I’ve been in New York for the sixth edition of State of Play. For those not familiar with the event, State of Play is probably the biggest academic conference showcasing research into virtual worlds. This is my second visit to SoP, and enjoyed it as much as I did the first one.
I will not dissect all of the sessions I attended, many other people live-blogged the event, so for a more detailed account I recommend a look at Raph Koster’s list. My personal highlights included Koster’s own keynote presentation, learning about Dmitri Williams and his amazing research; the Governance panel chaired by Greg Lastowka; a legal issues panel including some interesting talk about patents from Timothy Bechen and Nikitas Nicolakis; an economies panel with Ed Castronova, learning about Berhnhard Drax truly innovative machinima reportage; the policy panel chaired by the always clued-in Ren Reynolds; and also learning about non-Chinese secondary markets (Lewt.com is my personal find of the conference).
More than anything else, I want to comment on some wider themes present at the conference. I have now attended enough virtual worlds events to realise that there is a deep split in the VW community between the gamers and the Second Lifers. Perhaps calling them “Second Lifers” is inaccurate, as this faction is also composed of some other hard-core virtual world spaces, but for lack of a better word I will call them the SL crowd. This is a palpable split that often decends into acrymonious exchanges in the back channels. The gamers pretty much think of MMOs whenever they mention virtual worlds, and this usually means WoW, while the Second Lifers tend to get frustrated by this categorisation, and evangelise about the many probabilities offered by virtual spaces. As a gamer, I tend to silently dismiss the social spaces (if I can’t kill something, I’m not interested), but I can empathise with the SL frustration. I was also struck by the animosity from the SL crowd towards specific economic research into virtual worlds, particularly the emphasis on gold farming. I was surprised to learn that many think that this is passé and worn out topic. I beg to differ. Gold farming is an important topic of research because of its overall economic relevance. True, there are other economic stories taking place in VW that deserved attention, but at the moment the phenomenon of real money trade in virtual goods offers real policy issues.
Another common topic throughout the conference was the repetition that VWs may have reached a plateau. I think that this should not surprise anyone, VW research is at the same stage as Internet studies were at around 2000. The novelty aspect is gone, and what remains is a core of relevant subjects that require in-depth analysis. The “gee-whiz” factor was exhilarating while it lasted, but now what remains is a more sober exploration of the technologies. This may mean that VWs are now the subject of boring legal analysis centred on age-old topics such as contract law, but it is a testament of the enduring nature of the phenomenon.
Virtual Worlds research has not plateaued, it has grown up.
I also found some interesting use of back channels, and this conference had three of them going at the same time. There is something almost juvenile and cliuquish about back channels, and I was amused how certain people moved from one to the other as they became better known. The cool kids need to remain exclusive.