It’s been a few months since I’ve been along to a Digital Surrey event but last night I went to see Dr Richard Bartle (the massively multiplayer online gaming pioneer whose work on personality types was mentioned last year in the first Digital Surrey event I attended, Michael Wu’s talk on the science of gamification) speak about the future of virtual worlds.
In contrast to Lewis Richards’ Virtual Worlds talk at CSC last year, Richard Bartle’s talk was focused on three possible courses of development for the massively multiplayer online gaming (MMO) industry (slides are available). He started out by commenting that, had he been asked the same question in 1992, he’d think we would be further ahead than we are by now…
Three views of the future
In the first view of virtual worlds in 2022, Richard looked at the legal issues that threaten online gaming, including:
- Applying reasonable laws wrongly – for example a well-meaning judge applying the same rules in World of Warcraft to Second Life and “its just a game” is no longer a way in which to avoid the real world.
- Unfair contracts – with End User Licensing Agreements (EULAs) found to be unfair and ownership over virtual goods bringing property laws into play (Linden Labs, 2007).
- Intellectual property laws – ownership prevents the destruction or alteration of virtual property; it’s impossible to stop people from selling “stuff” (even if it ruins the game); an inability to deny access by banning things that have unintended consequences (leaving gaming open to compensation claims); and implications of publishing works of art (licensing, records of origin, etc.) – what happens if the rights to an object upon which others are built is suddenly removed?
- Gaming laws – even free to play games have value in their objects (as proven in Dutch law in 2012) and, if everything has a value, gaming is essentially about chance and cash rewards – i.e. gambling! Some parts of the world (e.g. the USA) have fierce laws on gambling…
- Money laundering – with a scenario something like: 1) Steal real-world money; 2) hand money to a front; 3) front buys virtual currency; 4) pass virtual currency to game characters; 5) sell virtual goods (legitimately); 6) clean money!
- Taxation laws – if virtual money has real world value, then it becomes taxable (both income and sales).
- Patents – it’s possible to patent obvious “inventions” for very little outlay but it costs a lot to get a patent revoked – this stifles innovation.
For these reasons, Richard Bartle says he sees a bleak future when he goes to legal or policy conferences – just a programmers see bugs in code, lawyers see bugs in laws – and accountants see bugs everywhere (it’s their job to highlight problems).
In the second view, the repeated incursions of reality into virtual worlds gradually break down the distinction between real and virtual – and virtual worlds are no longer imaginary places of freedom and adjuncts to reality. New MMOs open up and recruit players from existing MMOs – but these are the disloyal players – or they get MMO “newbies”. With too much reality, MMOs become unsustainable as fantasy and existing players’ expectations are lowered whilst new players didn’t have high expectations to start with… Meanwhile there’s the question of monetisation – with 95% of casual gamers being funded by the 5% who pay – those who pay have the ability to do so (i.e. are richer in real life) and their ability to become more successful in the game removes any sense of fair play – is it still a game if one can buy success? Reaching out to children becomes attractive – both as a source of new gamers and also because micropayments make it easier to take money from children as the credits are paid for by the parents. And, as non-gamers use “gamification” in marketing and “edutainment” as a teaching aid, the attempts to combine the fun games and “un-fun” education lead to nothing more than un-fun games. In effect the sanctity of game spaces as retreats from reality disappears…
In Richard Bartle’s third view of the future, MMO designers found themselves able to influence politics. In 2010, the median age of the UK population was 40 (41 for women, 38 for men) so half the population were born in 1970 or later and grew up with access to computers. These people play games, don’t feel addicted to them and resent politicians imply gamers are psychopaths. Consequently politicians representing games as anti-social find themselves unpopular. Gaming flowers with new casual games, new players, and simplified creation of virtual worlds.
When Richard speaks to designers and developers he sees passion, imagination, and freedom of spirit because MMOs give something that your can’t get elsewhere – the ability to be yourself. If that goes away, they simply create new virtual worlds.
What is most likely?
As for which future view is most likely, Richard’s whole presentation was linked through three films (High Noon, The Misfits, and Dirty Harry) – all of which featured actors who were also in The Good the Bad and the Ugly. So he summed up the likely courses using that film:
- The Good: virtual worlds provide a place for humans to be humans.
- The Bad: virtual worlds are stifled with real-world laws and policy.
- The Ugly: virtual worlds become mundane.
He considers that MMOs provide too much that people want in order not to be successful and that, if legislated away to obscurity, that would only be a temporary state and they would return. I guess we’ll see when we look back from 2022…
As a non-gamer (perhaps more accurately a casual gamer – I play the odd game on a tablet or a smartphone, and I do have an Xbox 360 – upon which my sons and I play Lego Pirates of the Caribbean and Kinect Sports, so I guess they are virtual worlds?), I found a lot of Richard’s views on “reality” rather difficult to grasp – and I got the impression that I wasn’t alone. Even so, the vision of the real world tainting the virtual world was fascinating – and perhaps, I fear, a little too real (it’s not just online gaming that is impacted by well-meaning but ultimately flawed real world decisions).
Speaking with one of the other attendees at the event, who mentioned someone had been questioning the link between the Internet and the real world, I guess my inability to understand the mindset of a MMO gamer is not so far removed from those who can’t see why I would want to live my life on social media…
[Update 27 March 2012: added link to Richard’s blog post and presentation materials]