[MUD-Dev] Something in the water

Koster Koster
Sun Jul 22 16:43:16 New Zealand Standard Time 2001


> -----Original Message-----
> From: Dave Rickey

> I think that once we accept that what we have is not a new
> dramatic medium, but is instead a superior form of escapism, we'll
> make a lot more progress.

To me, that characterization carries with it assumptions as well. I
don't see those two statements as necessarily being in
contradiction. Is the written word not both a form of escapism and
also a dramatic medium (and a communications medium, and several
other things to boot)?

It seems undeniable to me that there is significant potential for
online worlds as a dramatic medium, just as it is patent that it is
a form of escapism. It's clearly a medium of communication, of
course.

> We're *entirely* too wound up in concepts from other mediums,
> ideas of story and pace and symbolism.

All new media begin this way. Theater started with the underpinnings
of verse, film with theater, the novel with the letter and the
modern notion of song with the news report. Some concepts translate,
and some do not (we don't see nearly as many topical songs,
epistolary novels, plays in verse, or stagey films as we used to).

Some concepts translate pertty well. Symbolism, as an example,
strikes me as thoroughly bizarre for you to place on your list. We
live lives rife with symbolism, and I'd be hard-pressed to imagine a
medium that does not make use of it in one way or another, even ones
devoted mostly to dryly factual content. I don't think that as a
medium online games have yet made good conscious use of symbolism in
ways that do not borrow liberally, though there are some neat ones
in common usage (the Void, as used by many Dikus, is a great
example).

> All of these things represent the embroidery around a very simple
> thing: People's desire to escape from the here and now into a
> world that isn't just strange and different, but strange and
> different in ways that make them happier.

Here I believe you are carrying with you the baggage of a very
particular approach to online world design, one perhaps inevitable
given the preponderance of entertainment uses of the medium when
compared to other uses. There are many other applications for online
worlds beyond the game.  It may well be (and I tend to believe this
personally) that going forward, the most prominent use of the online
world is as an escapist entertainment, but that does not mean that
such is what online worlds are FOR.

Can escapist, wish-fulfilling forms of entertainment not also
inform, educate, and challenge? Of course they can, and they often
do. Granted, the most common theme is the very Apollonian
affirmation of custom, but there's a wealth more even in heavily
conformist and thematically conservative mass media forms of escape
such as TV and the Hollywood film. Online worlds could be put to
many uses, they just haven't been yet.

> People don't want "A story".  They want *their* story.

A lovely summation. :)

> Every other medium has had to build up this huge repetoire of
> tricks in order to provoke "suspension of disbelief".  In a
> virtual world, there's no *need* for suspension of disbelief,
> because within the context of that world everything is equally
> real.

Online worlds are most successful when they manage to make you
forget about the technological crutches and impedimenta that got you
into the shared world in the first place. Books are most successful
when they make you forget you're reading, movies when they make you
forget the seat and the sticky floor, music when you lose track of
your body.

But I suspect you're talking about something else. In SF, the term
for suspension of disbelief came about because of the need to get
the reader to accept the wacky, wonderful, bizarre, and
speculative. You seem to be arguing that in online games, the subtle
tricks (my favorite terms related to this is the verb "to heinlein,"
as in "you heinleined that into the story really well"--the casual
reference to advance technology presented so matter-of-factly and
unremarkably that the reader accepts it. The sui generis example
being Heinlein's own "The door irised open.") are unnecessary simply
because the the environment is interactive and the other
participants are real.

Yet live action roleplaying, improvisational theater, and the murder
mystery party game have all had to build up a repertoire of tricks
too, despite the environment being interactive and the other
participants being real. I suspect you'll argue that they do not
present an alternate world in which the action takes place, and this
is true. Yet the mere fact that it is an alternate world seen
through a screen means that there's substantial reason to need
tricks, and we work assiduously on them all the time: cleaner
interfaces, better expressivity for the avatars, more realistic
worlds, etc.

> How "real" is a friendship?  How "virtual" are the feelings of
> grief in "A story about a tree"?  How imaginary was the original
> Siege of Trinsic (The one between the Obsidian Order and the
> Trinsic Miner's Co-op on Baja)?  When these games succeed, they
> succeed because what is important to the players is reflected in
> the game, not by making what's important to the game affect the
> players.  It's the reverse of dramatic liscense.

And yet, it seems that most often, what's important to players is
the game's reaction to their actions. The feedback loops, the
"ding," the level up and the new skills. Perhaps what is most
insidious about this fact is the way in which it undermines the
presence of others in the game; one works with others for the game's
approbation, not for the approval of one's peers.  There's no reward
mechanism established right now in the genre for "interacting with
others" which is the key differential between online worlds and
single-player ones. One might argue that until players shift their
attention from the game/world's reactions to the reactions of others
in the environment, that we're still in silent single camera movie
days.

Currently, the mechanisms of approval by others, of friendship, of
emotion aroused by human contact, are still second-order effects in
online games.  The primary mechanisms are still that of recognition
by the system.

It may be that until we jettison the trappings of roleplaying games,
which enforce those mechanisms, online worlds cannot evolve. Yet
despite many attempts going back to 1989, we seem to have real
trouble doing so.

> Realism is important only to the extent that it makes the player's
> actions resonate as "real" on a gut level.  It's not "realistic"
> to throw around spells, but if those spells allow the player to
> interact with the world in an empowering way, the player doesn't
> care.

Empowerment is often seen as the cheapest, easiest target to hit in
entertainment and art. Are you aiming too low?

> "Virtual Tourism" will succeed only to the degree that it allows
> the player to be someone of *consequence* in that context.  A
> simple walking tour of Rennaissance Italy or the Ch'in Dynasty
> Middle Kingdom, realistic or not, does not do that any more than a
> documentary of the same setting, but being minor nobility in the
> same contexts *would*.

Being minor nobility in those contexts is also a far more
educational experience than a documentary could ever be. If all you
get out of it at the end is a virtual execution and an acute
understanding of the limitations of a given role in that society, do
you deem that experience a failure? (It may well not have commercial
viability, but neither does lots of other valuable stuff).

-Raph, in a philosophical mood
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