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Exclusive: Hawkins, Rosedale Talk Future Of Games At CNN Summit

As part of CNN International’s new “Future Summit” series at Stanford University, EA and Digital Chocolate founder Trip Hawkins and Linden Lab CEO Philip Rosedale (Second Life) debated the future of Web 2.0 tech, games and virtual worlds with other
On April 23rd at Stanford University’s Fairchild Auditorium, CNN International’s new “Future Summit” series brought together a diverse set of panelists – all at the forefront of Web 2.0 technologies – to discuss virtual worlds, and gaze into their respective crystal balls regarding the future of communication, creativity, games, and entertainment. Panelists included Stewart Butterfield, co-founder and CEO of Flickr, Trip Hawkins, founder of EA and current CEO and founder of Digital Chocolate, Ellen Poon, a former employee of George Lucas’s special effects company Industry Light and Magic (ILM) and current president and creative director of the environmentally-conscious Lancet Films, Philip Rosedale, CEO and founder of Linden Lab (the makers of the popular virtual world Second Life), and Nick Yee, a PhD student in communications at Stanford who is responsible for social psychological studies of players in massively multiplayer online games (also known as The Daedalus Project). One of the first challenges was to attempt to distinguish “virtual” from “real” experiences, but interestingly enough what was discussed was largely the similarities. Rosedale – arguably the most vocal of the panel that evening – suggested that the ability to affect the virtual world is key to achieving a believable sense of “reality”: “The thing that makes the world real is that we can change it. We have the ability to alter it. Those things that we can reach out and change are things that we fundamentally or collectively believe to be 'real.' And so virtual worlds, to the extent that they empower people to alter them, to sort of shape them around themselves or around their friends - those aspects of them are what we imagine to be 'real' or what we call 'virtual' worlds.” Yee furthered this point, citing his extensive research that generally indicates that players’ behavior generally reflects the etiquette of real-world behavior. For example, players generally won’t stand too close to each other, and Second Life avatars who bump into each other will usually apologize. The discussion of social norms led moderator and CNN International anchor Kristie Lu Stout to question the panelists regarding the value of virtual friendships versus that of “real” friendships. Recounting a virtual-turned-real romance story, Hawkins argued that as a society we are not only enjoying these virtual interactions, but actually pining for them in today’s increasingly isolated existence: “If everyday consumers are looking for love in a [massively multiplayer online game], it really speaks to what a tremendous demand there is." If people can’t get social interaction in the real world, it seems that people will seek it out in a virtual world. Stout raised the issue of anonymity as an impediment to friendship. Rosedale responded that the fantastical avatars one creates can actually be more revealing of a person’s true character than one would think. “There's actually a freedom there that I think sort of – in a good way – traps us into revealing things about our identity, perhaps slowly,” he mused. “But once they're revealed, the richness of character that a house that you can go and buy furniture for from a thousand different people making furniture, picking the stuff you want, putting it into your house - it says a lot about you." Hawkins agreed, pointing out the human drive to find not just a personal identity, but also a social identity, to help determine one’s own status and the means by which to elevate it. The panelists also offered insight into how Web 2.0 applications have fostered an unprecedented level of creativity, because of both easy-to-use distribution channels as well as a healthy spirit of competition fostered by bottom-up, community-based evaluative metrics. They agreed that competition was the key to the brilliance emerging from YouTube and Flickr. Rosedale called this creative process “bootstrapping”: “You bootstrap by climbing up onto the top of what your neighbor has done, and that process – which is the same one we have in the real world – is just happening at a much higher speed in these environments. So will the future journalists and future game designers and future photographers come out of this open-ended user-created process? Without question.” All the panelists seemed to agree that Web 2.0 technologies were fostering a renaissance of creativity. In the spirit of CNN’s “future summit,” the panelists were asked to look towards the future of entertainment. Drawing on her background in film and visual effects, Poon asserted that filmmakers now have the capability to do anything, and that new technologies had created a new visual language—albeit one still being learned. And games? Hawkins argued that there has been a more concerted effort recently in making games more accessible to the general public. “That’s always been the big trend,” he admitted. “We got maybe distracted by the technology for a while.” Yee agreed that newer technologies are not necessary to make virtual experiences any more compelling, a claim that Butterfield had made earlier regarding the equally compelling nature of computer-based text adventures. He said that the popularity of World of Warcraft was hardly due to its graphics, but rather its social gameplay. Stout then asked the question that would make most ludologists bristle: can a game make you cry? Hawkins said the potential has been there for quite some time, but jokingly side-stepped the question by turning to Yee, the PhD candidate. “We got a thing for you to do,” Hawkins instructed. “We got to get a hundred kids that are playing Nintendogs on their Nintendo DS and make their dogs die.” “I think that wouldn't pass the ethics panel,” responded Stout. In the end, there was little disagreement among the panelists regarding the creative revolution underway. It was a bit surprising that the event was not better attended (perhaps 30-40 people showed up), particularly at Stanford, in the heart of Silicon Valley. The “Virtual Worlds” Future Summit can be seen on CNN International (entirely distinct from the domestic CNN network) on June 13th.

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