An interesting idea came up in my class last week about the future transportability of virtual world avatars into other virtual worlds. For years this has been one of the elements of a utopian virtual future, where all avatars have property and free speech rights and they can all move back and forth between worlds. There are many problems with this idea, some of which have been discussed elsewhere (e.g., proprietor IP and widely divergent avatar forms to name a few), but maybe it’s because we just aren’t there yet. Back in the olden days, there were dozens of word processing programs competing for consumer and business attention. Corel’s WordPerfect and Microsoft’s Word, of course, were two of the big ones, and let’s not forget the Mac programs like Claris Works. Neither of these were compatible with the other (at least not very easily) and you often chose your own program based on what your customers or business partners were using to ensure compatibility. We all remember the day when buying a Mac meant not being able to open a document on a PC. Eventually, Microsoft cornered the market and all the other programs fell by the wayside or were forced to adopt the “.doc” standard. The story doesn’t end there, however, because once .doc became the universally-accepted standard, it opened the door for open-source and cloud-based projects to flourish. Choice and competition re-entered the market. Perhaps the same process will occur in virtual worlds. If one world captures a substantial portion of the VW market and social consciousness, the way Facebook essentially pushed MySpace into irrelevance, it might lead to the creation of a specific file (call it “.avtr”) that could then be used as the base for other worlds to build off of. Who knows what could happen?
Along that same line, something struck me while re-reading Lawrence Lessig’s Code 2.0 for this week’s class–what if it’s not the avatar that should be portable but the identity of the user at the keyboard that remains consistent? Enter the host of social games emerging on Facebook and the virtual worlds built to run through Facebook, like Ohai’s City of Eternals. One of my students forwarded an article about the projected growth of these games and their potential appeal. Although I would not rely as heavily on the “metrics” used to judge the viability of these games as the author of the piece does, but the whole concept reminds me of Lessig’s proposed “ID layer,” a system that guarantees identity and location of a user for jurisdictional and other legal purposes that runs in the background of a user’s web browsing or other online activities. These new Facebook games allow you to create a vampire or mafia or animal-type avatar, depending on the world, which is linked to your actual FB profile. Anytime a user mouses over another avatar, they can see the avatar’s human profile and their friends, et cetera. The game provides that ID layer, which runs in the background as a feature of the game. Certainly there are some frightening, Orwellian and civil-libertarian-baiting overtones to the concept of always being linked to your true identity, but at the same time, it has some advantages for average people besides Big Brother. Guaranteeing identity is a significant concern when dealing with “merchants” in RMT games like Second Life. It seems to me like this might be the more likely trend, since social networking is one of the major (if not they only) raison d’etre for many non-scripted games (and some scripted ones too now). We’ll have to keep our eye on the fate of Ohai’s development and expansion because if it is successful, we’re going to see a lot more than just Farmville alerts popping up in our FB feeds.