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Junk Food Entertainment

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17 November 2004

by Mike Rozak


What is the difference between an airport novel and a classic novel?

Partly, it's the reason why you're reading it; an airport novel is designed to kill time while you're on an airplane or in an airport, a classic novel is assigned to be read by an English professor.

Of course, a classic novel will be better written, have more interesting characters, and better plots. It will have been written sometime in the distant past, which is why it is called "classic", since it has withstood the test of time.

However, plenty of airport novels are just as well written (if not better) than some of the classics. What then allows an airport novel to avoid obscurity? Some classic novels were merely lucky enough to be singled out by English teachers. They may also have been written by an author that produced other classics, and by virtue of their siblings, be raised up.

Classic novels also have a quality that transcends an airport novel: Classics are "food for the soul", to use a cliche term. Amidst all the interesting characters and plotting, are ideas about life, the universe, and everything.

For example: Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist" was not only a quaint story about an orphan, it was a larger exposition on 19th century England's approach to orphans, child labour, crime, and the lower classes. An airport novel is about, well, nothing.

For example: The movie, "2001: A Space Odyssey" is remembered while other science fiction moves from the late 1960's are long forgotten. 2001 was about humanity's evolution from ape, to human, to beyond, and ultimately questions if man will become god and create its own life-form.

Continuing on with the "food for the soul" analogy... As I see it, there are four different levels of "nutrition" in entertainment:

  • Rice cakes - Rice cakes are tasteless and calorie-less food items designed to fill one's stomach. "Rice cake" entertainments are designed to waste time, and only be barely enjoyable. Cable's "Home Shopping Network" and "The Weather Channel" are rice cakes. Tetris is a good example of a computer-game rice-cake.

  • Junk food - Satisfying, filling, yet empty calories. Most television shows and computer games are junk food. They're great while your watching or playing them, but don't have any deeper meaning.

  • Nutritious food - Not as tasty as junk food, nutritious food keeps you alive. Nutritious entertainments contain ideas to ponder and may even change your life. Movies like "2001" and "Saving Private Ryan" are nutritious; they will become classics. "The Last Starfighter" and "Blackhawk Down" are junk food, and are bound to fade away.

  • Health pellets -  Too much of a good thing. Health pellets are full of nutrition but tasteless (or they taste awful). Television documentaries and multimedia encyclopedias are health pellets. They may be chocked full of ideas, but only a small segment of the population enjoys them.


What does this have to do with virtual worlds?

Most virtual worlds fall into the "rice cake" or "junk food" categories. They are either used to kill time (orc-massacre marathons) or are entertainment without substance. As such, the existing crop is doomed to historic obscurity, other than their being remembered as pioneers.


Making nutritious virtual worlds

What can be done to make a virtual world more than empty calories?

I'm not entirely sure, but I'll give it a go. Let me first revisit what makes a classic novel or movie feel "nutritious".

  • For me a really good (classic) novel or movie is one that changes me. I find myself thinking about the memes the novel puts forth, or just walking away with a different outlook on life.

  • Classic novels and movies also have a way of changing the world, as did Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, and Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.


How does this translate into a virtual world? A nutritious virtual world is one which either changes the player, and/or changes the world. Of course, this definition has nothing to do with "food for the soul", but it's a bit more concrete.

Richard Bartle, in his book, Designing Virtual Worlds, spends a lot of time discussing how players change over the course of playing in a virtual world. They undertake the hero's quest and find their true selves over the course of role playing and "trying on" other personalities.

My thoughts are not as grand as the hero's quest, but the hero's quest could be included as one of a virtual world's nutritious components.

Here are some ways a virtual world can change the player's real-world life:

  • Meet new friends - Virtual worlds are excellent ways to meet new friends. Novels and other non-interactive entertainments are significantly inferior to virtual worlds in this respect.

  • Build relationships - Hanging out with pre-existing (or newly-met) friends in a virtual world helps to build relationships that spill out into the real world.

  • Prove one's self worth - Because existing virtual worlds don't have permanent death, any player that plays long enough will eventually reach the top. This is called "the grind", and although it may be boring, it does allow people to feel like they have accomplished something.

  • Make money - Because virtual-world goods can be sold for real-world money, players can play the game to make real-world money.

  • Learn information - Documentaries are stuffed full of information. Many classic novels, such as "Moby Dick", also contain technical information about their subject. A virtual world that takes place is a historically accurate version of ancient Rome would teach about history, and perhaps give players a better feel for the Roman empire than a TV documentary.

  • Learn technical skills - Virtual worlds excel at teaching players new skills. For example, most virtual worlds include an economics sub-game that can be useful for learning how to run a business. Skills learned in a virtual world could also include a real-world language, sailing a ship, programming, how to train a pet, or even writing fan-fiction about the world.

  • Learn social skills - Players in virtual worlds learn important social skills. Often they learn more quickly in a virtual world because their anonymity allows them to try different approaches more easily (since no one knows who they are). One important social skill that virtual worlds are great for teaching is how to lead.

  • See the world differently - Novels and television are an excellent way to see the world through someone else's eyes, such as the "Roots" mini-series in the 1970's, which told the story of slavery through American history. Virtual worlds could be even better mechanisms for empathy.

  • Deep thoughts - Aspects of the virtual world that make users ponder life's deeper questions.

  • The hero's quest - (Thanks to Richard Bartle) The player assumes different identities over the course of playing in virtual worlds, identities that would be impossible to try-out in the real world. These identities gradually merge into and change the player's real-world identity. Ultimately, the person becomes more who they really are.


And change the real world:

  • Personally affect other people - Players in a virtual world can affect other people, in both positive and negative ways. Many people enjoy affecting others. Books and other non-interactive media don't allow this.

  • Spread ideas - While ideas can affect other people, they're often not on a one-to-one level. The person who sources the idea may never meet or even hear of most of the people he has affected. Web logs may be a better way to spread ideas, but virtual worlds are certainly a viable conduit.

  • Make your mark on the world - Many players enjoy changing the virtual world, by creating new buildings or objects. I suspect this is actually a surrogate for their desire to change the real world. (See below.)


While a virtual world can change players and allow players to affect other players, it also acts as a surrogate for the real world. For example, if a person wishes to be wealthy in the real world, but cannot, he may make it a goal to become wealthy in a virtual world instead. Some examples of the virtual world acting as surrogate are:

  • Go on a holiday - If you can't afford a holiday on a tropical island, why not take one on a virtual tropical island? (The Myst series is a great example of this. Notice how Myst does not take place in a cold and snowy suburban landscape.)

  • Pets - If you can't have a real-world pet, why not have a virtual one? Virtual and electronic pets are big in Japan where tight living conditions and an emphasis on hygiene prohibit many pets, especially larger ones like horses and dragons.

  • Social power - If a player is not socially powerful in the real world, they may be able to achieve the power in the virtual one by becoming a guild leader, or just a griefer.

  • Financial power (wealth) - If you can't be wealthy in the real world, it's easier to be wealthy in the virtual world. The same goes for home ownership.

  • Discovery - While it's nearly impossible to make a revolutionary discovery in the real-world, it's much easier to find an exploit in a virtual world, allowing you and your buddies to cure virtual cancer (or at least heal hit points quicker than you're supposed to).

  • Make your mark on the virtual world - If you can't do anything to change the real world, changing a virtual world is the next best thing.

  • Illegal activities, such as violence - After a bad day in the office, playing a first-person shooter is a very satisfying way to get ones aggressions out.

  • Impossible activities - See "The attraction of impossibility".




I have digressed a bit from my original discussion. Originally I was talking about applying the concept "food for the soul" to a virtual world, and ended up with a list of reasons why people like playing virtual worlds...

I suppose I made a switcheroo.

What I have actually come up with is a list of "non-fun" reasons why people play virtual worlds. After all, learning a new language or owning a pet aren't fun by themselves. However, the act of knowing a language and then travelling to a different country is fun. And the 10 minutes a day you play with your pet is fun, even though the 30 minutes spent feeding it and cleaning up after it aren't.

My suspicion is that people begin playing a virtual world because it's fun (see Evolutionary Explanation for Entertainment), but they continue to play a virtual world because of other the "non-fun" reasons. (Although the virtual world must continue to still be fun.)

If this theory holds true, then there are some ramifications:

  • Virtual worlds that provide the right "non-fun" activities for a given player are more likely to make an impression on the player, and (I suspect) will keep the player coming back longer.

  • Virtual worlds that allow player characters to become fabulously wealthy will tend to attract players who wish to become fabulously wealthy in real life. (Often these are teenagers or very materialistic people.) The same applies of any of the non-fun motivations.

  • If all your players want to be wealthy (or leaders, or architects) then they will all be dissatisfied because only so many can be at the top. A virtual world needs a mix of players with many different "nutritional" needs.



Copyright 2004 by Mike Rozak. All rights reserved.
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