The Future of Virtual Worlds, Part I:
Players as Citizens
John Krajewski, CEO Strange Loop Games
Charting the trajectory of videogames along their relatively short history, we can see a clear trend of them becoming more and more culturally prominent. No longer the domain of an escape, games are creating new spaces to live and interact out of thin air, providing meaning to millions in the form of long-lasting worlds where great relationships are formed. The idea of a ‘virtual world’, a place conjured into existence and occupied by thousands all over the world, is a well-understood thing for a new generation of gameplayers. Today’s kids are growing up with virtual worlds, and it is their ‘Third Place’ (and eventually their ‘Second Place’, considering the commonality of remote work), where they interact with existing and new friends, take on challenges, and express themselves.
And as the arrow of history suggests, I believe the prominence of virtual worlds will only grow, eventually becoming the centerpiece of culture and the connecting tissue that envelops and defines a ‘place’ for every cultural touchstone. They will become more and more connected to each other, forming networks of IPs that players travel freely between. And it will happen in an organic way, growing from a thousand different points as players themselves create and build it. The future of virtual worlds looks bright; far from an escape from reality, they will be hyped connected to it and all of culture. The opposite of an escape.
A virtual society inside an Eco world.
The opposite of an escape
While an activity that functions as an escape obscures connections to the rest of one’s life, the opposite enhances those connections. While an escape disconnects you from others, the opposite will foster deep relationships with people. While an escape puts you into a world that asks little of you, the opposite will require you to gain valuable skills to succeed. And while an escape needn't aim to add value outside of its own entertainment, the opposite is valuable socially, emotionally, financially and otherwise. As these worlds become the fulcrum of culture, we will see more games that are all of that: a meaningful engagement with yourself, the world, and others. What does this look like?
Upgrading to Citizens
A game that aims to host a meaningful, long-term engaged community that serves as the opposite of an escape needs a number of traits. It would greatly benefit from being a virtual world, a persistent online world connecting many people together, with a life of its own. It would need to assign the players meaningful goals, which can be achieved only with meaningful skills relevant to the real world. It will require them to cultivate meaningful relationships with other occupants of the world, forming meaningful communities. And it would need to provide meaningful ownership to those communities of the value they create.
Distilling all this down into a single all-encompassing idea, we can frame it as follows.
The occupants of virtual worlds need to be more than just players, they need to be Citizens.
A Citizen is not a customer.
The relationship of a Citizen to their society is not one of consumption. They are not there simply to pay a fee and absorb an experience. They are there to contribute, to connect, to engage, to create. They aren’t just receiving value; they are the value; they themselves create it and extend it through the relationships with and within the world. It might take the form of a building they construct, or a mod they produce which others can use, or a delivery service they run, or a conference they organize in-game, or a township they found that offers value to others, or a campaign they run for election of an amendment, or any other form they invent. As creators of this value in its myriad forms, they have both ownership and responsibility for it; it is theirs to maintain, share, extend, protect, monetize, and critically, should they be derelict in their responsibilities, to lose.
A Citizen is both the occupant and architect of the civic system in which they exist. For a virtual world to be run by its Citizens, this is a required case: the rules of the system must be defined and maintained by its adherents. That recursive relationship, where you function both as an individual and as a part of the collective of individuals, each working to manage and guide the other, presents a ‘strange loop’ of infinite complexity and emergent value. A system that eats its own tail in that way has a certain self-directed consciousness, and forms an engine of value out of nothing.A Citizen has both rights and responsibilities.
Responsibilities, in a game? The idea seems almost antithetical, but I see within it the key to unlocking huge depths of meaning and value from games. When a virtual world is focused on grand societal goals and the relationships among thousands of real people, there is a real responsibility there, and fulfilling responsibilities is one of the most meaningful parts of life.
A Citizen is not a lone wolf.
They are a member of the collective, crafting the direction of their virtual history through relationships. Those are relationships between real people, of richly defined virtual identities, with different goals, values, and skills; who despite this fact can join together in common endeavors. When the world is based on a deep simulation and the goals are grand society-impacting projects, those relationships become incredibly meaningful, as real as any in life.
That is to say, a Citizen is far more than a player, and it is the ideal model for occupants of virtual worlds that provide experiences beyond that of an escape.
A virtual society gathers in our game Eco.
The Future of Virtual Worlds
The virtual worlds of gaming’s future will be occupied by such Citizens. The player-base will be people who have made it their home, who have contributed to its creation and maintenance, who have formed and grown deep relationships with others through it, and who have overcome huge challenges and achieved goals together. A world such as this is extremely valuable and meaningful for the people who occupy it, and there’s a responsibility on the creators to make it an experience worth enveloping oneself in, such that it adds to their life, doesn’t waste their time, and shares the value that they bring to the experience with them.
We can define a beacon for games to aspire to. The idea of a theme park, a hang-out, a shooting gallery: these are gaming's past. In the virtual worlds of the future we'll see more from games, much more. We will see games that give the kind of value you rank in your top-ten life experiences. Those slots are reserved for much more meaningful things. Things like: deep relationships with people, facing hardships and overcoming them, growing as a person in character, knowledge, and emotion, helping others grow and become more themselves, self-expression in the act of doing all these things, understanding the world, bearing witness in awe of its beauty, being inspired, and creating further beauty, inspiration, and understanding from it.
Eco Citizens gather in their tavern to listen to a performance, while a twitch audience watches on.
Building Meaningful Virtual Worlds
This series of articles defines the core model and vision behind of the future of virtual worlds. In Part II, I explore the specific details of how such a virtual world could be designed to achieve that goal, and our progress doing so with Eco. In Part III, I describe how great numbers of worlds like these can be connected together over time, creating a bottom-up 'metaverse' that offers a distinct alternative to the walled-gardens many companies aim to create, and which would provide great value to its Citizens. All together they outline our current mission at Strange Loop Games: building the future of virtual worlds.
This is the first article in a three-part series describing the vision of what we're building at Strange Loop Games.
Click here for Part II: Worlds of Consequence.
Click here for Part III: User Generated Societies.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter @jkrajewski