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Dungeons & Deals -- Virtual Worlds as Social-Business Networks
Jamais Cascio, 18 Feb 06

doingbusinesswow.jpgCould an online game displace traditional in-person sports as social hubs for movers-and-shakers?

An article this week in C|Net suggests that online multiplayer games like World of Warcraft -- now counting over five million players -- could become the new socialization spot for executives and business leaders, citing a guild (player association) which includes tech heavyweights like Socialtext's Ross Mayfield, ICANN's John Crane, and uberblogger Joi Ito as members. Although the guild was formed simply as a way for friends to play the game together, members admit that some industry talk happens in between raids.

"Most of the time, we're talking about things that are more social, or talking about the game, and the game is really more of a social bonding experience," Ito said. "There are a lot of people making connections and talking about working with each other or bringing in their friends from work."

It wasn't too long ago that business guidebooks counseled up-and-coming executive types to learn how to play golf if they wanted to get involved in high-level business decisions. Anecdotally, it seemed in the 1990s that numerous major technology decisions were made by corporate officers golfing over the weekend with buddies from other companies (and sometimes suppliers). Executive golf course membership restrictions that prevented women or minorities from joining may be largely gone, but there's no question that the emphasis on golf as a business-socialization activity has made it more difficult for non-traditional corporate leaders from joining the informal networks where decisions often get made.

If games like WoW come to serve as a medium for similar informal networks, is it at all an improvement? Arguably, the demographics of online multiplayer games skews in a way that doesn't include many women; while there are no formal restrictions preventing anyone from joining the game, it's likely that some people will feel out of place and clumsy in an unfamiliar virtual environment. At the same time, the use of avatars that need not have any visual relationship to one's own appearance can mitigate many of the social cues that lead to unintended biases based on age, ethnicity or gender.

World of Warcraft (and its heirs) would likely remain a side-note to traditional business socialization activities, except for a few potentially important drivers:

The increased virtualization of organizations. Although the entirely virtual corporation -- a hallmark of 1990s business futurism -- remains vanishingly rare, many companies do have far-flung offices and offsite workers; virtual environments offer a way to maintain social connections among employees and excecutives without having to fly people around.

The rising costs of energy. Peak oil, carbon taxes and other near-term issues would make the cost of physical travel, whether by plane or auto, a much greater consideration; it's entirely possible that virtual world interactions would become more commonplace simply as an alternative to travel. The formal business is handled with videoconferencing, and the informal relationships are built by killing digital dragons together.

Health risks associated with travel. Pandemics and terrorism both pose potential industry-killing threats to air travel; it's possible that in the near future, people are unlikely to visit distant locations simply out of concern about their own well-being, regardless of price.

Any of these three drivers would push greater use of online/virtual worlds as an alternative to in-person social interaction, and a combination would make it almost inevitable. If I were advising people running or building virtual environments, I would suggest the following: make "private" spaces available to groups that allow for exchange of data without having to drop out of the game environment (making ad hoc meetings possible); create movements and behaviors for avatars that indicate that a person is talking (typing) even before the words become visible -- and, if possible, indicate that a person is talking over one of the various in-game voice chat systems; and work out an industry-wide opt-in "ID" system, so that someone who has built up a name and reputation in (say) Second Life can transfer that identity to (say) World of Warcraft.

Steps like these would go a long way to making virtual environments more usable for people who want to do more than just the in-game activities -- but don't want to lose access to dragon hunts and the like along the way.

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Comments

We opted to build in Second Life because we had so much control over our surroundings....privacy if necessary, extensive animation potential and the looming possibility of full web integration. For now it's wonderful to take classes inworld and have streaming audio and slides coming straight from the professor. Filmmaking inworld requires a whole new level of thinking but the opportunities far outweigh the learning curve.


Posted by: evonne on 18 Feb 06

Damn those Cyberpunk authors and the future they wrote us into


Posted by: vinay on 18 Feb 06

Wow! Golf for the cyber set. Will guilds become the new "country clubs"?


Posted by: Irma on 18 Feb 06

Terra Nova has covered the social angle quite a bit lately; including these two entries with plenty of commentary (Link 1 and Link 2 ). Additionally, I've also found myself in the company of real-world movers and shakers; it's most definitely an interesting (and very real) feeling.

With regard to your suggestions:

- Privacy/confidentiality is a problem; at least within Second Life which I see as the best option for collaboration at the moment but which might be more easily resolved with Croquet. One reason the Wells Fargo situation was interesting to me was that it pointed to some potentially ongoing difficulties in maintaining a truly secure virtual space on a connected grid. It also reminds us all of the reality that anything done online will always be at risk.

- I'm not entirely sure I understand the issue wrt avatar "cues". What you're suggesting is already available to some degree in some simulations. However, for real business nothing beats "voice" imo (even if it's a text-to-voice conversion ala ZinkKat's new "Chili" device). I recently spent about 2 hours mixing virtual world interaction with regular old long distance phone service. Much easier than using an in-world chat system.

- I don't see the "ID" system as particularly critical tbh. There are already services available such as Xfire (about which I wrote last month) which do much of the bridging. And the use of a distinctive name (e.g. "csven") can do the rest. However, I suspect the marketing opportunities presented by a standardized system will push the kind of system you're suggesting (it would facilitate the kind of convergence I imagined earlier - Link).

One thing that comes to my mind is that people who are not multilingual are increasingly at a disadvantage in a connected world. But in a virtual space someone can at least use visuals to communicate (which might be a better reason for the avatar controls which you suggest). It helps.


Posted by: csven on 18 Feb 06

And of course, if you're looking for another place to hang out and interact with other social entrepreneurs online, you can check out GreenBusiness.net:

http://www.GreenBusiness.net/

(shameless, I know:)


Jason Trout
GreenBusiness.net


Posted by: Jason Trout on 18 Feb 06

My guess is that if serious and confidential business decisions are made at these venues, they'll probably be conducted via encrypted VoIP on TeamSpeak servers whose disks are periodically randomized to prevent data recovery. One of the nice things about making business decisions on golf courses is, as long as no one is recording anything, using a parabolic mic or carrying a wire, the discussions are between you and your associates and no one else.

But if these venues become the hangouts for the nerdly monied and powerful, you can be sure that the ambitious, who want to be monied and powerful, will brush up on the subculture even if they find it somewhat distastful or odd.

I still a little skeptical though. I don't see news of Scott McNealy, Micheal Dell, Steve Jobs or Bill Gates hanging out on these games yet.


Posted by: Pace Arko on 18 Feb 06

health risks and cost of energy associated with travel hardly seem like real barriers to real world sports like golf. after all most exes could live near golf courses and even with energy costs rising hey that's another field for for the wc set to take on (better irrigation on golf courses? what's keeping a new wind turbine from being installed on a couple holes?) If anything the last points and Evonne's points seem better. in MMORPG not only can you network and get in some play, but you can call in information from different sources and represent it creatively or sufficiently for your clients. Even allowing rss feeds to be displayed in game would be an advantage something second life is already on top of. I think the real advantage is that the people networking or what have you have access to a world of information that people on the golf course don't, but of course golf still has location and the fun of a day out in the sun going for it.

peace,
A


Posted by: andrew on 19 Feb 06

There have been numerous studies on the economies of these fictional world. They measure inflation of the game's currency, relative to real-world currencies. They can do this by scanning the various auction sites where fictional game tools (houses, castles, swords, other weapons) are exchanged for real money. They are a fascinating read. I wish I wasn't too lazy to find an online link for you.

Mark Brandon
Sustainable Log - News and Views for Socially Responsible Investors
http://sustainablelog.blogspot.com
http://www.firstsustainable.com
When you subscribe to Sustainable Log, we give $1 to Alternative Gifts International in support of a cause of your choice.


Posted by: Mark Brandon on 20 Feb 06

Some balancing comments - certainly, MMORPGs and MUDs can be social, but when they first started they were basically anonymous. You could get a few geeks together to play together, but the allure was also for the closet geek to play with friends without being anything but an avatar on the screen.

Yes, there were closet MMORPGers. I wasn't one, but I knew a few.

The majority of clans and cliques back then were what are commonly known throughout the world as cheaters. People who rig a system. It's common in any system, people will game the system to do the best they can with what they have. Their friends will 'fluff' them - giving them powerful weapons, and helping them power level. People who actually wanted to play the game for an experience other than the regular gaming that happens in present systems eventually become disillusioned when they play. Everquest balanced this, at least for a while (I don't know now) with Guides. Asheron's Call was an orgy of virtual items being sold and a bunch of macroing zombies, and there wasn't much balance. A 60+ Level Swordsman with Item magic, Tarun, had a bunch of vassals who just played the game but were always nerfherded by people causing lagstorms while they were macroing, or while they were lagging the monsters to death for cheap experience.

If that sounds familiar to blogging, well - sorry. There are definite similarities.

Now, as far as Joi Ito, Ross Mayfield and John Crane (waves to John) - they might be nice people. They benefit directly from the blogging community because they are presumed to be leaders by many - perhaps the majority - but the only person I know would be John, and I indirectly use ICANN. I don't use the products of the others. What I worry about is the 'insider trading' sort of scenario - not that these people would do it or are doing it.

Remove the names, and let's call it just 'leaders' who traded their golf clubs for a game that they can play once they are where they have enough bandwidth. There are pros and cons, and it's certainly cool, but I don't have stock in any game companies and I'm not into gaming systems for profit as much as I'm gaming systems for value. The balance has to be realistically struck, and I am sorry to say that I do not feel that this balance has been struck in any way preceding MMORPG usage for similar purposes.

So at the end, the balancing statement is this: You take from it what you put into it. I hope Joi, Ross and John enjoy their games, but it would really suck to find out that they were gaming the systems in game. The balance to that is PK, but a true honest gamer stands no chance against fluffed players. Just like in the real world. Never try to make friends as a level 1 on a PK server, there's always some idiot there waiting for you to respawn so he can whack you again for cheap experience.

If the games are better moderated, and 'Yea, Admin may verily smite fluffers and fluffees', I'm all for that. But everyone cheats at golf, right?

Ethics in gaming. Amusing. :-)


Posted by: Taran on 20 Feb 06



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