The Challenge at the Interface

XV.3 May + June 2008
Page: 38
Digital Citation

Ps AND QsKeep your hair on

Elizabeth Churchill

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Chatting with virtual world researchers Jeff and Shaowen Bardzell, I found out that a seriously desired artifact in Second Life, not unlike in First Life, is hair. Swishy, shiny, thick, luscious hair.

But there is one problem with this fabulous hair: It is computationally costly to render in comparison with the average avatar body. And so, sadly, your avatar body arrives before your hair. For a matter of moments, no matter how fashionable your garb, you're as bald as a coot.

And it's worse than that. Often from other players' perspectives, your hair has failed to "rez,"—that is, appear—but not from your perspective. So you think you look hot—really hot—until, that is, some newbie says, "Why are you bald?"

Things have come a long way since I did my first studies on interaction in text-based and graphical virtual worlds in 1996. The technologies have improved considerably, and the worlds are well populated with folks from all over the planet and from all walks of life. Actual numbers of regularly active participants are hazy, but MMO Crunch reported 36 million regularly active MMORPG (Massively multiplayer online role-playing game) players in August 2007.

What is certain is that there is so much more to experience and do in-world these days. A recent talk at O'Reilly's ETech 2008 conference[1] in San Diego by W. James Au, the author of The Making of Second Life, enumerated a number of different kinds of interactive experience, all within Second Life. The list included a fantasy role-playing game called Midian City, which is like a mini-MMO where people collaborate to write a story on the fly; a 3-D architectural design and prototyping or "wikitecture" where 3-D objects are "wikified"; a visually stunning in-world videogame called Kowloon; and Steampunks, an active community building fantastic steam technologies as (possibly) imagined by authors like Jules Verne or H.G. Wells and those of their ilk. Au calls Second Life a "bebop reality...the virtual world as a kind of 3-D jazz combo."

All this is fascinating. Personally, I am really curious about what challenges are confronting the designers and developers who create the worlds and the in-world games and experiences. So, I spent an afternoon chatting with Bob Moore, an expert on the social dynamics of 3-D virtual worlds. As a game designer at Multiverse, a startup that provides a free platform to third-party developers for building virtual worlds and massively multiplayer online games, he has been thinking long and hard about key issues in virtual world interaction design.

First and foremost, Bob's perspective is that interaction in virtual worlds is not so different from interaction in the physical world. "Virtual worlds are fundamentally a medium for social interaction. One that takes face-to-face conversation as its metaphor. As such it leverages users' common-sense knowledge," he says. "I see a humanoid avatar and I know that if I want to talk to that player, I should approach his or her avatar with my own."

However, I had to point out (of course) that, as with all metaphors, there are fractures in people's feelings of immersion—their "being there" experience—when the metaphor simply doesn't hold up. I asked Bob what some of the fractures that really break the experience are. And what approach does a designer like him take to address the issues that arise? Here are some thoughts:

For virtual worlds, user interface design is also always social interaction design. When users are interacting with the system, they are often at the same time interacting with other users. Bob reckons that UI designers for virtual worlds do not seem to have fully grasped the social implications of this fact. He says, "For example, when standing avatar to avatar, if you ask me, 'Did you get the sword?' and I promptly open my inventory[2], that command and UI action are relevant parts of the social interactional context. Or if I say, 'Let's go,' and you promptly open your map, that's a relevant next action I should know about. Perhaps you don't know the way. Perhaps you're about to propose a particular route. At the very least, I can see that you're not ready to start running toward the destination and I should wait."

In almost all current virtual worlds, taking actions like opening your inventory or your map triggers no publicly visible cues, only private cues for the individual user. Conclusion—we not only need to give the individual user feedback about what the system is doing, but we also need to give the other players feedback about what the individual user is doing. In other words, users' interactions with the system should be made public.

Sometimes it is necessary to compensate for differences between avatars and real human bodies. Unlike in real life, most people tend to play virtual worlds with their camera view zoomed back so they can see their avatars, rather than in true first-person view, where you can only occasionally see your hands or legs. There are a couple of good reasons for this. Computer screens don't allow for peripheral vision. But pulling back the camera can help mitigate this limitation by widening the field of view. Similarly, avatars don't allow for proprioception, or our awareness of the positions of our body. Zooming back the camera also helps players deal with this fact. The point is that I may think my avatar is waving like the Queen of England because I typed /wave/, but it's hard to be sure if I can't see my avatar. Maybe I mistyped the command, or maybe the animation associated with the command actually looks more like a New Yorker hailing a taxi cab than Her Royal Highness acknowledging her subjects.

Quasi-synchronous chat lags behind synchronous avatar motion. Most virtual world conversations take place through chat. The avatars may be wandering about, flicking their fabulous hair like Valley Girls, sashaying confidently and gesturing theatrically, but chat does not come out as audio from the mouth of the avatar. One problem this causes is discontinuity, a lack of congruence, between action and uttered words.

Bob points out that typing a chat message is another kind of action that other players should know about. He recounts a case in which a team of players are about to attack a group of "mobs," or computer-controlled opponents. While one player is composing a question about how the team might change its tactics, a fellow player initiates combat. The tactical question then publicly appears too late. The quasi-synchronous chat lags behind the synchronous avatars.

Things have come a long way since I did my first studies on interaction in text-based and graphical virtual worlds in 1996. The technologies have improved considerably, and the worlds are well populated with folks from all over the planet and from all walks of life, with an estimated 36 million regularly active players.

Drawing on conversation analysis, Bob explains that a key feature of real-life conversation is that you can hear a turn unfolding in real time. This enables you to do things like determine who should speak next, anticipate precisely when the turn will end so you can start your next turn with minimal gap and overlap, and even preempt the completion of the current speaker's turn if you don't like the direction in which it's going. In other words, the ability to monitor other people's turns-in-progress is a requirement for tight coordination in conversation. Most virtual worlds (with the exception of use IRC- or IM-style chat systems and therefore do not allow players to achieve this tight coordination among their turns at chat and avatar actions. The result is an interactional experience that feels very unnatural (at first) and that motivates players to invent workarounds to the system.

A vibrant sociable atmosphere requires adequate social density. One of the amazing things about virtual worlds is how quickly you get a sense of being copresent in a place with other people, even though it may be an image on a screen, a world into which you are kind of peering.

And more amazing to me is that, just like in the real world, ambience is created by building and room size and scale in relation to crowd size. In ethnographic studies of bars and dance clubs in virtual worlds, Bob identified room size to be a key feature of the success of a virtual place. While construction in these worlds is cheap compared with real life, it is more difficult to fill these spaces with people than it is to fill the real-life urban centers that researchers like William H. Whyte have examined. As a result, the dance club in City of Heroes and the majority of player-built clubs in Second Life are simply too large. They feel like an airport terminal or concert hall rather than a cozy corner pub. "In order to achieve the kind of social density necessary for a vibrant social space, or 'third place,' as academic Ray Oldenburg would call it, designers should make virtual bars and clubs much smaller than they currently do, or rather, they should maintain an adequate social density," says Bob. The most successful virtual third place that Bob discovered was a Second Life bar that was intentionally tiny. In order to get into the place, you had to "rub elbows" with other patrons. The place felt "busy" with only five players and "hoppin'" with 20. And everyone was within everyone else's chat radius, which facilitated public conversation.

In other words, lessons from real-life urban design appear to apply in several ways to the design of virtual public places.

Users learn what to do, how to behave, and game mechanics through social interaction and active exploration. There are challenges in designing a world in which newbies can learn the ropes. If you want to learn about interacting in one, you simply have to get off (or on) the sofa and get in there. It is much easier to learn in-game than to learn out of game. But for many of us this is daunting.

Bob recommends getting into a pick-up group and simply trying things out. There are usually plenty of folks in-world who are willing to help; helping newbies enables them to show off their knowledge and make new friends. Of course, not everybody likes to help, and your chances of getting help are influenced by other factors. You guessed it—attractive female avatars get more than their fair share of attention (just like in real life). Fortunately, anyone can have an attractive female avatar.

There are other things to learn aside from activities and how to interact effectively. As noted above, many virtual worlds allow people to buy, build, and exchange things. Second Life is perhaps the primo example: It is a sandbox with a unique constructive geometry system, which enables the site to stream your data and create your objects on the fly. From IBM engineers to Steampunks, people are building amazing physical-world analogues and/or imaginary places and artifacts.

There are also people who visit, cobble together something outlandish, and then leave it behind. Their endeavors have an "I just learned to build today (and then I gave up)" look to them. This digital debris is, for some, an unsightly scar on the landscape. This is not so unusual of course. As is oft lamented about content and personal sites in social networking spaces like MySpace, there is a tension between giving people freedom to be creative on their own terms and making sure your world doesn't end up looking like the aftermath of an afternoon in a Montessori School for gremlins. Of course, I would argue if we want Gaudi, not virtual brutalism, we need to provide better tools to scaffold the building endeavors of the folks in-world.

At a more general level, to get an understanding of issues and do good design/redesign, Bob advocates a close and detailed analysis of what is actually going on as it unfolds in real time, looking at patterns of action and interaction, how those patterns develop and are understood, learned, and evolved, and identifying patterns that are persistent and prevalent. Too many developers and designers have theories about what is going on based on hunches and ideas that are completely external to the actual interaction situation. "You need to get close to the phenomenon, the players' experience," Bob says. "We should be concerned both with the in-world simulation of face-to-face interaction and the usability of the interface for puppeteering the avatars and interacting with the system. By looking at the challenges in interaction that people routinely encounter and work around, it is possible to ask how important—or disruptive to interaction in-world—those challenges are, and propose ways to address them through interaction, interface, and system (re)design."

Sounds like sound advice to me. And on that note, it's time for me to get my hair on, build a shack, and get me some bebop.

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2. Your inventory is basically your treasure chest. It holds everything that you build, own, and need.

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Elizabeth F. Churchill
Yahoo! Research
[email protected]

About the Authors

Dr. Elizabeth Churchill is a principal research scientist at Yahoo! Research leading research in social media. Originally a psychologist by training, for the past 15 years she has studied and designed technologies for effective social connection. At Yahoo, her work focuses on how Internet applications and services are woven into everyday lives. Obsessed with memory and sentiment, in her spare time Elizabeth researches how people manage their digital and physical archives. Elizabeth rates herself a packrat, her greatest joy is an attic stuffed with memorabilia.

Bob is an expert on the social dynamics of 3-D virtual worlds and a game designer at Multiverse, a startup in Mountain View, Calif., that provides a free platform to third-party developers for building virtual worlds and massively multiplayer online games. Prior to Multiverse, Bob was a sociologist at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), where he founded the PlayOn project, which examined social life in multiple virtual worlds using micro-interaction analysis, virtual ethnography, and social-network analysis. Bob has published in academic journals and has spoken at numerous conferences on virtual worlds. For more on Bob visit him online at, or email him at [email protected].

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UF1Figure. Socializing in Second Life: An empty megaclub and...

UF2Figure. intimate, popular bar.

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©2008 ACM  1072-5220/08/0500  $5.00

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