Performing Value: Labor and Contingency in Virtual Worlds


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  • It is a pleasure to speak to you today. Games are the latest cultural form to become a sustained object of institutional desire. Anthropologists and others have long understood another cultural form, ritual, has been the site of institutional projects that aim to generate belonging, whether to nation-states, corporations, or other entities.
  • The institutions making use of games today are increasingly the digital institutions that inhabit our computer-mediated world. This talk is drawn from my book of this year, which is an ethnographic treatment of Linden Lab, a company in San Francisco and the makers of Second Life , a virtual world. In it I attempt to understand this strange company that is trying to make this strange product that is supposed to make itself. In doing that, they also found themselves remade. I’d like to take this opportunity also to make a few broader connections and maybe get us thinking about the current moment, when an increasing proportion of our digital lives is saturated, if not with games, then by increasingly game-like experiences. These game-like experiences are architected , quite intentionally, by a generation of developers that have come to see combining software development and game design as the path not only to vibrant online experience, but to a better world. My aim is to focus on these makers of large-scale online games and virtual worlds as a means of asking what picture of the human is embedded in much of that incredibly complex, architected software, and how through game design techniques the sustained attention and labor of users is captured.
  • In making Second Life, Linden employees drew upon a number of techniques and elements from computer game design (a background that many of the developers at the company shared). The result was a creation that was designed, like a game, to balance a compelling mix of constraint and possibility for its users, who then would create objects and experiences in Second Life’s virtual world, retaining in the process the intellectual property rights to their creations.
  • A virtual world, as I am using the phrase here, is a persistent, open-ended, online arena that offers a broad range for meaningful social action. Today the largest virtual worlds have 3-D graphics and a physics at least analogous to that of offline experiences, but it is well to note that text-based virtual worlds pre-date those we see currently. Some of the first scholarly attention these worlds received focused on the evident material stakes within them – the way virtual objects indisputably became subject to market exchange, and the way currencies within these spaces began to act much like any national currency. In Second Life, the logic of the market is deeply embedded in several ways, but most obviously in the way its code enshrines individual property rights. With the production and distribution costs of virtual goods vastly reduced, however (at least in virtual worlds without imposed scarcity), it becomes easier to recognize other forms of capital that can accumulate in these domains, as well as circulate beyond them and become parlayed one into the other.
  • - Fundamental and shared “game objectives” are gone - Even more scope for *making* Let’s just see some of the ways people in SL make…
  • Persistence The persistence of these spaces for social action is part of how we can account for what is at stake in them. One thing we should notice is that their persistence reflects in important ways a landmark change in what games could be (RPGs, D&D)
  • Architected open-endedness, or contrived contingency, is what game design brings to the table in these spaces. By inviting participation in open-ended processes, wherein user actions are performative , these spaces make it possible for the effects of social actions not simply to accumulate, but also for social action to fail – failed material creations, failed social relationships, failed learning. Failure is particularly important when considering the forms of exchange through which social and cultural capital are accumulated. Market exchange, characterized in its ideal forms by over-and-done-with transactions between actors irrespective of moral ties, does not highlight the performative qualities of social action in the way that reciprocity, learning, and other social actions do. There, the acquisition of competencies, credentials, and social ties can often hinge upon one’s ability to meet performative challenges. For Second Life, the game-design elements inscribed in the code of the game a wide range of social action, including the possibility of meaningful failure. In doing so, the world became the site where hundreds of thousands of users expended effort that led to the accumulation of all these forms of capital.
  • In this way the world did seem to do what Linden Lab envisaged; make itself.
  • Now I’m going to take a bit of a left turn at the moment, one that I hope illuminates the ideas about play, creativity, and labor that underwrite Second Life . It turns out that there was a very similar project undertaken almost exactly half a century ago. Constant Nieuwenhuys, or Constant, as he was known, was a 20th-century painter and architect and founding member of the Situationist International. He is perhaps best known for his ambitious project of unitary urbanism, New Babylon , on which he worked from 1958 until 1973. This proposed city (which would, theoretically, cover the globe) was intended to prompt all people to express their creativity through their constant reconfiguration of its open and malleable living space. Explicitly designed for homo ludens , in it social life was to be constituted by architectural play. In his New Babylon project Constant sought quite explicitly to reconcile Homo Ludens and Homo Fabricans – that is, Marx and Huizinga – in a city that would cover the globe. - Brief mention of how the space worked - His description of the totalizing containment of the new city, and how it would provide a context for the “Brownian movements of invisible and innumerable tactics,” serves equally well for Second Life as well, at least in its similarly utopian aims. Both of them sought to make use of design and technology to accomplish a seeming contradiction: to contrive and control a space for utterly free and self-governing action.
  • What was New Babylon? The design for the city called for two planes, one above the other, with living space in between. Both planes would be suspended above the ground (via cables from large columns that dot the New Babylon landscape), allowing for traffic underneath, along the ground, and with the top of the upper plane available for aircraft use. The city was to expand not as one ever larger shape, but via multiple, networked corridors of this interconnected space. The planes are never broken off from the network, which is marked by a center-less, branching arrangement of “sectors.” It was in the vertical spaces sandwiched between the planes where everything was to happen, and where design would practically vanish, along with the distinction between artist and non-artist. This was the living space, and it was meant to be infinitely configurable by its users.
  • It is not a surprise that such an ambitious and utopian project relies on no longer fashionable assumptions about technology and production. Constant imagined – as have many going back to Karl Marx (and forward to Star Trek) – a fully automated system of production, one which would free individuals from having to act for any other reason than to fulfill their creative impulses. In New Babylon, all of this automated production took place underground, the only evidence of the machinery being the small points (perhaps for ventilation) that would protrude very slightly above ground (often at the center of the open spaces in the branching network of sectors). As Wigley puts it, “New Babylon is a seemingly infinite playground. Its occupants continually rearrange their sensory environment, redefining every microspace within the sectors according to their latest desires. In a society of endless leisure, workers have become players and architecture is the only game in town, a game that knows few limits” (2001, p. 27). Thus is Karl Marx reconciled with Johan Huizinga; to play is to be creative is to be human, with creativity standing in for Marx’s picture of the human as the maker. In New Babylon, homo faber and homo ludens are one under the rubric of creativity. In the symposium interview of 1999, Constant outlines his ideas in this area specifically (2001, p. 24-25) Huizinga, and his homo ludens , was thinking about a state of mind, not about a new kind of humanity; of human being, but in a certain sense a state of mind, of certain temporary conditions of human beings. For instance, when you are at a carnival, a feast, a wedding party. Temporarily you become the homo ludens , but then the next day you can be the homo faber again. He has to earn his pay. Marx…says creativity is a state of mind. A man cannot always be a painter. He is only a painter when he paints…That is close. I have always tried to reconcile those two points of view, those visions of Marx…and Huizinga. New Babylon, in a sense, was about designing for play, because play was for Constant the essence of creative human activity. And in some contrast to how play came to be understood in the United States in the post-war period, play here was closely associated with the child. This concept of the value of children’s playful work was tied to an idea about the primitive, in the sense of the original or primal, where children’s creativity was taken as an instance of purely human creativity before the twisting and confining influence of social institutions. But this conceptualization of the child and creation had moral overtones as well in postwar Europe.
  • For Constant it was not enough to valorize this form of creativity. He sought to actively bring about a new urban landscape that would foster it. And herein lay a contradiction, for to do that Constant had to seize some degree of artistic, in this case architectural, authority. His plans for New Babylon began at almost the same time that he co-founded the Situationist International, in 1958, but he left that same organization in 1959, frustrated by what he saw as a resistance to applying the ideas of the movement on the part of Guy Debord and others. The problem, as he saw it, was one of taking an active role in prompting the kind of society they wanted; a question of the authority that makes, in a way, social policy possible. As Constant put it (2001, p. 25), “It’s not enough to say that everybody is an artist. I have said this long before Beuys, other people have even before me – the surrealist movement, for instance. What is important is to figure out how this creativity, this sleeping creativity…can be woken up.”
  • In this way Constant embarked in his distinctive way on a program to find a means of governance that we might call post-bureaucratic. In rejecting the existing modern bureaucratic institutions that had defined the social order (and were implicated in the horrific war), he and his contemporaries found an alternative in childlike play. But Constant took a further step and sought to work through how to contrive such play, how to employ controlled design that would prompt uncontrolled play within the spaces of New Babylon. Such play would embody a contradiction. It would be self-governing, to the extent that the use of the spaces in New Babylon was completely under the control of its residents. But this of course elides the role of the designer, or anyone with access to control over the conditions of the domain as a whole. Just as only the tips of the automated machinery can be glimpsed above ground everywhere, if one were to look, so the social position of the maker, homo fabricans of a different orde – homo creans , we might say, is everywhere and nowhere
  • Constant’s New Babylon highlights the inescapable disjunction between the makers of game-like spaces and the users prompted to act within them. There are other current examples which can also give us pause. Julian Dibbell, for example, has written about the difficulties in nailing down an understanding of “gold farming” in China, an example of the phenomenon he calls ludo-capitalism. Gold farming is the name given to the number of ways in which people, usually in low wage economies, are paid to play an online game, such as World of Warcraft , to accumulate its in-world currency (“gold”), certain in-world items that confer advantages in play, or to “level up” a character in the game. Any of these accumulations can then be sold over the internet for “real” money to a player typically negotiating the deal from a privileged real-world niche in a high wage economy. How, Dibbell asks, should we make sense of being paid to play, albeit in a different and somewhat routinized way, a game that is compelling enough to attract more than ten million players worldwide? What are we to make of the fact that Dibbell found some of these workers playing their own World of Warcraft characters, on their own accounts, after work hours?
  • Another example will draw out more clearly certain implications of the emerging divide between the institutional makers of digital games (and game-like environments) and their human player-users; it will illustrate, as well, how these are concerns not limited to virtual worlds or social networking sites. This example is the online code-writing contest located at TopCoder hosts contests (weekly, with a larger one bi-annually) to code (i. e., write software for) solutions to complex real-world problems. TopCoder owns the code submitted to them in the competitions, paying out a one-time cash award for each, although “rated” members having proved themselves can join a development team to receive some royalties for commercial uses of their work. Here game design forms the incentive to voluntary participation, specifically the application of effort and cultural capital (competence) to perform in a compellingly contrived, indeterminate system. TopCoder’s players are competing to demonstrate programming ability, in the application of their expertise to a novel problem in urgent circumstances, against time and against each other. The success of the enterprise depends on TopCoder’s ability to tap into this playful competitive mode or disposition, while the entire game activity is extrinsically governed by an ulterior profit motive, geared to practical applications of the winning solutions after the fact. Along with the use of games to attempt to colonize creativity, we should also notice the implicit distinction here between “players” and the sponsoring institutions which create the conditions for such play. What we are beginning to see is the bifurcation of creativity, separating those who are creative within a ludic system from those game designers creatively contriving the ludic system itself.
  • Performing Value: Labor and Contingency in Virtual Worlds

    1. 1. Performing Value: Labor and Contingency in Virtual Worlds 12 November 2009 Internet as Playground and Factory Thomas Malaby University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee [email_address]
    2. 4. What is at Stake in Virtual Worlds, and Why?
    3. 5. In a Bourdieuvian Mode <ul><li>Material Capital (market exchange) </li></ul><ul><ul><li>cash, commodities </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Social Capital (reciprocity) </li></ul><ul><ul><li>connections </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Cultural Capital (learning, authorization) </li></ul><ul><ul><li>competencies, credentials, artifacts </li></ul></ul>
    4. 6. Second Life
    5. 12. Persistence and Contingency <ul><li>Persistence </li></ul><ul><ul><li>- The effects of actions accumulate in time. </li></ul></ul>
    6. 13. Persistence and Contingency <ul><li>Persistence </li></ul><ul><ul><li>- The effects of actions accumulate in time. </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Contingency </li></ul><ul><ul><li>- Outcomes of actions are indeterminate, and therefore can become meaningful </li></ul></ul>
    7. 15. Photo by Shane Willis
    8. 16. Constant’s New Babylon
    9. 18. Marx & Huizinga <ul><li>Huizinga, and his homo ludens , was thinking about a state of mind, not about a new kind of humanity; of human being, but in a certain sense a state of mind, of certain temporary conditions of human beings. For instance, when you are at a carnival, a feast, a wedding party. Temporarily you become the homo ludens , but then the next day you can be the homo faber again. He has to earn his pay. Marx…says creativity is a state of mind. A man cannot always be a painter. He is only a painter when he paints…That is close. I have always tried to reconcile those two points of view, those visions of Marx…and Huizinga. </li></ul>
    10. 19. Constant’s New Babylon
    11. 20. Homo Creans - Man the Creator _________________ Homo Fabricans - Man the Maker Homo Ludens - Man the Player
    12. 21. Designer/Developer _________________ Player/Users/Content Creators
    13. 23. Thomas Malaby University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee [email_address] Making Virtual Worlds: Linden Lab and Second Life (June 2009, Cornell University Press)