So I’m catching up after a week of household projects and hiking with family. First, some miscellaneous thoughts about digital games and virtual worlds after State of Play.
1. The theme for State of Play was “Plateau” and unlike most such conference themes, it seemed pretty descriptive of where academics, policy-makers and developers are with virtual worlds at the moment.
On one hand, they’re undeniably established as subjects of study, areas of interest for policy and law, and as a media form which some companies will continue to produce, operate and profit from.
On the other hand, all the utopians who expected virtual worlds to have a transformative impact on culture and sociality, to be the transcendent media form of the 21st Century, or to be the perfected experimental instrument that would at last permit social scientists to generate knowledge comparable to the natural sciences have mostly moved on to the next technology of desire or have tempered their expectations. Academic work on them is unmistakeably segmenting into more disciplinary or focused kinds of questions, which I think is largely a good thing and a sign of intellectual maturation.
This sense of a flattening out of expectations did sometimes manifest as a kind of gloom or resignation. When the occasional panglossian voice piped up about how exciting their organization’s presence in Second Life was going to be, there was often a kind of bemused ripple in the audience, that someone hadn’t gotten the message that they were trying to peddle yesterday’s news. It’s hard to come down to earth and just deal with virtual worlds as merely a form of entertainment, only a form of communication, another interesting flash (but no more than a flash) of particular insight into human sociality and culture in the 21st Century. It’s maybe especially hard if you’re trying to pull down some money either to develop a virtual world project or to support major research into virtual worlds. I have no such ambitions so I can kind of afford to sit back with a bemused grin as others try to refine old turns of seductive phrasing, or to cop a superior pose at the frustrations expressed by people whose genuine artistic ambitions and life’s work are heavily invested in MMOs as a form.
This is a bit of what I was getting at with my remark that the developers’ panel seemed to be “chasing their own tails”. It seems to me that a few existing virtual worlds are meaningful commercial and cultural successes within their own terms, and that’s a good enough starting place. I’m the first to complain that the form is capable of so much more even within its areas of strength, but I don’t really expect a persistent-environment MMO with 3d avatars to have the dissemination of a popular Facebook or iPhone app or the commercial success of a Top-Ten television show. Especially not in a fragmented cultural marketplace which may never again have products which are truly dominating mass-market experiences shared by most or all of the North American audience.
I have a lot of the same wish list (or hate list) as the developers, but I think it might be time to stop and ask some questions about those ambitions without sidelong glances at World of Warcraft or recapitulations of the history from MUD to now as a kind of trauma. Why don’t we have dynamic or sandbox worlds? Is it all the bad money men who don’t get it? Are we talking about the same thing when we invoke those words and ideas? If there was an unlimited budget for development, what else would cap or frustrate those ambitions: absent or embryonic technologies, limitations of existing infrastructure, expectations of players, the organization and sociology of game design itself? Or maybe there’s some conceptual flaw that’s deeper still, I dunno.
The nice thing about getting to a plateau is that it might be a good time to rest, have a picnic lunch and enjoy the scenery and reconsider whether to try and climb the cliff looming above the current plateau or to climb back down and look for another mountain.
On the other hand, I really enjoyed the recent issue of The Escapist that focused on frustration. This is not unique to virtual worlds, really. I keep being struck that no matter how much I like digital games of all kinds, they are just rife with pleasure-killing features and designs that really seem wholly unnecessary, that aren’t part of the challenge of a game or even just a case of “filler”. Contrary to the editor’s note for the issue, though, I wouldn’t say that these experiences are what make it all “worth it”. Instead, I think they’re a real limit condition for digital games: a limit to their audiences, a limit to their success in their own terms as a cultural form, a limit to their success as products. More than a few experiences of dropping $60.00 on a bad, aggravating cultural experience is a pretty serious disincentive to keep going. I know, books, films, and TV can also be frustrating. But digital games have turned the unnecessary assault on the audience’s patience and sanity into a nearly standard feature.
By the way, last week was also a big week for industry mergers. What does it all mean? Hell if I know, but Electronic Arts is certainly an interesting company to study if you want to try and understand how the drive to consolidate, absorb and monopolize a given industry is ultimately even against the interest of the consolidating company. EA clearly has executives who understand that the company’s size and structure actively impedes it from consistently producing the best products it can or even from making consistent marketplace successes. But this is sort of old news for cultural industries in general.
It’s hard not to see changes in the management at Mythic as a sign that Warhammer Online is recognized within the company as coming up short against benchmarks for minimal acceptable success that Mark Jacobs himself announced prerelease. I wonder a bit if WAR is actually going to survive more than another year or so.
This makes me note also that elsewhere, SOE has become a curious niche with MMOs, a kind of elephant’s graveyard where wounded, underperforming or neglected games end up. Which, if they’re all making some kind of profit, makes some degree of business sense.
Going back to my first point in this post, though, you’d think this would all make it a bit easier to drive the point home with the money people in these firms that the last thing anyone needs is a clone of World of Warcraft. You can’t possibly out-WoW at release at this point, and so you’ll inevitably suffer by comparison, no matter how bored people are with WoW. When I read about something like the new Star Trek MMO and get the vague, possibly inaccurate, impression that there are going to be tank ships, healer ships, dps ships, or that the game-mechanical questions around cloaking are going to be imagined in roughly the same terms that rogue stealthing in WoW are imagined, it really depresses me. Most attractive IPs aren’t necessarily suited to be MMOs at all, and very very few are suited to just be a reskinned WoW. A Star Trek MMO might work, but only if the basic structure of the entire project is reconsidered from soup to nuts.
Moderating a panel on methdology and the study of virtual worlds at State of Play, I was suddenly struck that even though I’m more inclined to the methodological practices of my anthropologist colleagues who were on that panel, the foundation of my own methodological approach to the form is really quite different, and ultimately very much unlike my work on African history. Basically, I think I’m a memoirist at heart when it comes to games and virtual worlds, more like Julian Dibbell or Jim Rossignol. I think this is also a legitimate methodological approach within academic contexts as well as outside of them, and an approach that has a kind of tense, uneasy and sometimes rivalrous relationship with ethnography. I think I might try to work up a more formal commentary on this for Terra Nova.