Business in Virtual Worlds, Collaboration, Second Life, Serious games

The Power of the Chicken: Prototyping the Future with Virtual Poultry

Virtual chicken are as close as we’re getting these days to the vision of Philip Rosedale, Second Life’s founder, Singularity cultist, and fluffy-haired chai latte drinker.

(Actually, I’m not sure if Philip drinks Chai Latte – more likely, he did once before it became popular, and he’s now sipping Indonesian Ginger Root Organic Iced Tea or whatever they’re serving in chic San Francisco hotel lobbies these days).

See, the Lindens are trying to keep that vision thing going – the one about enhancing the human condition, and so they’re offering prizes (big prizes! big promotion!) for the project that best uses Second Life to do just that.

The selection of Sion Chickens has ruffled some feathers, however.

I mean, how can a virtual game based on the premise that you buy and raise 3-D chickens improve the human condition? The Lab seems to imply that the project is useful because it’s well scripted and got press coverage:

One of the most original, immersive and innovative projects in the last year was also responsible for a craze that captivated the Second Life community before finding its way into the mainstream media. Love them or hate them, sionChicken was a technically sophisticated achievement in which many new techniques were created in order to accomplish the end result. This includes technologies like self-replication, path-finding-algorithms, growing-bodies or fractal-tree-generators and many other core elements.

And they’re partly right. But the true benefit of Sion chickens (and feed, and of course the eggs) is that they prototype the future: one in which virtuality will change and (hopefully) enhance the way we live, work, and play.

Now, before I go on – that doesn’t mean I think they should WIN. I have a personal preference for who should, but I’ll be accused of advancing my own interests so I’ll just step aside from that for the time being. Let’s just say, I really won’t be disappointed if they do.

I’ll be very happy to add Sion Chicken slides in my standard presentation to enterprise, the military and others – because they’re the future. Or at the very least, they’re one of the several futures that virtual worlds promise.

Virtuality, Really
There are a few ways this goes. Each direction holds it own dangers – like anything to do with progress or technology there’s a thin-edged sword between enhancing and, well, ending the human condition.

Enhancing Our Sense of Self and Exploration of Identity
The sense of immersion, the way we can express identity, the fluidity of things like gender, race, age, or even whether we express ourselves as being human at all is one of the paths by which virtuality shines a light back on actuality. Studies are increasingly finding a connection between our avatar appearance and our experiences in virtuality and things like self-image, behavior change, and empathy.

Change Through Immersive Story
The ability for virtuality to enable immersive story is another. In particular, immersive environments that respond, reflect or are altered by the participants bring a new tool kit and meta-structure to story which we’re at the very early stages of exploring. I’m personally of the belief that story, whether expressed through written words, paintings, machinima, games or virtual environments can change minds, hearts and cultures.

Under the large tent of story, I’d include the best examples of training or meeting in virtual worlds. The best stories we tell are to each other. And the increasing ability for virtual worlds to provide context and responsive environments against which those conversations take place creates rich possibilities for shared narrative.

Removing the Tyranny of Geography
Removing the ‘tyranny of geography’ was one of the early promises of virtual worlds. The ability to be present in the same place in spite the participants being at opposite ends of the globe was meant to be the great leveler – ideas could flow, cultures connect, shared or divergent interests brought together.

Of the three ways in which virtuality specifically might change or enhance the human condition, I actually think the last holds the least promise, primarily because the tyranny of geography is being removed in so many other ways that don’t rely on virtual worlds. I mean, I’ll hardly say that Chatroullette is evidence of the globalization of human connection, but it’s not a bad example, if nothing else, of the other ways in which we’re connecting across geography outside of virtuality.

Having said that, virtual worlds offer more than “meeting” across distance. They provide a way for someone in a small town somewhere (and remember, over half the Residents of Second Life are from outside the U.S.) with the chance to participate in community, commerce and knowledge sharing in ways you just don’t currently get in other media.

The Golden Egg
Sion chickens are a prototype of something else. And they remind me of all of the best things that makes Second Life what it is.

Actually, let me rephrase that: they remind me of all of the things which makes a thing I love what it is. And that includes lag, drama, and the instinct to be tribal. So I’m in full awareness here that I’m taking the bad with the good.

Sion chicken, unlike that horrible vampire game of a year or so ago where the premise was to, um, go around randomly biting people, are an elegant design solution that incorporate 3D design, scripting, commerce, play, and competition.

Sion chickens aren’t unlike Farmville, a game I hate. Farmville is constructed to addict. Farmville is explicitly built on the sole basis that it is monetized based on user time. It trains you to click your mouse. It trains you to “go viral” but it does so because its motivation is more users, more user time. It’s built to ramp up your investment of time: engaging you, addicting you, and then bringing you to a wall where your choice is to perpetuate the viral sociality, or to shell out actual dollars to enhance your ‘fun’.

But Sion chickens have two big differences: they’re inherently social in a non-algorithmic way, because at its best it requires social connection through auctions, interaction with other breeders, and sharing of tips and insights.

And they’re based on a functioning economy of supply and demand which is relatively transparent.

Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t think they’re a bit too much like Farmville. It’s that thin edge sword – on the one hand it can be addictive and algorithmic, and on the other it can be enabling and social.

Enhancing the Human Condition
On their own, they don’t particularly enhance the human condition. Which is why I can’t really say they should win the Linden Prize.

But they do model a few intriguing things. And I’m happy to use them as an example with enterprise clients, cause marketers or brands as a source of insight into where virtual worlds will take us.

Massive Scale Collaborative Work with Rewards Built In
Sion Chickens hold the, um, kernel for new concepts of distributed work. Substitute “rare eggs” for “demanding tasks” and you get the idea – users collecting work tasks based on the level of difficulty and being rewarded appropriately. The embedded bidding and auctioning aren’t so different from crowd-sourcing, but with a difference: instead of trying to get free work from the “crowd”, you’re including proper rewards and pay.

On this level, Sion Chickens represent the work that Philip is doing with the Love Machine and Rewarder.

Consider his description of the “Rewarder”:

The idea is simple: Instead of a management-led exercise in reviewing and ranking team members, simply give everyone in the company the same amount of money, and then tell them to give it away to everyone else, in any way they think makes sense.

That’s madness, right? Actually, no. It turns out that if you are willing to take the plunge (which you can easily do by starting with a small amount of money assigned to the program), and if you do it the right way, this process is statistically optimal in valuing team-members. It can’t actually be done any better. By engaging every brain in the company in a fast collective evaluation of everyone else, you maximize the ‘computation’ allotted to the bonus process. No small group of managers, however well-meaning, can approach the accuracy of this process, because they can’t possibly know the details of how everyone contributed and supported each other.

Management is the equivalent of Sion, populating the system with tasks and money. The collective evaluation is the equivalent of the price of eggs.

One of the things I love about Sion chickens is they include money. Sometimes lots of it, but mostly small amounts. Get started for pennies, really. They’re a powerful example of the concept of micro-loans, entrepreneurial activity, and provide embedded training and knowledge of economics, supply and demand and brilliant marketing.

Problem Solving
There was a wonderful presentation at the Games for Health Conference a few years back introducing a program called Fold.It, a puzzle-solving game in which users are asked to unfold proteins.

And I couldn’t help thinking of Fold.It when I first heard of Sion Chickens. Consider what others have written about it:

Boing Boing:
“I may regret this. Last night, I started playing Foldit, a free computer game that’s rapidly becoming every bit as addictive as, say, Crayon Physics Deluxe, which is, to say, dangerous. Very, very dangerous.

On the plus side, I will at least be losing productivity for a good cause. Released about a year ago, Foldit is a puzzle game that harnesses the power of human putzing to help scientists unravel the mysteries of protein structure…That’s where Foldit comes in. Computer programs could calculate all the possible protein shapes, but it would take far longer than the average researcher’s life span. Instead, the University of Washington team that developed Foldit is hoping that human game-players can figure things out faster.

After playing a series of practice challenges that teach the rules–basically the laws of physics as applied to protein structure–players are then set on tasks that use their natural 3-D problem solving skills to pin down the best structures for certain proteins.”

Science Daily:
“We’re hopefully going to change the way science is done, and who it’s done by,” said Popovic, who presented the project today at the Games for Health meeting in Baltimore. “Our ultimate goal is to have ordinary people play the game and eventually be candidates for winning the Nobel Prize.”

Now, Sion chickens are hardly going to win the Nobel Prize. But they ARE proof-of-concept that there are users in Second Life, and lots of them, who if provided with the right game mechanic, could tackle some pretty serious real-world challenges.

They’re trivial, they’re annoying, they’re lag-inducing, and they’re way too much like Farmville in some respects.

But in the Sion chicken are the seeds of Philip’s vision – the collective conscience coming together through code, immersive spaces, ownership of property and commerce to create something that transcends an individual sim, an individual tribe, and brings our creativity and sense of fun to the Grid and then, maybe, some day, the world.


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