Blog Post

Public Diplomacy and the Emergent Future of Massively Multiplayer Online Games

Last week, I attended an extraordinary one-day conference entitled Face-off to Facebook that took place at George Washington University. Along with Duke professors Tim Lenoir and Casey Alt, and brilliant Duke undergraduate Harrison Lee, I presented a concept for a new massively multiplayer online game designed for public diplomacy. I'd like to share a few thoughts about this singular conference as well as an outline of our vision for the future of online gaming.

The Face-off to Facebook conference served as a 50th-anniversary celebration of the U.S. diplomatic National Exhibition at Sokolniki Park in 1959. The first half offered a historical look back at this Cold War landmark by panelists that included New York Times columnist William Safire, Brown University Professor Sergei Khrushchev (son of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev), former USIA Director of Design Jack Masey, and current Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (and the highest ranked U.S. Foreign Service Officer) William Burns. In other words, it was a high-powered lineup. The analytic insights about the Cold War and the history of U.S. diplomacy were equally powerful.

The second half of the conference explored the ways that new media and emerging technologies might give rise to alternative models of public diplomacy in the 21st century. This part of the program, moderated by Emmy-award winning journalist and former CNN correspondent Frank Sesno, brought together an even more impressive range of government experts and public intellectuals. Contributors included media analyst Clay Shirky, State Department director of the Office of Publications George Clack, film producer Linda Gottlieb, Facebook Associate Adam Conner, and Duke's own new media historian and innovator Tim Lenoir.

While there are countless moments from this amazing day that I could share here, I want to focus on the game design that our Duke team presented. During our session, we showed some original concept art (produced for us by talented graphics designer Takayoshi Sato and the game company Virtual Heroes), narrated the game's dystopian sci-fi storyline, and introduced a number of innovative game features. The game, entitled Emergence, will be the first massively multiplayer online game to encourage cooperation and diplomacy over violence. We believe this title can tap into the burgeoning (though still fledgling) popularity of online games and radically expand the potential of the medium.

As many of you know, traditional massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) involve thousands or millions of players simultaneously interacting with one another and engaging in adventures in a shared three-dimensional game world. At the moment, the world's most popular MMOG is World of Warcraft (WoW), a fantasy-based title in which players explore the game world and battle creatures and one another via customized Tolkienesque characters. As of December 2008, WoW had more than 11.5 million monthly subscribers (a player community larger than the current populations of New York City and Chicago combined). With huge investments and years of expertise in the MMOG market, WoW has amassed enough capital, audience, and market share to become a juggernaut within its specific gaming niche. The unprecedented success of WoW as an MMOG has created a fluent user base of millions who are ready to enjoy new and more complex MMOG experiences ones that are not focused exclusively on combat but offer more socially constructive interactions and more engaging narratives.

This precise moment in the MMOG industry offers a place for Emergence as the model for the next generation of massively multiplayer online games. Though drawing on many of the proven strengths of existing MMOGs, Emergence marks a distinct break with the past. It is a game in which the social, intellectual, and narrative complexity of gameplay rivals the appeal of combat. It is a game in which the mastery of diplomatic, economic, and social dynamics pays greater dividends than the exercise of brute force. It is a game in which the strategies required to succeed are equally effective outside the game. In sum, Emergence offers a new breed of game for a more socially aware generation of gamers.

Let me clarify a crucial point: Emergence is by no means an educational game. It is not didactic. It is not intended as a unidirectional information vehicle. Unlike many games that are dubbed "educational," we intend to make our title fun. In fact, we're not categorically eliminating the combat that many players enjoy. We're simply introducing new game features that allow for more complex modes of large-scale strategy and inter-player cooperation. The game narrative and structure, which in some respects recall traditional violent games, hook players while simultaneously teaching them, implicitly, about alternative modes of social and political interaction. Since an overtly educational game would not necessarily interest a wide base of players, the sci-fi characters, futuristic setting, and twist-filled storyline of Emergence aim to reach youth accustomed to exciting, tech-savvy environments. In other words, we're interested in making a fun and exciting commercial game that also happens to be culturally nuanced and politically involved.

Gaming is a powerful medium. Much as cinema was the dominant art form of the 20th century, we believe computer games, which have only been around for four decades, will be the most engaging form of the 21st century. For all of the amazing technical achievements in recent years, the game medium has a great deal of untapped potential. Games can and should be fun. But synthetic worlds, in particular, can also serve as experimental laboratories of new educational, cultural, and political imaginaries. These virtual worlds can bring together people from around the globe and enable a more powerful collective imagination. Such spaces can allow us to tell better stories about the worlds we live in and envision what those worlds (real and virtual) might someday become. So far, game companies have not ventured far beyond a handful of proven categories. But there are so many more genres and game types that will revolutionize this medium in the future. We believe Emergence can contribute to precisely this type of revolution.

To demonstrate what I mean, I want to offer a brief glimpse of two of the innovative gaming features we've designed for Emergence. First, we've conceived a unique "Accord" system, which allows players to negotiate and enter into contractually binding agreements, alliances, and associations. The "Accord" system will enrich gameplay by providing nonviolent means for creatively defusing game conflicts and resolving power struggles between in-game factions. When combined with combat, this mode will produce a deeper, more enjoyable, and more satisfying gameplay experience. Second, we plan to introduce a mode of player-driven narrative. Unlike other MMOGs which often ignore the appeal of a compelling overarching story, Emergence offers an ambitiously conceived, richly detailed, and emotionally poignant narrative that will be developed by the players collective actions within the game. Rather than relying on new level expansion packs to extend future gameplay possibilities, as other MMOGs often do, Emergence operates similarly to comic books or television series. In other words, the gameplay advances the stages of the story as soon as players collectively complete certain objectives. The only way to assemble a full history will be for competing factions to share recovered information with one another, thereby providing further incentive for cooperation and collective problem-solving. This process of cultural sharing will prove essential to long-term game success, effectively forcing players to navigate the most important challenges faced by civil society.

While there is much more to say about these and other game innovations, I hope I've offered a sufficient outline of our greater vision. Basically, we believe games can be more and accomplish more than they have in the past. We're currently in the process of pursuing different sources of funding for this ambitious project. Since games already touch so many corners of the contemporary world, we hope we can form a development partnership that stretches across governmental, academic, and commercial boundaries. Given the scope of this game, it will require many different types of knowledge and expertise to build.

In conclusion, a game can only be truly visionary and meaningful if it has broad cultural appeal. In the 1970s and 1980s, games were built primarily for children and adolescent boys. This is no longer the case. In recent years, the trend has shifted, especially in the realm of MMOGs such as The Sims Online and Second Life. Numerous successful games have been aimed primarily at women and toward mixed age demographics. By subverting and complicating the usual warfare mode with actions such as crafting, building, exploration, and cooperation, Emergence plans to extend the appeal of MMOGs to an even wider demographic base. The intended game audience will be players of both sexes from 12 years of age up. In other words, Emergence will be a game for everyone. We believe that changing games can change the way we play, think, and work together. To put it simply, changing popular games can change the world. Given the countless social, political, and environmental problems that plague our shared world today, we should strive for nothing less.

Patrick Jagoda, Duke University (ppj2@duke.edu)

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4 comments

I can't wait to hear more about this. I suppose it's no good speculating at the moment but I'm curious to see where the narrative elements derive from the core game vs player interaction. I've been reading some papers on computational narrative generation, which leave something to be desired, and I can't help feeling like there is something narrativistically awry about  generating a story indepedent of its actors.

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This is great, Patrick.  Any chance we can see some visuals? 

 

I'm totally intrigued by the fact that we now know, from everything from Wikipedia to the Netflix competition, that collaborative competition works, is a new model of how people will come together online and anonymously to improve something (i.e. compete), and Emergence works on using and honing those skills. It's a learning game that isn't didactic but that builds on the new participatory ways we learn today.  Fantastic. 

 

I bet I'm not the only reader dying to see what it looks like.  Can you send us a link or post some images?   And let me know if you tried but couldn't (yet another problem we're working out with our beta website).  Thanks and congratulations!

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Sure thing, Cathy. Instead of straight images, we posted our initial Emergence trailer, which offers Takayoshi Sato's images, Casey's animated game logo, and a piece of my sci-fi narrative. Harrison Lee provides the voice-over. We hope to develop better representations of the games over time, but I think this short video will give you a better idea of the concept.

Patrick

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Finally I can live in that post apocalypstic cyberpunk future I've always dreamed of.

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