The Unbearable Likeness of Being
Why So Seriosity?
In the spring of 2004, I began working for a start-up that was exploring the intersection of gaming and corporate work. The start-up was later named Seriosity. In the early exploration phase, part of our effort was focused on finding the magic ingredient of online games that we could then leverage in corporate settings. By that time, a couple of undergraduate gamers had also joined the team. What was strange to us at first, but soon understandable, was how the older members of the team latched onto the 3D element as the magic ingredient. Since it was the most salient aspect of online games, it made sense that 3D avatars and objects would appear to be the magic.
On this point, I think no one has said it better than Randy Farmer in 1996:
3-D isn't an interface paradigm. 3-D isn't a world model. 3-D isn't the missing ingredient. 3-D isn't an inherently better representation for every purpose.
And yet, at that time in 2004 (and sometimes even these days), the notion that a virtual meeting room with virtual chairs and virtual tables and virtual whiteboards was somehow cool and efficient was echoing everywhere. Unfortunately, boring people are still boring when they are in 3D.
Moreover, there was an assumption that people and meetings would be cooler if everyone had an avatar. The attempt to leverage this aspect of online games may be misguided because it misses the point of how 3D bodies function in MMOs. Games are all about slowing you down so you don't reach goals instantaneously. Without the need to work to get to the next step, there would be no game. This is why it takes you longer and longer in the game to get to the next level. This is why you have to walk to places on foot. This is why you have to spend weeks playing the game to accumulate enough gold to buy a mount that only lets you move 60% faster. The virtual body that conforms to physical rules is the perfect constraint in an online game because it makes use of the familiar metaphor of embodiment, borrowing many of the limitations of our physical bodies--having to walk to places, not being able to walk through dungeon walls, and not being able to be at multiple places at the same time. Sure, there is customization and status associated with 3D avatars, but as a game mechanic, avatars function as a prop that slow you down by leveraging the familiar constraints of physical embodiment.
Everyone keeps looking for the killer app for virtual worlds, and the only one we know that works so far is gaming. And perhaps the reason for this is because it's the only application in which slowing people down is a good thing. If you were using a virtual world for work, why on earth would you want people to walk to places, open virtual file drawers, be blocked by virtual walls, or have to figure out what to put on in the morning?
Tags: embodiment (1)
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