Digital dérive: the Streetview Cannonball Run

Paul Raven @ 08-06-2011

Via Nicolas Nova, here’s a sort of altermodernist-cum-Situationist take on the car-racing video game genre. Two dudes from Japan race across America by road without ever leaving Japan… or even their swivel chairs.

Apparently this is an entry in Google’s DemoSlam contest, and that’s about all I know. Nova’s highlighting of the game as a sort of digital dérive struck a chord… but rather than the “new and authentic” experience Guy Debord hoped the meatspace practice of dérive would create, this is perhaps a more Baudrillardian take on the idea. After all, sat in a darkened room in Japan, you have to trust in the authenticity of what Streetview is showing you… and even without wringing your hands over the possibility of Google massaging their mirror of reality for nefarious purposes, you can consider that Streetview consists of snapshots, a tunnel of temporal/spatial moments captured and stored somewhere in cyberspace. Which makes this dérive an act of time-travel, too… and given the way in which the Streetview images were captured, a linear journey in (virtual) space might actually result in you jumping between any number of different frozen temporal moments along the way…


No recession in the metaverse, either

Paul Raven @ 17-12-2010

A sweeping statement, perhaps, but still: having already established that the “global recession” isn’t actually global, there are signs that some things are still selling hard and fast here in the West. The weird bit? One of those things is access to a hyperreal virtual universe. I’m talking, of course, about World Of Warcraft; I’ll let Edward Castronova sum it up in a few sentences.

Blizzard’s Cataclysm broke a single-day sales record for PC games: 3.3m copies in a day. At $40 each, that’s $132m revenue in a day.

The weekend box office for the latest Narnia move this past weekend was $24m. The other fantasy releases like Tangled and Harry Potter, came to $24m in their second or third week.

OK, granted, WoW was an international release, and those box office figures are (I presume) US-only. But even so, the entertainments that we value sufficiently to pay money for are changing, and changing fast… and no matter how much “can’t live without it” rhetoric you might hear from its regular users, I’m pretty sure no economist in their right mind would describe WoW as anything other than a leisure luxury.

And hey – looks like Blizzard’s managing to make a pretty dime in a piracy-riddled digital world, too. How’d you like them apples, Hollywood?


Unreal estate: man flips virtual nightclub for $500k

Paul Raven @ 19-11-2010

The metaverse doesn’t make the news as often as it did a few years back, but don’t assume that means the glow is off for real profits from virtual worlds: Jon “Neverdie” Jacobs just made a cool half-million bucks on selling an asteroid-cum-nightclub in the Entropia Universe MMO.

Until recently, Neverdie was the owner of one of the hottest virtual properties in Entropia, Club Neverdie, situated on a virtual asteroid around Entropia’s first planet, Planet Calypso. Jacobs bought the virtual asteroid back in 2005 for $100,000, after taking out a mortgage on his real-life house.

[…]

Taking out a hundred grand to buy virtual property may have seemed like poor business sense, but Jacobs had a plan. He turned Club Neverdie into a must-visit destination, one that includes more than a dozen bio-domes, a night club, stadium and a mall, where other players flocked to spend real cash on virtual goods and services. Jacobs was making around $200,000 in annual revenue, enough to comfortably support him and his family. Some might wonder why Jacobs didn’t instead start a real-life business like most others. Jacobs’ answer, “games made sense.” Club Neverdie was a “turnkey business” for him — besides dropping in from time to time to check on the property, the business largely ran itself and had no other employees besides himself.

Flipping property has long been an appealingly easy business model for those with enough capital to spare… but not so much in meatspace these days. I think we’ve yet to see the first full-scale metaverse property gold-rush, but once we have, the first metaverse bubble-burst won’t be far behind; in the meantime, a smart chancer can still make their mark on that particular and limitless frontier.

Incidentally, a little further down this piece there’s an interesting and (to me) unexpected junction to another story, namely the J K Rowling plagiarism lawsuit, which gets weirder and weirder the deeper you look into it:

Jacobs wasn’t always a virtual celebrity, but even his past plays out like something out of a movie. His was born to a Miss United Kingdom and Adrian Jacobs, a prototypical Bond villain of sorts. An infamous ’60s British financier nicknamed “Mr. X,” the senior Jacobs was banned from the London Stock Market in the ’80s after a string of shady deals, and has been reportedly quoted as saying, “I’ll be back again, richer than ever!” You can almost hear the super-villain laughter. Adrian Jacobs died in 1997, but in 2009, his estate filed a lawsuit against J.K. Rowling, claiming the author of the Harry Potter series had copied substantial parts of Jacobs’ 1987 children’s book, Willy the Wizard.

Call me cynical, but I’m now even more convinced that the Willy The Wizard suit is an opportunist scam…

[This story via MetaFilter, to whom I’d point out that while I’ve blatantly stolen their headline pun, I did so in the belief that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. That, and the knowledge that I couldn’t think up a better one at short notice. ]


Code is law: metaverse worlds as the ultimate sovereign states

Paul Raven @ 09-11-2010

A disappointingly brief interview piece at New Scientist has Greg Lastowka talking about the subject matter of his new book, Virtual Justice. I say disappointingly because there’s whole raft-loads of fascinating implications behind the bits that made the cut; I guess I’ll just have to buy the damned book (which was probably the entire point of the interview, to be fair).

Carping aside, Lastowka is talking about law and governance in virtual worlds… or rather the need for such. Thing is, it looks to me like he’s also implicitly conceding that trying to enforce such legal frameworks from without (i.e. from meatspace reality) will be, at best, an uphill battle:

NS: Surely technology has always influenced law. Are things fundamentally different today?

GL: Yes, I think so. To an extent, technology is displacing law. A virtual world owner has a choice between law and technology as tools to further their interests – and they are generally turning to technology first. In 1999, Lawrence Lessig used the phrase “code is law”, and it applies to virtual worlds today. If you control the very nature of the simulation – how gravity works, how a person walks, where they go, what they can say – then you have the power to govern the environment in a way that no sovereign in real space can.

NS: So virtual law could end up being quite powerful?

GL: The government can do a lot of things but it can’t reverse the direction of gravity. Owners of virtual worlds can do an amazing number of things with regard to surveillance and interpersonal interactions.

If they so choose… and bear in mind the market value of being one of the worlds that chooses not to.

But it’s this final line that carries a whole book’s-worth of interesting implications… and probably a trilogy’s-worth of post-cyberpunk plot hooks:

In a sense, technology has outpaced the law. Any owner of a technological platform essentially has the ability to regulate society.

Seriously, think about it: that last sentence there is just huge, saying so much in such a short space. Just as the geographically-defined nation-state begins the final process of withering, the non-Euclidian geography of the metaverse steps in to offer a space over which your control can be more gloriously totalitarian than the greatest despots of the world ever aspired to!

Problem is, if your citizens can emigrate by simply hitting Ctrl-Q and signing up with someone else, how do you encourage them to stick around? Godlike control over the local laws of physics and commerce sounds pretty sweet at first, but unless you want to be godking of a sandbox empire populated by the twenty-five deluded cranks who read your Randian blog back in the noughties (ahem), you’d better start figuring out a legal (and metaphysical) framework that has some sort of appeal to potential digital ex-pats. Money-laundering and tax-haven status might be a good place to start.


The metaverse won’t grow until we wear our own faces there

Paul Raven @ 02-11-2010

Interesting think-piece from Wagner James Au of New World Notes; he’s wondering if the drop-off of interest in virtual worlds is driven by the very human need to be able to see the real face of the person you’re interacting with. The riff originates from noting that folk in Halloween costumes that hid their faces experienced less engagement and roleplay with others than those in costumes where the face was uncovered:

Without the ability to peek at the person behind the costume, people were largely leery, and standoffish. Many of these face-obscuring costumes were incredibly creative and believable, which you might think would encourage more roleplay. But for the most part, if they couldn’t get a rough idea of the person inside the outfit, people would hold back.

I think we’re seeing a similar effect with virtual worlds, as compared to social games. Most of the biggest social games, like FarmVille, have customized avatars, but the avatar is connected to a real identity, and perhaps even more important, a real face. In effect, social game avatars act like Halloween costumes, where you can see the person inside the outfit. Most avatars in virtual worlds, by contrast, resemble a full body costume where the face is largely or totally obscured. This is probably a major reason why they’ve failed to gain mass adoption. In effect, most of the population is looking at virtual world avatars the same way people at Halloween parties look at costumes that have hidden faces — with interest and curiosity, maybe, but also with some apprehension or unease.

If I’m right, one good way to grow virtual worlds is to make avatars more like casual Halloween costumes, in which you’re able to know a little about the person controlling it. That doesn’t necessarily mean linking the avatar to the owner’s Facebook profile. (In fact I’d suggest linking avatar profiles to dating sites, like OKCupid, would be more productive than Facebook.) Halloween isn’t popular because people want to actually be Bat Man or Sarah Palin or even Pedobear — they want to express a part of their personality in a fun way, in a fun social context where others are doing the same. And above all, have this roleplay connect to the rest of their lives.

It’s a pretty loose thesis at this point, but it does chime with my own experiences in metaverse realities, namely that the anonymity and/or immersive never-out-of-character role-playing aspects that so engage the core demographics of such spaces are actively repellent to others.

I suspect business-sphere interest and investment in metaverse tech will be the necessary developmental catalyst for the sort of transparency Au is suggesting (a sort of video-conferencing on steroids, which might get popular very fast when oil prices start climbing again and flying overseas for meetings becomes an unsustainable overhead), but I also suspect that the heaviest metaverse users will always be those who find the wearing of masks to be a liberation from reality rather than a disconnect from it.


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