Games, Virtual Worlds and the Internet

First, watch this: it’s Jesse Schell speaking at DICE about the future of gaming.

Wii GamesE3 2010Guitar Hero 5

The funny part to me is that I’ve been there before, at Joost of all places.

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail in this post, I just want to raise a few points on what I, personally, find interesting about the speech.

  1. The introduction sounds very much as if the games industry still hasn’t quite grokked the internet. I knew as much about the video industry from my time at Joost, so it’s only somewhat surprising to me. What’s funny is that I’ve got more of an internet background, and can also attest that most of the internet community doesn’t grok games — a point Schell makes when he asks “who has designed all those things?” with regards to Facebook games.
  2. He mentions that the video industry tries to make everything more “real” by having reality TV shows. Fair enough. We tried to make everything more “real” by letting you watch TV while chatting with your friends or otherwise interacting with real people. Sure, Joost ultimately failed1, but it wasn’t for lack of insights into where the market will likely go.
  3. I remember arguing strongly within Joost on one occasion or another that social networking websites are virtual worlds in the sense Richard Bartle described them. I should put that into context: Joost first tried to build something of a social networking site centered around watching video content, then hooked into Facebook in order to avoid having to build the social network from scratch. In a sense, we were smack in the middle of the social networking website sphere. Sadly, the few responses I got were along the lines of “uh, no, there are massive differences between the two”.

The last point may need some explanation.

First of all, Bartle argues that there is a difference between virtual worlds and games, and they should not be lumped together. If I paraphrase in my own words, games are a set of rules by which you interact with your environment and possibly other players2. A virtual world, on the other hand, is a simulated environment in which you do stuff — and one of many things you might do is play a game.

An MMO is then a game-themed virtual world, that is a virtual world that is primarily designed to play a particular game in. And to add a bit more precision to that statement, even an MMO is a virtual world in which you play several games, some of them all at the same time: there’s a difference between the mini-game you might play in order to finish a quest, and the meta-game that is levelling your character. Both are games, and while there’s areas where they supplement each other, they can be treated as separate rule sets for many intents and purposes.

So how does a social networking website fit into that? First amongst everything else it’s a place where you interact with other people. There are tools that let you interact with them, which form the equivalent of the environment in the virtual world. Few virtual worlds exist without some form of simple game in them, though often the games are strongly designed: for years, one of the most popular games has been that of gathering large buddy lists. These days, Mafia Wars on Facebook adds a tangible benefit for the Mafia Wars mini-game if you have a large buddy list.

By adding virtual currencies to games that apply across games, e.g. to all games from the same manufacturer, you create a link between all those individual mini-games. The meta-game is — cynically — to draw more people into the same mini-games you play.

Social networking websites are virtual worlds. Facebook with it’s many games is, by now, a game-themed virtual world, though it didn’t quite start out that way.

Yes, there are differences between social networking websites and an MMO such as World of Warcraft. But these differences are largely in the presentation layer, not in the core logic.

My biggest regret at Joost was that nobody ever sat down and designed the meta-game.

Well, that’s all for my rant of today. If you want to read some older thoughts on mine on the subject, I recommend A Hybrid Elder Game and The Creator Player Type.

I’m so sure I’ll go on writing about this subject that maybe, just maybe, I should start a series for that.

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  1. It’s still around with a new site design, for what it’s worth. []
  2. See also Greg Costikyan‘s I Have No Words & I Must Design for a better definition of a game. []

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    • unwesen

      Strangest pingback ever… goes to show that you shouldn’t trust plugins that automatically create a list of related links ;)

  • Martin Sutherland

    Have you read James Wallis’ recent article “Caillois completeness“? He presents a different set of criteria than Costikyan, but it’s looking at the same question: what makes a game a game?

    • unwesen

      No, I haven’t — but apparently I will now!