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March 5, 2008
Metaverse U - Raph Koster, Cory Ondrejka and Howard Rheingold

By Paul Philleo

At the recent Metaverse U event in Stanford University, many of the discussions could safely be seen as borderline science fiction-ish and abstract for almost everyone but the insider community that define the virtual world development these days. However, some discussions were immediately recognizable for veterans of the gaming side of virtual worlds and the online gamer community. Perhaps that potential familiarity would be owed to two game industry staples in one of the afternoon conversations on the first day of the event that many online gamers may have heard about, namely Raph Koster (formerly of Sony Online Entertainment), Cory Ondrejka (formerly of Second Life), and Howard Rheingold, a social commentator and author.

Privacy Rights

On the subject of where virtual worlds and community have been and are going, Ondrejka was reflective, thinking back to when Second Life launched with 400 users and proudly shared the success with the company’s investors. Today, of course, a number like that would not be something shared with any measure of pride. One of the stickier legal issues in the virtual worlds community is legal right, which he touched on and where the conversation stayed, starting with the assertion that a declaration of rights for avatars “is interesting but so wrong.”

Koster, also reflective on how times have changed for virtual worlds, remembered a time when it was considered an admin perk to be able to spy on users and their activities at will. Now with virtual rights and regulations, times have changed. Highlighting how practically complicated it is to define the difference between a virtual world avatar and a character in a fantasy online game, Koster said,“Avatar to me is somewhat a crummy word… There comes a point where the boundaries get really blurred.”

Ondrejka cited a 1995 ground-breaking cyber privacy law in 1995, as the initial standard but differences between countries and their hot button issues demonstrate a common set of laws (as the European Union is attempting to do) is difficult. For the US, intellectual property protection is a priority to protect, for the UK libel is and for Germany and France hate speech and racist materials are a subject they filter. Different countries, different focuses on what material to protect and what to guard against.

Rheingold, taking a historical perspective by raising as many questions as were answered, wondered whether confusion over the “avatar” or the “persona” definitions were muddying the waters of the bigger issues. Specifically, as far as issues were concerned, what is the impact of virtual worlds on brick and mortar institutions like Stanford University, and the community at-large? Can virtual worlds build and connect people?

Virtual Presence

Koster, noticing people’s attention on the massive screen and the virtual conference in Second Life, remarked on attendees “whose physical presence may be here but mental presence is elsewhere.”

Ondrejka expanded on the complications arising from that sort of a problem, describing a common situation where someone may be at work but also in a game, distracted by both their guild and the demands of work and making neither happy. What privacy rights apply to the private data, when you’re present in another location? This is especially complicated when you’re using overlapping sets of data that might intersect with each other, such as being located via GPS while texting via Twitter.

Edumacated Lexicon of the Technorati

In the interest of grounding the conversation, Rheingold speculated if the bleeding edge terminology so prevalent in conversations about virtual worlds, like Twitter (personal texting) and Dopplr (personal GPS), is leaving a large part of the public out of the discussion.

“Email is for old people,” Ondrejka quipped, for kids before they enter the work force. Koster added that numerous studies showed that as these modern kids change as they mature, they lose awareness of what’s coming down the pipeline and stick to the technologies they know.

In an admission made easier by his new distance from Linden Labs, Ondrejka conceded virtual worlds haven’t reached a mass market quite yet and has a long ways to go before it breaks into the mainstream.

Of course, as terms representing new virtual worlds-related services find their way into “geek-speak”, it becomes even more difficult for the standards in the business like Second Life to find their traction, when the water is muddied with new ideas and technologies.

Simplicity of Synchronicity

Following a question member from the audience if there is a difference between a synchronous (real-time) and asynchronous community (single-turn or turn-based) in virtual worlds, Raph Koster stated that “Communities that stay asynchronous don’t exist.”

Rheingiold countered, “Some such (asynchronous) communities do exist by necessity.”

Koster, in turn, responded that asynchronicity is a supplement to the way we operate in general – which is to be synchronous. Asynchronicity, he added, was a means of ensuring that syncing later was possible, like a college dorm whiteboard. Messages were left on the board, with the idea in mind that they could meet up later in real-time.

Extending the concept to real world versus virtual world communities, Cory Ondrejka harkened back to an old idea that “a VR Pod with haptics will be the status quo,” to remind the audience the vision of detached community with a thick technological wall between everyone is dead and gone. More likely, such physical interfaces will be used to supplement and complement the experience.

Looking Ahead:

Koster fielded the question first about what lies ahead for virtual worlds and communities, as this technology continues its slow evolution. “The user content revolution is not over by a long shot.” In addition, Koster predicts it will becomes easier to connect with those similar to you, through social networking, compared against the fear we’re becoming a detached society of detached participants. For some, it will represent a further erosion of society, he feels, and for others it’s a move forward. In the end, “we’re going to see a lot more arguing, because the more speech there is, the more contentiousness there will be.”

Rheingold added a further query, whether we are “going to be overrun by spam and porn…or a healthy culture explosion in the public sphere?” In a partial answer he, expressed a hope people will take the time to educate themselves about both community and technology and how to make it serve the greater good.

“There’s a lot of room for improvement…and also a lot of room for hope.”

(left to right) Rapk Koster, Cory Ondrejka and Howard Rheingold

Raph Koster

Cory Ondrejka

Howard Rheingold

The virtual audience in Second Life watching from their perch on the big screen


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