Deep Thoughts

Emotional Bandwidth: Virtual Worlds and Games in the Age of Imagination

We were talking about fruit. Bananas, a cup of melon wedges. He couldn’t remember the pear. He could picture it, I think, but it took some effort to connect the image and give the pear its name.

It wasn’t exactly silent in the room. There were the bleeps of the machines and someone talking in the hallway. But there was a sort of silence in that space while we waited for the word ‘pear’ to materialize.

There was something profound in that moment of silence, of waiting, and somehow it held larger silences, the deeper rivers of meaning that run through things, it might have connected to something in the past, I’m not entirely sure, of other pears perhaps or certainly of other conversations, but mostly the moment was about nothing more complicated than a sort of translucent now-ness.

You can’t give moments like that a name.

You just honor them and feel richer for them. You might want to file them away or mark them, somehow, diarize them (or blog them) but none of those things adds to their profundity, and none of them can be communicated in a way that does more than ask: “did you ever have one of those moments” and maybe the person did, but the tendril of understanding isn’t a shared experience so much as a recognition.

I wonder if we have a capacity to remember now-ness? Isn’t looking back contradictory to those experiences when meaning isn’t held in what we do or where we were but is instead held in the silences or the music we hear that has no notes?

Last summer, I threw sticks into a river with my nephew. But the space that opened up for me was in the silent space between the sticks, outside of the splash they made, it was held somewhere in the moment before we chose the next stick and after the last one had floated downstream.

Meaning was invisible, held in the gaps between the things we can describe.

Philip Rosedale and the Algorithm of Empathy
I spent over an hour with Philip Rosedale at SLCC and we talked about emotional bandwidth amongst other topics.

It was a compelling view of an aspect of technology that felt intuitively right: that in a virtual world things can be communicated that an outside observer wouldn’t be able to spot.

He made an interesting point: that you could remove passcodes from Web site log-ins because you can measure the way in which people type. So, if I input my log-in name, for example, a computer can detect the very subtle ways in which my typing of that name is different from anyone else’s – a digital finger print, of sorts.

Intuitively, this makes sense. When you’re speaking with someone online, and when you’re speaking with someone in a virtual world in particular, there’s a layer of communication, of signals, that aren’t immediately evident:

- Pauses between sentences or a very slight, fractional delay in a response can often signal that the person you’re talking to has their attention elsewhere;
- Whether their avatar moves, turns its head, shifts from left to right can indicate whether the person you’re talking to is “present” in the virtual environment or is attentive to another layer of communication: text chats, say, or a Web site they have open in another window;
- And specific phrasings, the way language itself is constructed, signals world views or backgrounds which can break through even when someone is “in character”.

These things are so subtle they’re difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it. What an outside observer sees is an avatar and maybe some text chat, but they don’t see how someone’s familiarity with the platform allows them to pick up a set of signals that communicates emotion, context, or connection in non-evident ways.

These signals are also the reason why the introduction of voice to Second Life in some ways does a disservice to the power of the platform to communicate emotional bandwidth. Voice can be more efficient and can carry context of its own, but my personal belief is that when you use voice your brain somehow shifts signal processing from those ‘in-world’ elements to the audio signals and a layer of meaning is lost.

Philip’s view was that as technology increases in capacity, its ability to carry emotional bandwidth will increase as well. He had some kind of figure or physics or something that had to do with how much bandwidth we can absorb and how much bandwidth computers can carry – as the two approach parity, computers will be able to carry as much emotional bandwidth as physical reality.

My sense was that for Philip, this was both an inevitability and an intriguing technical challenge. If you could somehow start filling out the missing parts of the ‘emotional bandwidth spectrum’, virtual worlds can become increasingly compelling until, eventually, the entire spectrum has been filled or exceeded, and immersive worlds will carry those parts of communication bandwidth that go beyond information.

Yet while all of this may be true, the provision of the bandwidth for emotion isn’t the same as providing useful content.

Philip has been a visionary and has created a virtual world that streams and is editable in real time; has demonstrated that by providing the tools for economic exchange the concept of ‘user-generated content’ doesn’t need to solely based on platform owners getting ‘free’ content from their customers (although we can debate whether the ‘terms’ of that economic exchange are always fair); and has tackled thorny challenges related to intellectual property through the Copy/Mod/Transfer permissions system and micro transactions through the Linden dollar.

Now, sometimes he has mismanaged all of these things, or mismanaged the technologies that support them – primarily, I think, through enterprise organizational theories that are not sufficiently grounded – half-baked theories of how a company should be operated that are based on a few superficial concepts but lacking the larger system vision that they need (Love Machines and JIRAs and the idea that things should sort of self-organize based on rational actors, i.e. employees, always being able to make the correct choice).

But none of these things are betrayals, in particular. In the history of leadership, most fail almost as often as they succeed – they just succeed slightly more often.

Philip’s failure, instead, has been to the content that emotional bandwidth can carry. Because his actions, at least, communicate that the channels are more important to him than what they carry, and are more critical than the people doing the receiving. There’s no human equation, there’s no need to actually care, the important thing is to provide the pipeline and to believe that if the pipeline is fat enough its availability will trump the things that people feel because it was made available in the first place.

Games and the Economy of Signals
Second Life is unique because while it can contain games its primary purpose is to allow expression in a shared 3D space.

While Second Life was originally designed with the intent that it could be a game development platform, it turned out that it wasn’t actually that good at the physics and scripts and the real-time interactions that you get in, say, a first-person shooter.

By some accounts, the breakthrough for Second Life came when someone scripted the first “hug” – the ability for two people to hug each other via their avatars.

Now, sure, you can see where that goes – because if two avatars can hug, they can also do other things together. But all of those other things are an extension of a profound breakthrough: an online environment where you could not only create the world around you, but you could virtually ‘connect’ with other people, where the distance between you and someone else could be removed as much as is possible online and at a distance.

A few years ago, I would have said that games had not reached this level of possibility. That while games or MMOs could bring people together, they could not bring them closely together, that the capacity for emotional connection was limited because both game mechanics and limited interactions between players created a barrier to those richer signals.

But games, it turns out, have taken a different tack. Their capacity to communicate richer signals have been carried by an ability to tell stories, and to tell those stories within an experience that is often communal and that is easier to extend into other media.

The challenging bit, for game development anyways, isn’t to reconcile the ability of technology to replicate the emotional bandwidth of connection between individuals, but to reconcile the concepts of narrative, game mechanics and place with how we find meaning in those same things in our own lives.

There’s little debate that narrative can be transformative. You may hug your best friend when you see them, but in some ways this is a gesture of trust and care which lays the foundation to tell each other stories.

The idea of place can be transporting. It can create empathy, insight, and change our perspectives and beliefs by simply making us aware that the world that we see is not the only variation of being somewhere.

But the mistake that people often make, I think, is in confusing the idea of game mechanics with something that’s foreign or algorithmic. The challenge in game design, a challenge that is increasingly being met with greater finesse and art, is to deploy game mechanics so that they remind us not of something that is foreign, but of something that is familiar.

Game mechanics, in their purest definition, are simply the extrapolation of what happens in life. They are no different. They are simply the act of taking a slice of reality and making it visible to us.

Will Wright claims that the possibilities for game mechanics are as broad as life. That if you’re designing a game, the place to start is the world and to decide which part of that world you’d like to explore and discover. And that if you do it right, a well-designed game mechanic can have a more profound impact on our understanding of how the world works in a few hours of game play than a year in a classroom.

Now, when you’re developing a game, it’s easy to grab for the simple mechanics: for skills-based activities, repetition, and risk/reward.

People like Wagner Au have argued that Second Life and virtual worlds need achievement badges or accomplishments. Others will point to things like the success of Farmville and its simple attention/risk/reward and scarcity mechanics to argue that technology will inherently be better suited to delivering experiences that are more akin to working on a factory floor or winning ‘employee of the month’ certificates at the place where you flip burgers for a living.

Edward Castranova argues that these same game mechanics hold lessons for the real world – that your job should become more like Farmville, because the success of Farmville demonstrates that life needs to be more like a game.

What Castranova seems to forget is that games are derived from life in the first place and that the burden isn’t on life to become more like Farmville, but for games to be developed which extend the richness of life.

So while games have traditionally included place and narrative (in varying degrees of success), they had always reached for the ‘easy’ mechanics first.

In virtual worlds, however, we were discovering that the mechanics of an interactive space could have ‘mechanics’ that were more subtle, that were difficult to describe or parse, but which were mechanics nonetheless, and which were connected to collaboration, sharing, self-expression, creation and economic exchange. These mechanics allowed for the carrying of rich emotional signals, or emotional bandwidth (and was something that was unexpected, I’d propose, by Philip and others, who may have understood the idea of emotional bandwidth but could never quite understand the signals it was carrying).

But similarly, games started carrying an increasing range of emotional bandwidth, in ways that may have surprised the developers – outraged communities in MMOs, say, emergent behavior in shooters, or mods that modded out the intended game mechanics entirely.

Games, like life, are a pyramid in the richest sense: the simple mechanics like brushing your teeth at the base, and story, art and more complex meaning at the top.

A kid playing XBox might be playing a first-person shooter, but he’s also enriching his signal processing power, building out his skill sets with game mechanics which, over time, he’ll replace with more complex meaning – until in the worst-case scenario he’s receiving all of his emotional bandwidth from online interactions, or in the best case is opening him up to the capacity to engage with games and environments that extrapolate game mechanics in ways that we learned by accident in virtual worlds – the mechanics of economy, collaboration, creation and expression and, with any luck, moments of transparent now-ness.

Narrative Architecture
Games have a set of well-developed, tried, tested and true set of mechanics based primarily on pattern recognition, puzzle solving and skill. There will always be games like that, there will always be players, and they will often provide an intense sense of satisfaction, fun and to varying degrees will be addictive in their capacity to entertain.

But the increasing power of games is their ability to use a sense of place as the site for story. The challenge, it seems to me, is to widen the range of game mechanics that drive our interactions with those places.

Social media, in some ways, provides a hint of what those mechanics might look like. Already, those mechanics are being used for the Love Machines of the future: crowd-sourcing and user-generated content (with no tangible return in value for the people doing the generating) are two of the most obvious examples of how companies have extrapolated the mechanics of social media into tangible forms.

I’ve often called Second Life a 3D Mechanical Turk (one of the reasons I think Amazon is a better purchaser of Linden Lab than Microsoft) because it has created a mechanic that facilitates user-generated content.

(I’m also of the belief that Twitter and Facebook are similar examples, but in those cases the users have little option for receiving anything particularly tangible in return, and this lack of tangibility is the fine line between user-generated value being ethical or not. At least in Second Life I can choose to sell what I make if I want to).

“Social media” (a term loaded with incorrect connotations) has done nothing less than create a digital interpretation of the mechanics of sociality.

Now, I’m with Jaron Lanier on this: this interpretation is incorrect, and the systems have been developed by people (coders) who have, over time, embedded assumptions into the model for sociality that are dehumanizing.

Now, you can argue which of the assumptions are incorrect and how to fix them. My own belief is that there are erroneous assumptions about privacy, identity, and the range of choices we have and make about connection (friend, lover, it’s complicated!) But they are assumptions nonetheless and are not de facto truths as many technologists would have us believe (who argue, as Kevin Kelly does, that these are things that technology needs, that technology evolves like it does naturally, and who make it seem like the Technium is agnostic, something about which I disagree).

But this presents an opportunity: because what we’ve seen with social media and its expression in a value flow which is mostly one way (from user to platform) is that its possible to extrapolate mechanics from our particular understanding of life and to create digital spaces which allow us to experience, learn, and express.

The next generation of “game mechanics” (which, as I note above, are simply extrapolations from what we observe in life) could begin to reconcile place and story with the more subtle lessons we’ve learned from places like Second Life.

While I may be misappropriating the term, I call this narrative architecture, which I believe captures the more subtle ways in which digital spaces can be humanizing, can approach those moments of transparent ‘now-ness’, and which facilitate the richer forms of emotional bandwidth that are more akin to Second Life than Farmville.

We’re starting to see hints of complex forms of narrative architecture in games like Red Dead Redemption or FarCry (and was the promise, unfilled, of Alan Wake): complex environments in which the game play closes in on parity with story and setting.

There’s a scene in Heavy Rain in a train station which is one of the more profound experiences I’ve ever had in a game. While the game itself has an awkward interface, the narrative architecture integrated interface, character development and choice, setting and story.

These things facilitated the train station scene (start at 2:00 minute mark):

The Future of Emotional Bandwidth
If you’ve spent as much time in Second Life as some people do playing games, you’ll have had experiences not dissimilar in their emotional impact to that of Heavy Rain.

People like to say that Second Life is not a game. But in the broadest and noblest sense it is. Because the definition of games has always included the capacity for mechanics that are derived not just from the sort of shoot/rinse/repeat skill sets that we imagine from first-person shooters, from farming crops in Farmville, or playing Bejwelled.

Instead, Second Life has succeeded because its mechanics are based on things more subtle and broader: on concepts of economic value and exchange, personal identity and expression, and intellectual property development and transfer.

Just as game mechanics are derived from facets of life, these mechanics are also derived from our broader understanding of how the world works, and of our capacity to tinker with that understanding through the affordances of online experiences.

What we learn from the extrapolation and interaction with those mechanics isn’t just a product, in virtual worlds, of our mastery of skills and interfaces, but extends to what it tells us about ourselves, just as Heavy Rain asks us to ponder what the life of our child is worth and what cost we’d be willing to pay for that life.

As games are increasingly showing us, and as Second Life has proven, our future together in digital spaces will continue to be informed by the mechanics of those environments, but the rapidly evolving capacity to carry emotional bandwidth means that we will also have the opportunity to craft experiences that could lead beyond mastery to wisdom, past what is visible into things that are invisible but that carry richer meaning.

The narrative architecture we use to craft these experiences should not, therefore, simply be about solving the problem of attraction and retention, but should honor the spaces in between: the transparent moments of now-ness, those still and silent moments which, if we create the opportunity for them to exist, will help us retain the possibility that it’s not just the pipelines capacity to carry content which is important, but the content itself.

Our leaders in these digital spaces need to remind us that as the capacity for emotional bandwidth increases, so too does our obligation to create worlds in which the ethic and meaning of connection is not pre-ordained by a view of technology’s limitations or affordances, but is instead facilitated because it could allow us, still, to have a conversation about fruit, perhaps, or to wonder what the silences and graceful pauses mean, and to still discover that there are places in between.


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