Friday, December 23, 2005

What is the critical mass necessary to create a major world culture in an online game?

So World of Warcraft has reached five million accounts. Good for them. You have a population that is substantially larger than the size of the Netherlands during the Dutch Golden Age. Now there was a culture that gave us some great fruit paintings. (And wonderful droppe!)

Will online games one day give us a meaningful world culture?

This got me musing about how major cultures of the world formed and what it would mean for an online world to act as a seed for a new major world culture. It is a very idle thought exercise.


Thought #1: Creating a great culture just requires the right recipe
Culture is not magical or divinely created. Put enough people in an isolated environment for a long enough period of time and strong, highly unique social norms will develop. It is a natural human dynamic evident in any group of any size. Give me an island, a bumper crop of people and enough time and we can grow you a unique culture that has a more outrageous accent than either France or Alabama.

Thought #2: Critical mass matters
Any size group can create a culture. It happens in companies, in families, you name it. But to create a culture that sustains itself over generations and influences others without itself being corrupted requires a certain amount of mass. Population is one measure of mass. Money is another.

If you look back through the years, most major cultures seem to really hit their stride with with populations ranging from five to thirty million. These are numbers that are arrived at in a very rough manner. I looked up the population of countries with strong cultures in the 1700’s and assumed that at the very least, this is what you needed to sustain a major culture that generates its own unique language, rituals, identity and history. Games are starting to reach substantial population levels. Five million is a good start.

With their ties into gold farming and other real world economic activities, online games are beginning to build a strong economic foundation that can anchor deeper social behaviors. We are seeing thousands of people dedicating their lives to performing the rituals in the game for economic reasons. At the very least this creates a classic split between population classes.

How do you greet a gold farmer? What words do you use? What is their social class? Do you look down upon them? Do you hate them? Are you justified? Such rich human biases driven by economic realities are fertile soil for the creation of lasting cultural flavors.

Thought #3: Cultures diverge from their source
All cultures borrow liberally from the cultures that found them. It is only through economic, social, or geographical isolation will cultures begin to diverge into their own unique cultural identify.

Online games will initially be highly derivative places. Early America colonial culture was highly derivative of European culture. Early online games ape the social mores of Western geek fantasy culture or Eastern pop heroic culture.

Game worlds are isolated electronically, but their users can always log off and go home. Is there enough isolation of users in an online world to create a strong divergence from the original source culture? I wonder.

Thought #4: Time is critical
Put a few million European criminals on an island and come back twenty years later and you’ll still have a few million European criminals. Come back in a generation or two and you have a unique culture that is influenced by its past, but is defined by the cultural environment of its present. There seems to be a strong generational element to the renewal of cultural memory.

Online games are short lived commercial entities. It is difficult to imagine any sort of generational maturation process occurring within the population of modern online worlds. Online games at this point in our history blip in and out of existence just long enough for excited child-like cultures to be born and then snuffed out.

But what happens when several generations grow up playing online games? What happens when a single world with a critical population lasts not just years, but decades?

Thought #5: When is a gaming culture meaningful?
When a large group of online users is willing to die in order to maintain their world and way of life, then the online world will be meaningful.

This is perhaps harsh, but is a critical point.

Culture exists because the community declares its existence. They gather up all the quirky little habits and behaviors that surround them, label them, and set them high upon pillars of unassailable values and ideals. “This is my culture and I value it” the members of the community declare to the foreigners at their gates. “I am willing to defend it.”

It isn’t about a few unstable individuals who do something violent. It is about normal, rational men and women who choose a path despite the consequences because they deeply believe in its inherent value.

Until then these worlds we builds are just a hobby. Idle play by idle children. There may be rants, raves and passion, but until an online world becomes a preferred way of life, they have no more meaning than a cheap Sunday play attended by crowds of crowing foppish dilettantes.

Closing thoughts
If I were to create a score card of the key categories that are necessary to create a great culture and then rank modern online gaming, we still have such a long ways to go.
  • Population - B+: The population numbers are looking good.
  • Economic leverage - C+: There’s promise, but it isn’t there yet. I expect this to catch up quickly in the next couple of decades.
  • Divergence Time – D: This is a big problem. Online worlds still don’t last very long. This leads to a series of ephemeral toy cultures. Perhaps the days of the Roman Empire are long lost and our Golden Ages can be measures in seasons instead of centuries.
  • Core values – E: The basic human values of friendship and companionship are in place, but no online world has managed to give players something bigger than themselves to believe in. Until this evolution occurs, online game worlds will remain a pleasant adornment that rests lightly on the real world we all must inhabit.
Did I mention that these were very idle thoughts? :-)

Take care
Danc.

Completely meaningless references