For several months I’d been thinking about videogames that are available for older machines; specifically PIII’s at 700MHz (my mother’s machine). It’s amazing how difficult it is to find older videogames that might be suited for the not-quite-yet-outdated hardware. As it turned out, I had a couple of games that I’d purchased and never really played: American McGee’s Alice (image above) and Sacrifice. They fit the bill, so I took some time to give them another spin, and what I found was that they don’t look at all dated. Alice uses the now open source Quake III engine and is, imo, as engaging as HL2. Sacrifice didn’t appeal to me quite as much, but the visuals are still very compelling; and the gameplay – which took me a while to get into – was obviously given quite a bit of thought.
What makes me write about them now is something I wrote earlier regarding videophones and virtual worlds (reLink):
…the lesson seems to be that they care more about constant connectivity (even primitive texting) than about the kind of connectivity. Relative to surfing the net, virtual world interfaces are actually better in meeting those kinds of wants, meaning that even primitive worlds are sufficient so long as the connectivity and their buddies are there. Assuming Second Life ever gets an integrated browser up and running so that people can socially surf the net, things could change dramatically.
The same thing that spurred the above comment, the heated debate surrounding Second Life’s user statistics (reLink), has spurred others to discuss those virtual worlds which have come and, in most cases, effectively gone; the implication being that it’s either all been done and isn’t anything new or that it’s been tried, failed, and won’t ever succeed.
Anybody who has ever ventured into one of the extraordinarily primitive 3D worlds of the mid-90’s yet still felt some excitement may now understand what I mean when I say that, in truth, we don’t need current technology to pull off a true virtual world. Just as we could have videophones today, we could have the Metaverse now. If the graphics are as good as that of Alice or Sacrifice or even the older original Quake, that’s enough. Because it’s not the visual image that’s behind the immersion, it’s the imagination of the user who takes whatever is given to them – including text messages – and forms their own mental image and thus generates their own sense of immersion.
Now by the above one might assume that I’m agreeing that text-only (or text-dependent) MUDs are sufficient. Not quite. One of the things that’s missing from them is the unspoken information; the real-time virtual body language of the other individual in avatar form, the nuances of shape and color that aren’t easily (or ever) truly communicated, even in 2D. In short, effective social collaboration is impaired by an inherently separate sense of immersion. Too much individual interpretation becomes a barrier. At this point it’s worth recognizing that even Dungeons & Dragons, the original non-computer game that arguably contributed to early MUDs, included plenty of visual material as reference to enhance a shared immersion (many comic shops back in the late 70’s were, in some cases, setting aside whole sections for D&D material and in those sections there were plenty of things to see).
Something I read the other day is a good example for how important this missing element can be. Clive Thompson has a post about YouTube and the art of guitar wanking (Link) that I think applies here. From his post:
Because 1980s-style shredding faces problematic paradox: “Very often,” as Klosterman pointed out, “profoundly exceptional guitar playing is boring to listen to.” YouTube, however, changes those stakes, because it offers us a new way to see the craft at hand.
There is something in the seeing that’s too important to ignore… both for guitar playing and for virtual worlds. It’s the reason that Nick Rhoades’ comment about Second Life (Link), “how they all looked in the same direction”, resonated with me (Link).
Consequently, I don’t think we have to wait for anything for the Metaverse to develop. We only have to start working with what we have instead of wishing for what we don’t. And if we don’t develop a Metaverse now, it’s not because we can’t have it, it’s because – just like Clay Shirky’s videophones – we don’t really want it. Or perhaps the people with the ability to build it, don’t want it, because it’s not a controllable thing; it’s not a “game” with rules and someone playing the role of dungeon master.