Summary: I analyse Game Neverending, a multi-player social software web application, and compare it to a virtual world that I created in my recent novel.
One of those silly but addictive questionaires is doing the rounds: What kind of Social Software am I? You could be a Wiki, the Blogosphere, FOAF, or other varieties of Social Software. Turns out I'm Game Neverending. To be honest, I'd not heard of Game Neverending before this - so I had to do some Googling on it. I was pleasantly surprised to find out it's a virtual world in which creativity and social interaction are the main drivers. In fact it sounded very similar to the social software virtual world I created for my recent novel, Dirtside to Spaceside. So I was intrigued :-)
The official Game Neverending website seemingly hasn't been updated since October 2003, but from the info I gleaned there I understand the game is at the beta stage (I've now signed up!). The company behind Game Neverending (GNE for short) is Ludicorp, based in Vancouver Canada. An excellent introduction to GNE is this Mindjack article from May 2003, in which Ludicorp CEO Stewart Butterfield is interviewed.
I've never been into virtual worlds, like The Sims or Everquest. That whole Dungeons & Dragons fantasy world, with wizards and goblins and so forth, just isn't my cup of tea. However I am fascinated with the notion of cyberspace, or virtual reality. I guess you could say I'm more of a Matrix person than a Lord of the Rings person!
In my novel I described a fictitious social software application that enabled people to interact via avatars in a virtual world with other peoples avatars. But rather than being fantasy characters, the avatars in my novel were replicas of their human owners in physical likeness and personality. Here's a description from my novel (pages 44-45):
Today was the day Dave would announce Social-Kinetic's new social software product to the world. The product was simply named after the company - "Social Kinetics" - and it was made up of three main ingredients: firstly it was an online community space on the Web, which was like other online communities. That is, it was a website with a URL (web address) and, in order to use the website, people were required to sign-up and register an account. The second main ingredient was the personality assessment and physical body mapping. Once a person had registered to become a member of the "Social Kinetics" community, that person would fill in a questionnaire to establish the basic parameters of their personality. This was a very superficial personality type, similar to Myers-Briggs. Social Kinetics had 50 initial "types" (eventually the number of types would number in the hundreds). The person would also have a "mapping" done of their face and body, so as to approximate their physical appearance in the avatar. The software and management team had decided on the following policy: people must use mappings of their own person as a base for their avatars. This decision was driven by Dave's philosophy that people should not be able to "hide" behind an avatar. The principle of "What you see is what you get" should apply, so that people learned to trust one another and be honest with their interactions in the community. Dave felt that if people could select a graphical online persona like in previous examples of virtual worlds - a wizard, or a dog, or a green two-headed alien – then that would only encourage other falsities. The purpose of Social Kinetics was to encourage people to extend themselves via their avatars - meet new people, and make new connections. Dave felt that a big determining factor in the success of his software was that the avatar should approximate its human owner as much as possible – not just personality but physical likeness.
The third ingredient was the avatar software itself. Once a personality was assigned and physical characteristics mapped, the customer would be given an avatar. At that point the avatar would join the community and at the same time begin to build up its own identity, by collecting and aggregating data about its owner.
My vision is probably not attainable in reality right now (hence why I wrote it up as a piece of fiction). I describe my virtual world, called "Social Kinetics", in much more detail in my novel if you're interested. Game Neverending can't hope to compete against a fictitious world, but from what I've read it comes very close to attaining a virtual social software world - which is what I want! GNE is building on the MOO worlds popularised in the 80's and 90's, which are a type of MUD (Multi-User Dungeon). The Wikipedia describes MOOs as:
MOO is short for 'MUD object oriented' and is a type of MUD textual virtual reality system.
The key difference between MOOs and MUDs is that MOOs can be programmed using a special object-oriented programming language. Therefore in MOO players can at least partially self-create the virtual world, whereas in MUDs players are simply inserted into a pre-built fantasy world. The Mindjack article has an interesting take on this that touches on weblogging:
EverQuest puts you in someone else's world, but in a MOO, the world was yours to help create. Perhaps for that reason, MOOs tended only to attract the upper echelon of intelligent, technical freaks - the sort of people who have weblogs these days.
Mindjack goes on to explain how GNE is a further evolution of MOOs...
GNE takes the social focus of MOOs and combines them with the Web technologies the MOO tribe has adopted since.
GNE is a sort of MOO for the 21st century. Its virtual world will interoperate with Web technologies outside that world - IM, weblogs, email especially. So participants will not just be immersed in a fantasy world, they will be able to integrate their external lives into the Game Neverending. This enhances the social aspect of GNE, in the following ways:
a) It takes away the whole fantasy "I am a goblin and my quest is to slay dragons" aspect of virtual worlds, which - whether a misconception or not - has always turned off people like me.
b) GNE adopts the same distributed architecture of the Web itself - building hubs and connections between the game and Internet apps like email, blogs and IM. Actions can be asynchronus, so you don't have to be in the virtual world all the time to participate. GNE is also browser-based, which makes it a part of the Web rather than an isolated island.
c) GNE encourages play, which in turn helps creativity flow through the system.
d) GNE has an "ambiguous relationship" between the player (the real person) and the character (game person). I'm not sure if this comes close to what I described in my novel, where the human and avatar were almost identical to each other and thus very closely linked. This incidentally is already mostly true of weblogs, which can be viewed as virtual representations (or avatars) of their owners. I took this concept a few steps further in my novel, where the Social Kinetics avatars became not just avatars but agents too (collecting and acting on information autonomously on behalf of their human owners, a la Chandler). GNE seems to be aiming for the same type of avatar/agent mix.
e) GNE is more about who you are than what you have (or how many dragons you slay). Stewart Butterfield says in the Mindjack interview:
We are trying to design the game so that relationships, reputation, skills and general who you are counts for more than the what stuff you have...
There's a lot more to Game Neverending. I feel like I've just scratched the surface and I can't wait to become involved in the beta test. Meanwhile I'm going to further explore MOOs and MUDs and virtual worlds in general. I have a feeling they are going to play an important part in the future Two-Way Web. Maybe the social software virtual world I described in my novel will one day become reality?