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March 07, 2007

Making virtual worlds grow up

On February 20th, SFI cosponsored a business network topical meeting on "Synthetic Environments and Enterprise", or "Collective Intelligence in Synthetic Environments" in Santa Clara. Although these are fancy names, the idea is pretty simple. Online virtual worlds are pretty complex environments now, and several have millions of users who spend an average of 20-25 hours of time per week exploring, building, or otherwise inhabiting these places. My long-time friend Nick Yee has made a career out of studying the strange psychological effects and social behaviors stimulated by these virtual environments. For many businesses, it is only just now dawning on them that games have something that could help enterprise, namely, that many games are fun, while much work is boring. This workshop was designed around exploring a single question: How can we use the interesting aspects of games to make work more interesting, engaging, productive, and otherwise less boring?

Leighton Read (who sits on SFI's board of trustees) was the general ringmaster for the day, and gave, I think, a persuasive pitch for how well-designed incentive structures can be used to produce useful stuff for businesses [1]. Thankfully, it seems that people interested in adapting game-like environments to other domains are realizing that military applications [2] are pretty limited. Some recent clever examples of games that produce something useful are the ESP game, in which you try to guess the text tags (a la flickr) that another player will give to a photo you both see; the Korean search giant Naver, in which you write answers to search queries and are scored on how much people like your result; and, Dance Dance Revolution, where you compete in virtual dance competitions by actually exercising. What these games have in common is that they break down the usual button-mashing paradigm by creating social or physical incentives for achievement.

One of the main themes of the workshop was exactly this kind of strategic incentive structuring [3], along with the dangling question of, How can we design useful incentive structures to facilitate hard work? In the context of games themselves (video or otherwise), this is a bit like asking, What makes a game interesting enough to spend time playing? A few possibilities are a escapism / being someone else / a compelling story line (a la movies and books), a competitive aspect (as in card games), beautiful imagery (3d worlds), reflex and precision training (shooters and jumpers), socialization (most MMOs), or outsmarting a computer (most games from the 80s and 90s when AI was simplistic), and even creating something unique / of value (like crafting for a virtual economy). MMOs have many of these aspects, and perhaps that's what makes them so widely appealing - that is, it's not that MMOs manage to get any one thing right about interesting incentive structures [5], but rather they have something for everyone.

Second Life (SL), a MMO in which all its content is user-created (or, increasingly, business-built), got a lot of lip-service at the workshop as being a panacea for enterprise and gaming [6]. I don't believe this hype for a moment; Second Life was designed to allow user-created objects, but not to be a platform for complex, large-scale, or high-bandwidth interactions. Yet, businesses (apparently) want to use SL as a way to interact with their clients and customers, a platform for teleconferencing, broadcasting, advertising, etc., and a virtual training ground for employees Sure, all of these things possible under the SL Life system, but none of them can work particularly well [7] because SL wasn't designed to be good at facilitating them. At this point, SL is just a fad, and in my mind, there are only two things that SL does better than other, more mature technologies (like instant messaging, webcams, email, voice-over-IP, etc.). The first is to make it possible for account executives to interact with their customers in a more impromptu fashion - when they log into the virtual world, they can get pounced on by needy customers that previously would have had to go through layers of bureaucracy to get immediate attention. Of course, this kind of accessibility will disappear when there are hundreds or thousands of potential pouncers. The second is that it allows businesses to bring together people with common passions in a place that they can interact over them [8].

Neither of these things is particularly novel. The Web was the original way to bring like-minded individuals together over user-created content, and the Web 2.0 phenomenon allows more people to do this, in a more meaningful way than I think Second Life ever will. What the virtual-world aspect gives to this kind of collective organization is a more intuitive feeling of identification with a place and a group. That is, it takes a small mental flip to think of a username and a series of text statements as being an intentional, thinking person, whereas our monkey brains find it easier to think of a polygonal avatar with arms and legs as being a person. In my mind, this is the only reason to prefer virtual-world mediated interactions over other forms of online interaction, and at this point, aside from entertainment and novelty, those other mediums are much more compelling than the virtual worlds.


[1] There's apparently even an annual conference dedicated to exploring these connections.

[2] Probably the best known (and reviled) example of this is America's Army, which is a glorified recruiting tool for the United States Army, complete with all the subtle propoganda you'd expect from such a thing: the US is the good guys, only the bad guys do bad things like torture, and military force is always the best solution. Of course, non-government-sponsored games aren't typically much better.

[3] I worry, however, that the emphasis on social incentives will backfire on many of these enterprise-oriented endeavors. That is, I've invested a lot of time and energy in building and maintaining my local social network, and I'd be pretty upset if a business tried to co-opt those resources for marketing or other purposes [4].

[4] In poking around online, I discovered the blog EmergenceMarketing that focuses on precisely this kind of issue within the marketing community. I suspect that what's causing the pressure on the marketing community is not just increasing competition for people's limited attention (the information deluge, as I like to call it), but also the increasing ease by which people can organize and communicate on issues related to overtly selfish corporate practices; it's not pleasant to be treated like a rock from which money is to be squeezed.

[5] The fact that populations migrate from game to game (especially when a new one is released) suggests that most MMOs are far from perfect on many of these things, and that the novelty of a new system is enough to break the loyalty of many players to their investment in the old system.

[6] The hype around Second Life is huge enough to produce parodies, and to obscure some significant problems with the system's infrastructure, design, scalability, etc. For instance, see Daren Barefoot's commentary on the Second Life hype.

[7] The best example of this was the attempt to telecast Tom Malone's talk (complete with powerpower slides) from MIT into the Cisco Second Life amphitheater and the Cisco conference room I was sitting in. The sound was about 20 seconds delayed, the slides out of sync, and the talk generally reduced to a mechanical reading of prepared remarks, for both worlds. Why was this technology used instead of another, better adapted technology like a webcam? Multicast is a much better adapted technology for this kind of situation, and gets used for some extremely popular online events. In Second Life, the Cisco amphitheater could only host about a hundred or so users; multicast can reach tens of thousands.

[8] The example of this that I liked was Pontiac. Apparently, they first considered building a virtual version of their HQ in SL, but some brilliant person encouraged them instead to build a small showroom on a large SL island, and then let users create little pavilions nearby oriented around their passion for cars (not Pontiacs, just cars in general). The result is a large community of car enthusiasts who interact and hang out around the Pontiac compound. In a sense, this is just the kind of thing the Web has been facilitating for years, except that now there's a 3d component to the virtual community that many web sites have fostered. So, punchline: what gets businesses excited about SL is the thing that (eventually) got them excited about the Web; SL is the Web writ 3d, but without its inherent scalability, flexibility, decentralization, etc.

posted March 7, 2007 01:43 PM in Thinking Aloud | permalink