Dmitri Siegel | Essays

World 6.0: Same as the Old World?

Screenshot from 2 Days to Vegas, developed by Steel Monkeys, 2006.

Designing anything synthetic is driven by the opposing desires to replicate and transcend reality. On one hand, the virtual is compelling only in so far as it connects to real experience. On the other hand, there are plenty of things about real life that most people would rather leave behind. This paradox has been with us since the days of Mary Shelley, but these opposing forces have always yearned for some sort of integration or synthesis.

Edward Castronova's recent book Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games reveals how pressing this issue will be in the coming decades. Synthetic Worlds is the first comprehensive study of inhabitable online spaces like MMORPGs (Massively Multi-player Online Role-Playing Games). It is filled with staggering statistics: over 10 million people currently spend over 25 hours a week in a synthetic world; the number of synthetic worlds is doubling every two years; and by 2030 the population of synthetic worlds will reach 100 million. If you had the opportunity to design an entire world for 100 million people, with no physical or material limitations, what would you keep?

What would you change?

View of the Grand Canyon from Google Earth, 2006.

Although Google Earth is not inhabitable (yet), it demonstates that any element of the real world can already be rendered with amazing accuracy. In game design, eye-poppingly real graphics are critical for pitch meetings and conventions where publishing deals (and rave reviews) are awarded based solely on demos. For example, even though most games do not involve underwater play, most game demonstrations include a swim sequence because water is one of the most difficult elements of the physical world to render. And rendering will continue to improve with relentless efficiency due to increases in computing power. As the inventor and theorist Ray Kurzweil put it in The Age of Spiritual Machines, the standard personal computer at some point in the next century will have as much computing power as a single human brain — and not long after that will have the power of all human brains that have ever existed. Ultimately, there is no limit to the quality of rendering that will be possible in synthetic worlds.

But it turns out that visual fidelity is not so important to the people who actually play games. According to Castronova, the level of graphic sophistication necessary for "immersion" was achieved in the mid-1990s with Ultima Online. He argues that advances in rendering in the last decade have largely been aimed at journalists and game company executives, not hardcore users. Castronova believes users are more focussed on their role in these worlds than what such worlds look like. This makes sense when one remembers that MMORPGs are descended from MUDs (Multiple User Domains) — synthetic worlds that are experienced entirely through text commands. (If users could become immersed in a world that consisted entirely of text, they could probably do without individual grains of sand on a beach.) Game designers have identified the primary motivations for MMORPG users: exploring: seeing what is there and mapping it for others; socializing: forming groups and having shared experiences; achieving: building things and accumulating social respect; and controlling: directing and dominating others. Notice that neither "marvelling at the scenery" nor "enjoying aesthetic refinement" make this list. It is experiential qualities that make synthetic worlds truly immersive and which pose the greatest design challenge.

Map of Ultima IV, drawn in colored pencil on graph paper by Trigon Dragon, 1986.

Detail from map of Ultima IV, drawn by Trigon Dragon, 1986.

The portal to these experiences is the avatar — the proxy entity through which a user inhabits a synthetic world. Just a few years ago avatars were limited to several recognizable templates, but today the characters are endlessly variable. In fact, a game called Project Entropia is currently in development that will be able to accomodate six billion unique avatars — one for every human on earth. To sustain this amount of individuality, mere customization is not enough. People play MMORPGs for months and even years, so avatars have to evolve. Much of the design of synthetic worlds is focused on how avatars accumulate new skills, possessions, experience, scars, status, and so on. Currently, avatars are confined to a given game, but portable identities that can move through the archipelago of synthetic worlds seem inevitable. And it is easy to imagine that our profile — created by our online reading, shopping, and searching habits — could be integrated into an avatar. In fact, it would probably be hailed as an innovation if the preferences and predilections that are encoded in our online behavior could be used to make our avatars more natural. It is also quite possibile that our behavior in synthetic worlds will start catching up to us in the real world. (Castronova outlines several court cases that have already been won regarding acts that took place wholly in synthetic worlds.)

Level 62 Druid currently for sale on eBay, 2006.

Of course, role-playing games are not new. Dice games like Dungeons and Dragons (now a very popular MMORPG) allowed users to create elaborate identities. What makes MMORPGs different is the Massively part. Because of their scale and global reach, synthetic worlds have entered into a symbiotic relationship with the real world. When Thomas More imagined an ideal society in his sixteenth-century classic Utopia, one of its defining characteristics was a lack of private ownership. It would be impossible to create such a utopia online because trade is a key element of play in most MMORPGs. There is a flourishing real-world market for objects from synthetic worlds. People on eBay are selling gold coins they have earned in World of Warcraft, swords they have made in Everquest, and entire characters they have created in Ultima. Castronova writes, "the commerce flow generated by people buying and selling money and other virtual items amounts to at least $30 million in the U.S. and $100 million globally." In an early paper Castronova demonstrated that by working in Everquest a user could make 300 platinum pieces an hour, which could be sold online to make the equivalent of $3.50 an hour. In 2001, the per capita Gross National Product of just one synthetic world was about the same as Bulgaria's — and four times higher than China's or India's.

Given their popularity and projected growth it is no surprise that advertising and product placement are already commonplace in synthetic worlds. Even the anti-globalization movement has been synthesized into online worlds. Shortly after the WTO riots in Seattle, Rockstar Games and VIS Entertainment released State of Emergency in which players join the "Freedom Movement": a group of masked youth who fight against the "American Trade Organization." The game invites users to, "Kill Corporation forces for Bonus points!" It's hard to get past the irony of a multi-national corporation (Sony owns Rockstar Games) creating a synthetic world dedicated to the destruction of multi-national corporations.

Screenshot from America's Army, 2006.

Giving people the freedom to quickly and easily choose their role in life seems like a vast improvement on World 1.0, but questions remain. For example, what is the effect of the U.S. Army creating the game America's Army? The FAQ section of the game's site does a good job of articulating some of the issues such a game raises: Should children 13+ be exposed to what the Army does? Does this teach young adults how to shoot a weapon? Will a recruiter get my information if I play the game? The potential impact of role-playing may be more starkly revealed in the case of America's Army, but it exists to varying degrees in every synthetic world.

Castronova believes people spend so much time in synthetic worlds because they find them more satisfying than real life. Because they are designed, synthetic worlds have the potential to provide a more egalitarian existence; to more fully engage the human play instinct; and to better facilitate social interaction. Judging by the overhelming success of fantasy games it seems that fidelity to the real world is not essential to creating these conditions. But unlike the island that Thomas More imagined, MMORPGs are not discrete. As their population and economies grow, their influence on the real world will become as significant as the real world's influence on them. For example, what are the political implications of 100 million people choosing to inhabit worlds that are entirely devoid of democracy? Castronova writes, "It's not there. The typical governance model in synthetic worlds consists of isolated moments of oppressive tyrannny embedded in widespread anarchy." As we witness the redesign of the world, don't forget that designers and programmers are the tyrranical oppressers Castronova is referring to. The ultimate impact of synthesizing worlds will have a great deal to do with what is taken from real life and what is left behind.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Technology

Comments [18]

I'm very interested in this book. I have seen, first hand, an MMORPG completely engulf the lives of several (former) friends causing them to loose jobs and become hermits, effectively.

Personally, I think that these games appeal to the kind of people who are missing something in their real lives or are unhappy with who they are. The ability to create a new personality, and actually use this personality to interact with real people, is attractive. When you start gaining respect through this persona, and still are working your crappy real life job, or getting treated poorly by a spouse, it makes sense that this second, successful life is more appealing.

Mr. Siegel,

You are truly brilliant. I salute you.

In the meantime -- here are some games that are a little easier. ( Although, tough on the fingers. )

Joe Moran

Well... To begin with something decent, I liked the part about game designers being tyrranical oppresser and economical and social impact of MMORPGs. But some facts... like Project Entropia being in development and a level 62 druid for sale on eBay adds very little credibility to this "comprehensive study"...
Anton Muraviev

Dmitri, you are as thoughtful and provocative as ever.

One aspect of your piece reminded me of an article by Clive Thompson (it originally appeared on his blog, but is now apparently on Slate) which discusses the diminishing returns to be gained from super-accurate computer graphics. He argues convincingly that the ever-increasing fidelity of computer renderings does nothing to make them more believable, more appealing, or more compelling. He illustrates his point through video games, though I think a similar comparison can be made using animation: were the characters in Toy Story any less emotive than those in The Polar Express? (Quite the contrary, to my mind, but then I also liked Tom & Jerry.)

Also perhaps relevant is an article about Jimmy Wales in this month's Atlantic. Of the many profiles of Wales that I've read, this is the first to point out that Wales, like many students in the late seventies, was an early MUD enthusiast. After a few false starts, is it any wonder that he ultimately created the Wikipedia?
Jonathan Hoefler

The interesting thing about this for me is not that simulations can be so absorbing for so many people, but that 'real life' fails to be so. Why doesn't the world we live in provide enough scope to people - particularly adolescents - for adventure, interaction, engagement, achievement? Perhaps because it feels so much like a fait accompli - a place where others have already decided how things are going to be, and where we seem to be so powerless to challenge or change anything. Is the problem that there is no democracy in the game zone, or that democracy is so impotent in the real world - limited to meaningless, superficial choices between Big Brand A and Big Brand B?

One of the things that most strikes me about gaming is the degree of control that it - appears - to give back to individuals. The gamer can make a difference, can see that difference, can shape their world, in a way that has become almost impossible elsewhere. Numbers are what are important in the modern world - we are significant to politicians and marketeers, and increasingly to NGOs too, only in so much that we make up a tiny part of a gigantic impersonal aggregage. And the media reinforces this sense of the irrelevance of the individual over and over again. 'The Personal is the Political?' Crap. Better 'Gaming is the opiate of the masses', redirecting ambition and enthusiasm and energy from messing up someone else's concession...
James Souttar

An interesting observation on "passive distraction" that seems somewhat related to this discussion topic.

Joe Moran

Not that I'm all for it, but I have a theory that the customized multiplayer experience will become standard web-navigation in the future.
Adam Garcia

I'm surprised that many of the comments above seem to miss an important point of Dmitri's post: that these worlds might be more than an escape from unfulfilling "real lives" — and that they are certainly more than "passive distraction" (as that article reports, active "distractions," like those involving play do not have the same painkilling effect as passive ones. As Dmitri supposes about virtual worlds, "their influence on the real world will become as significant as the real world's influence on them."

I also would argue that, although "hardcore users" may not value the increasing visual fidelity of these worlds, there will surely be a point at which these worlds can be mistaken for reality (not only visually, but by all senses and with better interfaces to interact with the environments) and maybe then (if not before) moral debates will focus on parents' neglect of their digital children as often as their real ones.
Sam Gray

Mr. Gray,

Some other studies suggest the contrary:

University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins, Maryland.

Maybe the studies are still inconclusive.

Joe Moran

im not much of a gamer, especially not of the RPG kind, but what i wonder when will moviegoing be supplanted by gaming and go the way of the novel? Advertising for games has taken on the model of other forms of media, with previews, hyped release dates, billboards, and posters. in previous forms of narrative (plays, novels, movies), viewers identified with the 'hero' and catharsis was a key element in the experience. with gaming, the user is now the hero through his/her avatar. the line between catharsis and primary experience blurs.

comics in the early 20th century often centered around characters with superhuman powers who inhabited fantastical or violent worlds. only now are comics just beginning to leave behind its primary association with superheroes and be taken seriously as a sophisticated narrative vehicle by the general public.

as seen from comments above, a lot of stigma still attached to RPG participants, and a comparison can be drawn between the stigma of reading comic books and that of gaming. will gaming shake this stereotype?


Excellent question Manuel. I should point out that Castronova provides plenty of data to demonstrate that the people playing MMORPGs aren't the socially maladjusted nerds we may imagine them to be. Most importantly, our culturally bound stereotype of the "gamer" probably doesn't describe the millions of users in Asia so well. All of the synthetic worlds with more than a million subscribers are in Asia. Korea has the highest per capita density of users and China already has the highest number of users despite internet penetration of less than 6% of the urban population.
dmitri siegel

Regarding democracy inside games: has anyone tried to make an MMOG of any sort where the users get to determine the structure of the game?

It would be suicide to let everyone edit the code, wiki-style, and it would be too cumbersome to have players vote on every line of code. Perhaps players could elect an individual or group and empower them to implement specified goals such as "we are doing away with ownership and anyone who wants to use X object will have to wait their turn." Maybe the original developers/owners could act in a Supreme Court role and strike down too-radical changes.
daniel erwin

About the graphics issue brought up earlier in this article: When I see an "ad" for a game whether online, at the theatre or on TV, I hate when they show beautiful cut scenes but not gameplay graphics. Typically the two are not even close. The Final Fantasy movie had great graphics and so have other full length movies. Therefore it isn't innovative anymore to have great, movie quality cut scenes and it doesn't score any points unless the gameplay and graphics there have good quality too.

(Im not a really big gamer nor have I tried any MMORPG's just to say)
Stephen Jacobs

re: Daniel Erwin's question, when the multiplayer online game phenomenon was in its 'golden age' of text-based gaming, there were plenty of 'worlds' out there that did just that. Sort of. The original MUSH codebase was designed to allow virtually anyone access to code their own objects, build their own regions, etc. Typically, the economy was based on server processing power. (ie, a simple object, say an apple, that had an extremely complex description and was coded to allow itself to be eaten and offer such and such benefits to the character might cost more in-game than a car that simply moved someone from point A to point B in an austere fashion).

Many (if not most) of those games had players functioning as the in-game government, police, etc., and also gave the players the option of eventually being promoted to god/implementor/whichever status, allowing them to get 'behind-the-scenes' on the actual mechanics of the world.

This is not so easy to do anymore, given the higher-level code and high-level graphics now required for such an environment. The eye candy and automation factors have gone up astronomically since those early text-based games, allowing companies to attract far more people than would be willing to sit and type out their adventures. The cost of this is in a certain level of autonomy for player characters (since not all actions have to be graphically coded in a text game, a character could theoretically do literally anything, whereas now the character is limited to the range of actions allowed by the code), and cost. Most of the text-RPGs were free for anyone with a modem and telnet or similar. Now the developers and publishers need to make the product worthwhile to produce, and turn a profit.

So, really, the MMOGs started out very democratic and populist, much like the internet as a whole: coded by hobbyists and populated by anyone who was interested. Now, like the rest of the internet, they are moving in a new direction: coded by corporations and populated by anyone who can afford their monthly fees.
Scott Pollock

For some reason I always expect designers to take things further than the average person. But neither this entry nor the comments above, nor my experience with other designers both online or in person, suggest that to be the case (though I hope I'm wrong).

There's so much more.

Don't think of these as "games". Think of them as a means of communication and also as a means of production - real world production. Rather than go into details, you're welcome to stop in to read one of my very recent entries, "Shorting the Factory Future", which is, more or less, a response to a recent article in DigitAll Magazine about the future of the factory. There should be sufficient links to help anyone interested in all of this to start to see the full potential of this technology.

btw, Castronova hangs on the Terra Nova blog with a number of other developers. They tend to focus on games, but the discussions are often excellent.

Back in the mid-90s I used to hang around in MOOs like LambdaMOO and MediaMOO, and I used to run one of my own.

These were all about users "creating the rules of the game" (if there was a game - many of them were more like places to hang out and contribute to a community, reflect on the nature of the new medium etc). This was done by learning a simple OO programming language which allowed users to not only create their own objects and environments, but also to add behaviours to them.

I don't agree with the assertions above that just because the presentation has become more complex (realtime 3D graphics, as opposed to text via a telnet interface) means that users couldn't be doing exactly the same stuff, by learning simple built-in programming languages and coding their own objects. Surely current gaming engines don't require the game programmers to code every single nuance of an animation or movement? There must be very powerful engines out there that could have very simple programming interfaces attached to them.

If anything, at the time when 3D graphics were becoming more affordable and more prevalent, among the "text-based VR" community I sensed a disengagement or even disinterest in adding interactive 3D to these kind of environments.

If you love radio, why would you try to make it more like TV?


What's interesting is that these synthetic worlds are slowly becoming sources of income for people. There is a kid in canada who became the first online real estate mogul by buying and selling land in a virtual world called second life. Second life actually has millions of dollars pass through the site every day. Everything is bought including clothing, food, land, buildings and it is all permanent.

What I find even more fascinating is that second life aligned with the "walled city" that William Gibson spoke of in his book idoru which was written sometime in the late 80's

I don't believe Second Life commerce is at millions per day... yet. It's usually somewhere around $350k these days according the stats on the homepage. But what's significant is that this number reflects transactions between residents and does not include transactions involving the developer.

As for "first online real estate mogul", I'd say that title belongs to a German: Anshe Chung. She's been interviewed by a number of business magazines including BusinessWeek and Fortune. What might be of interest is that she has grown her virtual business into a real business. She now has a team of designers who are being hired by real companies to do web design and other kinds of work.

Lastly, I wouldn't compare this to anything Gibson has written. Second Life was inspired by Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash" and that author's concept of an avatar-based metaverse, whereas Gibson's vision of cyberspace (the two terms are distinct) was much less about recreating a familiar world with a semblence to the real world and more about data representation. The look of cyberspace in Longo's "Johnny Mnemonic" is close to what I imagined when I first read Gibson's books back in the 80's. I think we may still see some of that, but it will take some time I believe. That kind of abstract thinking seems to me to be difficult for many of the SL residents I've met.

Thing is, designers should be in the middle of this technology, but I rarely come across other designers in Second Life. And when I mention this to fellow designers, they show little interest. Frankly, it's bewildering.

Jobs | July 22