design, cities, physical & social interaction, play

Leapfroglog design, cities, physical & social interaction, play

Where Social Software Should Go Next — Habitat’s Lessons

MMOGs have not progressed since 1990. Neither has social software.

Well maybe a little, but not much. At least that’s what I’m lead to believe after reading another wonderful essay in The Game Design Reader—a book I like to dip into once in a while to read whatever catches my fancy.

In The Lessons of Lucasfilm’s Habitat1 Messrs Farmer and Morningstar share their experiences building possibly one of the first graphical MMOGs ever. The game’s front-end ran on a Commodore 64 and looked something like this:

Screenshot of Lucasfilm's Habitat

It’s striking how many of the lessons summed up by the authors have not been (fully) taken to heart by MMOG designers. Bitching aside, their article offers as much useful advice to game designers as to designers of any piece of social software. Since this post has grown unexpectedly long (again). I’ll sum them up here:

Let’s look at each in more detail:

Loosely coupled

“The implementation platform is relatively unimportant.”

Meaning that how you describe the world and how you present it can or should be loosely coupled. The advantage of this is that with one world model you can serve clients with a wide range of (graphical) capabilities and scale into the future without having to change model. Their example is of a tree, which can be rendered to one user as a string of text: “There is a tree here.” And to another user as a rich high resolution 3D animated image accompanied by sound.

“And these two users might be looking at the same tree in the same place in the same world and talking to each other as they do so.”

When I read this I instantly thought of Raph Koster‘s Metaplace and wondered if the essay I was reading served as some sort of design guideline for it. What I understood from Raph’s GDC 2008 presentation2 was that they are trying to achieve exactly this, by applying the architectural model of the internet to the design of MMOGs.

Looking at social software in general, how many examples can you give of the current wave of social web apps that apply this principle? I’m reminded of Tom Coates’s Native to a Web of Data presentation—in which he argues that a service’s data should ideally be accessible through any number of channels.3

Similarly, web 2.0 poster child Dopplr is designed to be “a beautiful part of the web”, “a feature of a larger service, called the internet”.4 And they want to be everywhere, adding a little bit of value where it is most needed. Perhaps not exactly the same thing as what Farmer and Morningstar are alluding to, but based on similar principles.

As an aside, in MMOG land, there is one other major concern with this:

“Making the system fully distributed […] requires solving a number of difficult problems. The most significant of these is the prevention of cheating.”

Cheating might be of less concern to social software than to games (although there are exceptions, take Digg for example). For those interested in more about this, Raph Koster recently posted an elaborate examination of hacking and cheating in MMOGs.

Control, co-design, evolution

Cheating aside, there is more useful (albeit familiar) advice for social software designers in the piece. For instance on the need to hand over (part of) the control over the system’s design to its users:

“Again and again we found that activities based on often unconscious assumptions about player behaviour had completely unexpected outcomes (when they were not simply outright failures). “

They go on to say that they found it was more productive to work with the community:

“We could influence things, we could set up interesting situations, we could provide opportunities for things to happen, but we could not dictate the outcome. Social engineering is, at best, an inexact science […] we shifted into a style of operations in which we let the players themselves drive the direction of the design.”

Again, familiar advice perhaps, but they describe in some detail how they actually went about this, which makes for enlightening reading. That this practice of co-design goes against ‘common’ software development practices is not left unaddressed either:

“[…] the challenge posed by large systems are prompting some researchers to question the centralized, planning dominated attitude that we have criticized here, and to propose alternative approaches based on evolutionary and market principles. These principles appear applicable to complex systems of all types […]“

(Emphasis mine.) I am intrigued by this evolutionary model of web development. In the abstract for Movement, Matt Webb writes:

“the Web in 2008 has some entirely new qualities: more than ever it’s an ecology of separate but highly interconnected services. Its fiercely competitive, rapid development means differentiating innovations are quickly copied and spread. Attention from users is scarce. The fittest websites survive.

(Again, emphasis mine.) I think the challenge that now lies before us is to not only as designers practice co-design with our users, but to go one step further, and encode rules for autonomous evolution into our systems. These are the adaptive systems I’ve been blogging about recently. An important note is that systems can adapt to individual users, but also—in the case of social software—to aggregate behaviour of user groups.5

This can be extended to a world’s governance. Here is one of the ideas I find most exciting in the context of social software, one I have seen very few examples of so far.

“[…] our view is that a virtual world need not be set up with a “default” government, but can instead evolve as needed.”

I cannot think of one MMOG that is designed to allow for a model of governance to emerge from player interactions. The best example I can think of from the world of social software is this article by Tom Coates at the Barbelith wiki. Barbelith is a somewhat ‘old school’ online community comprised of message boards (remember those?). In the piece (titled TriPolitica) he writes:

“Imagine a message board with three clear identities, colour-schemes and names. Each has a generic set of basic initial forums on a clearly defined range of subjects (say – Politics / Science / Entertainment). Each forum starts with a certain structure – one Monarchic, one Parliamentary Democracy and one Distributed Anarchy. All the rules that it takes to run each community have been sufficiently abstracted so that they can be turned on or off at will BY the community concerned. Moreover, the rules are self-reflexive – ie. the community can also create structures to govern how those rules are changed. This would operate by a bill-like structure where an individual can propose a new rule or a change to an existing rule that then may or may not require one or more forms of ratification. There would be the ability to create a rule governing who could propose a new bill, how often and what areas it might be able to change or influence.”

He goes on to give examples of how this would work—what user types you’d need and what actions would need to be available to those users. I’m pretty sure this was never implemented at Barbelith (which, by the way, is a fun community to browse through if you’re into counter cultural geekery). Actually, I’m pretty sure I know of no online space that has a system like this in place. Any interaction designers out there who are willing to take up the gauntlet?

Creativity, moderation

“Work within the system.”

This is the final lesson offered in the essay I’d like to look at, one that is multifaceted. On the one hand, Messrs Farmer and Morningstar propose that world building should be part of the system itself (and therefore accessible to regular players):

“One of the goals of a next generation Habitat-like system ought to be to permit far greater creative involvement by the participants without requiring them to ascend to full-fledged guru-hood to do so.”

And, further on:

“This requires finding ways to represent design and creation of regions and objects as part of the underlying fantasy.”

I do not think a MMOG has achieved this in any meaningful sense so far. Second Life may offer world creation tools to users, but they are far from accessible, and certainly not part of the “underlying fantasy”. In web based social software, suspension of disbelief is of less concern. It can be argued that Flickr for instance successfully offers world creation at an accessible level. Each Flickr user contributes to the photographic tapestry that is the Flickr ‘photoverse’. Wikipedia, too offers relatively simple tools for contribution, albeit text based. In the gaming sphere, there are examples such as SFZero, a Collaborative Production Game, in which players add tasks for others to complete, essentially collaboratively creating the game with the designers.

Like I said, the lesson “work within the system” applies to more than one aspect. The other being moderation. The authors share an amusing anecdote about players exploiting a loop hole introduced by new characters and objects (the players gained access to an unusually powerful weapon). The anecdote shows that it is always better to moderate disputes within the shared fantasy of the world, in stead of making use of external measures that break the player’s suspension of disbelief. Players will consider the latter cheating on the part of administrators:

“Operating within the participants’ world model produced a very satisfactory result. On the other hand, what seemed like the expedient course, which involved violating this model, provoked upset and dismay.”

Designers should play with users, not against them. This applies to social software on the web equally. It is this attitude that sets Flickr apart from many other online communities. Flickr‘s designers understand the principle of “operating within the participants’ world model”. For example, look at how they handled confusion and irritation around the last Talk Like A Pirate Day gag.6

Summary

In summary, dear reader, if you got this far, I would love to see examples of social software that:

If you—like me—can’t think of any, perhaps it’s time to build some?

Image credits: © 1986 LucasArts Entertainment Company.

  1. The essay can be read online over here. []
  2. More about my GDC 2008 experiences. []
  3. This principle is now being applied to the extreme in Yahoo!’s Fire Eagle. []
  4. The former quote I first encountered in Matt Jones’s presentation RuleSpace, the latter is from this BBC article on Reboot 9.0. []
  5. For more on aggregating user behaviour in social software also see Greater than the sum of its parts by Tom Coates (yes him again). []
  6. Tom Armitage has some good thoughts on the Talk Like A Pirate Day debacle. []