Screenshot from 2 Days to Vegas, developed by Steel Monkeys, 2006.
Designing anything synthetic is driven by the opposing desires to replicate and transcend reality. On one hand, the virtual is compelling only in so far as it connects to real experience. On the other hand, there are plenty of things about real life that most people would rather leave behind. This paradox has been with us since the days of Mary Shelley, but these opposing forces have always yearned for some sort of integration or synthesis.
Edward Castronova's recent book Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games reveals how pressing this issue will be in the coming decades. Synthetic Worlds is the first comprehensive study of inhabitable online spaces like MMORPGs (Massively Multi-player Online Role-Playing Games). It is filled with staggering statistics: over 10 million people currently spend over 25 hours a week in a synthetic world; the number of synthetic worlds is doubling every two years; and by 2030 the population of synthetic worlds will reach 100 million. If you had the opportunity to design an entire world for 100 million people, with no physical or material limitations, what would you keep?
What would you change?
View of the Grand Canyon from Google Earth, 2006.
Although Google Earth is not inhabitable (yet), it demonstates that any element of the real world can already be rendered with amazing accuracy. In game design, eye-poppingly real graphics are critical for pitch meetings and conventions where publishing deals (and rave reviews) are awarded based solely on demos. For example, even though most games do not involve underwater play, most game demonstrations include a swim sequence because water is one of the most difficult elements of the physical world to render. And rendering will continue to improve with relentless efficiency due to increases in computing power. As the inventor and theorist Ray Kurzweil put it in The Age of Spiritual Machines, the standard personal computer at some point in the next century will have as much computing power as a single human brain and not long after that will have the power of all human brains that have ever existed. Ultimately, there is no limit to the quality of rendering that will be possible in synthetic worlds.
But it turns out that visual fidelity is not so important to the people who actually play games. According to Castronova, the level of graphic sophistication necessary for "immersion" was achieved in the mid-1990s with Ultima Online. He argues that advances in rendering in the last decade have largely been aimed at journalists and game company executives, not hardcore users. Castronova believes users are more focussed on their role in these worlds than what such worlds look like. This makes sense when one remembers that MMORPGs are descended from MUDs (Multiple User Domains) synthetic worlds that are experienced entirely through text commands. (If users could become immersed in a world that consisted entirely of text, they could probably do without individual grains of sand on a beach.) Game designers have identified the primary motivations for MMORPG users: exploring: seeing what is there and mapping it for others; socializing: forming groups and having shared experiences; achieving: building things and accumulating social respect; and controlling: directing and dominating others. Notice that neither "marvelling at the scenery" nor "enjoying aesthetic refinement" make this list. It is experiential qualities that make synthetic worlds truly immersive and which pose the greatest design challenge.
Map of Ultima IV, drawn in colored pencil on graph paper by Trigon Dragon, 1986.
Detail from map of Ultima IV, drawn by Trigon Dragon, 1986.
The portal to these experiences is the avatar the proxy entity through which a user inhabits a synthetic world. Just a few years ago avatars were limited to several recognizable templates, but today the characters are endlessly variable. In fact, a game called Project Entropia is currently in development that will be able to accomodate six billion unique avatars one for every human on earth. To sustain this amount of individuality, mere customization is not enough. People play MMORPGs for months and even years, so avatars have to evolve. Much of the design of synthetic worlds is focused on how avatars accumulate new skills, possessions, experience, scars, status, and so on. Currently, avatars are confined to a given game, but portable identities that can move through the archipelago of synthetic worlds seem inevitable. And it is easy to imagine that our profile created by our online reading, shopping, and searching habits could be integrated into an avatar. In fact, it would probably be hailed as an innovation if the preferences and predilections that are encoded in our online behavior could be used to make our avatars more natural. It is also quite possibile that our behavior in synthetic worlds will start catching up to us in the real world. (Castronova outlines several court cases that have already been won regarding acts that took place wholly in synthetic worlds.)
Level 62 Druid currently for sale on eBay, 2006.
Of course, role-playing games are not new. Dice games like Dungeons and Dragons (now a very popular MMORPG) allowed users to create elaborate identities. What makes MMORPGs different is the Massively part. Because of their scale and global reach, synthetic worlds have entered into a symbiotic relationship with the real world. When Thomas More imagined an ideal society in his sixteenth-century classic Utopia, one of its defining characteristics was a lack of private ownership. It would be impossible to create such a utopia online because trade is a key element of play in most MMORPGs. There is a flourishing real-world market for objects from synthetic worlds. People on eBay are selling gold coins they have earned in World of Warcraft, swords they have made in Everquest, and entire characters they have created in Ultima. Castronova writes, "the commerce flow generated by people buying and selling money and other virtual items amounts to at least $30 million in the U.S. and $100 million globally." In an early paper Castronova demonstrated that by working in Everquest a user could make 300 platinum pieces an hour, which could be sold online to make the equivalent of $3.50 an hour. In 2001, the per capita Gross National Product of just one synthetic world was about the same as Bulgaria's and four times higher than China's or India's.
Given their popularity and projected growth it is no surprise that advertising and product placement are already commonplace in synthetic worlds. Even the anti-globalization movement has been synthesized into online worlds. Shortly after the WTO riots in Seattle, Rockstar Games and VIS Entertainment released State of Emergency in which players join the "Freedom Movement": a group of masked youth who fight against the "American Trade Organization." The game invites users to, "Kill Corporation forces for Bonus points!" It's hard to get past the irony of a multi-national corporation (Sony owns Rockstar Games) creating a synthetic world dedicated to the destruction of multi-national corporations.
Screenshot from America's Army, 2006.
Giving people the freedom to quickly and easily choose their role in life seems like a vast improvement on World 1.0, but questions remain. For example, what is the effect of the U.S. Army creating the game America's Army? The FAQ section of the game's site does a good job of articulating some of the issues such a game raises: Should children 13+ be exposed to what the Army does? Does this teach young adults how to shoot a weapon? Will a recruiter get my information if I play the game? The potential impact of role-playing may be more starkly revealed in the case of America's Army, but it exists to varying degrees in every synthetic world.
Castronova believes people spend so much time in synthetic worlds because they find them more satisfying than real life. Because they are designed, synthetic worlds have the potential to provide a more egalitarian existence; to more fully engage the human play instinct; and to better facilitate social interaction. Judging by the overhelming success of fantasy games it seems that fidelity to the real world is not essential to creating these conditions. But unlike the island that Thomas More imagined, MMORPGs are not discrete. As their population and economies grow, their influence on the real world will become as significant as the real world's influence on them. For example, what are the political implications of 100 million people choosing to inhabit worlds that are entirely devoid of democracy? Castronova writes, "It's not there. The typical governance model in synthetic worlds consists of isolated moments of oppressive tyrannny embedded in widespread anarchy." As we witness the redesign of the world, don't forget that designers and programmers are the tyrranical oppressers Castronova is referring to. The ultimate impact of synthesizing worlds will have a great deal to do with what is taken from real life and what is left behind.