At his 2008 Worlds in Motion Summit keynote, Areae co-founder Raph Koster decided to be a little cynical. He showed photos of Club Penguin, and glamorous Second Life characters with torn jeans -- and then followed them with unsettling slides of Darfur and Haiti.
"I look at what we do and I say, god damn, we're kind of irrelevant," Koster said, pointing out the schism between virtual reality and the real world we know.
Fifteen years ago, Koster found the idea of admin-controlled virtual environments unsettling -- "How much has that stunted the growth of the hypothetical cyberspace? I was typing this on a 300-baud modem and I was already upset about it."
"Today we're still downloading MUD clients. They just come with a really, really large graphic cache."
Back on Ultima Online
, there was no PK switch, Koster recalled. "If we had one, the players would never deal with anything on their own. Now, it turns out it's really lucrative to be solving their problems for it and taking care of them... we make a lot of money off of that. But in terms of what is it that virtual reality, metaverses can offer ordinary people? And this is relevant in an election season kinda time... Even in the freest of spaces, 'ordinary people' are still kind of subjects to the gods. So we haven't really pushed that hard on those boundaries."
Continued Koster, "10 years ago, there I am going all crazy idealistic on everybody. We were kind of myopically caught up in the Snow Crash thing. The net was incredibly asynchronous unless you knew all these obscure telnet commands. The synchronicity is now everywhere... we all have IM, we all have presence,things of various sorts popping up. The whole self-aware community is happening in a much more thorough way than a bunch of UO
players forming pixelated governments."
Koster highlighted the nature of virtual worlds professionals to focus too heavily on technology -- to their own detriment. "This isn't about tech, it's about people. Except god damn if it doesn't still seem to be about tech. We talk about the tech, we go to sessions about the tech -- why are we still watching tech? That is missing the point."
Koster used the example of the IGE legal battle and the leaked documents to illustrate the idea that because something's on the internet, it's assumed there's no governance. And, Koster says, there are only two worlds he can think of that have a system in place for user rights and information protection.
"We haven't even agreed that 'don't spy on your users' is a good idea," Koster added.
Overall, Koster urged the audience to think beyond their own solitary sphere, to be conscious of the "inbred lingo" we use, and to be aware of how many concepts we take for granted.
"Too many of the predictions that I cared about haven't come true, and too many of the easy, lowball ones came true," Koster said. Virtual worlds, he argues, have the potential to play a role in broader social causes.
When weighing the enormous success of Club Penguin -- "monetizing eight year olds," said Koster -- against larger dreams, he says, there are four sides to every story. Person A, he says, would be skeptical of the commercialism, while Person B would support the aims of Club Penguin in aiming, idealistically, to create the safest possible kids' worlds and donating 10 percent of their profits to charity.
"The truth lies somewhere in between," Koster said, for this example. "What we tend to read about is about what we have, who's making the money, who's bigger and that kind of stuff. Reading about the dreams? That's the human interest story that shows up once every three months."
"What is our imperative in this room?" Koster asked. "Why do we do this? And what are we aiming at? Is it financial, is it moral? It's great that we have the idealism, but are they shipping products? And it's great to have the commercial aspect, but, well..." Growth won't come from either idealism or commercialism, but from an overall imperative, he said.
"The interesting thing is that I remember making remarks a few years ago here about how it's a little weird that the future of cyberspace is going to be established by game designers. Then, other people actually came along and kind of snatched that from us. ...It's more being set by search engines," Koster continued.
"I don't want my virtual life to be a search engine -- I'd rather it was more game-like," he added. "But what we have tended to make has been not parks, but theme parks. What we've tended to make has been over the years more about reducing the scope of possibility than about expanding it. We've been reducing the scope because it makes it more consumer friendly." Why, he asked, can't a product be both consumer-friendly and empowering?
"If there's something virtual worlds can do, it should be about breaking the tyranny of that kind of tragedy of the commons," he said.
Most of all, Koster stressed, replicating real life in a new context is not an advance. "Don't get me wrong -- the democritization is a great value. But it's not that democratized. These [success stories] are wonderful, but we're just scratching the surface here. We have a long, long list of things that we could be doing, and aren't."