MRUniversity: it’s not a massive open online course, but it could be used to create one

Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, two economics professors at George Mason University, launch Marginal Revolution University. They’ll deliver free, interactive courses in the economics space, so I read on Open Culture.
Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok run the blog Marginal Revolution. Some years ago, Cowen also was a guest at the Metanomics-show in Second Life.
Users are invited to submit content. The professors don’t call their courses a MOOC, but “it can be used to create a MOOC, namely a massive, open on-line course.”

The economics of video games

“Bloomfield is working on a platform, called the Synthetic Economy Research Environment, that could enable economists to produce games that simulate large-scale economic phenomenon like a central bank.”

I often wondered whether professor Robert Bloomfield (Johnson School of Management at Cornell University) was still involved in virtual worlds research. He was the charismatic host of the rather high-brow Metanomics talk-show in Second Life. Now I got my answer, via Brad Plumer who published a post about the economics of video games on Wonkblog at The Washington Post. 
via Diigo http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/wp/2012/09/28/the-economics-of-video-games/

Another professor known for his virtual worlds research, Edward Castronova, reacted on the WaPo-post on Terra Nova. The Metanomics-site still exists, but it seems there are no more updates.

Existential questions about virtual worlds

It has been interesting to be away from virtual worlds stuff for a few weeks. I had some catching up to do, but at first sight it seems not much has changed.

There is another famous Linden Lab employee leaving the company, Jack Linden. Other virtual worlds are presenting themselves as alternatives for Second Life, such as OpenSim. Blue Mars continues to promote is’s nice graphics and Twinity it’s mirror worlds.

But looking at all this from a distance, it seems the momentum of those projects and companies is lost, at least for now. Outside the feverishly working communities of those virtual places, nobody seems to care. What’s hot right now is Zynga, Facebook, Twitter, the iPad and the epic struggle between Android and Apple, and of course there is Microsoft’s Kinect. People wonder constantly whether Second Life is still around, and as far as Blue Mars, OpenSim or Twinity is concerned, well even most accomplished geeks won’t know what you’re talking about unless they happen to be members of those tiny niche-communities.

I was not surprised at all reading Botgirl’s post about Pew research which points in the same direction:

According to the latest Pew Generations Report, virtual worlds have less participants than any other online niche surveyed and are experiencing no growth. It’s pretty pathetic. Virtual worlds were not just trounced by social networks and multimedia viewing, but even by religious information sites and online auctions. After seven years in the public eye, it’s clear that neither incremental technology improvements nor new ad campaigns are going to dramatically increase the virtual world market in the foreseeable future.

I couldn’t agree more with Botgirl’s solution:

After reading the report, I’m more convinced than ever that browser-based access to virtual worlds in conjunction with social network integration is the most credible light at the end of the tunnel. The way to move virtual worlds from their current isolated backwater into the integrated mainstream is by making them as seamlessly accessible and usable as every other category in the Pew Report. This will also require mobile-compatible clients, since mobile internet use will surpass computer-based use within the next few years.

Wagner James Au at the New World Notes has been suggesting this Facebook Connect option for quite some time now, but in his post discussing Botgirl’s article he says he’s “starting to think there’s an even better way to make 3D virtual worlds more mass market: Integration with Kinect and Xbox Live.”

So I went to watch the latest Metanomics video for inspiration in times of crisis in virtual worlds. As usual there were distinguished guests such as Larry Johnson, Chief Executive Officer of the New Media Consortium, Brian Kaihoi of the Mayo Clinic and Terry Beaubois, Professor of the College of Architecture and Director of the Creative Research Lab (CRLab) at Montana State University, being interviewed by Robert Bloomfield, Professor of Accounting at the Cornell University Johnson Graduate School of Management.

All these people invested lots of time and money in Second Life projects, at one point they really believed this was an important part of the future (I do not exclude some of them still do believe that). Now they are still very active, but they admit times are different now. The financial crisis made institutions look hard to save costs, but there is more than that. The Gartner Cycle of Hype was mentioned and I confess, being a slightly cynical journalist, to me that sounds like “yes, we completely lost traction, but hey, fancy consultants tell us that it’s nothing to worry about: after the Disillusionment will come the Slope of Enlightenment and we’ll get to the Plateau of Productivity.” Yeah, right. Maybe. Or maybe not.

So is this some convoluted way of saying that I lost all hope virtual worlds will have a bright future after all? Well, it’s convoluted because it’s a complicated matter. As the folks at the Metanomics show said, there is the technology (and the business), but there’s also the community. It remains true that the Second Life community is awesome: highly creative, inspiring people, not just using new technologies but actually living technology.

It’s also true that there’s a lot to be learned in “social technology”, such as using text backchat during live shows, ways to produce chat shows, to integrate live events with video, chat, social streams etc. I actually apply stuff I learned in Second Life in the context of my newsroom, facilitating a virtual community, organizing chat sessions etc. But I don’t use Second Life, because of just too many practical hurdles and a cost/benefit which I cannot justify.

As some of the panel guests said, Second Life and similar environments are a “third place” where you “go” to actually meet other people. But then again, a CoverItLive chat box is also such a third place where people meet each other. I do know the arguments explaining why virtual environments are more intense: the representation by a virtual body means that people actually apply real world principles while meeting each other (maintaining a certain “physical” distance, for instance), implying that what goes on is somewhere in between “just chat” and “actually meeting”. But maybe people just want to attend an online chat event without any hassle, and they’ll use forums to connect with others…

All of which means, for my practice, that I’d love to have a lite version of Second Life or a similar world, very scalable, browser based, and yes, also allowing for using mobile devices. Also, in some way we’ll see further down the road Augmented Reality applications combining the physical and virtual worlds, and maybe the Kinect can facilitate a revolution as far as interfaces are concerned – all of which means that Second Life as we know it will have been a useful stepping stone on the road to somewhere very different.

Metanomics master class in game development

Wow. Tomorrow’s Metanomics show will be extremely interesting:

During this Masterclass on Game Development, guest host Dusan Writer will take us behind the scenes with a panel of guests and look at how games are developed. What IS a game, exactly? How do you develop the rules, stages and rewards in order to make a great game? What technologies do game developers use to display their games? What are the advantages/disadvantages of immersive environments like Second Life? How does a game developer deal with ‘emergent behavior’? How are games ‘monetized’ and what are the new models and decisions that game developers need to make? (Freemium, pay-to-play, subscription, etc.)

Game developers Oni Horan, Colin Nilsson and thought leader Tony Walsh will bring us a view behind the scenes but will also explain the broader cultural context.

As usual, more information about the event and the panel members on Metanomics.net.

Join us for this Masterclass on game development on Monday November 22nd at 12 p.m. Pacific.

You can join in through the main stage in Second Life, or watch a live video stream of the event on the Metanomics site.

Metanomics about the new laws of virtual worlds

On Metanomics:

Virtual worlds often seem like they have their own governments….and their own laws. Whether expressed through a EULA or a Terms of Service Agreement, virtual worlds are often governed by individual codes of conduct and enforcement that are derived less from “real-world” laws and more by the platform owner’s lawyers. But the law doesn’t end at the border of a virtual world, and the continually evolving ways in which governments, regulators and judges interpret the law as it applies to virtual worlds is an increasingly important subject as online communities grow.

Robert Bloomfield welcomes a very special guest, Greg Lastowka, Professor of Law at Rutgers University on the eve of the publication of his new book: Virtual Justice, The New Laws of Online Worlds.

Published by Yale University Press, Professor Lastowka’s book explores crime, governance and a history of law in virtual worlds.

Join us for this in-depth discussion of trends, insights and the future of law, crime and governance in virtual environments on Monday November 8th at 12 p.m. Pacific.

You can join in through the main stage in Second Life, or watch a live video stream of the event on this page. More information about the event and the topic (and about many related issues) can be found on the Metanomics site.

Virtual Goods: Opportunities, Challenges and Acquisitions

My favorite virtual show Metanomics will discuss tomorrow, on Monday October 18, the hot topic of ‘virtual goods’:

Now, the virtual goods industry has moved well beyond Silicon Valley and has the interest of Wall Street. From Facebook to Zynga to Second Life, the virtual goods industry has seen rapid growth over the past few years. They have redefined games where subscription-based models have been replaced by free-to-play games that sell virtual goods to a thin sliver of their player base: what are often called the ‘whales’.

Michael (Mick) Bobroff is no stranger to emerging markets. In the early 1990s, Mick was deeply involved in another new frontier which opened up in unpredictable ways: Russia. Now, a Partner at Ernst & Young, Bobroff is examining the challenges and opportunities of the virtual goods market.

The embrace of social gaming platforms and virtual goods will, he believes, lead to continued opportunities for venture capitalists and we’ll soon see large firms making acquisitions in the virtual goods arena.

Metanomics host Robert Bloomfield hosts Michael Bobroff at our new day (Monday) October 18th at 12 p.m. PT.

You can join in through our main stage in Second Life, or watch a live video stream of the event on this page.

More about the show and the speaker on Metanomics.net.

In the face of adversity, collaborate even more (and even smarter)

It was quite an evening, during which I tried to do some multitasking and so doing got some weird connections between ideas I’m working on.

  • I was attending the Metanomics show in Second Life, where professor Robert Bloomfield provided an overview of how economies are not dissimilar to game mechanics, and gave his take on what this means to the future of research (more about this in a later post).
  • While attending the show, I noticed there was dismay among members of the educational community. Not because of what Bloomfield was saying, but because of an announcement on the official Second Life blog, which seems to indicate that prices for many non-profits and educational projects will go up (currently such projects get discounts). Also have a look at the comments on the official blog post.
  • The New York Times via ReadWriteWeb quotes research by KZero, saying that the number of virtual world users breaks 1 billion, roughly half under age 15. In fact, it’s about registrations, not necessarily about active users, but still it’s an impressive number. The second largest group is 15 to 25 year olds, which increased by 15 million to hit 288 million accounts.
  • I was also reading Gamasutra (the art & business of making games) where Matt Christian posted an introduction to Agile and Scrum development. Scrum is an iterative, incremental methodology for project management often seen in agile software development, as explains Wikipedia. Christian explains how “Scrum creates a bottleneck (in a good way!) between management and the development team in order to keep the development team focused on the current piece of work.”
  • Finally, Robert Hernandez at the Online Journalism Review has a post about how to use geolocation paired up with augmented reality in journalism. He is working on media projects using tools such as Whrrl and stickybits.

So on the one hand there is this challenge of new generations of people familiar with games and virtual environments, there is this whole revolution of ubiquitous mobile computing power which gives us stuff like geo-locational services combined with social networks and games and augmented reality, on the other hand there is an educational system struggling for decent financing at a time of financial crisis.

Gaming and especially massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPG) are very interesting for research but also for studying how virtual communities work. Those ‘virtual’ communities tend to become very real, as companies outsource and collaborate with each other over the whole planet, meaning that people have to communicate and get on speaking terms disregarding geographical and cultural distances. Either people entering the workforce will be familiar with these environments, or they will suffer the consequences as they have to face the consequences of globalization without being able to use new media and virtual communities in a way which benefits them personally.

There are many educators and non-profit people (and also for profit people by the way) trying to spread the word, to convince older people to take these things seriously, to guide the young in their experiences of gaming, virtual worlds and augmented reality. There are many obstacles, as the new forces are disruptive and people often react in shock and denial. There is also a lack of proven business models for the most innovative projects (yay for augmented reality, but then again, even in the West only a minority has sophisticated smartphones and decent mobile broadband connections).

So traditionally educators, non-profits and people wanting to experiment ask for discounts and free rides. Sometimes companies will accept this because the hope it will ultimately be beneficial to the company, sometimes they won’t accept it because finally they are private companies and have shareholders who want a decent return on investment and don’t want to wait too long for that to happen.

All of which means that even more clever project management and collaboration is needed. Maybe more things can be done in Second Life, if we collaborate even more. Or maybe the technological challenges of open source projects such as OpenSim can be dealt with because the challenges can be tackled easily in collaboration with others.

Social media such as wikis, forums, virtual meeting places, blogs etc combined with open source, open transparent development projects and clever methodologies such as Scrum empower small nimble groups to innovate faster than established companies. Most importantly, in trying to do so and in self-educating ourselves through the achievements and inevitable failures, we’ll be better prepared to live in a globalized economy.

Metanomics innovates once again, adds meet-ups, gets celebrity-guests

The Second Life show Metanomics is about to start a new season, and is innovating once again. In fact, Metanomics would be a great research topic for communication and media students, as it demonstrates key principles of new media.

Metanomics is owned and operated by Remedy Communications which also owns the blog Dusan Writer’s Metaverse.

Dusan Writer, in “real life” Doug Thompson and owner of Remedy, explains on his blog: “Metanomics provides insight into the changes in governance, economics, policy, enterprise, education and the nature of work facilitated by newer technologies. Guests have included authors, researchers, technologists, professionals, theorists and government policy makers and recently celebrated 100 episodes.”

In fact, Metanomics does many things. It is a gathering in Second Life, where people backchat while the host, professor Robert Bloomfield,  interviews the guests and takes up questions from the backchat. Treet.tv video streams the show on the Metanomics website, where the episodes are also archived. People who cannot join ‘in-world’ can participate in the backchat from the site.

This season another element will be added: a series of local meet-ups timed to show days. The first live meet-up will be held at Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. The audience will watch and participate in a Metanomics broadcast followed by discussion and networking.

Metanomics is a great example of how to immerse a global audience in an intellectual show, using web chat, virtual chat, video, blog texts providing context, transcripts, virtual community meetings and now also interaction in the physical world.

Join us at 12pm PST on October 4th at 12:00 p.m. PST/SLT in-world, when the usual host, professor Bloomfield, will this time be the guest and talk about Real World Lessons from Virtual Worlds, a subject which interests me, being a financial journalist, a lot: “Can virtual worlds provide insight into economic behavior? Does playing a game equate with how we interact in the physical world? What would a system look like that would let us test assumptions about how governments, companies and individuals act?”

I also have a background in philosophy, so I’m equally exited about the show on October 12th, featuring professor Noam Chomsky. Professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he has written and lectured widely on linguistics, philosophy, intellectual history, contemporary issues, international affairs and U.S. foreign policy.