I’ve been asked to give a very short (5 minute) talk next Tuesday at the weekly Berkman luncheon forecasting the shape of the Internet in ten years and, in particular, the future of games/virtual worlds. At the risk of being held accountable to these predictions in 5 days, nevermind 10 years, here is a draft of what I plan to say. I welcome any and all feedback that would improve these thoughts or save me from humiliation!
The Internet will become increasingly important in supporting and sustaining our civic communities. 3D virtual worlds illustrate how advances in technology will make that happen, and online games within those worlds are a harbinger of our potential future civic life.
I came to the Internet later than many of you, during the heyday of web-based forums. There, I found deep and rich communities and made friendships that my non-virtual friends found puzzling. Today we see that same dichotomy of acceptance and rejection of 3D worlds as “real” or “unreal.” But the trend, I think, is towards assimilating a larger and larger percentage of the population with each technological breakthrough – whether 3D visualization (as in Second Life) or kinetic motion (as in the Nintendo Wii).
Traditionalists worry that this assimilation will destroy our civic life. Net utopians look forward to that destruction. But I think Yochai Benkler is right in finding the middle ground: virtual networks often extend rather than replace our physical ones. Eric Gordon calls this embrace “net-locality.” You do it every time you pick up your cell phone and ask “Where are you?”
I don’t think it’s coincidence that the computer game industry is pushing many of these advances. Games are about engagement, and it turns out that what engages human beings most is other people. Game developers are figuring out how to get people to form teams and achieve goals together. Corporate managers are taking notes.
And those of us who care about civic and political engagement better take notes, too. Robert Putnam worried about bowling alone. Anyone who’s seen World of Warcraft would stop worrying about whether the Internet can build social capital and instead wonder – how is it going to help us to spend it?
I see two future worlds. In one, we have the Matrix. Virtual worlds become the new opiate of the disempowered masses. We emigrate, as Ted Castronova puts it, and never look back. In the other, we have what Beth Noveck calls, “Democracy, the video game.” Our institutions of work and governance learn from the technology of play. In that vision of the future, virtual worlds allow us to enhance and make more meaningful our relationships to our employers, to our governments, and most of all, to each other.