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Serious Games Summit Keynote: You Can (Not) Be Serious

One of the very first sessions kicking off the 2006 Game Developers Conference was a keynote for the Serious Games Summit which featured Linden Lab CEO Philip Rosedale, in a talk named 'You Can (Not) Be Serious' as he offered some fascinating opinions, both on the future of virtual worlds and the way in which his own company's efforts are helping to stretch boundaries.

Simon Carless, Blogger

March 20, 2006

9 Min Read


One of the very first sessions kicking off the 2006 Game Developers Conference was a keynote for the Serious Games Summit, which deals with game development in the areas of education, government, health, military, science, and corporate training. In it, Linden Lab CEO Philip Rosedale, in a talk named 'You Can (Not) Be Serious' offered some fascinating opinions, both on the future of virtual worlds and the way in which his own company's efforts are helping to stretch boundaries.

Firstly, however, Serious Games Summit chair Ben Sawyer introduced Rosedale, noting that there are over 100 different research-oriented projects within Second Life, and indicating that it could be an interesting future. Linden's CEO started with a Ted Turner quotation of no little piquancy: "Life is a game. Money is how we keep score", before moving on to some interesting introductory remarks on how he came to found Second Life.

Rosedale noted that he had a background in physics, rather than necessarily wanting to make games, and had a major interest in simulating real life. He noted: "Games can be seen as constrained simulations with goals", and continued: "How do we use computers to create a digital simulation of the world?" He suggested that his Linden background was the idea of simulation, and the overall concept: "As people, we can imagine the world to be a lot better... than it actually is."

Second Life - From Top To Bottom

The Linden CEO then ran over the basics of Second Life, explaining that the virtual world sought to link a large amount of computers (now around 2000) to create a physical world in which you can be immersed, and "strove to control a sort of digital atomic system" - small solids glued together to make physical objects. Over the top, scripting languages allow you to automate in-game behavior.  As an example of technology being adopted in intelligent ways, Rosedale pointed out that the technology to build kites has been in Second Life for a year and a half, but people have just worked out how to make a kite (something that the Linden staff hadn't even considered!) in the last couple of weeks.

A number of interesting stats for the virtual world were then rolled out. At 32,000 acres, the current virtual size of Second Life, which has more than 160,000 users, is bigger than Boston. The service currently carries more than $5 million dollars per month in goods and service transactions, and there are 10 million in-game objects, including 15 terabytes of user-created data. The game uses 2 teraflops  of CPU power for the simulation, and 230,000 discrete, differently named objects are sold or traded monthly. Some of the other major stats noted during the presentation - 43% of all users in Second Life are female, with a median age of all Second Life users of 32, and 25% of all users are international.

Interestingly, Rosedale suggested that a certain level of consumers in terms of population is really necessary to have any virtual world thrive, noting that a lot of virtual games picked on "your favorite brand world" can fail, and there's a "certain critical mass that you need to make things like that take off". Since Linden opened up Second Life so that members can join for free, though renting land still requires a monthly payment, membership has thrived.

One of the most interesting slides Rosedale projected on screen during this time was on the growth in users with profitable businesses. But most interesting, almost as many users as who make money each month lose money, showing that the virtual economy is shaking out in ways reflective of the real-world economy - not all merchants are winners!

Second Life Vignettes

In the next, more abstract section, Rosedale presented a number of concepts that he called 'vignettes' from Second Life, demonstrating several ways that the serious game community might be able to leverage the massive virtual world. The first of these was 'The Memory Palace', which he explained thus: if you were trying to recall the latest three files accessed in your 'My Documents' directory, you probably can't remember them, but you can remember a list of the items in your kitchen, most likely. This is because you've been building a space in your mind three dimensionally, and storing information in it. Thus as people are able to build areas in Second Life, they can create unique context that people can remember - as a memory tool, there's synergy there.

The next vignette was 'Virtual Work', and Rosedale touched on the "tremendous challenge associated with management", noting that Second Life was a fascinating social environment in which to manage other humans. The skills of management in virtual worlds, which are comparable to real life, present great learning opportunities for anyone working in Second Life - a possibly positive educational resource.

In addition, the Linden CEO looked at the avatars that people give themselves in Second Life, initially commenting: "We have often said that they give you an ability to run away from your identity", but noting that, in his opinion, that's not actually true. The idea that you can invest a lot of yourself into your virtual character means that you are "...more likely to express yourself more deeply with others in virtual world", it was suggested -  what you choose to look like means actually more, and this is a good trap, since it pulls expression out of us.

'Serious' Applications For Virtual Worlds

In his final section, Rosedale turned to some examples of educational, training or other practical 'serious games'-related subjects. In particular, he looked at the simulation projects started by Dartmouth College to work out distribution of medical materials in crisis. This involved modeling a plane and trucks in Second Life, and simulating pulling up in a truck and distributing material from the plane to work out logistics. Another real-world example that came up later was a company that specialized in tank leak detection at gasoline stations, and trained people by having them walk around in Second Life in a model of the gas stations, being able to see under the ground to understand the architecture of the underground gas pipes.

In addition, the concept of movie making in Second Life was discussed, with Rosedale pointing out that open systems afford the ability to do some sort of theatrics. Apparently, a Linden employee hired people in-world to build sets and serve as extras and serve in the film. Classes and schools in Second Life are also rapidly increasing, with 17 classes this semester, including ones in architecture, urban planning, anthropology - the world even has an ethics policy, given the increasing complexity of interactions in the world.

Therapeutic uses for the world were also mentioned, including a Second Life island for adults with Asperger's syndrome, who can then experiment with interacting with each other. According to Rosedale, the people in program reported that they were better able to overcome their fears of connecting to other humans in game, and were also able, in some cases, to translate that skill to the real world.

The final application focused on by Rosedale was charity giving, since in-game microcurrency meant it was easy to give somebody a dollar. The referenced example was the American Cancer Society, who had a charity walkathon, and raised a per capita amount of money, in a short period of time, comparable to what they would make in small American town over several months.

Virtual Question Time

The entire session ended with a question and answer session, which actually brought some intriguing questions about the complex online world that is Second Life. The first question was simply whether there is crime in the virtual world, to which Rosedale replied: "Yes, but not in a game-like sense". He did mention that there is fraud in-game, for example: "Buy this land because there's going to be a shopping center next to it", a concept that drew mirth from the audience.

The real-world tax implications of Second Life also came up, with Rosedale noting that the selling and buying of in-game items was indeed a "taxable event" as an individual - but many of the other concepts, including the idea of property tax levied by real-life governments, were very much not discussed and untried right now.

In ending, Rosedale mentioned the official website for those interested in using Second Life for 'serious game' purposes, http://secondlife.com/education - but the most effective conclusion to his talk was actually something discussed early on, when the Linden CEO, very much in 'visionary' mode, suggested that "New mediums are always used for entertainment first", something he suggested was true of TV, instant messenging, email, as well. He hoped that Linden Lab would be known for the fact that, in developing its technology, it had "the intuition that fun is first" - and as a SGS keynote, Rosedale's well-crafted lecture was certainly fun.



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About the Author(s)

Simon Carless


Simon Carless is the founder of the GameDiscoverCo agency and creator of the popular GameDiscoverCo game discoverability newsletter. He consults with a number of PC/console publishers and developers, and was previously most known for his role helping to shape the Independent Games Festival and Game Developers Conference for many years.

He is also an investor and advisor to UK indie game publisher No More Robots (Descenders, Hypnospace Outlaw), a previous publisher and editor-in-chief at both Gamasutra and Game Developer magazine, and sits on the board of the Video Game History Foundation.

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