Worldchanging Weekend Archives

April 9, 2005

WorldChanging Weekend

"If I can't dance, it's not my revolution!" -- Emma Goldman

We're unveiling a new category and theme today: WorldChanging Weekend. Every Saturday, we (along with guest contributors) will be writing about worldchanging and worldchanging-related pieces of global culture: movies, games, books, music and more. We should never lose sight of the idea that changing the world should be fun.

Examples of posts which would fit in with the WorldChanging Weekend theme include my recent pieces on Spore and PSPcasting, Nicole on A Force More Powerful, Cameron's piece on music mash-ups, our ongoing musing about Bollywood, and of course the extended discussion of The Day After Tomorrow.

But we'd like to kick this off by giving you the floor, and asking you what you think are great examples of worldchanging ideas in global pop culture. What games have you played, movies have you seen, books have you read that have inspired you to think differently about the planet and its future? What should more people know about? What would you like to see in a game or movie or book?

Let us know what your worldchanging weekend looks like.

Battlestar Galactica

bsg.jpgIt may be hard to believe that the best science fiction television show of 2005, maybe one of the best shows on television of any genre, is a reinvention of a schlock 1970s Star Wars rip-off, but it's true. The SciFi Channel's new version of "Battlestar Galactica" is quite possibly the most engaging, best-written pieces of science fiction TV since "The Twilight Zone." To make it all the more interesting from a worldchanging perspective, the producers have embraced the potential of the web in almost unprecedented ways.

The new version may be superficially similar to the original -- a struggling remnant of humankind flees the relentless pursuit of the robotic Cylons -- but the differences are significant. The series deals with the political repercussions of a catastrophe, conflicts between military and civilian authority in a seemingly-endless state of emergency, limits on resources, human rights, religious conflict... As with most pieces of good science fiction, it explores what we are going through in the present without ham-fisted allegory.

Don't believe me? The first episode of the recently-concluded first season, "33," is available online for viewing in full, uncut. Check it out for yourself (requires RealPlayer plug-in).

Continue reading "Battlestar Galactica" »

April 16, 2005

Food Force

Can a video game be educational and still be good? The history of educational games is spotty, at best; arguably SimCity comes closest, and there the academic aspects are debatable. Part of the problem is that most games, like other forms of drama, require some kind of conflict or tension, and it's challenging to make drama organic to math quizzes. Situations where the drama is a natural part of the lesson stand a better chance of succeeding as a game.

Because games are active, not passive, forms of entertainment, they have a very real potential for education. You don't just watch people making choices, you make them yourself. That's why we keep returning to the topic of "serious games" like A Force More Powerful, Pax Warrior, and Industrial Waste.

When one hears that the United Nations has produced a video game about food aid, skepticism is a reasonable response. But the reviews of Food Force, the new game produced by the UN World Food Program, have been surprisingly good. Food Force -- which is designed for 8-13 year olds -- puts players in the role of the rookie on a food aid team working in the fictional country of Sheylan. The game has various stages with different kinds of tasks, from action elements like running food convoys over dangerous roads to deliver aid, to simulations like finding, buying and shipping food from around the world. The final mission is a SimCity-like game where food aid is used to help rebuild the nation's economy.

The game is written in Director, and is available for Mac and Windows. As one reviewer noted, this is precisely the game which should be made open source, as the game designers aren't trying to sell it and open source code would make translations into other languages happen faster. The game is big, weighing in at 227MB for the Windows version, 198MB for the Mac, but the site does encourage downloaders to burn copies for others. The download site is occasionally overloaded, so if you want to check the game out, you may need patience.

This game makes me wonder what more complex, less aimed-at-kids, simulation games set in the developing world might look like. What would SimMegacity be like? Or SimLeapfrogNations? Or even SimWorldChanging?

National Budgets On Your Mobile

Speaking of serious games and political simulations, the UK's Liberal Democrats party has made available IraqCost, a Java-based mini-application for mobile phones that allows participants to re-allocate the £5 billion the UK government has so far spent on the Iraq war. Download is free (and even available outside the UK, should one be so inclined); the results of the alternative budget choices can be sent back to the LibDem site.

Simplistic? Sure. Overtly political? Of course -- there's a Parliamentary election going on in the UK right now. But it's also an interesting evolution of the use of mobile phones as a political tool, moving beyond communication and organization into the realm of interactive policy advocacy. It also foreshadows the possibility of doing something like this for real -- sending out the budget to every citizen for allocation decisions. The notion of collaborative budgets has been a staple of science fiction for decades; the reality would undoubtedly be riddled with problems (from the sheer complexity, at the very least). Nonetheless, the idea of being able to tell your government precisely how to spend its money will be compelling to a great number of people.

In the case of the IraqCost site, the budget decisions are completely moot, as they refer to money already spent. But this djinni is out of the bottle: how long will it be before the mobile phone budgets reflect upcoming decisions, and a political party makes a big deal about how "millions of citizens" are "demanding" that the money be allocated -- as determined by a tiny app on their phones?

(Note about the IraqCost website: perhaps reflective of the LibDem's status as the UK's third party, a number of the links appear not to work. They do, but they've been mis-entered. All of the real pages have .HTML suffixes, but some of the links go to .HTM. If you get a "page not found" error, add an "L".)

April 23, 2005


freeciv.jpgOpen source software games are not altogether common. Good game design, like good graphical user interface design, is a lot harder than it may appear; as a result, the majority of open source games that do exist tend to be derivatives or copies of commercial computer games. This is not necessarily a bad thing -- by opening up the source code, developers can experiment with alternative rule sets and graphics, while still giving players a familiar experience. That's why I often lament the lack of openness in simulation games: I want to be able to go in and tweak the underlying assumptions.

FreeCiv is a free/open source software version of the well-regarded "Civilization" computer game series. FreeCiv 2.0 was released this last week, running on Debian Linux, Windows XP, and Mac OSX, with ports coming for a wide array of other platforms. For those familiar with the commercial Civilization games, FreeCiv comes closest to the version of Civ from the late 1990s, Civ II, at least in terms of rules and graphics. It does have an outstanding multiplayer option, however -- unlike the commercial Civ games, FreeCiv was clearly built with a focus on multiplayer gaming.

[Civilization is a game covering no less than the history of human society. Starting as a nomadic tribe, the player starts building cities, researching technologies (starting with "writing" and "bronze-making," working up to "space flight" and "biotechnology"), and exploring the world. As you might expect, for me it's enormously addictive; it's one of those games I refer to as a "3am game" -- I start playing it in the evening, and before I know it, it's three in the morning.]

Surprisingly, the current commercial Civ version, Civilization III, is more readily customizable than FreeCiv. Civ III ships with a map and ruleset editor allowing would-be world-builders to make a substantial number of changes to the game's settings. Some developers have taken advantage of this ability to modify the game in order to come up with enormously more detailed versions of the basic Civ game. Rise and Rule, for example, adds hundreds of new intermediate technologies, culturally-linked units, resources, government types, city elements, and wonders; if you've become tired of the standard Civ III experience, I would encourage you to check it out.

But if you want to make changes to the rules beyond those allowed by the editor, you're out of luck. That's the value of the open source aspect of FreeCiv -- if you're willing to get your hands dirty with coding, you can go in and change any aspect of the game. There's a long list of modification projects. As volunteer efforts, of course, they're updated slowly, occasionally abandoned, and need additional people on the teams. One that I find particularly interesting is the attempt to introduce some of the rules and ideas from Alpha Centauri to the Civ game; AC was one of the better non-Civ world-building games out there, with environmental and diplomatic options I've not seen anywhere else.

Although I remain a big fan of the commercial Civ series, I'll continue to play around with FreeCiv, and keep an eye on the various mod projects. FreeCiv may seem a bit behind the commercial version in terms of look and feel, but it has a much greater potential as a game platform. If a "SimWorldChanging" is ever to get off the ground, FreeCiv would probably be a good base to work from. Although "reinventing the wheel" is something of the point of the Civ game, it's less attractive as a development path.

April 30, 2005

The Catastrophist's Dilemma

boom.jpgThe DVD of The Day After Tomorrow is out and, despite it being neither a terribly edifying spectacle nor subtle work of art, I felt compelled to pick it up. It's the first big climate change disaster movie, but it won't be the last; in it's own way, it's a historical document. When it came out last year, it generated a lot of buzz (something we played a tiny role in helping to create) and even more debate about its scientific veracity. TDAT was not meant as public education, but many (both global warming activists and denialists) thought it should be, and criticized its many scientific flaws.

Having spent a bit of time in the late 1990s working in Hollywood on science fiction television production, I felt some sympathy for both the critics and the filmmakers. I've been in the position of arguing with a director over scientific realism (in my case, he wanted to make the moons of Mars appear as big in the Martian night sky as an Earthly full moon); I've also seen where worrying too much over a scientific detail can get in the way of telling a story (can the super-advanced alien race interbreed with humans? On the surface of course not, but then you start thinking about what super-advanced biotechnology might enable, and how it might work...). This tension is particularly acute when the story being told involves a natural or human-caused disaster: the structure of movies requires that you have a lead heroic character throughout, so disasters that take decades to unfold end up being compressed into a few days or weeks; the limited time of a motion picture and the dictum that you "show, not tell," make complex cause-and-effect confusing at best for viewers, so events with multiple causes and second/third-order, non-obvious effects get turned into simple (if big) explosions; and big budget movie audiences are conditioned to expect a relatively happy conclusion, so the heroic character must be able to eke out a victory, no matter how dire the straits.

If you're a moviemaker, and you want to destroy much of the planet, you'd better make sure that (a) your hero is attractive, (b) the disaster is easy to understand, and (c) your ending is still happy. Now make that scientifically accurate.

Continue reading "The Catastrophist's Dilemma" »

May 7, 2005

New Worlds

ook-destiny.jpgIf something exists only as bits, is it any less a real part of the economy?

It's a less simple question than it may initially appear. Many of the products or services which one might think of as being bits-only can have a usable physical instantiation as well (such as burning a CD of MP3s or printing a web page). That said, most economists and consumers would likely be willing to extend a form of economic and social "reality" to bits-only products such as network software or flash animations.

But what about swords?

Massively-multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) are a huge phenomenon. Millions of people play them, world-wide; I know for a fact that some WorldChanging readers play them, too. And, to a degree which may even surprise veteran players, MMORPGs are crossing over into the real world. Millions of dollars worth of sales of game objects take place every year outside of the games themselves. In-game economics are starting to affect the real world. Could the game identity one creates through words, actions and skills be far behind?

Continue reading "New Worlds" »

May 14, 2005

News Art

10x10.jpgI'm enthralled by the novel uses people make of open Internet data streams.

10x10 takes news feeds from a handful of global sources, calculates which terms get used most frequently, and builds a 10 by 10 grid of images associated with those terms. Clicking an image gets links to connected stories; the pictures and stories are refreshed every hour. 10x10 has built a history of the images, including doing meta-sets of the most important terms & pictures of the week, the month, and the year.

Continue reading "News Art" »

May 21, 2005

Building on the Beeb

backstage.jpgOf all of the various news sources we link to at WorldChanging, undoubtedly the most frequently-linked is the BBC. If you follow the BBC News website, you'll understand -- the coverage breadth is phenomenal, the perspective is global, and the archives are available more-or-less in perpetuity. One could develop a reasonable sense of what the future may hold simply from reading the BBC Technology and Science/Nature sections on a daily basis.

And now, one can develop a whole lot more.

BBC Backstage is a new effort to make visible and available the underlying news feeds and programming interfaces for the BBC website, with the explicit goal of providing them for non-commercial use by the rest of the world. Links for text, radio and video are available; the usage restrictions boil down to (a) you can't resell the content, and (b) you can't remove the BBC branding from it. The slogan for BBC Backstage is "User Our Stuff To Build Your Stuff," and they seem to mean it.

But the BBC Backstage website is more than a simple listing of feeds and APIs. Users are encouraged to submit links to their prototyped work and to offer up ideas for others to work on. It's very much a collaborative atmosphere -- there are already dozens of prototypes and ideas up already, awaiting (and usually receiving) comments and suggestions. Some of them are really useful and interesting; a few good examples are a newsmap of BBC headlines (more detailed than the News Map site we linked to last week), an automated "Podcast" of BBC World News text as synthesized speech, and something called "mint" (mint is not text) -- a tool to download, merge and index video clips from a distributed source for video blogging use.

And, of course, there are RSS feeds for all of the channels: news about Backstage, new ideas, new prototypes, and a combined feed.

Let the news mash-ups begin!

Code Green

Extreme Makeover Home Edition, step aside. Let the Canadians show you how sustainable home design television is really done.

Code Green is a two-part television special, shown on CBC British Columbia this week, in which four sets of homeowners will be given C$15,000...

...and each will then be asked to employ those funds in a 6-week competition to gain the greatest reduction in energy and water consumption, as well as greenhouse gas emissions. All homeowners will benefit from the renovations they’ll complete... and the winner of the competition will further receive the grand prize of a hybrid car [A Honda Civic Hybrid].
C$15,000 (about US$11,850 or €9,400) isn't enough to install a significant solar photovoltaic system (of debatable utility in British Columbia, in any event), let alone to completely rebuild a house to LEED H specs. It is, however, more than sufficient to retrofit many of the home components often most responsible for energy wastage: leaky windows, old furnaces, poor insulation in the walls and attic, door seals, and appliances.

The first episode of Code Green is this Thursday, May 26th; the second is the following week, on June 2nd. If any of our British Columbia readers get a chance to watch this program, we'd greatly appreciate a review. And if someone knows of a BitTorrent of it afterwards...

(Thanks to the pseudonymous "mp" for giving us a heads-up to Code Green in the comments here!)

May 28, 2005

Tough Guide to the Singularity

The Singularity -- the point in the future where machines get smarter than people, after which all bets are off -- is, for some people, a deeply-desired goal, and for others, little more than the "rapture of the nerds (PDF)" (a deliciously pointed phrase thought up by Ken Macleod). For a growing handful of science fiction writers, it's their bread-and-butter. Charlie Stross, WorldChanging ally and science fiction storyteller, tends to fall more in the Macleod-Doctorow school of Singularity Skepticism, but that hasn't stopped him from writing one of the most engaging tales of humankind falling into the Great Technological Unknown I've ever read: the Accelerando series of short stories.

Accelerando is due out soon as a novel (and, as Stross has just revealed, there will be a Creative Commons electronic version). In the run-up to the release, Stross has crafted "Singularity! A Tough Guide to the Rapture of the Nerds," a snark-filled, flippant and altogether terrific mini-wikipedia of Singularitanism. While I'm not quite as dismissive of the Singularity concept as some, I still found myself laughing sufficiently loudly while reading the site that I scared the cat.

A sample definition, one of particular interest to many of our readers:

Bruce Sterling is one of the former cyberpunk ScienceFictionWriters. He is believed to have become one of the first PostHumans some time around 1996. He now writes historical novels and teaches design.If you believe you are living in a universe created by BruceSterling, you are advised to pursue one of the following strategies:
  • cultivate an overwhelming, dry sense of ironic detachment
  • flee screaming

As some of you will recall, I've done a bit of role-playing game design in the recent past, so I was particularly tickled to find that a number of entries (for BushRobots, GreyGoo, and UtilityFog) are written up as old-style Monster Manual pages. (Which led me in turn to a particularly pleasing discovery: Charlie Stross invented the Githyanki. About 3 of you will know what I'm referring to, but those 3 should be rather amused to learn this.)

The only real disappointment about this Tough Guide is that the funky javascript engine used to display the text makes linking to individual entries sufficiently difficult that I never found a way to do so. Still, whether the Singularity will leave you Transcendent or PostHumous, Charlie's Tough Guide is a fun way to spend a weekend afternoon.

June 18, 2005

Games As Political Lessons

Sept12sm.jpgPolitical games have a long history in the computer game world, but rarely a good one. Politics are hard to model well, and it's all too easy for a game designer to let biases overtake simulation. When this happens, it's nearly always to the game's detriment as both lesson and enjoyment. But even those failures can show us how a more compelling version might look; when the good ones do show up, they can be amazingly powerful tools for provocation.

You can't talk about political computer games without giving a tip of the hat to Balance of Power, by Chris Crawford. Probably one of the best political simulations around, it allowed the player to assume the role of leader of either the US or the USSR, and to navigate crises without unleashing nuclear war. Over 250,000 copies sold, a remarkable number considering the era. The original, from 1985, focuses entirely on the bipolar conflict; the "1990" update, from 1988, adds multipolar complexity and more nuance. Crawford, who continues to write and speak about computers and interactivity, has since put the Macintosh version of Balance of Power II on his website, along with a few of his less-successful games (the ecological sim Balance of the Planet and the economics sim Guns and Butter).

Continue reading "Games As Political Lessons" »

"The Deal" -- A Peak Oil "Day After Tomorrow"?

TheDeal.jpgLast summer, The Day After Tomorrow added some momentum to a growing conversation about the effects of global warming. While the science of the movie was, at best, murky, many of its themes (of human-caused climate disasters, the intransigence of politicians, and the heroic role of scientists) were sufficiently on-target that quite a few environmentally-focused websites and organizations used the film as a way to spread their own messages. At the time, we suggested that The Day After Tomorrow might be the first of a trend of movies with an environmental edge.

The Deal may be the next in that trend. The movie is set a few years in the future, with the US at war with the Confederation of Arab States, gasoline in hitting $6/gallon and the economy on the verge of collapse. Reviewers call it dark, dense and cynical; it's not as sprawling nor as effects-laden as The Day After Tomorrow, but in its own way, it's also a movie about the end of the world.

Continue reading ""The Deal" -- A Peak Oil "Day After Tomorrow"?" »

GaiaSelene -- Space Opera Documentary

gaiaselene.jpgGaiaSelene is ostensibly a documentary. Interviews with scientists, engineers and futurists spell out in detail a plan to solve the environmental and energy problems the Earth's citizens have gotten themselves into. But the subtitle of GaiaSelene is "Saving the Earth by Colonizing the Moon," and that sums up this movie quite well. GaiaSelene explains that building a series of lunar bases would result in the ability to provide nearly-limitless energy to Earth through mining Helium-3 (an isotope of Helium much more readily usable for nuclear fusion) and by collecting solar power and beaming it to earth via microwave.

That neither of these technologies is quite ready yet is hand-waved away; speakers in the preview (streaming QuickTime) assert that we can do this today, if we just had the will. Dismissed with equal ease is any notion that there might be other solutions. For the GaiaSelene folks, this is our only choice.

Continue reading "GaiaSelene -- Space Opera Documentary" »

July 2, 2005

Imagining Tomorrow

ffwd.jpgBack when I was doing business consulting, one of the regular treats for me -- and, as far as I could tell, for the clients -- were the projects that gave me a chance to create artifacts from the future, such as advertisements, magazine articles, video news segments, and illustrations. When done right, they would elicit in the viewer a kind of cognitive displacement, a mild confusion as to whether what they were seeing was real. When a client would casually refer to one of the artifacts in the course of a conversation as if it was, in fact, an ad they had just seen or an news article they had just read, I knew I had succeeded.

Image manipulation applications like Photoshop are great enablers of this sort of visualization of tomorrow. A tweak here, a cut & paste there, and suddenly you have an image that is simultaneously not quite right and entirely plausible. What's particularly enjoyable about this method is that anyone can do it. And now, Antwerp-based design group Pantopicon is providing an audience. Their "FFWD>>" competition presents a series of themes, and asks for images set in 2005 and 2025 as illustration. Five themes have been presented so far (the image above is from "Transport"); the next is "Safety," and images must be submitted by July 15 for consideration. Rules can be found here.

If you decide to submit photos, do let us know.

A bit more tongue-in-cheek -- but no less delightful -- is the 2056 issue of humor website The Onion -- billed this time around as "'s Finest News Source." The headlines range from the sublime to the silly (and at least one is probably not safe for most workplaces), but many have just the right balance of surreality and plausibility I so admire.

Remainder of Ross Ice Shelf Now in Smithsonian Freezer
DC—The 25-meter-long remains of the Ross Ice Shelf, the floating Antarctic ice sheet that was once the size of France, will be displayed in the Smithsonian Institution's basement freezer through August. "We thank the generous citizens of Philadelphia, who donated this polar-cap remnant when it washed up on their shores earlier this year," curator Tim Riley said. "The ice sheet is a valuable artifact of the earth's geological past." Guests at an upcoming fundraising dinner will be served cocktails made with chunks of the shelf.

It's the little details that make this issue stand out: the alert notifying you that your browser doesn't support "ambient alpha-wave memestreams;" the offer to customize the site with a "less accurate but more reassuring version;" even the languages listed in the drop-down menu at the top.

This may not be the future we want, but if it's the one we get, at least we'll be laughing through the tears.

July 9, 2005

Globalization in the Virtual World

lineageII.jpgChinese farmers may be on the cutting-edge of the global economy. But not the Chinese farmers you're probably imagining -- rural agriculturalists in the Middle Kingdom. The Chinese farmers I'm talking about sit in front of computer screens for hours on end, killing video game monsters online, over and over again.

In early May, I wrote about the growth of massively-multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) and the real-world market that has arisen for virtual-world goods. People looking for an advantage (or simply pressed for time, and wishing to keep up with peers) will pay surprisingly large amounts of actual money for bits of virtual currency or rare items. And although nearly every MMORPG prohibits such sales, auctions of virtual gear can amount to millions of dollars every year.

Within the games, the act of repeating an action over and over again in order to accumulate the resulting treasure is known semi-derisively as "farming." Each monster killed or treasure chest opened may have a random assortment of loot, but, over time, the rewards are consistent; it's not unusual for players to spend an evening or two every week engaging in "farming" in order to build up sufficient gold to buy rare goods in-game.

Unsurprisingly, game worlds are therefore often home to "players" who game as a job, accumulating online goods to turn into real cash. But some have decided to outsource the efforts, hiring rotating shifts of players in places with cheap labor and decent Internet connections, simply to farm online games. The employees of these "cyber sweatshops" are paid minimal amounts to push a small assortment of buttons over and over (as the tasks most farming entails are extremely repetitive, they're easy to automate, drastically reducing the need for skilled control). For a variety of reasons, many of these companies seem to be in China, and "Chinese farmer" has become a typical in-game reference to those so employed.

Continue reading "Globalization in the Virtual World" »

July 16, 2005

Simulating Culture and the Ethics of the Off Switch

newties.jpgA consortium of European computer scientists are working on a project called NEW TIES -- New and Emergent World models Through Individual, Evolutionary and Social learning. Its goal is nothing less than to evolve an entirely new culture through the use of computer "agents" cooperating, competing and reproducing with each other in a vast simulated environment. My question is, have they thought through the implications?

The NEW TIES project appears on the surface to be a slightly less-colorful but more sophisticated version of The Sims (even though, as it turns out, the underlying display engine is actually from the first-person-shooter game Counter Strike). Like The Sims, the various simulated people will have needs (such as food and sex) and capabilities (such as tool use and communication); the difference, however, is that the NEW TIES agents have the ability to learn, and to pass on their learning to subsequent generations.

New Scientist sums the project up nicely:

Each agent will be capable of various simple tasks, like moving around and building simple structures, but will also have the ability to communicate and cooperate with its cohabitants. Though simple interaction, the researchers hope to watch these characters create their very own society from scratch.

Continue reading "Simulating Culture and the Ethics of the Off Switch" »

July 30, 2005

Ludology, Narratology, and Simulations as Paradigm

paranoia.jpgI trust that's a sufficiently academic-sounding title.

There's a surprising abundance of theory connected to game design. Since games generally combine both a regular system of event resolution and a progression of events leading towards a goal, academics focusing on both games as systems -- "ludology" -- and academics focusing on games as stories -- "narratology" -- can have a field day. As in any arena where there are multiple competing perspectives on how to understand a process, there is an ongoing tension between ludologists and narratologists. What stands out for me, however, is the degree to which both camps miss a third model for understanding games: games as ways of understanding the world, or (my coinage) paradigmology.

Greg Costikyan is generally considered one of the best game designers in the business. His Paranoia series of role-playing games are, in a word, brilliant, pulling together twisted pop culture references, obsidian-dark humor, and a play style that encourages -- even demands -- both suicidal decisions and relentless back-stabbing. Costikyan writes the Games*Design*Art*Culture weblog, which combines lengthy dissertations on the nature of game design with pithy comments on the game industry.

Last month, Costikyan provided an overview of the "Narratology/Ludology War," complete with links to key figures on both sides of the debate and his own perspective on the question. If you've never considered how academics might grapple with games, the piece will be eye-opening; if you have your own pet theories about gaming, the essay will likely provide evidence both challenging and supporting them.

Continue reading "Ludology, Narratology, and Simulations as Paradigm" »

August 13, 2005

Getting Over Frankenstein

Chris Mooney, Washington Correspondent for Seed magazine, has an excellent article up at The American Prospect entitled "The Monster That Wouldn’t Die," about Hollywood's continued use (and abuse) of the Frankenstein story. Citing a number of current Hollywood science fiction adventures, Mooney argues that the story they tell over and over -- that there things Man was not Meant To Know and that the worst sin of all is playing god -- in the end leave us culturally ill-suited to think about the implications, both positive and negative, of emerging technologies.

I'm extremely uncomfortable with the way in which the weapon of the Frankenstein myth is repeatedly used as a club against modern-day medical researchers, who are seeking to cure people, not to become God. The "forbidden knowledge" aspect of the myth is also troubling. Last I checked, knowledge is a good thing, even if many kinds of knowledge can also be abused. Finally, the concept of the "unnatural" is a disturbingly arbitrary criterion to use in ruling out certain kinds of behavior or technologies. Let us not forget that interracial marriage and homosexuality have also been labeled "unnatural."

The broader point is that simply saying "no" doesn't qualify as wisdom, unless you're also capable of explaining why.

Although I'm sure that a number of WC readers will disagree with his argument, I encourage you to give this a read and to reflect upon the myths we tell ourselves about science, knowledge and the future.

Lessons of Ourmedia

Ourmedia is a project allowing any person with net access to publish their text, image, audio and/or video files for public consumption, for free, with the promise of permanent web presence as long as the host, the Internet Archive, exists. (Dina mentioned Ourmedia in her survey of worldchanging social tools in April, and guest author Kenyatta Cheese mentioned Ourmedia in his coverage of "citizen television" in June.) Although blog hosting sites and other web providers can allow the publication of one's own media creations, restrictions on content, file size or type, and questions of the long-term viability of any given provider weaken the potential power of true collaborative popular creativity. By promising permanent free hosting and almost no restrictions on media, Ourmedia has the potential to become the cornerstone of an alternative media system. It's also suggestive of where activism may go in the months and years to come.

Ourmedia's goal is to expose, advance and preserve digital creativity at the grassroots level. The site serves as a central gathering spot where professionals and amateurs come together to share works, offer tips and tutorials, and interact in a combination community space and virtual library that will preserve these works for future generations. We want to enable people anywhere in the world to tap into this rich repository of media and create image albums, movie and music jukeboxes and more.

Continue reading "Lessons of Ourmedia" »

August 20, 2005

Quake III, Now With GPL Goodness

The Quake III Arena "engine" has been released as GPL free software code, continuing id Software's tradition of releasing their older software to the public for free (as in libre) use. Why is this interesting? Because what they're doing isn't giving away an old game that nobody would buy, they're giving away a toolkit for virtual environments that is much more sophisticated than casual observers might expect.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the genre, Quake III Arena is the third iteration of the "Quake" series of first-person shooter computer games. The "Arena" aspect means multiplayer capacity is built-in; with very little difficulty, a dozen or so friends can connect over a network and play against each other. By releasing the source code under the GNU General Public License, Id Software isn't making the game itself free to download -- the various textures and maps and sounds remain proprietary. All that has been released is the "engine:" the core software that controls things like the physics model, the interaction between objects, player motion, networking, communication between players, and so forth.

What this means is that developers can use the Quake III Arena engine along with their own graphics and maps to create their own virtual worlds.

Continue reading "Quake III, Now With GPL Goodness" »

September 3, 2005

Political Games, Walking A Fine Line

simbabwe.jpgAt what point does satire become cynicism?

The line between them can be extremely fine, one very dependent upon perspective. But it's an important distinction to make, because one point of satire is to reveal the deceptions at work in public performances (whether they be for entertainment or politics); done correctly, satire makes it much harder to accept these continued deceptions. The revelations of satire make us laugh and hurt at the same time. Cynicism, conversely, often takes the deceptions as a given, and admits their existence while denying that we have any choice in the matter. The revelations of cynicism at best make us seek to escape, at worst make us look for ways to get into the game.

Simbabwe, a computer game put together by The Daily Grind (MacOS X only), walks that fine line between grim satire and cynicism; those of you who get a chance to play it can tell us in the comments on which side you feel it falls. After running through a full game, I'm tending towards grim satire, but am willing to entertain counter-arguments.

Continue reading "Political Games, Walking A Fine Line" »

September 10, 2005

Elevator Going Up!

kbvator.jpgAn Earth-to-orbit elevator (sometimes called a "Beanstalk," a "space bridge," or an "orbital tether") is one of those ideas that, at first blush, sounds almost too ludicrous to be real. After all, we're accustomed to thinking of rockets as our only way into space, mixing danger and adventure; taking an elevator into space sounds almost boring. It turns out, however, that a space elevator is not only plausible, it's potentially revolutionary. Perhaps more importantly, given all that has happened in recent days and weeks, the notion of a space elevator can provide a bit of almost giggly optimism about the future.

The present might look grim, but within 20-30 years, we'll be taking an elevator to orbit!

We've talked about elevators numerous times in the past, but one aspect that we haven't really addressed is appearance. For many of us, it's a bit difficult to imagine what a 60,000 mile long elevator cable would look like. Fortunately, WorldChanging ally Kenn Brown, of Vancouver's Mondolithic Studios, has given us a hand. Kenn has crafted detailed illustrations of the two types of space elevators described by futurists: the Tower and the Ribbon. Read on for the details -- and follow the links to enjoy Kenn Brown's terrific works of art.

Continue reading "Elevator Going Up!" »

September 24, 2005

Virtual Plague

corruptedblood.jpgWorld of Warcraft is the most popular massively-multiplayer online game in the US and Europe, and is rising quickly in Asia. We've mentioned WoW (as it's usually called) before, and I play occasionally. It's by no means the most advanced game in terms of graphics or underlying technology, but the designers have done a good job of building something that's both easy and fun to play. But they've managed something else, something less expected: emergent phenomena.

A recent patch added a new region to the world of Azeroth, a region where players must fight the troll god of blood, Hakkar. One of the effects in the fight is a "disease" that does persistent damage and -- more importantly -- can be passed from an "infected" player to any other nearby characters. It was a nasty but seemingly straightforward effect. But then things got weird:

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October 8, 2005

Salsa de Arabia

diabian.jpgSome of the most popular music from North Africa to Indonesia bears a striking resemblance to the songs found in Latin dance clubs around the world. Artists such as Amr Diab have popularized a style of music that mixes Middle Eastern harmonies and structure with Latin American rhythms and melodies -- and have become best-selling performers world-wide. This musical movement is a welcome demonstration that globalization can mean more than global markets for Mickey Mouse and Michael Jordan -- sometimes, it can mean connections and art that bypass the West entirely.

Egypt's Amr Diab isn't the only Arab-language musician mixing Latin and Middle Eastern styles, but he's certainly among the most popular -- he even has tribute bands performing in Japan. His 1996 song Nur El Ayn (Real Media) can still be heard in dance clubs world-wide. The song's worth giving a listen, as it is an excellent example of how well the two styles can mash together. Other popular Amr Diab songs include Amarain, Tamally Ma'ak, and Ana Ayesh (all Real Media).

Continue reading "Salsa de Arabia" »

Playing Games with the Climate

keepcoollogo.jpg"Shall We Play A Game?" -- WOPR, War Games (1983)

I have a particular affection for games that allow one to contemplate the end of the world. It's not quite terriblisma, as I don't get a particular thrill out of losing; it's more of a sense that, with the right combination of risk, foresight and luck, the worst outcomes can be avoided. The tougher the challenge, the more satisfying the success.

However, games simulating the possibility of global thermonuclear war are a bit passé now; instead, what we're starting to see is the emergence of games simulating the competition between nations in the era of global warming. It has the right underlying mechanism to keep it a "game": players seek to maximize their own situation without tipping the board into an "everyone loses" ending. Such games can be quite fun -- but as we've found before, the assumptions built into the rules are even more important to understand than the rules themselves.

Political and environmental games are not new, but few have focused specifically on climate issues while still remaining more a game than a pedagogical exercise. This is changing, now that the European Climate Forum -- with support from re-insurance giant Munich Re -- has sponsored the development of several climate games:

Continue reading "Playing Games with the Climate" »

October 29, 2005

Stanford on iTunes

stanforditunes.jpgThis one's an early indicator of something, but I'm still not quite certain what. Stanford University has begun to make recordings of select lectures, speeches, interviews and events available on the iTunes Music Store, for free. The material currently available includes a number of WorldChanging-related topics: talks by Lawrence Lessig, Geoff Davis on Microfinance, Paul Erlich on Population and Sustainability, and over 50 presentations on Health and Medicine. A restricted access section provides course-related materials for students and instructors, as well.

You'll notice that I haven't linked to any of the recordings. That's because they're only available through iTunes Music Store, which is accessed through (and therefore requires one to have) the iTunes application. This means that people on older machines, or non-Windows/Macintosh computers, are out of luck. The files are in the non-protected AAC format (.m4a), so more recent non-iPod players should be able to play them. (Adding to the complexity, the Stanford iTunes part of the ITMS is only accessible via the Stanford iTunes webpage -- you can't get to it by navigating through the iTunes application.)

Continue reading "Stanford on iTunes" »

November 5, 2005

Serious Games: Go Do Something Cool

foodforcehelicopter.jpgThe Serious Games Summit took place this last week, and by all reports, it was a worthwhile event (one I'm sorry that I missed!). We talk with some regularity about the use of games for educational and "non-entertainment" purposes, and the Serious Games Summit covered the issue in some depth. (Previous "serious games" we've looked at include A Force More Powerful, climate games, Food Force and -- of course -- SimCity.)

Ian Boqost at Water Cooler Games was one of the presenters at the Serious Games Summit, and blogged both days of the event (Day 1, Day 2). The Washington Post had a detailed story about the event, as well, one that gives a good introduction to the concept of non-entertainment games. The article also tells a story about the utility of games as a training tool:

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November 12, 2005

Mars Simulation Project

marssimproj.jpgOnce we go to Mars, we'll probably stay. Setting up a permanent scientific station, as we've done in Antarctica, might not cost much more than a short visit, since getting there is arguably the biggest expense. An outpost would surely give us enormous scientific benefits, and would point us towards the day that human civilization isn't limited to a single, fragile world. But just how hard would it be to get a Mars habitat up and running -- and keep it alive?

One way to find out is Scott Davis' Mars Simulation Project, an effort to simulate management of human settlements on Mars, from tiny outposts to sprawling communities. Begun in 1998 and still under active development (the most recent version, 2.78, came out in late October of this year), the Mars Simulation Project is a dynamic and complex application, with a wealth of details including statistics on the health and condition of every single colonist -- sort of The Sims Go To Mars -- and myriad station components, exploration tools, and even disasters. The graphics aren't very pretty, more spreadsheet than 3D game, but it's hard to imagine a richer simulation.

Built in Java, the Mars Simulation Project runs on nearly every operating system, and the configuration files are easy to modify. Best of all: it's open source, so if you want to add your own ideas to the model, you can. We may mourn the loss of the Maxis SimMars game and NASA's "Mars: The Journey Begins," but the Mars Simulation Project looks to be a more than worthy alternative.

November 19, 2005

Edison's Conquest of Mars

edisonmars_sm.gifGiven the relative success of the recent War of the Worlds movie, based on H. G. Wells' 1897 novel, I wonder if anyone will make a movie version of the book's sequel from the next year, Edison's Conquest of Mars.

You probably haven't heard of Edison's Conquest of Mars,probably because it wasn't actually written by H. G. Wells, but by Garrett P. Serviss, an astronomer and journalist. Hired by newspaper publisher Arthur Brisbane to come up with a serialized sequel to Wells' popular story, Serviss came up with a story that set the tone of science fiction for decades to come. Edison's Conquest of Mars contains the first known literary depiction of a ray gun and of a space battle, and managed to mix depictions of known science (such as the effects of zero gravity) with a reasonable adventure story. More importantly, Edison's Conquest of Mars is one of the earliest examples of a political debate carried out in the pages of speculative fiction.

(A book version of Edison's Conquest can be purchased here, but scans of the original serial, and its art, can be found here -- warning, the images are large, and download very slowly.)

Bruce Franklin, in War Stars, cites Edison's Conquest as a pro-Imperialism story meant to generate support for the Spanish-American War, and to counter the anti-Imperialism of Wells' War of the Worlds, and it's easy to see why. As the story's title suggests, the lead character taking the fight back to Mars was none other than Thomas Alva Edison, who invents most of the devices used by Earth to defeat the Martians. He's accompanied by Lord Kelvin, who plays Spock to Edison's Kirk, giving scientific explanations but steering clear of combat. Unsurprisingly, the story includes stoic soldiers (fresh from wars of conquest on Earth) and women in distress, held hostage by the savage Martians. And, of course, the Earthlings win, killing off the Martians in an act of genocide and annexing Mars for colonization.

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December 10, 2005

Farmer's Market

ookifshot.jpgLast July, I wrote about the phenomenon of "Chinese farmers" -- people (almost always in China) employed to play online games such as World of Warcraft, collecting virtual money and valuable items for resale in real-world exchanges. This practice is said to be a multi-million dollar industry, despite being against the rules of most online games. Now the New York Times has caught wind of the story, and takes us behind the scenes of one of these "virtual sweatshops."

The article provides some interesting depth to the story, such as the observation that there may be more than 100,000 people now employed as "farmers" in China, and some example prices for goods and services (although it should be noted that the "100 grams of gold" claim is factually incorrect, as the game in question tallies gold in coins, not by weight). The accompanying multimedia presentation is worth a listen, as well.

This could well be the globalized industry to watch as a metric for the degree of development of a nation. Online role-playing games are extraordinarily popular. World of Warcraft is said to have over 4 million players, while the Lineage series may have far more than that, almost entirely in Korea, Japan and China. The buyers of these virtual goods and gold are people who have more money than time; right now, the buyers are largely in the US, Europe, Japan and increasingly in Korea. But as Internet access continues to spread, and places like China continue to grow economically, we will almost certainly see the locations of buyers and sellers change.

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December 17, 2005

The French Democracy

frenchdemocracy.jpgMachinima attempts to turn one medium -- video games -- into another -- cinema. Many video games can be recorded, so that players can review their own adventures, or pass them along to friends; combine edited versions of these game recordings with amusing voice-overs or music, and you have a simple digital movie. By and large, machinima movies are done for humor or to tell action stories closely related to the game source material, and appealed primarily to people who were familiar with the games in question.

But machinima may finally have had its breakout moment with a fascinating short film called "The French Democracy." Using a game called "The Movies," French machinima-maker Koulamata tells the story of three young men in Paris who end up taking part in the recent riots. All three suffer different kinds of indignities at the hands of French society, triggering their decisions to fight back; the movie is very clearly on the side of the rioters. Whether or not one accepts the political perspective of Koulamata, he has done something truly remarkable: he has taken computer game characters and told a story with clear social relevance, demonstrating that machinima has the potential to be much more than a medium for dancing orcs and artistically-exploding jeeps.

Continue reading "The French Democracy" »

Public Health Games

publichealthgame.jpgThe University of Illinois-Chicago Center for the Advancement of Distance Education (CADE) is a program at the university's Department of Public Health, attempting to come up with innovative ways to provide healthcare education to providers, first responders and other officials. They use online training, multimedia, websites and the like, but also employ a growing number of simulations and games. Some of these may be found at

The two simulations at the website now available for inspection -- "Bioterrorisk" and "Envirorisk" -- are fairly simple interactive exercises, barely "games" in the conventional sense. But CADE is now working with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on a larger-scale simulation of healthcare responses to disaster. The first version will focus on bioterror, but future modules will include pandemics and nuclear accidents. Wired has a short piece on the simulation, and screenshots can be found at PublicHealthGames. PublicHealthGames is a classic example of the "Serious Games" model, and the CADE team presented at last month's Serious Games Summit (unfortunately, the presentation is not currently available on the website).

This public health sim is a direct result of the poor response to hurricane Katrina, which demonstrated that the emergency responders were not adequately trained to handle a massive system disruption. The goal of the disaster sim (which does not yet have an official name) is to educate healthcare providers about how conditions change in disaster-scale events by placing them in simulated circumstances akin to what they'd experience in reality. Simulations and drills are common tools for emergency preparedness, but the expense and time demands of traditional live-actor simulations limit their availability.

January 7, 2006

Massive Calculator of Accounting, +5

goldcoins.jpgCould you imagine receiving an itemized tax bill every month along with your subscription to an online role-playing game? That's a far more likely scenario than you might think -- and it's another manifestation of the growing convergence of the "real" and the virtual worlds.

Writer Julian Dibbell has long studied the sociology of online interactive behavior, and he (along with many other researchers) is fascinated by the economic aspects of the "massively multiplayer" games. Given that the virtual currencies (such as gold pieces used in World of Warcraft) have real, if unofficial, dollar values, Dibbell began to wonder: would the transactions using these virtual currencies be subject to American tax law?

The concept of taxing virtual currencies is not without precedent.

Continue reading "Massive Calculator of Accounting, +5" »

January 14, 2006

Moore's Wall

wall.jpgRaph Koster is something of a controversial figure in the world of online games. Having worked on such games as Ultima Online and Star Wars: Galaxies, Koster wrote a book entitled A Theory of Fun for Game Design -- a book which some critics claimed described game concepts that few would actually call fun. But even his critics concede that Koster often has profound insights, and remains one of the most thought-provoking figures in the world of game design.

Koster spoke recently to an IBM conference about the co-evolution of games and technology, and he chose to address a seemingly odd topic: why Moore's Law has been bad for games. He calls it Moore's Wall.

The first thing to realize is that game play elements have not really become more complex. And by that I mean, the game play that was involved in the games in the early 90s, and the game play that’s involved today, midway through the following decade – they bear substantial similarities to one another. If you look at many of the top-selling genres, you can literally take a game from ten years ago, and set it down in front of someone, and they won’t need to read the manual. You can take one of the latest first-person shooters, send it back in time, and the players of those days would probably be able to understand what to do, even though their computers probably wouldn’t be able to run the game.

Continue reading "Moore's Wall" »

January 21, 2006

Virtual Complementary Currencies

SLmoney.jpgThe real world/online game world mash-up continues.

The possibility of the government taxing the money you "earn" in online games (through killing dragons or whatnot) became much greater this week, as Second Life Boutique -- an online store that generally sells virtual world goodies for Second Life characters -- began to sell real world objects for Lindens, Second Life's in-game currency. The first item for sale, a video card, runs L$20,000, or about US$80 at the current L$250=US$1 conversion. In many respects, this is hardly a surprising development; after all, people can sell virtual objects for real money, why not the other way around?

The difference -- and why I began with a reference to the Internal Revenue Service -- is that what Second Life is doing by allowing this is setting up a complementary currency, one outside of the regulations and control of the formal financial system.

Continue reading "Virtual Complementary Currencies" »

February 4, 2006

Making the Virtual Real

As we move into the fabrication future, we'll see a surprising cross-over between the skills of virtual world designers and the skills of designers of physical objects.

We're all familiar by now with the idea of real money being used to buy virtual goods, and even with virtual money being used to buy physical goods. The intersection of online worlds and the real world doesn't stop there, however. It turns out that the increasing detail of 3D objects in virtual environments makes it possible to think of them not simply as game objects, but as digital prototypes -- and 3D printers are the tool of choice for turning the prototypes into real objects. WorldChanging ally Csven Johnson is at the forefront of this movement. On his blog reBang, he discusses his efforts to convert the game data for objects into CAD data usable with rapid prototyping hardware.

The metaverse is not just an ethereal “storyteller’s” world. It’s a world comprised of data. Just look at the reasons Marketing people are salivating over it. The tracking data is orders of magnitude better than trying to count eyeballs watching a television screen. And in a 3D interface (which is what those videogames really are), that data goes well beyond just “hits” or “click-throughs”- it’s comprised of “vectors” and “3D positional data”. And here’s the important part: that data can be converted into more than just marketing statistics. It can be converted into real product; something you can hold… in the flesh. The Story made Real.

Continue reading "Making the Virtual Real" »

February 11, 2006

Someone Set Us Up the (Video) Bomb

videobomb.jpgVideo Bomb, a product of the Participatory Culture Foundation, is the latest in a series of components that allow us to build a distributed video infrastructure. Video Bomb works by taking submissions of links to online videos (they strongly recommend that you link your own material, but they're happy to link to the myriad "viral" videos floating around on the web), then allowing people to both tag the submission with keywords and "bomb" it -- that is, recommend it to other users -- so that the highest-rated items float to the front page. This sort of collaborative filtering is fairly commonplace, but it's a reasonably good way to bring interesting items to broader attention.

If Video Bomb just provided a collaborative linking & filtering tool, it would be interesting but not particularly worldchanging. It goes further, though, by making RSS feeds for the videos. Each tag has its own feed, and any video a user "bombs" goes into the RSS feed for that user. They describe the concept as being akin to making your own Internet-based television station, and that's not far off. In a matter of minutes, one can set up a "channel" (an RSS link) that shows items selected by a particular person or using a particular tag.

So how about a "WorldChanging" channel?

Continue reading "Someone Set Us Up the (Video) Bomb" »

February 18, 2006

Dungeons & Deals -- Virtual Worlds as Social-Business Networks

doingbusinesswow.jpgCould an online game displace traditional in-person sports as social hubs for movers-and-shakers?

An article this week in C|Net suggests that online multiplayer games like World of Warcraft -- now counting over five million players -- could become the new socialization spot for executives and business leaders, citing a guild (player association) which includes tech heavyweights like Socialtext's Ross Mayfield, ICANN's John Crane, and uberblogger Joi Ito as members. Although the guild was formed simply as a way for friends to play the game together, members admit that some industry talk happens in between raids.

"Most of the time, we're talking about things that are more social, or talking about the game, and the game is really more of a social bonding experience," Ito said. "There are a lot of people making connections and talking about working with each other or bringing in their friends from work."

Continue reading "Dungeons & Deals -- Virtual Worlds as Social-Business Networks" »

About Worldchanging Weekend

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to WC Archive in the Worldchanging Weekend category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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