Archive for the ‘Virtual Reality’ Category

Virtual Money

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

In City of Heroes, it’s called influence or prestige. In Aion, it’s called kinah. In the World of Warcraft, it’s called gold. In Second Life, it is called Linden Dollars or just Lindens. In the “real world” we call it money.

There’s a saying “money doesn’t grow on trees”. And it is true, of course. Money is not something you find in nature (unless someone dropped it). Money is a uniquely human invention; bird and bees and dolphins and cats and monkeys do not have this dream, this concept of money. I can think of one exception: our family dog discovered that if she grabbed plastic bottle caps and other things we did not want her to have for safety reasons, she could trade them to us for dog biscuits. She had, in effect developed dog money, a medium of exchange.

In the early history of our species, people or groups gathered and hunted their own food. Edible plants and animals were there for anyone who wanted to invest the time and energy into acquiring them. Primitive clothing and tools, likewise, were commonly made by all individuals. Then we discovered specialization. Some people made better stone knives. Some were better at hunting. Some were better at gathering (and later growing) crops.

Early on, the barter system developed, in which people good at making one commodity traded it to others for some of what they could make, so that everyone in theory could have everything they needed, without needing to make everything for themselves. And specialization flourished and led to the creation of better and better tools, clothing, weapons, homes, etc.

At some point, however, we developed the concept of money: arbitrary symbols for goods and services. These counters, of course, these symbols, had to be a finite resource. Seashells might seem like a good idea to use for money, but then anyone could make a short visit to the beach and have as much as they wanted. So the early money became weights of precious metals. At first, there were no coins at all, merely lumps or molded pieces of copper, silver, and gold — the pretty and pretty rare metals. Ooooh, shiny! instead of paying workers in food, you could give them some copper, and they could then trade the copper to a farmer for some food. The farmer then trades the copper for some tools or livestock or seeds. And so on.

At some point we finally realized that we didn’t have to carry actual gold around. We could, instead, carry around colored pieces of paper that, in theory, stood for a standard amount of gold or silver. Now, we don’t even have to carry paper. We carry plastic cards with magnetic strips on them that allow access to bank accounts in which one and zeroes on hard drives stand for amounts of money people “have”.

Back to virtual space. Art imitates life, and so many virtual worlds there is this concept of money. In World of Warcraft, for example, you can gather resources like metal ore, herbs, or cloth, and trade or sell it for in-world currency. I like to use WoW as an example, because it uses the familiar and historic currencies of copper, silver and gold, as I grew up using using pennies and dimes, which originally were made of copper and silver, but nowadays are made of cheaper alloys.

Virtual worlds have virtual economies. Many, like WoW, have auction houses or marketplaces where players can sell resources, food, weapons, armor clothing, and tools to each other to acquire the world’s money, whoch they can then use to buy better weapons or armor etc for themselves. It adds a degree of verisimilitude (realism) to the online gaming. You can acquire skills and make things to sell, and as you become more skilled you can make better things (which require better ingredients) to sell for more money. Rarer things cost more money; common things are cheap. People have have even suggested that these online games/worlds should be used to teach people basic principles of economics like the principle of supply and demand. One fellow whose Warcraft advice I watch related how he had bought up a large number of swords when he learned that WoW was going to change the rules to allow a certain type of player to dual-wield (hold a sword in each hand)….which would greatly increase the demand for swords. He subsequently sold off his inventory of swords for a tidy profit. Buy low, sell high. If the customer does not know where to get your product cheaper (or is too lazy or too impatient to look elsewhere) you can acquire money by selling things for more than you bought them for. Some items, like metal ore or medicinal herbs, are “free” if you spend the time gathering them instead of fighting. In that case, the price you sell them for factors in their scarcity and how much you value your time.

A contraversy arises when real and virtual worlds overlap. It’s called gold farming. Some people play the games merely to acquire the virtual currency, which they then sell to other players in exchange for real world money. The common stereotype is that gold farmers are all Chinese, which is of course not true….but many of them are. the fact of the matter is that gold farming will not get you millions of real world dollars…but if you live in a country where food is not expensive, gold farming might earn enough to feed your family, and then some. So many people in, shall we say, economically disadvantaged regions, have bought computers, paid for internet connections, and begun playing games as a job, to support themselves and their families.

Many online games consider this activity to be a violation of their Terms of Service. The idea is that people should have to earn their own game gold, not buy it with a credit card. Well, of course, your friends or guild mates are allowed to share the results of their labors with you…and guild banks are set up to allow members of the guild to deposit and withdraw game gold from these banks. But that’s not the same as gold farming, is it?

And here is where the angry shouting begins. The game owners, who developed these virtual worlds for us to play in (and for us to pay them for the privilege of playing in) feel that they have a right to prohibit gold farming because they feel it interferes with the in-game economy. If I go to a certain website and buy 5,000 WoW gold, for example, then I can afford to pay more for items in the Auction House, outbidding other players, and driving up the prices of things. To the gaming purist, this is unethical and unfair, because it means people who have more money in the real world get to acquire stuff in the virtual world that poorer players might have to work very hard to be able to afford. Want a flying carpet, a flaming sword, or a mighty gun? Just buy the gold with a credit card and scoop up your coveted item when it comes up for auction.

Okay, there is a point there. By mixing real-world and virtual-world economics, we destroy the egalitarian ideal that in the virtual world everyone has to work for what they get. Now it becomes just like the real world, where people born with more money get to have all the best toys and the rest of us have to get by with what we can afford.

But to be fair, let’s consider the opposite viewpoint. If I work hard to earn to earn a lot of game gold without cheating, shouldn’t this virtual money be considered my property, to do with as I choose? To take an example from the real world, if I go to medical school, become a doctor, and work hard to acquire money, are you going to tell me I cannot buy a nice car with it? Of course not. To do so would destroy the incentive to achieve and excel, what some cynically call the greed motive, that drives some people to do what others are not willing or able to do. Maybe it is simplistic, but high-paying professions exist partly because they are high-paying professions.  Money talks, and we all listen.

Back to the gold farming. Is it, in fact, unethical to work hard to earn game gold and then sell it to lazy people for real-world money? Is virtual work somehow less valuable than “real world” work such as knitting or welding or carpentry or farming? If I spent a year making a ornate oriental rug, would you tell me that I am not allowed to sell it because it allows people with money to acquire a rug without sewing one? No? Okay, then if I spent a year building up a character in a virtual world who is a high level character, who has great armor and fighting skills and weapons, are you going to tell me that I do not in fact own that character, and I cannot sell this labor of mine to someone who has money and wants to play a high level character without spending a year making one?

The fact is, these virtual worlds are creating an entirely new medium of crafting. As a species we have developed the arts of pottery, blacksmithing, woodworking, stonecutting, sculpture, painting, and so on, so that people who want to develop the skills can spend their time making rugs, paintings, vases, clothing, tools, etc., which will then exist for the rest of us. Money is our way of compensating artisans for their time spent creating things we want. And virtual worlds have extended this concept. We can now learn how to craft virtual objects such as in-game tools, weapons, armor, buildings and so on. In Second Life some of the biggest sellers are shapes (bodies) skins (that cover the bodies and make them look lifelike), hair (for men as well as ladies) clothing, and buildings such as houses and castles.

Please explain to me the fundamental difference between crafting a sword and crafting a character. Both take time, attention, and energy. Why is it “fair” to sell an imaginary sword, but not an imaginary swordsman? Why is it “fair” to sell real corn I have farmed, but not imaginary gold I have “farmed”? Isn’t it a basic idea in a free marketplace that you can sell whatever people want to buy, if it does not hurt anyone?

Now I am aware that some people cheat. There are programs called “bots” that automate gaming so that you can take a nap while your character gathers stuff to sell. I do not advocate cheating of any kind, anymore than I advocate stealing, fraud, or selling unsafe or dangerous objects or services. If you compete unfairly with your fellow humans, I hope someone catches you and puts a stop to it. But if you create things of value fairly, a large part of me wants to say that you should be allowed to sell them and be compensated for your time.

“Bind not the mouths of the kine that tread the grain.” “The workman is worthy of his hire.” And let’s not forget “an honest day’s wages for an honest day’s work.” Even if it is done in a virtual world, it is still work. And it should be worth something. I do not presume to look down on gold farmers. They are not selling crack, stealing cars, or invading countries. This, of course, is just my opinion. –MRK

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Doom or Salvation?

Saturday, February 27th, 2010

Still here. I know that I don’t post nearly often enough for some readers, but I’m resisting the urge to post regularly just to be posting, or to waste your time with whining or bragging. There must be a million diary blogs out there if you are into that, but this isn’t one of them. This isn’t about me…it’s about all of us and how virtual space is changing the way we think and live.

I appreciate your comments, which have been mostly positive. To those of you who enquired about my copy writer, hello. It’s me. I never learned to type, and took only a couple of English courses in college while earning my B.S. Physics degree, but I can knock together a complete sentence with a little effort. I grew up reading science fiction and fantasy novels, with mixed results. On the one hand, I had problems in elementary school because I was reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan and Mars books, so I tended to spell words different than the standard American way like “colour” instead of “color” and so on.  On the other hand, by the time I entered the 9th grade, I tested out at the 14th grade reading level. So it goes. Social maladjustment can lead to premature erudition. I lived in books. You could say that back when I grew up, Virtual Space was called “books”.

 I am still alive and kicking, working when I can, loving when I can. Now back to ideas.

We’ve been kicking around ideas about living and loving and playing in virtual space. Now let’s project the trends ahead and try to guess what this recent obsession with computer-mediated interaction could lead to in the next, say, hundred years.

Even if somehow the technology stopped improving and evolving, we can see that there would have to be some effects from so many people spending so much time playing, working, romancing in front of a monitor.

1. Bifurcation.  One of the possibilities for the future is that humanity may pull apart into two branches: those who love computers and cannot live without them, and those who hate them or don’t feel any need for them other than as necessary evils in a global information economy. Will the usual inequalities of income and education determine this? Will we become two species, one lost in intellectual fantasies, one mired in practical survival? Could a transformation occur that replaces the current class system of rich and poor with Net-adapted and Net-repelled? 

Children from all backgrounds are entranced with computers. A computer gaming system is semi-standard in many homes now. When I was growing up we had one television set for the entire family. By the time I was working it was common for homes to have several. Once people wondered if the telephone would be anything but a way for rich people to talk to each other. Now it is common for family members to all have their own cell phones, for convenience, emergencies, and so you dn’t have to kick the teenager off the phone to call your boss. The same must be happening with computers. When I was born there were NO personal computers. Then we had a time when people were adopting them and many homes had one. Now we are past that. Like cell phones, computers are no longer an oddity. They are becoming personal possessions like toothbrushes. If you don’t have one, you can go to a library and use one.

This would seem to imply that eventually everyone who wants to be using a computer will be. Thus the question: will this be a new feature of our species, or will we divide into users and nonusers? With some inventions like the automobile, what was once a novelty is now a necessity: it is fairly difficulty to make it in the current context of post-industrialized society without personal transportation. Will the computer follow the same career path? It is still perfectly possible to survive, earn a living, and raise a family without ever logging in. But will this continue? The efficiency of Internet-mediated activity is hard to ignore. I do my taxes on the Internet, and I don’t miss the paper forms one bit. I get my news on the Internet, work on the Internet, play on the Internet, talk to my girlfriend on the Internet. I have been fighting the urge to order my groceries on the Internet and have them delivered, because right now that is my main motivation for leaving my apartment: food. But that’s just me. One friend of mine drives trucks. He has no use for computers himself. But his daughter has one.

It’s an arms race in the schools now: kids with access to computers can produce better papers (if they can avoid the temptation to plagiarize). When I went to high school young ladies with career aspirations took Typing 101 (boy do I wish I had taken it!). Now that typewriters have been edged out by word processors and then by PCs, the class is called “keyboarding” and it is required for all students. Lucky rascals.  So will the computer-indifferent humans die out, or will they become like a separate species, a permanent underclass?

2. Environmental effects.  Will the Internet reduce the number of cars on the road? I hardly drive at all any more, but perhaps I am far from typical. Still, it seems to me that in a growing information economy, working from home is inevitably growing. That means less commuters. Sitting here “keyboarding” on my computer, I am still using energy, sucking at the global power grid. But I am not burning gasoline. Yes, I realize that there are lots of things that cannot be done on a computer. We still need people building houses, mining ore, harvesting crops, yadda yadda yadda. But there are also tons of jobs that can (and will) transition from the old-fashioned corporate world of cubicle farms into the leaner, more efficient business model of letting people do from their home office what they used to do in an office your company had to rent, furnish, clean, maintain, and equip. Telephones helped build the world of cubicles, and I believe the Internet will help to dismantle it, replacing it in lots of cases with the new world of the distributed business.

So will there be less pollution from fewer drivers? Products still have to move from producers to consumers. Until something better comes along, we will always need trucks and ships and planes and trains. But the cult of personal transportation might be on the verge of a contraction. We might even see the dawn of an era when teenagers forget about cars and brag about their computers.

3. Governmental changes.  Where I write in the United States, the form of government is representative democracy. The founding fathers presumed that the people would never be able to coordinate decision-making processes en masse, and so the idea is we elect representatives who meet in a special place to vote on laws and budgets. But is this something that is still necessary, or just a hanging-on tradition?

We now have the ability for the first time in human history for the population of a country to vote collectively on issue without the need for intermediaries such as senators. And, please, do not tell me that hackers can influence voting and elections so we shouldn’t do it. Encryption has made the Internet trustworthy enough for hundreds of millions of us to type in our credit card numbers. Are you less worried about people stealing your money than you are about them stealing elections? Personally, I believe that voting-machine companies are doomed in the long run. DVDs killed videotape. Digital cameras are doing the same to photographic film manufacturers, who I expect will be all converting over to selling mainly memory sticks. GPS is making paper maps look like quaint antiques. It would be bizarre, in my opinion, if elections and governmental decision-making processes are not eventually completely changed. Resistance is futile! You WILL be assimilated.

4. Conflict-resolution changes.  In the “good old” days, nations behaved like schoolchildren: bigger, powerful countries beat up smaller ones and took their lunch money. Need iron and coal? Invade and conquer a neighbor who has some rich deposits. As the global wave of industrialization proceeded, the need for materials continued, but the need for markets expanded. We need poeple to sell our stuff to, so we can keep the factories rolling and we cannot solve that by killing them. Atomic bombs do not feed the bulldog. Brute force conflicts were replaced by economic competition, where the ultimate weapon is the volume discount, and the goal is not to kill other people and take their stuff, but to sell them our stuff at a profit so we can afford to buy their stuff.

Enter the Information Age. People still need to eat, cars still need gas, houses need electricity. But the economic powerhouses of the last century now find that the new must-have commodity is information, without which they cannot manage their multinational enterprises. We still mine ore…but now we also mine information. What is the total projected need for shoes in Brazil in 2015? How many 3D televisions will be sold in Europe in 2011? How much “disposable income” will an average teenager in Germany have next year? Companies want to know now…so they can be the ones to take advantage of sales opportunities.

Some writers have predicted a future in which corporate armies do battle royale on dedicated islands. Somehow, I doubt it.  OK, call me an optimist, but I think our destiny as a species is to become more rational and less interested in playing king of the hill. History does not necessarily support this belief, I admit….but remember, practically all of human history is pre-internet. We are in terra incognita now, breaking trails into a future fraught with so many possibilities and choices that it would be a pity to see it devolve into merely higher-tech bloodshed.

In the past men wanted gold and land. Then it was oil and crops. Soon people will wake up and realize we are surrounded by untapped riches: the medical miracles hidden in rainforest plants and animals, the smart materials being created in our research labs, and the imaginations of our children.

Will we waste time and energy fighting over them? Will the rising technology be doom or salvation? We can still choose. –mrk

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Identity Crisis

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

The journey continues.

Welcome back. Sorry I don’t update as often as I would like to. I’m new at this, and my struggles to earn money to pay bills have to come first when there is too much month at the end of the money. I make no money from this blog; I am a Web Developer and the recent U.S. recession hit me hard. I went from a $75,000 a year job to nothing…and have been struggling ever since.

A note to my comment posters: I appreciate feedback, but I am afraid I WILL delete comments that (a) contain long lists of commercial links or that (b) are in languages I personally cannot read.  I will not be responsible for indecipherable content, and, with ap0logies, that includes languages other than English. I appreciate that other languages exist and are preferred by many…but feedback that I cannot read myself does not help me.

This time, I’d like to explore the world of alternate identities. Some virtual worlds only support one current login per user, but many others allow you to run more than one instance of the client program at the same time. And most allow you to create more than one avatar.

This creates two types of virtual multiple personalities: (a) serial multiples and (b) parallel multiples.

If the virtual world only allows one client program instance to be running at any given time per user account, we have the possibility of serial multiplicity. That is user A can choose to log in as avatar A1, A2, A3, …etc. You can log in as Cyril the Conqueror, vanquish demons, log off, log back in as Princess Frogkisser and chat with handsome princes, and so on.

(Notice I slipped a sub theme in there….your avatars can be different genders, for men who want to play women sometimes or vice versa …)

This sort of thing is handy, especially in online games such as City of Heroes, where you might get bored with the powers of one superhero and decide you want to play another one for a bit. In RP environments such as Second Life, you may have different avatars built for different roleplay themes and may prefer to change avatars for different roles rather than go through the tedious beusiness of changing skins, clothing, weapons, hair, etc. to configure yourself for play in a particular sim.

This “serial multiplicity” brings up some ethical issues, however. In simulations or games where you can be captured by enemies, it can be too tempting to log out and log in as a different virtual person so that you do not have to spend your valuable time looking out of a cage at your gloating captors. A captures B1, but B1 pretends to “crash” and logs out and logs back in as B2, free as a bird.  The serious roleplayers in places such as SL Gor sims really hate this sort of thing, because it defeats the whole point of capturing anyone. It is like being able to teleport right out of a jail, and if everyone did that, what would be the point in working to capture anyone?

In addition to negating the effect of simulating capture, there are virtual military advantages to be exploited by using serial multiplicity. For in the situation above, for example, suppose A and B1 are in rival factions or armies of opposing cities. If B1 is captured, that reduces the forces his army can bring to bear in battles. But if B1 just logs out and logs back in as B2, who is in the same army as B1, then the military advantage of the other army is eliminated with the stroke of a key. The player they captured is back in action and attacking, and their prison cell is empty. You must admit that this is cheating, and the ability to do this makes many roleplayers announce that they will not have any dealings with players who have other alts.

Consider another possibility, maybe even worse than the foregoing. When B1 logs out of his captured avatar and logs back in as B2, maybe that B2 is a citizen of the enemy city that A is from. This allows B1’s army to spy on the enemy whenever they want. How do you fight an enemy whose members can blend in with your own…any time they like?

I am tempted to utter the commandment: thou shalt not play on both sides of any conflict. But it would be useless for me to advise this rule….since there is no known way to enforce it. It is once of the unresolved issued of multiple-avatar user accounts. I am open to suggestions as to how any virtual world can allow more than one avatar per account and still avoid these kinds of cheating.

Since we are on the subject of cheating, let’s open a related can of worms. People form relationships in cyberspace and some of these are supposed to be exclusive, in spite of the fact that the persons involved never meet in Real Life. if you invest time and energy getting to know a special someone, you might think it only reasonable to ask them to stick with you and not spread them selves too thin to have time for you, by seeking other virtual lovers.

Serial multiplicity destroys any assurance of cyber fidelity. if your cybermate is not online (or if you are just bored with him/her/it), you can always create a new avatar and take your alt in search of cyberlove also. Again, as above, there seems to be no way to avoid this loophole, apart from limiting users to single-avatar accounts. It is one of those features of cyberspace that you either accept or ignore, since it usually cannot be prevented.

Okay, let’s beat a new dead horse. Enough of serial multiplicity. Now it gets even weirder. PARALLEL multiplicity. With some virtual worlds you can alter the command line associated with the launching icon and enable the client program to run as more than one instance. Now, B can log in as B1 and B2 at the same time!

This opens a near-infinite can of worms. Those two ladies you see talking to each other over there? Be careful what you say to either of them — they might be the same person in real life. Oh, and that military conflict we were talking about? Guess what: the opposing generals are the same guy!

Parallel multiplicity offer endless ways to mess with people’s heads. If you break up with girl A and meet girl B…you might be just talking to “A 2.0″. She can get back together with you by pretending to be a different person. You can log in as guy B AND as girl C who appears to adore B, so to make other ladies jealous. And so on. Parallel multiplicity means that you appear as a couple.

Parallel multiplicity brings up so many issues it is hard to know where to start. You can go to a dance contest as a man + woman couple and win both the male and female prizes. You can beat yourself up in order to establish your street cred with a cybergang. You can buy products from yourself to inflate your product popularity ratings. You can secretly vote for yourself in surveys and elections. It is astonishing how many of our real world practices and values include the automatic assumption that every person has one and only one body. We carry these assumptions over into the cyberspace realms without bothering to remember that it might not be the same there.

Now I am sure some of you might think I am advocating for single-avatar only cyberspace, perhaps one in which we all wear UPC bar codes or some other version of the Mark of The Beast to uniquely identify us. Far from it. To legislate mono-identity virtuality would be so sacrifice one of the key advantages of cyberspace: the freedom to reinvent ourselves.

Let’s try to hang onto freedom without driving each other crazy, ok?  –MRK

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Virtual Ethics 101

Friday, June 5th, 2009

OK, so maybe you are walking on the wild side. Maybe very wild. Don’t worry, I won’t tell.

Now, lets consider how one might go about constructing an ethics that could apply to such a mercurial and evanescent phenonenon as the life in virtual space. Party pooper! you scoff. We can do whatever we want!

Ok, maybe it is true that in many ways you can do whatever you want. And if you do not care whether you have any virtual friends, I am sure you will. Because in many virtual worlds, escaping any possible consequences is as easy as merely creating a new account, a new identity, a new avatar. Wasn’t me! That was some other guy/lady/monster.

I will address myself, however, to the (hopefully) majority of you who do care whether you are liked or not. Although I have had my “don’t give a fork” days, I usually classify myself as belonging to this non-sociopathic group — the society of civilized beings. Since I do not exist in a vacuum (oh all right, my background is in Physics, yes I know that technically we do all exist in a vacuum…I meant metaphorically) socially, I am affected in various ways by my interactions with other entities, whether they exist in real or virtual space. As they are by their interactions with me. That being the case, it would seem that one might suggest guidelines for behaviour (not thought, of course…we must be free to think whatever we wish in the privacy of our own heads) with respect to other entities.

It would be the height of facile simplicity to moan that we should all follow the Golden Rule: treat others as we wish to be treated. But let’s face it: not all others want to be treated the way we want to be treated. For example: suppose I meet someone who is role-playing being a slave. Presumably, this person would prefer, in the context of the role play (not necessarily in real life) that i treat him/her as if he/she were a slave. Now I, personally, do not want to be treated like a slave. So if I follow the Golden Rule, forgive the pun, slavishly, and treat this person in the way that I personally wish to be treated, i.e. as a free person, then I might claim I am acting properly.  But am I?

Here is a case in which in attempting to follow a common ethical principle I am, in actuality, acting contrary to someone else’s wishes. I am not treating the other person in the way they want to be treated….just in the way that I want to be treated. In such a situation, while I claim to be acting morally, the other person could retort that I am merely acting selfishly. (Incidentally, if you think that this is a purely hypothetical situation, then I suggest that you visit a virtual world such as one of the Gor sims in Second Life, where such situations are “real” and frequent.)

I am led, therefore, to propose that a more generalized version of the Golden Rule is required:

“When appropriate, treat others as they wish to be treated, as you would prefer that you be treated as you wish to be treated.”

What this boils down to is repecting the right of others to pretend. If someone is “wearing” the avatar-shape of a dog and going about on all fours, they probably do not want to be treated as if they are a wizard or a Elf. If someone is wearing wizard robes and waving a magic staff, they probably would not appreciate a lecture on the unreality of magic in modern society. If someone is wearing a collar and kneeling as a slave, they probably do not want you to insist that they act like a free person. It is a matter of respecting their right to play the role they have chosen. If you disapprove of dogs, wizards, or slavery, that is your right, and you do not have to be a dog, a wizard, or a slave. But when we are talking about pretending, about virtual as opposed to real worlds, it seems only fair to allow others to pretend whatever they want, if you want the same right to pretend to be what you want to be.

Now, notice that I inserted the phrase “when appropriate” at the beginning of this meta-Golden Rule. That was for obvious reasons. If a person is masochistic, and wants others to be cruel to them (or to pretend to be cruel to them), I do not feel that this obligates me to act in a way that is uncomfortable for me. I am not a masochist. To be forced or expected to beat everyone who cries “beat me!” would be painful to me psychologically, and thus I feel it is unfair and invalid to expect me to adhere to such expectations. If you want to pretend to be a god, then do so…but don’t expect me to worship you….unless that is the local rule, a rule that I have explicitly agreed to by joining a simulation in which such a thing is required.

Honor the pretensions of others when you join them in their realms of pretense. If you do not wish to do so, then find your own venues and follow your own inclinations there. If you disapprove of even pretend slavery, don’t bother to go where it is virtually practiced — those who value such let’s-pretend scenarios do not appreciate moralizing as if they were actually oppressing people in real life. They find it either amusing or obnoxious. It interferes with their suspension of disbelief and their role playing. Similarly, people who like to pretend to be vampires or demons or various kinds of villains rarely appreciate do-gooders lecturing them on ethics….unless it is a discourse that is appropriate and natural for the roleplay situation you are in.

And please, do not dismiss this as all just a version of “play nice, kids”. While you could consider roleplaying in virtual worlds to be “merely” playing, some might insist that it is simply acting correctly in alternate realities, validly exploring other modalities of being.

As the saying goes, “be…all that you can be”.  And allow others the same freedom. –MRK

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Here Today…

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

Over forty years ago Star Trek greeted its viewers with the words “Space: the Final Frontier”. But is it?

Okay, geographically speaking, sure. Unless we find a way to get outside the Universe into some parallel reality, space contains all of the planets we will ever find, and, thus, can be said to be the Final Frontier.

But let’s not limit ourselves to mere geography. Cyberspace, the universe of data, contains or will eventually contain, all known information about all known or discovered panets, as well as all of the stories, theories, dreams, and conjectures of all planets that could be, might be, or may someday be. Cyberspace is the final frontier, IMHO.

Back to living in cyberspace. In my last post I asked how such an existence is affecting the perceptions, expectations, and relationships of the humans inhabiting it.

A lot can (and has, and will be) written on this subject. Let’s take one parameter as a starting point: the lifetime of a romantic relationship. How long will it last?

Okay, all you cynics can tune out now. For the rest of you who believe in, and value, a relationship between two caring individuals, this is a significant question. Those who are content to drift in and out of random assignations may not care, but the rest of us (I hope) do want something that lasts, that has more meaning than incidental pleasure.

I’ve had relationships in both real life and virtual life, and some that took place in both. One thing that I have noticed is, it seems that the majority of relationships that take place solely or mostly in virtual realilty are rather brief. Meet, greet, make with the sweet, then back on the street. Why is this?

Here is a perfect example of how virtual living is affecting the expectations of its inhabitants. I think it is a fast-forwarding of the grass-is-always-greener principle caused by the exploding multiplicity of alternatives.

Wow, vocab overdose! All right. What I mean is simply this: the fewer alternatives you have, the more stable your decisions are. You stay in a job until you find a better one. You stay in a relationship until or unless the feeling dies, OR you (c’mon, we’ve all done it, fess up) start to think that maybe there is a better alternative.

Long ago, when we lived in small isolated communities, people paired up in monogamous couples and alternatives dried up; the pairings were more or less stable. But nowadays, with our increased mobility and visibility, we can go places and see more…alternatives. And as our culture has become increasingly mobile, we seem to have become increasingly fickle. Divorce is common, when it used to be more rare. Living together, that easier-exit-strategy pairing methodology, has become prevalent. Commitment seems so come with an expiration date, like packaged food.

It is a no-brainer to extrapolate this principle to the Internet and relationships in cyberspace. The internet now contains, at any given second, more surfers than the population of the largest cities on earth. Online games and communities containing millions of users put people in contact with exponentially more “alternatives” than ever before. It would be astonishing if all this doesn’t have an impact on how those humans view commitment to a relationship.

Please hear me: I am not arguing for the correctness or desirability of emotional promiscuity. I like relationships that last. All I am saying is, the inevitable effect of existing in a cornucopia of potential mates is that many people will want to explore as many possibles as they can, and so it is a forgone conclusion that most relationships will be even briefer in cyberspace than they are in “real” life.

Some of this is, undoubtedly, due to the tendency of many onliners to take relationships in virtual reality less seriously, as if it were all just role-play. But I think that those of us who really want a long term relationship, one which grows and evolves, will have to find ways to be even more significant to that significant other. I’m working on it. Good luck. –MRK

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Living in Virtual Space

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

People are spending more and more time in virtual worlds.

It began with the experimental Multi User Domains (MUDs) and then progressed to immersive virtual online envoronments and games such as Second Life and World of Warcraft.

We all know this. But what is the eventual effect of such a change of residence? Because when a child or an adult is spending (and I’m not pointing fingers here — I do it myself) large chunks of time interacting with objects and avatars in a computer-mediated reality, we might as well say that they live there.

So what are the effects of “actually” living in virtual space? How does this change our perceptions, our expectations, and our relationships? I’ll be exploring this and other questions here.

Let’s start with some definitions of terms, for those of you (if any!) who have not explored this new flavor of experience.

“Virtual World” — a world that exists solely as the result of computer-generated calculations and interactions, which simulates “real” world experience to some degree, including the presence and potential interactions of avatars with computer-generated objects and other avatars. I’m excluding from this definition the worlds of fiction literature, television, and films, because they are largely passive experiences.

“Avatar” — an entity in a virtual world that is the abstract representation of a user/participant. An avatar can be a simple geometric model with limited customizability, such as the characters in early online games such as Dungeon Siege, or a highly customizable entity that can be made to resemble the actual appearance of the user operating it, such as the avatars in Second Life and other realms.

Okay, enough definitions for now. Let’s talk about living in virtual space. First, some background for you. My first virtual residence as Doom. Yes, the first version; I am not young. Even with the huge pixels and jerky enemy motions, I was tranfixed by the feeling of roominess — the perception that I was “actually” moving in large spaces, due to the constantly-updated perspective rendering of my virtual surroundings. This effect persisted when I moved on to Quake and , only with better and smoother graphics.

During this early phase of my virtual residence, I was unconcerned with interactions. The only communication I had with fellow players was coordinating with fellow team members and taunting opposing team members.

As I moved on to MMORPGs such as City of Heroes and World of Warcraft, however, I realized that such worlds can be communities — online societies composed of groups of users who log in to play with (and against) each other. I began forming relationships with people I never “actually” met.

All this has made me wonder what kind of future these new realms are ushering in for humankind. I am tired of hearing that the Internet supposedly isolates people…because we don’t go out and play catch with our neighbor Sparky in the back yard or the local park. That might be more true nowadays (the not-going-out part), but what about the fact that I can play with someone from the UK, collaborate with someone from India, and converse (using a translator program) with someone in Japan — who doesn’t speak a word of English? Am I really all that isolated? Somehow I doubt it.

On the contrary, I propose that, instead of isolating us, the Internet and its online virtual realms are ushering in a transformation as fundamental as those brought by the automobile and the television, only much bigger. Before cars, many people spent their entire lives near where they were born. Before radio and television, we could only read about events on the other side of the planet after they occurred. Now we have greater mobility and visibility. Online virtual realms will only increase our capabilities.

Which brings us back squarely to the question I began with: how does this extension of experience change our perceptions, our expectations, and our relationships? Let’s talk about it.

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