I don’t know how many of you are watching Caprica on the SciFi channel (I refuse to use it’s new name because SyFy is stupid) but one of the main plotlines, aside from the Centurion back story, centers around an immersive network of virtual worlds known as V-World. What I find most interesting about the show’s vision of this technology is that, despite being easier to access and infinitely more realistic, its impact on society is still that of a game. I’m not saying that the show is somehow prescient, but in the last six months, it seems as though the collective vision of the future of online games has experienced a major shift.
Many have noticed that casual, social games like Farmville have exploded in the last year and they are undoubtedly altering the future of virtual worlds. As I go back to some of the early scholarship, so many people envisioned virtual worlds as this Matrix-like future where we’d plug into the world and experience a whole new reality. They imagined that we’d spend much of our lives in this 3-dimensional Internet, owning property, doing business and meeting people from around the world. It turns out that adding another step to commerce by doing it in-world is too slow and cumbersome and that most people just want to chat with the friends they already know from the real world.
As you can imagine, this will have a considerable impact on the future development of laws meant to deal with virtual places. Five or six years ago, when the future of VWs was thought to be unlimited, it made sense to think about concepts like virtual property and virtual crime as distinct from real property and real crime. This view, referred to by some now as “cyberutopian,” may still have some useful insight, but the odds of a legal regime emerging that specifically addresses virtual worlds seems less and less likely. I can see how some VW advocates might be frustrated with the current state of affairs–after all, the numbers of participants in online games continues to grow–it’s just that most of the newcomers are looking for a casual social experience and aren’t looking to invest heavily in the world. Also, as business tools like Google Wave develop, the need for using a VW to conduct collaborative business will fade as well.
As game designer and VW expert, Raph Koster said recently, VWs aren’t dying, they’re metamorphosing into something new. Right now we’ve seen the caterpillar enter its chrysalis and we’re waiting to see what emerges. I’m predicting that the trend of linking everything online to one’s social profile will continue until we have a de facto identity layer serviced by social networking sites. As that expands, however, I expect to see greater pressure on those sites to give users more control over their information, either from users or from government.
I don’t see this as pessimistic, but maybe it is, what do you think?