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A View from Erica Naone

Virtual and Real Play Combined

A mixed-reality foosball game turns the tables on real-world players.

  • September 12, 2007

A mixed-reality foosball, or table soccer, game, which combines players from the virtual world Second Life with players from the real world, debuted last week at the Ars Electronica Festival 2007, in Austria. It was designed by the Sociable Media Group at the MIT Media Lab.

Named the Stiff People’s League because its original design called for virtual players’ avatars to attach themselves to the game pieces on the foosball rods, the game plays on the relationship between the real and virtual worlds. The game will feel quite different to a player, depending on which world she comes from: to virtual players, it’s a life-size soccer stadium where they run around kicking the ball. To real-world players, it’s a foosball table where the goal isn’t to hit the ball: it’s to create obstacles for the opposing team’s avatars, and to knock those avatars out of the way.

The life-size view: From within Second Life, the game takes place in a life-size stadium, shown here [SLurl]. Credit: Sociable Media Group

“This isn’t a game that the virtual players augment,” researcher Drew Harry says. “It’s a game that the physical players augment.”

Real-life players function as team captains, hiring dream teams of avatars and paying them in Second Life’s currency–Linden dollars–for their athletic expertise. Harry says that the plan is to develop a class of star athletes who can command high prices.

There’s something strange about the way that Second Life’s economy connects to that of the real world, Harry says. While U.S. dollars can be traded for Linden dollars at a rate of about US$1 to L$270, inside Second Life, people tend to think in terms of Lindens rather than dollars. (See “Making Money in Second Life.”) As a result, many people set avatars to unskilled tasks–such as staying in one location to attract traffic–inside Second Life, with little payoff in terms of real-life dollars. “There’s no reason for someone to spend an hour to earn 20 cents,” Harry says. While currently the best ways to make money in Second Life are to build objects or rent land, Harry says that his group is interested in exploring whether people can practice other forms of skilled labor within Second Life.

But getting too caught up in philosophical underpinnings would miss the point of playing a game. “It’s really fun to hit avatars,” Harry says. “It’s very much a hand-of-God experience.”

Mixed-reality design: To create the table, shown here, Harry took a regular foosball table, taped black stripes to each rod, and rigged a camera to look down and track the motion of each stripe. Data from that motion is sent to Second Life, with just a touch of delay. Note that you don’t rotate the rods: the camera only registers side-to-side motion. Information from Second Life is projected onto the table so that real-life players can see the motions of the avatars and go after them. Credit: Sociable Media Group

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