Toward a theory of place in digital worlds

Linden Lab's Cory Ondrejka reflects on the recent State of Play 2 conference in NYC and asks: Are we missing the forest for the spoons? Brave readers, enter the debate here.

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It has been a just over a week since New York and Yale Law Schools hosted the State of Play 2 conference in New York City. Most of the conference is available via streaming video, and Terra Nova has already posted extensive commentary on specific panels. So rather than offer a broad synopsis, we'd like to respond to the most repeated argument of the conference: the importance of place.

The line from The Matrix, "There is no spoon," was first used during the conference by Yale's Yochai Benkler, but the phrase came up again and again. In various ways, its adherents argued that 3D digital worlds are text with 3D interfaces grafted on. They're Wikipedias with prettier graphics. Often, the "no spoon" argument was invoked as a precursor to discussions about property, regulation, or connections between the real and the digital worlds.

It is a tempting shorthand, made all the more powerful by its association with The Matrix. It is also clearly wrong. There is a spoon, just not one that you can eat with. Digital worlds are very real places.

The users of digital worlds already describe themselves as living in them. Millions of people spend much, even most, of their waking lives in them. Digital worlds are real places by any useful definition and can only be understood within that framework. Dismissing the representation of digital worlds as unimportant or irrelevant misses out on basic aspects of what makes us human. People are highly evolved to operate within a spatial context. While most people can construct vivid approximations of places that are described to them, these representations vary greatly between listeners, even when great care is taken to convey information precisely. Similarly, mental pictures constructed from text are also quite error-prone.

Humans are evolved to operate in three-dimensional space via visual and aural data. We are generally quite good at it, using a vast array of subconscious systems to maintain a relatively accurate picture of what’s around us. More importantly, as a social species, place is a core component of how we communicate. From how conversations flow to what makes a downtown flourish, space and place are used to both convey and understand information.

Understanding this is what drove virtual reality research in the 1990s. John Walker’s Autodesk white paper recognized how much more efficient and effective communication and creation could be within shared, digital spaces. Unfortunately, a decade-long detour into haptic and head-mounted interfaces proved only that these interfaces were technically challenging. Missed was the realization, proved by video games again and again, that televisions and monitors provide more than enough interface to leverage players’ spatial skills. A two-dimensional window is enough to create a place.

So, while multiuser dungeons and other text-based communities have explored many social aspects of digital worlds, they don’t necessarily predict the interactions of people in shared places. Experiences in places are more social and more leveraged. They allow residents to use many more of their real-world communication skills. This increases the ability of residents to share experiences and creation. Rather than the generally asynchronous nature of blogs or wikis, groups working together in digital worlds are able to engage each other in real time, leading to more learning, greater cooperation, and a much richer experience. This is not to say that text, broadcasting, and other asynchronous communication channels aren't useful. Instead, it is clear that these options are made more powerful by their inclusions within digital spaces. Just like in the real world, digital world social groups will leverage broadcast and asynchronous channels in unexpected ways.

Digital world developers, designers, and residents still have much to learn about the power of place. Second Life chose the real-world metaphor for specific design reasons, but it is likely that other forms may be useful as well. Fortunately, it is certain that the passionate discussion at State of Play 2 will stimulate continued debate and learning about the importance of place in digital worlds.

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