An Argument for the Stand-Alone Avatar

I read this article over at IndustryGamers about the idea of a having a single avatar for all of your virtual interactions.  While I agree this is a great idea, I feel like they didn’t consider all the important pieces that I think they need to consider.  

First and foremost, the creation of the ArchAvatar, the avatar that travels between different services, is an artifact of cultural identity.  The urge for the creation of an Arch Avatar is driven around the desire for a continuity of identity within the new metaphysical cyberspace.  In a cyberworld where I could be everything, how do I define myself as any given thing?  Questions like, “What does my pure (outside the content of a service) avatar look like? How do I view my avatar?  Can my avatar only exist in the context of a ‘service?’ immediately come to mind.  The people you are trying to appeal to are those who want continuity to different disparate parts of their cyber-life, which you are attempting to give them through this very abstract concept of the “avatar.”

You should also keep in mind that people define themselves beyond just their physical appearance.  The kind of house I own, how I decorate my house, the clothes I wear, the books I read, the games I play, the banks and stores I frequent all play a role in the definition of who I am in a very tangible way in reality.

Even on something like Facebook provides this needed level of defining one’s self within the cyber-realm.  In fact, what is Facebook but the definition I who I am in a cyber context?  Everything that goes into who I am is contained within my Facebook page.  If you want to create a CentralAvatar, lets call it for simplicity’s sake, the ArchAvatar, you will need to take certain aspects of what Facebook does to assist in the definition of the self.

BUT what Facebook lacks is a cyber-reality by graphical representation.  Within Facebook, the abstract avatar you created (meaning it has no identifiable manifestation–either physical of cyber) can never truly be seen by anyone–there’s not “Home Space” for it, though Facebook has become a bit of a “Home Space,” within cyberspace, but ultimately an imperfect one.

So the issues are, 1) creating a unified graphical representation of myself 2) In such a way as to make it simple for developers (and time/resource saving) 3) Simple but not restrictive for users while creating a value for using the service and making the user actually “care”.

This is a pretty tall order, I think.  BUT not unsurmountable, but I’m not sure if the author of the post is going about it the right way.  There are 3 main ways to look at this issue – the interaction with user, the interaction with the developers, and the interaction with the cyberspace.  These are by their very nature all very much interconnected and related, so talking about one without referencing the other two is pretty much impossible.

First, the interaction with the user–this is pretty self-explanatory.  How does my avatar relate to who I am really am?  What do I get from my avatar?  How does that make me want to do anything with it.  Does it have a gateway (Do I have to sign up for it?  To use avatar services, do I have to log in a different way?)?  What barriers does having a unified avatar present to the user in terms of playability and utility?   What options of customization do I have?   How do those effect my disparate avatars within the different services?  How do those different services effect my unified avatar?  Do they effect my unified avatar?

With the developers–instead of forcing the developers to confirm to the unified avatar (let’s be realistic, not the most feasible expectation), why not create a spec for if they choose to, you can import certain features of your unified avatar into their disparate avatar.  That way, instead of forcing (and limiting) the representation of disparate avatars, you put in on the developers to take what you send and determine how much it can effect their disparate avatar depending on how much customization/which customizations they offer.

Then, create a standard protocol for sending the information from the games back to the avatar.  This is where it would get a bit tricky because invariably people would want to use the images of l33t gearz they have–which might run into some copyright stuff, but assuming that the game opted to use the export protocols, it stands to reason it would be OK.  Similarly, you run into a manpower thing–most companies are not going to have the resources to model/skin/texture items twice – once for the game and once for the export to their unified avatar.  I think the easier way to solve this would be to create a framework where if the developer doesn’t export the models, the community can work to recreate the models they want from their individual games–potentially pending source-developer approval?  The increasing popularity of achievements would be easy to centralize, just exporting from the game in a standardized protocol to be imported into the the unified avatar service.

One of the most important aspects, that the IndustryGamer article doesn’t tackle is the idea of having a graphical “home” within cyberspace.  There are bits and pieces of my avatar that I may want situationally.  Typically, this handled via a menu in other games.  While this isn’t a horrible way of doing things, image a virtual “space” within cyberspace that has a PublicSpace, where I could put achievements from games, games I play, places I’ve been, and pictures and additionally pure vanity items–windows, wallpaper, room layout, furniture (think living room).  Then I could have a PrivateSpace – a place to keep those things I wouldn’t want people who visited my public space to technically be able to see all the time (think: bedroom).  Or even be able to have models of those bosses I’ve beat from games, that legendary item I won in WoW hanging on my wall in my public space–my “taxidermed” familiar.

The idea isn’t radical– it’s essentially the concepts of Facebook, SecondLife, and an RSS aggregate all put into a virtual space.  It’s technically possible, just hasn’t been done yet.  You could even expand on it by creating the use IM, Skype, GooglePhone all from your HomeSpace.  Your email gives you a visual indicator within HomeSpace.  Open it up the community–allow them create APIs into the HomeSpace and the avatar, create plugins, themes.  Maybe I can access Amazon via a wall-picture–when I purchase an item a virtual model of it appears for me to use in the HomeSpace.  Create the frame work and let the community (being users and developers) fill in the gaps.

The fun part is all of these pieces of what I just mapped out exist today, they just don’t play well together.  They don’t mesh on the level I’ve mapped out.  True, SecondLife creates a platform where you can create a “HomeSpace,” but it’s not user friendly, and difficult to learn.  It also doesn’t play well with other services–it’s pretty well silo’d.  Facebook solidifies your virtual existence, but without a space to call you “own.”  Most of the feeds from games are text or achievement notification– not the whole of true interaction of data.

All in all, I think this is the way things are heading in the virtual realm, and on the venture, we’ll get it wrong along the way … a lot.  I’m sure there are a thousand and one reasons why what I mapped out won’t work, but it’s not meant to be the end all.  It’s a continuation of an idea started by Mr. Gerson and which will undoubtedly be continued well beyond both of us.


Sociologists and World of Warcraft

Virtual Worlds Journal Cover

Alright, so I’m a bit behind on this one – but last week Ars Technica featured entitled “Sociologists Invade World of Warcraft, see Humanity’s Future.”  The post is a bit sparse on details, but features a series of blurbs about the various academic gaming literature currently available.  I’ll be adding the books to the ‘Books’ page as I get it up and running.

Ars also gives a shout out to the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research in the article.  It’s a good source of general information, most of it around SecondLife, but there are occasionally some other tidbits of academia that expand beyond it.  It hits my gReader, so I think it’s worth a looksee.

Other than that, I’m not going to retype the article for you — click on over to Ars to check it out.

CNN talks ownership in Virtual Worlds

Second Life Logo

CNN has a brief article about the legality of owning “virtual land.”  The article specifically focuses on Second Life and Linden Lab.  It seems that despite a thriving virtual world community, Second Life the only one that actually gets any coverage.

While the article is kind of meandering and doesn’t really say all that much in the grand scheme, it does mention the lawsuit against Linden Lab from some Second Life users claiming that Linden Labs mislead them, stating that they would own their virtual plots of land, as opposed to the current verbiage in the agreement, which terms the plots of land as a service instead of ownership.

The article is pretty wishy-washy and doesn’t really work to say much of anything — other than that the technology is way ahead of the courts at this point, and most judges are wary of cases like virtual land ownership because they are, by nature, incredibly complicated.

As for my opinion, it’s hard to say.  I’ve never been enamored of Second Life, so the concept of ownership within Second Life is a bit foreign to me, truth be told.  In principal, it makes sense to me that virtual plots of land in the private sector, would have more in common with leasing and renting than true ownership.  There are contractual agreements in place and there are definite rights involved in leasing.  In this case, I see Linden Labs as my landlord and my virtual plot of land as my apartment.  They “own” the space, but they contract with me to let me use the space in whatever means I see fit (within reason).

It’s hard to make a full ownership argument when the piece of virtual land’s existence is based entirely on the hardware of company which could be in reality, half a planet away from where you actually live.  But then, many people put a lot of time in their virtual lands and build businesses around their virtual islands, and thus have a large amount of content created specifically for that virtual land.  It’s like filling my apartment with all of my stuff.

Where this metaphor breaks down is when I move from my apartment, I can take all my stuff with me.  However, it’s not that simple with virtual spaces–yes, you can take bits and pieces and certain aspects of your virtual content with you if you decide to move to a new virtual space, but you lose a significant previously done work in the process.

It’s not hard to understand why the courts are wary of taking these types of cases on – there’s a lot of different moving parts here that not even I (as part of the virtual world community) completely understand, let alone a judge who has little-to-no understanding of even the most basic functions of virtual spaces.

(On a related note, interoperability between virtual communities to better facilitate movement between them is an interesting concept.)