Friday, April 13, 2007

Defining Virtual Worlds

It would appear that a few of you actually expect me to make good on my intention to share my definition of virtual worlds as forewarned in my last post. After some thought, I've decided that this would be a foolish endeavor as I consider myself far better at perspective than absolutes, but I do appreciate that several of you took the time to nag, or rather, remind me.

Your appeals were not entirely wasted, thanks to Clive Jackson who's shared his white paper, "The Metaverse 2.0". This read should satiate your Webster hunger for definitions. It's packed with some great insights, and you will especially appreciate it if you were around when VRML was "all that and a bag of chips".

To be honest, my attempts at definition were trapped in my thinking about what would, or could, or should make a virtual world like Second Life successful. Defining "success" in this way is a rabbit hole of thought so don't go there, but if you do I will tell you - red or blue?- it matters not. Today I stumbled upon someone else who fell into the void along this trail of tears.

Onder Skall has a brilliant post entitled "Alternative to Second Life - Uber Edition" in which he explores a few worlds of note on the basis of his own personal criteria. His criteria based on his opinion of what makes Second Life successful - not - a general criteria against which to measure or define virtual worlds. Someone got rather confused about this subtlety, which I missed since I stopped reading TN due to the prevalence of ill informed drivel a couple of months ago, but I digress. Orun outlined his criteria, which aligned well if not completely, with my perspectives about the success of a virtual world platform such as Second Life.

1) Socialization - There must adequate means by which people socialize, form and maintain affinity groups, communities and even whole new societies. Socialization is overwhelmingly the reason people are online and the enablement of such cannot be overemphasized, over-supported or over-maintained. [rant] It's here that I'll take out a brief moment and smack LL over the head with their product management road map. This is where all things start and end, and if you cannot get socialization right, stop. If group notices for some of the largest in world groups do not work, you've failed. If profiles fail to load, guess what? If my friends don't show on line and I can't teleport someone I just met ... do not collect $200, go directly to jail. [end rant]

2) Immersive and Participatory Media - Orun's bullet point is "users must be able to create unique content and retain ownership over it", but I expand my point to imply or rather demand, that there is an underlying dialogue associated with the creation. Users create; but there is equal part to play in consumption and evolution of someone else's creation. Mediated or otherwise, creation and consumption is not one-way, but rather it embraces both the immersiveness and synchronicity of the platform.

3) Marketplace - Here Orun says: "Users must be able to create unique content and retain ownership over it. RMT (Real-Money Trading) is designed in, not forbidden by TOS." I agree that Real Money Transactions (RMT) are important, but not that they are the key. The key is something more subtle. It's the ability for people to define value and to transact on items of value on many levels, RMT being one of them, but not the only. In fact, I can imagine a mechanism by which there were two forms of virtual currency - one that is only usable in world, and the other that can be traded in RMT. Imagine the complex and interesting economy that might arise from such as system. Oh wait, we already have that in the real world - it's called social currency and it is the fabric that ties points #1-3 together. It's value it entirely subjective, the market shifts and your ability to "cash out" is entirely dependent upon your ability to socialize, your participation and a market against which to trade.

I realize this doesn't go a long way toward a beautifully illustrated definition, but I'd be interested to hear your thoughts about what makes a platform like Second Life successful. Please use the comments if you can, I'm often delinquent in email.
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