Raph Koster: Are virtual worlds over?

It’s funny how these things go. A few days after my bringing up again how virtual worlds and social networking sites are essentially the same thing, Raph Koster writes a blog post entitled Are virtual worlds over?

There’s a ton in that article I agree with, and some I disagree with. Let’s briefly start with how he defines what a virtual world is:

  • a simulation of places: placeness is intrinsic (and herein lie the things that many Second Life advocates argue for, such as academic uses involving 3d visualization, or artistic expression that requires 3d)
  • users represented by avatars: pseudonymity is intrinsic (such as anything involving identity exploration, artificial roles, and wish fulfillment)
  • synchronous user interaction: synchronous interaction and strong ties are intrinsic (team activities, real-time problem-solving, real-time social activities)

Synchronous User Interaction

User interaction occurs in many ways; the simplest form would be a conversation. You get such synchronous user interaction in many forms: IRC-like chats, instant messaging, voice chat, etc. In MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, you have built-in equivalent forms to chats, instant messaging through private messages, and even voice chat these days.

Those are synchronous communications media, right? You type/speak something, people read it immediately and reply.

Except that’s not really required. It’s quite common for people to wander off from their computer for a cup of tea without telling their communications partner about it, getting distracted by a TV show, and returning hours later. When it comes to IRC and Skype chats, I do that deliberately — I lurk in a lot of channels, but rarely read every message or speak.

By contrast, I’ve had a few real-time-ish email conversations. Email doesn’t exactly lend itself to the real-time conversations, but if you ignore situations in which the email servers involved are under high load, email is delivered with minimal delay. It’s quite possible to have conversations via that medium that do not involve you doing other stuff in parallel. And in it’s technical details, the email queues employed on your average mail server are similar in nature to message queues you’d get on an XMPP server, for instance.

The point I’m trying to make is that online communications media are not usually in themselves synchronous or asynchronous, even though some technical details push them a bit further in either direction than some of their brethren. What makes communications media synchronous or asynchronous is mostly how we use them.

Now I do have a few friends that, when engaged in an instant messaging conversation, will focus solely on that conversation. For most of us, though, that’s just something that happens while we’re doing something else. It’s not that we can’t switch our focus of attention on the conversation if the conversation requires it, it’s that we can switch our focus of attention elsewhere when it doesn’t.

Insisting on the “synchronous” part in this characteristic of virtual worlds makes for a fairly tricky beast, I think. I guess it comes down to whether a virtual world-like environment provides communication media that can make a conversation feel synchronous, in the same sense that I’ve felt my aforementioned email conversations were synchronous, but much of my instant messaging activity isn’t.

In that sense, synchronicity is just a question of an average maximum delay between the time a message is written and read. On the internet, that delay is almost always low enough.

Avatars

This point I’m not even going to discuss very much; we’re always represented by avatars on the internet. It may be as simple as an email address, but our online identity is always as obscure — as unlike our real identity — as we like to make it.

We’re getting more Avatar-ish characteristics attached to our online identities these days through technologies such as gravatars, or disqus. Gravatars provide a technology by which you can query for an image in response to an email address, which provides for a visual depiction of said online identity. Disqus provides comment plugins for blogs that track each identity’s comments across multiple blogs, thereby also granting you an identity that transcends each individual website.

But the means by which you’re identifies is still the email address, and of those you can have as many as you can collect — and each of them can reveal as much or as little about your real identity as you desire.

Placeness

Koster himself writes about placeness:

Given that placeness is the chief characteristic of virtual worlds, this is a bit of a blow to the traditional conception of virtual worlds as a destination. One characteristic of a social-game-as-virtual-world (or indeed, non-placey things that people like labelling as “virtual-world-like” that really aren’t worlds at all, such as Twitter, and so on) is that they are not destinations in their own right; they are been seen as adjuncts to other activities.

Twitter is a great example for something that’s so much reduced that it’s hard to classify as a virtual world. It represents users by avatars (or profile pages), and it allows synchronous user interaction (even though it’s usually used as a broadcast medium), but is it a place?