Thursday, March 27, 2008

Criticism vs. Attacks

So it seems Prokofy Neva, tireless promoter of Second Life, has decided to criticize virtual world luminary Richard Bartle for some of his ideas about how virtual worlds should work. (See follow-up commentary at Broken Toys and Psychochild's Blog.)

I debated quite a while before jumping in on this. But I don't like the way that people are put off from joining in the friendly exchange of ideas when someone ridicules the speaker of those ideas instead of addressing the ideas themselves.

So to add to Brian "Psychochild" Green's comments, I met Richard a few years ago in Copenhagen, and I found him to be engaging, funny, sharp where sharpness is called for, and remarkably tolerant of ideas pitched intensely to him by a complete stranger while climbing up a stairwell. In short, yes, he's human, and one who doesn't deserve the description Prok gave of him.

That doesn't mean disagreeing with him on ideas is off-limits. I disagree with him on some things. But it's important to note a couple of things:

1. Hyperbole and name-calling destroy any chance to have productive discussions about those disagreements. Those who engage in such hand-waving distractions don't deserve direct attention/trackbacks/slashdots/etc. Good conversationalists should be promoted; bad conversationalists should be bypassed.

2. There's a difference between "is" and "ought." And one key aspect of that difference between description and prescription is that those who express an "ought" have to earn the privilege of having that assertion taken seriously by demonstrating that they understand "is." Conversely, those who fail to demonstrate that their perception of reality is accurate shouldn't expect to have their statements of right and wrong given much weight. (And yes, that applies to me, too.)

Which brings me to this Prok vs. Richard thing. It's clear -- and this is borne out by Designing Virtual Worlds -- that Richard has been there, done that, and knows what he's talking about. His descriptions of what "is" in virtual worlds are informed by broad experience and thoughtful understanding, both of which are documented in his various public comments about virtual worlds and game design. This means that when Richard expresses an "ought" statement, it's worth taking seriously instead of being dismissed, especially by pouring derision on Richard himself. It might still be wrong, but an "ought" from someone who knows his "is" merits more consideration than Prok showed in the post that started all this.

Meanwhile, we should suspect any "shoulds" proposed (or criticized) by someone whose view of "is" is so inaccurate as to think (for example) that gameworlds are socialistic when in fact they're hyper-capitalistic. (Raph has more than once commented on the extreme levels in gameworlds of the Pareto effect, which is a typical condition of unregulated capitalism.) The designers of gameworlds may intend for the economic activity in them to be regulated according to their various conceptions of fairness (some of which may be socialistic -- I wouldn't know or presume to guess), but the reality once people begin acting in those worlds in mass numbers -- as Richard has accurately noted -- is that the gamers who put in the most effort in these gameworlds accumulate the most stuff in them. And that's pretty much the opposite of a socialistic economy, regardless of what any "game gods" may intend.

So if someone doesn't correctly perceive even this fundamental observation about game-based virtual worlds, where does that leave their criticisms of statements from better-informed observers about how such worlds "ought" to be?

There's a good discussion to be had on how the property rights of the creator of a (virtual) world may be in conflict with the restrictions on the rights of the state in our real world. If I build my own universe, under what conditions may I not enjoy full powers to control everything that happens inside that world? At what point of realism should my sovereign powers be taken from me within that world -- by force, if necessary -- in favor of the people who, to some degree, inhabit that world I created? Does it matter if the world in question is intended to be a rule-based game, or is meant to be a literary experience?

That would be a fun discussion to have about virtual worlds, and perhaps even an enlightening one about how best to live in our own real world. But we'll never get there when "oughts" on that subject from someone who knows what he's talking about are dismissed in favor of mocking the speaker of those thoughts.

Richard deserves better, if for no other reason than that he's earned the privilege of being taken seriously.

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