The serious side of games

Conference will meld academic and creative minds to explore the intersection of real and online worlds.

Daniel Terdiman
Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
4 min read
If you find yourself looking for any of the leading thinkers on the social, intellectual, economic or legal aspects of online games this week, you probably won't find them unless you're in New York City.

That's because they'll all be in the Big Apple for the third annual State of Play conference, a gathering beginning Thursday of game players, game developers, law professors, journalists and others interested in what's happening on the digital frontier of virtual worlds such as "Second Life," "City of Heroes" and "EverQuest."

"I'm very appreciative of the way online connections can be valid social and personal experiences."
--Ron Meiners, community manager, "There"

During three days of panels, workshops, dinners and other events, the several hundred in attendance will discuss topics like financial speculation and experimentation in online games, the future of metaverses, law in virtual worlds and many other issues.

And while those unfamiliar with the complex issues surrounding massively multiplayer online, or MMO, games and virtual worlds might think that such a conference wouldn't attract the serious-minded, the roster of attendees from Harvard Law School, Yale Law School, Wired magazine, Sony Online Entertainment, the Kennedy School of Government and other institutions belies such thinking.

"It gives me a chance to interact with people from a wide variety of fields," said Beth Noveck, State of Play's organizer and an associate professor at New York Law School, where the event is being held. "We try to focus in on a set of profound questions and get new and exciting people talking together about the answers to those questions."

To attendees like Ron Meiners, the community manager for the virtual world "There," State of Play is a chance to examine where reality ends and virtual reality begins.

"For me, the most exciting thing is the extent to which the virtual world is more and more being seen as an extension of the 'real' world," Meiners said. It's "less and less a separate thing and more and more part of the rest of our experience."

Millions of people are taking part, at least in some small way, in that conversation. In less than a year, Blizzard Entertainment's "World of Warcraft" has become one of the most successful MMOs of all time, with more than 2 million subscribers in the United States alone. Another virtual world, Linden Lab's "Second Life," may not have a large numbers of subscribers, but it has developed a sophisticated economy in which millions of dollars a year worth of virtual goods like digital clothing for players' avatars, futuristic vehicles and fantastical houses are traded or sold.

Meanwhile, to some, State of Play provides an opportunity to mix people from different fields who they find to be rare at other conferences.

Designing vital digital spaces
"If you go to an intellectual-property law conference, or a conference on the business of the music business, you essentially have these two groups: people in academia and the people doing (the creative work) and they've never really met before," said Dan Hunter, an assistant professor of legal studies and business ethics at Wharton School of Business and a State of Play panelist. "At State of Play, my intuitive sense is that the two sides (the academics and the creative types) respect each other much more than other areas of research I've done and they're more engaged."

While the raison d'etre of many online games is play that happens to have social and economic elements, this year's State of Play is emphasizing the use of virtual-world design tools for the creation of vital digital spaces.

As such, Noveck has organized a competition in which more than two dozen people designed digital architectural compositions and virtual public spaces. Among the judges who will determine the most creative submissions is well-known Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer.

Ultimately, though, the point of State of Play this year, as it has been in its two previous incarnations, is to look in depth at how people's behavior in virtual worlds mirrors that of the real world, and as Meiners says, becomes an extension of it.

"I'm very appreciative of the way online connections can be valid social and personal experiences," Meiners said. "The number of marriages and other long-term bonds formed initially in virtual spaces attests to that. But the evolution of the general perception of these experiences is very exciting to me."

And to Noveck, it is the opportunity to create a State of Play community comprised of previous attendees and newcomers who will spend three days talking at length about issues like that raised by Meiners, that makes the work of putting on the conference worth it.

"There are few (technology conferences) that connect the state of the art in technology to fundamental questions about law and social science," Noveck said. "For people who are smart technologists as well as technology-aware lawyers (and others), this is an opportunity to do this exploration together and be thoughtful not only about what's happening, but also where we want to go."