Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Futility of Censoring Online Chat

Online Virtual Worlds are semi-mainstream now, with World of Warcraft, Club Penguin, IMVU, Sony's Home, and Second Life all relatively well-known by a large chunk of the population.  But they all have their roots in MUDs (Multi-User Domain), MOOs (MUD, Object-Oriented) and BBS (Bulletin Board System) chat rooms that originated more than 20 years ago.  These text-based virtual worlds were run on university networks, accessible almost entirely by college students who happened to have computer access, a rarity at that time.  The basic features of today's Instant Message clients (ICQ, AIM, MSN, Jabber, and Yahoo!), and every chat feature inside online games and website assistant windows are descendants of these proto-Chat systems.

Somewhere back in the mid-1990s, Chat met the World-Wide Web.  Companies like iChat (not the Apple webcam software) were selling chatting plugins for the fledgling web site industry.   Yahoo's own chat system used iChat's plugin originally before it developed Yahoo! Instant Messenger.  I recall going to iChat's booth at a Linux Conference where a representative from some large corporate site was asking a product specialist a question along these lines:

Corporate Representative: "How do we make certain that users don't curse and only talk about our products?"
Product Specialist: "Ummm... You can't."

Non-technical people in boardrooms have always come up with the same seemingly obvious solution: "Can't we just make a big list of bad words and filter them out?" The answer, it turns out, and always will be NO*.

In the mid-1980's, a pair of programmers Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer developed a 2-D graphical virtual world called Habitat, that ran on the Commodore 64 home computer. Since then they've been behind many online worlds.   Whenever there's a corporate backer for one of their projects (such as Disney, for their ToonTown virtual world for kids), they encounter (just like the one I encountered) the fundamental assumption that censorship is possible.

On their website, Habitat Chronicles, Randy Farmer blogged about how even their best laid censorship filter plans can be bested by a clever (and naughty) teenager:
"We spent several weeks building a UI that used pop-downs to construct sentences, and only had completely harmless words the standard parts of grammar and safe nouns like cars, animals, and objects in the world."
"We thought it was the perfect solution, until we set our first 14-year old boy down in front of it. Within minutes hed created the following sentence:
I want to stick my long-necked Giraffe up your fluffy white bunny.
Alas, for better or for worse, communication finds a way.  It's built from finite materials combined in infinite ways.  So long as there are clever people, someone will find some way to say something you (or other players) don't like through your corporate playground.

You hear that, China?  (AT & T?)

* That is, without having an impossibly expensive (and potentially corruptible) army of workers monitoring every conversation.

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posted by Brian at 3:53 PM 0 comments links to this post

Friday, June 20, 2008

SPORE Creature Creator: The Future of Digital Puppet-Building?

Will Wright is the mastermind behind Sim City and The Sims series (the best-selling PC game of all time). His upcoming SPORE game takes the player through stages of living things, starting with the microbial, then land-based fauna, then into social groups (tribal), then into civilization mode, then finally into space mode! But what's really exciting to me is the Creature Creator mode and the technology behind it.

Most modeling and animation package interfaces start with an interface left over from Computer Aided Design (CAD). That is, you model geometry first. When it's how you like it, you add skeletal rigging (bones) and mesh the two. Then you build in all sorts of constraints so that when you move parts of the puppet, it behaves realistically. Finally, after the digital puppet is ready, you can animate it or apply clip-art animation to it. Life takes a while to emerge.

SPORE's interface starts with the premise that you are tweaking a living being. You, the designer*, get to add in functioning hands, legs, and eyes (not just shapes of them) and this being will react to them, try them out, shake them around, and perhaps disapprove of your modifications. It's very much like the classic Chuck Jones Daffy Duck cartoon Duck Amuck where the unseen artist keeps redrawing Daffy's background and his body.

I do hope Autodesk and Softimage are watching. Wouldn't it be great to be able to construct creatures in this organic way? Wouldn't it be lovely to not have to worry about building IK handles and binding deformers and just start building an instantly animatable character? Granted, there are only 250 shapes available and with all this built-in procedural structure, there are limits to what you can build. But sometimes limitation is exactly what you want. (Who needs the thousands of combination that DON'T work as an animated being?)

* It's perhaps unfortunate that SPORE creatures don't seem to "evolve" when they mate, emphasizing the unnecessary (but fun) step of design.

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posted by Brian at 7:58 AM 0 comments links to this post

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Curse Thee, World of Warcraft, for Thou Art Crack

One of the occupational hazards of being a fan of and deciding to do informal research on Virtual Worlds (or Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games) is that once in a while, you land in one that is difficult to get out of. Sure, there are/were ones out there so unpleasant (Second Life) or dull* that the only thing keeping you in is the hope that maybe there's something interesting to be found. There are ones I think could have been great, but like an unhip nightclub or bar, nobody goes there (such as, ironicly,

I really don't consider myself a gamer. What hooks me usually is the social aspect, and in most worlds, I find myself having to break from the tools provided in order to enhance reality.** But then again, that's what reality is, no? Our collective perceptions of and responses to outside stimuli... Ok, I won't get all technical. But my point is -- if your virtual world is so dull that I have to use my creativity to make people have fun it, then maybe you didn't do your job. (Or you should have hired me, before it was too late!)

Really, I should have known better about World of Warcraft. The stories of people disappearing for months at a time. A friend of mine I met on, originally a refugee from The Sims Online, found WoW after we both got tired of and for a while I couldn't reach her at all (since I didn't really think I'd enjoy a "typical" fantasy role-playing game where you have to do errands for people). Two girlfriends of acquaintances of mine played so much WoW that they nearly lost their men. The Chinese young man who died because he played for days straight without drinking or eating. But pretty much everybody I work with (sans the ladies) plays it. A lady I met at a cartoon screening plays it (she's a Level 70 Guild Master!)

O Peer pressure, Curiosity, what have thou wrought?

Lucky for you, I will soon be descibing some of the adventures I've had as two different characters, Zordinath the Leatherworking Orc Hunter, and Latnenitnoc ("Continental" spelled backwards) the Herbalist Undead Warlock.

Stay tuned.

* ActiveWorlds circa 1996 anyone? Zzzzzzz. Though there are others, too many to mention here.

** For example, in Worlds Away (no longer available), you could only move around a pseudo-3D cardboard cut-out avatar through some nice planar spaces. The rest was just a standard chat screen. So I came up with a spontaneous convention with those I met for playing Tag that wasn't specified in the game itself.

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posted by Brian at 2:08 PM 0 comments links to this post

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Virtual Worlds On Your MySpace Page? Not Far Off...

The Web today is all about projecting your identity, connecting with your friends and strangers with similar interests, and sharing media with them. Tools have advanced to the point where it's trivial to upload and share photos, videos, text, animation and music to everyone and anyone. This is how we communicate today. Like songwriters have said for ages, we can say "I love you"* with a song (or electronic greeting card, or hilarious YouTube video). We don't even have to be its creator.

Now imagine what you could say by sharing a virtual world** with someone?

In recent months, toolkits have emerged that enable us ordinary people to build or customize 2-D and 3-D spaces and invite others to join in simultaneously. There's Multiverse, and now Metaplace, being developed by a San Diego company, Area, Inc.

The former is a downloadable (Windows-only) client that lets you load any virtual world out there made with it, and a free set of tools for setting up worlds to share. The latter (which to me is more interesting) is designed to be flexible enough to use web techniques (like RSS feeds, links, and good old cut 'n paste) to fit into web page-based applications like Myspace and Facebook. Here's a quote from their website:
Right now, there aren't enough good games, for example, and they all seem to be about elves in tights or soldiers in battle armor. Metaplace allows more diversity. Right now, there are lots of people who want to use virtual worlds for research, or education, or business, but it's just too darn hard to get one going. Now you can create a world in just a few minutes and start tailoring it to your needs. Basically, we wanted to democratize the process of making online spaces of all sorts.
We knew it was all coming together when one of our team made a game in a day and a half. And then stuck that game on a private MySpace profile. You can inherit someone else's world (if they let you) and use it as a starting point.
So get out there and start building worlds and sharing them with others.

* ... or typically "This is so funny!"
** ... or online game

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posted by Brian at 6:26 AM 0 comments links to this post

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Massively Multi-player Online Game ... of Math??

Blizzard made hacking virtual monsters with other people a lot of fun for millions in its massively multi-player online game, World of Warcraft.

Now a Canadian company wants to do similar with a fantasy world game called Hippasus where mathematics is magic.

Great. There's a game where I will be even MORE inept...

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posted by Brian at 9:45 PM 0 comments links to this post

Monday, June 06, 2005

The Day The Music Died (in Star Wars Galaxies)

A bizarre consequence of overly-restrictive copyright legislation (or at least the fear of being sued). Although online players of the massively-multiplayer online game Star Wars Galaxies are allowed to create their own characters that can perform virtual music, they are not allowed to make their own creations. Why? Fear of licensing issues if someone makes new music, and the fear of being sued if someone performs a tune by The Beatles or Madonna.

In real cantinas out there, one can pay a small fee to perform someone else's work (i.e. a cover song). But there are no equivalents online.

It just seems odd that in a Galaxy far far away, original music is banned. The only music allowed is pre-canned segments (by John Williams at least?)

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posted by Brian at 1:52 PM 0 comments links to this post