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Virtual Worlds: Beyond the Game

New 3-D graphics engines and better multiplayer options have opened up video games to a plethora of innovations.
October 10, 2006

Four years ago, when my writing partner and I wrote our book about virtual worlds, we spent the majority of our time trying to explain to people the inherent power of the wide-open spaces outside of the basic game play.

Sure, the staples of the game industry primarily revolve around first-person shooters and sports game; however, the software and hardware that power these games can be used for so much more.

Wired magazine has an interesting story about a simulation exercise that examined how a city might react to a physical and cyber-terrorist attack. It’s not for the faint hearted, particularly when you consider that a coordinated attack on our real-world infrastructure can be compounded if our communication networks (and not just the phone lines) are spoofed to provide misleading information.

…The police chief and the mayor started bickering over whether to implement a curfew and travel restrictions, and the city’s Web site unaccountably declared a mass evacuation. Two nursing homes lost power, and patients at the hospital started dying mysteriously…

…At the hospital, an operative walked in with a thumb drive and compromised the drug dosage database, which led to the deaths. The city Web site was counterfeited using a simple DNS hack. In the course of routine cop car maintenance, a contractor sabotaged a dashboard terminal; other terrorists aimed jammers at a city communications tower, a tactic more often associated with the US military.

These types of exercises are best done in virtual worlds, where the cost for such exercises (and the data that can be collected) is much more conducive to multiple events.

But it’s not all cyber-war games in virtual worlds. Linden Lab’s Second Life has attracted 800,000 users to its 3-D free-for-all, where the players have quite literally built the game.

One of the game’s creators, Philip Rosedale, spoke about the explosion of activity within the game–and protocols that were put in place to ensure that players could experience their “second life” in whatever way they chose.

From the Associated Press article:

Users download free software that opens a portal to Second Life, and Linden’s servers draft models of the ever-changing world and send it back to them as a real-time video. The difference is, Rosedale’s creation “is not a game,” he said. It doesn’t have a goal, and most resources aren’t restricted. Characters can fly or breathe water, and they never age or die.

Like in real life, it’s up to you what you do in “Second Life,” and many are flocking to it with dreams of getting rich quick.

This isn’t to say, of course, that the old standard bearers–the search-and-destroy shooters–don’t still have a place in this world. Clearly they do, according to this MSNBC article about the Grand Theft Auto rip-offs that have hit the shelves recently.

Heck, even the old, old standard bearers–Pac-Man and Space Invaders–have found new audiences. New 3D-graphics have enabled designers to retrofit the original games, giving them a shiny, up-to-date feel, according to this Reuters story.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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