August 3, 2011

Sword of Taxation, +5

MoneyBlizzard Entertainment, the game company behind hits like Starcraft and World of Warcraft, just announced the details of its (relatively) soon-to-be released game, Diablo III. The original Diablo and Diablo II were big hits, and although D2 came out in the late 1990s, it still sells in numbers high enough to make annual top ten sales lists in 2010. Millions of people still play Diablo II on the "" multiplayer servers, and millions more likely still play in solo mode. It's likely that D3 will be the biggest hit of whatever year it ends up coming out in, simply out of pent-up anticipation. It's no exaggeration to say that tens millions of people will likely play Diablo III on a regular basis.

But the news about the game that has really captured people's attention -- and even New York Times headlines -- is Blizzard's introduction of an in-game player-to-player market for items discovered in the game. Unlike the auction houses and trading systems that have been found in games for years, this one will allow players to buy and sell for real money, not simply imaginary gold pieces or space credits or whatnot. Any player can participate in the auction house, and any player may run across a valuable item in the game (as they are randomly generated).


When you win a prize in a game that has cash value, that prize is taxable at the fair market value, even if you do not sell it. This is true in the United States, and (from my cursory Googling) appears to be true in the UK and India (and likely many other locations). So when you stumble across that Massive Staff of Infection or Red-White-Blue Shield of Copyright Infringement, items that could be sold in the Diablo III Market for $20, $50, or even $100, you're legally supposed to declare those winnings on your taxes. While that might seem like common sense if you sell them and end up with a few hundred dollars in your PayPal account every year, it will likely come as a surprise if you're just playing and avoiding the auction house entirely.

D3 isn't the first game to implement a real-world-sales feature (Project Entropia made noise a few years ago trying to do something similar), but it will be the first one with sales likely amounting to tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. The Internal Revenue Service and Other Appropriate Tax Ministries pay attention to numbers like that.

In everything I've read about D3, I haven't seen any reference to Blizzard even being aware of this problem. And in an era where governments are scrambling to find any income they can, I really doubt that the IRS will ignore this pot of not-so-virtual gold.

February 16, 2011

Speculative Gaming

In the past 24 hours, I've received two different pings from my Respected Elders asking about games as a mechanism for articulating disruptive scenarios. Both inquiries mentioned the wizard-queen of persuasive games, Jane McGonigal, of course. It's kind of odd when someone you know and have worked with hits the bigtime; fortunately, there's no doubt that Jane deserves the attention.

For me, the ultimate "serious game" has long been the fictional WorldRun, from Bruce Sterling's 1988 novel Islands in the Net. A massive, global simulation of the world, WorldRun was described as a way for people to examine different strategies for dealing with complex problems. Any real-world version of WorldRun would suffer from the problem that such a simulation is just too damn complex, unfortunately.

Fate of the World, however, comes closer than anything else so far to an honest-to-goodness world sim. It has quite a bit of what one would want -- global politics, environmental crises, resource limits, technological breakthroughs, biodiversity dilemmas, and more. I'm really excited to try it out -- it's currently in beta, but purchasing it now gives access to the beta versions as well as the final version upon release.

My big question about FotW is whether it's a (for lack of a better term) first-order simulation, where events happen as direct results of the rules embedded in the code, or a second-order sim, where events happen because of the interaction of basic environmental conditions and player actions. First-order sims are straightforward and fairly robust -- the player can't do anything the game doesn't explicitly allow. Second-order sims are much more complex, and as a result can be much more prone to "breaking" by producing nonsensical emergent results -- but also much more open to innovative solutions.

A basic example of a first-order game would be a classic text adventure, where there's usually only one way to achieve a result, even if your character holds multiple objects that would also, in reality, also work. For example, if you had to press a button to open your cell by throwing your shoe to hit it, only your shoe would work -- even if you had a brick, a book, or a frying pan (all typical text adventure supplies).

In a second-order version of the same situation, the game would "know" that shoes, bricks, books, and frying pans were all smaller objects, and that one thing a character could do with a smaller object was throw it. It might also allow you to throw the pillow from the cot in the cell (also a smaller object), but may have basic world rules that say that pillows are "soft" and don't hit hard when thrown. Conversely, it may also know that a brick is "very hard" and could damage what it hits.

Much more complex to program, much more prone to weird outcomes, but much more open to novel strategies (e.g., throwing the pillow over the button, then throwing the brick onto the pillow).

We're still a ways away from being able to build fully second-order global simulations. It's not just going to require a lot more processing power and much more data to pull from, it's going to require much better models of underlying systems, models that can interact without leading to weird emergent results.

The worry I have about this surge of interest in games is that people who aren't familiar with the reality of games and simulations, only the Hollywood-esque version where every computer has a Do-What-I-Mean interface and every simulation perfectly captures reality, are going to expect much more than they get. Disappointment with the mundane limits of real games may mean that interest in games crashes just as quickly as it arose. I hope not, but it's incumbent upon us who do understand what games and sims can and cannot do to make sure we explain this clearly to our new audiences.

October 7, 2008

Superstruct Underway

superstruct_threats.pngThe Superstruct game is now up and running. In less than 24 hours, there are nearly a thousand people signed up, and nearly a hundred proposed "superstructures."

Here's the official announcement:

The Superstruct game is live, and our survival clock is ticking.

Together, we have just six short weeks to prevent the collapse of the human species in the year 2042.

We can survive the Superthreats. If we take it one mission at a time.

YOUR first mission: Register at Complete your personal Survival Profile, and invent your future self. Who will YOU be in 2019?

When you are ready for more missions, read How to Play or watch the How to Play video.

If you register by 11:59 PM Pacific Time on October 7, you will earn a special honor: a gold diamond for your Survival Profile that marks you as a Fast Response player, one of the founding members of the Superstruct community. So join us now and lets start inventing the future!

The Superstruct Creators

My role on the Superstruct site is as the voice of GEAS, the organization behind the extinction report. My first piece just went up this morning, and reflects the changing perceptions of risk:

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle -- a basic concept from quantum physics -- tells us, in effect, that the act of measuring the location and motion of a particle changes those very characteristics.

The same is true with the future.

The very act of publishing the GEAS report changed the future. We tried to account for that, a bit at least, in some of our later simulation runs, but the funny thing was that some of the models had the report bringing about a functional extinction event much sooner than 2042, and some had the report pushing out the survival horizon considerably. In the end, we realized that we needed to learn more about how people would actually respond before we could understand what we ourselves had done.

It's going to be fascinating to watch this thing evolve.

July 8, 2008

Playing the News - A Chat with Asi Burak

playthenews.pngI wrote about the "BoingBoing Censored" game on Play the News last week, and designer Asi Burak left a comment in reply. The ensuing conversation in email brought up some interesting issues, and Asi has generously allowed me to publish his subsequent responses here.

Jamais Cascio: The version that I saw of BBCensored allowed me only to "play" as the editors, and the play amounted to two polling questions: what I think they should do, and what I think they will do.

Asi Burak: Our current template/platform allows us to publish multi-role games (up to six), in this case we chose only one. Obviously, the more roles and actions we design, the longer it takes to compose a specific game. In certain cases we choose not to represent certain roles (for example Violet Blue in this case) as we don't believe they have an impactful action to take in the current situation.

JC: There were no consequences to the questions/options, other than "we'll tell you at some point in the future how right you were or weren't." I was expecting, at the very least, to see some kind of follow-on question arising from the expected results of having taken whichever action. I was hoping, when I saw the format, that what would happen was that answering one stakeholder's questions would change the options available to subsequent stakeholders.

AB: I heard these comments before, especially from game developers. Interestingly, that's our background- our first product PeaceMaker is a complex simulation of the Middle-East. It got significant press as a long-form game around current events with a clear social agenda. In our eyes, PtN is an evolution of that concept: rather than us being the "game gods", deciding what are the winning conditions and assumptions, we wanted to create something that equates more with interactive journalism than with traditional video games. The consequences you are looking for have different forms: the consequences in real-life, your ability to predict reality, your reputation in the community, your voice and participation in meaningful discussion etc. ( Btw- Many times we create a follow-up "turn" after we "close" a certain game and introduce new actions. )

JC: The Play the News network seems pretty diverse, although the difference in scale between the BoingBoing argument and (say) the rigged re-election of Mugabe seems a bit stark.

AB: mmm... not sure why. Right now, PtN is in its infancy and we create a game a day. The idea would be to create 10-20 headline games a day in conjunction with media partners. We are like a newspaper or a TV station. You could find stories about Britney Spears and Zimbabwe in CNN, side by side. I would argue that either story includes moral and social dilemmas worth exploring.

JC: Navigating those social dilemmas can be tricky for a game. Having been writing about the social and political uses of games for about 15 years now, I've learned that the biases built into game structures tend to be overlooked because they're for "play."

AB: Well, this is the core of our modest struggle. We argue a lot against the perception of games (and the people who play them) as a lesser medium, in the sense that they are "just for fun" or cannot convey meaningful messages. You can read more about it in the Guardian interview I gave recently.

JC: I will definitely watch the evolution of this project eagerly.

What was notable to me about the BB Censored game in particular, however, wasn't how detailed it was or wasn't, but how quickly it emerged to cover such a relatively obscure topic. In my work as a futurist, I pay a lot of attention to "weak signals" -- distant early warnings of changes coming. This game struck me as indicative of where things could be heading more broadly in our blended online/offline culture.

AB: Yes, and I read it this way. The reason I emphasized the broader context of PtN is because there is clear tension between what you liked to see (the speed with which we responded to the story or any story for that matter) to what you were missing (more depth and details). Clearly, we are looking to find the balance. But again looking at other media- you cannot expect a new story to be as deep as a magazine article and definitely not a book on the same subject. And if PeaceMaker was a short book, PtN is a newspaper.

July 2, 2008

"BoingBoing Censored" - The Game (!?!)

bbcensored.pngGood googly-moogly. Just as it seemed to be settling down, the Internet drama about Xeni at BoingBoing "unpublishing" (a seemingly Orwellian term that's actually a MovableType command) posts talking about Violet Blue has taken a surreal turn. A site called "Impact Games" has offered up a project called "Play the News," and the latest news game subject is the Blue-BoingBoing-Bust-Up.

[Required disclaimers: I'm friends with everyone involved, and wish to remain so. BoingBoing has a right to do what it wants with its material, but in my opinion this was handled very poorly. Although the site editors argue persuasively that they each have their own interests, Cory's passions about copyright and transparency have come to define the site, and the manner in which the articles were unpublished and -- more importantly -- the removal of comments and questions when the whole thing became known ran counter to that BoingBoing image. However, I don't think any of this was done with malice, and it's clear that People Have Learned A Lesson. Moving on.]

"BoingBoing Censored" is actually pretty minimal -- frankly, it barely qualifies as a game. I find it interesting not because of what it is, but because of what it represents: the relatively fast turnaround of narrative into interaction. This has been, for less than a week, a story that a particular set of online communities followed; suddenly, it's something that people could play, too.

If it's done well, a news game can provide useful insights into the choices and dilemmas involved in the stories. This game is not done well, particularly, but I could easily imagine how a subsequent version might be more compelling. If the site and the games it produces evolve into something more complex, this could be quite big.

We need to remember, though, that games are not neutral. Take language -- by calling this game "BoingBoing Censored," Play the News takes a position on the story. Even a change as bland as (for example) "BoingBoing Edits" has a very different feel. And what's not there can be as important as the elements that are. What choices are you not given? What plays aren't available?

Games aren't objective. They're political, whether or not they're obviously about politics.

I've observed before that games are moving into new narrative and social spaces, and this simply continues that trend. "BoingBoing Censored" is worth noting simply for the speed with which it appeared. But its embrace of a seemingly minor personal and sub-cultural story should make us pay even more attention: what might we be doing with our own online lives that might end up as somebody's news game?

June 24, 2008

Advanced Griefing in the Material World

eve.pngThis happened a couple of years ago, but I was just reminded of it again recently (and it didn't receive the attention it deserves).

The story of the Guiding Hand Social Club and the Valentine Operative offers one scenario of how advanced griefing functions: it zeroes in on trust and community.

EVE Online is one of those lesser-known massively-multiplayer online role-playing games that scurries in the shadow of World of Warcraft. It's a science fiction game, wherein you fly around the galaxy fighting pirates and shipping goods, tricking out your successive generations of starships. The game itself is free, with a 30-day free trial (like nearly all other MMORPGs, ongoing play requires a subscription). The game developers update the universe on a regular basis, and the tens of thousands of players seem to enjoy the game quite a bit. (Incidentally, EVE has an on-staff economist to help them shape the game world, adding to its complexity.)

There's one other bit of information about EVE that's important to know: you can (and probably will) fight other players. It's not a safe universe out there.

The Guiding Hand Social Club (GHSC) is a "corporation" in EVE -- a player organization that, in another game, would be called a "guild." GHSC bills itself as a group of mercenaries, willing and able to go after other corporations, stealing ships and cargo, for a (hefty) fee. In 2004, GHSC was hired (by a still-anonymous client) to attack the corporation Ubiqua Seraph and kill its leader, Mirial. But GHSC took the contract a bit further than expected -- after ten months of infiltration, a galaxy-wide coordinated attack netted billions in in-game money (worth approximately $16,500 in real-world money at the time), stole dozens of ships and other hardware, and destroyed Ubiqua Seraph's "Navy Apocalypse" flagship. GHSC operative Arenis Xemdal pulled the trigger on Mirial, after having risen in Ubiqua Seraph's ranks and reportedly developing a relationship with the target CEO.

"Arenis Xemdal is what we call a Valentine Operative." [GHSC leader] Shogaatsu explains. "Essentially his job is to seduce and entice an objective into a state of trust and confidence. As such, we'd call Mirial's relationship to him moments before the strike... 'endeared'."

The entire story is worth reading, and if you're particularly fascinated, the GHSC announcement of the strike remains on the EVE message boards. All in all, it's a remarkable story of coordinated treachery, malicious intent, and griefing severe enough to drive people out of the game.

But what does this have to do with the real world?

It's tempting to look at the GHSC strike in financial terms, focusing on the loss of money. But to me, the monetary theft aspect was secondary; the real point of the action was to make the target, and her comrades, miserable. In this, GHSC was eminently successful:

They claim this was a "kill contract" to destroy the player Mirial.....

While they did destroy her Navy Apoc and pod her.... they went beyond that.

They stole everything from UQS Billions of isk [the EVE currency] that dozens of players have spent over a year building up.. seriusly [sic] hurting many players feelings and causing emotional stress outside the game... (I'm not gonna die over it... but my mind shouldn't be taken up by game thoughts like this has caused)

Why is this different than past Corp thefts?????


(Emphasis mine.)

People who don't spend time in immersive digital worlds may not realize just how emotionally intense they can be. These are often games, yes, but they are built to enable visceral reactions akin to those arising from real-world experiences: danger, exultation, fear, anger, humiliation and sometimes even "endearment." And the more that 3D immersive worlds blend with the physical world, the more intense these emotional cues will be.

In the comments to yesterday's post, my friend J. Eric Townsend argues that there's little real difference between griefing and "hacking" (in the commonplace sense) -- viruses and malware written not to steal, but simply to be perversely destructive. I see his point. Like most griefers, the "skr1pt k1dd13s" and virus-makers so prominent in the early days of the web had little motivation other than attacking other computer user for the fun of it.

But there is a difference, and it's a big one. While hacking and malware can destroy data and one's sense of security, griefing goes after trust and social cohesion. The teammate who shoots me instead of the opposing team isn't just attacking my datastream, he's attacking me. The prevalence of malware on the Internet seems environmental, like some kind of biohazard -- the origin of a virus or scam may be useful for the digital epidemiologists, but what I care most about is making sure my immunities are up to date. There are no such protections from griefing, because its presence depends on the social behavior we value in the participatory web. You can eliminate griefing by eliminating social interaction; it becomes necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.

And here we have the dilemma of the blended era. The appeal of social technologies, immersive technologies, is their extraordinary capacity to link us together, to build resilient and complex communities out of little more than thought and light. But those same luminous pathways enable malice of startling power. We built the metaverse and social web as ancillary networks, parallel to (but less meaningful than) our physical world communities. That pairing has quickly reversed itself, however, and the digital links have become -- for a rapidly growing number of us -- the primary social bond. But the norms and ethics of online life haven't evolved as rapidly, leaving us in a moment of transition: we are enraptured with the power of connection and painfully surprised by it at the same time.

May 28, 2008


I've long been a fan of the use of games and sims as a way of working through future-facing issues. The big advantage of games as a foresight device is the capacity to fail in interesting ways: you can try out different, even bizarre, strategies for success, and do so without worry of harming yourself or others. It's a form of rehearsal, a way to understand the ways in which the present may be manipulated to create a desirable tomorrow.

Three interesting examples of simulations as rehearsal popped up on my radar recently.


Triplepundit brings word of "Oil ShockWave," an oil crisis simulation coming from the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Based on a project done to educate policymakers, versions of Oil Shockwave have been run at the 2006 World Economic Forum and at the 2007 Aspen Strategy Group conference -- that is, by big-time establishment players.

This version is aimed at college instructors:

In the classroom version of Oil ShockWave, students play the roles of U.S. Cabinet members developing a policy response to a potentially devastating crisis that affects global oil supplies. Situations are presented primarily through pre-produced newscasts, video briefings and insert cards handed to the students during discussion. The exercise vividly illustrates the links between oil, the economy, and national security.

The box set, called Oil ShockWave™ College Curriculum, contains maps, multimedia components, simulated newscasts, a range of background materials, and an instructor's manual.

And by "aimed at," I mean "only available to." Unfortunately, by all appearances, Oil Shockwave is only open to universities. I think Belfer Center is really missing out on a significant opportunity to educate larger communities about the dilemmas associated with resource collapse.


While "Oil Shockwave" is an interactive, immersive simulation, "Immune Attack," from the Federation of American Scientists, is a video game abstraction of how the immune system works. It's aimed at high school students, but is available to Windows users wishing to download the app. Players navigate a nanobot through a patient's bloodstream and connective tissues, trying to re-educate the immune system.

The FAS claims that playing the game increases student understanding of the immune system, but the big risk of this kind of abstraction is that it offers more of a regurgitative than an analytic understanding. Without allowing players to fiddle with the underlying systems, to make unexpected choices and see the results, it wouldn't offer any opportunities for significant insights.


The third game on the list is "Budget Hero," a simulation allowing you -- yes, you -- to adjust the parameters of the US federal spending, looking for ways to balance the budget while boosting your preferred priorities. Marketplace, the daily public radio economics and finance show, developed and sponsors the game.

Unlike some budget sims that give you nearly line-item control over what's in and what's out, Budget Hero limits your options to options that sound like policy proposals -- Cap & Limit Greenhouse Gases, Link Alternative Minimum Tax to Inflation, and so forth. You also start with three budget priority badges, reflecting the positions you take as a leader. As you can see in the screen capture, I chose Energy Independence, Health & Wellness, and "Green" (this will come as a surprise to precisely no readers). Other options include National Security, Economic Stimulus, and Safety Net.

Some policy items are conspicuous in their absence. There's nothing about NASA, for example, nor anything about funding research into specific types of non-fossil fuel energy. And I'm under no illusion that my preferred policies would have a chance of making it through any plausible Congress. Still, it's good to see that being a DFH, policy-wise, can actually be pretty economically responsible.

December 11, 2007

The Metaverse: Your Life, Live and in 3D

grr-scary.pngMy talk at the Stanford Metaverse Meetup on November 27 is now available as a video.

Streaming Flash.

Downloadable Quicktime (warning: big, big file)

The whole thing runs for nearly 90 minutes, including both the talk and the Q&A (there's also a 5 minute intro and another 5 minute commentary towards the end).

One thing that really leaps out at me while watching this: I simply can't stand still. I must have driven the cameraman crazy with my wandering back and forth, and I'd probably be absolutely unable to speak if you tied my hands to my sides. And don't get me started on the weird "jazz hands" moves I apparently can't stop myself from doing.

On the plus side, the sound quality's really good.

November 21, 2007

Metaverse Meetup

I'll be speaking next week at the second "Metaverse Meetup," on the subject of the Metaverse Roadmap Overview.

When: Thursday, November 29th 2007 from 6pm to 7:30pm

Where: Wallenberg Hall, Stanford University (mapped).

The event is free -- come on by and say hi!

(Edit: Date Fixed)

October 11, 2007


simsoc.jpgThe new version of SimCity -- SimCity Societies -- is due out in about a month, and I'm really looking forward to it.

As long-time readers may recall, I've been an advocate of the use of simulation games as a way of experimenting with plans and strategies for quite some time. SimCity is the canonical example of a game that manages to remain fun even while offering surprisingly complex system management choices. Unfortunately, the recent versions of SimCity have added to the complexity and eye candy, but are still just the same underlying game as the one introduced way back in 1989: granular, fiddly, and missing any real underlying model of how society works other than basic supply & demand.

SimCity Societies takes a different path. Rather than worry about building zones and water supplies, the new game gives the player the tools with which to build the kind of society she or he wants: agrarian, totalitarian, creative, and so forth. The challenges that one faces depend on the kind of culture that has emerged:

In addition to building up simolians (the game's currency), each city generates "social energies." These energies come in six forms: Industry, Wealth, Obedience, Knowledge, Creativity and Devotion. Different buildings give off specific energies and citizens adapt according to the city's vibe. By using this design, players can toy with various social experiments that include eco-friendly buildings, whacky Creative cities with gingerbread houses or dystopian police-states. Or players can go for it all and even try for a free-wheeling eclectic society.

As followers of the game industry might already have surmised, this version of SimCity has been crafted by an entirely new team; in fact, given that it was originally going to be called SimCity 5 but had its name changed, at this point I would happily accept that this is essentially "SimSociety," with the SimCity branding there for marketing purposes. I actually find that more appealing than just another SimCity update.

What makes this game idea especially attractive to me, however, is the new emphasis on the impact of energy choices. British Petroleum initially approached EA Games about a specialized version of SimCity that dealt with energy and global warming; rather than undertake a one-off project, EA agreed to partner up with BP to integrate these ideas into SimCity Societies. While this has elements of crass product placement -- all of the gas stations in your city are BP, for example -- it also suggest an intriguing opportunity to look at not just how energy and environment affect economic results, but how they change social behaviors, too.

The big question, then: will SimCity Societies live up to its promise?

June 25, 2007

Metaverse Roadmap Report

Metaverse Roadmap Overview logoAfter months of work, the Metaverse Roadmap Overview is now available for download; get it here as a PDF. Written by Jerry Paffendorf, John Smart and me, the Overview is the end-result of the first Metaverse Roadmap project meeting, in May of 2006. It's not simply a summary of the meeting, however -- rather, it's the first attempt to synthesize current and emerging social, economic and technological trends around virtual worlds, immersive networks, and ubiquitous information.

The Overview looks at four different ways in which the Metaverse can manifest (as first mentioned here in April), but emphasizes that these are four perspectives, not four wholly-different worlds. (Once again, I'll recommend checking out Wade Roush's excellent article "Second Earth" in the July/August issue of Technology Review for further elaboration of these ideas.) This is a very futures-focused work, and tries not to be too blinded by the current state of immersive technologies, nor too influenced by current popular systems. We make a concerted effort to examine a wide variety of implications, and to position the Metaverse technologies in the broader context of human interests:

Our scenarios will be influenced by all of the broader concerns facing the planet. Ethnic strife, political instability and war, energy, water, and other resource issues, trade, globalization, economic growth and poverty, environmental degradation and sustainability initiatives, migration, scientific and engineering advances, education and the media, ancient drives for intimacy, individuation, and spirituality, our emerging digital and participatory culture, unknown surprises and catastrophes, all of these and more will shape the technology development and adoption choices in tomorrow’s Metaverse.

Most importantly for each of us, at this pivotal moment in human history, there are unique opportunities for enlightened corporate, political, and social leadership in Metaverse exploration and development. We propose that the best use of the Metaverse Scenarios and Inputs in this inaugural roadmap is not simply to consider them for near-term economic potential, but to ask how these technologies might help or hinder our ability to manage humanity’s larger concerns, both now and in the future. How might we use the various forms of the Metaverse to guide our response to global warming, and the emergence of “climate neutral” energy and transportation? How might we use these systems to avert a war, improve an election, reduce crime and poverty, or put an end to human rights abuses? How might we use the Metaverse, in the words of Jonas Salk, to become "good ancestors" to our descendants?

But that doesn't mean that it's all hand-waving, big picture meta-theory: there's abundant, detailed consideration of new technological forms and their implications. Various sections examine Relationships and Identity, Information and Education, Transparency and Political Power, Information Shadows, Leadership and Competition, Reputation, Privacy and Control, Integration and Acceptance, and Technological Viability. While detailed and dense, it's also a fairly fun read. The document is heavily-illustrated, with images showing both present-day implementation of these Metaverse tools, and conceptual models of future systems..

I have to say that this document ended up being better than I had expected by late in the creative process. It's rare that multiple authors editing and re-editing each other can come up with something that is neither too bland or too inconsistent. At the same time, this is clearly a first pass, an initial attempt to bring together disparate technological trends and think about the way they intersect.

The goal of the Metaverse Roadmap Overview isn't to predict, but to provoke, and I believe it does so well. I would, of course, greatly appreciate any feedback you wish to offer, either here or added to the Metaverse Roadmap wiki.

May 29, 2007

The Surface of the Metaverse

leeloodallasmultitouch.jpgTonight, Microsoft announced its new "Surface" multi-touch interface and hardware system. Looking for all the world like one of those old Ms. Pac Man video game tables found in older bars and pizza joints, the Surface device combines a high-power Windows computer with a 30" display, set horizontally. Surface is controlled by touching this screen with one or more fingers, manipulating images in a reasonably intuitive manner.

The system bears a remarkable resemblance to the multi-touch display Jeff Han demonstrated at TED in 2006, but it's unclear just how much (if anything) he had to do with the Microsoft product. Surface does include some nifty features that Han's vertical-mounted screens couldn't do, such as recognizing when a digital devices has been put onto the table and reacting accordingly -- downloading pictures from cameras, opening up a jukebox app for a MP3 player, etc.. I was impressed by the gestural controls for these features (such as "tossing" a file towards a device to upload it); a key aspect of a usable kinesthetic interface has to be a subtle sense of physics, so that "objects" (virtual though they may be) have a perceived mass and momentum.

Okay, nifty tech, undoubtedly terrifically expensive for the foreseeable future, but if it's at all functional -- and my guess is that it will be -- it's probably a progenitor of a device we'll have in our homes by the middle of the next decade, and will find in cereal boxes not too much longer after that.

What struck me while watching the demos and reading the breathless write-up in Popular Mechanics (of all places) was that the multi-touch display system is probably the apotheosis of the two-dimensional interface model. It comes the closest to treating virtual objects as having 3D space and weight without compromising the utility of more traditional flat documents and menus. Users aren't limited by a single point of contact with the display (e.g., a mouse pointer), breaking a ironclad law dating from the earliest days of computers. In the end, a mouse pointer and a text insert cursor are making the same claim: here is the sole point of interaction with the machine. Multi-touch interfaces (whether Microsoft's Surface, Apple's iPhone, or whatever) toss aside that fundamental rule.

The appeal of Surface (etc.) for computing tasks, however, will be limited in many commonplace arenas. Multi-touch isn't going to make spreadsheets, blogging or surfing the web any simpler or more powerful. It will have some utility in photo and video editing, although here the question of whether greasy fingers will prove a regular problem rears its head. No, the real market for multi-touch is in the world of the Metaverse, especially in the Augmented Reality and Mirror Worlds versions.

(The final version of the Metaverse Roadmap Overview will finally be out in the next couple of weeks, if not sooner, btw.)

The core logic of both Mirror Worlds and Augmented Reality is the intertwining of physical reality and virtual space, in large measure to take advantage of an information substrate to spatial relationships. This substrate relies heavily upon abundant sensors, mobile devices and a willingness of citizens to tag/annotate/identify their environments. The Augmented Reality form emphasizes the in situ availability of the information substrate, while the Mirror Worlds form emphasizes the analytic and topsight power. In each case, the result is a flow of information about places, people, objects and context, one which relies on both history and dynamic interconnections. This may well be the breakthrough technology that makes it possible to control information flows.

Both of these manifestations of the Metaverse could readily take advantage of an interface system that allowed complex kinetic and gestural controls, with Mirror Worlds working best with a massive table/wall screen, and Augmented Reality working best with a hand-held device -- or maybe just the hand. One of Jeff Han's insights while developing his multi-touch system was that human kinesthetic senses need something to push against to work right. "Tapping" something virtual in mid-air may look cool in the movies, but runs against how our bodies have evolved. Our muscles and minds expect something to be there, offering physical resistance, when we touch something. Rather than digital buttons floating in mid-air (or a total reliance on a so-called "conversational interface"), mobile systems will almost certainly have either a portable tablet or (in my view the eventual winner) a way to use one hand drawing on another to mimic a stylus and tablet. The parallel here is to the touchpad found on most laptops: imagine using similar gestures and motions, but on your other hand instead of on a piece of plastic.

There are some obvious downfalls to this interaction model -- from the aforementioned greasy fingers to the ergonomics of head and arm positions in extended use -- but my guess is that the number of innovative applications of the interface (most of which haven't even been imagined) will outweigh any initial physical clumsiness.

April 15, 2007

Metaverse Roadmap Report

I'm more-or-less done now with my part of the report for the Metaverse Roadmap Project. Jerry Paffendorf and John Smart each wrote parts of the overall document, but my (very large) chunk is the set of scenarios describing four different manifestations of the Metaverse. Here's a taste, from the draft:

The Augmented Reality scenario offers a world in which every item within view has a potential information shadow, a history and presence accessible via standard interfaces. Most items that can change state (be turned on or off, change appearance, etc.) can be controlled via wireless networking, and many objects that today would be "dumb" matter will, in the Augmented Reality scenario, be interactive and controllable. To the generation brought up in an Augmented Reality world, the Metaverse—this ubiquitous cloud of information—is like electricity to children of the 20th century: essentially universal, expected and conspicuous only in its absence.

The four scenarios -- Augmented Reality, Lifelogging (hello, Participatory Panopticon!), Virtual Words, and Mirror World -- all reflect differing levels of emphasis on what I saw as the two primary spectra describing the evolution of this technology: augmentation versus simulation, and intimate technologies versus extimate technologies. Here's how they line up, in a graphic first shown at South by Southwest 07:


Daniel Terdiman, at C|Net, has already seen a rough draft of the document, and reported on it to his readers: "Meet the metaverse, your new digital home" offers a very simple overview of the argument, and gathers some responses from a few folks in the virtual worlds industry.

Terdiman and some of his commentators suggest that the stories in the report are somewhat conservative; my response is that they weren't reading closely enough. These are really quite radical futures, even if they remain grounded in the plausible. I suspect that most of the people who saw that draft of the report come from industries that expect hype, not analysis. Still, I expect that this is going to be the default reaction: the scenarios don't offer up The Matrix, so they're too conservative -- even though, if they had taken that path, the response would have been "this is impossible and/or silly."

A public version of the report should be out Real Soon Now.

March 27, 2007

Rehearsing the Future

stopdisaster.jpgNever underestimate the power of a "do-over."

Video gamers know exactly what I'm talking about: the ability to face a challenge over and over again, in most cases with a "reset" of the environment to the initial conditions of the fight (or trap, or puzzle, etc.). With a consistent situation and setting, the player is able to experiment with different strategies. Typically, the player will find the approach that works, succeed, then move on to the next challenge; occasionally, the player will try different winning strategies in order to find the one with the best results, putting the player in a better position to meet the next obstacle.

Real life, of course, doesn't have do-overs. But one of the fascinating results of the increasing sophistication of virtual world and game environments is their ability to serve as proxies for the real world, allowing users to practice tasks and ideas in a sufficiently realistic setting that the results provide useful real life lessons. This capability is based upon virtual worlds being interactive systems, where one's actions have consequences; these consequences, in turn, require new choices. The utility of the virtual world as a rehearsal system is dependent upon the plausibility of the underlying model of reality, but even simplified systems can elicit new insights.

The classic example of this is Sim City (which I've written about at length before), but with the so-called "serious games" movement, we're seeing the overlap of gaming and rehearsal become increasingly common.

The latest example is particularly interesting to me. The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction group has teamed up with the UK game design studio Playerthree to create the Flash-based "Stop Disasters" game. The goal of the game is to reduce the harmful results of catastrophic natural events -- the disaster that gets stopped isn't the event itself, but its impact on human life.

The game mechanisms are fairly straightforward. The player chooses what kind of disaster is to be faced (earthquake, hurricane, tsunami, wildfire or flood), then has a limited amount of time to prepare for the inevitable. The player can build new buildings, retrofit or demolish old ones, install appropriate defensive infrastructure (such as mangroves along tsunami-prone shorelines or firebreaks around water towers), institute preparedness training, install sirens and evacuation signs, and so forth -- all with a limited budget, and with ancillary goals that must be met for success, such as building schools and hospitals for community development, or bringing in hotels for local economic support.

Once the money is spent (or the time runs out), the preordained disaster strikes, and the player gets to see whether his or her choices were the right ones. At the easy level, there's generally enough money to protect the small map and limited population; at the harder levels, the player must make difficult choices about who and what to save. The overall complexity reminds me of the very first version of Sim City, but don't take that as a criticism: the first Sim City arguably offered the clearest demonstration of urban complexity of the four versions, in large measure because of its spartan interface and simplicity.

Stop Disasters is billed as a children's game, and it's true that the folks at Architecture for Humanity aren't going to use it for planning purposes. That's not the goal, of course. This isn't a rehearsal tool for the people who have to plan for disasters, but for the people who have to live with that planning -- and those people who will choose to help their communities during large-scale emergencies.

I suspect that there would be an audience for a more complex version of Stop Disasters, one which puts more demands on the player to accommodate citizen needs. It's a bit too easy to simply demolish old buildings rather than retrofit them in the UN/ISDR game, for example, and I would love to see more economic tools. I'd also like to see a wider array of disasters, beyond the short, sharp, shock events of quakes and storms. What would a Stop Disaster global warming scenario look like, for example -- not trying to prevent climate change, but to deal with its consequences?

If we really want to get our hands dirty, we'd need to build up Stop Disasters scenarios for the advent of molecular manufacturing, self-aware artificial intelligence, global pandemic, peak oil and asteroid strikes.

Not because such games would tell us what we should do, but because they'd help us see how our choices could play out -- and, more importantly, they'd remind us that our choices matter.

January 15, 2007

Sock Mobs and Sock Bots

Doug Rushkoff has come up with a clever neologism: Sock Mobs. It refer to the gang of bogus names and voices -- usually the work of a single person -- that can swarm the comment sections of blogs and other online communities. The term derives from "sock puppet," a term used to refer to a faux personage used in online debates to back up the arguments of the real person (thereby demonstrating the position to be popular). Rushkoff sees an important political element to this concept, and defines a sock mob as "a faux mob, constructed for no other purpose than net propaganda." As the worlds of blogging and online communities take on greater important in the world of politics, expect to see more of these "sock mobs" showing up.

Moreover, as politics and political figures move into the virtual worlds such as Second Life, we should also expect to see a parallel phenomenon there, taking advantage of the unique characteristics of the space.

Let's call the fake personae that are likely to show up in a virtual world trying to appear as a political mass Sock Bots.

Sock Mobs take advantage of the structure of discussion fora, where entries are shown in a chronological (and typically linear) order -- each new comment follows the last. A sock mobster can log out from one account and log in as another (using whatever spoofing mechanisms needed), over and over again. From the reader's perspective, it's a mass of voices, even if they show up one at a time. But you can't take that approach in a virtual political gathering. Rallies and speeches in virtual worlds would be more akin to a real world event, with each participant in the audience able to express him/her/itself without having to do so one-at-a-time.

In this setting, members of the "mob" need to appear at the same time. If you're a propagandist looking to boost an otherwise unpopular position, you can't count on having a real person behind each virtual figure. Instead, you're going to need to run multiple characters simultaneously. Sounds hard -- but running two and even three characters simultaneously is a regular occurrence in online game worlds such as EverQuest and World of Warcraft. Given the relative lack of fireballs and aggressive dragons in online worlds like Second Life and There, running two, three or even four virtual world figures at the same time would likely be less demanding upon a single person's agility. Get a few people to cooperate in this endeavor, and suddenly you have a dozen or so protesters (quite a large number in the typical virtual world political event).

Once, this would mean having to run two, three or four computers side-by-side; in online games, this was referred to as multi-boxing. The advent of easy-to-run "virtual machine" software, however, makes it possible to run two or more operating systems side-by-side on the same computer, at the same time, limited only by memory and processor speed. In principle, it would be possible to run multiple instances of these virtual world apps on a single computer. Imagine: a whole Second Life protest rally, run off a single laptop. Yet as startling as this may sound, it's still a clumsy first approximation of a real Sock Bot world.

As the scripting and construction tools for these virtual worlds get more powerful, we're likely to see virtual protesters run by real people augmented by mobs of in-game simulations and "bots," made with enough detail in both image and behavior to convincingly appear as a swarm of real players. They may have scripted replies to questions, and would be coded to appear and disappear in the same way that human-operated denizens of the virtual worlds do. It wouldn't be hard to figure out that they were bots if you pay enough attention, but as a mob -- especially if human-operated figures were dispersed throughout -- they'd be rather impressive.

Ultimately, just as rampant sock mob activities can devalue conversation and comments, sock bots will no doubt in time make it harder to engage in political activity in virtual worlds. If a political figure knew that her very appearance in a virtual world setting would trigger the appearance of dozens or even hundreds of marching, chanting protesters -- who look at least as "real" as the human-operated purple monkeys, giant phalluses with hands, flying unicorns and the like that inhabit the virtual environments -- said political figure would likely find little to gain by making that appearance.

At some point in the next five years or so, we'll probably read about a massive demonstration and counter-demonstration happening in a virtual world, with thousands of participants... only to later discover that the entire event was a set of scripts and bots, with no actual humans in attendance beyond the virtual puppeteers.

Welcome to politics in the 21st century.

November 30, 2006

If You're in the SF Area Tonight...

Philip Rosedale, one of the founders of Second Life, will be speaking at the monthly Seminars About Long-term Thinking series run by Long Now. (He's a last-minute replacement for Frank Fukuyama, who apparently nearly reached his own End of History with a motorcycle crash last week.) From the announcement:

Philip Rosedale didn't just create a company with "Second Life," he created a world--- or rather, he set in motion a world to be created by its occupants. (In this he is like other SALT presenters, Jimmy Wales with Wikipedia and Will Wright with "Spore.")

Building a digital world teaches a lot about rethinking and better managing the real world. That's part of the attraction of "Second Life," and of tonight's talk...

"'Second Life:' What Do We Learn If We Digitize EVERYTHING?" Philip Rosedale, Cowell Theater, Fort Mason, San Francisco, 7pm, TONIGHT, November 30. The lecture starts promptly at 7:30pm. Admission is free (a $10 donation is welcome, not required).

The talk will be made available for download in a few weeks (typically), so if you're not in SF, you'll still be able to hear it.

I wonder if he'll talk about CopyBot...

June 6, 2006


mcworldrun.jpgAh, only if this were real...

The International Serious Games Event in Birmingham, UK, was very likely pranked today by an anti-McDonald's activist group claiming to be a division within McDonald's called "McDonald's Interactive." Supposedly a group helping to train executives through business strategy simulation, McDonald's Interactive added modules to improve the realism of various game elements. But when they added a global climate model to the system, something funny kept happening:

The world kept ending.

The announcement of the results -- along with the slide show used at the Serious Games conference [PPT] -- tell a compelling story, one that could almost be true. After all, major corporations do use business "wargame" simulations for training; I know, I've worked on them (and even wrote a non-computer version of one). And the kinds of results that this group supposedly saw by adding the climate model do match up with what I and others have written about time and again at WorldChanging. There was nothing in the setup for the story that seemed too implausible, except for one thing:

The game was far too good.

Broad global simulations are hard to do; so far, there are simply too many factors that have to be included for something like this to work. Narrow, issue-focused simulations are much more viable, and I could totally imagine McDonald's (or any other global corporation) using a market sim as a training tool. When the announcement mentioned crime rates, though, I was dubious; when it claimed changes to global poverty and hunger rates, too, I knew that this was (sadly!) a hoax.

But it's the best kind of hoax: one that is just possible enough to be believable (and apparently the organizers of the Serious Games International conference believed it!). Better still, it's the kind of hoax that will make people say, "well, why not? Why don't we do something like this?" There are many of us out here just waiting for a broad global sim to hit the market -- something akin to the WorldRun game out of Bruce Sterling's Islands in the Net, perhaps.

If we're lucky, this is the kind of hoax that won't just be a hoax for too much longer.

(Update: It looks like famed culture-jammers RTMark may have been responsible for the hoax.)

April 19, 2006

Metaverse Roadmap

mvrlogo.gifI've been fascinated for many years by the emergence of virtual worlds. Their attractiveness is obvious to anyone who has read a work of fiction and imagined themselves in that world, either alongside the heroes or off exploring new spaces. Paper and dice role-playing games (such as D&D or Transhuman Space) offered an approximation of virtual existence, but did so through descriptive language (and, often, little lead wizards, goblins and the like). As personal computers grew to have powerful visual capacities and global network connections, however, the opportunity arose to create immersive alternative worlds that could be experienced by anyone, regardless of imagination.

Today's virtual worlds (whether massively-multiplayer games, like World of Warcraft, or online communities, like Second Life) are sophisticated enough to have developed a variety of emergent behaviors, from unexpected game environment events to nuanced social and economic behavior. Future virtual worlds promise more complex experiences and expressive interfaces -- but what are we going to do with all of that power? Will tomorrow's virtual worlds still be about killing things and taking their stuff?

The Acceleration Studies Foundation wanted to find out, and has set up what promises to be a pretty remarkable event: the Metaverse Roadmap Project. Taking its name from the online world in Neal Stephenson's novel Snowcrash, the Metaverse Roadmap Project will explore the potential development of both virtual world technology and virtual world society over the next ten years. The conference will take place May 5th and 6th -- and I am one of the participants. Other attendees include people like Raph Koster, Edward Castranova and Joi Ito, along with folks from the game industry, academia, and the media. I'm particularly looking forward to seeing my old WorldChanging colleague Ethan Zuckerman at the event.

My own thoughts on where the metaverse is heading are still evolving, but some early indicators of what I'm thinking about can be found in a few of my later posts at WC. In The Open Future: Living in Multiple Worlds, I look at the combination of virtual environments, augmented reality and simulations as decision-support tools for an increasingly complex world. In Making the Virtual Real, Virtual Complimentary Currencies, and The Open Future: Spirits in the Material World, I talk about the potential overlap of virtual environments and material fabrication technologies.

In short, I increasingly see virtual worlds not as alternative environments but as augmentation to our physical existence. We'll soon be living in a "mash-up" of the real world and virtual worlds; arguably, some of us already are. Like so many of the 1990s predictions about the evolution of the Internet, the idea that multi-user environments lead to isolation and detatchment from reality turned out to be 180° wrong.

The risk is that we'll back into this augmentation, and will be stuck with the virtual world equivalent of QWERTY -- technological standards and habituated user behaviors that were once functional, but now serve more as roadblocks to efficient use of new technologies. Incompatible identity rules, interfaces built more for killing dragons than interacting with colleagues, and closed, proprietary systems requiring the reinvention of the wheel over and over again all threaten to lead us to a world of virtual/augmented life that is far clumsier and harder to use than it needs to be.

My goal for the Metaverse Roadmap Project meeting, then, is not to identify the winning technologies and companies for the next ten years, but to identify the kinds of approaches and strategies for building virtual environments that stand the greatest chance of making us all winners.