Anti-Social Worlds

Let’s start with this:

CBS to invest in virtual designer Electric Sheep | Entertainment | Television | Reuters

Seven million is a pretty good number for a company that’s built a business building virtual busyness — especially when they don’t even own the core technology to do so. I’m very impressed. From the ESC blogs, it sounds like they’re going to at the very least continue working on improving the open-source Second Life client and also maybe their version of the server. The client improvements are most likely in usability. The server (which has been partially reverse-engineered rather than open-sourced) may not be improved as much as “let loose” from Linden’s grid. Basically, that would allow Electric Sheep’s customers, or anyone, to have their own bubble worlds without going through Linden.

This whole notion of islands in SL, bubble worlds, and Wil Wright’s various discussions of the differences between Spore and the Sims online (i.e., that Spore is “massively single player”), leads me to think this whole social multi-player experiment has taken a wrong turn somewhere and people are just now correcting. I’m guessing it happened round about the time I started not having fun inside virtual worlds. And co-incidentally, that happened when we started introducing lots of random people into the mix.

Call me an introvert. but in my mind, on-line worlds–even massively shared ones–are best achieved in a rather anti-social way, or what I’d call Anti-Social Networking. ASN builds on the idea that we enjoy the company of those we know over strangers. The physical analog would be you, walking in Central Park or down Fifth Avenue, seeing only those people you want to see. Everyone else is invisible, gone, solipsized from your personal instance of the world.

Now, perhaps you don’t even know everyone you see. But the computer has selected them based on key parameters indicating how well you might like them. And it’s certainly weeded out the ones you already don’t like or have chosen to ignore. Your list might change, depending on your mood. But I’d personally have no problem with some people fading in and out of my slice of reality as I move about.

MMO designers typically try to achieve something like this via self-selection and spatial grouping, if at all. One zone/shard/server/grid is designated “player-vs-player KILL” for example, so all of the over-aggressive types can congregate there and leave me alone. Another zone might be for shopping, and so would have a more authoritarian presence. I can avoid that area too. And there are often social-networking tools to find or promote people I like. But what about the idea (remember Usenet kill files?) of simply fracturing reality such that people I don’t like don’t exist, but yet I can still go anywhere and fun?

Technically speaking, this is hard to do if the goal is to have everyone exert influence on the world, as happens with user-generated content. If I build a house and you can see the house but not me, that’s not exactly as if I didn’t exist in your world — especially if I drop my house on you by mistake. Moving away from the literal reality, where have very little power and lots of headaches, to a more comfortable virtual existence is technically doable, but non trivial. Visibility has to be mutual among each pair of people, and everyone’s different. And there has to be some way of re-integrating changes in the world that preserves the notion of persistence and evolution over time while discarding dangerous (even terroristic) actions.

Spore is taking this idea to one extreme, with its “massively single player” game. The idea seems to be that everyone’s self-designed-or-evolved content goes into a big mixer, such that I can see any creature or vehicle you design in my version of the world. But it sounds like I’m not seeing you or any content that’s controlled by you, just new NPC instances that show up in my game. This is pretty safe, then, from griefing and other direct harm (unless I design exploding reptiles, for example, or crash-happy cars — but even, there seems to be a rating system to help). And it solves the dropping house problem quite nicely. I’m intensely curious to see if I can take something you build and modify it — if so, it has even more potential for moving beyond single player but keeping gameplay fun.

Personally, I’d be happy with some middle-ground. I’d love a creative space in which I can build sand castles or make movies without some brat trampling them or walking into the frame. But I’d also like to invite friends to build something in the same shared space, collaborate, show off, maybe even make a game for random people to try without having to also play front-line customer support. I’d like to gently be exposed to people I like or might like while safely ignoring the rest. Basically, I want the best of reality embodied in a virtual world without the limitations of time, space, and crazy interpersonal politics we all endure (only made worse by anonymity).

Second life is one extreme. Spore will be another. So who’s building the middle-ground?

The Fruits of Integration

Google Maps API Official Blog: Search for KML in Google Earth

It turns out, the "search for kml" feature in Google/Google Earth had been around before, but it’s now much improved and it’s worth blogging about the consequences. In lay terms, this is one big step to the metaverse so many have speculated about.

Why? For example, right now, all I’d need to do to get on the 3D map is put out an AviBarZeev.kml file with an icon of me, or even a 3D model or me and/or my house. If you search for me, or perhaps even for keywords for which I rank highly, you might just find me on the earth. It’s not what the avatar-seeking crowd wants just yet, but mainly because the frequency of update is low and non-interactive. However, if that KML file contains a network refresh that updates my position, then you can begin to see the next step in that particular direction.

There are limitations and downsides, of course. For one thing, this feature, while powerful, has the same practical issues as generic web search — semantics. And I’m hoping as Google tackles that overall (as it must to survive), it gets integrated here too.

But the more interesting angle is the question of what content will people find. Though Michael Jones refutes the idea that Google would support fictional (anything other than mirror-world) data planted on real Earth, Chikai’s example using Lord of the Rings is telling of what people will actually choose to do with this. Here, it seems someone plotted the shooting locations for fictional Middle Earth in actual New Zealand. But what’s to stop someone from plopping a version of Manhattan that’s straight out of "Under Seige" or "Escape from New York?" or even try to use GE as a platform for some game based there? It may not be part of the official GE experience, but to an end user, what’s the difference if it shows up on the Earth? In other words, if you search for "bridges out of Manhattan" and find them all barricaded with razor wire, that might affect your travel plans.

As long as it’s so obvious or at least labeled properly, it’s not a big concern. The bigger problem comes in when data is presented as factual and it is not. This is a problem of the web in general (and of areas like the West Bank in Google Earth in particular). I’m hoping the wiki-style mashups will help address some of that. And Google reportedly promotes "good" web pages implicitly, due to how well linked they are. It’d be interesting to see how well KML files get promoted or demoted in the search results based on their prominence, as well as other "quality" factors.

Now, I’m not aware of any sort of cross-linking among KML files yet, similar to how web pages can point to or reference each other without forcing each other to load. What would be fascinating to see is whether KML files will evolve as web pages have — my excellent Eiffel tower model could reference your fine Champs-Élysées and someone else’s Arc de Triumph. We would thereby cross-promote each other (in context: Paris Landmarks)… We’ll have to wait and see. But if it’s not already there, a new field for KML which offers the idea of an optional (e.g., clickable) link to other KML files, coupled with a sort of page-rank algorithm using these links, might just do the trick to creating this sort of "web of goodness" we enjoy.