[MUD-Dev] Something in the water

Travis Casey efindel at earthlink.net
Wed Jul 25 15:13:42 New Zealand Standard Time 2001

Tuesday, July 24, 2001, 6:44:55 PM, Dave Rickey wrote:
> From: Koster, Raph <rkoster at verant.com>
>>> 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)?

> But in most "media", utilitarian applications come first.  I'm not
> so sure we'll *ever* see a virtual world filled with people
> conducting mundane activities.

I think we already have -- IRC, Usenet, mailing lists, etc.
Depending on how you want to define "virtual world", the entire
Internet could be considered to be one.

And, for that matter, it depends on what you consider "mundane" --
there are roleplaying mailing lists where people roleplay characters
in the worlds of such TV shows as Dawson's Creek.  Beyond the
ability to imagine themselves as someone else, there's nothing
they're doing in such a game that they *couldn't* do in real life.
(That is, nothing that's impossible.  They may be doing things they
*wouldn't* do in real life, but that's not the same as *couldn't*.)

>> 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.

> Where my stance is the opposite, traditional storytelling was
> directed, the teller aimed it at an audience.  We *can't* seem to
> tell stories very well in this environment, the usual player
> response to attempts at "plot" is a yawn.  Is it because we don't
> know how, or because it just isn't a place to "tell" stories?

The same thing is true for a lot of players in paper RPGs -- any
overt attempt at plotting turns them off.  They want to feel like
they're in control of their characters, not like they're following a

One solution there is to realize that a "story" need not have a
linear, fixed plot.  The "plot" can change over time, being
dependent on what the players want to do.

For example, in a paper Star Trek game I ran long ago, the players
were the crew of a StarFleet starship.  In the second or third
session, they ran into a group of pirates, and managed to
successfully track the pirates to their base and defeat them.

But then things took a turn.  The players decided they didn't want
to be goody-two-shoes StarFleet.  They took over the pirate base,
brought the pirates in to the local authorities under the guise of
being private citizens, collected the reward for them, returned a
lot of the pirate loot, but hid a bunch of it to keep for
themselves, then took some of the pirate's equipment, the hidden
loot, and their Federation starship, and went to Orion space to
establish themselves as pirates -- honorable ones, but pirates

Now, none of this fit in with any plot that I had imagined -- but I
was smart enough to see that the players were having fun, and roll
with it.  Logical consequences happened -- e.g., they were
court-martialed in absentia by StarFleet once it was discovered that
they were pirates.  The Federation tried to pressure the Orions to
turn them over, but the Orions, being mostly pirates themselves,
didn't care and wouldn't do it.  Most of the ship's crew didn't want
to be pirates, so they got shipped back to the Federation.  A few
stayed.  And so on.

All of this is a story -- but it's not any story that I planned from
the start, it's a story that just happened.

>> 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).

> Symbolism in other media is a form of shorthand, a way of evoking
> meaning without exposition.  In these games, the players look
> behind the curtain and often see that the symbol is a cardboard
> cutout.  You can't just invoke a symbol, you have to embody it.

Or, to put it another way, conscious attempts to "be symbolic here"
rarely work.  Symbols work best when they arise unconsciously.

>> 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.

> What *utility* does a virtual world offer for real-world
> operations?  If an interface for real-life activities does not
> allow greater control or convenience, people won't use it.  Why
> should Joe Shmoe virtually walk up to a virtual ATM, when he could
> just peruse a web-page for his online banking?  Which is more
> *convenient*?

There's a lot of utility in virtual worlds.  Have you ever ordered a
book through Amazon?  Why didn't you go to a physical bookstore in
your area and ask one of the clerks there to order it for you?

A "virtual world" need not have the limitations of the physical
world -- I don't have to make an avatar walk to Amazon to get there,
but, to me at least, that doesn't make the web not be a "virtual

(After all, we could easily posit a game world where everyone has
the magical powers of teleportation and bilocation.  Would that not
be a virtual world?  Where do you draw the line?)

Travis Casey
efindel at earthlink.net

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