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17 November 2004
by Mike Rozak
What is the difference between an airport novel and a classic
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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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"