Last month I reported live from the Synthetic Worlds Initiative‘s Ludium II conference at Indiana University in Bloomington. The Ludium was designed by one of Indiana’s finest ARG companies, Studio Cypher.
At this point you’re probably wondering what a Ludium is exactly. Thomas Malaby, the spokesperson elected at the conference, explains it best on the Terra Nova blog, “The Ludia are conferences structured as games, and this one was modeled on a political convention, the first Synthetic Worlds Congress.” The goal of this Synthetic Worlds Congress was to develop a set of guidelines pertaining to virtual words that would be sent to all of the major 2008 presidential candidates along with members of Congress.
In the beginning, I wasn’t sure if Alternate Reality Games were at all similar to virtual worlds like World of Warcraft or Second Life. I was reporting on the event purely because it was a Studio Cypher project and I was looking for ARGish elements in the Ludium’s game design. By the end of the conference, I had become a full and willing participant in the Ludium fighting for what I thought fair and just much like the other attendees. I realized that many of the issues facing virtual world designers are the same or at least quite similar to the issues facing alternate reality game designers–issues like developer liability and freedom of expression.
After two days and numerous debates, the conference attendees came up with a ten statement platform –
A DECLARATION OF VIRTUAL WORLD POLICY made by representatives of law, industry and academia, assembled in full and free convention as the first Synthetic Worlds Congress.
Whereas virtual worlds are places with untapped potential, providing new and positive experiences and effects, we resolve that:
1. A self-governance group of virtual world stakeholders should be formed.
2. A players’ bill of rights should be drafted and should include the right of free speech and the rights to assemble and organize.
3. A universal age verification system should be created to support the individual rights of all users.
4. Virtual world designers should have freedom of expression.
5. Virtual worlds should include plain-language End-User License Agreements (EULA) to enable all individuals to understand their rights.
6. There are different types of virtual worlds with different policy implications.
7. Access is critical to virtual worlds, so net neutrality must be maintained.
8. Game developers shall not be liable for the actions taken by players.
9. Fair use may apply in virtual worlds that enable amateur creation of original works.
10. The government should provide a comprehensive package of funding for educational games research, development, and literacy
I recently had the chance to ask Will Emigh and Nathan Mishler of Studio Cypher a few questions about the conference –
Do you think the game format of the Ludium conference worked?
Yes. Our main goal was to get people to discuss and create instead of simply watching other attendees present. Ludium 2 definitely got people talking. The game itself could use a few tweaks, but it got results and the results were quite good overall.
In hindsight, is there anything you would have changed?
We definitely needed a better way to count votes. That bogged us down towards the end, when everyone was merging like crazy. We would also have liked to get more public debates happening. There were a lot of small group discussions that didn’t always make it to the wider groups.
As with most conferences, we’d have liked more time. Things in conferences always take more time than you’d expect. A little bit of pre-game Thursday evening could have made Friday a little smoother.
Do you think the spies helped the process in the end?
Yes. The spies allowed us to make sure that all stakeholders were represented in the discussion. It turned out that representatives of all of the stakeholders were at the Ludium, but there was no way of knowing that ahead of time. If we did this again, we’d probably take prizes away from the spies and make them work more as confederate troublemakers to get people talking.
What did you think when some of the attendees tried to change the rules and merge two of the opposing groups?
That was least conference-like (and most ARG-like) aspect of the Ludium. It was that “The players are trying to do what?!” moment that comes out of nowhere and forces puppetmasters to scramble.
We thought it was pretty awesome emergent behavior, but there was a huge uproar. We were surprised at how controversial the concept was. From the larger perspective, it didn’t seem like a big deal. The goal of the whole game was to get the ten policy points, and that was going to happen regardless. Still, we could see the possibility of the super group powergaming those results, so we quickly grabbed a representative from the underrepresented group and asked her to step in as a third candidate to keep things more or less equal – or at least keep things moving.
It turns out that wasn’t needed, as the group as a whole rejected the idea by one or two votes. Some people felt that the entire discussion bogged the Ludium down, but it only took about an hour and it allowed people to talk a little about meta-game issues, like who should be targeted by the proposals.
If you were hosting another conference, would you use the Ludium format again?
Yes, as long as the conference is concerned with getting attendees to discuss directly with each other. It’s not really the best fit for traditional conferences geared towards individuals presenting papers to a group. However, a combination paper-presentation and Ludium-style game to get the presenters to interact with each other would be interesting as well.
The Ludium 2 ruleset is a great idea-generation device and could be useful in other situations that require discussion as well. For example, a company might use the ruleset to encourage employees to discuss how they might change direction. Having everyone involved like this really encourages people to buy into the results, even if they disagree with parts.
Does Studio Cypher have any new projects on the horizon?
Yes, thanks for asking. 🙂
Oh, you want details? Well, we plan to expand the world of the Cyphers later this year with a more accessible (and hopefully replayable) multi-player novel system. We’ve been promising a new site design for ages and it’s just about done. Once it is, we’ll start putting up some sneak peeks of the ideas and concepts that we’re playing with. We’re just about to the point where outside feedback can really help.