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The Pervasiveness and Permeability of Games Worlds

The Microsoft Research Social Computing Symposium this week highlighted the pervasiveness of games and raised a number of questions (for me) about the thin membrane between games worlds and so-called real life. I was also reminded of a number of themes I first encountered years ago in a delightful and insightful book, Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility, by James P. Carse. I'll share a few highlights from the symposium, briefly note a related topic that wasn't formally discussed at the event, and conclude with some [relevant] highlights from the Carse book.

This year's symposium, organized by Liz Lawley, innovated in at least two dimensions. One was its dual focus on online third places --primarily, massively multiplayer online games (MMO[G]s) -- and mobile social software -- a category which includes mobile game applications. The second was the use of open space technology, where there were a few short lightning round presentations and a number of open sessions where people could propose discussion topics (online or offline) and recruit discussants. And with WiFi, a wiki, IRC, IM and a critical mass of World of Warcraft (WoW) players in the room, there was at least as much discussion going on in the backchannels as in the frontchannels (this level of activity at the first symposium prompted danah and me to organize a panel and write a paper about digital backchannels in shared physical spaces ... now it seems routine, at least among this crowd).

It is challenging to capture and condense all the insights -- and incites -- from the event. I'll briefly list some of the lightning round speakers and a few of the sparks they delivered:

  • Constance Steinkuehler talked about third places and education, embodied empathy in complex systems, MMOs as a gateway drug (to education), and the Christian Rock Problem (the tension between institutionalization and transgression ... or, perhaps, piety and play).
  • Tim Burke made the case for sovereignty (the open and transparent use of rules, reminiscent of chaordic leadership principles) vs. "veiled" management as a form of governance in games.
  • Nic Ducheneaut noted that a large proportion of WoW players spend significant portions of time alone together (a digital world version of a physical world practice), and suggested online games need new tools for non-instrumental communication to support indirect sociability.
  • Andy Phelps raised the walled garden problem with respect to the challenges in moving groups / guilds from one game to another, or even from one server to another within the same game.
  • Dan Hunter defined property as an abstract concept which is embodied in law, and noted that because of persistence, resource scarcity in game design, economies and property emerge in MMOs.
  • Clay Shirky claimed that the magic from inside the magic circle (the membrane between game world and rest of life) doesn't extend to the rest of life, because MMOs are sites of participatory value rather than productive value.
  • Rich Ling emphasized the importance of ritual (with its basis in mutual focus, effervescence, and power structure), and argued that mobile phones, with their support for informal coordination, will affect social cohesion more than the "traditional" Internet.
  • Dina Mehta illuminated the emerging market in India, where there are 75M mobile phones, growing by 1.5M each month, and SMS is the preferred channel, noting that 55M text messages were sent to a number associated with the television show Indian Idol.
  • Daniel Pargman shared some stories about Botfighter, a location-based game using mobile phones, including one high-speed car chase in the physical world to escape missiles fired in the virtual world (which would seem to raise the stakes considerably in the debate about the risks of using mobile phones while driving).
  • Cathy Beaton stressed the importance of designing technologies for people with disabilities, noting that other users are, at best, Temporarily Able-Bodied (TABs), and expressed concern that students may not be sufficiently responsible to make wise choices in their use of wireless technologies in a classroom environment (and I was not the only one in the room -- reverberating with keyboard clickety-clacks -- who was wondering why she was restricting her focus to students [in a classroom]).
  • Howard Rheingold asked how we could [better] cultivate the backchannels to support education, and highlighted what I considered to be the most inspiring use of mobile telephony for social causes I heard at the symposium: a global early-detection and early-response system for infectious diseases, pioneered by Larry Brilliant, which would, in effect, deputize smart mobs of health monitors worldwide.
  • Julian Dibbell championed the central importance of games in online spaces (bringing to mind the label game-centered sociality, based on the more general concept of object-centered sociality I first learned -- and blogged -- about from Jyri Engestrom at / around last year's symposium)
  • Fernanda Viegas presented some compelling visualizations of the evolution of pages in Wikipedia, described the process of peer review for featured articles (prompting me to think about peer review as yet another instance of a game), noted the increasing bureaucracy in the process, and asked whether this is [necessarily] a bad thing.
  • Kyle Brinkman asked "when is bad design good design?" (Danyel Fisher later asked the related question "when is failure good?") and suggested that one of the reasons for the popularity of MySpace is that it's bad design tells potential users "we're just as bad at design as you are" and thereby makes the site more approachable and likeable (I started wondering about whether a certain U.S. president has been using similar strategies in recent elections and other campaigns...)
  • Judith Donath provided what was, for me, the largest spark at the event: her invocation of signaling theory to capture and explain identity and interactions in online and offline worlds, and, quite possibly, between the two (during her talk, I kept thinking of the bumper sticker "Lord please help me to be the person my dog thinks I am").
  • Scott Golder (one of three of Judith's former students presenting, along with Fernanda and Karrie) proposed the provocative idea of socialist computing, asking whether we can support shared ownership through social computing, and offering the examples of, and Netflix.
  • Karrie Karahalios pointed out that much of the focus in social computing is on text and video, noted that we have spent thousands more years talking than writing, and suggested audio as a social catalyst and tool for revelation. She also shared an observation that resonates strongly with me: the more you talk, the more you discover about yourself (as I increasingly recognize that I preach what I want to practice).
  • Clay Shirky gave one of the closing keynotes, presenting some ideas about a pattern language for online spaces, and noting how different patterns are embodied by different tools, on different sites and for different purposes.
  • danah boyd gave the other closing keynote, weaving together some threads from her studies of friendster and MySpace, noting the importance of embedded design[ers] (people living in the culture they are supporting) and observing that teenagers are essentially "microcelebrities with their own Reality TV shows on MySpace" (one of my favorite one-liners from the event).
  • Elizabeth Churchill and Wendy Kellogg jointly presented the closing keyphotos, a lighthearted review of some of the interesting moments during the event -- a lightening round, perhaps --punctuated with some remarkable photos (and captions), some of which can be found via Flickr tag scs2006.

I participated in several interesting and far-ranging breakout session discussions, on the topics of reputation (proposed and led by Gary Flake), social computing tools in the enterprise (Ross Mayfield) and linking physical objects to digital information (Ulla-Maaria Mutanen), but those discussions will be best re[p]layed in separate breakout blog posts.

I had proposed a topic for one of the open sessions (online, but not offline), but was so interested in another topic proposed for the same session that I decided to join the other discussion. I also found that by simply posting this topic beforehand on the wiki, I was better prepared to discuss it informally in 1:1 and small group gatherings during breaks. Since the wiki was only available to participants, I want to post it here, in case anyone reading this has any insights they want to share ... er, not that I want to assume that anyone will have [had] the stamina to read this far.

The basic issue is permeability.

A number of observers and analysts have noted the positive aspects and effects of engagement in online worlds, e.g., in Dream Machines, the guest editor introduction the recent Wired special issue on The New World of Games, Will Wright contrasted the online and offline worlds, noting a focus on creation vs. consumption, cooperation vs. competition, and participation vs. passivity. In another article, You Play World of Warcraft? You're Hired!, John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas extol the virtues of the learning to be that takes place in online worlds (vs. the learning about that typically takes place in traditional education in the offline world). Claiming that "the process of becoming an effective World of Warcraft guild master amounts to a total-immersion course in leadership" they make a strong case for how participation in MMOs can help people become more effective in the offline world.

At the same time, there has been considerable debate about whether engagement in violence in online games creates an increased propensity for violence in the offline world, although studies have not been able to demonstrate a causal link (cf Eight Myths about Video Games Debunked).

It seems to me, you can't not have it both ways: perspectives and practices in the online world either affect those in the offline world or they don't. I'll unpack this claim into a number of subquestions:

  • Which behaviors, skills and experiences -- if any -- transfer from the online world to the offline world (and vice versa)?
  • If some, but not all, aspects of our online and offline activities and proclivities bridge the gap, what distinguishes those elements that do transfer (and why)?
  • If there is a link, do activities in one space tend to satisfy or increase the desire for activities in the other, and if "it depends", what does it depend on?

Finally (for now), I wanted to share a few favorite quotes and themes from the book Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility, by James P. Carse ... which remind me that games and play are -- or at least can be -- truly pervasive:

  • A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game is played for the purpose of continuing the play.
  • A finite game has temporal, spatial and membership boundaries that are externally defined, with rules that cannot change during the course of play
  • The rules of an infinite game must change in the course of play
  • Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.
  • The joyfulness of infinite play, its laughter, lies in learning to start something we cannot finish.

And that seems as good a place as any to finish this post.

[Update: Tim Burke has more extensive notes from the symposium on several posts in his blog: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8]

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