The Game of Life: A case study of video games as social platforms

On: October 24, 2019
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About Joana Stockmeyer


   

Introduction

Human connection, the feeling of being accepted or even loved. What does human connection look like in our digital day and age? Dating apps like Tinder are obviously a very modern tool of people reaching each other, but even Aristotle wrote about connection and different types of friendships: Friendships of utility, of pleasure and of the good.

In this text, we will discuss human connection, not only the real life connections that Aristotle spoke of, but also online friendships, where all three forms can arise. This makes the online sphere, in the sense of connection, an interesting and multi-layered dimension. The manifestation of human connection online can form in places that facilitate these types of connection or even systems that were never meant for this. This paper takes a more historical in-depth look into three specific online spaces. First up is the online virtual world Second Life, an online realm where users create virtual representations of themselves called avatars to interact with other users across the globe, simulating many real-life social interactions through its game environment. Next up is Habbo Hotel, another virtual world with many similar affordances compared to Second Life, but more so aimed at teenagers. Lastly the newest edition, VRChat, also a virtual online world with the addition of virtual reality compatibility to provide full immersion. These three virtual worlds will be explained more in-depth to lead into our own intervention: a new platform that incorporates and leaves out certain aspects of these three platforms to create the ‘perfect’ digital social platform.

The current state: How previous platforms have solved the problem

The first step is to put the problems we face into perspective by taking a look at the previously mentioned platforms and their approach. Learning from these lessons is crucial to our eventual intervention.

Second Life

Second Life is an online virtual world that was launched in June 2003 (Linden Lab). As is characteristic for all virtual game worlds, its users have the ability to create avatars and objects as well as connect and chat with other users. According to the platforms advertisements, its 3D world is mainly imagined and designed by the users. “From the moment you enter Second Life, you’ll discover a universe brimming with people and possibilities.” (Second Life)

The world within Second Life is populated by avatars which virtually represent its users (Rymaszewski et al.). In this world, players can be whoever they want to be. Whether that means creating a persona similar to their actual real-life person or deciding to “be a fashion diva, a business-savvy entrepreneur, a robot or all three” (Second Life) is up to each user. Switching between different identities is fast and easy, allowing the players to change their outfit or whole body in a matter of seconds (Second Life).

In addition to avatars, Second Life contains a wide range of objects which have almost exclusively been made by users as creating new objects is one of the most popular activities within Second Life (Rymaszewski et al.). The possibilities for performing actions within the game keep expanding with new buildings being assembled as well as clubs and businesses being launched every minute (Second Life).

According to Rymaszewski et al., Second Life users have the freedom to pursue their dreams and interests within this virtual world. For some users, this means “having as much virtual sex as possible [or] shooting at other people, possibly while piloting a spaceship” (Rymaszewski et al.), however, the possibilities are nearly endless; a lot of players use it as an opportunity to develop their talents as creators, for example.

In addition to all kinds of different individual activities, one of the main features of Second Life is meeting and interacting with other residents in various ways. Second Life allows its users to virtually interact in every way imaginable, however, it can only take place by mutual consent, as any user may leave the platform at any given time. In summary, within Second Life “a general principle applies to all activities: no matter what they are, there is a place for them somewhere.” (Rymaszewski et al.)

However, Second Life had to face a lot of criticism in the past (and still does) as the platform with all its freedom enables access to pornography, alcohol, drugs, etc. for underage children who registered by stating a false age (Stokel-Walker). Furthermore, monetisation makes gambling and scamming possible and the seemingly endless possibilities within the game to create new objects can lead to incidents such as the “grey goo” attack where a “self-replicating worm planted spinning gold rings around the virtual world” (BBC). The lack of moderation in Second Life lets its users do whatever they want to do – good and bad.

Habbo Hotel

Habbo Hotel is another online virtual world launched in 2001 by Sulake, with many similarities to Second Life. Habbo is mostly geared towards teenagers, with over 90% of its player base being between the ages of 13 and 18 as of 2012. Unlike Second Life’s 3D rendered world, Habbo Hotel is a browser game running in Flash; its in-game avatars and settings are 2D and ‘pixelated’, and it shows the game world in an isometric top-down perspective. Habbo Hotel has benefited very much from being easily accessible through most browsers, and according to an article released by Sulake in 2012, Habbo Hotel had 273 million uniquely registered accounts and over 5 million unique visitors per month (Sulake).

    The gameplay of Habbo is meant to be fairly innocuous; its users socialize with each other in their self-created virtual chat rooms, decorated with ‘Furni’ (furniture) that can only be purchased with Gold; the platform’s currency, which is only available for purchase with real money and not through its gameplay, which is limited to a select number of mini-games further meant for socializing. What Habbo is rather infamous for on the internet, however, is the consistent misuse of its affordances by all kinds of different users of the platform.

Gambling was (and still is) rampant on Habbo. People quickly found ways to use the in-game dice to set up Blackjack and other betting games, hosting them in privately owned in-game casinos. The problem with this, of course, is that this is a game geared towards children; betting with a currency that holds real-world monetary value and can be sold through various services online proved to be problematic.

    Scamming is also very prominent on the platform in various forms. As an example, there are giveaways in which the more wealthy Habbo members distribute some of their Gold among poorer users by making them complete a series of tasks; making them wait in line, pull a lever which has a certain chance to either teleport the user further along in the giveaway or back in line, and finally to their prize of 1 (one) measly Gold. While ‘pure’ giveaways aren’t scams in the sense that users don’t spend any Gold to participate, there are certain giveaway rooms that sell ‘fast-passes’ which allow users to skip the long, tedious line, as well as the first lever with around a 50% fail rate. The odds of the user winning their money back with a fast-pass are stacked astronomically against them, usually.

    Finally, aside from all this nastiness that is unique to Habbo as a platform, the game also became infamous in 2012 when Channel 4 News reported on the platform, saying there were explicit sex chats with violent language being used, and the platform being a ‘Mecca for pedophiles.’ [sic] Habbo has also been the target of multiple raids by users of 4chan’s /b/ board. In 2019, one YouTuber described the platform as being an ‘anarcho-capitalist society’ due to the lack of moderation or any real central power structure.

VRChat

Similar to the above mentioned Habbo Hotel and Second Life, VRChat is an online virtual reality platform mostly focused on social interactions between its players. Launched in early 2017, the game quickly rose to prominence and became a mainstay in popular culture. Despite its status as a game geared towards young adults and teens, the majority of the website’s traffic comes from people over 25 years old.

    The game is fairly barebones in what it offers at first glance: Users can create avatars to control and construct rooms for players to be in.  They can also join the rooms of other people and interact with other users through their avatars. There are no objectives or gameplay mechanics that are of importance, essentially boiling down to a series of chat rooms with a focus on user-generated content to support itself; as such, the platform is designed with social interaction and discourse in mind.

    As is its namesake, however, VRChat natively supports the use of virtual reality and full-body tracking hardware to experience these rooms as their assumed personas. While this is not required to play the game, it’s highly encouraged to use supported hardware. This comes with several benefits in terms of its viability as a platform for social interaction, with some consequences that follow suit. First off, the integration of VR and body tracking hardware allows for far greater immersion, or rather presence, than previous iterations may have allowed for, removing barriers of interaction between players (McMahan). Secondly, the tools accompanying the virtual reality support, including full customisation options through an accompanying SDK, facilitate creative freedom for its users. This results in a larger focus on user-generated content and a higher degree of player agency, allowing for player-driven narratives and personalised experiences for each user willing to commit to such customisation (Lebowitz & Klug).

    Despite this focus on creative freedom and the popularity on social media that followed, the barrier of entry to remains staggeringly high compared to other platforms, mainly due to the relatively high cost of VR hardware and significant transition time required to use the hardware (Madigan). This contradicts the concept of a game environment specifically designed for social interaction, as the seamless integration and high accessibility would greatly favour this concept.

    Another issue, besides a lack of content and objectives that limits the expressive nature of the game, is the constant issue of griefing and offensive content. As a result of the quasi-anonymity of the platform, many forms of offensive content and interactions are still an issue, albeit less than Habbo might’ve predicted. The Ugandan Knuckles meme in particular gained mainstream traction with both players and passive viewers, despite its nature as a racist and anarchic interaction with the game environment (Molina; MacGregor). The developers have, however, expressed serious interest in increased moderation of the platform, which would be required to limit such issues in the future (Alexander).

Intervention: Creating the ‘perfect’ platform

Why do we believe there is an intervention needed here? People need people, and real-life human connection triggers the senses. Therefore, human connection online also needs to find a way to trigger the senses. Seeing how these three platforms all have different elements and affordances that make them unique shows how far the online realms have come since HTML fora. But indeed, these sense-triggering platforms obviously do have actual human interaction which may not always be pleasant; people can have fewer good intentions than others. In that case, specific platform’s affordances can be an easy tool for these types of people to abuse that fact. That’s why we call for an intervention: HTTP, meaning ‘Hooray, the transcendent platform!’ With the creation of this platform, we take the historical research we conducted on the above discussed platforms and incorporate this. With this, we want to restrain or change affordances that facilitated negative elements within these platforms, while nurturing the positive aspects we hope to capture. We want a safe space online where people can be their free selves, connect with each other and eliminate the aspect of abuse online via these gateways.

Intervention concept

As part of our intervention, we have established a focus on the affordances of existing platforms in conceptualising the intervention project. To showcase this angle, we have created a visualisation that represents the relevance of several categories of affordances based on our descriptions of Habbo Hotel, Second Life and VRChat.

    Arguably the most important aspects of these platforms are the integration of social interaction and community discourse to establish the game’s player network. However, to enhance this concept compared to Second Life and VRChat, combining this with programmable and interactive objects within the game to bolster its gamification factor would bring the best of both worlds here. As an addition to that, a more integrated approach to sharing and enabling player customisation would round this aspect out to create a fully-fledged, highly personal experience.

    One barrier is also the hardest to overcome, which comes directly from the players themselves. Griefing and toxic behaviour is one of the largest deficits in most online communities, and platforms that facilitate it are one of the biggest examples for our platform concept of things not to do. To counteract this, avoiding the usually inevitable forms of monetisation as much as possible would provide far less imbalance amongst players, as well as providing mute and block options that would remove any form of interaction between players deemed inflammatory, putting control into the players’ hands. Taking that a step further, why not provide a feedback loop within that community? An honour system in which players showing great behaviour can provide insight on cases of toxicity and griefing would allow self-regulation to take over, reducing the need for moderation significantly.

    The name of the game is personalisation here. What would the core of social interaction be without personal expressions of creativity and individuality, after all? By taking a note from other social networks with subcommunities such as Reddit, it’s easy to build this out into a game platform. Similar to how users can create and interact within different subreddits, with a personalised news feed and a set of standard subreddits to access, this realisation of such a game would incorporate these aspects of personalisation by allowing interaction through game rooms created by players. These rooms would then take on the role of interest-based communities like subreddits.

    And finally, one last question remains: How can players access this game world? Which platform would host it to properly enable the affordances we wish to incorporate into this game? With accessibility and future technology developments in mind, the easy conclusion would be an approach of cross-platform capabilities, with a central focus on mobile devices to carry the brunt of players. With smartphones already showing more than capable results in producing AR content, the next logical step of advancement would be in VR, which could lower the barrier of entry to more immersive game experiences significantly. A more sophisticated concept is the idea of using AR and VR technology to enhance the experience, allowing players to move their devices in an ‘AR mode’, which would show the game environment surrounding the player and allow players to scan real-life environments into the game itself. With VR, this could be taken a step further with full game presence in these spaces. As this is, however, dependant on developments in mobile technology, this is something that would be beneficial, but not necessary to the platform itself.

Conclusion: Providing personal experiences

To conclude this, let’s recap the main takeaways from this intervention for a future social game platform:

  1. One of the largest problems in previous games of this sort were toxic behaviour from other players. Providing consent where possible, with little incentive for exploitative and toxic behaviour, is the main goal.
  2. Another benefactor in previous success was personalisation, with a focus on user-generated experiences that have high shareability amongst active and passive players and high levels of creative expression.
  3. Finally, the platform has to be accessible and integration of social features has to be seamless. This is what makes it feasible as a more mainstream platform for a wider audience than others before it, akin to gamified versions of social platforms like Tinder.

Of course, this is a conceptualisation rather than a concrete project. However, the main issues that need to be tackled to realise such a project are lined out here to really encapsulate the essence of the ideas supporting it. In a digital age, human connections have taken on different, evolving platforms. Many of these connections are superficial at best, with very few moving beyond that state. Moving onto the next logical step would then be what defines a platform like this; an interactive social experience in our new digital landscape.

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