The Courage to Create: The Virtual City (Part One)

Virtual worlds will shut the airlines down I guess, the ozone layer will be saved, we’ll all be working from home and meeting virtually, watching movies together with our avatars on our X-Box, running a marathon on Wii Fit probably, and holding our family reunion at our beach house in Second Life.

In the gloomier world of Professor Castranova we’re part of an exodus to virtual worlds because life, having become unbearable, is a good excuse to leave it, or at least escape it for a while. Mind you, Castranova finds Second Life trivial somehow, there’s more to be learned in the structured tribes of Everquest or WoW, and in his world, life needs to be more like an MMO because MMOs are becoming better than life.

A Flat World Needs a 3D Technology
And this might all be true. Technology makes the world “flat” in Thomas Friedman’s view. The barriers to connecting and working together are removed, technology gets better, bandwidth increases, and suddenly production and value can skip around from time zone to time zone, never sleeping, never resting except in the sense that it COMES to rest where the production is cheaper.

So the argument goes something like this: the world is flat. Talent is dispersed. But technology is still a poor substitute for PRESENCE. And a video conference just doesn’t cut it: first, it doesn’t work as well as it should, or it’s expensive, or it’s still FLAT. So what we need is a way to combine these things: technology and the need for presence and our dispersed work forces and partners and talents, and look! Virtual worlds DO that.

But it’s more than just work. Because it used to be you liked chess, you joined the chess club. But kids can now play Scrabulous (er, or whatever version’s running these days after the take down) with someone from the other side of the world, or they can network with Obamaites on mySpace, or they can use Google Earth to organize the neighborhood into swarming someone’s swimming pool at 2:00 in the morning.

Technology brings us closer, let’s us cluster around interests like bands or books, and it’s the same with virtual worlds – who needs a sandbox when you can have Habbo Hotel? And virtual worlds offer those added benefits – presence, again, plus other stuff like game mechanics and fun and shopping and economies and, for some, safety. Because for kids, at least, or their parents, maybe virtual worlds can seem less creepy than the local park, or, even worse, than the malls, which makes everyone look pale and pasty and are better left for the seniors and their indoor walking groups than a kid with a credit card.

I mean, do you want your kids at home on a computer, or would you prefer them getting run down by THIS lot (read more after the fold):

These Worlds Are Not Alike
Virtual worlds are popping up like Web sites, or at least that’s the idea, there was $150M poured into them the first quarter of the year, so now we have kids worlds like weeds, we have IBM (a shining light of capitalist innovation) building an MMO of the Forbidden City for China (a shining light of, um, capitalist innovation), and a bunch of browser-based things, chat rooms, and, of course, the Red Light District virtual world where you can do what you can already do in Second Life, it’s just that you can be sure everyone else you bump into wants to do the same thing.

Yet with all these worlds, only a few of them include user-generated content as a core world “mechanic” and fewer still allow that content to be generated IN the world. Actually: one. Second Life, and it’s rapidly mutating genetic clone OpenSim. The rest of the worlds allow you to DECORATE. Or they let you import. Or they let you build stuff with whatever bits and pieces the platform provides.

Which is fine. Because as it turns out, letting users BUILD inside a world is a tricky business. And these days it’s probably easier to let folks import a bunch of stuff from 3DAZ…let the users learn Modo or Maya, Sketch-Up or True Space, in-world building is clunky, and laggy, and the asset servers will get overloaded. And users can still have a lot of fun cobbling together bits and pieces, creating levels like in Little Big Planet or creatures like in Spore.

The business meeting of tomorrow:

But if we’re going to talk about collaborating, and collapsing geography, and linking together folks in Australia with those in Europe – then we can stick to virtual worlds in the broadest sense: places where because of presence, and technology, people can meet, and save on travel, and load up a Web page or a PowerPoint or some project spread sheet or whatever and, well, talk about it (and sometimes modify it, like in Qwak).

And if we view the upside to virtual worlds on this basis then Second Life is, at the end of the day, about SAVINGS. It’s about efficiencies and travel costs and optimizing interactions because presence is better than no presence, or a Webex call anyways.

The One With the Best Tools Wins
But if Second Life is supposed to be about these things then it really isn’t THAT much different than someday holding a business meeting using the XBox. The argument for virtual worlds as a way to save on travel (I’m over-simplifying but you get the idea) ends up applying in some degree or another to any virtual world. The difference becomes the tools: which platform integrates best with Lotus Notes, or can import external data, or can seamlessly display youTube videos, or connects out to your Facebook profile or whatever.

Tish summarizes the arguments neatly over on UgoTrade, picking up on Raph Koster’s comments about what it will take to see mass adoption of virtual worlds:

“But, as Raph Koster in his post commenting on 3Di’s OpenSim announcement notes, the question how immersive virtual worlds can go from strong niche or enterprise markets to mass adoption in consumer markets must be answered. As Raph points out, Lively, Whirled, SmallWorlds, Vivaty, and yes, Metaplace have a very different architecture that they hope will attract broad consumer markets.

Architectural integration into the heart of Web 2.0, I would argue, is the key to mass adoption for immersive virtual worlds. While architecture alone will not guarantee the necessary breakthroughs in usability for widespread consumer adoption, it will create the ideal conditions for the innovation through which usability obstacles will be overcome, and the enormous potential for immersive, real time interaction over the internet will be realized.”

Now, this is fine. It proposes mashing social media with virtual worlds. But then, games are already mashing up with social media, and social media contains games, and worlds seem to want to contain both. I argued a while back that something like Puzzle Pirates or Small Worlds is less a world than a game with some world-like aspects. And I suppose building an architecture that allows a world to have social-media type aspects is another route. Sure, the architecture is what drives innovation in the sense that the right architecture lets you mix and match: a dash of social media, a lot of game mechanics, and a youTube feed and you’re good to go. Metaplace and OpenSim and inHTTP in Second Life builds out the mix and match mechanics.

But what I fear is that this line of argument can tend to put the technology and the widgets ahead of the people: virtual worlds are built to optimize, to save, to increase efficiency. The flavor of one over the other is defined by what tools it includes, what it allows you to integrate with, what it lets you port in or port out: it proposes that virtual worlds matter because they let people get together, and different virtual worlds will matter more than others, for different target groups, because of what tools and widgets they have.

And this is all true. And it’s all good. But if we get so distracted by how efficient and carbon-friendly and integrated everything’s becoming (all fine, upstanding things indeed) then we might forget that we ALSO believe, or some of us do anyways, that virtual worlds can also be transformative, or at the very least can be the early indicators of broader social transformations.

Collaboration and fooling around with friends in Warcraft or watching movies in XBox implies a significant transformation: a world without boundaries. And like M and Pip Linden have said about Lively, maybe these things are the gateway drug to richer and richer worlds.

The question is: once you’ve learned how to move your avatar, and once the environments become more and more immersive (because of their game mechanics, or their graphics, or whatever) are we transformed simply because we can be somewhere ELSE? Is our goal to replicate the world, or create a new one? And if we create a new world, what do we learn?

Spiked Second Life
But in counterpoint to the Flat World theory is the spiked city. Richard Florida has argued that rather than the world becoming more flat, the rise of the creative class is also leading to a deep concentration of capital – intellectual and otherwise, in fewer and fewer places. Namely, cities.

Florida’s turned this concept into a little mini industry of its own, publishing rankings and assessments of cities and granting endless interviews and offering in-depth punditry but all of it was based on his initial point: the world is increasingly fueled by ideas. People come up with ideas. Creative people come up with better ideas. The class of people who can do this are the engine of the “new” economy. And creative people like to watch foreign movies.

OK, well, not specifically that last part. But he does argue that if we’re living in an idea age, and with this age being driven by the creative class, then the winners in this age will be the organizations or cities or countries that can attract the best talent. At the level of the city, he identifies 3 indices that make up a creativity index: technology, talent and tolerance.

Now, I won’t argue about population figures or how many users there are or how many creative types live in New York or wherever. But what I will argue is that in counterpoint to both the Flat World theory and the Creative Cities concept is a place that embodies both: Second Life and, to a degree, other virtual worlds that allow creation in one form or another.

Because if you think about it, Second Life (as an example) embodies the virtues of the flat world: it collapses geography, it allows collaboration across space and time (zones). And it embodies the virtues of the great creative cities: it has a robust use of technology, it has a resident population of highly creative people, and the occasional Linden policy slip-up notwithstanding, it’s a tolerant place (what other city do YOU know with so many furrys and Goreans wandering around… leaving aside San Francisco?)

Second Life as One of the Great Creative Cities

Collapsing geography is an important transformation. Virtual worlds can enable this transformation. Aside from a sense of presence, and integration with “enterprise systems”, virtual worlds are also persistent. When a Web conference is over, so is the “world” in which the conference took place. Virtual worlds on the other hand allow collaboration in both real and asynchronous time. They allow both presence AND persistence.

And it’s the same for games, or socializing – all that stuff. Whether it’s Vivaty or Lively or Sony Home, the sense of a persistent space, the sense of presence, combined with being able to efficiently find people with similar interests whether they’re around the corner or around the world is about optimizing enjoyment.

But the beauty of Second Life is it is a source of value as both a way to SAVE and a way to CREATE. In business, you’re either lowering costs, or you’re increasing revenues. And while you’re not going to get rich selling shoes maybe, you might get rich because you plunked yourself down in one of the top creative communities in the world today: a rich, vibrant group of people who have created, prim by prim, the largest group narrative that, perhaps, has ever been created.

The fight today is not just the fight to save money (economy notwithstanding) it’s the fight to have the better idea than the person next to you. And I believe that Second Life is a test bed for the power of ideas: a giant experiment in user-generated content that goes beyond Wikis and youTube because it also creates new FORMS.

The company of tomorrow won’t use virtual worlds just because it’s an easier way to meet: they’ll be there because of the opportunities for serendipity, for new ways of thinking, for new forms and conceptual models. The better ones will show up not because they want to use a platform but because they want to share space in one of the leading creative cities of our age, and through that, discover, explore, and BUILD.

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