Tuesday, December 6, 2005

"It's All in Your Head, I Guess."

My day job is working as Manager of Creative Services at OCLC, the Online Computer Library Center. One night a week I teach a class on the history of advertising at the Columbus College of Art and Design (CCAD). CCAD is a liberal arts college for art students. They have an advertising major for students who want to use their skills to go on to become designers at ad agencies, in marketing departments, in merchandising, etc.

Two weeks ago, I was talking to a couple of the kids about gaming -- several of them have played World of Warcraft, which I played for a few months back last year -- and I mentioned that I was also starting to look more deeply into Second Life. I dropped out of WoW because my favorite part of gaming is being the Game Master (often called Dungeon Master, DM or GM). In Wow, the opportunities for true role-playing on the part of players are kinda slim, since all the raw content is developed by the programmers. You can stay in character, you can form a guild, you can team up with buddies... but in the end... you're an actor, and they (the game company) are the writers/designers/directors. That's not a bad thing. It's just not what I'm as interested in.

So I've been checking out Second Life. It is less of a game and more of a "platform" or a system. The publishers provide a "world" and the tools to interact with it:

  • an in-game 3D modeling system

  • clothing/skin modifcations based on Photoshop / Paintshop files

  • character animations based on Poser

  • object programming via a dedicated scripting language similar to Java

You create an account and an avatar and start running around in the "game," called SL by most of the players. You can interact with other players via chat and IM. You can build stuff using any of the tools I mentioned above and sell them using an in-game economy based on Linden Dollars (LD) that are exchangeable for $USD. Quite a few folks are making good money by doing stuff in SL that other players find valuable: buying, improving and reselling plots of land; creating houses and other structures; crafting clothes and tattoos; programming games, objects and inhuman avatars; designing more realistic avatars and character animations; providing in-game services, including dancing, gambling, hosting of events.

When I told my students about this, a couple scoffed at the idea of paying real money to dress up, house or otherwise improve the life of your avatar. Which led to a wee rant on my part.

We'd just spent a whole semester going over American advertising, and how to look for certain trends that can be seen to have "flowed" through almost a century of marketing. We've looked at scores of print, TV and radio ads and sought common psychological, artistic and marketing devices. We've examined the "wisdom" of pundits who have claimed -- at various times since the 1850's -- that "everything is going to hell in a handbasket" and that "it's all so different." When, in fact, many of the same themes, ideas and tricks that worked in the 19th century are still working today.

So I told them I was a bit disappointed to hear them poking fun at a new kind of entertainment media without really thinking about it.

"How," I asked them, "is playing a character in an online world different -- in any significant way -- from reading a fiction book?"

No response. Which isn't unusual. The class starts at 6:45 pm and most of them are either starving, dying to go to bed or both.

"Come on," I prodded. "You pay good money for a hard-cover fiction book. $17 on Amazon for the new Harry Potter. All that does is put a bunch of pretend characters in your head. Ones you have no control over. In SL you can talk to people. Create things. Build a house. Make friends. Learn about programming, scripting, animation and 3D modeling. You can improve your social skills. You can learn to be a game master. You can be the other gender. You can flirt. You can earn money. $17 will buy you almost 2 months worth of time in-game on SL. How long does it take to read a Harry Potter hardcover?"

More silence. One of them finally agreed that there wasn't much of a difference. Her response, "It's all in your head, I guess."

One of the best library blogs out there, The Shifted Librarian, is covering a symposium on gaming in libraries. Do yourself a favor and check it out. Lots of good comments about gaming and how it interacts with the world of books, information, libraries, literacy, society, etc. One of my favorite OCLC people, George Needham, is on a couple of the panels and has some good comments, too.

The reason I bring up the "Gaming in Libraries" symposium is that it mirrors my conversation with my students, and many thoughts I've been having about where we're headed with the confluence of content, social interaction, games, role-playing and education.

Stephen King, in his book "On Writing" says that writing is essentially telepathy. The writer projects his/her thoughts into the reader, across boundaries of space and time. I agree. But if that's the case, then email is telepathy, too. And so is IM. And the phone. And WoW. And SL. And the sharing of tags in Technorati and del.icio.us.

All these ways of putting my thoughts into your head. And getting yours back. Read my book. Join my dark elf guild. Buy a Photoshop tatto I made for your avatar. Give me good feedback on eBay.

Reply to this post.

It's all in our heads, I guess.

And if you're determined to be a creative type... ain't that a happy, happy thought?

I love this stuff. Love it. Love it. Love it. I just have to remind myself (as I tried to do with my students, and as the folks at the gaming symposium are trying to do for their libraries) to keep my head as wide open as possible.

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