SLENZ Update, No 133, September 01, 2009

CARTOON  OR SUPER-REALISM

Do the graphics really matter

in virtual worlds?

… and is Blue Mars really the third generation?

Blue Mars 2050 … does super-realism matter?

I have always wondered just how much the graphics matter in virtual worlds: I know my personal preference falls into the super-realism category when it comes to graphics but I’m well over the age of 30 and even as a youngster never had much time for cartoons or comics.

I ‘ve been enamored with World of Warcraft for years as well as the latest Grand Theft Auto offering. The CryENGINE (R)2 graphics,  when proposed for Entropia  Universe, really turned me on. I’m also intrigued  with the possibilities of Lenova elounge, by Nortel, and the  latest offering from  the MellaniuM stable,  the Furnace, and love  today’s graphics in Second Life, especially when seen through some of the better viewers on a high-end computer. I also felt  the failure of Google’s Lively to get any traction with any age group was due to the cartoony style of its graphics.

However, the digital generation, unlike the digital migrants or my generation, the digital dinosaurs, seem to have no problem with cartoon characters or environments: Look at Habbo Hotel (135,000 m users). Although accurate figures are notoriously hard to come by the best estimates from the industry-leader in understanding the marketing dynamics relating to virtual worlds, British-based Kzero, suggest that 57 percent of the estimated 579 million people who are registered users of MUVEs around the world, are children.

Virtual Worlds ‘not a passing fad’

As Victor Keegan reported in the UK Guardian almost  all of the 39 percent growth in MUVE usage reported by Kzero for the second quarter this year came from children.

“Girls used to grow up with their dolls; now they are growing up with their avatars,” he said. In this largely unreported cartoony VW  flood poptropica.com – aimed at five- to 10-year-olds – had 76 million registered users; among 10- to 15-year-olds, Habbo (135 million), Neopets (54 million), Star Dolls (34 million) and Club Penguin (28 million). The numbers start tailing off among 15- to 25-year-olds – apart from Poptropica (35 million), underlining the likelihood that as youngsters get older they will be looking for more sophisticated outlets and for ways to link existing social networks such as Facebook or MySpace to more immersive virtual worlds, he  said, arguing that virtual worlds “are not a passing fad”.

Do those digital generation figures mean, however, that Second Life,  described by  Larry Johnson, CEO New Media Consortium, as “the most currently evolved of the virtual world platforms … the seminal first instance of what the 3D web might look like”,   could  be beaten to a pulp in the marketplace, either by  virtual world  offerings which have even more realistic  graphics  or  over the long term, as the current generation of teens and tweens become adults,   by cartoon worlds like Habbo Hotel.

But, although, we’ve also seen the growth of  the Second Life software-based, opensource OpenSimulator environments, such as OpenLife, OsGrid and ONGENS among others, the arrival of behind-the-firewall applications such as Nebraska and offerings from other stables such as OLIVE Forterra, Twinity, Wonderland, Kaneva and peer-to-peer offerings such as Vastpark , Second Life at the moment, like Microsoft before it, seems to have the critical mass, the content  and the graphics to carry the game among adult MUVE users for at least the next five years.

That doesn’t mean to say that Second Life  wont have competitors in the  short or the long run.  It currently  seems to be moving  to ensure that it can beat this competition by  again emphasising  real life applications;  in some ways it is moving away from its core  user-base, of mainly nerdy, older (as compared to the popular teen and  tween worlds)  fantasists, first movers, former lounge potatoes, weather-bound, shut-ins  and others who delight in interacting with each other around the world, but at a distance.

Mainstreaming Second Life

Although apprehensive about some of the future plans the Lindens have for Second Life, which I feel will, in many ways, destroy the things which contribute to its attractive game/play/art/on-the-edge  feel,  I think the Linden move  to promote training and education uses of virtual worlds and its expressed goal of mainstreaming  through “extending the value of Second Life beyond the virtual world (through) helping Residents more closely integrate Second Life with their daily lives” are  correct moves in  an economic sense.

As Larry Johnson, summing up the growing momentum of Second Life and virtual learning, said in April this year, “I think it’s safe to say now that nearly every college and university has some sort of project in Second Life.”

For many users, however, that is probably the “boring’ direction. And it probably means that many  early Second Life adopters are already moving or will move on to other more edgy worlds taking their creativity – if not their content – with them.

One of those worlds just might be Blue Mars 2150 which  is scheduled to launch into its open Beta phase tomorrow, September 2. Or, of course, it too might join the virtual world scrap heap which is already littered with virtual worlds which have been created, promoted, and sometimes marketed,  and then faded away over the last few years. Remember Outback?

From the preview above – and remember it is a promotional video –  Blue Mars’ graphics are stunning, as are its partners.  It to obviously wants to cash in on the fact that the average social website user today spends $US148 each year, a figure that can only rise.

Blue Mars 2150, which  describes itself as the third generation of virtual worlds (also here) and like Linden Labs is based in San Francisco,  has already secured joint ventures with numerous leading academic institutions around the world, including the National Association of College Stores, with its 30,000 plus members, TERC, the National Geographic Society Alan Watts, NOVA and Smithsonian Institution.

It remains to be seen just how successful  Blue Mars 2150 will be. My belief is that unless someone comes up with something like “interactive, shared, controllable, lucid dreaming”  the Lindens are going to be very difficult to knock off their perch.

The SLENZ Update – No 105, June 29, 2009

ANOTHER TABLOID BLOG FRENZY

Hysteria over Australian SL-block

rumours:  fear-mongering or worse …

CENSOREDLooks like bulldust to me …

I haven’t commented on the latest round of histrionics and hysteria fomented by “tabloid” bloggers about the Australia moves … but as one of the most authoritative writers on virtual worlds,  James Wagner Au (pictured), has pointed out in NewWorldNotes it’s more about smoke than substance, with Second Life and video games bloggers implying a lot more from the Sydney Morning Herald story than is actually in it.WagnerJAu

I say this  despite the fact that  the Christian Today Australia, an online Christian “tabloid”,  in a blatent, unattributed lift from one of the more rabid bloggers, Duncan Riley,   said today that  Second Life was to be “banned in Australia” and that this had been confirmed by a spokesperson for Australian Federal Minister  Stephen Conroy  that “under the (Australian Rating System) filtering plan,  it (censorship) will be extended to downloadable games, flash-based web games and sites which sell physical copies of games that do not meet the MA15+ standard.” [The MA15+ means restricted to those people ages 15 and above.  Games for 18-plus “adults” are classed as RC (Refused Classification) because of pornographic, illegal material,  certain forms of ‘hate speech” and  copyrighted content, despite some Australian States having legalised brothels and a large  “adult” porno industry both in real life and easily accessed on the net]

The story just grows like Topsy: the interpretation of one trenchant critic of  Australian Government filtering of internet content, quoted by The Sydney Morning Herald as referring to the possibility of Second Life being blocked, has become fact. But  whether true or not it’s important to New Zealand residents of Second Life because it gives more “ammunition” to critics in New Zealand even if that “ammunition” is more akin to bulldust than reality.

But one thing that seems very common among Second Life residents is the propensity to have panic-attacks and anxiety complexes and to find rumour and innuendo nutritious.

The possibility of an Australian ban/block  on Second Life has been canvassed off and on for months in various media – but there has never really been anything more than a little smoke.

And, anyway even if the Australian Government does receive “complaints” and goes ahead with a “ban” it need have no effect on educators.

Zindra Alps_002Adult Zindra – virtually another  Second Life game which could be
blocked without harm to Australian educators …

With the creation of Zindra, Linden Labs have virtually created two “games” – to use the Australian reference – and it should be easy enough under the current filtering regime being trialed by Australian ISPs for any Federal Government agency to block the “adult” potentially more raunchy game while continuing to allow access to the “PG, Mature” Second Life without the raunch.

Although not on line this has been done with video games sold in  real life shops in Australia, such as Grand Theft Auto and Fallout 3, with a special edition being created for their Australian audiences.

Given this, for teaching purposes, “blocks” on the “Adult” game should not affect Australian educators because they have no reason to go into Zindra (for education purposes) and so should have little effect on the real life education and business uses of  Second Life  in Australia – unless, of course, the main reason for some Australian “educators” being in the game is “adult” content.

I also wonder whether the Australian video games industry is not promoting this issue and the Second Life connection to it in a bid to deflect criticism and draw Second Life and other virtual worlds into their bed, as it were, to obfuscate the real issues of violence and violent sex  in many video games.

The debate, however,  as noted above is obviously not about pornography because some of the most raunchy pornographic picture and video sites on the web originate from Australia, and have only rudimentary age checks (answer what date you were born before accessing this site) and so are, in reality, open to anyone of any age: as they are not” games” however, they appear not subject to the debate in the on-line games context.

Finally, as an afterthought, I think money could be well spent on doing research on Second Life residents and Second Life bloggers to see whether they have a higher propensity for hysteria  and paranoia than the average person who doesn’t get “addicted” to SecondLife. *grin*