November 19, 2006
FOE: Not the Real World Anymore

The following wraps up our report of the Futures of Entertainment conference. Geoff Long took the onus of reporting on this final panel, with some help from Ivan Askwith and me. Thanks again to Geoff and Ivan for their work on getting this together. Geoff provided a partial transcript from the event. Also, you can see Rachel Clarke's notes here. Also, see Erica George's notes at Writing in Clay. There is also a reaction to this partial transcript at KnowProSE.

The final panel of the day, "Not the Real World Anymore", focused on the phenomenon of virtual worlds. The panelists were John Lester from Second Life's Linden Labs, Ron Meiners from Multiverse Online, and Todd Cunningham from MTV Networks, who was accompanied by producer Eric Gruber, who ran Cunningham's demo of Virtual Laguna Beach.

Ron Meiners, Multiverse Online
The Multiverse platform provides a free universal client, scalable server, east-to-use dev tools, content standards and marketplace. According to Meiners, "Platform + Network = Web 3.D". Multiverse is especially looking to independent developers to drive innovation. "Some of the stuff folks are coming up with is just breathtaking." A platform changes economics; Multiverse is trying to make it a lot faster and cheaper to build virtual worlds and lower the barrier enough to facilitate even casual game developers. So far, the community is being very supportive. It's an ecology that feeds itself; there are 6613 registered developers since December 2005. Overall, Multiverse aims to provide a full ecology for the creation and exploration of new and innovative virtual worlds. A rich environment for cross-media experimentation seeds a culture of emergent creativity; a community encouraged to explore, create and innovate with interactivity is transformative, sparking waves of creation of new entertainment experiences, new dynamics of content and culture.

According to Meiners, there hasn't yet been a real "killer app" in transmedia, but Multiverse is attempting to create an open environment to facilitate the creation of one. The challenge: How do you create an online narrative structure where people can participate in the narrative while still maintaining a core narrative?

John Lester, Linden Labs
Challenges can lead to increased sense of competency and confidence. People are willing to work for mastery. There's a connection between our experience in the world and what we seek out online. People respond to virtual worlds as passionately as they do because of the way our brains are wired.

Todd Cunningham (MTV Networks)
"For us, it's all about translating the spoken word to emotional connection." To do so, MTV Networks deploys a number of techniques, including brand and media tracking, on-site event studies, category immersions, media usage diaries, living ethnographies, 360-degree brand affinity measurement, and fast-access online intercepts. Cunningham recommended deprivation studies to really get at the heart of what people love. "Our innovation comes not just in the products we create, but in the quality of our thinking."

MTV Networks' attitude can be described as "New World, Familiar Mandate:" grow the value of brand and deepen relationship with consumer; for advertisers, the critical factors are performance and clarity, emotional resonance and ROI. MTV Networks obviously wants to make money, but moreso they want to connect with their users. Before, it was the quality of their performance, but now it's the clarity of that performance that's critical. Customers are all too happy to move on to the next thing that's clearer. "Our relationship has previously been about ROI, but now it's about resonance - not just quantitative, but qualitative results." In the ad world it's all about engagement; MTV Networks is researching the transformation engagement transference. Does the "halo effect" exist? That's transference. MTV Networks' new internal mantra is "Engagement time alone doesn't matter. It's people's propepensity to pass it along. Taking it in is how we used to measure, but people putting it back in is our new metric."

A recent study at MTV Networks, Circuits of Cool, argues that if you're focused on passalong, "cool" is a turnstile you have to pass through -- but it's not the same for everyone. MTV Networks is extremely receptive to those differences. "Teens and young adults rule online... or do they?"

"It's about the association," Cunningham says. "It's Important that we understand who you're associated with. Brands want to associate with the RIGHT virtual worlds." The challenge: technolowhat? We have to help them understand what it is. Technology is something most users are scared of -- they get devices like an iPod, open them up, get overwhelmed and then just leave them in the box.

"In all of your research, try to understand the bigger world your audience members are living in," Cunningham continues. "It's about the occasion. It's not about the screen first -- it's about the occasion that people are watching in." In other words, it's about the context of the lives of the audience members.

Cunningham then turned to differing gender experiences. Boys love SMSing and texting because it's a great way for them to have "important conversations" in a short, abbreviated form. For girls, texting is a great way to stay connected to friends and relatives. In a world with cultural differences, time isn't as valuable as attention. "Time is no longer a reliable resource for us to depend on, to project what people will do -- we have to rely on attention. Time is obsolete, attention is the new currency."

Consumer rituals brands should be aware of:
- Associate with things that matter
- Make it easy to make the right choice
- Help consumers manage the future occasions
- Make brand-experiences time well-spent

"We don't have time to manage the past." With ethnographies, it was all about photographs. More and more it's like, 'They're on the PC, I'll email them to you' -- they're not cherished the way they used to be. They've lost their currency.

John Lester: Virtual worlds are often likened to dreaming, but what's the attraction of dreaming? The Internet provides a means of connecting to people around the world with similar interests. I grew up in a town where no one else liked the music I liked. When you connect people on a global sense, you enable people to find people who like what they like, and I think that's a very strong human desire. The dreaming part... In these 3-D perceptual spaces, they speak to our brains on a deep biological level. We're designed to thrive in a physical space. We got it wrong in the 90s when we thought everyone would have the gear on their head, the "skull thing". Why are people so into these virtual worlds? It speaks to us on a deep biological level -- our brains are good at taking just enough information and forming it into a complete whole. Everyone here has cried at a movie, but you're basically looking at a 24fps slideshow in which you get emotionally immersed.

Ron Meiners: We'd have online conferences all the time, and one of the problems with the voice-enabled stuff is that you don't have some of the cues about who's saying what and who'll talk next. My voice is appropriate to the environment.

Todd Cunningham: We're in a media-obsessed society. These worlds enable people to become more immersed than ever before.

Joshua Green (MIT, moderator): Are these global spaces?

John Lester: we've lost our third places, the bar where everyone knows your name, the places where social capital is bridged. The opportunity here is to have a global audience. Our brains can only deal with knowing about 200 people, but now we have the opportunity to find the best matches for those 200 people. We now have the tech for 'weak ties' as well, which is very important.

Ron Meiners: Some of the fun is in the building, evaluating and discarding these relationships.

Joshua Green: Is there a distinction between activities in free-ranging spaces like Second Life and Laguna Beach and MMORPGs like World of WarCraft? Yesterday we were talking about the drive of narrative and import of story in a narrative space. Are there distinctions between sites that are story-driven and ones that aren't?

John Lester: When I hear "free-range" I think chickens... Second Life is fundamentally a blank slate, tabula rasa, an environment in which there are games. There's a place in Second Life there's an entire place that has recreated 19th century England. There are stores there that make these amazing pocketwatches. We have other experiences in Second Life where you put on a backpack and fight monsters. We like to experience stories, and there's room for all of these things. I think there's room for all of it. I go from an environment with a beautiful scripted environment to a more traditional game space, and there's room for both.

Ron Meiners: I think that there's sort of spectrum that people talk about in multiple contexts, from top-down content creation to bottom-up content creation, from Burning Man to Second Life. Danah boyd writes about the value of being able to flex between different creative identities. Sometimes Diesneyland is a whole lot of fun -- it's a clearly definied, easy-to-log-into culture. But there's some certainly strong design and management things going on.

In a nutshell, Uru Live (the MMO extension of the Myst franchise) blurs the line between consumer as participant and consumer as player. That's what applications from Multiverse and Second Life trade on -- how you create this story space, not just how it's mandated... How do you create a space where people can participate but stay within the bounds of a structured narratives? There have been very few historical opportunities to address that question, but technology is addressing it now. This whole sort of thing where people can create their own stories but stay within an existing story frame is important.

Todd Cunningham: With Virtual Laguna Beach, we know that people complain that it's so flat, but we designed it to be that way. We went into this with the assumption that there's a huge fan base for this show that doesn't normally participate in this kind of space. What kind of games could they participate in?

Joshua Green: Are the out-of-the-box things that are happening in these spaces real relationships?

John Lester: Yes. The people in these environments are extremely real -- even if they seem a little weird, there's a beauty to that, to people exploring different facets of themselves. Unless everything is operating in the framework of "this is a game", I think we should treat these relationships as real.

Ron Meiners: The things we do in virtual worlds are learning experiences. On some level you can say we take those skills back out of these virtual worlds, and in another sense you can say it's the same stuff -- there's a sense that we're differentiating between these experiences.

John Lester: People with Asperger's syndrome, which affects things like proper body distance and knowing when to break eye contact, it's terrifying for them to interact with people socially in a physical world. At the same time they can learn through practice. I've worked with online patient communities at Massachusetts General Hospital, and this is a large group of people who love using online bulletin boards and forums because they want to be more social -- and these technlogies enable them to dip their toes in the water. I brought them into Second Life and brought them to a private island. One person made a garden, one person recreated a restaurant he really liked in Oregon, and another started a business building boats. The result of that was twofold: people told me they felt they were really learning how to do it, like a flight simulator, but the biggest thing was confidence. They felt they achieved something.

Eric Gruber: It's really fun to learn how to market to the actual people -- they're spending more time in here than they spend dealing with consumer products in the real world. How to make real products in these worlds means treating them like real places. They're accessible anywhere in the world to us, we can treat them like real people.

John Lester: The best way to fail when examining one of these environments is to treat it as a petri dish. you have to get in there and have conversations.

Joshua Green: There's an issue of whether there are benefits of marketing to avatars, if they're based on who we are, or who we want to be?

Todd Cunningham: What's the motivation behind the choice of avatars? If you can understand that, then you can understand how to market to them in a understandable way.

Ron Meiners: It's all in flux. There won't ever be a solution that will work across the board.

John Lester: There's a region in Second Life called Dublin, where there's a fairly faithful recreation of Dublin, Ireland, and you walk into a traditional Irish bar and there's a giant robot. You give people the tools to create whatever they want, and it's interesting -- it's not completely bizarre, but it's not completely mundane. It's somewhere smack in the middle. People create bars that look like bars and streets that look like streets, but people also introduce this "through the looking glass" element.

Todd Cunningham: I think in Laguna Beach, we learned more by starting from scratch. We made the front page of the Wall Street Journal because no other major media company was doing this kind of thing.

Ron Meiners: I think a young audience is much more receptive, much more media-savvy. They can play with brands in much wilder ways and still be appreciative.

Joshua Green: Todd, what are the challenges of creating a transmedia property based on a reality series?

Todd Cunningham: Producing something like this would be sludgelike because you need approval from so many people. You need people in the organization who can further it along, even if they're not in positions of power or authority. We have brands and consumers that are leaps and bounds ahead of all of us, and we're trying to play in their world.

Joshua Green: John, is Second Life a platform that would be amenable to transmedia space?

John Lester: I think it already is. You can buy an island and create your own vision. I think it is very doable. (Points to the Dublin bar on the screen.) In Second Life you can set up an island to be as open or closed as you want. Working with educators, the first wave who came in wanted the environment to be very closed, essentially a classroom in a new world. This is typical -- when you are exposed to a new medium, you do what you did in other spaces beforehand. There's a correlation to the early days of film. Create experiences as open or closed as you want by controlling permission. You just have to define for yourself how tightly you need to hold on to everything. If you give people the tools to do things, they will just run with it -- like in this virtual Dublin.

Ron Meiners: These spaces will create a tremendous array of new opportunities and experiences, new interactive forms.

Joshua Green: What happens to those real people when these experiments end?

Ron Meiners: The quick answer is that, as we said earlier, this is a very dynamic business world. Some experiments will fold, some will take their learnings and progress. The thing that is occurring to me, though, is what we learned while working with the GameTap live community. Uru Live was an interactive space set in the Myst world and canon that closed down, but it had a user community who had become so passionate about experience that they went to Second Life and created expatriates, the Uru diaspora. Cyan eventually caught wind of this, leading them to release a publicly accessible version of the Uru server so that users could experiment even after the original servers were shut down. Now GameTap is relaunching it because of its potential for creating episodic content vehicle for the GameTap service -- but also because the community had staked out such a tremendously loyal set of activities around this brand and continued to experience this. There's a whole range of things that could happen next, such as fan community completely reviving the property.

Joshua Green: What happens if Laguna Beach is cancelled?

Todd Cunningham: And it will someday, probably, but we're learning a lot with Henry Jenkins. That thing we just talked about where fans continue something on and continue to keep it alive -- there are so many examples now of how that keeps happening. There's a great hope that could happen with Virtual Laguna Beach. One thing we've noticed since we started working with [C3] is how media brands do such a terrible job enabling fans to continue a love affair with media franchises. Now there are all these new ways to make sure that doesn't happen any longer. If a franchise is canceled, there are sometimes enough people and enough resources to keep the franchise alive and turn it into a whole other ecosystem, a whole other realm that is really exciting.

Audience Question:

John Lester: Right now the government is mainly interested in when people use Second Life to get cash. People make livings buying and selling Beanie Babies on eBay, and now it's the same way in Second Life when people get US dollars from trading in Linden dollars. It's funny that governments are interested in somehow taxing virtual transactions. Are they are also going to look at people trading and bartering objects on eBay, and look for a way to tax that?

Ron Meiners: People will share digital material much more freely than "real" objects. Someone just offered me my own hoverboard. Teens mare ore comfortable asking for material support from pals or chance acquaintances because they're largely exempt from most of the cultural expectations of older folks. When someone comes up to you and says "here's a digital thing," should that be taxed? This is another situation where old paradigms are less and less applicable.

John Lester: Teens also like giving each other songs, which is a problem for media economy dealing in a gift economy.

Ron Meiners: The scarcity of goods from before the digital age is less and less the dominant paradigm. There is lots of value in not having the restrictions of having to produce things with limited resources, and a lot of value is coming out of this. A gift economy is one way to approach it, but this raises huge questions about how our culture mitigates a lot of our relationships with each other with an interest in value.

Todd Cunningham: There's an IP thing within our company where there are certain people -- like many here today and others who wanted to come and couldn't make it -- who actively go after this exchange and pay attention to it, but the bulk of the company is not that way. We're looking at how to integrate that advanced company into the machine that has become what our brands are. Who's getting in more attention? Sometimes this comes in way of revenue from affiliates looking to further something along. It's like a squeeze, where revenue comes from making this happen.

Audience Question: Mike Dudeck (?), bachelor's student from art and design: I'm interested in multitasking and how the younger generation handles it more and more all the time. My sister, for example, updates her MySpsace profile, reads books, listens to music, and talks on the phone, all at once. I'm 6 years older and can't do any of that. Is that progress?

Todd Cunningham: You are right, no doubt, that young people are quite adept at multitasking. But look at the numbers: adults are more adept than young people are, probably more adept than we realize we are, when we consider all the things you have to bundle and juggle. We've been tracking this for about seven years now, and people 25-49 squeeze 31.5 hours of activity into 24 hours day. Younger people do less. The tools they are using is worth thinking about. We have our receptors up for technology use, with media playing a bigger role than that. Media helps the multitasking. Media is less a part of the lives of people over 25, more being used as incentive for productivity. When I get through with this, after I'm done with that... The multitasking thing is alive and well and think it will just become more so. Media take more of a position of presence in that world.

Joshua Green: John, this is question for you, one general question and one more specific question. We hear a lot about this huge economy in Second Life, talking about types of things people buy and sell within the universe. The more specific question: on the counter of the Dublin bar there was a steaming pizza, which I assume cost money. What is the incentive to spend your real money on a virtual consumable thing like pizza?

John Lester: The kinds of things that people are buying or selling spans whatever you can imagine. People are especially buying and selling clothing for avatars or objects or devices that are fun. This goes as far as resizing molecules in the world. Second Life has anything you can imagine as far as textures, services... The real estate market depends on people buying land on it and adding value to the land. There are people with mad landscaping skills in Second Life who charge for this service. Why would someone buy a pizza though? Why are people sitting in a bar? Avatars don't get tired or hungry. There's a restaurant in Second Life that actually takes reservations, and it's really popular. People make reservations, go there, and the chef prepares food for you at your table. Avatars can click on it and pretend to eat. There's a deep part of our brain that likes certain things, regardless of whether it makes sense or not. At some point feel we uncomfortable standing around. When people are socializing in world they like to sit down. Why are there houses with roofs in Second Life when there are no elements like rain or snow? We feel good in a cave. We like relaxing, usually sitting down. It somehow feels right to have a pizza when we're in a bar hanging out with friends and listening to a live musician.

Audience Question: I'm watching with great interest this Virtual Laguna Beach because it's tied to the show and creators of shows. I write about soap operas. Do the writers of the show, creators of the show, people other than the creators of VLB, check in on it? How are fans interacting with the site and characters in the site?

Eric Gruber: The characters actually aren't in the world. You can't play characters from the show in the virtual world, but we did bring them in as celebrity appearances. There was a house party where one character actually brought her controlling her avatar in. It's not really common but they do it, and there's a huge part of the world talking about Laguna Beach and about the show. Everybody here has a strong affinity for the show. We talk all the time about a lot of learning going on, not just Virtual Laguna Beach.

Audience Question: Soap operas are notoriously bad at gauging audience reaction. Focus groups are the wrong questions presented in the wrong way which leads to wrong conclusions, which were usually what was decided in the first place. A virtual world is where characters interact as fans wish them to interact. Could that be a tool for creators rather than giving test audiences stupid questions?

Todd Cunningham: When I went through the list of research lists, I tried to kill focus groups. (Round of applause.) I grew up in that world, I know how to moderate any group, I became a wizard at it, but respondents and creative people have been hurting it. We're now able to screen a show in a virtual world, and people line up to go see screenings of DVDs in-world and get responses that way. It's a terrific way to get creative people engaged. When we first started they weren't, but some were interested in the design and others in the way we created it.

Eric Gruber: Todd said we needed to have producers connected with it because it's their baby, but it was created on its own first and then as something to react to, to get people engaged. It worked out beautifully. I think it's a great observation, a great technique to get creative people engaged.

Audience Question: Coming out of multi-user dungeons and stuff, what responsibilities do you have regarding addiction? I know people who have lost jobs or spouses to EverCrack. (Audience laughter.) What sorts of safeguards do you think should or shouldn't be built into the technology to watch out for somebody as they build online internal communities? How does that take care of itself, or does it?

Ron Meiners: I think we're seeing a growing awareness of culture in media and interactions between the two, and we're learning about how these things can be helpful and how these technologies can affect you. Part of it is the general awareness level we all have. One of the things happening is people are becoming much more savvy about cultural context, much more aware of virtual worlds as cultural context, rather than something that dictates our actions. Culture will continue learning about online experience and its pitfalls.

Audience Question, Mark Tutors, researcher from Annenberg: Following up on a previous question, there are two points I'm going to raise. The first is about mind/body dualism. The point that I wanted to draw on was the idea that you as designers of new public spaces have gone far beyond traditional designers of public spaces and urban designers who have spoken at length. The second is about modernism/postmodernism. These things have fallen by the wayside. In the worlds of the immortal philosopher Eric Cartman from South Park --y ou guys can be in the sun all day and play with a ball or sit with your computer and do something that really matters. The general vibe I want to speak to has to do with the overlap between these kinds of virtual environments, and how many of us may be gamers and have avatars but the difference between avatars and public performance here is vast. I wonder if you might speak to these overlaps, and what you've noticed about overlapping from these spaces.

John Lester: We always end up finding a balance, they're just different mediums. The telephone is a virtual exprience.

Ron Meiners: I think of it as destroying society, evolving. The paradigm for our grandparents is different. Online experience forms its own kind of virtues, much more fluidly than when I was growing up. Teens are no longer so heavily constrained by peers in their locations. That's the high side of it. The other part being too that we are going to discover all sorts of emergent stuff, and that will continue to evolve. To look at it in terms of how we are changing is a positive and negative thing. That's what is happening.

Todd Cunningham: The question about the digital divide is a touchy one. There are people in our organization like Bryan Searing, who is looking at new digital manifestations for us that are not all predicated on someone having cable television. As a policy, we're well aware of the digital divide, but some data says it's collapsing and some data says it's widening.

Audience Question: Michael Lebowitz from Big Spaceship. I don't have an extremely well-formed question, but I keep thinking about Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash. In that world, programming chops make the difference. In the metaverse, this single platform everyone could interact with, either lots of money or programming skill allow you to be more than someone who just jacks into terminal or someone who has an off-the-shelf avatar Betty or Jack that all look the same. I'm wondering how this all extends as these things become more pervasive -- which they will -- and as they start talking to each other. What does someone who develops and spends tremendous time on their avatar leave behind when they swap worlds? Is there another kind of digital divide coming for people who don't have skill or money to generate money for more than just limited experiences, and how much do you see new ways of expressing elitism going on in this? One reference in Snow Crash: the main character meets a guy with perfectly articulated smoke curling off his cigarette, which lets the main character know that this guy is someone you don't fuck with. Have you have seen things like this to this point, and where do you think it's going?

John Lester: In Second Life there's this seedy part of a Japanese place. When I come here, I wear a big bad avatar. This giant robot avatar I'm wearing, there's no way I could ever make this because I suck at making avatars, someone created this and has business selling avatars. Anyone in Second Life can create anything they want, they don't even have to own land -- some make avatars and rent simple little booths to sell them. If you can't make it yourself, someone else can and there's a business opportunity.

Ron Meiners: There are several layers of answers. In World of WarCraft, high-end gear indicates which quests you've been on. In Metaverse, status is clearly defined by what you have achieved in the world itself. The client building is going to be universal, so our intention is people can go to any of these worlds, depending on what developers want, perhaps with the same avatar. We're trying to make things very fluid. We're also developing a marketplace for content creators so that artists and scriptors and designers can collaborate and sell skills and reap rewards in a way that's useful. Lastly, the most relevant to stuff you do as well -- especially the Da Vinci Code site you showed yesterday -- is marketing culture. How you understand how that's working is how it's ultimately part of human culture defining itself, how we define culture. How we evaluate different cultural propositions, what is more interesting and more useful, is how we understand social community in meaningful ways, how we underswtand what life means.

Audience Question: Marissa Gallagher, RazorFish. How much control do you give to those interacting in-world to comment on experiences? How often do you use these as tools and simulations for communities?

Ron Meiners: I think in general that's the right model, community as service, long-term community ties. I think what is happening is evolution in MMOs that are closely tied to communities, which is very important to know. Certainly Multiverse is currently learning from early developers what they want and how they want the platform to evolve. Content creation companies understand their role by interacting with their communities, establishing long-term relationships. Paul [Levitz] used the word "sincere," which is a beautifully apt term for the kind of relationships I see evolve.

Eric Gruber: We built systems for feedback in Virtual Laguna Beach but we don't know how it feeds back into MTV. We watch events and try to react to it in real time, week by week, and we change how we do things, how we message things, who we talk to. We started at the beginning, when the project was in alpha, by finding people who wanted to help us and asked them to give feedback by posting to a forum buried in one of the pages. We checked back 3 pages later, and 200 pages later, this is what we wanted. Some of them we promote to lifeguards. We have people in constant communication with them about how to evolve this product to more than just Laguna Beach. We love to hear their feedback. They will make it a success.

There were also discussions about the effectiveness of various types of research methodologies, in terms of virtual worlds and audience engagement and feedback in general. Todd Cunningham discussed the importance of a combination of qualitative and quantitative research, as well as observational techniques that allow the company to see how fans are actually juggling or multitasking and using these virtual worlds. He said that he was never a fan of the panel style of research but likes the idea of using these worlds as a way to engage with and research fans, based on feedback from one of Lynn Liccardo's questions.

John Lester: One of the basic things about Second Life is anyone at any time can create anything. I am here in Second Life and logged in as Admin but anyone who allows it can right click on gorund and create. These tools are in every singler user of Second Life's hands. Basic human anatomy is the starting point but poeple take it from there. From the beginning, we said you own the intellectual property.

Ron Meiners: Our thought is to arrange options for deisgners, to create world where users have options to create with. Ron discussed bundling worlds and selling them as a package so that users can sign up as a client and go among all of them, providing a benefit to consumer and producers alike.

The full video from this panel will be available soon. Check for more information here or at the conference site.