Virtualization 3.0: Civilizational development

Having worked in the video games industry, and now studying sustainability, I feel I have a better perspective than most on the interplay between these topics. It’s a strange combination, I realize, but the interplay between them is surprisingly large, and much of it stems from the unique way in which games are consumed.

I have seen first-hand how all-consuming some video games can be. I don’t just mean addictive either, I mean life-consuming, and even lifereplacing. At various moments in my career I would meet people who played the game I worked on. They would become utterly invested in the game, to the point “playing” hardly capture it. To them, it was a second life, and I could hardly blame them. We wanted this world we created to be exactly that.

For me too, the lines blurred heavily between the game world and reality, and the relationship I had with the game was complex. It was both something I created and something I consumed. Something I lived in and worked in, and worked on. A world I was paid to create, but also got lost in myself – my favourite kind of gameplay was just sitting around “roleplaying. Interactions with other people inside the world mixed between real world banter, and in-character drama and in-world action. At one point, I was running something called “live events” where I would take control of in-game characters, such as a menacing invasion force that would fight it out against our players. An experiment that pushed the edges of narrative – now the characters lept off the page into a living, breathing, world, in a story that would unfold in real time before the eyes of thousands of players.

There’s a reason this has become the world’s biggest entertainment industry. Games can get incredibly deep.

Though games are growing in cultural and economic importance and becoming completely mainstream, it’s still perhaps underappreciated that there are vast, complex, always-online worlds out there, perpetually bustling with thousands of player “inhabitants” – pocket virtual worlds running on a network of computers. At times, the richness of the social, economic and other interactions in these games can rival real-world equivalents[1]. A person may chase fame, wealth, or prestige harder in their video game life than they do in the real world. Perhaps this is especially the case in the “MMO[2]” genre which creates not just “game worlds”, but cities, neighbourhoods, homes, and alternate lives – something persistent and to many of its players, something deeply meaningful.

StormwindWoW
Image courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment Inc.

This, for example, is Stormwind Keep.

It is the main city for one of the two players factions in the MMO game World of Warcraft. Players can retire to the city after adventures to socialize, trade, and otherwise interact with others.

Driven by a mixture of artistic aspiration and financial motivations, the studios behind these special types of always-online games design them to be as immersive as possible; tempting people to stay longer, to sink deeper in. The game I used to work on, EVE Online, is an MMO like this. It has run for decades now; a living, changing world that players have spent huge parts of their lives inside of.

This game is especially notable because not only does it provide an online world for players to interact in, but it all happens on the one “server” – everyone occupies the same world[3]. The technical wizardry required to achieve this is not insignificant. The studio, for a time, owned and operated the world’s most advanced and expensive single-server computer network. All this just to host a game. The same studio I worked for once (infamously) marketed its game as “more meaningful than real life”. Among other accolades, the game is part of a permanent exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, featured alongside just 13 others including immortal, iconic titles like Pacman.

Though the moment has long since passed, MoMA continues to indirectly stick it to Roger Ebert, famed movie critic that once boldly claimed video games could never be art[4]. The installation takes the form of a 4K UHD video that shows what happens on any given day in EVE Online. While a game full of ships flying around a statistically empty universe may not seem like a proper subject for an artistic 4K UHD museum documentary, EVE Online remains what is arguably the best instance of a living virtual world…The games weren’t chosen for being pretty, but rather for being an outstanding example of interactive design.[5]

I strongly believe the implications of all this are underexplored, and yet have potentially profound consequences from a sustainability perspective. To understand why, you must appreciate that these games and the technology behind them is all just in its infancy. Despite this, it’s already possible, financially, and technologically, to build some seriously impressive virtual worlds – ones that draw in great numbers of people. The longer-term implications of these games will become more obvious as the industries and cultures around them grow, and perhaps, as increasingly large numbers of the human population gravitate towards spending some part of their life inside virtual environments.

The key point here is that MMO studios needed cheap, pervasive, high-speed internet to really shine, so the genre is only a few decades old. Return your mind to the Fermi paradox however, and we’re talking about civilizations advanced enough to colonize space, rather than ones that recently developed broadband internet. That might mean they also invented some really good games along the way, or more broadly, some really advanced virtual environments. Did that distract them? Is that why we can’t see anybody out there? Is the Great Filter of advanced civilizations that they inevitably become enamoured, or perhaps even lost, in a simulated world?


Footnotes

[1] And in cases where in-game items have corresponding real-world monetary values, it can be real money and not just pixels at stake in those interactions.

[2] MMO stands for “Massively Multiplayer Online”.

[3] The more common alternative is called “instancing” where many copies of the game world are made, and players occupy just one copy at a time. For example, there are multiple “copies” of the city of Stormwind Keep in the MMO game World of Warcraft. In EVE Online, there is just one world that everyone occupies – one Stormwind Keep, effectively.

[4] Watt, M. (2010, April 19). Roger Ebert says video games can never be “art”. Geek.com.

[5] Plafke, J. (2015, May 12). Eve Online’s permanent art exhibit at MoMA can now be viewed online. Geek.com.