Virtual worlds in 2022 (Dr Richard Bartle at #digitalsurrey)

This content is 12 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

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.

Dr Richard Bartle talks at Digital SurreyIn 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…

My view

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…


Thanks again to the Digital Surrey team for staging another worthwhile event, sponsored by Martin Stillman from the Venture Strategy Partnership and hosted by Cameron Wilson from Surrey Enterprise.

[Update 27 March 2012: added link to Richard’s blog post and presentation materials]

6 thoughts on “Virtual worlds in 2022 (Dr Richard Bartle at #digitalsurrey)

  1. “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…”

    Look at play on an MMO as the replacement for both a) going to the bar / pub after work and being on a company softball league / bowling tournament.

    For the 40 and under adult generation, that’s the role it fills.

    Social media is the bar / pub scene as well, but less the sport team. In an MMO you work to get into a ‘raid spot’ which is very much a sporting team, from the deskchair. In social media, you just chat up the other folks at the bar.

    Virtual worlds like Second Life are a bit of the above, and a bit of the ‘arts and crafts’ hobby – taking that ceramics class at the community center. Its also filling the ‘shopping with the girls’ need, for both men and women.
    – Think of the TV shows ‘Sex in the City’ and ‘Peep Show’ (BBC). Lifestyles like that, unreal in the real world; become the way people can conduct themselves in virtual worlds like Second Life.

    As we move from 2012 to 2020, is MMOs and Virtual Worlds succeed, it’ll happen by the mainstream recognizing these parallels as legitimate. Right now if you tell someone “can’t commit to that, got a softball game with the lads on Thursday” its respected. But rephrase it as “can’t commit to that, got a dungeon raid with the lads on Thursday” and you’ll be called out.
    – And the condemnation maps as well if you parallel a shopping night with friends downtown versus in Second Life.

    But if you say “going down to the bar to hang out” versus “going into Facespam to hang out”… society sees ‘wasting time’ in Facespam as more legit, more mainstream than in a real life bar now… (at least from where I’ve observing in California that’s the reaction I get).

  2. I’m in the 40 and under category too, and I’d say MMOs are less social than you give them credit for (meeting people online is not the same as real life) – I do understand that there are elements of teamplay, etc. that are important social aspects though.

    My point was not really comparing social media and MMOs – it was more that people don’t “get” social media – and similarly, I don’t “get” MMOs. I guess as a 40 and under with a family and a demanding job, there’s only so much time left in my day – and we each choose different ways to spend that personal time. I do think “I’m playing call of Duty” (or whatever) is just as acceptable as “I’m going to the gym/my aerobics class/soccer practice” etc.

    Thanks for joining in the conversation – it’s always good to get a view on how others see the world – which is why I’m still glad I made the journey down to Guildford last week.

  3. Oh I’d agree they’re less social than real life.

    That’s true of all of these online things – be they social media or MMOs/Virtual Worlds.

    We all would be a lot more social if we went back to hanging out in the pub/clubhouse/dinner party or playing a teamsport as our after-work activity.

    But our generation is instead opting for Facebook/Twitter or an MMO for those same needs. And I think, getting less out of it as a result.

    An MMO team is still pretty anonymous even if your teammates are the same people for a few years. And on Facebook, you often know more about their cat than the actual person you’ve friended.

    10-12 years ago, my friends and I would get together two nights a week for a night of chatting at someone’s house over TV, a movie, or a boardgame. Sometimes we’d meet in a cafe instead. Then some people started moving out of town, and we shifted it online… now I know a lot less about them, and feel a lot further from them… while at the same time knowing a lot more about odd details such as that cat.

    MMOs and virtual worlds replaced the boardgame night, even though I’m naturally athletic – again with the generational bit, getting my teamplay online is just how its shaped out, originally via invite from one of those friends moving out of state. Likewise, Virtual Worlds such as Second Life – a marriage of my digital art hobby and the breakup of the regular friend gatherings in the 90s.

  4. I don’t know about MMOs but social media is not generational, although many like to treat it as such in order to shoehorn in their pet theories about Baby Boomers/Generation X/Y/Z. The context in which I was using it (as in living my life on it) isn’t a substitute for going to the pub etc., it’s a way of communicating in my daily activities (mostly work but also play). If you know more about someone’s cat then them, probably not work hooking up with (which is why I know all of my Facebook friends in the real world).

    I use an analogy: Twitter is for everyone; LinkedIn is for people I would go to the pub with (i.e. loose affiliates); Facebook is for people I would invite to my house (i.e. close friends and family).

    Not sure where that fits with MMOs but I’m not really comparing the two. My point was that “outsiders” find it difficult to understand why anyone would want to act that way, I find it difficult to relate to people who are into MMOs and social media was just an example of where people may find it difficult to relate to my activities. I could just as easily pick something else, like, fishing or plane spotting (neither of which are my hobbies, BTW!)

  5. I had to read through this a couple of times to make sure I got the basics of the story and the comments. If I have it right, the premise is that MMOs and VR in general, are being continually influenced by physical reality, and vice versa. The reason I’m jumping in to comment at all is the wild card that is augmented reality. Once that stuff goes mainstream, it’s going to be another new set of rules to deal with, I think.

  6. Hi Joey, That was one of the points that Richard Bartle was making as he set out his view of how things might change in the next 10 years. I’d agree with you that AR will add another element, although Richard’s talk was very MMO-focused in its view of virtual worlds.

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