Archive for the ‘Virtual Reality’ Category

Living a Second Life

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

meOften I escape into the virtual world of Second Life where anyone can be beautiful. It is not an actual game like World of Warcraft — in SL there are no quests or missions. It doesn’t keep people from role playing, of course. It just means that the objectives are user-generated rather than imposed by the system.

The genius of SL is that unlike WoW most of the stuff in it is made by the users — not the founders. SL provides an extensive graphic tool set for creating your own clothing, hair, skins, building, vehicles, etc. if you don’t want to use the defaults. And there is an entire virtual economy there. Designers and builders sell their creations in virtual stores. Sometimes it seems as if most of the sims in SL exist only so someone can build stores on them.

The difference between these virtual stores and Internet websites is that you can “walk around” in the virtual stores as an avatar instead of paging or scrolling through them as you do on the Web. Since the in-world currency of “Linden Dollars” or just “lindens” can be exchanged for real money both ways, it is theoretically possible to make enough money in SL to support yourself in the Real world. Many try to do this, but the ones that actually succeed are usually the talented designers who make the best skins and hair and clothing, and the people who buy and sell virtual real estate.

Can’t afford the great new faces? Don’t panic. Just like cars, last year’s models (or even earlier ones) are cheaper.  Many designers give away older creations to lure customers into the stores. O brave new virtual world, that has such imaginary people in it!

— MRK

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Online Activism: Are You Anonymous?

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011

Anonymous international
We have reached a new era in political participation with the advent of online activism. In the “good old days” intelligence operatives and agents did their best to uncover information and plans to either embarrass enemies or to stay ahead of their weapon systems.

That was then. There are new players now, and the troublesome thing about them to authorities is that the new players do not do “business as usual.” They do not sell secrets to the highest bidder. They do not offer to keep secrets in exchange for trade advantages. They are not working for countries or governments, which means that they cannot be defused by exerting diplomatic, economic,  or military pressure  on their bosses — they HAVE no bosses.

1. The Leader problem

For example several times police have attempted to persuade the leaders of OccupyWallStreet to get their followers to disperse and go home.  This is standard procedure for mobs with leaders. If the leaders do not cooperate, then the next step is to take the leaders into custody, hoping that the group will fall apart once leadership is gone.

What they may not have anticipated is that the very idea of leaders and followers has been rejected by this movement; while some members might be more influential than others, the simple fact is that there is no person or group of persons what they can seize and realistically hope to end this situation. The decentralized nature of these new movements, drawn as it is not from the old cell model of early revolutionaries, but from imitation of the relatively decentralized structure of the Internet itself.  No real boss means no headquarters, hence no military targets to try that shock and awe out on.

left

2. The Hardware problem

The new activism movements have no armies, ships or planes. For the last 200 years the United States has concentrated on land, sea and air power as the preeminent factor in maintaining global supremacy. But now they are in a pickle, because times have moved on and left them behind: the weapon of this new age is Information, not bullets or bombs. You cannot blow up an idea; walls and Kevlar vests are no protection against information, which finds its way around blockades and damage, particularly since the Internet has been designed from the beginning to be decentralized and fault-tolerant; since its information flows are dynamically routed they are automatically detoured to bypass faulty routers or servers.

To stop the free flow of information across the Internet a government would have to kill the goose that laid the golden egg: they would have to disable all the largest nodes on the network so that effective rerouting collapses. Needless to say, governments and multinational corporations are becoming dependent upon the Internet just as you and I are; there might be significant damage both to the global and national economies if the Internet became unusable. As I have remarked elsewhere in my One Way Change article, no one really wants to go back to doing business by telephone and mail-order catalogs. Yesterday’s technological curiosity has become today’s necessity.  Imagine if IBM or MacDonald’s had tried to build a business empire without having telephones.  Although many business wish that someone actually owned the Internet, that there was one central power controlling it, they tend to lose steam when you ask them just who they would trust with that much power.

Anonymous

3. The Scapegoat problem

When I was in high school I was required to take a course entitled “Problems of American Democracy”. But the older name was clearer: “Americanism vs. Communism”.  Communism was the enemy, and the course was designed to stress the dangers of the system and to demonize its founders and leaders. We were led to believe that Communism was taking over the world and that its followers would do anything, no matter how despicable, in order to spread their “evil empire”.

Well, we see how well that worked out. Deprived of the profit incentive of capitalist economies, the Soviet economy crumbled badly enough to bring about a change in government. Apparently, you cannot grow crops with slogans, and you cannot house and clothe a people with mere patriotism.

At first I thought China would be the next logical scapegoat; since their economic and political evolution seemed to be a a decade or two behind that of Russia. But Osama Bin Laden changed all of that; Terrorism replaced Communism as the new Big Bad Wolf. This was awfully convenient for America’s military-industrial sector, because since terrorism had no capital to conquer, the War on Terror could be maintained indefinitely, like the War on Drugs. With a little care and foresight, it could be possible to wage a new kind of war, one whose polemic and profits could to go on forever.

Anonymous

4. The Rise of Anonymous and other LOIC vigilante groups

Now that Bin Laden is dead (or so we are told), the U.S. thought it could get back to business as usual. But while the planners map out which resource-rich third world country they will exploit next, a new threat to their order has emerged: Anonymous and similar entities.

Who is Anonymous? To even ask that  question shows ignorance, yet many are guilty of it.  The police who attempt to contacts its leaders sometimes do not seem to be able to wrap their minds around the fact that there is NO leader to talk to. And this is a problem for them, because the standard way to crush a movement is to imprison or assassinate the leaders. But you cannot imprison an idea, and you cannot assassinate a dream.

Anonymous has no armies of fanatical thugs. This is no James Bond movie. Their main ammunition is the truth, but in between finding and releasing incriminating data, they unleash the power of the Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC).

Back in the time of Napoleon,  concentration of force meant you could get a group of soldiers to shoot at the same target at the same time. You COULD shoot one gun at an enemy 200 times, but the damage is far more effective if you get 200 guys to shoot at once and then you have 200 bullets flying into the target.

Nowadays the target is often a server, a computer connected to the internet. Instead of bullets, what you fire off at the server is HTTP requests. Servers are not like telephones; they are designed to handle multiple simultaneous requests. But like all technology, there is a limit to how many requests they can respond to at any given time. So you can overwhelm a server’s resources by simply getting thousands of computers to ping that server at the same time. LOIC makes this simple; all of the participants load the program into their computers and point them to a particular address where central control resides. The “Hivemind” informs all of the participating computers where the target is and then triggers them to commence. When the target server is deluged with all of these pings, even if it manages to not crash it is still unable to respond to any other requests until the storm of pings is over.

In addition to the LOIC Distributed-Denial-of_Service attacks, Anonymous and other groups have dedicated hackers who have been able to score some impressive stunts: they hacked NATO computers, hacked FOX News, and even hacked and defaced the FBI website. Those who dismiss the abilities of Anonymous hackers as unimportant are either optimistic or in denial.

Anonymous

5. The Problem of Managing Change

Will the current wave of cyber-activism bring about real change in governments and economic and social institutions? It is undeniable that the moneyed powers have been rattled; the tactics used against peaceful protesters now include attempts to discredit the protests by infusing them with derelicts, mass arrests, chemical weapons such as pepper balls (like paintballs but they sting a lot more), tear gas, and the amazingly illegal ruse of covering police names and IDs with tape to avoid accountability for their actions.  These actions show how perturbed the powers that be have become — they are resorting, again, to methods that backfired in the 60s as they will backfire today, because people empathize with underdogs and oppressed persons, especially people who already feel dispossessed and disenfranchised themselves by the erosion of their buying power as even more money becomes concentrated in the hands of the 1% super rich who have no need of it.

People are standing up, the Establishment is beating at the flames in a heavy-handed way as usual, and the People are beginning to sit up and notice that someone is actually trying to represent them and address their suffering. But will all of this result in any real change at all….or will it fizzle again as it did in the 60s?

I’d like to argue here that this time there might actually be some real change. And for several reasons:

(a) Protests of the 60s era were always vulnerable to charges that they were organized by elitists who dictated their agendas to their followers. The organizers, of course, were also tempting targets for counterrevolutionary forces. But in the new Internet era, the information exchanges is not simply trickle-down, but is bidirectional; followers can tweet or email in suggestions.  And in the case of LOIC attacks, members can simply vote with their feet: if they do not agree with the selected target, they can turn off their computers and decline to join in the attack. In this way, although there is a centralized trigger to say “go!”, there is democracy in that unwilling participation cannot be forced: members have to agree on targets. In this way Anonymous and others preserve both coordination (to concentrate attacks on a single target) and individual choice (whether to join a particular attack).

(b) It is difficult to imagine how meaningful change can succeed without the agreement of the people. Yet a valid consensus is only possible with communication, and the only widespread means of communication available in the 1960s were telephones and the postal system. (TV doesn’t count. since it is a one-way medium used to distribute entertainment and news, not for dialogues.)  That was then. Now we have email, instant messaging, a billion cell phones, and are fast approaching the point where there will be a computer (or “information appliance” as some have dubbed them) in every home, absorbing into itself the television and telephone and radio. After snafus and worries about voting machines, I kinda have to ask: is there some reason why encryption makes it safe to buy things online, but not safe enough to vote online? Now that we can actually get live feedback from our population, why not finally listen to them?

(c) The looming shadow of the Cold War, with its constant worry about nuclear showdown oppressed out thoughts for sixty years. And it isn’t completely over yet; though the Soviet Union has restructured, China remains (and we don’t even want to talk about North Korea). I would maintain, however, that China’s attempt to hold up a Great Firewall to shut out the modern ideas of the West will ultimately fail, and thus the people of China will demand change as the people of the Soviet Union did. France has nuclear weapons, but for some reason I don’t hear people worrying about France starting a nuclear war.  In fact, now that we realize that a nuclear winter could wipe out any survivors of a nuclear war, we are finally even rethinking the idea that we need a stockpile of nuclear weapons to prevent nuclear war.  Apart from whack jobs like Kim Jong Il, I think most people would really like to live long enough to see the wonders that this 21st century will bring. And if we finally get to the point where we can stop cowering in the shadow of our missiles, then we can finally take a turn at trying to make the kind of major changes in our governments that we would prefer not to enact at the cost of appearing disorganized and off-balance to nuclear opportunists. People think more clearly when they aren’t stifled by fear of extinction.

–MRK

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The Guilden Age

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

In my post “Me, Myself, and I” it is likely I may have given some of you the impression that I am always a loner, that I have something against organizations. But while in the real world it has often been my observation that ALL large organizations of humans seem to become corrupt and impersonal, in virtual reality I see their value. Most of my avatars end up belonging to one, because it can be hazardous and frustrating trying to run an instance all by yourself with elite bosses. Okay, I have pontificated about virtual relationships, virtual combat, virtual money yadda yadda yadda; I guess it is time to discuss virtual organizations.

Since the first humans formed themselves into villages, tribes, cities and then nations, we have been grouping together for mutual defense, for more efficient hunting, to exchange knowledge, and and to discuss mutual interests. It is no surprise, therefore, that as virtual humans (or elves, or orcs, or whatever) we are doing the same thing. In City of Heroes and City of Villains, these voluntary associations are called Super Groups and Villain Groups. In World of Warcraft, Guild Wars, and most other medieval-theme online gaming worlds, they are called Guilds. (Am I the only gamer with a humongous secret crush on Felicia Day after watching The Guild at http://www.watchtheguild.com/? Yeah, right. Totally out of my league. Dream on, Matt.)

What is a Guild? Before the advent of online gaming, I would have known only one definition. Rather than looking back to it, let’s set the way-back machine for the early Middle Ages and look forwards. Professional organizations of craftsmen with specialized skillsets began to be called guilds because of the gold they held in treasuries for group-related activities. The word guild thus derives from gold. (This tradition continues today in games like WoW, where your guild usually has a guild bank with game gold put into it by members for the use of all needy persons in the guild.)

In the Middle Ages, of course, guilds were not about gaming, but about standardization and competence. If you wanted to become a successful blacksmith, weaver, goldsmith, stonecutter, or whatever, you became an Apprentice to someone who already was recognized as a master. Fetching water, preparing materials, pumping the bellows of the forge, you made yourself useful, gradually being taught how things were done, until you became a Craftsman or a Journeyman, whereupon you were allowed to actually go out and practice your skills for pay. Eventually upon passing tests and being adjudged sufficiently competent at the skillset, you became a Master and could take on Apprentices of your own, passing on what you had been taught. If you continued to improve you could become a Grand Master. All this worked well for centuries. The guilds had a monopoly, usually granted in letters patent from the local king, and so they could control the quality of work that craftsmen performed, maintaining dependable standards. They also, of course, controlled prices, and restricted the flow of information to people outside the guild, both of which eventually led to their downfall after the eighteenth century.

Interestingly, in World of Warcraft, we see a similar classification of crafting skill levels. if you want your avatar to be a blacksmith so that he or she can make armor and weapons from metal, you start as an Apprentice. As you craft items for use or sale in the game (for example, if you “create” a sword that you or another avatar can use in combat), you rise in skill level. After crafting skill level 75 you can no longer skill up unless you become a Journeyman. The process continues until you give up or until you become a Grand Master, a rank which was added with the most recent expansion. However, it is important to note that you can have these skill ranks in WoW without actually belonging to any guild.

In online gaming, guilds are not organized to maintain secrecy and standards. They are more like sports franchises and exist to help their own members and to compete against other guilds for prestige. Belonging to a guild is more than us-versus-them, however. When you are in a guild you have a ready-made pool of guildies to help you to finish quests, to assist you in obtaining armor and weapons and crafting items (also called gear) and to chat with when you are bored or lonely. I have heard the Internet criticized as being a wasteland of loneliness. Someone said “it brings you closer to people you are far from…and takes you farther away from people you are close to” or something like that. (And I know what that person meant; I have already lost a girlfriend because I was into gaming and she was not. We drifted apart, and she is gone.) But what I have seen is the same phenomenon we saw in the early chat rooms and BBS groups — that people who otherwise might never have met find that they have things in common and things to talk about.

It is clear we are seeing previous human institutions incarnating on the Web. I already mentioned online churches in a previous post. We also have online universities, clubs, sales organizations, fan groups, and who knows what. I know I am being Mr. MOTO (Master Of The Obvious) when I say anything we already know how to do —  that can be done on the Internet — is being done or will be done. In myriad ways.

How are these virtual organizations affecting us?

1. Raising expectations of convenience. For one thing, they are easier to interact with. You don’t have to drive to your local Masonic Temple or Guildhall to meet your fellow members. You drive your browser to a website, or log into an online world or game and you are in contact with others who are online at the time. There was a time, a little over a century ago, when the only meetings that could happen were face-to-face. Telephones changed that. If you work in the vast wasteland of cubicle-land, as I have, you see that every cubicle has a phone. Meetings are often, if not usually, teleconferences instead of sitting around a table. Then videoconferencing made it possible for one table of people in Detroit to interface visually with another table of executives in Paris or Tokyo. The question used to be “is he or she at their telephone?” but now it is “are they online?”

2. Erasing prejudice boundaries. When I type to my guild mates. I often have no idea how old they are, what “race” they are or their gender. Many men create female avatars because, let’s face it, we usually prefer looking at women. And many women create male avatars because they want to avoid being hit on by horny guys like me. So unless they tell you (and even then, because, believe it or not, some people lie, duh), you have no clew as to details that are probably irrelevant to the topic of conversation. What counts is what you know and what you say, not how much you weigh or your sexual preference. Virtual worlds can be worlds of new ideas, not worlds of thoughtless discrimination.

3. Encouraging the flow of information and ideas. This follows from 1 and 2 above. If it is easier to get in touch with people, and if what they look like, what kind of chromosomes they have, or who or what they worship does not get in the way, you end up talking more and concealing less. Not surprisingly, studies have found that people tell things to complete strangers that they wouldn’t dream of mentioning to their spouses or neighbors. The anonymity of the mask of the avatar, the untraceability of the chat handle, makes ordinarily reticent people open up and discuss their dreams, their gripes, and their fantasies to an extent that no one ever dreamed of before the online world was born. Am I the only one who thinks this is probably a positive thing?

Okay, I confess I like to dream of Utopia instead of Dystopia. I could be completely wrong. Maybe this is all a dream a-borning that will die in the glowing ashes of an eventual nuclear war or a festering bioweapon plague. That could still happen. Maybe, as some fear, computers will suck the humanity out of us, turning us all into regimented drones that will serve a useful purpose until artificial intelligence takes over and pushes us aside to grumble with the ghosts of dinosaur and dodo. That might happen, as well. But I cannot make myself believe it. I see people reaching out the electric handshake to strangers. I see minds freed of the tyranny of traditions, forging new alliances and empathies in brave new worlds of endless extendability, of transfinite possibilities.  The currency of the future is data, and its ones and zeroes of on-and-off microscopic transistors are a metaphor of our choice as a species: will we come together to form a synergistic union of wholeness, or let it all die away to the emptiness of nothing? I know which I’d prefer. –MRK

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Seeing is believing

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

My thoughts about living in virtual space and playing immersive online games are often influenced by thoughts of mirror neurons.

You can read about mirror neurons here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_neuron if you are not yet familiar with the concept. Basically, researchers have recently discovered that in monkey brains (and very likely, in other organisms such as human beings) there are nerve cells that fire when an action is seen. In other words, when a monkey sees another monkey pick up a fruit, some of the same nerve cells become active in the monkey’s brain that would be active if it, itself, was picking up a fruit. Researchers call these nerve cells “mirror neurons” because they seem to “mirror” what the creature is seeing another creature do.

Some of the implications of this discovery are obvious. Many of us have heard the old cliche “monkey see, monkey do” and we speak of people “aping” other people’s behaviour. Mirror neurons might be part of the explanation why humans and other creatures can so easily learn to do something by watching someone else do it. We see someone else open a door, perform a dance, use an escalator, and it’s as if we are already practicing the same thing as we watch — our brains are imagining ourselves doing the same thing, trying out sequences of orders to muscles they have never actually done before. It’s a fact that watching someone who is good at something gives you a leg up on doing it well yourself, which explains the appeal of instructional videos. Seeing is not just believing — it is practicing!

Back to virtual worlds. I suggest that seeing even a rendering of someone doing something activates the mirror neurons. In City of Heroes, the first MMORPG I spent a lot of time in, one of my problems was that as a healer I would feel strong guilt when I saw someone’s avatar “die”. (Actually, NCSoft avoids speaking of dying or killing, and instead calls it defeating or being defeated.) As the healer, I am supposed to keep the other team members alive so they can scrag the bad guys. But seeing their avatars fall to the ground,apparently dead, hit me hard and caused guilt. And now I know why: to my brain, those cartoon-like avatar bodies were close enough to the real thing to elicit real reactions. One some level, it was as if I was seeing real people dying.

This can be even more wrenching in games like World of Warcraft, where the avatar screams or cries out in pain as it drops to the ground. Intellectually, you know it is just a game, and just imaginary. But parts of your brain might not know that. To deeper parts of your brain, everything is just data, and data that looks like people is treated as if it is real people.

CoH, WoW, and other online games take this even further by adding “emotes”, which are things you can make your avatar do my pressing buttons or typing in commands. You can make it wave to someone, blow them a kiss, laugh, scowl, make rude gestures, and so on. Emotes add to the social aspect of the virtual world experience, enabling you to do more than walk around and kill stuff. In Second Life, there are even animations created by various developers and crafters that let your avatar hug another one — or even go though the motions of having a sexual encounter. Coh and WoW do not have these, because kids play those games. But many online worlds made for adult play now include sexual emotes and animations.

There are those who question the reality of mirror neurons and the assertion that they are one of the root causes of human empathy. But regardless of the actual mechanism, it is a fact that what we see influences us. Watching sports or movies we cheer for our favorites or the hero and hiss at the villains. So, given the case that even vicarious participation engages our imaginations and our brains, what effects is all of this having on us, particularly as it pertains to living in virtual space?

Some see even cartoon violence as bad for us. Whenever I remember the things Bugs Bunny used to do the Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam, I laugh. But some people are not laughing. There is now a rating system even for video games, based upon content such as violent or suggestive content. You may recall the parental fuss over Grand Theft Auto and other video games that some say encourage antisocial behaviour. A couple of years ago I would have laughed about that. Now, knowing about mirror neurons, I have to pause and wonder. When NCSoft introduced City of Villains as an obvious spinoff of CoH, I resisted making villain avatars at first, because I like to think of myself as a basically good guy. Then I finally convinced myself that it was just a game, that words are just labels, and I explored that side of the paradigm. But I still wonder some times about the effect this is having on “impressionable young minds” — being ordered to rob banks and kidnap people, and “defeating” avatars dressed as cops in order to do it.

What we see and hear affects us. At first this was only real situations we were seeing and reacting to. Then it became acted scenarios in plays. Then cartoons and movies.  And now, realistically rendered computer animations that we control — and are controlled by. Have you ever gotten angry at a videogame enemy that just “killed” your avatar? Have you ever felt sorry for an avatar that you saw wounded or killed by a monster or enemy? Then you know what I am talking about. Virtual experiences, at some level, are experiences — even if they are imaginary and shown on a movie screen or a computer monitor.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not complaining, or, not only complaining. There are positive sides to this as well. I cannot tell you how many times a stranger has healed my avatar when it was about to get killed, saving my butt when I least expected it. In World of Warcraft, you might be surprised at how often strangers run past you in their imaginary bodies and throw an enhancement or “buff” onto your character, making you stronger, better protected, and so on….just to be nice. No one makes them do it, but it has become part of the online culture. Other characters have also, out of the blue, handed my avatars in-game money without my even asking, just because they could and because it’s nice to be nice. Starting-out avatars in these games are broke, and the game currency such as WoW gold or CoH influence make the play a little more enjoyable because you can then “buy” enhancements for your avatar like armor or weapons…or even just imaginary food to recover your imaginary health.

Virtual worlds and online gaming give us the chance not only to do each other in, but also to do nice things for each other. It’s a whole new arena of interaction, where this amazing networked quasi-reality lets us be nice to people we have never met…people we may never meet in real life.

At the risk of sounding like a “care bear”, I recommend that you use some of your online time to be nice to other players. I believe in random acts of kindness. If someone has helped you, pay it forward. Help someone else. Surprise a stranger with a rescue, a gift, a kind word. Animals kill and be killed. We can be more than that. We can be more than mere predators. It could lead to a new friendship or a new relationship. Or not. But whether the other human appreciates it or not, you will know that you made the effort. It will be a good feeling. And you never know how much of a difference it might make. –MRK

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Me, Myself, and I

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

One of the strangest things about online virtual words in general, and online gaming in particular, is the fact that we can do favors for ourselves. In my earlier post, Identity Crisis, I outlined some of the things that can happen when serial and parallel multiplicities are allowed. In other words, when you can have more than one avatar in the virtual world….sometimes more than one at the same time. Having several avatars and logging in as any one of them at any given time is called serial multiplicity. If you can manage to log in as more than one avatar at the same time I call it parallel multiplicity.

I’d like to discuss some advantages to this distributed presence or meta-presence in a virtual world. As usual, I will try to stick to what I know, so for these examples I will draw from my own experiences in the World of Warcraft (WoW) online game, in which you can use serial multiplicity.

Like in many online games, WoW avatars start off with few capabilities and develop, if you put the time in, into much more powerful entities. The shorthand term for this process is “levelling“, which refers to moving up from lower levels to higher levels by obtaining experience points (XP). For example, you can enter the game and create a Mage or a Warrior with only a couple of attack powers, and as you strive against the monsters in the game you accumulate XP and eventually reach higher levels and learn more abilities. At the same time, you can learn crafting professions like Alchemy (making potions) and Blacksmithing (creating weapons and armor). To distinguish these crafting abilities from offensive, defensive, and healing powers, the process of becoming more proficient at crafting (and gathering) professions is called skilling up, as opposed to levelling.

For many players, the object of the game is to level up to the highest level available. To this end, the most efficient strategy is thus to make only one avatar and spend all your time playing that character to level up as quickly as possible. This is because at the high levels the game becomes more of an interpersonal sport like tennis or boxing…your high level character dukes it out with others in player-versus-player (PvP) combat. In this sense, the game becomes a sport, where the idea is to become as good as you possibly can and have fun sparring with (and hopefully beating) other players in arenas etc.

I have to admit that I do not approach the game this way. Sure, I want to have high level characters with oodles of abilities and powers. But I enjoy simply being in this virtual world so much that I tend to take more time to smell the roses, so to speak. Yes, I have high level characters now, and yes, it took me longer than it does those pros who are happy to sell you their speed-levelling guides, but I’d like to think I have learned a lot while levelling up. This is because I made many avatars — at least one of each kind (mage, warrior, shaman, hunter, warlock, etc), so that I could learn how each type works, how they prevail, theirs strengths and weaknesses.

If you make more than one avatar in WoW, and play them all, it will take you much longer to get them to high levels. No question about it. But there are some advantages to this kind of meta-presence in the game. And I’d like to talk about the advantages of serial multiplicity in WoW, rather than discuss levelling strategies or specific tactics or campaigns.

My main avatar in WoW, the one that got to high levels first, is a Warlock. Warlocks (also referred to as locks) are spellcasters. They are not like Warriors, who wear strong armor and wield mighty weapons like swords and axes. Warlocks wear the weakest kind of armor, cloth armor. This means they have to try to avoid clinches and stay back away from the melee, lobbing in ranged attacks — or sending their familiar demons in to fight instead of them. Warlocks cannot use axes or maces; they use staffs or wands.

Ok, so I’m a warlock. Now I need good cloth armor and a wand. Where do I get them? Well, you can get lucky and have good-for-you items appear when you kill a monster (these are called drops, as in “oh cool, look at the wand that guy dropped!”).  Or you can buy them at the in-game Auction House — if you happen to have a lot of gold. Or you can get them from others in your guild if you belong to one. Or you can make them.

Now I am a rugged self-reliant individualist (translate: since I am a recluse hermit programmer I tend to be shy about joining organizations and fraternities), so I figured: the best way to make sure it gets done is to do it yourself. So my Warlock is a Tailor/Enchanter. Meaning, he can make his own cloth armor and enhance it, and can make his own wands. At first, I wanted to see how far I could get this way, as an experiment. Likewise, my main Warrior is a Miner/Blacksmith, so he can make his own armor and swords.

At first, I thought of my avatars as islands, each solitary and self-reliant. But then I ran into an awkward fact: as you skill up in tailoring, blacksmithing, alchemy, and so on, you suddently discover that you need materials (”mats“) that your avatar cannot gather. For example, you find that you cannot make the Gloves of Meditation unless you have some Elixir of Wisdom, a potion made by an Alchemist. And then it’s back to the olde Auction House to buy some damned Elixir of Wisdom so that your tailor can make the gloves. This is a wonderful parallel to our real-world specializations, where even a doctor needs a dentist to fix his teeth and an auto mechanic to work on his car and a teacher to teach his kids, and so on. In real life I cannot sew worth a damn — I have to go to a clothing store to buy clothes, just as I have to buy food because I am not a farmer or a herder.

Now people intent on levelling up one avatar handle this interdependence problem by joining a guild. If the guild has an Alchemist to make potions, a Blacksmith to make metal armor, a Tailor to make cloth armor, and so on, then you can specialize in your crafting just as you have specialized in your type of avatar, and everyone can get what they need in order to do what they want to do.

But like I said, I tend to be more of a loner. So what to do? Then it hit me — I could, in effect, be a guild — all by myself. If each of my avatars on a given server had different specializations, then they could send each other stuff, thanks to WoW’s in-game mailbox system where you can “mail” gold and items like raw materials and finished items from one avatar to another. My Alchemist can make Elixir of Wisdom and mail it to my Tailor so he can make the gloves. I know, I know, to those of you who are WoW experts this is like, duh…but it was a revelation to me at the time. I had stumbled across the power of synergy that guilds and auction houses make possible….but that can also be made possible by having several avatars of your own in the game with different specializations. In WoW, as in other virtual worlds that allow serial multiplicity, you can be your own best friend.

Enchanters in WoW need a progression of runed metal rods in order to do their enchantments. I bought a copper rod from the enchanting supplies vendor, but soon I needed a silver rod — and the vendor does not sell silver rods. Arrgh! Where do you get silver, golden, etc. rods? Blacksmiths make them. Hunters need good guns — and Engineers make guns. In short order I was loving life again, because my avatars, as they skilled up, could supply each other with crucial ingredients they needed to make their metal and cloth armor, their weapons, their potions, rings, and so on. Yes, having so many avatars meant I did not zoom up to high levels in record time…but I found that I was learning about WoW more comprehensively because I had one of everything and could see how they helped each other.

Okay, class, what we learned? (And by “we”, I mean “me, myself, and I”.)  We learned that you don’t have to know everything, learn everything, do everything, in order to be the best you can be. In the real world, you rely on others to specialize in the things you don’t like doing or do not seem to have a talent for doing. In virtual worlds, such as WoW, you have a second option: you can be several people, each with different skills, who help each other. I wouldn’t call myself an expert on WoW, because all the time I’ve been playing it (and other games) I’ve also had a job and nearly a life, so I do not live, eat and breathe WoW. But I know a little about it. And I’d like to think I know more about that virtual world than I would have known if I had stuck with my one Warlock and relied on guilds and drops and the Auction House to supply my needs. Yes, others level faster than me, and verily I say unto you: they have their reward. They get there faster. And if that is what they want, then I say more power to them. But there is more than one way to play the game. Make your own path, find what works for you, and enjoy. — MRK

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In the beginning was the Word

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

Sometimes new technology gives us a new perspective on old things. Ever since our species learned to use shaped grunts as symbols for things and actions, we have been talking about the meaning of life and where it all came from.

So I cannot really avoid the topic of religion, even though I dread being hammered with comments informing me of the correct one and how I should belong to it.

I am not here to tell you who or what to worship. Indeed, although some will tell you otherwise, one of the principles my country was founded upon was the idea that religion is something you cannot force on people. Back them when there was no actual Constitution, there was so much concern about the ability of a strong central government to suppress individual rights that a set of guarantees had to be written and appended to the Constitution before it could be ratified. This set of guarantees is called the Bill of Rights, but it is actually not a bill at all — it is the first ten Amendments to the Constitution — added to make representatives more comfortable with signing the document on behalf of their States. It’s basically a list of things the government is NOT allowed to do to reduce human liberty.

It is sad and funny that decades ago someone went around New York showing an unlabelled copy of the Bill of Rights to people trying to get them to sign it as a petition, and were told that no one wanted that kind of “commy stuff.” Many Americans do not realize that freedom of religion is not just a concept — it is specifically guaranteed by the First Amendment. It is that important.

Back to virtual space and religion. Many religions (no, not just Christianity) have contained the idea of one or more Gods entering our world as one of us. Sometimes it is done to travel about incognito and see how we are doing, sometimes it is for some kind of intervention. One of the words used for this kind of incarnation is, of course, “avatar”. I am no expert, but I believe that in India there are numerous depictations of gods and goddesses who are actually avatars of a few gods. Apparently, a god can wear many hats….or bodies. Sometimes these different versions of the God are called “aspects” or manifestations.

Early on in cyberspace the term avatar was, therfore, appropriated to mean the incarnation of a user in the virtual realms. You log in and control the actions of your avatar, and the words you type are “said” by it to the other avatars there….and read by their human creators. This was used in the movie Tron in an even more extreme way, in which the hero Flynn was a human sucked into the computer and incarnated there as a virtual denizen of the virtual habitat.

In a way, proponents of Christianity and other faiths might be indebted to the new medium of online virtual worlds, because it finally gives people an easy way to visualize how God might decide to incarnate in our world as “one of us”.  Making an avatar in World of Warcraft or some other online game gives you a seemingly godlike ability to insert yourself into the scenenery without all the questions evoked by a virgin birth, etc. Indeed, I believe I am not the first or only one to wonder if our world is God’s video game. The word “avatar” has come full circle. There is even a video game of the same name, based on the movie.

Online games have gotten sophisticated enough to step out of the “black-and-white” thinking of pure good and pure evil. For example, in the World of Warcraft, the human-led Alliance fights against the Orc-led Horde….but the Horde is not actually evil, by any means. Oh, there is evil in the game: the Burning Legion of demons who at one time manipulated the Orcs. But the Orcs rebelled and freed themselves of that control. They are different from the Alliance, but not evil, no matter what Alliance players will tell you. I have played on both sides, and I can tell you that either side can look pretty evil when they gang up on you for an easy kill. But the honest truth is that different does not equal evil. It’s a good lesson for us here in the Real World, now that we have grown beyond the simplistic demonizing of the “Evil Empire”, as one of our presidents characterized it.

Virtual worlds offer numerous metaphors for religious concepts. Objects and people can be “created” from nothing. Well, not nothing, obviously…they take up memory space in the computer and fills records in databases. But you know what I mean. The scientist in me rebells at the idea that something can come from nothing. But as a player I know if I click a certain button, I can make something appear that was not there before. Skeptics have asked how a God could make things appear from nowhere. Physicists know that extra energy involved in a particle collision can appear as a new particle that was “not there” before. You smack a speeding proton into one coming the other way and you end up with extra stuff you didn’t have before. But while we see this happening in accelerators, many scientists have trouble with the idea of, say, loaves and fishes appearing out of nowhere, because of the incredibly huge quantities of energy needed to create all the particles that make up the atoms and molecules of this created food. (E = mc squared) Where was this energy before it became food? they will ask.

I’m not here to contradict or to support Scripture. I’m just saying that in virtual worlds we can see the sort of things happen that used to be only referred to in the realm of religion. In Warcraft and other games, your avatar can be killed…and brought back to life. He or she can be wounded in battle…and healed by a priest or shaman. Things can be created. Spirits and demons can be summoned. And so on. it gives us, therefore, a new way to experience things that heretofore we could only read about in religious literature. Anything that can be imagined and rendered on the monitor can be yours to experience.

Does this easy access to virtual miracles water down the uniqueness of religious experience? Or does it help make descriptions of miracles and resurrections easier to visualize – and thus easier to believe? I am sure some religious speakers would complain about the time people spend in virtual worlds, since time is a finite resource, and time spent playing is not spent praying. But I will bet others have seen how cyberspace expands our ability as humans to minister to each other. It is a good and worthwhile thing to visit the sick and the infirm to relieve their isolation and loneliness. And now we can “visit” people far away in the click of a mouse. There are even ecclesiatical websites and virtual churches where people can go for inspiration and fellowship without hopping in a car and burning gasoline. if I ever get put in a nursing home (er, sorry, I mean “assisted living” residence heh), it damn well better have fast Internet access — because TV isn’t enough for me anymore.

There are those who say who say this veil of tears is watched over by a God. That “all the world’s a stage” where we act out our roles, and hope for a good review. I’m not here to tell you what to think or believe. But I hope you do think about the meaning of it all. Victor Frankel said that the most fundamental psychological need is a need for life to have meaning. He survived a concentration camp in WWII and observed first hand that prisoners without hope sickened and died, and that those who still had hope held out far longer in the cruelty of the camps.

Those who consider gods unlikely have to find another way for life to have meaning, or face the horror of a pointless life in an uncaring universe. I’d like to think that there is meaning. I’d like to believe that Someone cares. Because I do. –MRK

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