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Whattup peeps, it's me Will again, I haven't posted in a redonkulously long time, but I've been swamped with shiz and life (whoa is me!) it goes:)

So I finally graduated college and ended up doing really well on senior thesis, I eventually entitled it "Silicon Dreaming: How people are changing reality through play in virtual worlds". What a mouthful, huh? If none of you remember what the thesis was about, or why I chose the topic in the first place, let me just say that, as an avid gamer and former MMO (GRRRR WoW) addict and a student training in anthropology/American Studies throughout college, I wanted to focus my final academic effort as an undergrad on something that mattered to me personally; the burgeoning migration of people to virtual spaces and the distortion/creation of realities in cyberspace. In the paper I focused on how powerful notions of market economics and personal visibility were areas of interest that are being explored in beautiful, dangerous, powerful, fun, addictive, psychotic and all-together extremely prescient ways through virtual communities of people "dreaming in silicon" together in the consensual hallucination of virtual worlds.

Though I couldn't talk about everything I wanted to, or avoid as many typos as I ended up having in the final piece as well, I was very proud of the effort that I had put into my piece and was grateful/relieved/blissfully happy when I finally broke into our department's disability access elevator (the building was stupidly locked on a sunday because of finals...) and slid my glossy, still warm pages from my trembling and sweaty palms under my professor's door.

So what does this blog post have anything to do with the larger Destructoid community and why should anyone spend their precious time reading this seemingly ambling rant about my senior thesis and graduating from college? Because it's me dammit!!! Just kidding. In all seriousness though, I wanted to talk about how my paper on virtual reality and how all of our lives now in this current generation of new social, gaming and business technologies are blurring conceptions of reality.

As I write this, in the cafe I'm sitting at on a blustery and chilly June day in Berkeley, Ca (Read: NOT SUMMER), literally everyone in the cafe, about 20 people, including myself obviously, are plugged into some technological device or another. The girl across from me is flirting with her colleague (I deduce that's what he is) and is plundering the depths of LinkedIn. The woman to my left is playing Angry Birds and the dudes to my right (I'm guessing in their thirties) are giggling and sending bits of PHP code to each other. You can order food virtually and pick up food at the cafe, there is some weird fusion jazz playing in the background and my coffee tastes like shit. Everyone I see outside is either looking at their phone or listening to their ipods and my best friend is texting me from DC about her life. I can't help but feel a little lonely in this morass of techno-humanity.

Again, I've got to stop this rant reassert that it is going somewhere and your time was not yet fully wasted. Like the people I talked about in my paper playing WoW or bounty-hunting in EVE Online, checking up on virtual crops in FarmVille or literally murdering each other over virtual merchandise in real life, sometimes I wonder if any of these people are real. I can see them. I can see them moving and eating, talking and laughing, typing and bitching online about their lives, but I don't know any of these people and I can't help but feel a little bit lonely. Life as a post-grad is a weird amalgam of all of my experiences to this point and I should be prepared for the real world, but I don't think anyone really knows what the real world is anymore; I certainly don't. I guess my point with this post, if there is one point, is that I don't really feel like I'm part of a community in real life, even though there are real people around me, and it's easier to pretend that there are people who care about you in cyberspace when you don't have to deal with them personally, when your problems and insecurities are buffered by a virtual barrier of impersonality that cyberspace affords. Writing this blog post, like playing WoW or EVE, is an escape from the mundane, from the painful, from the lonely. Maybe I'm just feeling emo right now, but maybe it's because we are all escaping to cyberspace that reality as lost meaning and feeling when it's outside of a computer screen, virtual battleship or avatar.

Thanks for putting up with this-----> I still don't have a job, so this is what I do in the meantime.

7:27 PM on 04.29.2011

Hi yall, so I've been diligently (cough*cough*) writing my thesis and it's now due in a week. If anyone remembers, it's the one about virtual worlds and all that jazz and fun stuff. Sooo, long story short...advisor said she was "impressed". Wooot! It's due on May 5 and is still at an "early" stage soooo I'll have more on that later.

Back to my main reason for posting. Recent rennovations in the website design of IGN are gearing it to a more social-like network for videogames. The site, at 15 years old, is the largest videogames news and review site on the planet. It has always had blogs and forums since it's founding in 1996, but with the leaving of certain geek-legendary editors over the years and other mitigating factors that just naturally go along with the growth of a online community, groups of people trolling most stories or just commenting about Jessica Chobot's boobs started to fester and grow, eventually taking over most of the site. Sometimes with the wretchedness of Yahoo! News users and dogged determinism of /b., IGN users gave the site growing bad rep. over the years that I know has been echoed throughout virtual circles and boards across the internet. Which is a shame because from my experiences working at IGN as an intern and visiting frequently as a user, the people who work at IGN are pretty cool. Had I worked in the community management side of IGN instead of editorial I think I would have killed myself with all of the bad crap being called out to the editors and just to other users. Now, however, with the addition of Facebook-like reputation systems, twitter-like personal pages, and a social-networking videogames-themed stock trading game, IGN seems to be on top of the world and claiming back their users who have gone astray.

If only trolls just thought of this before they posted

My question is: With a new focus on social networking noticiably toning down the trolling and upping the behavior and immersion of their community, do you think IGN is taking queues from the success of sites like Destructoid and trying to competitively get an advantage and take some more market share? And, if this is the case, and the economic theory of competition in like-markets would suggest it is, does that mean that the people who run Destructoid view themselves as competitors of IGN (as opposed to an entirely separate type of community that happens to be focused on videogames as well)? With videogames(and virtual worlds!:P) mass popularity and saturation across an array of markets and with the continued growth in profits for the media sector in general, does that mean that sites like IGN, Destructoid, Kotaku, and N4g are going to have compete for popularity, visibility and market-share as their chosen media (videogames) gets ever more popular?

Obviously how the conflict would go down.

If I were an economist, I would say s**t yeah it would, but what does that mean for sites other than IGN, by far the largest and most profitable, for other, smaller, less corporate videogame-centric sites like Destructoid?

Screw having a sore throat right now.

On the internet, in a game, in a virtual world, the driver (player, user, individual, ego, what ever you want to call it) is rendered incarnate in the pixels and code of a virtual body. People, with our complexities, our cultural identities, our invidiuality, have access to whole other worlds now with entirely new systems of physics, social structures, entertaintainment and, most importantly, human interaction. We can disappear into this rabbit holes, opening our new set of eyes into worlds that are reinvented and redefined on the fly, and, for the first time in human history, participate in the crucible of cultural creation and evolution with levels of peronsal interaction across such an array of people and media never seen before in the history of human communication. How many of you have a Facebook, a twitter account, watch videos on YouTube? We are all attached, in some immutable way, to the organ of digital language; This is how we speak to each other.

Is this scary? 18 million people pay to play World of Warcraft, 12 million people have avatars populating Second Life, 47 million are watching digital sprites grow in Farmville daily. Many of the people populating these virtual constellations of worlds are spending 4-8 hours per day in these places, fighting, gardening, talking, dating, attacking, and growing together. Experiences are emergent and engage thousands of players simulataneously. These are real places populated by a new race of human in the form of the avatar, a fearless, powerful, creative entity with the chance to free the human driver from the physical realities of non-virtual space. If you could, who would you be, what would you do?

Eve Online, Incarna Character Creation System

Of course there are roles and rules in these "synthetic spaces" in what the design of these places allows for; the mage only has so much mana, you can't take that boss out alone, people have more gold than you. This makes sense though in worlds being seen through the eyes of a human-controlled avatar. Social structures are laid down, relationships are entered, value is established for goods and labor, even in-world media is implemented all combining to form emergent and diverse cosmos of cultural production.

The world in Firefall

These places, like in the real world, allow for the creativity and flexibility that its attending communal groups allow for. Enthusiatic and healthy spaces are full of emergent, community-driven experiences that go beyond the packaged foundation provided by the devleopers. Like architects from the future, virtual world designers and communities of invidiual modders ensure that these worlds stay viable, creative and healthy. Essentially, these are labs for studying at once the foundations of human social experience and an evolving social contract between the myriad number of drivers that is changing those foundations radically.

Mash up of ideas for thesis, What do you think? :P

Hi all again, maybe some of you are getting annoyed with my seemingly incessant anthropological forays into the psyche of game worlds/cultures for my undegrad thesis, but, I assure you, WE MUST MARCH ONWARD TO VICTORY!

Haha, I just wanted to ask you Dtoiders, whom I proudly include myself among you all as being a fellow cute, green robot, what, if anything, Dtoid brings to your lives. How are Dtoid and, by extension, other gaming blogs/communities like Kotaku or N4G, relevant to the cultural kaleidoscope of your lives?

Have you made meaningful relationships through Dtoid or personally grew as individual by meeting with other cool, like-minded people? What have been your best (and/or worst) memories of Dtoid and its community?

Did you know that this means "I love you" in sign language? MINDBLOWN!

12:24 PM on 04.05.2011

Hi all, first of all, to those of you who have been wonderfully freaking awesome and have trudged through my steady progression of ADD-addled/half-baked thesis ideas, I thank you so much. You've given me great constructive criticism of what to include and what to cut from my paper on cultures in virtual worlds and that has been hugely helpful.

However, I'm a crossroads now, one that I feel is pretty hard to navigate in writing but seemingly the easiest thing to do speaking. I want to show how virtual worlds are both fucked up and wonderful places of human interaction and that alone makes these places very real for the people who engage with and within them. I had tons of saved chat logs from second life to show but, because there is a merciful puppetmaster in the heavens, it seems that they have been deleted so now I'm at a loss and the 30-page, near final draft was due this morning.

I ended up turning in just a 38-page .doc of complete nonsense and run-on sentences that had no cohesion and no direction. Again, because we are willful servants to a bemused higher will, call him Cthulu if you will, it did not hit me until this morning, AFTER 4 DAYS OF STAYING UP UNTIL THE ASSCRACK OF DAWN, what my structure for the paper was going to be.

So now, here it is:

1) What are virtual worlds?
2) In the begginning, there was MUD
3) Player agency and the birth of the avatar
4) Worlds of life, loss and Warcraft (Trolls, e-bussinesses, marriage, etc.)
5) What do virtual worlds contribute to humanity
6) Conclusion

GRRRRRRR, I guess this is a big rant. Coupled with this and my ridiculously-behind animation work for comp sci, I'm about to lose my shit.

Hi! This is finally a coherent, working part I of my undergrad thesis on virtual worlds. Feel free to comment, troll, love, criticize and/or fap to this, it's awesome to get feedback:) (It's a working draft, but feel free to rip it apart :P)

I. In the beginning there was MUD

Though the virtual worlds themselves can have established stories or in-game characters to interact
with (called NPCs or non-player characters), not all of the characters in these worlds are controlled by the game itself. The human player controls the aspects of his/her in-game character, taking charge of interacting with the created experiences of the game environment and, in a virtual world, with other players in a dynamic, collaborative narrative interacting with and within the designs of the virtual environment. A game arguably only becomes a “world” when its in-game characteristics do not remain static, for example, when the narrative experience changes as more players interact within the game. However, virtual worlds exist, necessarily, with or without interaction from players and are defined as “persistent” worlds simply whenever the content of the environment is being changed persistently over periods of time whether that means with updates (patches) or in-game events that could occur at any time.

Since their inception in the late 1970s, virtual worlds have developed in extraordinary ways, beginning with the first MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) all the way to the current generation’s titular games, like the immensely popular World of Warcraft, the social simulator Second Life and the social-networking game FarmVille on Facebook. With an incredible amount of creative utility and social interplay, virtual worlds have redefined what can games can achieve and what virtual spaces can represent, offering far more to users than just the pursuit of entertainment. However, the foundational focus of play in games, whether with a player’s environment, creatures or interaction with other players, is representative of a core aspect of human culture in general, one that has been importantly brought over into the virtual world and is a key argument for the importance of these worlds and games in general (I will discuss this topic in more depth later on). That being said, virtual worlds, like those seen in Second Life (2003, Linden Labs) or the popular MMO (Massive Multiplayer Online Game) Club Penguin (2005, Disney), a game targeted primarily at children ages 6-14, play host to complex social interactions between players, engaging players in actual businesses, promoting education and focus on social interaction as opposed to fighting monsters or direct competition between other players.

These virtual worlds, from World of Warcraft (known colloquially as “WoW”) to Second Life, are drawing in huge revenues from subscriptions, exclusive content and expansions (Club Penguin has 700,000 subscribers and generates $40 million per year) and have become lucrative businesses for the developers and publishers as well as the users themselves who create businesses selling in-game items or characters. Though today the influence of lucrative consumerism and e-business has certainly changed the landscape of virtual worlds, the core aspects that attracted the first players to these places in the 1970s-1990s remain largely unaltered. The principles of interactivity and play remain at the forefront of these virtual worlds, encouraging in many players the sense that they are engaging in a real world, even if it is one that appears on a virtual plane.

A seemingly far-cry from today’s big-budget MMOs that often emphasize gorgeous visuals, artistic vistas and complex in-game physics engine, the first virtual worlds were text-based games mostly written and coded by college students and young programmers as hobbies. These games, called MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons), were usually fantasy-themed adventure games, where the objectives often revolved around defeating various monsters or simply staying alive. Their structure and stats/rules based architecture of the games borrowed liberally from their tabletop role-playing predecessors like Dungeon and Dragons while the narratives resembled that of the 1970s Choose Your Own Adventure children’s television series. Players could sometimes choose various roles to be played within the game and various paths could be taken that would affect the outcome of the game. Coupled with inventive story-telling that could range from macabre to humorous within a sequence of events, MUDs were lovingly crafted pieces of interactive fiction written and played within tight-knight small communities of people before the advent of mass internet access could spread their culture and games across the world.

Death in Mud (1979)

These games came out thirty years before our generation’s World of Warcraft, Second Life and FarmVille were being played by millions of people across the world and laid down the fundamental groundwork for RPGs (Role-Playing Games) and MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Games) to come. Produced through the grassroots efforts of individuals and small communities, the first MUDs implemented important frameworks for narrative fiction and emphasized the structure of rules-based gaming engines left powerful precedents for future generations of developers to follow. MUDs most important contribution, however, was the innate emphasis on social interactivity in-game that would position virtual worlds paradigmatically as places that were not static and required interaction, whether on the part of the developers updating the narrative and environment, or the social interaction between players. Foundationally, these MUDs began life without commercial incentivization and were free to play for anyone who could access them (which was quite difficult without mass access to the internet) for almost an entire decade from the time of their inception in the mid-1970’s to the mid 1980’s; these games were made out of love for the medium and a passion for sharing that love with others. (Citation Castronova p.10)

Arguably the most influential of these games were MUD, created by a University of Essex Computer Science undergraduate named Roy Trubshaw, and Habitat released seven years later, written originally by Randy Farmer and Chip Morningstar for LucasFilm. MUD began as a pet project of Trubshaw, an avid gamer and skilled programmer, while he had free time, utilizing the University’s computer labs and support from his friends and teachers. Trubshaw had wanted to create a game that could capture the role-playing elements of his favorite MUDs, like the text-based Zork I (1980) and HAUNT (1979) computer games (also designed by college students), and introduce multiplayer elements to his game that would make it more interactive, social and fun. Trubshaw had finished coding the first version of his video game by the fall of 1978 and had designed it entirely using a basic assembly language called Macro-10 mainly to simply establish whether the game’s virtual world could be maintained and shared with other players and accessible through multiple terminals. Following the release of a working “Version I”, Trubshaw began work on a second version that ultimately failed to accommodate updates and added features that were being added to the game as Trubshaw tweaked with the structure and listened to his friends’ opinions about what should be included in the game. With the revelation that the Macro-10 language couldn’t support dynamic changes in design, Roy devised the third version of his game, using two separate coding languages for the game engine (e.g. physical rules) and the game world (enemies, quests, interface etc.). In coding the engine Trubshaw used a predecessor language to the “C” computer language (most computer systems use a variant of this language today) and the game world was coded with his own designed language, dubbed MUDDL (Multi-User Dungeon Definition Language). All of this was occurring in an early era of computer age, where for many, it was a revelation that computer language had to be dynamically designed to symbolically instruct the computer environments how to function and how to create dynamic virtual worlds that people could interact with.

With the phenomenon of computing still confined to relatively niche communities of academics, scientists, small groups of coders and military personnel, programming languages were much less complicated and creative than the languages society uses today in programming and game development. Assembly languages like Macro-10, like most creative languages, both computer and human, revolved around the principle that inputs of certain computer-recognized symbols would signify specific meanings (actions), and that by transferring these symbols through outputs, the computer could derive meaning and thus function in intended ways. This was important because it meant that the system, the engine of the game, pivoted on a rules-based physical architecture whereby the game could be “instructed” to function according to certain of rules (e.g. if player chooses a, consequence is b). The circulation of symbols within machines, like within cultures, conferred certain meanings, but, however, computers were not able then to “understand” meanings and were simply interpreting symbols. It took the work of designers and the interaction of players to really grant understanding upon these virtual worlds. Therefore, fundamentally, virtual worlds may be “persistent” without players, but can only encapsulate culture when actual humans are interacting with a games designed environments. Because these communities of gamers and coders were still tight-knight and relatively isolated small bands of people, the culture of these virtual worlds would need to be spread via mass communicative methods before the culture could spread and form the “biomass” of online virtual cultures that we see today in the world’s most popular MMOs (Stephenson quote).

Eventually, virtual worlds found a conduit to travel to others via the coincidental proximity of the British Telecom research facility to the University of Essex, leading to the University being selected to pilot test a packet-switching service called EPSS that could connect to the US-based ARPA Net (Advanced Research Project Agency). Packet switching services, like EPSS and the American ARPA, were early incarnations of what we now recognize as the Internet. These systems were comprised of a mass of networked terminals connected through wires, capable of pushing raw information, regardless of content or type, through to other terminals connected within the network though, of course, at much slower speeds and with far less total bandwidth (how much data can be carried through wires) than we enjoy today. The EPSS link to ARPA Net allowed for the tiny band of programmers and gamers at the University of Essex to connect with researchers and fellow programmers across the Atlantic, eventually attracting groups of American designers, engineers, academics and gamers oversees to check out MUD. By 1983 all universities in the U.K. were connected to a mass packet switching system called JANet (Joint Academic Network), while the formerly experimental EPSS was expanded and became the PSS (Packet Switch Stream). These two innovations allowed for MUD to effectively become the first “viral” videogame, spreading by word of mouth on packet switching and BBS (Bulletin Board Systems) networks. (It is interesting to note that the later incarnations of the internet would absorb these BBS systems into recognize as forums, where people can come to access files located in a centralized virtual space.)