A new metaphor? (Response paper No. 4)

My first experience with computers was accompanying my father on weekend visits to Haskins Laboratories at Yale University. In those days, the mid- to late-1970s, “computer” meant a roomful of devices the size of industrial refrigerators with blinking lights, reel-to-reel memory tapes, and trays full of stacked punch-cards that we used to use for scrap paper. My dad used the computers to crunch numbers and analyze data from experiments. But to me, a child midway between toddlerhood and adolescence, these devices were mysterious and intimidating.

It was around that time that I was introduced to Pong: a friend of my parents’ brought the Atari version of the game (with knobs to control the paddles) to the house one day. Nothing mysterious or intimidating about this. I didn’t even recognize it as a computer, although it in many ways the great granddaddy of the Mac laptop I’m using to write this. I was hooked immediately.

A few years later, we had our own computer, a TRS-80 Model I with a cassette-tape drive and dot-matrix printer. At the time I had little use for word-processing and database programs, but I soon became the household’s most devoted user of the machine. I spent hours playing a space-shooter prototype called Galaxy Invasion (or something like that) and word/adventure game known as Haunted House.

I bring this up because, like many of my peers in the first generation of Americans to grown up around personal computers, it was not the computer per se but the computer games that first snared my imagination and inspired me to develop a variety of computer-related skills. Aside from the best way to shoot aliens and the secret to getting out of the Cabinet Room, I also learned about operating systems, error messages and peripheral devices. I even learned some basic BASIC.

Like a child playing tag or a kitten swatting dust-bunnies, my computer playtime was helping me to develop important skills I would later put to more “serious” purpose.

Computer games are still serving a similar role today. It could be argued that they are a “gateway” technology that introduces mainstream users (or at least mainstream gamers) to new high-tech developments. Through games such as Quake, The Sims and World of Warcraft, users have learned how to interact in a “virtual” world through their “avatars”. They’ve formed friendships and communities, and have even begun engaging in commerce and other activities with off-line consequences.

Information “architect” Andrew Hinton, in his 2006 article “We Live Here: Games, Third Places and the Information Arcitecture of the Future,” suggests that this gaming activity “isn’t just kids’ stuff” anymore (2006, p. 3). “Increasingly, for adult players, [World of Warcraft] is becoming “The New Golf,” where people make business connections and talk shop.” Here he quotes digital activist Joi Ito from Wired magazine:

“The quality and the popularity of the World of Warcraft has propelled [massively multi-player online role-playing games] from a subculture into the mainstream; some call it the new golf. But it’s more than that: World of Warcraft is millions of people with diverse backgrounds collaborating, socializing, and learning while having fun. … It represents the future of real-time collaborative teams and leadership in an always-on, diversity intensive, real-time environment. World of Warcraft is a glimpse of the future.” (Ito 2006)

Not only do games like World of Warcraft serve as models for the type of interactive environment we will likely see in the future, but those environments are already starting to emerge — from within the games themselves. Game designers in recent years have been increasingly attempting to create more open-ended, player-directed game experiences, where the focus is on community and interactivity. Their relevance extends beyond mere winning or losing.

“The game creators realized that, given the right conditions, the power of open communities easily eclipses the planned efforts of any single organization. The challenge is to create structures that encourage and channel that power without hindering its collective energy and creativity.” (Hinton, p. 2)

The resulting creations are looking less and less like games. Interactivity is certainly an important — even vital, according to Chris Crawford (1982) — element of game play. But games, Crawford argues, are “closed” systems. “By ‘closed’ I mean that the game is complete and self-sufficient as a structure. … It is closed because the rules cover all the contingencies encountered in the game” (1982, p. 3).

However, the latest online interactive “games” are anything but “closed” according to Crawford’s use of the word. Second Life and Croquet present online game-like worlds, with game-like avatars that users manipulate with game-like controls, but there are few of the game-like rules and strictures that Crawford suggests are essential to a true game. These games are losing their gaminess. In fact, Hinton (2006) describes Second Life as “principally a social environment that encourages community and creativity.”

And unlike the bounded world of a true game, in Second Life reality — the non-virtual kind — has a way of bleeding through. Users can spend (or gamble) real money in “SL”, and the platform has gained the notice of the business world. Hinton writes:

“Second Life was recently the cover story in Business Week, and last year Wells Fargo, one of the oldest financial institutions in North America, spent actual time and money building a place in second life called Stagecoach Island. Visitors can learn about mutual funds and mortgages from live personnel — or go skydiving. It’s a serious game inside a non-serious game, in a virtual world with virtual currency, where players learn about finance and the real economy.” (2006, p. 4)

Not “just kids’ stuff” indeed. Hinton suggests that this could represent a step toward the ultimate blurring of the lines between the “real” world and its virtual counterpart, in which so-called ubiquitous computing will allow us to control real-world devices and events from cyberspace, and vice-versa.

The implications are profound. Hinton writes:

“The ubicomp world is one where common devices and objects are networked both in cyberspace and in real space — their physical locations and IP addresses coequally defining their existence and, essentially, their relevance.” (2006, p. 6)

This interactive mingling of stuff and information is important, reminiscent of early man’s use of words to order the universe, giving things meaning beyond their simple existence and providing humans with an abstract perspective on the world. Johan Huizinga believes this played a key role in the development of culture:

“In the making of speech and language, the spirit is continually ‘sparking’ between matter and mind, as it were, playing with this wonderous nominative faculty. Behind every abstract expression there lie the boldest of metaphors, and every metaphor is a play upon words. Thus in giving expression to life man creates a second, poetic world alongside the world of nature.” (1950, p. 4)

It seems we’re creating a third, virtual world alongside of that as well. It won’t look anything like Pong.
Huizinga, J. (1950). Nature and Significance of Play as a Cultural Phenomenon (pp. 1-27). Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon Press.

Crawford, C. (1982). What is a Game? (c.1). The Art of Computer Game Design. (http://www.vancouver.wsu.edu/fac/peabody/game-book/Coverpage.html)

Hinton, A. (2006). We Live Here: Games, Third Places and the Information Arcitecture of the Future. ASIS&T Bulletin, August/September. (http://www.asis.org/Bulletin/Aug-06/hinton.html)

Ito, Joi (2006). World of Warcrack. Wired Magazine, Issue 14.06, June. (http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.06/warcraft.html)

Pine, B.J., & Gilmore, J.H. (1999). The Experience Economy. Cambridge: Harvard Business School Press, pp. 1-26.

2 responses to “A new metaphor? (Response paper No. 4)

  1. Hey, thanks for such a thoughtful article! I didn’t even know about some of the writings you reference — I’ll have to check those out!

  2. Pingback: inkblurt » Blog Archive » “We Live Here” ripples in the blogosphere

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