Wednesday, August 17, 2005


I missed last week's Second Life appearance of online world innovator Richard Bartle, but the agile advocates at SL Future Salon quickly posted the full transcript here, while Ren at Terra Nova heroically spelunked through the 53 page deep transcript to emerge with 12 pages worth of silver ingots, posted here. I don't get the impression that Richard was given a prior demonstration of Second Life, in all its non-text intensive glory, which makes the discussion between him, the host, and numerous SL Residents seem fairly abstract. How can you really have an honest compare-and-contrast between virtual worlds described purely by text, versus worlds that are also described by 3D animation and stereo sound-- when it's all done in text?

Another thought occurs to me, reading through this: ironically, the transcript of Richard Bartle explaining the virtues of text-based worlds itself illustrates their greatest weakness, too.

Consider: the full unedited transcript of Bartle's talk runs over 14,000 words, while the painstakingly pared-down after-the-fact edit clocks in at a still-substantial 4,000 words. Judged in terms of pure text, this is a staggeringly large, inefficient signal-to-noise ratio. And this is the transcript from a graphic and audio rich online world, where all the visual and sound cues are absorbed intuitively and effortlessly as percepts! Consider how much longer the transcript would have been in a text-only MUD, where every object, noise, avatar, action, and reaction is given a line or two of text description. 14,000 would easily become twice that or more, growing to the size of a short novel. (And even the vastly abbreviated 4,000 words is the size of a long New Yorker-style magazine article, taking at least 30-60 minutes to fully read and digest.)

Maybe I'm missing something, but Richard's advocacy for text-based worlds implicitly asks us to imagine a virtual world that unfolds in our mind's eye with every evocative haiku-like line of text. But that's the platonic ideal. In actual practice, even the most vivid text in a MUD is buried by cross-chat, emoticons, Instant Messages, administrative info, and all the other detritus that clings to the medium like ASCII barnacles. If text provides us a deeper, more cerebral experience, text also degrades and detracts from it every step of the way.

But leave that all to one side for a moment, because Bartle is a master of this field, and so you come across insights like this in it all the time:

"There are valid reasons for some virtual worlds to be part of the real world, just not all of them. You need to be able to maintain a conceit that the virtual world is not the real world in order to gain the freedoms that it offers. If it were just part of the real world, you'd have to be the real-world you, rather than the real you in games."

Which strikes me as profound, because it perfectly puts into words (ahem) an issue I've been wondering about recently, myself. What happens when Second Life gets the Mozilla functionality promised by Linden Lab, so it'll eventually be possible to browse the Web from within the world? For that matter, what happens when Second Life follows through on its promise (threat?) to become the successor to the Web? At what point does there get to be so much interaction between the metaverse and the real world-- and paradoxically, the Web, AIM/IRC, e-mail, cell phones, and PDAs now constitute the "real world"-- that the magic circle is broken, and the illusion of freedom collapses?

Thoughts to keep thinking, and Bartle's furious storm of words is a good place to start.

Posted at 06:52 PM | Permalink


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Exactly: what you said, Hamlet. And what's also been said for hundreds of years: a picture is worth a thousand words. Reductive as that is, it's still true in most cases --- and that's when we're considering only static, non-immersive images, not the vibrant, kinetic, soundfilled, 3-D you-are-HERE phenomenon of SL and SL-type environments.

When people casually use the term "game" to put a generic cognomen to Second Life, it rankles me only slightly and briefly these days: because I've gotten over my Napoleon Dynamitelike "Idiot!" response to hearing the word: because, um, because whatever, y'know, right? Big frickin' deal. But when a pundit uses the term in some thesis, whether spoken or written, it rankles anew. "... rather than the real you in games." Stop that! Stop saying games, unless, as some weird religious nod to Discordia's Eris, you also begin saying "snout" to mean "chair" and "flummox" to mean "shrubbery" and so on ...

They – those ever-innovative They who also brought us "a picture is worth 1000 words" --- also say one shouldn't compare apples to oranges. Yes, but what Bartle's trying to do, it seems to this under-educated geek, is compare a textual description of an apple to an actual orange ... and to insist that the former is superior! Yarg!

Right: I shoulda been at the meeting on Sunday.


--- Mem

Posted by: Memory Harker at Aug 18, 2005 10:27:04 AM

Actually, Richard said that he spend a while flying around SL on an alt account and apparently had an older SL account that was inactive.

Posted by: Elle Pollack at Aug 18, 2005 12:45:52 PM

The transcript seems to be a bit out of order... I found questions Bartle was responding to after his response ... fyi ...

anyway, I thought Bartle was a great guy for coming in and talking so candidly - on his blog he jokes that he's glad he didn't get lynched. (for his pro-text-only comments!)

Posted by: HiroPendragon at Aug 18, 2005 9:07:48 PM

How we experience the world is dictated to us by our senses. Sight, Sound, Taste, Touch and Smell. When Authors write about an environment, they use words to describe it to us because we are unable to be there ourselves, they describe the Sounds of a near by forest, the Sight of a fog, the Texture of a rock and so forth. We then use our imagination to place ourselves in this environment that the Authors have presented us. So in answer to the question of superiority. I would say that the Audio/visual medium is the superior of the two. Why? - because it can be experienced through the senses directly. If I were offered a choice between an all expenses payed holiday at my dream destination or the opportunity to read about it. I would choose the holiday. Sure one can argue that the text-based environment is superior because it enables you to imagine more than is being described, a different version or perhaps an improved one. But is that the Authors intent? therein lies the weakness. Why are we using our imagination in the first place? A VISUAL experience will not require the use of your imagination because it is seen by both its creator and its observer identically, there is no reason to fill in any gaps. So in my opinion, however incomplete the secondlife reality may be, the ablity to experience it with just 2 of my senses outweighs trying to piece together a description.

Posted by: Augustus Seraph at Aug 18, 2005 11:08:50 PM

Both visual environments and pure-text mediums have their places. If you WANT to stimulate the imagination of the audience and let THEM create the nuances text can't provide, then skip the 3D. But if you want to share more of YOUR vision, take them into a 3D setting, or even (in the future somewhere) jack them into a full-sensory simulation. It's all a matter of what the "author" wants to do... Which tools to use.

And as for RL interaction, more and more people today are taking on alternate identities that they can maintain even in face-to-face RL meetings. There are many people I have met and know on sight, but only by some sort of handle.

I think the future will show us all having many identities that can be used in any environment or situation as called for. We'll all be many people...

Posted by: Tiger Crossing at Aug 19, 2005 7:47:38 AM

I'm a little pro-bartle myself.

While 3D has its uses, a lot of the pro-3D arguments clearly miss the power text can have.

3D is a tradgic literal. It is bound to the senses and limited by them.

Text however, releases the chains and frees the participant to explore with the mind.

Corpus, ex-Corpus.

Text gives us inflection, genuflection, introspection, and the freedom to play with the abstract and impossible. Make possible in some limited virtual way that things we never though could be.

The problem I see with the pro-3D argument is that one of "literal translation." Sure, I can chat to you in 3D and you can build a literal scene for me to walk through rather than describe it to me.


Try and build a TARDIS in a 3D virtual world and sail it through time. Reach into your pocket and let the crickets out. Let your mind be your body and dissipate (sp?) into the bereaved wind. Feel the fetters of souls lost tug and pull the strings of your fate.

Perceptions are limited and they often only tell us half of what we want to know. For example, many say that nearly 85% of all communication is empathetic -- not body language OR words.

Text is different though -- a book or a MUD gived us a different perspective that lets us leave our bodies behind and become an observer, another person, or put us in the shoes of strangers. We'll change rolls at the will of the story, the writer, or the player on the other terminal. We can plainly read the empathetic responses between characters or we can figure it out for ourselves... and the best part of that is that our minds have to imagine such things.

3D doesn't create those emotional or subtle responses. It's a very literal and self-aligned creation. You let me see what you want me to see. And what I see is constrained to what the senses can concoct. It's limited by the corpus zeitgeist.

Text also doesn't have the same limitations of space and time. Time in a text world is as flexible as anyone needs it to be. Space is infinite and is limited only by what we choose to occupy at any moment.

Time in SL is literal -- there are physics involved and their speed, occupance, and potentials are measurable by constants. That's not even to considering the vastly small representation of physics that SL represents.

I'm rambling and it's because I could go on for a very long time on this subject. Though the only certainty I have is that neither is superior as they don't share a common arena. Where they do have common elements that we can argue with, it's up to the participant which is more suitable for their experience.

While I love SL, I don't use it the same way I use text worlds. In a MUSH I'm currently active in, I play a burnt-out writer getting away from the new york best-sellers a-list -- he's a drunk and is sick of his own clichee, so he takes off to New Orleans to find himself. Whereas in SL I play a literal entity, a representation in a 3D space that is arguably a substrate of this real universe.. it's only virtual in the many degrees of seperation; though I feel it's much closer to real than any text-based multi-user experience I've had so far.

Corpus or ex-Corpus? That's the choice that's really at the heart of this argument I think. You either choose more real or unreal.

Posted by: Icon Serpentine at Aug 22, 2005 8:52:12 PM

As a long-time MUSHer (13 years), I've recently started getting into the graphical games, starting with Sony's Star Wars Galaxies and now SL.

What I've found frustrating in the graphical ones that isn't so in text is that despite the visual emotes, I can express myself much better and with finer nuance in text than the pre-designed responses seem to do. I find myself adding my emotes in the text conversation anyway, simply because of the limitation of /nod.

Certainly it's nifty, and maybe I'm a Bartlite trapped in textual dino-land, but verbal and visual (as represented in both mediums) is still too separated in the visual 3D worlds. (/IMHO)

Posted by: Pym at Dec 8, 2005 10:36:07 PM