How virtual worlds discovered dynamism


"I purposely avoid flying near Albuquerque because they’ve got some kids that don’t sound older than 10 years old doing the [air traffic] controlling."

This guy is talking about the perils of making a simulated flight into a simulated airport, guiding by simulated air traffic controllers.  It may be a virtual world, but it is a virtual world more lively and less predictable than before.  The machine world is coming of age, and it is now taking on structural properties once characteristic only of the "real" world. 

In the old days, a lot of virtual activity had a "wagon wheel" pattern to it.  Each player was a spoke, the machine was the center.  We might all be playing Flight Simulator, but we are speaking (spoking) to the machine and not to one another.  Any challenge (and all interaction) came from the machine.  There could millions of people playing Flight Simulator but each of them experienced the game as a discrete, solipsistic event.  We could pretend that the game was occupied with other creatures, but we knew perfectly well that it was just the machine vamping for our benefit. 

Then software, chips and the internet increased so much in speed and power that we can now play in a virtual world occupied by other players.  This means that a "flightsimmer" might "fly" from Seattle to Honolulu, and, as he approaches the airport there, he will see planes piloted by other players guided by controllers in a Virtual Air Traffic Simulation Network (VATSIM). Near misses are no longer part of the game because they are programmed into the software.  Now they exist in the game because they have been introduced by the happenchance of human effort and error. 

This is a big change for three reasons.

First, this is a big advance over some simulations in which interaction is premeditated and deliberate.  In the case of Second Life, most interactions take place between creatures who mean to interact with one another.  (This is the crisis of Second Life at the moment, finding the pretexts and conventions that will make game play engaging, and something truly like a second life).  But in the VATSIM case, interaction take place between perfect strangers.  My game can be changed by behaviors you "throw off" in your game without really thinking about what they might mean to me.  Flying into Albuquerque, I may "crash" because it just so happens that you, the controller, are inexperienced, tired, distracted, or wrestling with your sister for control of the family computer.  The controller is not (or need not be) concerned with what my flight simulation experience is going to be.  No, he is just doing what he does, and whatever this is will sometimes have important implications for my game play.

Second: Now to climb the hierarchy, this means we have a "Jonathan Miller" effect at work.  I have referenced this so often in this blog I am quite sure that frequent readers can supply the argument by heart.  Miller argued that the way to create a convincing performance on stage was to construct a character who defied expectation.  Any character who sprang only from genre, Miller argued, would fail to be convincing.  It is only when noise and contradiction are built into the character that the character comes to life.  This is, it seems to me, pretty close to what happens when by game play is constructed not out of the programmer’s anticipation of what I will find engaging, or someone’s deliberate efforts to engage me, but by the far more random effects of happenstance.  Other players, pursuing their own agenda, buffeted by their own peculiarities and accidents, are more likely to create the vitality of the real world than even the most inventive programmer.

Third: Up one more stage, and we are looking at a virtual world that resembles the most dynamic thing in our real world: the economy.  It is precisely when individuals engage in unmediated, undeliberated behaviors, that extraordinary social and cultural patterns begin to emerge.  To use the once fashionable language of French structuralism, the economy comes not from "structure" (the shared, preconceived, conventionalized ideas) but from "event" (in this case, behaviors, their aggregations and cocatenations). 

In effect, the virtual world has struck upon the thing that Western cultures and economies embraced in the 17th and 18th centuries.  For an astonishing number and variety of reasons, the West was suddenly prepared to give the economy pride of place and to live with the dynamism that came spinning out of it.  Unlike almost every other culture and society in the ethnographic record, the West said, "we will install this difference (the marketplace) in our midst and we will live with all the differences it creates for us."  Periodically, the West lost its nerve and repudiated this arrangement, but overall and in the aggregate, this bargain with reality was allowed to stand.  Allowed to stand even when it left almost nothing standing. 

So the virtual worlds now have access to the secret of dynamism, the one difference that will create many differences.  Anthropology still hasn’t done a very good job examining it own, real, contemporary culture.  Too bad, because flights to new worlds will now be leaving terminal 1 virtually every hour on the hour.   For this anthropologist, the arrival of real dynamism in virtual worlds means that there will be more and more realistic transformational vehicles for us  to try out, and that, as we try them out, still more worlds will be generated.  Holy cow. 


Sanders, Peter.  2006.  In Imaginary Skies, Would-be Controllers Guide Pretend Pilots.  Wall Street Journal.  May 18, 2006, p. A1. 

5 thoughts on “How virtual worlds discovered dynamism

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  2. art

    Great post – the Miller quote as well, deems repeating.

    There remains the sense that all these games stick to a goal-oriented logic – i.e., player wants to fly between a and b and safely land plane, or so on – and the new “noise” character is in whether or not your partners in the causal chain are able to be trusted, or refutable, or so on. I think there are many sociological models in game playing and so on that will support the notion that, eventually, more people will want to experience what they can not in the real world, and so it happens that more “worst case” scenarios develop. In the example – it isnt fighting with the sister for controller, but that they willfully crash the plane on purpose, screw up the chances for the flyer to land, and so on. So it would eventually follow that, if there isnt going to be pure anarchy to the point the “game” is no longer recognizable or able to be played, a “governer” is always required, even if hidden away, like government. So there would be regulatory policies, the “policing” will get stronger and so on. Just like in economy – sometimes you need “wild” growth… as long as you can get away with it and it suits the other players and overall game design. But too many incidents, crashes,and the like, and…regulatory policies spring up, or people leave for another game.

  3. Peter

    Very deep ideas, Grant. Thanks.

    We have a couple of hundred years experience of the impact of a powerful virtual world on the real world, namely the virtual world of the financial markets. People in finance even talk about the “real economy”, meaning the economy of goods and services which are not financial goods and services. Money, after all, is only a social fiction we all agree to accept as a token of something, and is not the something itself.

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  5. Peter

    Further to my comment, here is Daniel Gross in Slate today:

    “If you think it all sounds very postmodern, you’re right. Derivatives are referential securities, commentaries on underlying assets. They raise all sorts of questions as to what a symbol signifies and what values are embedded in the price of a security, which is, after all, a mere byte of digital information. It’s the sort of thing a French structuralist could noodle endlessly over a few demitasses at a cafe in St. Germain. And as he puffs on a cigarette and waves ironically through the clouds of curling smoke, he might also notice another irony. The NYSE—for two centuries at the vanguard of American capitalism—is now finding itself having to buy a European exchange in order to get into the hottest new business in the securities industry.”

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