Thoughts on the Resolution of Nothing

I ponder nothing. Endlessly. Nothing in the intangible sense – the increasing dominance of things without physical form in society and economy. Nothing in the sceptical nihilistic sense – the “meaninglessness of existence”. Even the nothing inherent in the stupidity required for cleverness.

Nothing isn’t new. The problem baffled thinkers for much of the 20th century. In the 21st we may finally be being overwhelmed by it. Possibly without realising. How society resolves a potentially uncomfortable relationship with nothing is important. And intriguing. It’s possibly the most difficult problem to resolve, yet underpins many contemporary issues.

This article introduces 3 approaches to resolving nothing. They are an attempt to summarise various different articles I’ve written over the past year. Broadly:

  • Tangible Renaissance: Physical representations of nothing. Idols to communicate abstract values. Belief in certainty.
  • Virtual Illusion: Virtual consumerism. An economy base on nothing, happily sustained in the denial of the meaninglessness. Belief in who cares?
  • Post-Existential Skepticism: Understanding built from nothing. Presumption of illusion. Belief in uncertainty.

This text is poorly researched, incomplete, and, well, uncertain. But it might be an interesting summary of the extent of my current confusion. This is written from a Western, especially British-American perspective. Keep these quotes in mind: Read More

Do You Fish in Real Life?

This article analyses the transfer of fishing activity between the physical and virtual worlds.

Do You Fish IRL? In Real Life. I dislike the phrase, because it implies that everything else is unreal. Yet many virtual environments trigger the same human emotions as the physical world. Very real indeed.

Google US search for 'fishing guide'. If you search US Google for the term “fishing guide“, the first result may surprise you. It doesn’t help to catch any of the 30,000 species of fish found on planet earth. And its author has bright pink hair.

This isn’t just a neat party trick. Nor an indication that I should write a real fishing guide. Nor a failing of Google’s search index: Google is directing such a generic search to a game-specific website because the search engine thinks that the majority of people searching for a “fishing guide” are looking for a World of Warcraft fishing guide. (The box below provides evidence.)

Perhaps, within the online sphere, virtual fishing is as important as conventional fishing? The caveat, “within the online sphere”, is crucial: Physical world anglers generally aren’t sat in front of a computer screen, while World of Warcraft anglers are. However, the internet is still widely used to find information about offline pursuits: The US Angler Survey found that 42% of those surveyed primarily learn about fishing from websites – more popular than print media. (The survey is presumably biased, because anglers that use the internet are more likely to complete an online survey – but still indicates the internet is a fairly important source of information for physical world anglers.) Of course far more people search for generic terms like “fishing” than anything WoW or guide-related. So game-related search does not dominate as much as it may first seem.

Searches for “fishing guide” are not the only way online anglin’ is merging with offline.

As the remainder of this article demonstrates, World of Warcraft anglers are up to 3 times more likely to fish in the physical world than the wider population: If you enjoy fishing “for real”, you are more likely to fish virtually than other players. This implies that the fishing activity transfers directly between the physical and virtual worlds. Read More

Why We Travel

If we could eliminate transportation from our daily lives, would we want to? Or do we still need to travel, even if we have nowhere to go?

This article explores the desire to travel – to make economically irrational transport journeys. It ponders the apparently unnecessary role of travel in virtual worlds. It considers how travel contributes to immersion within the world, and how such travel can be substituted. Finally, the article addresses some of the difficulties in bringing lessons from the virtual back into the physical world. Read More

WeeWorld

WeeMee. WeeWorld is a teen-orientated social network, best known for their customized avatars, “WeeMees”. WeeWorld has evolved into an eclectic mix of community, casual games, and virtual goods. Steve Young, creative director, spoke to a small group in Edinburgh. Steve discussed the motivations and behaviour of WeeWorld’s users, and explored the challenges of working with 2D WeeMees, particularly as they move into WeeWorld’s new virtual (synchronous) world.

Users

WeeWorld’s core market are teenagers, mostly in North America. Average age 16 (minimum 13, although younger users may simply lie about their age). 60% are female. The dominant market segment was characterised as “spoilt rich kids” – typically those with their own computers. Of the 23 million registered users, about a million visit the WeeWorld site each month, and 80,000 login each day.

Usage differs from other teen social networks, such as Gaia Online: Only 6% of logged-in users visit the site’s forums, while 80% alter their WeeMee. Teen worlds are evidently not generic.

WeeMees (from the Glaswegian, “little me”) can be placed within personalised 2D rooms (in the style of “cardboard theatre”), used as characters within casual games, or rendered as avatars in a new virtual world called, simply enough, “World”. WeeMees are also used on third party websites and services, including messenger services, such as AIM or Live. Initial ideas for WeeMees had resulted in a lot of avatars simply being copied. APIs now provide some control over how WeeMees are reused.

Users’ main aim is “to gather as many friends as possible”. And to chat in a variant of the English language that even JeffK would find almost unintelligible: $iNG-UL?

Virtual Goods

WeeMees can be customized for free: Body, clothes and accessories. However users can also buy “Points”, which can be spent on specific items.

Points can be purchased via PayPal transactions or pre-paid cards, which are sold in US stores. Kids tend to regard these mechanisms like free credit cards: They are not seen as real money.

People pay for “uniqueness”. However, items need not be complex: The most popular item sold is a simple Alice band.

The most fascinating revelation was that the introduction of the new synchronous (virtual) world doubled the sales of virtual goods. This “World” is not even out of beta testing yet. “World” places WeeMees in the same interactive space as one another. This contrasts to the other areas of the site, where WeeMees are not competing for space. I think that implies the more an avatar needs to stand out from the crowd, the more virtual “Bling” is worth to that avatar’s owner.

WeeWorld is keen to avoid its Points being traded as a virtual currency. Money can only be converted into Points, not back again.

Design

The key to WeeWorld’s success is “immersion”. The key to its revenue is “engagement”. These concepts guide development.

Although WeeMees are cartoon-like (in the style associated with South Park), customizations still need to reflect what people would wear in “real life”. For example, T-shirts branding needs to be subtle – a small logo on part of the garment.

The goal for user-generated content (customizations of WeeMees and rooms) is to make it hard for the user to create something that looks bad. For example, MySpace customisations can (and in my opinion, sadly often do) look terrible.

WeeWorld has adjusted to match conservative US culture. The cannabis plants created in early experiments are long gone. There are no alcoholic drinks. Negotiations with Walmart even forced WeeWorld to disable the customization of boob (brest) size.

The development of “World” posed an interest problem: How should WeeMees move? All the artwork and customizations had been designed for static display, without movement animations. The World uses embedded Flash objects to display information to users, so the amount of data transferred about other users’ movements needs to be minimal.

The solution was to make WeeMees hop. Users can also select a trajectory and fire their WeeMees in a particular direction. Navigating World’s 2D platform-ed environment is quite cereal, but strangely fun!

Development

Social networks are becoming more like virtual worlds, while virtual worlds are becoming more like social networks. WeeWorld is trying to steer a path down the middle. Like all the businesses involved, they are still “feeling their way”, finding out what works.

Development time-scales for WeeWorld (and similar products) are very short. Steve was somewhat frustrated that development of the “World” had taken a whole quarter (3 months). The contrast to video-game style virtual worlds is stark: Those typically take 3 years to construct.

WeeWorld use a Scrum/agile development process (which suits the constantly evolving product). Casual games (a commonly requested feature) are often out-sourced to other developers.

The ability to develop content quickly makes it very easy for good ideas to be copied by competitors. For example, Zwinky might seem remarkably similar…

Platform Azeroth: Why Information is Broken

This article explores why the best information in World of Warcraft (WoW) is not available from within the game. It considers how to better bring information into the game environment.

Analyse this:

Screenshot of WoW in-game browser hack.

Above is a World of Warcraft screenshot, showing an in-game browser. This is not a feature of the game. The “Knowledge Base” is technically a support database written exclusively by the game’s developer and operator, Blizzard. However, an enterprising hacked called Vladinator noticed that this in-game database took its information from a specific webserver. The Knowledge Base could therefore be re-directed to a different webserver: In this case a server that shows information from Wowhead, a third-party site that contains reference material on almost every item, quest, and thing in the game.

Blizzard was quick to block the hack.

This article attempts to explain the utterly illogical structure behind these events. It builds on some of my earlier comments about the use of micro-transactions for in-game education (“Learn2Play”). Read More

Stanford Virtual Worlds Research

This article contains selected notes on the some of the research conducted at Stanford University on virtual worlds and the interaction of humans within virtual environments. It is based on sessions held during the Media X conference. Pat Hanrahan defined a virtual world as a “networked multi-user distributed environment”. But the audience reaction was altogether less technical, and more oriented towards the social implications of such environments.

Stanford is one of the few universities that can not simply be accused of climbing on the virtual worlds band-wagon: People like Nick Yee were examining these environments at long before they were regarded as a suitable topic for serious research. Related sessions on workplace application and DKP and the archiving of virtual worlds/games will be covered by separate articles.

Why Use Virtual Environments for Medical Training?

LeRoy Heinrichs spoke on the use of virtual medical rooms for training medical students.

It is cost effective, even when developing bespoke software: Conducting a live training exercise in a physical hospital costs about $50,000 per day, and can only train a relatively small group. Stanford’s first virtual patient model cost almost $1 million to develop, yet in the long run is still cheaper than physical-world exercises.

Initial analysis of performance is not yet conclusive, however early signs suggest knowledge does transfer to real practice, and virtual training is just as good as other methods.

The business case for virtual worlds is ultimately a critical driver to their success outside of their traditional (game or social) environments. Medicine is a fundamentally expensive business, so even with custom software, one user can make a saving. Other sectors may be slower to follow, waiting for the cost to drop. Cost are likely to drop by sharing development costs between multiple projects – either industry-wide initiatives, or through the development of platforms for virtual worlds, which will transfer most of the costs on to a single provider, who can then share those costs between many customers.

Size Matters

Renate Fruchter revealed that visual size does matter. Ideally people should appear on screen life-size: In most cases that means a bigger screen!

Jeremy Bailenson outlined some of Nick Yee’s research behind the “virtual mirror”. The virtual mirror is a technique that changes the visual identity of a person’s avatar while in a virtual world: Their avatars literally look into a mirror and take a different form.

The experiment is useful in understanding the consequences of an apparently fluid online identity, and determining whether self-perception theory (and similar) transfer to avatars: If you don’t know how to act, you look at yourself, particularly your uniform, and that determines your behaviour.

Height is important. In the physical world, height correlates to confidence and personal income. Through the use of an “ultimatum game”, where avatars negotiate a deal, it was possible to show that a 10cm difference in avatar height increased the value of that avatar’s deals in their favour.

Physical attractiveness of avatars was also tested by examining “interpersonal distance”: If you like someone, you will tend to stand closer to them. And they’ll disclose more information.

Finally the effects of age were tested by morphing pictures of one’s self to show the passing of years. The older the avatar, the more the subjects were prepared to invest in their retirement.

Further detail on some of these topics can be found at The Daedalus Project.

Virtual Policy and Law – Edinburgh Digital Interactive Symposium

The first Edinburgh Digital Interactive Symposium was held on 15 August 2007. It aimed to bring together academics and the “games” industry, to discuss topics from games industry innovation to policy in virtual worlds. The diversity of people these topics attracted was remarkable – from philosophers to corporate executives. It should come as no surprise that we all struggled to understand each other. Yet this was a group who merely by expressing their interest in such an event, tend towards curiosity.

This is the first set of notes from the Edinburgh Digital Interactive Symposium, covering virtual policy and legal issues. A second set of notes discusses innovation in the video games industry. These notes are my personal interpretation of what was discussed, not a transcript of the event.

Law

The lawyers are very excited about virtual worlds. Antonis Patrikios, from Field Fisher Waterhouse LLP, was speaking. At the most basic level, it’s a clean slate with no case law, yet almost endless contentious issues. You can almost see the dollar signs in their eyes. At one extreme there is a school of thought that wants to declare a new thread of international law – that is, to treat virtual environments as separate legal jurisdictions. At the other, the simple statement that real world objectives (and therefore regulation and law) will be directly applied to virtual worlds, without special consideration.

An example of one of the many crunch-points: If by “playing” I generate money-tokens (i.e., not necessarily legal currency, but having the same effect within the world they are generated), and someone does something that scams me of those money-tokens, do I have any rights in (physical) criminal law? If prior to bankruptcy, I move all my assets into a virtual currency, can the authorities recover them? One position is that I only have rights if the operators of the virtual environment allow me to legitimately transfer my money-tokens into real money. But it could be argued that if something is perceived as having value, it has value, even if it can’t be directly or legally (contractual law) monetarized.

Now, add to the equation the fact that the representation of the person within the virtual environment may not be traceable to a real legal entity. (There’s a major philosophical argument here too, that I’ll step over because I don’t understand it – although I’m told the fact I don’t understand it is fundamental to my ability to try – er, yes.) The one entity that always is traceable is the operator of the world – who of course have no legal structure themselves, since they are typically a business and not a civil authority. The anonymity issues may be solved technologically, but the very possibility that operators might get dragged into criminal cases triggered by what their users do, is pretty frightening.

The role of physical location of operators, technology (servers), and users gets even more complex than in the (already arguably broken) website/e-commerce model. Does intellectual property of things created in these worlds transfer to the user? Trademarks are defined territorially, yet where is this virtual territory? And is a virtual re-creation the same as a real product anyway? There are big US/EU differences here. For example, in the EU it is far harder to patent the implementation of an idea, rather than the idea itself. So a lot of software patents that exist in the US, don’t exist in the EU, since software is commonly just the technical implementation of an idea.

There’s an interesting aside here on when money becomes a currency, and when a game becomes a bank. In the UK, if you offer credit, you’ll drift into financial regulation. The question nobody can answer is when that provision gets so large it becomes a bank, or so popular it threatens an existing currency.

Policy

Chris Francis (IBM) attempted a basic differentiation between virtual games/worlds. He takes more of a policy perspective than others. You have to be able to quantify each virtual experience on a spectrum, otherwise everything from simple online games to open real-currency trading platforms will be seen as the same thing in any regulatory debate. There are four factors, each of which covers a spectrum of topics. Generally the further to the left you are, the more like a game (and hence the most likely to avoid regulation), the further to the right, the more like real life (and so the more likely to be regulated):

Economy/tradability: In-game “gold” <<—>> Real money.
Identity/communication: Text <<–> Voice <–>> Accountability.
Plot: Scripted <<—>> Freeform.
Data flow: Augmented virtuality <<—>> Augmented reality.

Augmented virtuality I didn’t quite understand as a concept, but I’d interpret it as the re-creation of augmented reality concepts into an inherently virtual setting, rather than a real-world one. The interesting current topic is voice. Voice is a significant shift into the realm of communications legislation, since voice is widely understood to be communication, while text is a grey area. It follows that in introducing voice clients within games, game operators are more likely to open themselves up to regulation. I don’t think the games industry had considered that.

William Garrood spoke from Ofcom, the UK communications regulator. In the EU, active regulation is currently focused on television-like services, particularly using the radio spectrum for transmission. Electronic Communication Services legislation first appeared in 1998, passed into EU law in 2000, and has slowly been added to law across EU states. (It is worth noting that the regulatory cycle is almost 10 years, the academic cycle for studying it all is 3 years, yet 6 months is a typical industry timescale to deploying new technology in the arena.) The current legislation could allow virtual worlds to be regulated, at least in part – but nobody is yet. This was intentional in the design of the legislation: The EU agenda is to move away from regulation – there is a desire to try and foster self-regulation.

The EU may be regarded as a lower-risk environment than the US, simply because the US has no apparent boundaries – yet a litigious culture that will make discovering those boundaries expensive, and arguably will resolve them in favour of the dominant industry. The EU has a structure that is likely to “step in” if it looks like everything is going to hell in a handcart.

Ofcom is quite focused on the BBC‘s traditional territory: Supporting “socially valuable content” in virtual environments. They already have a strategy called the Public Service Publisher. They’re aware that young audiences, in particular, are moving away from television, and are looking to fill the “post-TV gap”. It’s positive regulation, although how it works in practice is unseen.

Thoughts on a Socio-Economic Environment based on Nothing

One of the first economists to seriously examine virtual worlds (Edward Castronova) makes the observation that scarcity is fundamental to the environments that thrive. Utopia is boring. That’s a common theme of a lot of subsequent academic studies: The underlying patterns of human behaviour and motivation don’t fundamentally change from the physical to the virtual.

We have to “exist” in the real world (“eat, drink, breath”). We are highly likely to continue to “live” in it too (that is, perform social/economic/spiritual functions, in addition to biological existence). But it is not necessary to rely on it quite as much as we do now. Critically, living in virtual environments opens up some avenues for society’s development that may otherwise close.

Start at the “peak oil“-type resource analysis. The idea that up to this point, western culture (in particular) has assumed increasingly easy extraction of resources, but from this point forward will have to start dealing with the implications of increasingly hard extraction of resources. It follows that any “standard of living” (social status, economic income, etc) that is based on rampant consumerism and resource use, is likely to become highly unstable.

The fact that telecommunications and computerised technology is generally much more resource efficient than physical networks and products is almost a secondary consideration. The most interesting thing for me, is the creation of a sustainable socio-economic environment largely based on nothing.

That statement sounds like nonsense. But it has already mostly happened in highly developed western economies. Some examples:

  • The majority of a city like Edinburgh’s economy is tertiary (service sector). A significant proportion of that economy is knowledge-orientated (finance, research), where people never need deal with a physical product. Ever. Their work is often defined by their minds and their interaction with other minds.
  • The British “High Street” retail trade doesn’t really sell products, it sells “the experience of shopping”. In a broad economic sense, the actual sale of the products isn’t what makes most shops profit. Rationally, if they were only selling products, those products would be far cheaper.
  • Of a typical physical product made in somewhere like China, the minority of the cost is resource and manufacture. Much of the cost is in areas like the intellectual property rights of product designers, who typically live in the west.

So the most advanced types of work (which are also the ones generating a disproportionate amount of wealth), and the crude capitalist motivations of most western societies (the accumulation of stuff we don’t need) are already mostly based on “nothing”. It isn’t such a quantum leap to move those processes into a virtual environment.

We will never leave behind the physical world. But consider that once almost everyone in western society worked in agriculture, and now a tiny proportion do. There has always been a logical progression of society’s development which have led to progressively fewer people working in older sectors of the economy. This may simply be the next iteration. We are unlikely to understand it any better than an 18th century agricultural worker being shown a steam engine. As Charlie Stross’s Unpacking the Zeitgeist demonstrates, the present would be hard for us to have understood 30 year ago. Indeed, his description of the present is still a mystery to most of those living now.

But “our” children seem to embrace it. Many of the kid’s virtual worlds (such as Gaia Online) allow their young customers to buy virtual collectables using real money – these items don’t physical exist, but still represent something “of value”. These are not geeky male niches. Barbie Girls gained 3 million online users in its first two months – which from a discrete market of US teenage girls, probably numbering less than 20 million in total, is impressive.

There is still a big gap between making trivially small payments for virtual goods on glorified online social gaming/networking platforms, and the integration of these concepts into mainstream society and economy. However, these children are now developing some of their life skills in these virtual environments. Perhaps they will naturally accept what we will struggle to comprehend?

This topic evidently requires a lot more research and consideration. I’ve posted it here as a record of my current thinking only.