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Virtually Social

Criticising PlayStation Home is one thing - but virtual world naysayers should think again

Spare a thought for PlayStation Home - not even out the door yet, and already being lambasted from all sides. Trip Hawkins reckons it doesn't know its target audience, and won't appeal to the mass market - and since he was bashing a platform holder, he was elevated by most news sites to "founder of EA", as distinct from the less impressive "head of Digital Chocolate" title that he gets the rest of the time.

Microsoft, unsurprisingly, is equally unimpressed, with Aaron Greenberg accusing it of feeling like an outdated product from 2005 - a somewhat uncharitable statement coming from someone whose company just got around to shamelessly copying the avatars unveiled by Nintendo in early 2006.

Much of this criticism may raise quizzical eyebrows (especially in Microsoft's case - in Hawkins' defence, it's hardly his fault that less than scrupulous reporters chose to directly attach his statements to a company he effectively left over sixteen years ago), however, there's something interesting to be read into the approach that both vocal critics take.

In both cases, their implication was that Home is something of a hardcore product. It's not, Greenberg reckons, something that will "broaden the experience and invite people in". Hawkins mused that this approach could hold Sony back from creating the kind of audience size which Microsoft and Nintendo enjoy.

Digging past the obvious competitive issues in Microsoft's statement, and the seeming confusion over the difference between WoW and Second Life in Hawkins', there's a distinct undercurrent here of negativity regarding virtual worlds.

This is entirely unsurprising. For anyone involved in the online or videogame markets, a feeling of virtual world ennui is almost unavoidable at this stage. Much of the blame for this must lie at the door of Second Life. The years-long blaze of publicity for the virtual world far outstripped its ability to deliver on its promises, leaving a trail of hype-filled articles across gullible media outlets, the likes of which we haven't seen since the boom.

For writers working for newspapers and websites and looking for a weird, futuristic thing to submit copy on, Second Life was a boon. Here were people moving around in a virtual world, dressing up their avatars, holding parties and opening shops - and even, to the delight of the reporters, having virtual world political disputes. Some were even making real-world money. It was perfect fodder for articles revealing that William Gibson's vision of the future was already taking shape.

The reality is rather different. Second Life is unquestionably an interesting experiment, but it's also a shockingly badly coded, buggy product, with horrible performance, mind-bending controls and an ill-conceived interface. It was completely unprepared for the influx of interest which its creators, being rather more talented at self-promotion than at virtual world operation, managed to garner.

After such an offputting and inauspicious start, it's not really a surprise that virtual world technology has fallen out of favour - so much so that Google's recent effort to enter the market, Lively, is now in its death throes and about to shut down. However, to dismiss it entirely - as Hawkins and Greenberg both seem to - is also to miss the point somewhat.

The way that we interact with one another online has become increasingly sophisticated in recent years. As the Internet has evolved, we've gone from sending emails and text-based instant messages to devising altogether more complex, integrated forms of communication. Persistent world games which are played together, creating a social experience as much as a videogame experience, are one aspect of this - World of Warcraft being the most successful example.

However, even World of Warcraft pales in comparison with the sheer sophistication of something like Facebook - a system which networks tens of millions of people together in a vast, sprawling web of interlinked content comprising status updates, photographs, videos, events, contact details, publicly published preferences and a host of other information "nodes", each of which can be commented upon, linked to or integrated directly with other nodes.

It's easy to deride Facebook as being a glorified contact book, and many people do - but when you look below the surface and see what people are actually doing with one another's data, media and information on the service, it's hard not to be taken aback by the idea that entire generations now find this kind of complex manipulation of social media not only easy, but natural.

Why is this relevant? Because somewhere along the line, the fact that the same generation which has adopted services like Facebook en masse has also grown up familiar and comfortable with videogame virtual worlds is going to become important. The concept of taking Facebook's "media mash-ups" and personal image customisation, and translating them into the kind of virtual worlds which everyone who plays videogames (i.e. pretty much that entire generation) innately understands, is a sound one. Just because Second Life didn't do it right doesn't mean that it's not still a good idea.

I'm possibly being a little harsh on Second Life, I should add - while my criticisms are, I believe, entirely fair, it's also reasonable to say that it's a product well ahead of its time. Making the leap from email and IM directly to a complex virtual world was too much to expect of most Internet users - but using services like Facebook, MySpace and Xbox Live as an intermediate step makes the success of future successors to Second Life's ideas much more likely.

Is this to say, then, that PlayStation Home has a shining future ahead of it? Not necessarily. Many, many different social networking sites launched before Facebook managed to hit the combination of interface, functionality and image that made it into a mainstream proposition. The same will be true of virtual worlds which hope to take the social networking phenomenon into the third dimension - and indeed, one of the failings of Home may be that it doesn't actually have its eye on that particular goal, being more concerned with creating nice virtual environments than with giving users the power to combine, share and modify social content.

However, what it does say is that the early criticism of PlayStation Home says more about the critics than about the product itself. Virtual worlds are no longer in fashion - but the concept is not dead. If anything, it grows stronger day by day, as more and more people get to grips with both 3D worlds (through videogames) and social content (through services like Facebook). The marriage of those worlds will happen, and will be a success - and even if Sony isn't the company to create that success, at least it seems to understand where this unusual evolution of online services is taking us.

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Rob Fahey avatar
Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.