We are in the midst of a great migration into virtual worlds. More and more of our lives take place and are affected by them, these constructions that overlap reality in various ways: Facebook, Instagram, Uber, Tinder, etc. Each connects reality to a virtual space, influencing it in some way. On the far end of the spectrum are worlds that replace reality entirely, video games.
Recent years have been illustrative of the massive and rapid transformative power these worlds have on society, for better and for worse, and their power is only growing. With a goal of disruption, these technologies assume a strength of society that can sustain the rapid changes they bring; but it has become clear that these worlds are so powerful that society is actually vulnerable to them, there’s a fragility there that prolonged disruption has the potential to shatter, replacing it with something entirely different.
I believe that the way we construct these worlds will determine the fabric of society itself, and planning intelligently where we take them is an imperative. Constructing them is a role that is risky to leave to a handful of companies, even if they aim to ‘give us what we want’. That approach in particular has already given us the filter-bubbled, post-truth world that we now occupy. Indeed, their impact is so far-reaching that their construction should not be guided by market forces alone. There needs to be a design around them akin to the design of a nation-state, a residence of billions. They need to the citizens as core participants in their creation and evolution.
The concept of democracy pervades our world, but it does not run as deep as it could, and the forces that govern are frequently not aligned with the interests of the people. Within virtual worlds the concept is nearly non-existent; we are citizens of benevolent overlords, who design the worlds with their own corporate needs in mind, which may or may not intersect ours (and ‘time spent on site’ is not a measure of fulfilled need).
We can do better. We can create virtual worlds that elevate their citizens, promoting their interests over those of the platform. Worlds occupied not just by consumers but contributors, where the rules that govern the world are designed and implemented by those that are subjected to them. In order for the worlds of the future to be positively impactful, those that use them need to be integral to their creation, the occupants need to be the authors.
Enter the humble video game. While not yet typically seen as a force that can alter society, I believe the nature of video game worlds gives us a look at our trajectory overall, an image of what is possible and desired. They are where our fantasies are enacted, where we achieve our goals, where we spend our free time – often totally set apart from reality, and they serve as examples of the kinds of worlds we are drawn to.
All too often the character of these worlds is destructive: player vs world, destruction of an evil force, violent competition – but that trait is not universal. Creative games are common, where players design, build, and shape the physical world around them. Where I see the most potential is a step beyond that: virtual game worlds where you are not just creating the physical landscape, but the social landscape as well. Multiplayer worlds where players are designing the social rules of the world they occupy, creating the governance and institutions that run these societies. They are crossing the boundary between creator and consumer, where the act of creating their own social environment becomes the game itself, with humans as the medium of design. They are both the sculptor and the clay.
Worlds that have this strange loop within them (players-as-designers for players-as-designers ad infinitum) can exhibit much different traits than typical video game worlds. Traditionally video games consist of content that is given from designer to player, a single straight line with a beginning and end. Meaning is created by the designer and delivered. In contrast, the self-referential loop of a player-designed world generates meaning: the stories that emerge are not crafted by one group and consumed by another, but are grown within a seamlessly connected cycle. There are no preordained events, no cut-scenes to deliver narrative, and yet their histories can be incredibly rich, their character dynamic and ever-changing.
It is these types of video game worlds that I see as a model for the future we may one day inhabit, and it’s what we’re focusing our development on with our game project Eco. Eco is set in a simulated ecosystem shared in a multiplayer world, where every action has an impact on the environment. Within the game they are able to propose and apply laws that govern the allowed actions of the group, changing the rules of the world via decisions by the occupants.
Town square in a player-created Eco world.
We have found that worlds with this inherent feedback loop of player-as-designer yield many positive effects:
Worlds like these I believe hold the power to transform how we interact, play, and are educated, and they will do so through these characteristics.
Given that these dynamic worlds are occupied by real players connected online, they are fundamentally collaborative: the world is just one state shared among many, and thus there is a mutual interest that binds them. Actions of a single player affect the whole world, which in turn affects every other player.
With this potential for an individuals wider impact, group consensus become necessary, and obtaining that requires a distinct set of personal skills. Suddenly empathy and leadership are world-changing skills, evidence-based reasoning and debate with your fellow peers an important gameplay activity. In Eco we implement this shared world as an ecosystem which all players take resources, which can cause unavoidable damage to the environment. Choosing the right path in a complex ecosystem with many factors affected by many people becomes a massive collaborative challenge.
Getting a group of disparate individuals to agree on a path forward and a set of guiding rules is no easy task, and making that process the center of gameplay elevates how players must think of themselves and those around them. It precipitates a change in mentality, from a player-vs-world, individualistic mindset to one where it is the world that takes center stage. Rather than the traditional Hero’s Journey archetype that underlies most game arcs, it presents instead something new: a story that includes the world itself as a key character, changing along with its population of heroes; built, shaped, and shared by them, and shaping them in turn. It could be considered a new archetype of story, and a new way of telling it, enabled by technology.
From this wider perspective, inclusive of the whole world and all its occupants, the player’s goal ceases to be ‘get the maximum you can’. Rather, they are the architects of the system they occupy, and in order to succeed as an individual they need to craft a world that benefits the group. Their field of view is increased from themselves to the world whole, and to see your existence as such, even in this virtual context, is a powerful thing to experience. It is the kind of experience that reaches outside the game, and can change your frame of view in reality as well.
The role of the designer then moves downward, designing not simply the content to be consumed, but the physics upon which its citizens will construct their society. They are not creating a social framework out of nothing, but building it on top of the simulation created by the designer. The properties of this simulation dictates what skills are needed to be successful, what must be understood and shared in order to succeed. This is where the artistry of the designer comes in to play, creating a rich network of rules and physics that yields complex, emergent results for players to navigate, structuring a society.
Virtually all games have simulations in them of various depths, but they are often fundamentally limited by the purpose of the game; they must predictably deliver content, narrative, and progression. We can see this in the design of many massively-multiplayer games designed in a theme park style, where encounters are pre-crafted and instanced for each group of players that attempts the. The artificiality of such worlds requires players to exercise a steep suspension of disbelief. That is, the world is never really threatened by that giant monster you need to destroy, and after you destroy it the next group in line will have their turn.
It’s a different situation in a world where players serve as architects on top of the simulation. The simulation can have much more depth and flexibility, it can allow extensive, world-changing transformations, even the world’s entire destruction. When players are the social architects of the system, deciding together what is allowed, they will work to ensure that the simulation reaches places that are beneficial to the population. The designer no longer has to apply limits to ensure that only success-states are reached, building hard limits into it, but can open it up into a much more authenticate simulation. In Eco this takes the form of our virtual ecosystem. Players are perfectly capable of destroying all life on the planet through pollution, climate change, etc – the simulation does not prevent it (and indeed, some players make that their goal). As a result, the decisions they make as a group have real impact on a world that is important to many.
A consistent simulation has another big benefit: it establishes a layer of objective shared truth. Within our ecosystem simulation, there is no question of whether or not climate change is happening, it’s right in the code. The more of the simulation that is displayed to players the better, letting them identify the physics of the world and use it in their decisions about what should be done. In the modern day reality of custom-bubbles for every individual, game worlds can serve (paradoxically) as a reality-check. The physics are defined, visible, and affect everything you do, compressed to a size that you can understand. While it’s easy to view a huge complex global effect like climate change and say that it doesn’t exist, it’s much easier to see it when the impact takes place in compressed time and space: days, instead of millenia. Players must hash out the right way forward – there is infinite directions they can go – and they must proceed about this guided by facts rather than opinions, facts that are verifiable by in-game data and will bite you in short-order if you ignore them. A simulation that runs authentically of its own accord (rather than existing to cater to a predetermined purpose) yields this effect.
The combined result of authentic simulations and player-designed worlds yields a very different kinds of story than what we are used to in any form of media. It is the story of history: a million overlapping stories, patterns and arcs that repeat through millennia, the rise and fall of ideas and institutions, and the triumph and collapse of civilizations. They are stories not centered on destruction of a foe threatening the world, but the creation of that world itself. Aided by a deep and flexible simulation these become stories worth telling, as every virtual world yields different results and can become vastly different places. With the ability to gather data at every step in this process, a record can be created of unlimited fidelity, allowing virtual-historians to trace back the pivotal moments, the great achievements and mistakes, and the unintended consequences. There is value in these stories themselves, and rather than value being consumed as you play, value is created.
My favorite graph, capturing in vivid representation the many overlapping stories of history.
Within these worlds players have a true agency: worlds can really be jeopardized, destroyed, and indeed saved by their occupants. This ability to fail, intrinsic to an authentic simulation, gives meaning to the players’ actions. The results are not pre-crafted by a designer to present an illusion to the player, but are the true results from their actions.
This layer of agency and meaning adds much to the experience, and can be used in some surprising and valuable ways. When the underlying simulation focuses on a system that reflects reality (an ecosystem simulation in the case of Eco), then the skills and actions that you learn to affect the simulation are transferable to the real world. It gives them an added value conferred by the goals of the game; you actually need to understand ecology to save the world, and your ‘test’ isn’t an artificial layer on top, but part and parcel with the game. If you fail the world fails.
As a vehicle for learning I believe these worlds are unparalleled, and with Eco we’re focusing on bringing the game into classrooms in unique ways. The system will generate context from the game for teachers to use in their lessons, using the actual challenges students face in their game world as fodder for study. I believe the power of these shared worlds will eventually transform education, providing immediate meaning and context to abstract lessons, creating an instant application. ‘When am I going to use this?’ is a question that education is too little concerned with, and in a virtual world you are given an immediate need for that knowledge, in a setting you care about, and among friends that rely on one another. In such an environment, the relevance of a student’s learning is dramatically increased to them.
Simply spending time in a world that you care about can impact can change your mindset. In reality we labor under systems that seem permanent and everlasting, trapping us in our situations, dictating how we interact with others. Realizing those systems are designed like anything else, by people like you, and can be changed by people like you, produces a paradigm shift in thought. You become an agent in your own life, capable of changing the world and institutions around you. Your fellow humans become entities that must be included in the picture, and understanding and respecting and empathizing with them becomes paramount, not only your success but the success of all. The world is already changeable, your position in life is already malleable, even your mindset is impermanent, but it can not seem that way in a vast world that has been around seemingly forever. Indeed, a world you can impact on a visible scale is a gift, one that can benefit both ourselves and those around us.
As an educational tool, it goes a step further. Rather than focusing on rote knowledge transfer – a problem largely solved by the information age- it creates self-driven progress that can be extended to their own lives, one where the future can be designed to fit everyone, where the well-being of others and the world is tantamount to your own, and you have a say in how things play out. With the speed that today’s modern world is progressing, it is not sufficient to show players and students the world that exists, we must let them play with the worlds that may be.