Monopoly Rules

By Avon Huxor, 2 October 2008

A constant criticism of computer games is they have become a means of escape from reality. We are, it is claimed, near to being able to create virtual worlds -havens to hide ourselves away in, avoiding the real world. The great fear of many a parent is that their child will spend all his or her spare time separated from social contact and the challenges of the real world. Of course, each generation defends its own media, that of its childhood, and attacks that of its own children. Having heard my parents attack television, because I was not out playing in the park, I now defend the 'social' nature of the TV as it was then. Oh, I exclaim, for the days when we all watched only one or two stations, and could discuss the programme the next day - a shared experience - one denied by multiple channels.

Dames too can act as a shared experience, to be discussed when the finger is off the button. But a more intriguing possibility opens up when we consider the effects of the widespread dissemination of computing into our everyday working lives. Far from taking us away from reality, it will allow us to play with it in ways difficult to imagine. When the single device on the desk can be used for both work and play, when the data types and displays start to become indistinguishable, the two - the real and the virtual - will merge.

This line of thought began when a colleague told me of something that occurred, in a real company, some time ago. This company's activities involved a great deal of paperwork, and they installed a computerised system to streamline the process. This allowed the employees to call up files on each of the clients, and to make the required additions and amendments. Some years later, the management decided to do an audit of all the client base. During the audit, a number of names appeared in the system that were virtual people, they could not be found out there in the world. On closer inspection of the computer files for these nonexistent persons, it was found that the staff had created these virtual clients as a means of communicating between themselves. They left messages to each other in the files, using it as an informal email system. What is interesting about this case is the way that people, as part of their working lives, were able to subvert a business tool for personal and amusement purposes.

Monopoly Rules

Image: Creature shock - Argonaut Software

What lesson can be drawn from this? To see it we must look at how our everyday working lives will be affected by expected developments. The introduction of network computer systems is likely to have dramatic implications for commerce (for those of us lucky enough to still have some work). The widespread use of such tools does more than increase the ability to do traditional tasks, they change the nature of the whole activity. Studies into the effects of earlier technologies, such as the automobile and the telephone provide ample evidence for this. A classic example of such work being Elizabeth Eisenstein's study of the role of the printing press as a catalyst for political, religious and scientific change.

Equally, the spread of computer networks based on the Internet into the commercial world will do more that just provide a new advertising space. When many of us have the ability to telework from home, we can offer our skills to many employers. Companies too will doubtless pursue the process of out-sourcing further, putting out bids for tender for even small tasks, maybe even down to the taking of the minutes for a video-conference. You could put in a bid to do the minutes, which if you won you could complete in an hour or so, from home by joining the conference. Electronic payment would then follow.

Clearly, all this could expand to take place on a global scale, and agent technologies would allow your home computer to monitor the bids going around and put in tenders on your behalf. The whole system becomes an enormous, agent supported Monopoly game.

Just as the employees in the case described above used the computer system to personalise and make it more playful, so, I would argue, the same pressures will push such virtual corporations to be subverted, and be used to create parallel games. It is a process that can only be aided by the fact that we are growing up in a world where computers are introduced to us

as for play at an increasingly early age. When we face one in our office the temptation will surely be to think of the whole interaction as an extension of the games we played as children. Indeed this may explain some of the recent disasters on the markets, the bright young things start to see the whole business as one great game.

There will also be good reasons game designers to adopt the virtual corporation as a foundation for their products, as it will help them to address many problems inherent in the new games. The most obvious one being the difficulty of creating computer-based opponents or colleagues, for placing in game environments. For, despite many years of research, we are still some time from simulating intelligent behaviour. The solution that is already being adopted, thanks to the availability of networks, is just to link to other human beings.

In addition, our ongoing knowledge of everyday practice can provide scenarios for interactive games. All too often games designers rely upon fixed genres to indicate to the user what to do: platforms, detective stories and racing spring to mind. A problem with these few simple formats is that they rapidly begin to bore. The structures of everyday action, our working and business practices, provide a means of putting alternative narratives into interaction.

The kind of development that I envisage can also be understood in terms of the development in other media. In television it is now difficult to distinguish the real from the fictive, We have reconstruction presented as the real thing. The real events turn out to have been provoked to create a story. The line between reality and the media that presents it is now almost invisible. Just as this has occurred with the maturing of the video arts, so it will, following the widespread introduction of computer media into our lives. The same systems and mechanisms that commerce sets up to globalise its activities can be appropriated by us all to add to fun to life, and the dividing line between the so-called world of real commerce and the game disappear - both based on shared conventions, trusts and beliefs.

The notion that business software may prove the source for play may offend many. There is a natural suspicion of letting the commercial world into our free, fun-loving Internet. It is a suspicion that was also my initial reaction. But there is an historical precedent that is instructive. The work of Schmandt-Besserat has convincingly shown that writing in the Middle-East has its origins in little clay tokens used in accountancy - a development that slowly, but inexorably, led to the writing systems that we know today. These writing systems are the elements of the playful texts by writers such as Italo Calvino. So too, the externalisation and representation of human action inherent in computer-based tools will create an 'alphabet' and 'vocabulary' for interactive play that we can now only dimly glimpse. It will also doubtless provide the expressive means to counter those very virtual corporations.