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  Ethan Zuckerman Gives ‘Second Life’ a Reality-Check  
Posted 2006-05-11 by Tony Walsh
A pair of conferences exploring virtual worlds have concluded, leaving a patter of post-mortem reports in their wake. The SDForum on virtual worlds, entitled "The Rules of Engagement," covered the business angle, while the Metaverse Roadmap Summit was an invite-only, working conference inteded to forecast where virtual worlds are headed. After catching a video slice of the SDForum conference and reviewing post-mortem reports about it and the Metaverse Roadmap conference, I concluded the danger of a virtual world echo-chamber looms large.

Luckily, some healthy skepticism about the usefulness of virtual worlds has since bubbled to the surface. Socially-concious technologist Ethan Zuckerman was invited to the Roadmap conference after criticizing the founder of its leading sponsor, The Electric Sheep Company. In an eye-opening post on his blog, Zuckerman writes "I wondered how [Electric Sheep CEO Sibley Verbeck], a guy with a tremendous social conscience, could be so excited about a platform that involves so few people and has such high barriers to entry - if Sibley really believed in global inclusion and economic development, why work in a walled garden occupied mostly by highly wired alpha geeks?"

I'm glad at least one skeptic was specifically invited to the Roadmap conference. Zuckerman isn't just a skeptic, but a realist and activist--qualities that aren't necessarily enhanced through virtual world technology. I am particularly happy to read that he calls it like he sees it. After Wagner James Au, one of Second Life's most prominent advocates, "made reference to a virtual refugee camp built in Second Life to call attention to the ongoing genocide in Darfur, and suggested that, in the future, these sorts of virtual spaces could be updated with real-world data from crises around the world," Zuckerman "lost it."

"Specifically, what bothered me was the reference to using real data from Darfur in Second Life… because it’s so damned hard to get actual data on what's going on in most conflicts," writes Zuckerman. "[C]ollecting information - especially from people who are actually affected by these issues - is a much higher priority than presenting this data in a 3D format... I suspect people trying to call attention to global issues are better off making a website than a 3D space."

Zuckerman writes that he presented an unpopular position in relation to the other conference attendees. "I told James and the rest of the crowd that I thought they did themselves a disservice by trying to tie an early stage emerging technology to social issues like the crisis in Darfur... That it was presumptous for people who hadn't been to Darfur, or weren't working with Darfuri refugees, to represent the refugee experience...The problems of virtual Darfur doesn’t mean that Second Life and other metaverse spaces won’t have a social impact in the future. But asking a technology to rise to this social purpose as this stage of its development may be unfair and unwise."

Zuckerman presents a detailed, important critique of Second Life's virtual refugee camp. It's worth reading if you have an interest in using virtual environments for socially-productive purposes. I think virtual world enthusiasts are greatly (if unconciously) overestimating the capacity of these environments and systems to effect positive social change. In my opinion, we need to hear from more articulate doubters like Zuckerman who can look at new technologies with an experienced, critical eye and cause us to question what we're really achieving.

[This article was updated based on info provided by Jerry Paffendorf - thanks, Jerry!]
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Comment posted by Marshall Kirkpatrick
May 11, 2006 @ 3:47 pm
Thanks for this post. Much appreciated. I've tagged it into the Net2 attention stream of Net Squared
Comment posted by Jerry Paffendorf
May 12, 2006 @ 11:47 am
Hi Tony,

> I caught a slice of the [Metaverse Roadmap Summit] via video

I think you're thinking of the SDForum virtual worlds conference geared towards investors and entrepreneurs. That's the one that was streamed in video. The MVR Summit, a totally seperate event, was the day after and kept internal because it was a working conference.

> there were too few skeptics of virtual worlds making themselves heard, compared to the number of vocal virtual-world enthusiasts.

That really wasn't the case on the ground, at least from my perspective. It's interesting to see the blog posts coming in from some of the participants and so far they've all started with cautionary notes and notes about staying hyper skeptical. Obviously I think that's awesome because it makes the map super tight, but now I'm jonesing for more visionary moments because on the far end, thinking out 5 and 10 years, we're going to see some real surprises my friend!

But we'll get them. I see this needs to be made clearer, but the summit wasn't the end of anything on the project, just the first big, planned gathering to get a base of material for the roadmap with experts in a bunch of gaming, VW, 3D, Web, and geospatial areas, with social scientists and technologists. Anyone can sign up to contribute, hit the wiki, put together their own summit meeting and send over the outcome (drop a line to The idea being to create a "living forecast," moving towards the model of a Futurepedia.

On Ethan's post, my comment there is #13 with links to some other recent serious games intending to provoke social change. I'm right on with all the criticism of these early attempts and the current barriers to their being effective (Ethan accepted my invitation to author a piece on this in the roadmap--Thank you, Ethan!), just want to keep it constructive because when you think out a decade, yes, I think we'll see some virtual environments (games, maps, simulations) effecting serious real world change (and will along the way as well).

Some thoughts.
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
May 12, 2006 @ 12:07 pm
Ah, thanks for the correction, Jerry -- I did blur the SDForum streamed in-world with the Metaverse Roadmap. I'll update the my article accordingly.

My commentary was directed at both conferences, which were separate events about related matters. I think it's the SDForm post-mortem reports that are the least skeptical. I'm glad you provided some first-hand thoughts here, it's useful information and paints a more accurate picture of the intention of the Metaverse Roadmap conference than I can provide.

Regarding criticism, I appreciate that you want to keep it constructive, but I don't know how you'd go about doing that. Maybe I'm reading too much into what you wrote.
Comment posted by Jerry Paffendorf
May 12, 2006 @ 12:51 pm
> Regarding criticism, I appreciate that you want to keep it constructive, but I don't know how you'd go about doing that. Maybe I'm reading too much into what you wrote.

I just mean keeping a spirit of "This could get better by doing X, or maybe Y," or "Here's an idea for how this could become more effective," and not just "This isn't perfect yet, it won't be soon, it's a touchy subject, stop at once." No one's being that chilling, I just want to keep the exploration space open.

BTW did you see the 2006 GDC Game Design Challenge, trying to make a game that could win the Nobel Peace Prize? I wish Ethan was there for that! Because it was...what it was, and feedback would be interesting.

From the Gamasutra article linked above:

"Despite the overwhelming amount of love for games that must be around, because there are a lot of gamers out there, Keita [the designer of Katamari Damacy] still finds that it is only among close circles of friends. We should strive to create games that cross language and cultural borders. To not do so, "it is almost a crime!" he says.

"With that in mind, however, Keita sees that there are still many people around the world that are too busy dealing with the problems of life to have fun with games. War, poverty, disease, and starvation must be addressed before we can even begin to bring games to their worlds. "We have to create [an] environment to play games!" Once we have that, we can bring the games, TVs, generators, and cosplay costumes that Keita sees as key to having love and peace."

Erm, cosplay on Wikipedia. Many paths to the truth I guess :).
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
May 12, 2006 @ 1:13 pm
I did hear about the GDC Game Design Challenge but didn't read the follow up article -- I'm going to now, thanks for the link :)
Comment posted by Prokofy Neva
May 12, 2006 @ 4:55 pm
I'm not getting why we have to be reined in and kept "constructive"? For the sake of somebody's consulting business? or? What, exactly? This stuff cries out for a lot of very rich and robust criticism, Jerry. You made a list of everybody from A to B-and-a-half there SNOOPY when you listed all these gaming execs and academics at conferences paid for by the gaming industry and then some smidgeon of social scientistry that's already in the gaming network. Where are the real people (I'm having this very argument right now with Raph Koster

So are you saying that to take part, you have to put together a summit meeting, i.e. have equivalent lists of worthies, then deliver the outcome to this email, you can't just individually write an essay for it? Or?
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