Real vs. Virtual, Interactive vs. Passive

Matt Barton's picture

Lately, I've been doing lots of reading and have been trying to work my head around some ontological questions as they apply to videogames and virtual worlds. My interest was piqued a few years ago in this topic after reading The Ontology of Cyberspace by David Koepsell. He makes a good point that's worth quoting here:

It is simply not accurate that one cannot touch or own bits. I own the hard drive on which this manuscript is encoded in the form of bits...The only differences between digitally encoded and expressed information, and that which is encoded in expressed in analog form, are differences in degree. It is easier to reproduce and transmit digital expressions. This does not mean that digital and analog expressions are different in kind. In fact, there is no good reason to believe than an expression is significantly different when it is stored or transmitted in digital form than when it is stored or conveyed in analog form.

While Koepsell's book is more concerned with law (especially copyright laws and such), I think his reasoning applies in discussions of virtuality more broadly. Many of think of something like Second Life as a "virtual world" that is just a fantasy or non-physical, imaginary realm. It is more helpful to see it as a "real" place, in the sense that all that data and databases are physically stored on hard drives owned and operated by the company. Also, consider Gaia Online and how much users are willing to pay for "virtual" clothing and such for their avatars. When I talk about this to non-gamers, they typically respond with something like, "How stupid! Spending real money on something that doesn't even exist!" Yet a virtual pair of angel wings does exist--it is probably a few cells or strings of code in a database somewhere.

I'd also argue that it makes little sense to separate too harshly a virtual world and the "real" world, in the sense that someone who plays an MMO too much is "losing touch with reality" or some such. I see it as less a matter of either/or and more of a lateral trade-off. What is a significant difference between moving one's body, to say, play basketball, and using subtler movements to move one's avatar (an extension of one's body?) in a virtual basketball court? You might argue that we are allowed finer motor control in the former, but just how much of that is conscious--I'd think at least as much gets passed off to reflex as gets passed off in a game to computer control (scripting) or AI. And what about disabled people who may have far less mobility than would be allowed in a virtual world with an avatar? (See movie Avatar as an example!)

Edward Castronova's Exodus to the Virtual World makes some fascinating predictions in this regard. Perhaps the most intriguing is that "some techniques that game designers have discovered and successfully used may find their way into real-world policy debates" (xvii), most notably in the form of public policies that take fun into serious consideration. What can a city planning council or the U.S. government learn from Blizzard or Linden Labs?

Castronova also talks about how "virtual reality can make [people's] lives different: more exciting, more rewarding, more heroic, more meaningful. And these people, quite rationally, will spend much of their time in the virtual worlds now exploding onto the scene." The point C. wants to make is that even if many of us don't make that choice, our society will change dramatically anyway because of all the millions who will.

Thus, the right question to ponder is not "how can we keep people from wasting away in virtual worlds?" but "what can we learn from virtual worlds that will make the 'real world' more fun?" Think of all the labor that gets willingly performed in an MMO (grinding, etc.). People are actually paying to do repetitive, boring tasks and doing it gladly. Wouldn't it be great to find a way to harness some of that so that people will do "useful" work more willingly and with similar dedication or enthusiasm?

Comments

Rowdy Rob
Rowdy Rob's picture
Offline
Joined: 09/04/2006
A thought-provoking article, which deserves a response.
Matt Barton wrote:

It is more helpful to see it as a "real" place, in the sense that all that data and databases are physically stored on hard drives owned and operated by the company. Also, consider Gaia Online and how much users are willing to pay for "virtual" clothing and such for their avatars. When I talk about this to non-gamers, they typically respond with something like, "How stupid! Spending real money on something that doesn't even exist!" Yet a virtual pair of angel wings does exist--it is probably a few cells or strings of code in a database somewhere.

I think this article corresponds with our "games as a hobby" discussion in another AA thread, and it also touches a very similar sensitive point: where do we draw the line between "real" and "virtual?"

If you really believe that virtual worlds are "legitimate," or possibly "real" like the real world, then what is your opinion of someone purchasing a "virtual property" for $10,000???? I seem to recall that someone was offering virtual property in "Ultima Online" a few years ago for approximately that price! I don't know if someone actually bought such a property, but if someone did, they must feel pretty stupid right now, since UO's star has faded in the gaming marketplace.

Considering all the problems in the real world today that could benefit from an infusion of cash, it seems very selfish and materialistic, if not insane, to spend money to buy CLOTHES for my avatar in a virtual world, much less thousand-dollar virtual properties! While I have no problem paying for frivolous pleasures such as videogames on occasion, "Virtual Clothes" don't matter.... it doesn't affect gameplay at all. And if it does, the few games that offer such customizations seem to provide a method for players to create such customizations THEMSELVES.

"Second Life" is a great example; it provides tools for dedicated "hobbyists" (segue to your other recent thread!) to create their own objects, buildings, custom animations, and CLOTHES for their avatar. If you're dedicated enough to such a virtual world that you desire custom clothes for your avatar, you're dedicated enough to learn to create them yourself. Heck, you might even learn something in the process, God forbid!

While I have no problem with people spending reasonable money on fun, it seems like an over-the-top materialistic waste to spend good money on frivilous things such as clothing for your avatar when people are suffering in this world. Yes, I'm invoking the "real world vs. fantasy world" response, and I'm sorry to give you the "liberal guilt trip" argument, Matt, but sometimes it's necessary to jostle your right-wing "spend my money as I want to" point of view.

Matt Barton wrote:

I'd also argue that it makes little sense to separate too harshly a virtual world and the "real" world, in the sense that someone who plays an MMO too much is "losing touch with reality" or some such. I see it as less a matter of either/or and more of a lateral trade-off.

On this point, I agree with you to an extent. A "shared experience" can be a great catalyst to learning some new things or starting new friendships that you might have otherwise not experienced. Online experiences can allow you to meet new and interesting people that would never have occurred 20 years ago, and is a great thing. Armchair Arcade is a great example; here I am having interesting discussions with people that live hundreds, and in some cases, THOUSANDS, of miles away from me, and are people that I would never have connected to in real life otherwise. Matt, your "Matt Chat" episode on WoW is a great example; you had a second player helping you in the commentary that I'm assuming you've never met in real life, or possibly don't even know what he looks like!

But here's where you lose me....

Matt Barton wrote:

What is a significant difference between moving one's body, to say, play basketball, and using subtler movements to move one's avatar (an extension of one's body?) in a virtual basketball court? You might argue that we are allowed finer motor control in the former, but just how much of that is conscious--I'd think at least as much gets passed off to reflex as gets passed off in a game to computer control (scripting) or AI.

Matt, most MMO's have limited direct controls, even by videogame standards! If you don't agree, then tell me your high score in "Geometry Wars!" :-) Your argument here smacks of over-intellectualized academic intelligentsia, which is wont for your career, but it may be detached from a real-world sense, if I am interpreting your remarks correctly.

MMO's have simplified controls to make them appealing to the masses. And getting masses to play them is how they make their money. This is not to say they don't require skill, but to compare a great "World of Warcraft" player to Michael Jordan seems ridiculous. There's a TREMENDOUS difference between an athlete and a guy who's clicking a mouse. I can't run up and down the court dribbling a basketball while evading opponents and shooting a half-court shot at the buzzer in front of a hostile crowd; that requires tremendous training, discipline, and natural athleticism. The primary ingredient in MMO's is time; the more I play, the higher my level. You really can't lose as long as you keep moving and clicking the mouse. Yes, there's skill involved, but are you good at MMO's? Yes? Are you Michael Jordan? No....

Matt Barton wrote:

And what about disabled people who may have far less mobility than would be allowed in a virtual world with an avatar? (See movie Avatar as an example!)

This is a very interesting point, and where my argument becomes blurred, twisted, and perhaps even flawed. I've read of an account where a man, who was formerly a skilled dancer, was disabled in an accident. Now, he's paralyzed and in a wheelchair; he can't even walk, much less dance. He was crushed, spiritually, until he discovered "Second Life." In the virtual world, his avatar can dance. He is LIBERATED in the virtual world! This disabled individual has learned to program his avatar's dance moves, and now he makes money SELLING his dance moves to other "Second Life" enthusiasts! If I hold to my previous argument, he is wasting his time (and other people's money) by devoting such time to this virtual world, yet I can't help but be touched and inspired by this example. I guess that makes me a hypocrite...... but it begs my main question: where do we draw the line? Which begs another question: who am I to say????

Matt Barton wrote:

Thus, the right question to ponder is not "how can we keep people from wasting away in virtual worlds?" but "what can we learn from virtual worlds that will make the 'real world' more fun?" Think of all the labor that gets willingly performed in an MMO (grinding, etc.). People are actually paying to do repetitive, boring tasks and doing it gladly. Wouldn't it be great to find a way to harness some of that so that people will do "useful" work more willingly and with similar dedication or enthusiasm?

Okay, there is several ways I can go with this one:

1) I recall reading an online article (I'm to lazy to look it up now and provide you with the link) where "World of Warcraft" provided real-world insight into the spread of disease!!! I don't recall the specifics, but the gist of the article said that a "deadly" disease was introduced into WoW to add spice to the game. The problem was that players were spreading this "disease" from player to player, server to server, in ways unanticipated by Blizzard, Inc. It became an epidemic in the game, but provided useful scientific insight into how disease is spread amongst humans in the real world.

2) The main point you're trying to invoke here is "how can society provide incentive to get people to work more productively without force? Through fun?"

Here's where I get more political/philosophical. The answer I come up with has nothing to do with games or "fun." The answer is, *gasp*: CAPITALISM!!!

Unbridled Capitalism can result in too much greed, as in rich, detatched, unscrupulous fat cats taking advantage of desperate workers who have no other choice, but ideally, free-market capitalism is supposed to provide individuals the incentive to demand what they are worth and to do better for themselves. The incentive to be more productive is that you will be justly rewarded with money.

I realize that it doesn't always work out that way, but in general, people who live in Capitalist countries, i.e. the West, are much better off than Communist or totalitarian countries, which don't provide enough incentive for hard work.

I'm not sure that we'll ever be at a point where work will be "fun," in general. "Hey, I'll play 'Donkey Kong,' and viola!! I just built a car!!!!" Work isn't (generally) fun, and that's why we have two separate words for them. Yes, work can be enjoyable (in some cases), but the real incentive to work productively is REWARD, not fun. "Hey, if I provide a valuable service, I'll make more money, and I'll be able to buy more videogames!!"

Okay, enough philosophy. Fire at will! :-)

qoj hpmoj o+ 6uo73q 3Jv 3svq jnoh 77V

Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Offline
Joined: 01/16/2006
Response

Wow, so many great points, hard to know where to start. Okay, here, then.

Rowdy Rob wrote:

I don't know if someone actually bought such a property, but if someone did, they must feel pretty stupid right now, since UO's star has faded in the gaming marketplace.

I don't want to state the obvious, but the real estate bubble probably has a lot more people feeling pretty stupid right now. The big problem is that "property" is itself "virtual." For one thing you can't "own" something outright; you need laws, government, society, etc. behind you to protect your right to that property. On the other hand, you might say, well, my acreage is REAL, tangible, whatever, whereas some island on Second Life is virtual, intangible, etc. Obviously in a sense this distinction is valid, yet in the more important financial sense, invalid. The value of a piece of land fluctuates along with the economy (and all the social contexts that go with that). You might say, "Well, my island in Second Life could disappear along with Linden Labs," but your "real property" could also disappear along with the government, failure to pay taxes, or a natural disaster (King Kong shows up!).

What is the real difference between investing in a virtual estate and selling it later for a profit, vs. doing the same thing with "real" estate? Money is money, which is itself quite virtual if you think about it.

Quote:

While I have no problem with people spending reasonable money on fun, it seems like an over-the-top materialistic waste to spend good money on frivilous things such as clothing for your avatar when people are suffering in this world. Yes, I'm invoking the "real world vs. fantasy world" response, and I'm sorry to give you the "liberal guilt trip" argument, Matt, but sometimes it's necessary to jostle your right-wing "spend my money as I want to" point of view.

True, but that kind of thing is a slippery slope. Should we all take a vow of poverty and donate all of our surplus wealth to feed the poor? If you were to go to a poor country and give any one citizen a million dollars with no strings attached, would that person turn around and give all but is absolutely necessary for survival to his brothers and sisters? Somehow, I doubt it. Hell, if the Catholic Church (and other churches) have a bad habit of spending huge wads of "charity" on fabulous churches and paintings instead of feeding the poor, it's probably silly to hold anyone personally responsible for preferring luxury to a "good conscious."

Quote:

Matt, most MMO's have limited direct controls, even by videogame standards! MMO's have simplified controls to make them appealing to the masses. And getting masses to play them is how they make their money. This is not to say they don't require skill, but to compare a great "World of Warcraft" player to Michael Jordan seems ridiculous. There's a TREMENDOUS difference between an athlete and a guy who's clicking a mouse.

I think you'd be surprised. It is more similar than give it credit for. Sure, the controls are easy enough that almost anyone remotely schooled in games can learn the basics. But can't a fat, overweight, dude with poor eyesight go to a basketball court and lob a few balls? If he sticks with it, he might even learn to make a few baskets. I'm sure most people who play basketball are far from Michael Jordan's skill.

With WoW (as just one example) there is amazing skill required at the high end and heavy competition. There is the infamous "recount," for instance, that tallies up all the damage done during a raid and then spits out the top performers. There is also PVP and arenas and so on, too, where the best players compete. Getting to the top requires a level of speed and precision that very few WoW players will ever approach. We're talking in terms of a tenth of a second, striking keys, moving the mouse, staying alert to everything happening on screen. I'm nowhere close to the top, yet it takes every ounce of my concentration and coordination to get through some of this stuff. Even looking away for a few seconds can result in the party's death. I've never been an athlete, but I'm sure they must go through a similar experience of being "in the zone" and desperately seeking for any edge they can get to put them over the top.

Of course, you see this even more in the multiplayer shooters and the like. Those cats can do amazing things that are (for a nerd, at least) just as impressive as seeing MJ do his thing. Hell, I'm awed by those "speed runs" people do with games like SMB. Just amazing to see.

Quote:

I'm not sure that we'll ever be at a point where work will be "fun," in general. "Hey, I'll play 'Donkey Kong,' and viola!! I just built a car!!!!" Work isn't (generally) fun, and that's why we have two separate words for them. Yes, work can be enjoyable (in some cases), but the real incentive to work productively is REWARD, not fun. "Hey, if I provide a valuable service, I'll make more money, and I'll be able to buy more videogames!!"

Well, the key seems to be finding more ways to tie "real" money into the mix. It'd be pretty cool if you could, say, trade in some of the gold you accumulated in the game into real dollars in your bank account. There are, of course, many illegal ways to do this already. It's easy enough to set up a deal where you give someone so much gold in exchange for cash. This kind of thing is currently frowned upon my Blizzard and many other developers, yet I'm sure it will eventually be commonplace. The fact is, there will always be people out there whose time is more valuable to them than money. I bet I could earn about 30 gold an hour playing WoW. Many items in the game cost thousands (I think one thing right now is 15,000). "Farming" for that much gold takes time and energy that many folks would prefer to spend doing something else. I think the going rate right now is something like $20 per 1000 gold. It's easy to see why people would want to just pay the money to get it now rather than doing all that "work" to get it.

n/a
Cody Reimer
Cody Reimer's picture
Offline
Joined: 10/14/2008
Game Worlds as Case Study and Sports vs. E-sports

Constance Steinkuehler's work strikes me as relevant to this discussion. You can find a lot of her articles online at http://website.education.wisc.edu/steinkuehler/blog/

A student of James Paul Gee, Steinkuehler does a great job compiling research from other disciplines that analyze video games. Rob brought up the corrupted blood plague incident from when the instance Zul'Gurub was released, in which an extremely contagious and deadly disease (that was meant to be contained within the zone) spread outside the zone to heavily populated game cities via pets and hearthstones, but economists are also studying the markets of MMOGs, copyright lawyers are studying the sale of "virtual" goods, and other fields too are all taking a bite out of video games as a means to better understand the workings of real life.

Regarding skill in video games, I'd like to chime in as a player who has spent a lot of time competing and earning a small degree of success in the e-sports world. Matt makes a great point in showing the absolute fine motor control that many top players require--David Sirlin explains in his "Play to Win" series that players of arcade fighters need to be able to push a button within the first three one hundredths of a second. Does that match MJ? Maybe, maybe not. Okay, let's try a different tact. In addition to being able to _do_ the things required to be great, players need to _know_ when to do the things required to be great; this is true of both WoW PvP and any other sport. The difference is, I argue, that WoW PvP (and other e-sport platforms) requires far more knowledge to accurately judge/gauge the landscape. In a sport, there are the rules and then there is what a human is capable of doing within those rules in a single arena (the most that arena influences play is the difference between turf and astro-turf, which isn't negligible, but neither is it enormous). In an e-sport (especially one such as WoW), there are the rules (which are subject to change) and then there is what ten different classes, each with between one and four viable talent specializations, are capable of, in five different arenas.

I'd be curious to find some stats about how many college players get drafted into the NBA, to compare it with how many WoW PvPers that achieve 2k rating get Gladiator status (or some similar comparison). Only 0.5% of all PvPers get Gladiator status, but there is a statistic given by the developers that say how many players get above 2k out of all that try arena, and it is significantly lower (something like 0.01%).

Cody Reimer
Freshman Composition TA
St. Cloud State University

Mark Vergeer
Mark Vergeer's picture
Offline
Joined: 01/16/2006
Excellent discussion

Reading this and can't think of anything other than to agree with the fact that stored information is the same wether it is stored digitally or analogically (eh???). Of course digital information is easier to reproduce so DRM and copyrights are enforced in the most strict form imaginable flushing much of the ease of use of digital information down the drain.

Thinking of the WOW world as a real place....? Well sure, I can do that. The polygons and textures and gamefiles are physically stored and reproduced on hundreds of computer systems around the globe. Your avatar is stored and reproduced on hundreds of computer systems around the globe. Perhaps the actions your avatar takes are watched by more 'people' simultaneously then you are 'watched' in real life. So one could even state that the avatar's presence in the virtual worlds and the way they are reproduced on various computersystems around the globe simultaneously is more 'real' than your single physical incidence - body in real life! :P

PS3: MarkVergeer | Xbox 360: Lactobacillus P | Wii: 8151 3435 8469 3138
Armchair arcade Editor | Pixellator | www.markvergeer.nl

n/a
Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Offline
Joined: 01/16/2006
Great post, Mark! One thing

Great post, Mark!

One thing I forgot to talk about above was "passive" vs. "interactive," such as when somebody refers to a book as "passive" and a videogame as "active." I agree if we're only talking about physical movement; clearly playing almost any game is more "work" than just turning a page. However, cognitive (thought processes) is a different matter. Most people assume it takes more imagination to enjoy a book than play a game, but again I disagree in some cases (unless it's just something like Tetris). A game that has a story, characters, and virtual world requires imagination to be enjoyed. Then again, I'd say the same thing about a TV show. You don't just sit and watch TV like a zombie, taking it all in and not processing anything. Instead, you must think about what you see to make any kind of sense of it. For instance, enjoying a show like ST: TNG requires you to learn about all the different characters, predict how they will respond to given situations, determine if the character is acting suspiciously (perhaps an alien has taken over!), consider the many "what if's"; for some people this eventually goes all the way to writing fan fic, but I think almost everyone at least indulges in some of this kind of thought. The better shows require you to think a lot more, whereas the dumber shows spell everything out and keep things very, very simple.

I felt that way about Avatar 3D. Great movie, by the way (the 3D is amazing!!), but I wish it had ended sooner. The end seemed to want to tie everything together so neatly that it just seemed like Cameron didn't trust his audience. I also thought of the symbolism was just too obvious; calling the ore "un-obtainium" made me cringe. I also thought all the animals coming together at the end was straight outta Disney. What would have been wrong with just letting the corporate invaders kill off the forest and drive the Na'vi to extinction? To sever the main character's tie and force him to live the rest of his life in that wheelchair? That kind of ending would have "made an impact." This ending just makes you feel that you shouldn't care, everything will work out somehow. Heck, what a digression, but it illustrates what I mean about "passive" entertainment like movies. There may be less movement and such, but you can sure think about them a lot!

n/a

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.