Posted on October 8th, 2008 No comments
As Hiro approaches the street, he sees two couples probably using their parent’s computer for a double date in the Metaverse. He’s not seeing real people, of course. It’s all part of a moving illustration created by his computer from specifications coming down the fiber optic cable. These people are pieces of software called avatars. They are the audiovisual bodies that people use to communicate with each other in the Metaverse.
From Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson.
For those that don’t know. The Metaverse was the fictional social virtual-reality MMO experience that featured prominently in Snow Crash, a cyberpunk novel by Neal Stephenson. Back in ’92 (when Snow Crash was published) virtual reality and the possibilities it brought to gaming were still extremely interesting, especially for the media. Cyber-this and Cyber-that. I figured that a global virtual network like the Metaverse was just a year or two away from fruition. (In fact, Snow Crash helped popularize the Sanskrit term “avatar” to denote online identities.)
Forward 16 years to 2008 and we’re all a little wiser and a little more cynical, perhaps. The awe I had at “virtual reality” and “holodecks” has been replaced by a kind of “Where’s my flying car?” attitude.
Then, there’s Sony’s Playstation Home concept. Much maligned as it has hobbled along through Beta, it certainly isn’t the first free-form virtual reality experience. Second Life is probably the most widespread at this point, being so popular that it’s even been featured in an episode of CSI: New York. But reading an article by Stephen Totilo at MTV’s multiplayer blog has shed some much needed light of optimism on Home.
[Jack] Buser [director of Home] didn’t say the things you might think of when you see “Home.” He didn’t mention virtual world “Second Life” or the current most ambitious interface for a console community, Xbox Live, as he walked me through the version of “Home’ that is currently available to select PS3 owners as part of an “expanded beta.” He described this PS3 service, this 3D virtual world as “something that hasn’t been done before.”
I had expected to hear about features. I hadn’t, however, expected his pitch for the service to be so psychological. Buser seemed excited about what “Home” could do, but even more motivated to explain to me why gamers would want in. He talked to me about “the life of a gamer,” and how “Home” is designed to improve it.
How do gamers meet each other these days? Buser asked me this question a number of ways, arguing that there isn’t really a place where this is easily done. There hasn’t been a good place for gamers to meet since the arcades, he said. “Home” can fix that.
Interesting. I remember the arcades. I also remember the other places gamers would meet. The basement of the South Dakota State administration building, affectionately known as “The Dungeon”, where I could log onto the internet and download new “stuff” onto 3.5″ floppies. I got to know a couple of the regulars down there. Those were the days… but those days are gone. With ubiquitous internet and powerful gaming consoles available in every home, there’s no longer any need to travel someplace else to “get connected.” Thus, no need to meet anyone face to face, either.
In Snow Crash, the main character, Hiro Protaganist, goes online to head to virtual bars and clubs (built by him and his hacker buddies, of course) where they can meet up, socialize, sword fight, and naturally, something interesting happens and away we go. However, there is this idea that we don’t go to bars and arcades to socialize as gamers. We go online. We have a Gamerscore. We have a Friend Code. We build our own online identity.
My impression has been changed. What I hadn’t seen or had explained to me when I entered “Home” on my own those few months ago, was the function and helpfulness of the community. “Home” will be pointless if no one’s in it, if its central plazas are empty. Buser said they won’t even launch “Home” — an event scheduled for this fall — until they meet their goal to “have a kind of community to show people around.” The idea is it’s all social. You go to an area of “Uncharted” to find out what people there think of the game or to ask for a hint. Yes, some of us would go to NeoGAF or Metacritic or GameFAQs for that kind of stuff. But perhaps the average PS3 owner wouldn’t. For them, perhaps “Home” is the answer to questions they barely knew they had: Where do they go to meet people just like them?
This is truly fascinating if it can catch on. If not, it’ll probably be because it was too early. Just like the virtual reality goggles. A little too much, too soon, perhaps? We’ll see. It’s still not enough to get me to buy a PS3… but maybe… just maybe it can recapture the magic of those olden days. Maybe the days of “The Dungeon” are on their way back. Maybe we’ll have a true Metaverse.
That would be really cool.