Reading recent discussions here and on TerraNova with Prokofy and other SL users, as well as this post over at in The Grid prompts me to some thoughts on the “culture gap” between SL and the rest of the MMOsphere.
In the Grid suggests that
It’s no secret, of course, that the Linden Lab staff gets irked when people refer to Second Life as a ‘game,’ and so do a lot of long-time residents; maybe what this chart is revealing, then, is that the rest of the MMO community is finally catching on to this, and deliberately placing them outside of the traditional gaming sphere of conversation. This is not necessarily a bad thing, I think; most would agree, I believe, that Second Life is an utterly different experience than most of these online videogames, while the games themselves are mostly better/worse variations on each other. Perhaps ten years from now, we’ll see yet another web just as strong as complex as this gaming one, but with Second Life at its center and the subject of MMO as a communications platform being its unifying theme. Or, hmm, maybe we’d actually see such a web now, if Second Life were to be placed in the middle of a new Google Touch Graph. Anyone out there want to try it and send me a screenshot of the result? I’ll definitely post it as an update if someone does.
Which I don’t agree with. I mean, even the premise that SL is “an utterly different experience” feels wrong to me, given that the currents of social and user-content-based worlds are far far more intertwined than that, historically and likely into the future. (Uh, hello, Cory Ondrejka used to make arcade games).
So I see it as an interesting take on what the graph means. As someone who visits both worlds regularly, I can tell you that for all the disdain that many of the gamers have for SL, they still TALK about it all the time, with in fact as much discussion going towards SL as towards, say, Pirates of the Burning Sea, or D&D Online.
Whereas I think the opposite is not true. As an example, CopyBot discussions happened aplenty on places in the center of the graph, and folks who run may of those central sites jumped in on the comments elsewhere: people from my site, TerraNova, Broken Toys, f13, Psychochild, Zen of Design, to name just a few, all participated. I rarely see something from the SL cluster point back. Where’s the discussion on the ramifications of Eve Online happening within the SLogosphere, of the Leeroy Jenkins meme, of whether Entropia is a scam or a brave experiment?
If anything, this reinforces for me a certain insularity that exists; as a whole, the community of SL tends to see SL as highly exceptional, whereas those within the larger cluster don’t. I think in general they see it as part of a tradition that includes AlphaWorld, OnLive Traveller, Cybertown, Habitat, LambdaMOO, and many others. This (and the emphasis on “non-game” and “evil tekkies” and whatnot) has resulted in strange cultural gaps. I worry a bit that the fact that SL as a community largely talks to itself and (yes) the Web 2.0 techie crowd is causing it to become a bit more insular that it ought to be.
There is no doubt that the gaming world, as you point out, could benefit hugely by embracing more of the SL way of doing things as regards UCC; however, the PRIMARY lessons that SL seems to fail to absorb are ones that severely stunt its acceptance: instant enjoyability, guiding users, rewarding experiences on a regular basis, obvious interfaces, a premium on seamlessness (no lag, no disruptions, etc). if I had to pick which side would benefit more from a cultural exchange, there is zero doubt in my mind that it’s the SL side.
Over on Second Thoughts, Prokofy’s post about Why the Geeks Got To Go throws this culture gap into sharp relief.
In the discussion of the blogosphere graph, I pointed out neighborhoods that are webbed together but nonetheless clearly visible. You can trace a path easily from pure gamer sites through devs to game studies folks or serious games people; had I left in the mainstream gaming world (consoles and so on) almost any MMO blog would be two hops away from sites ranging from political activism to digital art to general technology news. The central web is far from a monolithic community — it’s tightly webbed, but it is very diverse, even in this highly reduced graph. It also has a ton of institutional knowledge and history.
When I look at SL itself, what jumps into stark relief lately is this whole “techie versus users” thing, this sense that there is an inherent culture clash within the system itself between the techies who made SL and the people who are creationing business, emotional connections and so on within SL. Make no mistake, SL is far far more on the techie side of life than the entire central clump in the MMO blogosphere graph. It is born out of techie ideals, it derives its press from techie sources, and its early adopters are far more geeky techie than the average MMO game player.
Now, their users now aren’t, it’s been pointed out to me several times. This means, to me, that the culture gap between the game MMO sphere and the SL citizens is really not as big as it seems.
Hell, the gap between the MMO devs and the SL devs is probably bigger. Why? Because the games are not made to fulfill some lofty technical ideal or some cyberlaw-based philosophy or grand technolibertarian governmental ideals. They are made for mass market entertainment, and as such, they tend not to bother playing around in what they regard as useless intellectual masturbation. They’ll be happy to watch SL, like many other ventures into user content creation, get arrows in the back, and then adopt the smallest, most constrained set of features from it in the slickest and most mass market way possible.
Consider this quote from Prokofy’s post:
for young people, or newly-enabled and tekkified old people, especially women and non-Americans who have taken to SL by leaps and bounds, these old fuddy-duddy concerns like “skepticism triggered by the historical failure of things like LambdaMOO or VRML” don’t compute. What the hell is LambadaMOO? I never heard of it until I branched out from SL into geek-world; I’m certain I wouldn’t recognize VRML if it bit me in the ass; but I have a full and engaging Second Life.
Taken in isolation, this reads like someone who has stars in their eyes so big they cannot see around them. Now, I know that in aggregate, Prokofy’s opinions are more nuanced and sophisticated than that. But I do wonder if the lack of connections to the rest of the ongoing discussion is a big part of the problem. Because the game folks have zero trouble or cultural issues referencing anything from MUD1 to PLATO, Medievia to TinyTIM, The Realm to Blaxxun. Plenty of people had full and engaging virtual lives in Cybertown or WorldsAway or even The Palace — if not on a commercial level, at the least on an emotional level. And much of the point that Prokofy is trying to make about virtual property rests on the emotional value, not the economic value.
Prokofy points out that
The geeks of Web. 1.0 once shook their heads that their bosses and leaders didn’t use email; today we who use email, too, shake our heads that they don’t get the value of a 3-D life online. But fortunately, increasingly, we’ll be making do without them and their purchasing decisions and their gate-keeping and barrier functions. Thank God, there are no more webmasters; everybody can be a webmaster.
But that’s not how it’s actually happened. Email was adopted, but remained in continuous use, and folks who helped define its initial protocols are still active contributors to tech today. I think we can expect history to keep being an ongoing tapestry, honestly, and that means that the geeks won’t be superseded because they are being built on. Regarding SL or anything else as exceptional in this absolutist manner means not examining the foundations on which you are building. (And I can tell you for a fact that the SL management and development team certainly knows their virtual world history).
At the recent Project Horseshoe, the working group on online ended up asserting that
Generally, our problems all fall into the very broad category of Institutionalized Hubris and Ignorance. We do not share knowledge, and we are not very open to knowledge that others try to share. Culturally, we all need to open ourselves up to actually learning from the mistakes of others. Practically, however, we need to begin by solidifying, clarifying and then sharing our hard-learned lessons.
(Expect the working group’s report to be posted in the next day or so, by the way. I will link it here when it goes up).
Most critically, this leads to people who ought to be pulling in the same direction instead pulling against each other. This shows up very specifically in the disdain we see flowing in both directions.
(In particular, though, it rankles me a bit to be lumped in as a techie elistist by Prok in this latest post. I don’t think of Clay Shirky as being particularly on the techie side either. Not all tech-savvy people are cut from the same cloth. In this essay Prok conflates several different points of view and lumps them all together under “tekkie.” Copyleft is a separate issue from atomicity, which is a separate issue from property, which is a separate issue from community, which is a separate issue from hype. And it is possible to have nuanced opinions about each of these issues individually.)
As I said in a comment on that post:
Frankly, many of the comments sound… well, parochial. They are so absolutely centered in just one way of doing things, when there is not yet One True Way for online worlds. I don’t mean that as a slam; I’m just trying to point out that you seem to be implying that you & others “get it” while those who have been working hard in this field for years to decades and who are trying to point out some of the pitfalls “don’t get it.” Frankly, that’s silly and shortsighted. Everything you have said about emotional connection, frontiers, bringing in the common people — every word of it is something that I, and others have said already. We’re ON YOUR SIDE on this, but also have been around long enough to be able to point out some of the realities.
I hope you and those like you CAN walk around those pitfalls like they weren’t there. But I guarantee that five years from now, you’ll look back and say “damn — look at those huge pitfalls — we didn’t even notice, but it’s a good thing we walked left in the darkness right then.”
It is entirely possible to agree with Prokofy that the emotional connection to an object or entity in a virtual world grants a certain type of reality to it whilst also saying that under the logic of code AND law, they have no ownership stake in it whatsoever. And it’s not, as Prokofy says, “backsliding.” It’s about complex issues that have multiple angles from which to view the same thing.