I have had a post brewing in my head for days to weeks now, in part driven by some of the reaction to my “High Windows” talk at GDC — yes, the one with the corpse in Darfur, and the whining about how virtual worlds have not achieved their potential, the one I haven’t posted up yet.
Some called that speech inspiring, and others termed it depressing. One of the most interesting reactions came from Prokofy Neva, who has written several interesting posts about the influence of the digerati/tech crowd/game designer on the real world. Her reaction to Jane McGonigal’s turn in the GDC Rant session (slides are here) illustrates the gap that exists:
Then it was Jane McGonigal talking about how game companies were really really good at making people Happy. They had Figured Out what people need to be happy — to feel useful, and a part of something useful (Lenin understood this too! Hey, so did Hitler! And Jane did, too, repeating this exact same PowerPoint exactly the same, twice, once at GDC, and again at SXSW!). Games were so good at fixing stuff they could Fix Reality…
Now, leaving aside the giant culture gap between Prokofy and gamers which makes this commentary inflammatory to those on the other side, there’s stuff here worth listening to.
Edit: just to be clear, I am not at all endorsing Prokofy’s characterization of Jane and her work. It’s ridiculously over the top (and rather rude) to compare Jane to Hitler (!).
While I do think that there are many valid points in Prokofy’s writings on all this, the tone taken is really unnecessary. In writing a post like this, my goal is to try to bridge some gaps, and that means trying to look past the needlessly inflammatory stuff. But that doesn’t mean I should err by omission and fail to comment when a line is crossed. So I apologize for that, particularly to Jane, who doesn’t deserve the mudslinging.
Prokofy, you see, is right about how myopic the tech-dwelling digerati are, and how self-referential. This isn’t a knock against them (aka “us”). After all, many cultural groups are like this. I frequently point to out to people (say, Dan Terdiman, who rhapsodizes about it), that “statistically speaking, I don’t know anyone who uses Twitter.” Look, my brother runs datamining and the like for a large foundation; he works on computers all day. I don’t think he knows what Twitter is. I know for sure that my mom doesn’t.
It is also true that the effects of the digital culture are spreading, and that for better or worse, a new literacy, and with it, higher income, is becoming increasingly required. My son can’t write code, though I could at his age; but he is capable of hacking Sonic Adventure DX on the PC and swapping out the skins on the hedgehogs. And this is being part of an elite (or 1337, at any rate) — though I have great faith in the ingenuity of kids around the world, I also know that quite a lot of them do not have the access to a capable PC and an Internet connection, or parents willing to track down a PC version of a quite old game just so their kid can hack it.
Some, like like Ted Castronova, are arguing that the real world either should be, or inevitably will be changed by the presence of virtual worlds that offer alternatives. In Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun Is Changing Reality, Ted explicitly makes the case that given the choice between how things operate in World of Warcraft and how they operate in real life, many more people will choose WoW. A few of his predictions:
Ever larger numbers of people will spend many hours inside online games…
…the public at large will come to think of game design and public policy design as roughly similar activities. This is because, structurally, they are the same. They both involve assessing the interests of large numbers of otherwise unassociated people, and then determining the best course of action for the authorities….
While all of this is happening, we will also have come to a new and more rigorous understanding of human happiness… As the lines between public policy and game design blue, public policy will begin to focus more directly on human happiness.
So, certainly, it sounds like Jane has already emigrated, in Castronova’s terms. Although she works more in overlaying games into real life in the first place, her games are still undeniably virtual in the sense that they are overlays.
The point I was trying to make in my speech was not so much about trying to get virtual worlders to work to save Darfur. Instead, it was about taking a step back, and seeing where we all fit into the larger context of life. Seen from the moon, the whole virtual world industry — whether BuildABearVille is less altruistic than Club Penguin or not, whether or not Warhammer Online is imitating WoW’s art a little too slavishly, whether copying someone else’s virtual porn is infringement — it all seems very small.
It is generally dangerous to try to apply the principles, cultural patterns, mores, and customs of a small group to the whole. And I think this is what is at the root of Prokofy’s complaint.
In that same speech, I made the comparison between virtual world clients and windows. I said that it was easy to look through a window at a given scene and see either hopelessness or potential, squalor or the future. We all come with our frames of reference. This does not mean, to my mind, that we should not evangelize. Prokofy says
So…what do you do about these people? Well, one thing you do immediately, post-haste, tout de suite, is push back, which of course is my hallmark phrase. A pushback is generally what these people do not get. But they need it. And it’s normal.
In a healthy society, everyone is pushing. If anything, it is moments of total unity that are most to be feared, for from those moments come dogma.
Virtual worlds can and should be used for pushing; just like any medium can and should be used for pushing. And yes, that means that Jane should keep trying to fix one world, and Prokofy should keep trying to fix another, and yes, even the carping from the sidelines should continue. Prok may feel that wanting to do something about Darfur in Second Life, or indeed many other channels, is a bit of a waste — but perhaps its value lies not in what it does for Darfur, but what it does for those who participate, however fruitlessly.
The reason I gave the speech I did is because the prevailing current was kids’ worlds, the prevailing wind was a bubble, and the prevailing tone was commerce. Commerce, kids’ worlds, and hype are all well and good. But the course we should chart has more nuance than that, and more variety, and more ambition. It should encompass user activism and people selling meshes of sex toys, it should encompass games and schools and ads and plots of virtual land.
It has become a bit of an in-joke for me to try to include poetry or music in every speech. In this case, the referent was Philip Larkin’s poem “High Windows,” which seemed apropos to me. Larkin was a crochety guy. In the poem, he offers up a complex brew of resentment of the freedoms and privileges of the younger generation, of “everyone young going down the long slide to happiness, endlessly.” (Happiness, the scientists tell us, is a little bit overrated.)
The poem ends on a moment of transcendence — or nihilism, depending on your point of view. A religious epiphany, or an atheist one. Our attitudes about virtual worlds can go the same way(s). Larkin sees different things through the windows than I do, than you do, than the young do. This diversity is strength. That is why we must continue to chase things as diverse as the player-policed world, the user governed world, user rights, worlds with RMT and worlds without, and so on. We must work for worlds that are not like the real world, for the sake of what we learn, and we must work for worlds that are the real world, for the sake of what we learn.
What virtual worlds of all stripes offer, above all, is the chance to look through a gallery of windows, into the immense variety of the human heart and human mind.