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Around the Virtual World: Cheating, Sex, Sweatshops, and Play from Azeroth to Zero-Zero Space

The idea that we will play, work and live our social lives within computer-driven "virtual worlds" has been a staple in cyberpunk science-fiction for some time. Recent news stories may suggest that this is close to becoming reality. Corporations and institutions have been setting up virtual offices or branches in the virtual world known as Second Life.  Low-wage sweatshops where employees collect resources within the game World of Warcraft which are then sold for U.S. dollars to American and European players have been spreading in southeastern China. In the game EVE Online, thousands of players are engaged in an ongoing war which has sometimes spilled out into other online media that are not directly associated with the game. Professor of History Tim Burke explores the evolution and implications of massively-multiplayer online computer games. The media hype about virtual worlds has often been excessive, but they are both an interesting media form that has exciting creative possibilities and a novel opportunity to study and think about the way that human societies form, organize, and become richly complex. For more on the pervasiveness and changing nature of gaming culture, check out Second Skin, a documentary written and produced by Victor Piñeiro '00. The film is touted as one of the best docs of 2008.

Audio Transcript

Jim Oscherwitz:  I'll make this really brief, I'm Jim Oscherwitz, I'm the National Swarthmore Connections chair, so if you're in one of the big cities and you get mailings about different events that are going on, I'm sort of the invisible puppet controlling all of those.

I'm here today, however, with a much grander purpose, to introduce Swarthmore history professor, Tim Burke, about which I have a small number of things to say. Tim got his BA in history and english with a concentration in third world studies at Wesleyan in 1986. He got a MA and PhD in history at Johns Hopkins. He specialized in African history, and he has, among other things, received a Fulbright Scholarship to do work in Zimbabwe, but that is really not why you're here today, not what he's going to talk about, although questions at the end. Who knows, because Tim is, of course, the eclectic mostly.

He has published work on consumerism in Zimbabwe, but also on Saturday morning cartoons, on the commodification and cleanliness in modern Zimbabwe. He has a weblog, Easily Distracted, which is one of the most accessed sites from the Swarthmore student body. He contributes to an academic blog called Terra Nova, dedicated to the study of virtual worlds, and here we get into the subject of this evening symposium. Virtual worlds being a genre of online media, and he'll be speaking on that tonight. Can we please welcome Tim Burke.

Tim Burke:  Well, thanks for coming, it's great to see you here. I think you're in just before the heat I think tomorrow you're gonna want to stay inside, you can kind of feel it out there, and what better for staying inside than playing computer games I guess? That is what I'm gonna talk about today, and this is sort of the other side of my interests.

I came here, I was hired here as a historian of Africa, I still am a historian of Africa, I still write and teach in that area, but I kind of got out of the box a little bit a while back, writing about children's television. Once I was out of the box, I discovered that I needed something to keep me sane while I was working on the very depressing ...

Jim Oscherwitz:  Is this on now?

Tim Burke:   Yeah.

Jim Oscherwitz:  Okay, there we go.

Tim Burke:   While I working on very, very, kind of depressing and heavy material that African history often presents to us, so I sort of started this work on computer games, and in particular on what's called "virtual worlds", these massively multi-player online games that are mostly played on a subscription basis, and I'm gonna tell you a lot about what those are tonight, but they're an area that's drawing a lot of academic interest. This isn't just me, one peculiar person, it's 50, 60, 100 peculiar people, and of course, peculiar people being thin on the ground in academia, I know that's surprising to you.

You saw as you came in what's called a machinima, which is a sort of little mini film that people playing virtual worlds and computer games make using the graphical engine that the game runs on. This one is not so much, but this is from an episode of the television series South Park, where they dealt with the most commercially successful virtual world, World of Warcraft, and so I thought I'd show you just a teeny bit of this to get started.

Woops, that didn't work. There we go.

Video:  Okay, I'm back.

Dude, we've been waiting forever.

Well I'm sorry, I had to take a dump.

If you didn't eat so much, you wouldn't have diarrhea all the time, fat ass.

Hey, I don't need to take any lip from a freaking girl.


Come on, we have to finish the quest in Stonehaven.

Stan. Stan.

Hang on guys, my dad wants something.



You've been on your computer all weekend. Shouldn't you go out and socialize with your friends?

I am socializing R-tard. I'm logged on to an MMORPG with people from all over the world, and getting XP with my party using team speak.

I'm not an R-tard.

Tim Burke:  All right, so he says, "I'm not an R-tard." That's my mission tonight, to make sure that none of you feel like you're R-tard when somebody says, "I'm playing an MORPD," or, "I'm in a virtual world."

Just to give you some sense of where some of you may, if you've never actually played one of these things, you have no idea what anybody's talking about. Increasingly, if you read The New York Times, you may see that there's actually a very smart columnist who's been writing reviews of these lately, computer games, but particularly this genre, so you may see that and wonder what on earth that is.

You may in particular, I think, have seen news stories dealing with a game called Second Life, or you've seen stories that there are companies that have their headquarters in Second Life, that there are universities that have islands in Second Life. If you go to Second Life, you're not gonna find Swathmore Island, but you will find, for example, Vassar Island, and Vassar has a big operation there.

About a year and half ago I was at a meeting for the Research Libraries Group talking some about digital search and information technology from an academic perspective, and how faculty particularly see a lot of these things, and I was asked in the panel that I was on by some librarians, about whether they should really be pushing their university libraries to set up reference desks in Second Life. That conjured for me this image, is this what the library of the future is going to be. Anytime people start talking about Second Life or a lot of these virtual worlds, these are some of the images they're conjuring up. You're going to live in there, you're going to operate in there. This is going to be where the future is vested.

Just to start off before many of you start run screaming from the very idea, I will tell you that's all bunk. That's not going to happen. Libraries don't need to rush to have their reference desks in Second Life. A lot of the companies that went into Second Life for the trendiness of it have already thought twice about it. A lot of the islands and things that people set up are already kind of ... You can see the cobwebs moldering on them.

If you're afraid of that, if the phrase "virtual world" conjures up for you something horribly dystopic, don't be afraid of it because it's not gonna happen. There will not be a metaverse, that's not where we're going.

What are they and where did they come from? Yeah, this is going way, way back. Let me try a definition for you. Lots of different scholars, as scholars are want to do, we're already in the middle ... The people that study this, of big debates about nomenclature. "Should we call the 'virtual worlds?' Should we call them 'synthetic worlds?' Should we call them 'MMORPGs,' and if we call them that, what on earth should we pronounce them as?" But what are they?

Basically, for one, they're digital. They're computer-mediated. There are plenty of games in the world, some of which these draw from. In other words, they have a deeper history than computers, including so-called pen and paper. Role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, they have a deeper history than computers, but the ones I'm interested and the ones that we talk about when we talk about virtual worlds, are computer-mediated, they're digital.

Secondly, they're massively multi-player, that's that MM piece. IE, they involve thousands of players, in some cases tens of thousands of players who may be playing at the same time in the same space, the same computer space.

Third, they're online, and that's sort of obvious from those first two. If it's computer-mediated and there's thousands of people playing, it's got to be using an online context to operate.

Finally, and this is actually the most important thing that defines something as a virtual world as opposed to just a game that people may be playing, a video game online, they're persistent, meaning that whatever happens when you play in one of these worlds and then you're done, you log off for the night, whatever's happened has happened in a permanent sense, in a persistent sense. When you come back and play it the next day, the things that changed about your character, the events that you experienced have been recorded. In other words, they have a history, which might explain a little bit of why a historian is dabbling with these things.

The history itself of the forum starts with this. This is a screen for a multi-user dungeon, or MUD. Before these things involved images, they involved words. They were text-based, and they go right back really to the beginning of online culture period, right back to the very beginnings of the proto internet. This is one of the first things, in a way, that people thought to do.

One of the earliest people to work on them is a guy who's actually still doing a lot of academic work in the field, a man named Richard Bartle, who I continue to interact with. He's actually one of the other authors at this weblog that I work on called Terra Nova. He's a fascinating guy, and Bartle not only designed one of these early text-based MUDS with other players, other people would log in and you'd interact with a world, you'd interact with it just in textual terms. You'd type "W" to go west, you'd type "N" to go north, you'd type "up" to go up. You could interact with a text parser in very limited ways, but other people were in there at the same time you were, you weren't just playing against a computer, you were playing with and against other people.

Bartle very early on took an interest not just in the design of these things but in the sociology of them. In other words, what kinds of people were playing them, what kinds of people were interested in playing them, and what did they do when they interacted with one another? One of the things he came up with at the very beginning was a typology of types of players, and he just said, "When you look at what people are doing, their motivations, their actions in these worlds, some of them are," what he said are "achievers." They want to beat the game, they want to be the best in the game, they want to be better than other players, so it's measured against other people, not just against the game.

Some, he said, are "explorers." They want to see everything that the virtual world has to offer. They want to find everything in it, they want to see every corner of it, they want to explore it. Some people he said are "socializers", they don't really care about the world, they don't really care about the game, they're just there to interact with other people. It's like a chat room. It's a chat room with fancy stuff in it for them. Then there are, he says, "killers." Killers are people that like to defeat, or hurt, or bother, or annoy other people. In other words, they're also socializers, but they're socializers of a particular kind.

From these early MUDS, eventually it was obvious to a number of early operators that there was commercial potential in this. Many of the early text-based MUDS ran off of college university computer systems and they ran for free, but very early-on there were some commercial products and before terribly long you saw the first graphically-based virtual world, a virtual world that was about images, not just words. A very early one was one called Meridian 59, but the biggest success was a game called Ultima Online, which is actually still around. It feels very old, although it's really not that old actually when you think about it, but it's still around, it's still successful, and they got people to sign up and pay a subscription fee on a monthly basis to play their game. Yes?

Speaker 4:   Just to get a sense of scale, how old are you talking about?

Tim Burke:   I'm trying to resist actually ... You caught me stalling and trying to remember for sure when Ultima Online went online, but I think it's now 12 years old at least, maybe older, and it's still running strong. They've actually had an expansion recently. Their customer base has sort of bottomed out, but it stays pretty steady at the level that it's at.

The current market for these is fairly large. The 800-pound gorilla of the commercial virtual worlds, World of Warcraft, has, depending on who's estimating it, somewhere between probably 10 to 14 million users worldwide. That's a lot of people paying 16.95 a month. They are printing a lot of money hats. They're doing very, very well, but one the other successful or semi-successful commercial products out there right now, City of Heroes, which is a super hero themed game, Star Wars Galaxies, which was not nearly successful as you think it would be, a game called EverQuest II, which expands on one of the early commercial successes in the genre. Lord of the Rings Online, which is pretty much exactly like it sounds. A game called Lineage 2, Tabula Rasa which is science fiction, Final Fantasy, a game called Age of Conan has just gone online and is actually to do very well, is heading quickly for a million subscribers. There's a pirate-themed game that's just opened.

Most of the commercial virtual worlds out there are what a lot of think of as quote un-quote "rollercoaster rides" by which we mean they fairly tightly circumscribe what can happen in the world. In a way, a lot of the designers have learned a lesson from some of the earliest games, especially Ultima Online. Ultima Online was very open ended. Among other things, what you could do on Ultima Online is as soon as people, with their characters, left the town, went out to have adventure in the wilderness, when the game first went online you could kill them and steal everything that they had on them.

Most of you are probably good enough social historians or sociologists to guess exactly what happened under those circumstances. What's easier, killing another person and taking, in a sense, all the things that they have fought to get from monsters or whatever for hours and hours on-end, or going out and doing the work and fighting the monsters yourself? In other words, people are concentrated labor. What happened is every town in Ultima Online had a thick hive all around it of bandits. Basically you'd walk out and you'd instantly got killed, and people ended up calling it sort of "teenage wasteland."

They eventually had to create a sort of safe world and a dangerous world, and guess what? The world where you could go where anybody could kill you, no one went there. Everybody stayed in the safe world.

Most of the current games have taken that to heart, so they really control, in a fairly tight way, what can happen to you in the virtual world, and particularly what other players can do to you. They try to make them friendly and a lot easier, frankly, than they used to be.

There are a few of the big virtual worlds that break from that in the current marketplace. The most notable is a game called Eve Online, and somebody caught in the title I've already heart, that's the zero zero space of the title except you don't really pronounce it "zero zero space", you say O O space, but I like the A to Z, so I went and called it "zero zero space." Anyway, that's Eve Online.

 Eve Online is much more like that old Ultima Online, uncontrolled, you can do anything, and as a result, it's actually been a fantastically interesting game to look at from the scholarly standpoint in terms of looking at political and social interactions between players. Because it's very uncontrolled, what happens and as a result, you might guess, there are some really really complicated political struggles that have unfolded in that game in the course of it's history.

There are a number of other products out there, Second Life is a big one. It's gotten a lot of attention, but it is not so much a game in the sense of these others as a social space. There are game-like activities in it, but it's not centrally defined by playing a game. It's defined by interacting with other people socially in a virtual space.

There are some boutique products out there that have very small numbers of subscribers, but they're interesting or unusual. There are a growing number of what people would call "kid worlds", Habbo Hotel, Club Penguin, Barbie World, Webkinz, any of you parents have run into Webkinz recently. Some of these things are set up, I have to say, in the most amazingly cynical ways. With Webkinz, you buy a stuffed animal and you get to go online into a semi-virtual world and play games with your new pet, but each one that you buy gives you a certain amount of virtual currency in the Webkinz world, and then it runs out, and then you've either got to work hard in the virtual world to earn currency or go buy another Webkin. There are a lot of these kid worlds.

There are also virtual worlds. Some of these have worldwide subscriber bases, Eve Online is amazing in that respect. You can go into spots in Eve Online and see nothing but Russian being chattered on the chat channels, but some of them also are localized, meaning that they have separate instantiations in different parts of the world, and particularly East Asia has a much larger, actually, base of subscribers than in North America for some games. It's a little hard to measure because the way that people are measured playing there is a little different, but never the less, very large proportions of the population of South Korea and now China are playing or have played virtual worlds.

Why are these interesting to academics? What are we doing? In your case, where are your donations going if they ever end up going to me? There's two things that scholars are interested in about virtual worlds. The first is to think about them as a new media form like anything else, like YouTube, like anything you've seen on the internet, like any online forum, that they're a new media forum, a new cultural forum, a new expressive forum, and they're interesting for that reason, and they have some really distinct properties, some of which are shared by the larger universe of digital games generally, some of which I think are very particular to these virtual worlds.

What are some of those? One, interactivity. In other words, these are things that you have to play and you control, and the decisions you make as a player influence the way that the forum, the expressive forum develops. This is true about all computer games, it's even true about a few things culturally that aren't digital games at all.

There's a literary scholar named Espen Aarseth whose done work where he talks about what he calls "ergotic" literature. Has anybody ever read the novel by Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch? Hopscotch is an experimental novel, it was published, I think, in the 1970s, where the author sort of says, "You can read the chapters in the order they're given, or you can look at the back of the book, and I have a list of the order that you should read chapters in," and it's not the sequential order that the book was printed in. "Or," he says, "I've written it so you can just open it and read any chapter you want anytime you want." It's interactive, it's a choose-your-own novel.

That's an ergotic piece of literature. All games by their very nature are on some level ergotic or interactive, virtual worlds especially so. Secondly, they would involve, I think a lot scholars would argue, emersion. This is a term that we spend a lot of time fighting about, a lot of players define it in different ways, but it's this notion of projection, of a psychological experience that you're inside the cultural forum, the expressive forum that you're experiencing. You're not just interacting with it, you have a sense or a feeling that you are projected into it, that you exist within a world or within a total text of some kind.

Third, they have sociality. In other words, the interactivity isn't just with the text, but it's with other people who are consuming the text the same time you are. That's a pretty distinctive and interesting thing.

Fourth, they have what I would call "emergence", other people would call "process" that there are things that can happen in the experience of interacting with this new expressive forum that are unexpected, profoundly unexpected. In other words, that aren't there in the text to start, they only appear later as a consequence of interacting with the text and interacting with other people, things that no one expects, including and especially I have to say, the developers or authors. The authors set these things into motion, and believe me, they are constantly surprised by what players do, what players discover, and how players act in their worlds. There is that sense of emergent experience.

Finally, they have this complicated relationship around authorship. Who is authoring this world? Since it emerges, since it changes, since it transforms, since it's something different tomorrow than it was today, since its persistent, there is this profound question about who is creating the content, who is creating the expressive forum.

The developers provide you some tools to do creation and expression. Here you can see, this is a variety of avatars, characters from different worlds. This is City of Heroes here. That's Eve up there, that's from Second Life. This is World of Warcraft. That's Lord of the Rings Online, that's Toon Town, one of these kid worlds, Second Life again.

You see there's a wide variety of what people can do. These are some of the things, in a way, that these games officially allow you to do expressively, create an avatar, create a character. Do you want the character to look like you? Do you want it to look like something different? What do you want to be in these worlds? And I have to say it's surprising in a way how limited peoples imagination can be. A lot of people have written about this with Second Life.

In Second Life you can look like almost anything. Unsurprisingly maybe, to some people, a lot of people choose to look like porn stars, but that's the way it is. But they give you these tool kits. Among other things, this is ... Word of Warcraft for example gives you dancing styles. These are built into the game. The music you're hearing there is ... The person who's done this machima is [inaudible 00:22:58] source material for all of these dances, so you don't hear this music [inaudible 00:23:03], but this is where they [inaudible 00:23:06] the dance moves.

All right, so that gives you some sense of an official expressive toolkit that these games give you. Second Life is particularly interested in this respect in that it lets players actually own the intellectual property that they create in the game, which none of these other virtual worlds do. So in Second Life, you can actually create intellectual property, which at least technically you own the rights too, yourself. As you might imagine, among the scholars who're really interested in these things, there's a big group of lawyers and legal scholars. The moment that Second Life announced that, you could hear people licking their lips in law courts all across the country, and it has had some of the exact complications that you might think it has had.

There is also a lot of secondary expressive work done in virtual worlds. In other words, work that people create that the game designers don't build into their engines, don't make an official part of the game, but that comes from the creativity of players themselves. Stories and fan art, but also a lot of machinima that people make, these small films where they, for example, attach music to what the game engine does. This isn't something that in way was intended. This is Star War Galaxy, which it did mean for you to be able to play [inaudible 00:25:06], but not obviously to play this strong, or to make a video like this. This is something that a player did on his own.

That's something that the designers didn't intend, but it's typical of the work that you see where people take songs, they make their own music videos, they make their own small films. This is done, I have to say, with computer games in general. In other words, it's not particular to virtual worlds, but because of the sense of connection people often feel to their characters or avatars that they have in these worlds, I think in a way the films that they make, the secondary expressive work that they make often is profoundly much more interesting, meaningful to them, is much more heartedly felt.

Then there are also emergent or accident improvisations, unintended things that come together that people make meaning out of. Skip ahead a little ways. In World of Warcraft you can make gnomes and you can make gnomes with small little pink hair. Somebody thought, "Well, let's make an army of little pink haired gnomes, and let's attack the big city of their enemies, and let's film it."

All right, so you get the idea. A lot of these games in a sense allow for that too, the accidental discovery of, mostly I have to say, humorous expressive content. The things that emerge sort of naturally out of the interaction of many elements and then can be made into something. So, they're an expressive forum. They're a cultural forum, and like any cultural forum they have their problems, they have their shortcomings ... I'll talk about some of those in a bit. Their limitations, but they also have their clear possibilities, the potentialities. In many ways, I think as an expressive forum, these are very early in their history. In some ways you want to think about them as being like the earliest cinema. Where you wouldn't expect Edison's silent films to have the kind of depth and aesthetic complexity as cinema as it became later, same thing here, but I can see at least the possibilities, and so can a lot of scholars.

The other thing that interests a lot of us is virtual worlds as accidental social laboratories, a social phenomena. In this, they are simple enough to study. They're like models or simulations that other social scientists might create on purpose. They're constrained by rules, by size. There's maybe 5 thousand to 20 thousand people interacting in any given server of a particular virtual world. It's actually increasingly possible to create extremely detailed data sets about what people are doing, scarily panoptic data sets about what people are doing, if you want. Both developers and social scientists are beginning to think about this, to know what players are doing at every moment, any moment, and to know what they're doing at lots of scales of granularity, from very small groups up to very large entities.

They're complex and organic enough on the other hand, to reveal lots of things that deliberate simulations can't reveal. In other words, things you don't expect, accidents, surprises. They're enough like human society, so they're simple and that makes them interesting. They're complex and unpredictable, and that makes them interesting. This is a lot more of my own interest in them, is this aspect of them as accidental social spaces.

Some of the things that people who've taken an interest in this have studies, or are interested in: one, economics. How do things gain value in these virtual worlds? What will people do to obtain them? How do people conceive of and tolerate labor that creates value within a virtual world, virtual value of some kind, virtual currency, virtual items? What happens when a virtual economy in a virtual world starts to suffer from inflation as many of them have? Why does that happen? What do you do about it if you're a developer, if you're having that problem?

In particular, many of us have taken a really strong interest in what we're calling "RMT", or real money transactions. It turns out in a game like World of Warcraft, you play, and you play repetitively. You'll get tasks like, "Go kill 35 goats and bring back 35 goat horns to a non-player character, a computer controlled character who will then reward you with currency for having done that, and with experience to make your character more powerful." Unsurprisingly, some people enjoy some aspect of the game, but they don't particularly enjoy having to kill 35 goats and find 35 goat heads, so what they instead will often do is say, "I wonder if I can't find a way to take a shortcut. I don't have the time, but I do have the money."

For example, if I need to earn virtual currency to afford my horse to ride on or my wivern to fly on, what if I pay somebody to do that for me? From that basic question, a billion-dollar ... Real billion, not virtual billion. Real billion-dollar business a year annual has sprung up where basically in sweatshops, mostly in China, not exclusively, people sit at monitors and play something like World of Warcraft repetitively and then sell virtual currency to players in North America, mostly, via credit card, and there's a real transaction rate. There's a currency equivalent, and one economist named Ted Castronova has studied this and he's basically said if you look at the value of the currency in World of Warcraft in terms of what it translates to into the real world, World of Warcraft ... And originally he studies a game called EverQuest ... Would have economies larger than some countries in the world.

That's obviously real interesting on multiple levels, and I'm sure to some of you, real appalling, but never the less, I think it tells you something very interesting about economic behavior in the game and out of the game, and how they interact.

Another area that a lot of people are interested in is basically psychological experience. What does it mean to project your identity, yourself into a virtual space? How does that change the way you understand who you are out here? How do various aspects of the visuals of these games effect that?

One very simple thing that a lot of people have looked at is what's the difference between playing in third person perspective and first person? In this case, the character that the person's controlling is visible there. The camera is behind the character. In this case, it's the same character, the same position, but the person is controlled the character from inside it's head, literally. The camera is the eyes of the character, more or less. What does that do to you to have that difference? How do you experience the experience of play psychologically when that's changed?

A lot of people have studied what it means to choose an avatar of the same gender as yourself, or a different gender. It turns out a tremendous number of men playing these games will play as women, and there's nothing that can get players of these games started talking more intensely than that question, "Why do people do that?" Academics are interested in it too.

It turns out that many people engage in some form of "cyber sex", in other words, they interact sexually or romantically in their characters. You might see a torrin in World of Warcraft, one of those large monitor or cow-like people engaging in sexual chat with a night elf in World of Warcraft, disturbing as that thought is. Mostly players are pretty discreet. They go and they hide somewhere in the world and do this, but it's a thing that a lot of scholars, as well as others have found interesting. Why do people do this, what are they getting out of it, what does it mean for these worlds when they do?

I have to say in the case of Second Life, this has become a huge part of Second Life's raison d'etre and it's economy, frankly, is that it rather like the internet itself, has become dominated a lot by sexual interactions.

People are really interested in experiences of immersion. Not only are we interested in the expressively, we're interest in that psychologically. What does it mean to feel like you're in a place that spacial, that's embodied? What happens to you? What happens to things that are true about our world? Are they cognitively true about this world? These are virtual things, these are computer images, but it turns out that if you take your avatar and you walk up, and you stand inside someone else's avatar, which you can do, people get very anxious much in the same way that you get anxious if I walk up to you and I have this much distance from you. That bothers people. It bothers people in the real world if we don't keep our distance. It turns out it bothers people in the virtual world. I think that tells you something very powerful about what we experience space as in relationship to each other cognitively out here, that we take it with us into a virtual space. That's a thing that a lot of people have found interesting.

A lot of scholars are very interested in small group sociality. The same kind of thing that you might be interested in if you studied the military. What happens when people are cooperating in a very goal-directed way in small groups? What do they learn, what transforms about their lives, what kinds of experiences do they have? Mostly, my friend, Constance Steinkuehler, argues particularly teenagers learn really useful political and social skills by having to interact in small groups.

This would be a case of someone who didn't learn good social skills. This is somebody who's cussing out basically 40 other people for not doing things they way he wants it done. In fact, many people, I think, learn concrete political and social skills by having to cooperate in virtual worlds, particularly teenagers. Part of the reason is, of course, they can walk away from a disaster, a bad experience. You can quit, you can log off, you can delete your character and create another one. In that way, you can also experiment with being a real jerk and not have it come back to haunt you, but you learn skills. You learn a lot about small groups and how they interact.

Some people also learn how to grief, as it's called. In other words, to ruin the experience of others. Second Life is really well-known for this. This is a sort of well-known character in Second Life who was actually making a good deal of real world money on virtual real estate in Second Life, and when she appeared in an interview, several pranksters basically started sending giant virtual penises to fall on her in a rain. That's griefing. That's bothering other people, it's ruining their experience.

Some people learn how to be very skilled, and occasionally really funny griefers, but a lot of people in fact are experimenting with social skills in a negative way, so it's not all good.

A lot of us are interested in what you learn about law and politics, social structure, sovereignty. This is one of the things I'm very interested in, is how do developers behave as governments in a sense. If they're governments, they're sort of a weird combination of god and government, a weird and sometimes scary combination, but how do people interact at the very large scale politically? Just to give you a little flavor of this, this is one of the two major factions in Eve Online, and this is a recruiting video from 2006, which I think their operation's very sophisticated, these folks.

They're running up [inaudible 00:39:09] and in six months they build a large ship [inaudible 00:40:05].

It gives you some sense that in fact, in political terms things can get pretty complicated, and I think pretty rich and interesting to those of us who want to think about these as small worlds.

There's a lot more that I think scholars have taken an interest in, but I want to skip ahead a little bit so we have some time for questions and discussions. I want to talk about what's next, where is this all going. The first thing I think is to say, in terms of it as an expressive form, can it become a richer and more complex media form? Yes, but for one, these worlds are gonna need more themes. They're gonna need more emotional depth. They gotta get out of some of the fantasy ghettos, some of the sci-fi ghettos. There's a lot of things out there that virtual worlds could be about, could contain, and so far they haven't, and I think that caps the interest that they can have for anybody.

They need to be more dynamic, more open-ended. Frankly in that sense, more like Eve Online, scary as it sounds to many people to hear that there's this world where there's politics, and betrayal, and skullduggery of all kinds, and where no one trusts one another. It sounds safer to be in a rollercoaster world where everything is fairly controlled and nothing bad can happen, but the real potential of the form to be something different that none of us have really experienced except in this form, lies in them being dynamic and open-ended. That's scary to the developers and it's scary to some of their customer base, but if they're going to become something more than they are in expressive terms, they're gonna need that.

There are a lot of problems with that, and we can maybe talk about it. I can see that there's some people that played these things, that's technically complicated. It's complicated commercially, it carries a big risk to a developer who has to invest millions of dollars and a lot of time in making one of these worlds.

To be a better accidental laboratory, to be something that's interesting in social terms, I think frankly, they need a wider range of audiences, and that may be connected to being more dynamic, more open-ended, and having more themes. It's surprising the range of people that do play them, and particularly in gender terms, they're not really nearly as stereotypical as you might think. World of Warcraft has a lot of female players. Second Life has quite a few female players. It's very hard for us to have precise knowledge about that, but nevertheless, this is still a niche market in our culture. It's still not something that a lot of people do.

To answer more interesting social questions, I think in a way, they're gonna have to be something that draws more people of more types from more walks of life. Again, to be interesting socially, I think they're gonna have to be more dynamic, less rollercoasters, more open-ended. In social and political terms, Eve Online is easily the most interesting game to study, even if it's the most difficult to get into and discover what's really going on if you haven't been playing it heavily.

I think finally we're gonna need some worlds that are created in a more experimental vain that are less expensive, less big, where developers are willing to take risks because they're not nearly as exposed to a market that will punish them savagely if they make a mistake.

What is actually coming? Well, what's coming are a lot of games like World of Warcraft. Here you see a pretty bad clip from Warhammer, which will open pretty soon, which looks to me to be very similar to World of Warcraft. Age of Conan, which has just gone live and is actually much less like World of Warcraft than I thought, I wouldn't recommend that a lot of you rush out and play it necessarily. I actually am pretty impressed with it, but it's much bloodier and more violent than World of Warcraft by far. There's beheadings, there's et cetera. It's much more like Conan, frankly.

This is from Pirates of the Burning Sea, which was a game that I thought had a lot of interesting potential to be like Eve Online, and it's mostly a failure in my view, and it's not doing very well in the market either. A lot more kid worlds are actually coming, because believe me, toy developers have discovered that these things are a way to mint money, but I think very few of those are even as interesting as the less interesting virtual worlds.

There are some potentially innovative products. There's a Metaplace that a number of developers are working on that is sort of like Second Life 2.0, with a much more open-ended authoring environment where people can create a lot of content, and I don't know whether it'll succeed or not, but I admire the ambition. They want to create an open-ended environment that people can create a lot of their own content in it that's very robust, and it can scale to the web as it will be in the next decade.

Then there are actually some scholars who are working on creating their own virtual worlds. The most notable, which Ted Castronova at Indiana tried to create a world based on Shakespeare recently called World of Arden, which didn't work very well I think, but he's very interested in the things he's learned from it, and it was very consciously created as an experimental world. They're very hard to experiment with because they're expensive, but the better that we get at thinking about them, may be the more that scholars will actually be able to step in and be authors within these environments, and start to see some of the things they want to see out of them.

I'm gonna close on that and sort of hope that people have a few questions or comments, and thanks for listening. 

Around the Virtual World: Cheating, Sex, Sweatshops, and Pla

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Around the Virtual World: Cheating, Sex, Sweatshops, and Pla

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