October 4, 2005 4:00 AM PDT

The serious side of games

If you find yourself looking for any of the leading thinkers on the social, intellectual, economic or legal aspects of online games this week, you probably won't find them unless you're in New York City.

That's because they'll all be in the Big Apple for the third annual State of Play conference, a gathering beginning Thursday of game players, game developers, law professors, journalists and others interested in what's happening on the digital frontier of virtual worlds such as "Second Life," "City of Heroes" and "EverQuest."

"I'm very appreciative of the way online connections can be valid social and personal experiences."
--Ron Meiners, community manager, "There"

During three days of panels, workshops, dinners and other events, the several hundred in attendance will discuss topics like financial speculation and experimentation in online games, the future of metaverses, law in virtual worlds and many other issues.

And while those unfamiliar with the complex issues surrounding massively multiplayer online, or MMO, games and virtual worlds might think that such a conference wouldn't attract the serious-minded, the roster of attendees from Harvard Law School, Yale Law School, Wired magazine, Sony Online Entertainment, the Kennedy School of Government and other institutions belies such thinking.

"It gives me a chance to interact with people from a wide variety of fields," said Beth Noveck, State of Play's organizer and an associate professor at New York Law School, where the event is being held. "We try to focus in on a set of profound questions and get new and exciting people talking together about the answers to those questions."

To attendees like Ron Meiners, the community manager for the virtual world "There," State of Play is a chance to examine where reality ends and virtual reality begins.

"For me, the most exciting thing is the extent to which the virtual world is more and more being seen as an extension of the 'real' world," Meiners said. It's "less and less a separate thing and more and more part of the rest of our experience."

Millions of people are taking part, at least in some small way, in that conversation. In less than a year, Blizzard Entertainment's "World of Warcraft" has become one of the most successful MMOs of all time, with more than 2 million subscribers in the United States alone. Another virtual world, Linden Lab's "Second Life," may not have a large numbers of subscribers, but it has developed a sophisticated economy in which millions of dollars a year worth of virtual goods like digital clothing for players' avatars, futuristic vehicles and fantastical houses are traded or sold.

Meanwhile, to some, State of Play provides an opportunity to mix people from different fields who they find to be rare at other conferences.

Designing vital digital spaces
"If you go to an intellectual-property law conference, or a conference on the business of the music business, you essentially have these two groups: people in academia and the people doing (the creative work) and they've never really met before," said Dan Hunter, an assistant professor of legal studies and business ethics at Wharton School of Business and a State of Play panelist. "At State of Play, my intuitive sense is that the two sides (the academics and the creative types) respect each other much more than other areas of research I've done and they're more engaged."

While the raison d'etre of many online games is play that happens to have social and economic elements, this year's State of Play is emphasizing the use of virtual-world design tools for the creation of vital digital spaces.

As such, Noveck has organized a competition in which more than two dozen people designed digital architectural compositions and virtual public spaces. Among the judges who will determine the most creative submissions is well-known Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer.

Ultimately, though, the point of State of Play this year, as it has been in its two previous incarnations, is to look in depth at how people's behavior in virtual worlds mirrors that of the real world, and as Meiners says, becomes an extension of it.

"I'm very appreciative of the way online connections can be valid social and personal experiences," Meiners said. "The number of marriages and other long-term bonds formed initially in virtual spaces attests to that. But the evolution of the general perception of these experiences is very exciting to me."

And to Noveck, it is the opportunity to create a State of Play community comprised of previous attendees and newcomers who will spend three days talking at length about issues like that raised by Meiners, that makes the work of putting on the conference worth it.

"There are few (technology conferences) that connect the state of the art in technology to fundamental questions about law and social science," Noveck said. "For people who are smart technologists as well as technology-aware lawyers (and others), this is an opportunity to do this exploration together and be thoughtful not only about what's happening, but also where we want to go."

16 comments

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Games are like drugs....
.. they absorb a nation's assets without returning anything of value.
And both are proposed as 'entertainment'. For many, both are the
last refuge of the lost.
Posted by Earl Benser (4310 comments )
Reply Link Flag
With that analogy...
Anything could be a drug.
What about TV? Peole pay $30 - $45 a month to watch cable or satellite and get nothing back from it.
Speak about something you really know about before stating such rediculous accusations.
Posted by Draxknar (26 comments )
Link Flag
Wow!
A comment both asinine and ignorant. Congratulations.
Posted by (22 comments )
Link Flag
Spending all day watching CNET is a drug too
And it seems to be one you take frequently. At least here you do learn things on occasion though.
Posted by aabcdefghij987654321 (1721 comments )
Link Flag
Hm.
What constitutes a "benefit to society" anyway? And can we cut to the chase and say that "all entertainments are the opiate of the masses"?

One thing is for sure, you're not going to have any substantial relationships on the internet beyond flame wars if you try to psychoanalyze other posters based on one and a half paragraphs, as you did below.

At any rate, good luck to them. And here's a tip: Taking games too seriously is not going to get you anywhere.
Posted by (29 comments )
Link Flag
Think For Yourself For Once
You obviously have been listening to the media for way too long. Video games aren't bad for us, of course there can be too much of everything but video games help cure dyslexia and ADD and have a ton of positive cognitive effects. To fully understand video game you must dive deep into neuroscience and video games themselves. Try reading "Everything Bad Is Good For You By: Steven Johson" you might learn to understand other people opinions through this book. Or you can continue being predgidous against american pop culture. Also, keep in mind that there was a time when books were considered bad for you. Video games aren't a drug, they're the most healthy form of electronic entertainment out there.
Posted by Thorax232 (27 comments )
Link Flag
come now
You spend all your waking hours bettering yourself and the people around you?

Everyone needs diversions, life shouldn't be serious all the time. Be it sports, music, video games, or a trip to the bar. Heck, I think I will try and fit all of those in this weekend.
Posted by Bob Brinkman (556 comments )
Link Flag
kind of, but not quite
they are like any other country from an economic standpoint. you can sell virtual merchandise for real world cash. check ebay for everquest tidbits if you don't believe me. it still takes resources and time, both real and virtual to create these virtual items. example: attaining certain character levels to get better items. sounds like a "real world" to me.

how are we lost? i can have substantial relationships with people that i will never see face to face. aren't both our "worlds" better for that?
Posted by agent V (34 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Just what is...
... your definition of 'substantial' ????

I think that you are sounding like you are very lost in whatever
virtual environment you've found. But, if that's what it takes to keep
you happy, the rest of the world will not miss your presence.
Posted by Earl Benser (4310 comments )
Link Flag
Bogus! Bogus! Bogus!
Another opportunity for academic nobody's to throw their two-bits in and have all the media nobody's cover them.

It's pathetic. Only wannabees like CNET would pay any attention at all.
Posted by (88 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Some games, MMORPGs in particular, ARE like drugs though..
Although the first poster mentions one reason why games are like drugs, I'd like to discuss a different reason.

Plain and simple MMORPGs are addictive. They not only provide a break from reality but in the online reality you are constantly gratified, rewarded and made to feel powerful. On top of that add real life people who help you succeed and those who respect you because you have 'epic' gear.

I've seen my husband fall into the hands of World of Warcraft (WoW) and I hate to admit that it had it's hands on me for awhile as well.

I know friends that spend over 24 hours STRAIGHT playing the game. Anything that takes over your life in such a way is definitely an addiction and the symptoms (no sleep, cravings to play, withdrawl symptoms when you stop playing) all are eerily similar to a drug habit.

I know...I went through it. Shortly after I created GamerWidow.com. It's a site for gamer widows(and widowers), gamers and ex-gamers to discuss the addiction of various games (the most popular is WoW), vent, share their story or give advice. Take a look at some of the member stories, (<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.gamerwidow.com" target="_newWindow">http://www.gamerwidow.com</a> ) you'd be shocked to see how destructive game addictions really are!

Nice article!
Lyoness
Founder, GamerWidow.com
Posted by Lyoness (3 comments )
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