Notes from a New World: An Interview with Wagner James Au (Part Two)

Yesterday, I ran the first part of a two part interview with Wagner James Au, a longtime reporter on games and games culture, who is currently finishing up a book about his experiences as an "embedded journalist" in Second Life, New World Notes. Yesterday,he shared some of his thoughts about the nature of Second Life and about how he came to become some involved in this story. Today, I have asked him to respond to some of the issues which have surfaced in recent debates about the "value" of virtual worlds in general and Second Life in particular. I first met Au some years ago when he was writing a engaging little fantasy spoofing the news that Julia Roberts was a closet gamer (a fan of Halo, in fact). He had decided that "Professor Jenkins," the mild mannered protagonist who appears in accounts of my testimony before the U..S. Senate Commerce Committee and my savaging on Donahue (see Fans, Gamers, and Bloggers for the sordid details), might be an ideal figure to make an appearance inside the story and help account for Julia's fixation on violent entertainment. In his original draft, he even included a brief sexual encounter between Prof. Jenkins and America's Sweetheart (well, he had her plant a loving kiss on the top of my bald head, to be more precise) which got "censored" from the version of the story that finally appeared in Salon. All that was left was a reference to my surely uncontroversial claim that Julia Roberts is a "hotie," something I would never say, of course, but which does reflect my long-standing fascination with her screen career.

As it happens, he had come to the right place, since one of my first claims to fame was that I was a student teacher for American History at Campbell High School in Smyrna, Georgia and that Julia Roberts, then a young drama geek, was a student in my class. If memory serves me correctly, I sent Julia to the principal's office for talking during class and barely missed out on the chance to see her in a high school production. So, when he heard the news, Au asked me to write my own version -- still tongue in cheek -- about the truth behind the story of Ms. Robert's fixation on Halo:

Can we blame her if she slips home at night ... and blasts evil minions to hell and back -- something else she never gets to do in her movies? Shouldn't we feel bad for the way our culture exploits her grace, charm and beauty in vehicles which amount to little more than shameless and gratuitous displays of niceness and appeals to our prurient interest in innocence and levity ... Mr. and Mrs. America, don't let your daughters give themselves over to the light side ... the best thing to cure them of all that pent-up purity may be a really bloodthirsty video game...

I have served as a source off and on for other, more weighty stories that Au has covered in the games space and we were lucky enough to have him speak about his perspectives on multiplayer games and learning during one of the Education Arcade conferences, which we hosted as part of E3. I consistently find him one of the most informed reporters covering games today and so I am delighted to get a chance to share this interview with you.

You have, of course, been following the ongoing debate about the "value" of Second Life. How much weight -- positively or negatively-- should we place on the issue of subscriber numbers in terms of evaluating what is going on in Second Life? Are there other measures or criteria we should be using?

The numbers do matter. The growth of Second Life will determine whether it becomes an important but relatively niche platform, or evolves, as some (including myself) have suggested, into an essential part of the Net's next generation.

The question to ask is what happens to Second Life if it continues to expand at its

existing growth rate of 23% monthly

--.what Clay Shirky himself (rather conservatively) calls "healthy growth". At the current velocity, the number of active SL Residents will easily be over a million by the end of 2007. ("Active" defined as a unique user who logs into the world at least once a week, 3 months after account creation.)

Even assuming that Second Life growth somehow stalls toward the end of 2007, it will still wind up a moderately successful niche MMO of some one million active users. (See this graph, by my blog's demographics expert, Tateru Nino.)


Given the world's current activity, the number of companies and institutions investing in it, growth of EU users (who now outstrip Americans), imminent localization to the the Asian markets, continued expansion of broadband, this outcome is actually the *least* plausible scenario. However, it's worth contemplating for awhile, at least for the sake of skeptics who insist Second Life is not a phenomenon worthy of heightened attention. For even then, we will still be talking about an online world that has been fostered and sustained entirely through user-created content, comprised of a million regular participants from around the world, existing in a diverse ecology of commerce, art, entertainment, technological, educational and scientific pursuits, most of them homegrown, some of them financed by corporate and non-profit concerns from around the globe. I fail to see how this would not be a unique and important Internet phenomenon, and how it would not remain an important contributor to Net culture.

And recall again that this is the *pessimistic* scenario. The far more plausible scenario is that the existing growth rates will continue into 2008, meaning we'll then begin to approach active user numbers in the several millions. Most likely, the network effect will continue this growth, especially as the open source initiative shows progress in improving Second Life's interface and user experience (the main culprit for its poor retention numbers) and as the servers themselves are open sourced (more on that down the way), making it feasible to talk about user numbers in the tens of millions. And beyond.

The conclusion of your book deals with the future of Second Life -- which might be seen as a core concern of the debate. How would you respond to Shirkey's argument that World of Warcraft represents a much more viable model for online experience than Second Life?

The important thing to keep in mind is that Clay has little or no first-hand experience with Second Life (unless that's changed since last December, when he acknowledged as much to me) and therefore, it's important to separate out his entirely valid comments about uncritical press coverage of total user-signups, and any of his speculations about the Second Life experience which are either second hand, or depend on inferences which don't map to Second Life as it's actually experienced.

Take the argument that a traditional role-playing game is more compelling than a social game. In regards to Second Life, again, this is where Clay's *a priori* kung fu fails him. With Second Life, it's not an either-or proposition. There are numerous user-created roleplaying games *within* Second Life, actually, many with substantial followings. The first, Dark Life, an old school mini-MMO in the World of Warcraft mode, was created by a professional game developer back in 2003, and still has a following. In the last few weeks alone, my games correspondent has covered several-- here , here and

here . I'd estimate that 25% or so of Second Life's active users regularly play one or more of the world's mini-MMOs, or engage in other RPG/gamer activity. The quality of these games have gone up tremendously, in recent months, so I expect those numbers to grow.

The other question is, "Viable how?" If by viable we mean "popular", that distinction probably belongs to CyWorld of South Korea, not World of Warcraft. With a reported 20 million unique users in 2005, CyWorld's nearly 3 times as popular than WoW. And CyWorld is not an RPG, but a social/chat space for avatars. It's also worth mentioning Habbo Hotel , the European social world with a reported 7 million unique regular users last December, roughly equivalent to WoW at the time.

By "viable", do we mean experientially? Because World of Warcraft actually runs through thousands of shards (i.e. separate copies of the same world) largely divided by global region, with Europeans shunted to their own servers, Asians to theirs, etc. As a combat-oriented genre game with few outlets for pure socialization, it attracts far less women than Second Life. (In Nick Yee's demographic analysis, 16% of WoW players are female; by contrast, in Second Life, about 40% of Residents are women.) And, of course, WoW is a leading revenue source for its parent corporation, Vivendi. So I guess

my question is this: how exactly is a male-dominated fantasy violence simulator which effectively segregates its players by national origin and is part and parcel owned by one of the world's largest multinational media conglomerates supposed to be the most "viable model" of the online world experience? (Except, of course, for Vivendi shareholders.) I'm just not seeing it.

There is right now one web with many participants, yet there are competing worlds in the multiverse space and there are apt to be even more competitors. Doesn't this fragmentation of worlds pose a challenge to those who might imagine something like Second Life as a future for the web?

Yes, this threatens to lead to a fork in the metaverse, where user base for online worlds remains divided into numerous, incompatible worlds according to interest/preference:

Google Earth, Multiverse, Croquet, Areae, traditional MMOs, revamped Asian online worlds,

and the recently announced worlds from Sony and MTV. The one which succeeds most, I suspect, will be the one that's most like the Web, with open standards and interoperability. SL is heading in that direction, as is Areae and Croquet. Most likely, there will be portals between several of these open- sourced worlds, suggesting a kind of multi-metaverse where individuals maintain several avatars and a universal substrate identity.