Missle Command could be deploying lasers to block incoming missiles rather than shooting missles. This is the defensive perspective (so no preemptive strikes).

Another version of Missle Command could be a tribute to the other 9/11: The beginning of the pacifist movement by Gandhi (9/11/1909). In this version, players have to deploy nonviolent tactics to reduce the number of bombardments sufficiently so that the protective shield will hold in each wave.

So, for the counter to the tanker blow-up game, the objective of the game could be to intercept and prevent tankers from being blown up. It's essentially a more proactive and defensive version of Air Traffic Control simulators, which we can call Operation Secure Shield.

Another theme that can be tapped is the traditional Bedouin way of life
. It will be a game of territorial control (which is very relevant in the Middle East), but also a game of respect, honor, prestige, hospitality, and civility (the good qualities).


Now, ,ore comments on Katamary Damacy: Katamary Damacy had that happy sense of fun and irrelevance, which was then co-oped by special interests. Frogger also have the same fun and ireelevance. So, we can co-op Frogger into a tanker blow-up game by replacing the frog trying to cross roads with a kamakazi boat trying to sneak through security grids to blow up stuff on the other side.

Context and purpose,



Keith Halper wrote:

Keith Halper, head of Kuma Games, said his company will create a sequel to the Iranian-made game from the United States' point of view.
"It's propaganda, but it's also a form of debate," Halper says. "We have made a point, they have responded."

"From the United States' point of view." What the heck does that mean? The current government's point of view? My point of view? The point of view of polygamists living in Utah?



How about we hire Kuma to produce a game where the user convinces Kuma Games not to produce games for terrorists by using public pressure and boycotts of their other products

; )


A way of stopping drug-smuggling boats in real life is sending in a sniper in a helicopter, having him shoot all three or four motors of the boat.

Of course, if the smugglers shoot back, they are shot to pieces.

The idea could be to make war games like we do now, but instead of rewarding for each kill, then detract a bit of score for each. Having the entire framework of the game portray the idea that not even soldiers enjoy killing, but it's sometimes a necessary evil to reach some good goal.


Zebediah Godwin organized an interesting debate within Second Life on "augmentationists versus immersionists" a few days ago. Lots of interesting discussion, from virtual sex to online economies of scarcity and abundance. Check out the whole transcript here.


nate, why would someone "not being on this blog" be a reason for not being able to discuss their ideas? Hello?

Here is what the OP wrote:

>Ian Bogost covered the Iranian turn best:

It's a post that was inspired in part by Ian and his commentary on this Iranian film. It's by a public figure. The same type of topic played out as a long debate on Serious Games. So why would it be offlimits?

To be sure, you're going off on a think about worldy-ness and whether it can remain itself if politicized, etc. but the benefit of the doubt accorded to the Iranian game was indeed a double standard. I wonder if anyone would have stepped up and said that if I didn't?


As far back as 1989, I was playing Electronic Art's "688 Attack Sub", sinking Libiyan Supertankers. I sank many of them; five at a time.

No one was worried then. So what's the big deal now?

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