Understanding virtual worlds: Between party and content

The launch of the Media Jungle at HDM sparked a lively discussion on its design and content (or the lack of respectively). Designers, PR-Specialists and media-ethics got into a heated confrontation. The ethics group claimed that there was either no or questionable content which tended to reflect common stereotypes instead of being critical and reflective. The pr-specialists claimed that while nobody knows what to do in Secondlife being different to all other presentations would be a value in itself. And the designers were lucky to survice the presentation without too many crashes and in general happy that something had been built in a short time. Let me give some short comments on all three positions and then get deepter into the virtual world topic, perhaps coming from a games and social perspective.

The happy designer

During my professional career in computer science and IT I have gone many a time through phases of new technology - sometimes even disruptive technology. This means technology that can upset the fixed hierarchy of companies. I like to call those phases the "male" phase of technological adoption because the male of our species seems to be pre-dominantly found using the new technology. This is explained easily because the male in our species does not need a goal or a reason to have fun. We like to play with new things without a plan or long term goal. And we don't need any kind of justification from customers or higher powers to do so. It is just fun to build something with new technology - the "what" is the wrong question in this context.

So the basic confrontation with content or goal oriented people (the female part of our species) is already a given during this phase. But this exploratie phase is nevertheless important because without it we do not even learn how to use the new technology. And there is no doubt about virtual worlds being a new medium, a new channel and a media-oriented university needs to take a close look ASND perform some experiments.

Whenever new media or channels are invented there is a lack of knowledge on how to use them, on how to create meaning, on which language to use for communication with others. Film, radio and everything else had to come up with their own language to communicate with viewers, listeners and readers. Color in film presented a special challenge because it created an abundance of eye candy without meaning (see Alexander Kluge and Oscar Negt's Bestandsaufnahme). Without experimentation we will not be able to uncover the language that is needed for the new media and channels. This is also true for new technologies in IT.

It means that the designers are innocent during the male phase.

The pr-specialists

Is being or looking differently a value in itself? From a PR-perspective it certainly is. And if you don't really know how a new medium works (that's because it IS new), being different is not a bad choice. Instead of skyscrapers and glass-towers the HDM media jungle presents itself as a jungle. This may not even be such a bad choice because houses in general raise a difficult question in the land of the virtual: why do you need houses when it does not rain? Why do you restrict yourself spatially in a virtual world? If you can't answer those questions a jungle may not be a bad choice. And at the same time it builds a bridge to other (better known) genres like adventure or role-playing games. The jungle theme goes well together with another interesting feature: the jungle can embed famous themes from movies and let visitors discover them. It can therefore quote cultural history in an unobtrusive "pull" way (instead of pushing things toward the visitor it supports discovery).

Of course the pr-specialists made mistakes. The biggest one was to bring their experience from mass-media and mass-distribution to the virtual world. They are used to present a "final" version only of their art. The customer needs to see the final version, nobody is allowed to see intermediate (less nice looking) versions.

But all of the (meagre) experience we currently have with SecondLife contradicts this attitude: it is exactly during the building phase that most visitors and guests are attracted and kept! It is the building that creates opportunities for interaction and collaboration - and that is what virtual worlds are all about. So the pr-specialists tend to miss a vital aspect of "being virtual" (besides other Web.x technologies. That's not all: Most people responsible for content and presentation of a company or organization tend to inforce a strict "look and feel" through visual and verbal standards. That's going to be rather difficult in virtual worlds: how do you let groups within your company engage in building activities without breaking such rules? How much sense do those rules make anyway? What are the new "look and feel" rules for virtual worlds? The do's and don'ts of navigation (no stairs please, no roofs).

There is definitely trouble in pr-land and it only gets worse with collaborative features of Web or virtual technologies (collaborative being translated into uncontrolled, not top-down created). If you are interested you should read Peter Morville's "Ambient Findability" for the increased importance of unobtrusive pull technologies compared to the desperation behind viral or guerillia marketing. The better customers will want to pull information!

Without getting too far ahead I'd like to give the following suggestion to PR-specialists: take a look at game play and balancing in Massively-Multiplayer-Online-Games (perhaps of the role-playing kind like World-of-warcraft) and watch how a company needs to balance spontaneous or long-lasting crowds and guilds within an ever changing game world.

The content/ethics people

They have two rather big problems. The first one is whether a content approach is really apropriate for virtual worlds. And the second is to define ethics in a world of "virtual reality" - with a closer look revealing the fact that those terms do not go together nicely...

Virtual worlds like SecondLife are NOT MAINLY content distributing platforms. The creators of web sites used to say that "content is king" - but that is long gone. The social, collaborative web and internet technologies (community sites, chat, messengers, flickr, delicious etc.) made it clear that social factors and collaboration are just as important. But the virtual worlds go even beyond that and offer real-time interaction as a means of collaboration.

This means that a better critique of the media jungle would have been to point out the collaborative and interactive deficits of the presentation and to suggest better ways to do this. Following our first experience that doing things attact people the question is: what kind of activities should be performed in a universities SecondLife site so that people are attracted? What could we perform to attract e.g. female students for computer science?

Now currently the platform does not really provide good support for interaction and collaboration due to bad graphics, bad navigation and an outrageous limit of active avatars for performance reasons. But think about the possibilities...

The second problem: ethics in a virtual world, is rather complex and difficult. It has been noted that most virtual worlds seem to recreate/duplicate the existing world by simply copying the basic power relations and mechanism. That is true I guess. The question leads over into a general discussion of virtual worlds and virtual reality.

Virtual (or) Reality

Most game designers are aware of the balance act they need to perform with every release of their game. A gamer wants new features, surprises etc. but he or she don't like to get lost in a virtual world without a clue on the rules that govern that world. A game designed around pure chance suffers in its game play and won't be successful at all. (See the new thesis on game play and balancing by Thomas Fuchsmann, one of the fathers of "die Stadt NOAH"). So let's design a game or virtual world purely around physics. A box drops where it would drop in the real world. A barrel roles down the stairs just like in reality. But do we really have to carry inventory items back to our inventory during a game? Is it bad if avatars can fly? A purely physical world replication is boring and no fun at all.

Game play and balancing in virtual worlds of games serve the player - not a theory over a certain world. But how are we going to call the "participants" in virtual worlds? "Player" implies having fun there. We could decide to follow the well established "user" model: if the software bores you to death it is something from the office-world and you are called "user" of the software.

Let's try some more analogies. Literature has been defined as the difference to every-day language (see Schulte-Sasse, Einührung in die Literaturwissenschaft). We all recognize "artistic" language and texts because of this difference. But taken to its extremes this principle starts breaking down. Once the literature gets too different from every day language we can no longer understand it (see works of Georg Trakl).

Movies work in a similiar way. Just replicating by taking pictures does not create meaning. It takes reduction (e.g. from color, views etc.) to create meaning and a movie language in general (see Alexander Kluge). A movie languae was the result of a difference between artistic movies and "just taking pictures". Event the documentary genre follows this principle.

And yes, creating "valuable" movies was probably even harder than writing literature. And it might be even harder for virtual worlds because of the physical and social analogies that cannot be avoided once a person enters a virtual world. Everything there has meaning -but it is a meaning brought in from the real world. And we do not have a meaning (and language) that was created in and for virtual worlds. It is too early for that. But we can find bits and pieces of such a language by looking at virtual game worlds and how they work.

There are patterns of game mechanics (how to change locations, worlds etc., how to introduce something new to players, and so on). And there is game play as mechanisms of interaction that allow gamers to interact with passive and active agents of a game world. And it takes a lot of balancing to prevent a single mechanism (or should we say algorithm, rule) to dominate the world and thus destroy it.

Coming back to the ethics question. Yes I believe that there will be "valuable" worlds. We just don't know yet how to create them. Once we understand the language of virtual worlds better we can start creating such "valuable" worlds. They will be much more interactive and collaborative than textual worlds but they will have content as well. Maybe "content" is the wrong term for virtual worlds anyway. SecondLife has been called a desert, an empty place where single avatars wander around aimlessly. Compared to the gamesplay in games there is clearly something missing. Games call it "quests" or "riddles, mysteries" in adventures. These items of gameplay mechanics steer the player through the world and give meaning to it. SecondLife does have its quests so it seems: the collection of "freebies" - free 3-D objects given to the avatars. Those could be programs, tokens for the real world etc. But the hunting for freebies does not give real meaning to the virtual world. (but it raises the question of what "free" could mean in a digital world?.

Some of the role-playing games let you only interact with the world through your chosen figure and its options and abilities. How would a "female" virtual world feel to male players? How much difference in social behavior will we be able to accept until the world becomes non-sensical? When physical things become metaphors (a stair in a virtual world translates into time costs and interaction control abilities, not biological costs) what will replace the physical laws?

But we don't have to be overly philosophical. If you are running a faculty at a university - how would you like to use a virtual world? There are countless opportunities. If you believe that studying e.g. computer science is an adventure - go and organize your world as one. Let students discover things together. Meet with students there and talk about interesting things. Make sure your virtual world lets users integrate other media in a seamless way. If an avatar gives you something, e.g. some textbook, it should transparently show up on your machine for reading. Question user interface capabilities: is it really necessary to steer your avatar through the world using clumsy key combinations? Why not use the well known control mechanism of point-and-click-adventures? Why do you have to use an avatar? Wouldn't an ego-shooter perspective be much more immersive?

It will take some time to make sense of the overwhelming technical options of virtual worlds. But I am quite sure that the time we spend today using tv, mail, chat, web and messengers will be the combined time of our presence in virtual worlds of the future.

Just one idea: what could happen when we start connecting WII-like devices with motion sensors to virtual worlds? The WII itself has proven to be disruptive (at least for TV-stations in Japan which are losing viewers). What happens once the pysical world and the virtual worlds are better connected?