Apr 24, 2012

Another Day In Paradise

Better virtual living through hardship


Recently on Twitter I asked a few questions pertaining to the concept of tying artificial scarcity to things such as teleportation, and the initial point of that context of venue (twitter) was to engage a bit with the community in conversation on the topic and see how it weighed out. I received a number of excellent responses in the stream, and arguably some great insights along the way.


One of the reasons I began wandering into that topic was the initial realization from the Matrix wherein Agent Smith had said that the original Matrix construct was built as a paradise but the inhabitants actually rejected it. Therein was the problem they had to face, in that the construct that actually remained stable was not a paradise but instead one filled with hardships and strife – modern day 20th Century (or in our case 21st Century).






Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this: the peak of your civilization.


This continued on with some philosophical thoughts on the nature of Heaven and Hell, and whether you believe in such things is not necessarily important to the topic. More in an abstract thought, however, we say that Heaven is a paradise without want, need, or sorrow… no strife and no hardships. Whereas Hell is the exact opposite and would (on the cursory glance) seem like the place to be avoided at all costs. But then we really think about the idea further and realize that the human spirit is geared toward overcoming hardship, aspirations, and striving to always be better to overcome the odds. In a very fundamental way, Hell is our preferred element simply for the challenge of overcoming it – we instead take satisfaction in the hardships and our ability to rise to the challenge (either individually or collectively).


This raises the profound question of whether Heaven really is a paradise or whether in some twisted logic it represents what we would actually consider Hell. Without the need to strive or overcome, without the satisfaction of rising to a challenge, and without the initial need to do anything, is this really a rewarding scenario for paradise?


I turn back to virtual worlds in this discussion and ask very similar questions.


As of this moment, we have a penchant for creating virtual environments modeled after the Heaven model of paradise. There really is no need associated with anything we do in them, other than idle boredom and creative outlet. This leads to a scenario I usually refer to as Groundhog Day Syndrome, wherein the virtual environment resident reaches a point of having the realization that they have experienced nearly all that the virtual world has to offer and thus become “burned out” on the experience. This, in turn, becomes an ever maddening cycle as ennui kicks in and you just look for reasons that are more and more extreme to pass your time. Of course, I’m referring to that famous movie with Bill Murray.



Groundhog Day - Toaster



This underlying reasoning, I’ve noticed, also seems to have extended into shows such as Caprica (the spin off from Battlestar Galactica) wherein the father was responsible for creating some futuristic and hyper-realistic virtual environment system (the Holo-band), and his intentions for the usage of it far differed from how it was popularly used in the “underground” community that would hack the system and create unsanctioned spaces.


As his daughter pointed out, those unsanctioned spaces represented pretty much a limited set of themes which on the whole covered a majority of how virtual environments were actually used in popular culture and what the users actually wanted.


I’m not entirely certain the specifics, but here was a scene where the daughter walked the father through the unsanctioned space and explained to him the different areas of the “building” and what they were for. Essentially it boiled down to themes we are familiar with in places like Second Life -


1. Partying

2. Sex

3. Killing/Combat/Roleplay

4. Socializing

5. Creating


  • An entire room set up for a non-stop party, with a stage. A crowd dancing into the night. This sounds familiar in Second Life, because a majority of places tend to be Nightclubs and Music Venues.


  • Sex is of course the no-brainer here. Invoking Rule 34 of Second Life is my favorite inside joke: “If it exists in Second Life, it’s XCITE! Compatible”, which is a play on Rule 34 of the Internet in general – “If it exists, there is porn of it.”


  • Killing and Combat scenarios. Again, this is no big surprise – there are plenty of combat sims and virtual armies in roleplaying scenarios in Second Life.


  • Socializing… well, this is also expected because virtual worlds are supposedly a social medium. But in context, does this essentially mean that virtual worlds are little more than elaborate chat rooms?


  • Creation is where we start to get interesting. Aside from the prior four points of Partying, Sex, Killing/Combat, and Socializing, what are we creating for?



Caprica Screenshot



The point from Caprica that I noticed was that those five uses seem to comprise a vast majority of reasons for actually using a virtual environment. I’m sure there are other reasons, but for the most part those five reasons are it. Even when we look into the different reasons outside of those five reasons, more often than not our reasons for creation in a virtual environment are in support of those prior four reasons.


Clothing stores, for example, are just a supplementary aspect to Socializing. Mostly because we’re pretty vain and self conscious in a virtual world. I’ll throw in shapes and skins as well, since it is to supplement the socialization aspect.


Through the Looking Glass


What we’re left with are a few realizations from all of this. I’m beginning to believe thoroughly that one of the major issues in virtual worlds is lack of scarcity, and a reason to strive. We’ve built a virtual paradise model which, in turn, actually seems to have been a virtual Hell. The obvious conclusion, therefore, is that we introduce methods of artificial scarcity into the virtual world construct in order to make it more enjoyable and something of higher value.


Which brings me back to the original thought concerning tying scarcity of resource to such things as teleportation.


I’m not suggesting that we return to the TeleHub days in Second Life, but that is a good start. I wouldn’t say that teleportation be banned outright except within the telehub key locations, because I do believe that teleportation is a viable means of crossing large distances. Therefore, unlike the fictional Metaverse model of Snow Crash where teleportation didn’t exist at all, I would instead suggest that teleportation comes with a caveat – in this case being a resource of scarcity which causes us to use such an ability sparingly.


As I noted on Twitter, when you eliminate teleportation entirely you have interesting consequences. First and foremost, the logical structuring of groups in proximity (such as building cities with a purpose), which in turn raises the need for transportation of a more mundane manner and the connecting roads and such that facilitate it. Suddenly we have a reason to build cities as a community, and just like that we also created a tangible sort of need for transportation methods such as vehicles. This leads to a domino effect wherein the contiguous space is appreciated as is the concept of actual distance in our travels.


In the simple act of limiting teleportation via a resource of scarcity, we have brought the virtual world community much closer together and given the population something to overcome. We also would have introduced into the virtual environment something of personal value: Energy.


Of course, this concept of energy also shoots off supporting things as well – such as the possibility that food is a method to replenish personal energy. We also introduce energy in the more abstract for of electricity to power the telehubs, and the act of using them would diminish the energy it has available for use.


Essentially, we’re talking about a different form of gameification into the virtual environment.


Now, I’m not suggesting there are achievements and badges to be won. Nor am I suggesting that we run around as The Sims. Those are fairly arbitrary goals and really have no natural value to the context. What I’m getting at is introducing artificial scarcity in proper context in order to facilitate the progression of true community and fuel productive creation and usage of virtual worlds.


I believe there is a balance to be had with all of this, but most importantly, whomever goes down this road will likely be the architects of something like the Matrix at the basic level. The initial goal not being to create a paradise of plenty, but instead a hell of scarcity in which the residents actually are happier for it. I’d cite something like E.V.E. Online for this model, but it’s a system that started under the premise of interstellar travel and so the very act of space travel isn’t appreciated. What I’m talking about is more profound… you start on a planet with only the basics and anything your virtual world society accomplishes it will do together as a society… even space travel.


It’s a paradox indeed.


We’re just happier in hell… as long as it’s not an impossible situation.







  1. Will --

    I've been pondering these same issues for a while now, as well.

    Consider a "perfect" world -- no pain, no loss, no sorrow, you know everything. So... all games of chess end in a tie. Everyone is a Jeopardy champion. Nobody cheats at poker. The only thing on TV is the Sounds of Music -- with all the Nazi parts edited out. Also, all the parts where people are mean to Maria. (It can't be paradise, if people are mean to Maria in it.) Everyone looks perfect. Nobody gets fat or old or sick. Anything we can image instantly exists, in perfect form.

    Really, how long would any of us last before going nuts?

    Now say some salesman wanders through, offering a really realistic game... full of sex and violence and all sorts of unspeakable horrors.

    You'd say: "We're all-knowing beings. We can't play a game because we'd know how it all comes out. There would be no surprises."

    So the salesman says, "That's the best part! Before you start playing, we give you amnesia. Once the game ends, you're yourself again. The length of the game is limited -- I guarantee you won't be trapped there forever! -- but while you're there it will feel completely real. And you'll be playing against all your friends -- but you won't know it's them!"

    And you'll say: "What?!? No access to my Google exo-brain?"

    And the salesman says: "You'll only know what you learned in the game itself."

    Now, we're quickly getting to the point where we're immortal, all-knowing (thanks, Google!) and bored to death. Maybe not in our lifetimes, but our kids, or our grandkids.

    And virtual reality is getting better and better. Plus, if you've got temporary amnesia, you won't have anything to compare it to, anyway, so it will feel totally real.

    So I can totally see this happening.

    In fact, there's no reason this hasn't happened ALREADY.

    Don't all major world religions teach that our mortal life is a dream, a temporary illusion, and our real selves are immortal? (Or something like that?)

    So it may have already happened... and it may be happening again... in an eternal and weird circle through the space-time continuum. Maybe our future quantum computers will exist at a level beyond time and space -- quantum physics is a bizarre thing.

  2. "But it's on a computer!!!" - isn't this like "ordinary/real life"? People go through spaces, abstracting capsule definitions & value judgements on a cursory pass through. Others sit in the forest for hours/days/weeks at a time, studying the life of the forest, the progression of cycles, the spectrum of life...

    I've had my mind opened to the beauty of mathematics through Wizzy's geometrics, the sublime spaces of AM Radio... because I pay attention to my environment; because I know at least somewhat of how these things are made; because I pay attention to my computer as something in itself instead of merely an E-ticket/window facilitator...

    Maybe Heaven wouldn't be such a boring place if people explored the possibilities of the actual place and let approaches, strategies & exploration inform.

    One problem I see in later-day VWs is the penchant for humans to remodel everything in terms of what they already know, forcing the spaces (and the internet generally) to conform to predetermined models.

    Some good early thinkers on the significance of virtual communities showed more imagination than I see at present: Rheingold, Barlow, Turkle, Haraway, Morningstar/Farmer, Arquilla/Ronfeldt, Wagner, Bollier, Doctorow...

    Sure, VWs are boring when they ape the facades of traditional media/architecture/approach.

  3. [munches chocolate and thinks on it]...