Wonders and Wizards of the Mind at Living Game World IV

I had a great time at Living Game World IV at Georgia Tech this week.  While I am not a hard core Virtual Worlds games designer, the connections between VWs, Social Media, User Created Content and real life are now so great as to be an essential part of any media tech executives thinking. That is the official travel request I put in, anyway. My friends will know that I would not have missed a chance to see the heroes of gaming all assembled in one room and get to talk to them.

(To prove it, pictures are here on Flickr)

I got to meet my heroes and talk to them. I saw virtual wonders and met some of the new Wizards of the shared mind.  I learned of the history of games worlds and the urgent need for the developers of new worlds to combining learning from past mistakes and exploring new spaces.

Why was I so enthusiastic?

My early life was greatly improved by the evolution of group games. I cut my teeth on family board games at Christmas, built my own games with friends using paper, rules, sellotape and wild imaginations. Then I fell into the clutches of the Ochre Jellies in D&D sometime in the late 1970’s. From there it was a short trip to the school computer labs where we had punch card access to the CDC mainframe at Imperial College London. (I went to see it one day with school – the support crew were using the CDC mainframe and a flatbed plotter to draw the female star of Charlie’s Angels life sized.)

From punch card batch jobs to soldering irons and some 8bit microprocessors on breadboards, a Research Machines desktop that ran some version of Pascal, and then, wonder of wonders a PDP 11 with a 1Mb Winchester Driver. And it ran ADVENTURE – or some clone thereof. That was me, hooked for life, right there.

I learned how it worked, disassembled parts of the code, wrote some small versions, and extended what I learned about rule based gaming into the real world and pencil and paper role playing.

By the time I got to Oxford in 1982 we were in the world of ELITE (thanks David Braben) on Acorns and learning to hack registers to give us the edge over Thargoids. I got into free form group roleplaying with Tekumel around 1984, and carried on doing that into this century.

The point is, for me, computer games have always been about three things:
1 Group activities
2 Creativity
3 Socialisation

VW’s take that to a logical development and enable more to enjoy. Critically, the larger number of people who now participate in VWs do not need to have a coding or games design background because of two factors:
1 Better tools for creativity
2 More people to ask for help.

Anyway, back to the conference, which I am going to write about backwards, chronologically.

Richard A. Bartle, University of Essex, UK, co-wrote the first virtual world, MUD,in 1978; he has thus been at the forefront of the industryfrom its very inception. If you have not read his 2003 book, “Designing Virtual Worlds”, you should not be trying to make virtual worlds.

Richard showed us how it all began, and clearly reminded us that the first shared worlds were created just for fun. Think about that: not only was it possible for one or two people to create a real time online shared world, they did it just for fun.

F. Randall “Randy” Farmer has been creating online community systems for over 30 years, and has co-invented many of the basic structures for both virtual worlds and social software. His firsts include: one of the first multiplayer online games; one of the first message boards; the first virtual world; the first avatars; the first online marketplace; the first user newsfeed/friend feed (in Yahoo! 360°); the first multi-purpose reputation platform and grammar; and many other smaller firsts. He has co-authored numerous papers on the topics of virtual worlds and social media that have been published in books and across the Internet. His most widely read publication is entitled “The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat”, which he co-authored with Chip Morningstar. He also recommends reading “Oracle Layza’s Tales” if you have time before starting your own virtual world.

Randy took us through the next few years of development. What struck me was how far and fast the core design ideas of VWs were incorporated into code and made into commercial products.  Avatars, Shopping, Chat, Digital Assets, Modifiable ‘home spaces’, Minigames, PvP areas, Adventuring, Social Media creation (poetry!), and online beta testing groups. They were all there, working and commercialised before 1986. Makes me wonder whether that should not be welded onto every advertisment for “modern” VWs when they make their claims of “firsts”. What was even more surprising was that there was no advertising in VWs until 1991.

My take away from Randy was “no shared experience can succeed without a social purpose.”

Pavel Curtis who is now at Microsoft is best known for having founded and managed LambdaMOO, one of the best-known online communities of the 1990s. He created LambdaMOO during his 13-1/2 years as a member of the research staff at Xerox PARC, from 1983 to 1996, where he worked in the areas of programming language design and implementation, programming environments, and online collaboration systems. Curtis left Xerox in 1997 to become a principal architect and co-founder of PlaceWare, a web-conferencing company that was acquired by Microsoft in 2003. Outside of work, Curtis is now the sole proprietor of Pavel's Puzzles (http://www.pavelspuzzles.com), a website selling mechanical puzzles, mostly designed by him.

Pavel is an old school, hard core, programming language geek with a huge beard and the most wonderful self-deprecating sense of humor. If there is a special reward for having invested thousands upon thousands of unpaid hours to make other people happy, he deserves it. He also developed the core ideas of group governance, ‘wizards’ and social order in VWs, and thereby setting them on the path to hypergrowth once freed of the need for central micro-management.

It made me realise how much shared development and the open source community owe to the games pioneers who all came together from across the world to meet and develop ‘virtually’ on the university servers they ‘borrowed’ time on.

Brian “Psychochild” Green of Near Death Studios is an experienced online game developer. In his six years of hobbyist and ten years of professional game development, he has done programming, designing, writing, and administrating. He started his professional career in 1998 working on the classic PvP online RPG, Meridian 59. He then left to work at Communities.com on “The Palace”, a noted graphical chat product, before starting his own company Near Death Studios, Inc. Brian was co-editor on the book “Business & Legal Primer for Game Development”. He also maintains a professional blog discussing online game design and development.

Brian showed us the last step in the evolution of VWs – pretty graphics and deeper structure. Which brought us very close to what we see today.

I skipped some of the deeper sociological and theoretical content (after all, I was here on business and had people to see!), but a couple of people gave me pause for thought.

Tom Boellstorf, is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, and Editor-in-Chief of American Anthropologist, the flagship journal of the American Anthropological Association. His research projects have focused on questions of sexuality, globalization, nationalism, HIV/AIDS, and cybersociality. He is the author of The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia (Princeton University Press, 2005), winner of the 2005 Ruth Benedict Award from the Society of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists; A Coincidence of Desires: Anthropology, Queer Studies, Indonesia (Duke University Press, 2007); and Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human (Princeton University Press, 2008).

Tom gave us a quick checklist:
•    VWs are not games, except when they are
•    VWs require more than structuralist theories
•    VWs do not need to be visual – soundscapes, haptic worlds and text worlds are fine
•    VWs are places not events,  they are meetings and not media
•    VWs do not have to be anonymous or role playing based, yet often are
•    VWs really need to take care over their trust, respect and friendship models and users tools.

Celia Pearce gave me the phrase of the day which is now officially – “transludic logic”

T.L. Taylor is associate professor in the Center for Computer Games Research at the IT University of Copenhagen where she also heads the Multimedia Technology and Games graduate program. She pointed out that we don’t really know what an MMO is yet – we have only had 30 years to try a few things.

Probably only 3 generations of MMO thinking, and that is highly interlinked, derivative and from a narrow base of computer science creatives. Generally MMOs are designed by the players of the last MMO, which is hardly a recipe for revolutionary thinking. We need to think much more widely and deeply about how fun emerges from the assemblage of rules, hardware, people, time and space.

Lisbeth Klastrup is a researcher at the Innovative Communication Research Group and the Center for Computer Games Research at the IT University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Her Ph.D. thesis from 2003 outlined a possible “poetics” for virtual worlds and she has ever since explored the relation between “worldness”, gameworld culture, social architecture and aesthetics in online worlds . Recently she contributed to World(s) of Warcraft, a Critical Anthology of World of Warcraft (MIT Press 2008) with a chapter on the meaning of death in WoW. Currently, she researches the interplay between clothes, fashion and gameworld culture.

She reminded us that, for most consumers of VW and MMO content, the real driver is one of aesthetics and communication. Sadly, aesthetics and style are almost universally badly done. I laughed out loud at research that shows that 70% of WOW players spend time and money on apparel that serves no combat or RPG function other than signalling identity and status.

(Side note – I had the huge honour of working with Marc Hawker and Ishbel Whittaker of DarkFibre Films on an MMO design in 2001/2. They really really knew how to bring aesthetics to a Virtual World. If you want, I’ll introduce you!)

I’m not going to delve into acculturalisation issues, cos-play, gender alignment and sense of identity issues in VWs. All interesting for some, but would be too controversial and too complex to reasonably dissect in this post. Perhaps later.

Jumping right back to the start of the conference (see, I said it was in reverse), I’d point out the contribution of Raph Koster, a professional game designer and frequent writer on issues of virtual world design, Raph Koster was the lead designer on the seminal online world ULTIMA ONLINE, which first brought online worlds to the mass market. Until March 2006 he was Chief Creative Officer for Sony Online Entertainment, makers of EVERQUEST, where he previously led the design of STAR WARS GALAXIES. His essays and writings on online world design include widely reprinted and influential pieces such as “Declaring the Rights of Players”, “The Laws of Online World Design”, and “A Story About a Tree”. He is in demand as a speaker and lecturer on issues of online world design, particularly in the area of community building. He is a regular speaker at the Game Developers Conference, and is the maintainer of the canonical history of virtual worlds at his website, . His book A THEORY OF FUN FOR GAME DESIGN was published in 2004 by Paraglyph Press and is used in several university courses as study material.

What Raph is doing with Metaplace is creating a shift back to the heartland of VW creation. (thanks for the beta key, Raph! I’m going to make something, but I do not know what!) By empowering anyone to create a VW of their own and by JOINING THEM UP, he is really going to change some things. I think it is a wonderful thing.

And Raph, if you are listening, it is not too late to invite me to Project Horseshoe ?

So with my head full of good stuff, I am off to read more into the forces that shape group creativity. I’ll be spending a bit of time on Henry Jenkin’s Blog. I may go read “A rape in cyberspace” and will be catching up on Janet Murays’ earlier works like “hamlet on the holodeck”, to which Moviestorm owes so much.

We can all learn from the past while we move forward with the new media tools we are forging.  I look forward to putting the things I have learned about group creativity and ‘playfulness’ into practice. And to think, my mother was right when she said “you should join that computer club at school, you seem to enjoy it, and you never know, it might be useful one day”.