Art and Exploration, Business in Virtual Worlds, Collaboration, Deep Thoughts, Second Life

Narrow Walks in Wild Gardens: Explaining Virtual Worlds

At some point we try to explain ourselves. Maybe it’s a room mate or a partner or someone at the office. And there are lots of reasons WHY we want to explain ourselves: maybe we want to share the passion, or feel like we have to justify the time we spend, or else, more and more, because we believe in it, we’ve seen it and felt it, and we know that there are things we can do that we can’t do anywhere else, and we want other people in the world to understand that as well.

So you end up trying to explain virtual worlds, to a friend say or a relative, and if you’re like me you swing from one end of the pendulum to the other.

You find yourself saying, at one extreme, that virtual worlds are transformative - an actual place, a world, a culture, where we’re released from the constraints of the atomic, of geography (although regrettably not of time zones) and like lucid dreaming we are co-creators in a new reality.

Um, yeah - you’ve had the blank stare too I take it?

So you swing the other way, and say that virtual worlds are practical, working platforms that are hitting the upswing on the Gartner Hype Cycle (as we silently curse those Gartner people), have lots and lots of schools using them, and help save money on travel, and are a source of new models for innovation, training and collaboration.

Thankfully, in that struggle to explain, we’re not alone, we’re all looking for the right words, and I feel like we’re getting close, that there might not be a single magic phrase but it’s the accretion of sentences and examples and stories and experiences that shifts the bell curve - no big brand is going to come in and validate what we know is real - we’ll make the shift collectively, one story at a time.

Studies from the Foreign Shore

I admit it: I’m a Tom Boellstorff fanboy, and he’s on Metanomics this Monday, and I’ll be hanging on his every word.

Part of it is his enthusiasm. Which should make for an interesting show, throwing glowing, happy Bloomfield onto a stage with effusive Boellstorff but that’s OK - a bit of optimism and peppy talk isn’t such a bad thing from where I sit, where February means grey and damp and stuck in the middle waiting for spring which still feels so far away.

And part of it is that his work as an anthropologist, and in particular his field work in Second Life, has proven that you can take different lenses to this problem of explaining virtual worlds, and that these lenses come to basically the same conclusions: there’s something happening here that has meaning, and it looks familiar, but there’s enough about it that’s different to make it at least slightly foreign.

When I interviewed Tom, we were talking about the challenges and opportunities of cross-disciplinary research in virtual worlds. And he made an interesting point: that one of the current challenges is finding the right language and terminology to underpin the disciplines. There’s a shift required, he says, to over-coming the barriers of entirely interpreting virtual worlds from the usual contexts:

“Now, one thing I talk about is that while I’ve learned so much from my colleagues in games studies, I feel that one place where I do think there needs to be more discussion and where I challenge them is around the notion that virtual worlds are games to be studied. People will say things like Second Life is a game. My joke was you know, if you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail and to a games studies person, everything looks like a game.

I think that’s extremely important. What does virtual mean? What does game mean? Are virtual worlds games or not? Does the phrase ‘real life’ versus ‘virtual life’ or real world make sense? I don’t think it does. I’m very careful to never use that in my writing, even though when people are sort of talking quickly in Second Life, they might say RL or real life, when you push them on it….

And so I think these sort of basic discussions are going to be really interesting and move things forward so that you know a challenge for me, for instance, is when you look at games like World of Warcraft or some of these other kinds of spaces, that from a certain stance are clearly virtual worlds, that have a much more obligatory or much more pervasive element of gaming.

And I think compared to almost any other topic I can think of, I think that this area is an area where there has been so much fruitful and generous and productive discussion happening between so many different disciplines and approaches, where people have to sort of go out of their comfort zones and go out of the terminology that maybe they’re used to using in order to speak to really smart people who are coming at things with a very different approach. I think it’s really exciting and really integrating.” (Emphasis added).

Channeling the Lindens
That pendulum thing swings both ways at Linden Lab as well. At the one end is Philip, and at the other is M, and it’s great to hear that they share a pod together and are family.

At the Lab, they’ve launched a new blog, and I’m sure Philip had lots to say, but it really has M’s hand all over it, the one where there’s an actual feeling of departments and channels and a recognition that there are different audiences. And while I already miss having one main voice, one main kind of messy and chaotic place to learn what’s going on, I have to say I’m impressed, and it makes sense, and it feels right.

(On the other hand, I still don’t understand the Cool Iris home page which is making less and less sense every day now that other chunks of the Web site are being rolled out - I far prefer the “What Is” page and don’t really care what the metrics say - that messy photo stream of a home page is disconnected from these other messages of elegance and simplicity and a feeling of directness and transparency, in design at least.)

And over on the blog, in one of those channels where the serious people are meant to go, they’re playing up a new white paper with return on investment information, and a clear-cut story of why this stuff makes linear sense, and M is talking about it on the business stations:

At the same time, Philip is out and about again, talking about the key business lessons from Second Life:

“I think there are a number of businesses that have been successful recently,” said Pip. “Because they’ve been able to let go, release control over their marketplace, their users, their content, whatever that means….There are so many opportunities using Internet technology today to fundamentally empower people to do something new, but as a company you have to recognize, and this is quite rare, that to empower people you must necessarily free them as users of a product or a service. Second Life is that kind of thing.” (Emphasis added).

Um. OK. I mean - that IS the thing, right? But it’s almost, well, laughable in an odd truthy way: imagine standing up at the Acme Widget Company and telling them that their success depends on, well, releasing control over….everything.
Our Grand Adventures

It feels to me like it’s important to have it both ways. To try to hack narrow paths through this wild garden for the people who need a route and a destination.

But to hope that they can look to the sides and see the strangeness, to sense the other stuff that’s just past knowing: that yeah, you can hold a meeting here and save on travel, but that you can also meet some people whose names you may never really know, who share a sense of this still being a frontier, not because it’s newly explored but rather because creativity and imagination are ALWAYS a frontier, it’s where the wild things are

We must become ignorant
Of all we’ve been taught,
And be, instead, bewildered.

Run from what’s profitable and comfortable
If you drink those liqueurs, you’ll spill
The spring waters of your real life.

Forget safety.
Live where you fear to live.
Destroy your reputation.
Be notorious.

I have tried prudent planning
Long enough, from now
On, I’ll live mad.

- Rumi.

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