Working Virtually – More than meets the eye

This past week, I have had real-life experiences working in the virtual world with my group partners for this class and another DCIM class, Leadership in Digital Context.  From these experiences, I have realized how important and vital it is to have an identity that is clear and present in the virtual world.  For this class’s project, my group members have been able to communicate fairly well with one another virtually.  We are able to discuss ideas and make decisions online without having to be in person.  And while we are in person, we are still able to interact successfully.  This is strongly due to the fact that each one of us is present online and has our own identity.  In Second Life, this virtual identity shows strongly when we are entering different societies and communities in the game.  Each of us has taken on a role in the group identity to make it diverse and present.  For instance, one group member is the “troll” of the group, another is the “goofball”, another is the responsible one, and another is the curious one.  Because we have a clear and present identity online, we are able to identify with one another and interact as if we are face-to-face.  Similar to how if someone does not have an identity in person, a person with no virtual identity will be very difficult to work with. 

In my Leadership in Digital Context class, some members of my group are, quite frankly, non-existent online.  This lack of presence and identity online causes some virtual distance with these group members.  Having that clear and present virtual identity allows one to easily work with that person and interact with them.  Although these individuals are clear and present in person, their failure to establish a virtual identity with the group hinders the rest of us.

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Living with Virtual Worlds

When we first started this class, I was skeptical about Second Life and it took me a long time to really appreciate it. Many people usually think that video games or online worlds are for people who don’t have a social life. I once heard a girl call it a “poor substitute for real life interaction.” I also questioned why worlds like Second Life was so important. Why did people have the need to have a second life when they have their own real lives? As I spent more time in Second Life, I realized that it was less than a substitute and more of a platform for people to express themselves. While people can dress their avatars anyway they want, that is not the only way users can express who they are. People can create objects to show their creativity and sometimes build a world that showcases their personality and the stuff they care about.

In the past, forums are an excellent way for like-minded people to bond and form a community. With the arrival of virtual worlds, it is now possible for users to gain context on the communities they live in. You might not be able to physically see and touch the people you talk to, but at least you see a representation of them. I believe that having a visual guide can make a huge difference in fostering online relationships.

living with virtual worlds

Why do we care? If play only serves its purposes when it is play and therefore not serious why do we care? When we have a predisposition not to care, why take it seriously? Castronova suggests that we should not care about games at a micro level, meaning particular isolated games, but that we should care about games at the macro level. You should not care about who wins the world cup or the ogres and elves running around in cyberspace but you should care that there is a World Cup and that there are millions of ogres and elves running around in virtual worlds. “It is the phenomenon that deserves interest, not its manifestation per se” (Castranova, pg. 251). These games and virtual worlds are a huge part of many lives, including coping with and escaping the real world, recreation, expressing creativity, and making a living, among other uses. “These computers on our desks are turning into portals to other realms of existence, realms of our own creation according to idealized standards of fun and personal validation, realms that will one day be preferred to Earth by who knows how many people” (Castronova, pg. 251). So many already prefer these virtual environments as an alternative to the reality of the physical world. They care because the games and virtual worlds are there reality. 

Living Within Virtual Worlds

I was very skeptical upon using the program Second Life. After exploring different locations and interacting with regular users of Second Life, I have finally realized the purpose of the online virtual social space. To me, it is similar to a variety of social networking sites. There is not a set goal, yet these places are in existence to socialize and exchange information. 

Castronova continuously discusses “synthetic worlds” and how they involve economics, relationships, entertainment, and other ‘real-world’ structures. Using synthetic worlds ultimately provides users with opportunities to interact with individuals in certain subcultures. These subcultures’ goals can create numerous opportunities for users within “synthetic worlds,” specifically Second Life. Organizations are available to join, money is raised, awareness is dispersed and more.

Compared to networks such as Facebook or Twitter, interaction within a synthetic environment such as Second Life is far more fulfilling because one has various opportunities to accomplish goals that can assist in creating a substantial sense of community. 

Living with Virtual Worlds

For the final week of this class, the assigned readings finally ask the question of Why? Why should we care about Second Life?  Why do we bother learning about virtual worlds or online games?  Why is it beneficial to understand the dynamics, functions, accessibility and culture of this increasingly popular technology?  As if the mere existence of this course has not taught us enough; virtual worlds are piling up users and profits, and are becoming an embedded aspect of our online and offline lives

Referring to virtual worlds as ‘synthetic worlds’, Castronova gives us many reasons to care about the growing technology. The intricate features, complex characters, social groups, and interactive environments of virtual worlds, reveal the power and phenomenon of ‘synthetic worlds’.  Castronova explains, “it’s the phenomenon that deserves interest, not its manifestations per se”.  The technological affordances of virtual worlds give users the power to construct a new environment, express our creativity and identity, and create a society and relationships that exist beyond the physical confines of real life. We should care about online worlds because of the great opportunities and resources they present to users.  Through our laptops and desktops, we are able to create a world and exist in a society that does not necessarily follow the norms and structures of our nation, but instead reflects our cultures, identities, interests, beliefs, and imagination.  ‘Synthetic worlds’ deserve our attention as they are a channel of expression and a gateway to an alternative society and social life.  With this in mind, Castronova reminds us that “if social activity migrates to synthetic worlds, economic activity will go there as well.”  The commodities and luxurious lifestyles in virtual worlds are valuable, often requiring monetary transactions or trading.  Castronova highlights the potential negative economic impact on users, joking that eventually a “boy steal $35 from his parents to buy sunglasses, not for himself, but for one of his avatars.  Predicted year:______.”  (Castronova, pp. 255-265) 

Castronova explains additional risks associated with ‘synthetic worlds’, and their effect on society.  He mentions a rising divorce rate, unemployment, and social isolation because of people’s addictive behavior on ‘synthetic worlds.’  At the same time, however, he poses the idea that companies could begin building networks of stations that enable high-speed wireless internet access from any geographic location in the country.  While ‘synthetic worlds’ could dampen relationships, Castronova also sees their benefits in maintaining friendships and allowing for long-distance communication. (Castronova, p. 265)  

The societal effects are largely based on interactivity and user participation, which Andrejevic explains in Three Dimensions of iCulture.  Although new technology allows citizens the avenue to inform and express themselves, there are restraints and societal implications for their participation.  “the danger of the emerging model of interactivity as cybernetic feedback is that it teaches a form of participation that amounts to actively staging the scene of our own submission: helping marketers- both political and commercial- increase their leverage over us.”  While the author gives credit to interactivity in terms of users ability to be cultural producers as well as consumers, he acknowledges that “participation is not always the same as power sharing”.  There exists a “commercial surveillance”, where our online activity and participation is used to further the political and economic interests of marketers.   With this in mind, we should focus our attention to the commerciality of virtual worlds, and maintain a critical eye over the marketers, advertisers, and consumer-driven structures online. (Andrejevic, pp. 29-51)

Online Economics and Exploitation

It’s funny how people think that everything is simple in games, because as the saying goes: “it’s just a game.” However, virtual economics can be as complex and comprehensive as its real life counterpart upon close examination. Quite recently, there’s this recent trend when it comes to BitCoins and I am still trying to wrap my head around how it works. There are lot of ways you can earn profit from a virtual world. Sometimes it’s as direct as a sign saying “make money by doing x,” but there are also times when users find ways to create a business outside of what the programmer had intended. One example is how players from MMOs would sell their extremely strong players and weapons to others who want a head start. This is not a feature or element the programmers had intended to include in their game, but it happened as people grew addicted to it and the prestige of having these things spiked among players.

With ultimate power and freedom, there is always a price. I think that this concept applies to both our offline and online worlds. However, I think that the latter is susceptible to exploitation mostly because it is easier to be anonymous and deceive someone. Although I believe that this is mostly because users are not careful of how they conduct businesses online.

Is anybody else interested in this type of business venture?

 

So online virtual worlds are vast social networks that people have an interest in and thus interact, play games, and/or perform activities/tasks for their avatars that may or may not affect the online environment around them. This is one of my definitions of virtual worlds. Anyway, I’m sure most of you already know that. What is interesting this week are the 3 readings that concentrate on the online businesses that stemmed from such virtual worlds which can be either massive multimedia online role play games (MMORPGs) or an actual social environment emulating that of the real world. These online businesses are better known to me as e-commerce (electronic in the “e”).

To quickly recap, Castronova’s article speaks about his personal adventures in an online world of his own choosing: that isn’t Second Life. His journal travel reports state that the learning curve for an initial newcomer was pretty high but after getting used to the environment and other people, he began making a difference or contributing to the environment. He also speaks in great detail about how many specific virtual worlds and environments created and designed by their owners (big companies) are big revenue (net sales, not profit) bringers. In short, even over 10 years ago, online virtual worlds that involve some sort of online subscriptions, online stores and/or sales of anything can net a company or person a decent to a lot of income. It also talks about a ballpark amount of how much each major company nets for each virtual online world. This piqued my interest after scanning this article on a possible online virtual world business venture: especially how Castronova speaks about how real world businesses get their footing in such online worlds which benefit them, the players, AND the company hosting that virtual world. But more on that later on.

First, this quotation from Castronova’s article,

“Interestingly, those who consider themselves residents of Norrath are not radically different from those who do not. The residents do tend to have lower education, fewer work hours, and lower wages, and they are less likely to have major Earth obligations (spouses, children). Like all emigrants, they are more likely to leave for the new world if the old world seems less promising, and if they have few obligations to stay.”

, made me stop and think. The author makes a point when he said that the “permanent” residents tend to have lower education, lower wages, and are less likely to have real world obligations. This is also known as online addiction where they are very much drawn to the online computer world so much that they prefer the online world over the real world. However, I would like to make a quick rebuttal on this subject matter: more people may not even tend to have lower education, wages, and real world obligations for those who spend more time online than others. Some may be very well educated and have decent jobs with good wages and a family. The key here is the amount of free time they possibly have and how they choose to spend it. Keep that in mind now.

Dibbell’s article speaks about how workers in China are exploited for low wages and pay in order to “farm gold” for points and/or “level up” game characters/profiles for profit. These points and levels benefit those of the players who actually pay not only to use the original game services by the original company but also the services of the workers in China who are paid little wages to do their hard-work for them. These levels and points earn bragging rights and certain game powers and characteristics after a certain level or amount of them. All act as currency online translated and altered from currencies in the real world as players will pay real world money to use in game currency for certain items and powers. So instead of farming for those points, why not buy them in bulk from a 3rd party company in China for a certain amount and have them instantly? It is a lucrative business that stemmed from an already successful popular online business from the original company. The 3rd party contracting those Chinese workers are more or less exploiting them without giving them much credit in this case.

On the other hand, Linden Lab’s report on IBM using their virtual online world space for online meetings and conventions/conferences was a large success. The fact that the company that made Second Life is acknowledging this venture is indicative of the fact that IBM gave big thanks and more than adequate credit to Second Life for their features and capabilities. The difference here between Dibbell’s example is that there is no 3rd party contractor or company that makes a profit for providing an external service to certain customers. IBM is the 1st party and rate customer of Second Life that paid them to use a vast amount of private space for their conventions/conferences. It is basically free advertisement for Second Life and Linden Labs since IBM used it: this means other companies, small and big, will want to use Second Life and their private spaces for their future virtual conventions too. Linden Labs, like other parent companies of virtual worlds and games such as World of Warcraft, will be rolling in the money soon enough. Or they likely already are.

In closing, I am now interested in seeing what it takes to start up an online business: in the form of a virtual world which can either be an MMORPG or a virtual environment like Second Life or even both! To go from ideas on paper to reality (virtual reality) would be a great feat and of excitement. Is anybody else interested in such a thing too? Or is this too boring or too complicated for some?

 

Living with Virtual Worlds

I think that studying online worlds is important because they are becoming more and more prominent.  People spend more time online today than they ever used to and a lot of time online is spent leisurely.  It is also important to study online worlds because we can study human behavior and how it differs online and in real life.  Being “catfished” is becoming a common phrase, which is when someone gets tricked by another person, who typically pretends to have a different identity.  While many online worlds involve mystical creatures or the abilities to literally build or destroy anything in a given world, the important things to keep in mind are that there are millions of people participating in these virtual worlds and these people have fantastic imaginations.

 

In Edward Castronova’s “Synthetic Worlds,” he states, “We should not (as a matter of policy and social analysis, that is) care about games at the micro level.  We should, however, care about them at the macro level.  It is not important who wins the World Cup, but the World Cup is important.  Thus my argument is not that you should care about the ogres and elves running around in cyberspace, but that you should care about the fact that there are ogres and elves, millions of them, running around in cyberspace.  It’s the phenomenon that deserves interest, not its manifestations per se” (Castronova, “Synthetic Worlds”).

Seeing how many people get involved in these worlds and how gaming turned into a method of earning revenue says a lot about our society.  One could say today’s society is incredibly greedy for turning leisure into business.  We can also say that people tend to be more comfortable interacting with others online as opposed to interacting with others face to face.  There is an abundance of assumptions that can be made about society just by studying virtual worlds because of how these worlds reflect reality, minus the magic.

Online Economics

If you build it, they will come. In a sense, what I’m trying to say is, if there is a market, consumers and producers will show up. I don’t necessarily see a difference in the way businesses handle their business. People get paid to do menial tasks that someone else is profiting from. The gaming economy is merely mirroring what most places have already conducted. MMO’s are wildly popular and they have caused a great deal of attention. People who are more passionate about them than most will want to achieve a higher in-game status and will pay for it if they need to. Comparatively, people who are well off financially will always have an upper hand on those less fortunate because they want that advantage for any reason. Gold farmers exist because there is always a demand for someone to have a higher advantage over someone else, whether its for educational purposes or leisurely ones. In terms of exploitation, there may not be an indicator of which party is getting more for what they paid for, or which party is the one that is being mistreated, but it is also something that happens in reality as well. The business that is conducted in a video game is based off of the business models that have been established in society.