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Saturday, March 13, 2004

THE STATE OF THE GAME-NATION: AN NWN-AT-SXSW PRESENTATION

What follows are notes for a brief talk I'll be giving this Tuesday at "The Game-Nation State", a South by Southwest panel*...

PLAYING FOR KEEPS:
AN EMBEDDED JOURNALIST'S PERSPECTIVE ON THE EVOLVING STATE OF VIRTUAL COMMUNITIES

SECOND LIFE DEFINED
A persistent, streamed 3D reality that simulates a world with over a hundred geographic regions, each of which is contained on separate Internet servers, merged together to form a contiguous continent. The natural world of Second Life, however, is a basic palette. Using the building and scripting tools available to them, the paying subscribers (or residents) create almost all the objects contained in it: homes, public buildings, vehicles, weapons, clothing, etc. This facet distinguishes it from a MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) like Star Wars Galaxies or Everquest, which are genre-oriented and emphasize gaining experience and wealth for your alter ego, or a non-genre MMOG (Massively Multiplayer Online Game), like The Sims Online, which emphasizes social interaction and chat.

By contrast, I'D CHARACTERIZE SECOND LIFE AS A MMOCA: A Massively Multiplayer Online Creative Agora. The emphasis is on creativity, as the prime social good, economic resource, and an end in itself, in a community-oriented marketplace of fellow creators. Role-playing and socialization are still important, but creativity, in terms of object building and script writing, avatar creation, and community events, remains the primary driving force. The most popular and successful residents (in terms of in-world income and popularity) tend to be the most creative.

MY ROLE IN SECOND LIFE: I'm a game writer and freelance technology journalist for Salon and Wired, contracted by Linden Lab to cover the development of Second Life as an emerging online community for a blog called New World Notes. My in-world avatar is "Hamlet Linden", modeled after myself, but wearing a white suit, in tribute to Tom Wolfe (not Miami Vice.)

VARIETIES OF RESIDENT INVENTION (FOUR EXAMPLES):
- The mansion of Catherine Omega
- A Viennese opera ball by Andie Apollo
- The alien abduction spacecraft of Roo Jones (July 28th-30th entries)
- My own contribution, an in-world book club featuring Cory Doctorow, interviewed in avatar form

EVOLUTION OF SECOND LIFE: HOW SOCIAL DESIGN AND INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY/LAND RIGHTS SHAPE COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT

THE TAX REVOLT BY AMERICANA
The Linden tax (Linden dollars deducted weekly from a resident's in-world income, according to the amount of land and objects they own) was perceived to be unfair, especially by members who used their resources to create community-oriented projects. So Americana, a group dedicated to building a tribute to American icons in a city space (the Washington Monument, Fenway Park, etc.), decided to stage an American-style tax revolt, featuring tea crates littered all over the world, Thoreau-style declarations of grievances, and fireworks. Linden Lab eventually ended the tax system, and in its place, launched a system in which users would pay a fee of real dollars for land and objects owned above a designated level (see "Capitalism Comes to Avalon").

THE WAR OF THE JESSIE WALL
The object and script-creation tools have attracted two fairly distinct types of residents (among many other others): graphic designers and other artists, who enjoy showing off their creativity in a shared 3D space-- and wargamers, who enjoy creating their own weapons and combat vehicles, and using them to fight in Second Life's damage-enabled areas. This led to a clash of cultures, shortly after the main battles in Iraq were ending. Most of the wargamers are conservative and hawkish, so during the war, they had a sign saying "Support President Bush and the troops"-- but many Second Life residents are liberal and opposed to the war, so they began putting anti-Bush, pro-leftist posters on the Jessie Wall, a high barrier which separated Second Life's combat zone from the rest of the world. This ideological battle of 3D imagery transmuted into a lot of political argument in chat-- and firefights-- between the two groups. (Part 2 of the story here.)

THE GAME WITHIN THE GAME
With the assistance of Lawrence Lessig, Linden Lab recently announced that residents would retain intellectual property rights over all the objects, avatars, scripts, etc. that they created. In theory, this means residents can, for example, create machinima in-world, and sell the broadcast rights to a cable network, or use their avatars in a graphic novel, without Linden Lab getting a dime of the profits. In practical terms, take the case of Pirate Cotton, a resident who happens to be a developer in the computer game industry: he created Dark Life, a dungeon-crawl RPG adventure game, within Second Life. It's very popular, and he makes a large amount of Linden dollars from it (residents have to purchase dungeon his exploring equipment from him, to play.) But if he wanted, he could, for example, charge residents real money to play, or even sell the concept of the game to another company. So in the near future, we should be seeing some interesting applications of IP rights by residents-- and all the political and legal disputes that usually obtain, when small creative projects are monetized and put into the mass market. As Linden Lab's FAQ on IP rights makes plain (sample question: "How do protect my own work [in a court of law]?", they are expecting these disputes down the road.

CAPITALISM COMES TO AVALON
Sale of land for real money in Linden Lab-run auctions led to a fear that corporations would soon overwhelm the Second Life community. Especially when rental rights to the first full region (or simulator) to be sold were purchased, after a fierce bidding war, for over US$1200. It was bought by the head of a British branding company, who proposed creating a community-oriented island that would have an art gallery, a live performance theater-- and a mall area, that would promote T-shirts sold by a small company in Wales, and import the fashions of a top European designer, with possible plans to use avatars to model her clothes in actual print advertisements. This generated a tremendous amount of controversy among some residents, who showed up on the island waving signs that said "Boycott", shouting anti-commercial rhetoric, and warning that their world would soon be overwhelmed with advertisements for Starbucks, and so on. The particular controversy over this island has quieted down since then (January), but the argument over the entrance of real world commerce into the world will probably keep recurring in years to come. For example, two third-party companies not affiliated in any way with Linden Lab have since turned the buying and selling of Linden Dollars into a real business: Gaming Open Market runs a commodity trading market of US dollars to Linden Dollars, while Internet Gaming Entertainment buys and sells Linden Dollars for cash. Unlike other persistent world companies, which often react harshly to commodities trading of their game money, or the sale of in-world objects and characters on Ebay, Linden Lab taken an entirely hands-off policy on both. As the world expands, so, inevitably, will this commerce-- and the controversy that accompanies it.

CONCLUSIONS (FOR THE STATE OF THE GAME NATION ONLINE)
Assuming Second Life becomes a model for the future of persistent online worlds...

- DIVERSIFICATION OF AUDIENCE = DIVERSITY OF INTERACTION
If the audience for persistent worlds can diversify beyond its main fan base of hardcore gamers, bringing in, for example, more women and technically-literate artists, we'll see the medium grow in variety of interaction, as well. The medium will become a means for political and artistic expression, and an in-world networking tool for non-genre affinity groups (i.e. by ethnicity, locality, sexual orientation, and so on.) And since persistent worlds attract an international audience, we should also see this co-mingling spread out on a global scale-- especially in Asia, whose audience for persistent worlds has already far surpassed that of North America and Europe.

- FROM WORLDWIDE WEB... TO WORLDWIDE WORLD
Assume the policies regarding customer created content and commodities trading for Second Life become a model for next generation persistent worlds. Assume the audiences for them continue to grow and diversify. If that happens, we may see these worlds supplant the Web as the preferred medium of communcation and information exchange on the Internet. Instead of using the Web as our primary source of entertainment, commerce, conversation, and so on, most of these features will be accessed through persistent worlds. Then, like the Web now, the state of the game-nation will be indistinguishable from the state of the nation-- and the world.

Post-SXSW questions? Visit New World Notes (http://secondlife.blogs.com/nwn/), or e-mail me, hamlet@secondlife.com.

*UPDATE: NOW THAT THE TALK HAS FINISHED, THE COMMENT SECTION IS WIDE OPEN!

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Comments

By the way, I mentioned the famous Baccara Rhodes
at the SXSW talk, and her adventures with the
Jessie wargamers are found here:

http://secondlife.com/notes/2003_10_13_archive.php#20031015

(Scroll up to read!)

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