When game theorists become scary

Games, especially video games and online games, are incredibly fascinating. They can be beautiful, intriguing, social, but in order to become a success, they need to be engaging.

There is a kind of gold rush to games by marketing specialists, human resources experts, experimental economists, psychologists, neurologists, educators, and they all want to find what makes individual and groups tick. Games are being played by hundreds of millions, and staggering amounts of data are being collected about human behavior.

Experts point out how interesting and useful it would be to apply core gaming principles to make people more engaged. They give noble examples such as environmental awareness campaigns. But of course, it’s also a matter of making people addicted to your product or service.

Gaming experts can be so convincing they become scary. Are they really unlocking ways which almost inevitably make people engage? Is this a good thing, or is it a sophisticated way of manipulating people so that they spend time and effort for projects the game masters deem important?

In a TED video released today, game theorist Tom Chatfield explains how games engage the brain. He is the author of the new book Fun, Inc about the gaming industry and how it is altering our society.

Hat tip to Chris Clark on NspireD² for posting about this video.

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Making sense of our streams, in real time

How do we make sense of the streams of information on social networks? It’s easy to get overwhelmed and difficult to tell a good story about what happens on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn etc. I’m a strong believer in virtual worlds as islands in those streams, where we can gather, and make time for thoughtful discussions. But even then we could make good use of tools to tell stories about what happens ‘out there’.

Josh Stearns on Groundswell has a great post about The New Curators: Weaving Stories from the Social Web.

Josh discusses Slices of Boulder, which seeks to aggregate and curate local information streams. The project is a collaboration between the Digital Media Test Kitchen at the University of Boulder and Eqentia.

Another tool, or rather a platform, is Swift River, built by the folks behind Ushahidi. It was designed with crisis situations in mind. The developers describe it as a “platform that helps people make sense of a lot of information in a short amount of time.” On their blog they try to clarify the concept as being an open source Yahoo Pipes for any SMS, Twitter, Email, and JSON/ATOM/XML/RSS feed, soon video and audio as well.

Storify finally is as Josh explains “based on two panes: 1) Navigating various content feeds (i.e. a Twitter search, a Facebook stream, as well as content from YouTube, Flickr and more) and 2) A blank stream where you can drag and drop elements from those streams to build your story.” It is simple, but compelling.

Storify demo from Burt Herman on Vimeo.

To be honest, Storify is the only tool mentioned here I actually experimented with (I’ll try the others out as well). Have a look at my post about Second Life in a browser and two stories on my financial blog (the blogposts are in Dutch, the tweets in English): one post about the US GDP report of last Friday and another one about Nouriel Roubini being pessimistic about the growth prospects (a social media discussion in which he does not hesitate to call a participant “an idiot”).

Storify (find an invite code at TechCrunch) actually helps you to discover stories.  It makes it easy to combine social media streams, and by doing that you stumble upon unexpected stuff (such as the angry outbursts of Roubini) and you can make that discovery process visible.

On Zombie Journalism Mandy Jenkins explains ten ways journalists (and bloggers of course) can use Storify: gathering reactions on breaking news, combining past content with newer information and social streams, showing your own quests on Twitter, Facebook etc, or organizing your own live tweets from a conference.

Robin Good is following up the fast expanding universe of real time curation tools on his blog. He also prepared a mindmap about all this:

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The sobering aspects of the cyber world – and our future

Yesterday the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), better known as MI6, held a public speech – for the first time ever. He was dealing with ethical issues such as torture and secrecy.

I’d like to focus on some other aspects of the speech (full version here) by Sir John Sawers, which have to do with a networked world and future threats. I think these issues, even though depressing, are important if one wants to think about scenarios for the future.

Sawers briefly explained the structure of the security services. The Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, operates abroad, dealing with threats overseas and gathering intelligence mainly from human sources. The security service, MI5, works in the UK, protecting the homeland from terrorist attack and other threats. GCHQ produces intelligence from communications, and takes the lead in the cyber world.

These three specialised services form the UK intelligence community, and operate in a networked world. Technology plays an ever growing part in their work, for SIS as well as GCHQ, and the boundary line between home and abroad is increasingly blurred. So, they’ll have to collaborate more and more – also in order to make savings.

The security services are dealing with more than the classical terrorist attacks:

But our country, our democratic system, will not be brought down by a typical terrorist attack.

The dangers of proliferation of nuclear weapons – and chemical and biological weapons – are more far-reaching. It can alter the whole balance of power in a region.

The impact of cyber attacks can be devastating as well:

Attacks on government information and commercial secrets of our companies are happening all the time. Electricity grids, our banking system, anything controlled by computers, could possibly be vulnerable. For some, cyber is becoming an instrument of policy as much as diplomacy or military force.

A few weeks ago, GCHQ director Iain Lobban said UK’s critical infrastructure – such as power grids and emergency services – faces a “real and credible” threat of cyber attack. The threat posed by terrorists, organised criminals and hostile foreign governments was “real and credible” and he demanded a swifter response to match the speed with which “cyber events” happened, so the BBC reported. Another interesting quote from the BBC coverage:

“Cyberspace is contested every day, every hour, every minute, every second. I can vouch for that from the displays in our own operations centre of minute-by-minute cyber attempts to penetrate systems around the world.”

While 80% of the threat to government systems could be dealt with through good information assurance practice – such as keeping security “patches” up to date – the remaining 20% was more complex and could not simply be solved by building “higher and higher” security walls.

It’s a sobering thought that the same characteristics we usually like so much in cyberspace, such as the blurring of national boundaries and the dazzling speed of innovation and change, are also lethal menaces.

Roland Legrand

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Thinking the unthinkable

A strange sequence of events: last Saturday I was on a personal finance event (I’m a financial journalist) in Brussels, Belgium, and the day after I went to the Photo Museum of Antwerp (Belgium). I visited the exposition of the work of Willy Kessels (1898-1974), who is considered as one of the most important Belgian representatives of a new, ‘modernistic’ photography which came to the foreground from the end of the 1920’s onward. His body of works is particularly illustrative of the practise of the professional photographer in the 1930’s, so the museum site explains. Strangely enough, visiting that exposition made me muse about futurism.

Maybe it was not that strange after all: in the thirties Kessels made pictures of the modernist headquarters of the socialist newspaper Le Peuple, of the at the time very modern installations of the national broadcasting organization NIR, of new installations of factories and breweries. The pictures show us an optimistic, modern wold which seems very familiar to us, even in this day and age.

It was that familiarity which made me feel uneasy. The people in those modern interiors and buildings, would they have realized what horror and collapse of civilization would take place a few year later (the Second World War, the holocaust… )?

Kessels’ career was rather strange. He made those modernist pictures, and also pictures of the making of the movie Misère au Borinage about the suffering of workers. But he would also befriend Joris Van Severen of the Verdinaso, a very right-wing organization. Kessels would become a photographer of rural Flanders, trying to capture a sense of authenticity.

While many observers think Kessels was an opportunist, he also demonstrates an important cultural tension in the West: on the one hand the optimism, a belief in progress (economically, socially, politically, technologically) and on the other hand a Romantic rejection of all this in favor of the (often imaginary) virtues of the past, of local roots versus cosmopolitanism and globalization.

This tension increases when the social fabric of society is threatened. This was one of the themes we discussed at the investment seminars the day before and it is one of the big underlying issues in the trade discussions between the US and China: which of both countries will end up with an unemployment of 10 percent to 20 percent of the labor force? About 42 million people, more than one in eight Americans, are now on food stamps.

It’s rather difficult to have constructive political debates in such a context – on the contrary, it’s an ideal environment for extremists.

All of which explains my rather depressing thoughts: will museum visitors of the future look at pictures of our time, with our technological dreams and our modernist buildings and interiors, and wonder whether we realized what horror would happen to us a few year later?

As financial experts said during the seminar, the shift toward the East of the world economy is not that strange. Before the Industrial Revolution about 70 percent of the world economy was non-Western, so the fact that we return to that situation should not surprise us.

The road toward that new world order will be bumpy. How bumpy, we cannot know at this point in time. Will discussion about trade and exchange rates lead to war? Will extremists and fundamentalists use of the technological empowerment of the individual in order to commit horrible acts of mass destruction?

It’s strange that experts these days often work in ignorance of each other’s work. While security experts study issues like nuclear- cyber- and bio-terrorism, urbanists and economists often just don’t take these dreadful possibilities into account in their risk assessments. It’s one of the reasons that I like near-future science fiction so much: it constitutes one of the few accessible places where scenarios are developed and knowledge from various fields is combined into possible futures. It helps us imagine the unthinkable, so that we can try to prevent it.

Roland Legrand

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Minecraft, that strange 3D game in our browsers

I saw this fascinating video about Minecraft (via Kotaku). Wikipedia explains:

Minecraft is a sandbox game which allows players to build constructions out of textured cubes in a 3D world. It is currently in development by Markus “Notch” Persson on the Java platform. The gameplay is inspired by Dwarf Fortress, RollerCoaster Tycoon, Dungeon Keeper, and especially Infiniminer. Minecraft was developed for about a week before its public release on May 16, 2009 on the TIGSource forums, where it gained a considerable level of popularity. It has been continually updated since then.

There is now a multiplayer version. I just ran the game in a browser on an office computer – no download was necessary. The game is pretty addictive, the fact that it’s clunky and in some early development phase seems to add to its charm.

It’s another example of how much more is possible in browsers, apart from the usual text/2D animations/video – and also how an individual can create something beautiful and inspiring, going viral.

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Burn2 in SL: also the emptiness matters

Where does our inspiration come from? It seems that for Philip Rosedale the inspiration for a virtual world came from Burning Man, an annual event in the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada, in the United States. The idea is to build a city for about a week, collaborating and exchanging gifts. It takes its name from the ritual burning of a large wooden effigy and after the event all traces of the city have to disappear.

In Second Life there is a virtual version of this event. It was organized by the folks at Linden Lab, but this year it was up to the residents to take care of Burn2.

It’s very inspiring to walk around and visit the various installations. In fact, one should not just visit, but participate – there are no tourists or “just visitors” at Burning Man. I guess the experience of the actual desert must be very impressive, but the emptiness of the virtual desert between the installations and event places really is a special experience as well.

Burn2 in Second Life

The virtual desert where burn2 takes place

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The launch of the Hypergrid Adventurers Club – in search of Connectivity

Talking about OpenSim, John “Pathfinder” Lester, an expert and strategist in educational online communities and virtual worlds, launches an open club for anyone interested in group explorations of virtual worlds on the Hypergrid and sharing their experiences with others.

Pathfinder officially starts the Hypergrid Adventurers Club:

We’ll be meeting regularly each week, and the first meeting will be Sunday October 24 from 10pm-11pm GMT.

For more details and a link to our calendar of scheduled meetings, please see my new Hypergrid Adventurers Club main page (there’s now a permanent link to that page in the header bar of my blog).

strongly feel that the future of the Metaverse will involve Connectivity.  So let’s put theory into practice and explore that Connectivity together.

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Could Second Life be a portal for the Metaverse?

I attended a wonderful Metanomics community meeting in Second Life, where Jennette Forager (Metanomics) interviewed Maria Korolov from Hypergrid Business, a website focusing on enterprise users of virtual worlds. Korolov talked about the development of OpenSim, the open source server platform for hosting virtual worlds. OpenSim is compatible with the Second Life client.

Maria compared the current metaverse situation with that of the web and AOL in the nineties. AOL had a big community and was very convenient while outside of that walled garden smaller sites developed, often very primitive and lacking big communities. This could not prevent people from trying out the wide open web.

OpenSim is very much like the open web, in this sense that you can start your own site world, eventually host it yourself, decide whether to link it up to the wider OpenSim grids or keep it private. The platform is growing rapidly, and trade in virtual goods is taking off. However, Second Life remains by far the bigger place, with large communities, sophisticated and convenient tools.

I don’t think the folks of OpenSim hope that Second Life will somehow disappear. OpenSim is catching up technologically, but typically waits for certain developments to succeed in Second Life (voice, or mesh import) before really introducing those possibilities on a large scale on OpenSim grids.

Korolov has a vision: that of Second Life as the place where one can meet lots of virtual worlds people, and which is a kind of portal for the wilder, Far West zones of the Metaverse – the OpenSim grids. For that to fully succeed, it would be useful to be able to teleport back and forth avatars and virtual goods from Second Life to the OpenSim universe. Problems regarding property rights could be solved by enabling content creators to restrict their goods to one particular world – Second Life, or some OpenSim grid for example.

Read also: The launch of the Hypergrid Adventurers Club – in search of Connectivity

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Rosedale steps down as interim CEO of Linden Lab, search for new CEO launched

Philip Rosedale, the founder of Second Life, steps down (for the second time) as CEO of Linden Lab, the company behind the virtual world. Rosedale announced this in a short blog post. Residents of Second Life are surprised by the sudden announcement, even though Rosedale had made it clear that he replaced the former CEO, Mark Kingdon, as an interim CEO.

Only a few days ago a new avatar for Philip Linden (as his avatar name is) was shown to the public, and that timing seems odd now, according to some Linden Lab watchers. More about the announcement and reactions on my experimental page The Metaverse in Turmoil.

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