What’s the biggest issue in massively multiplayer games today? Virtual inflation? Ownership of digital property? Identity and behavior in second-selves? How about gravity?
For the past two semesters I have been using games (Second Life and SimCity, mainly) to teach students about urban planning and design. One of my favorite questions is ask them is:
“What makes this game real? What makes it not real?”
Ask a room full of planners and architects-in training what’s not real about SL and you know what they say?
The funny thing is, in the world of MMO study, these issues tend to take a back seat to more traditional economic, legal and social science concerns. I’d argue, to the contrary, these differences are at least as important as to whether virtual land ownership gives you legal standing in the real world.
- Gravity is weird
- No pollution
- Screwed up perspective
- Insubstantiality of matter (OK, they don’t say this exactly. But that’s the idea they always try to get at.
Let’s take each one of these ideas out for a brief spin.
Gravity: If you are a player, it’s cool that you can fly in Second Life or that a massive winged reptiles can soar in WOW. But if you are an architecture student, the lack of gravity really messes with your mind. Most of the fantasy buildings that we accept as somehow substantial in a virtual world wouldn’t have half a chance of standing up for more than a few seconds in the real world. That’s part of what makes castles and keeps and wizard towers so otherworldly. They are, literally and physically, impossible to build.
I had one student who grasped this immediately. Everything he built in SL hovered, floated or cantilevered out at impossible angles. He was having the time of his life doing sculpture and calling it architecture. In the real world, no matter how goofy a Frank Geary building might look, it’s physically rational. And in that way, also limited. Online architecture is truly unbounded.
Pollution: If you were boil down all the land use law and legislation in the real world, the vast majority would come down to the notion of mitigating externalities—unpriced side effects. Pollution is one of the most notable of the myriad of social externalities. The reason your neighbor can’t burn tires in his front yard, for example, isn’t just because you don’t want to turn your cul des ac into the backlot for the Dukes of Hazzard. It’s in large part because of the smoke and smell that open fires cause. So, he can’t do it so you can’t smell in. But in a virtual world. Your next door neighbor could smelt plutonium and it wouldn’t hurt you or your property values or increase your risk of leukemia.
Ask a room full of planners what kind of zoning legislation you need in a place like SL and they kind of look you with a blank state. Why zone when adjacent use does not create the kinds of externalities that would happen in the real world if say, you put a slaughterhouse next to an elementary school? The general lack of social externalities diminishes the need for traditional planning to almost zero.
Or, put it this way—in the virtual world, real world planning gives way to design—to aesthetics. It doesn’t matter how high the curb is from a safety stand point, only in terms of what it looks like or feels like.
Perspective: Another, particularly bright student, noticed that the videogame camera tends to privilege outdoor space. She pointed out that most of the places in SL were outdoors, because it was hard to build an interior that worked well with the camera.
This is just an example of how the perspective provided by the standard videogame camera shapes the experience of the virtual world. Or put it this way—lots of fields and winding caves. Not so many efficient Scandinavian shelving units.
Matter: If you can build out of feathers as easily as wood, gold as cheaply as granite, you shape the material world in a very different way than when those things weight, smell and cost differently. I’m sure that the economists have thought about this. But from the planning and architecture worlds, the fact that you can use any material, and it is all as interchangeable in terms of material properties (strength, flexibility, etc), then you have a very different set of building parameters. In the virtual world, perhaps obviously, all material choice is a symbolic choice. There’s no other nreason to make a building out of brick or out of Jolly Rancher candies. It’s all the same. Only what it means.
What sort of conclusion can I draw from all of this? By way of example let me point to a recent call inside Second Life to invite architects and planners to help build new welcome hubs in world. I’d be surprised if there is a big response because, frankly, architects and planners have about as little to say about the virtual world as anyone else. The real voice of insight in the MMO world is indigenous and the best work is coming out of the virtual natives.
Still, back to my original point, some of the most important and defining elements in a virtual world relate to the structure of the world in a very traditional sense that architects and planners study. What they notice, is that the reality doesn’t matter. It’s the unreality that makes these worlds special. Hopefully, the IRS understands that too.