Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Edinbrugh Interactive Festival, Day 2

The second day was extremely interesting, particularly from my perspective. The first two sessions were very PS3 heavy, with a session on motion-capture in Heavenly Sword. I was very impressed with this game, enough to actually consider buying a PS3 just to play it.

Virtual Societies Session:
This was the best session of the conference in my humble opinion.

Hilmar Petursson from EVE Online gave an excellent presentation (again) on some of the more interesting academic issues arising from virtual worlds. One of the most important topics raised was that of the social emergence in virtual worlds. Hilmar mentioned Dunbar's number, which "represents a theoretical maximum number of individuals with whom a set of people can maintain a social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who each person is and how each person relates socially to every other person." The theoretical number is 150, which would seem to explain many issues in the "small worlds" phenomenon. This is of particular relevance for EVE because alliances and corporations display scale-free characteristics. In the end, it all comes down to social grooming, or "how many people can you pick lice from?"
Hilmar's presentation had some interesting governance interest. It seems like in this free environment there is still need for authority. After a certain number of individuals get together, there seems to be a critical level at which people require authoritative figures, including alliances, management, governments, etc.
One common theme in these talks is whether operators are gods in their worlds. They think of themselves more like governments, or Egyptian god-like rulers, but I personally believe them to be more like gods in-game.
Hilmar ended with specific governance issues. There will be an experiment in the coming year to create a Console of Stellar Management to generate democratic empowerment of its membership, which will be a very interesting case to follow.

Jim Purbrick from Second Life gave a candid look at some of the governance issues in the virtual world which generate virtual protests from their users. There was also mention of the empowerment of the user-base, which is something that most developers of virtual worlds seem interested in doing (or be seen in doing). One protest was brought by Linden Labs' decision to potentially "tax" revenue obtained by in-game businesses, after all the profits are based on an environment created by the service provider. Another source of worry has been the fact that the client is now open source, which has allowed the creation of "copybots" that can come into the Second Life and generate a perfect copy of the entire world, which obviously worries those who create content and trade on those goods. I think of this as if people could go around with replicators copying 'real' property.
The most controversial issue has been the banning of gambling in-game. This is a difficult jurisdictional issue, which seems to assume that everyone in Second Life is subject to American Law. Is everyone in EVE subject to Icelandic law?
The most interesting part of the SL presentation to me was the announcement that Linden Labs is moving towards a User-generated platform as it is thinking of devolving all aspects of support, including server space, customer support and maybe other aspects of the world. The community will provide all of these. My take is that this is actually done to dilute their potential liability by eroding their own power over the world. aspects. was : the entire world will be handled by the user-base.

Jessica Mulligan, presented a paper adequately entitled "Citizens Against The Gods". She spoke about the reasons why users are disgruntled about their games. One main point was that the online environment is inhabited by three types of people: Citizens, Tribesmen, and Barbarians. Most of the vocal protests comes from the minority of "citizens", people who go to forums and make their opinion heard. The reasons for those protests are things like poor management, "Garbage in garbage out" design, short-term profit-driven mentality, the instant gratification syndrome, and particularly no respect for the paying customer.

Second Life Development session:
This was actually a bit disappointing session, perhaps because some of the technology failed. There were some particularly enlightening issues raised. For example, Chris Carella from developers Electric Sheep mentioned that the successful SL development has to operate like all other media, you have to keep innovating and providing new events and content for your subscriber base.

I finish with the most mind-blowing thing I saw in the Festival, check out this video (high-res version here).

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