Games People Play – a future for online worlds? Part 1

The two biggest pieces of information that have emerged regarding Second Life over the last couple of weeks are the appointment of a new CEO – Rod Humble, who has an impressive track record in the world of gaming (see the official Linden post) – and secondly, in less happy terms, the spat between the producers of the Ozimal bunnies and the Amaretto horses, which is proceeding to the Californian Courts.  Kitty Otoole has an excellent post giving the background to this on her Kittywitchin blog and a follow up here).

As other writers have covered this in some depth, I’m not going to say anything here about the dispute.  What I will point out is that there is an awful lot of money to be made in the breedables market.  In the most recent issue of Prim Perfect, in our Charity News section, we looked at the work of Breast Cancer Awareness Center under the aegis of outhern Tier Health Link NY in the NY HealthScapes regions. As part of the opening event for that, there was a five day long auction of a special breed of Amaretto horse which raised in the vicinity of US$68,000 for breast cancer research in an auction of some of its special horses just recently (more info in Prim Perfect, page 18). The people behind Ozimals have also been generous in donations to charity too – I recall an auction in New Babbage where they personally bid over $1000 US dollars – part of their way, they explained, of giving back.

Let’s put this very simply: there is a lot of money to be made in the breedables game.

And breedables is just one of the many games that can be played in Second Life – although it may currently be the most profitable one.

Tiny Empires website
Tiny Empires website

What I’d like to do, in a series of posts over the next few days, is look at some of the different forms of gaming that take place in Second Life.  I’m not going to be focusing on the morality of these games – some people have very strong objections to some roleplay games, for example. That is not what I am interested in here.  I want to take about games that set out to either build or foster communities – and also ways in which these games can be regarded as commercially viable.

I’m going to look at roleplay games (yes, that’s a huge category, and I suspect I’ll be subdividing it – at the very least into real life-based roleplay and fantasy roleplay).  I’m also going to looks at the constructed games of Tiny Empires and Bloodlines – the games that are successful not by individual play, but by group building.  Then there are the breedables – and I want to look at their impact on social networks, as well as Second Life.  There’s also a very successful game that doesn’t quite fit into any of these categories – and that’s Seven Seas Fishing.

Steam Hunt in Second Life: Photo by Winona Wiefel
Steam Hunt in Second Life: Photo by Winona Wiefel

And I’d also like to look at something that has been growing in Second Life and yet is not always seen as a game – and that’s the question of Treasure Hunts.  I find it fascinating the way that stores have been working to use game techniques to overcome some of the very serious breakages in Second Life – such as the failures of search and the difficulties of publicising an individual store, particularly in the creation of hunts.  There’s a fine balance going on between the demands of the entitlement culture (which Prad Prithivi has analysed on Metaversally Speaking in the past) and the needs of the designers to attract punters.  Can this, has this developed into a viable culture?

Why should Second Life need games?
Several times, proposals have been made to integrate a system of points, or levels into Second Life to give some ‘meaning’ for newcomers.  It has, indeed, been tried before – when I first joined in early 2007, you could pay to award points in different categories to another avatar within the game.  I’m not sure how popular that was as a concept; it seemed rather localised.  The fact that Linden Lab were happy to drop it about halfway into 2007 suggests that it was neither working particularly well, nor raising very much money for the Lab.  But the concept has been raised again from time to time, usually by gamers who believe that it would allow people to get a handle on Second Life – and is usually resisted by those who feel that too strong a gaming element would actually alienate newcomers to Second Life.

Bloodlines website
Bloodlines website

As currently constituted, there ARE areas in Second Life where people can accumulate points and levels.  Something like this happens in internal games like Tiny Empires and Bloodlines where there are ways to level up.  Some combat systems used in internal roleplaying games also give the ability to level up – a reward for more committed players. These rewards could be defined as the pleasure of the text or, perhaps, we should see these games as writerly texts and what is offered by rewards as the jouissance or bliss.


I’m taking the concepts from Roland Barthes here: that texts can be seen as texte lisible and texte scriptible, translated respectively as “readerly” and “writerly” texts.  In readerly texts, the subject takes on a more passive role and derives the pleasure of the text from that role. Let’s take a TV soap opera as an example.  A character who has been absent for a long time returns – there is pleasure in the text for the long-term viewer who recognises that character, is aware of long-term relationships in which the returning character figures, and therefore the viewer/reader may speculate with pleasure on what disruptions or resolutions the returning character may bring.  But the viewer will generally play no role in shaping the text itself (unless through very rare collaborative events like focus groups or online petitions, the latter seldom being successful in this context anyway). It is clearly a readerly text.

Games may either be illusory writerly texts (faux texte scriptible) or genuine writerly texts (vrai texte scriptible … is my French up to this???)– and I would argue that Second Life, with its deliberate lack of restrictions, is probably the most writerly text of all.

Why would I call some games illusory writerly texts?  That’s because although the text depends on the reader/viewer/player/avatar for completion, that paths to completion are fairly tightly defined.  A car racing game, for example, may be scripted to allow a number of possible outcomes: the player might win the race, might lose to other peoples (either game-generated or other avatars), might crash is a number of spectacular ways and so lose.  But although these may allow the player to seemingly break out of the subject position where they are simply the passive observer (the soap opera paradigm), the patterns that they choose to follow are fairly tightly limited by the design of the game. Yet it could be claimed that the participation of the player in shaping the outcome of the game in itself is sufficent for us to believe that the game has moved beyond the pleasure of the text to the bliss, the jouissance.

So … where does this leave Second Life games – and other social network games?  Are we looking at an extension of these ideas as we move away from the solitary game and into social network or collaborative games, whether Farmville and other Facebook games, World of WarCraft, Second Life or the games within Second Life? Or are we looking at something completely new?

Over the next few days, I’m going to be looking at various Second Life games and reflecting on this.  And I’d welcome your thoughts and ideas too!

If you’d like a little background about Tiny Empires, Bloodlines or Ozimals, here’s a Designing Worlds show that we did on Games People Play some while ago (so some of the information may be outdated – although it will give you the overall idea):

Vodpod videos no longer available.

And this is a really early show – but should give you some idea about Seven Seas Fishing – an old game that preceded the current breedables set up, but which still offers a very popular game experience:
Vodpod videos no longer available.


  1. In 1996 I began roleplay in a community of over 100 writers and scholastics, building a textural world for set, setting and background to various short stories, novels and novellas as well as being the inspiration for several visual artists and medieval reconstructionists.

    Each person was required to research and back up their imagined histories, back stories and technologies to integrate both historically and in the common assumptions and threads of the “story.” This resulted in my 3-month research into the earliest-known non-Roman maps of England, my years-long study of Ogham and early Celtic life and customs and other pleasures of the mind.

    It also provided me with a cadre of established and capable writers who would critique my work and offer suggestions and techniques to improve my writing. I gained something else very precious: a character who I have written about and who lives in my mind.

    All this from a “game.”

  2. The fact that Second Life DOES NOT have points, rules, quests, high score leader boards, etc. is one of the BIG reasons why Second Life grabbed my attention and interest where other video games did not.

    For me, the fastest and surest way to make me lose interest in an activity is to turn it into a competition.

    People on my Plurk timeline are probably tired of hearing me preach about how they should ignore the karma score, and just enjoy chatting and sharing with their friends. In the immortal words of the host of the TV program “Whose Line Is It Anyway: “The points are made up and the score doesn’t matter”.

    If folks wish to incorporate competitive games into Second Life, do so and have fun, but don’t require participation; if competition becomes too pervasive and unavoidable there, that will be the time I will be planning my SL exit.

    1. @ Roberto
      But not all games need to have points, levels, scores. Role-playing games, for example, often draw their pleasures from the creation of characters and the collaborative possibilities (as Miso pointed out).

      I really don’t think competitive games will become that pervasive; what is fascinating about Second Life is the way that people have developed a plethora of dames to fill perceived gaps.

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