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A Metaplace for each and for each a metaplace – SoP 2009

Posted by Bart

the_little_prince_011 This will be a shorter article but it still falls under the category of State of Play reportage.  Here I simply want to reflect on Raph Koster’s excellent keynote about his new venture Metaplace. Its still in beta but i highly recommend to game studies folks to check it out and I think there is great promise in this platform for some of the projects we have been discussing in TAG.

At one point though, Raph was showing examples of the kinds of metaplaces different folks have been building and he showed us a world which was “Little Prince”-like in its construction and it dawned on me that all this emphasis on individual creativity and freedom might be leading us to the very problem Saint Exupéry was cautioning us about.

I haven’t done the analysis here but the more I think about it the more I am convinced… go back to TL Taylor’s stories and arguments from her book on Everquest in which much of the social life and indeed creativity of players focused on solving coordination problems that arise from having a lot of strangers together in one place.  Like waves of immigration, the more new players came to the game (with different experiences and different expectations) the more pressure was put on finding creative solutions to problems that were not accounted for by design.

Slowly (or quickly depending on your point of view) it dawned on the designers that too much social breakdown and inefficiency was bad for business and so the story goes, teleporters replaced cross-country running (and the need to band together for protection) as a means of transport and public spaces emptied in favour of automated auction houses and all the rest.  The driving idea is something like the best design should allow each individual to pursue their own interest in the context of the game.  Individual desire should be hindered as little as possible…  this is afterall why virtual worlds are so sympatico with an American ethos no?

Hold on you say…. but so many virtual worlds and especially MMOs are cooperative by design.  True, true but this form of cooperation is increasingly rationalized and with all the metrics at players disposal the “social” problem of coordination is becoming less and less of an issue. One no longer considers the player but the data about that player (see my post on WoW and dataveillance coming after this…).  This is also why trust is such a hot issue in the study of virtual worlds — speaking as a sociologist i’d argue that online trust is decreasing as VWs become more and more rationalized.

Okay that was a sidenote to the argument about increasing individuation to the point where each person has their own world — a form of virtual solipsm that critics have worried about from the start. I worry that these metaplace worlds will sit like so many unfinished buildings in Second Life (or Detroit?) as empty dreams of relationships that might have been had not everyone been busy building their own empty dreams of relationships that might have been.  Its like the little prince… each planet is occupied by one person (represented as a set of modernist archetypes)  who cannot see the absurdity of their situation. The Little Prince suggests a line of critique on at least one trajectory in virtual worlds design and play.

I could continue to build the case against Metaplace but that would not be fair because I also see the potential for aporia here… whenever you put design tools in the hands of users there is a potential to realize new social coordination problems.  So now instead worrying about how to kill a boss mob together we might try to figure out how to design a boss mob together.  This is actually a more intractable problem but absolutely – metaplace seems perfect for pursuing an argument along these lines.