Posts Tagged ‘VR’

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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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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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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