These Elves are People «

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It’s important for journalism address virtual worlds because they’ve become the “third place” after Home and Work that Starbucks has been trying to fill for the last decade and change. Adults go online to hang out instead of the bar; teenagers go online to try on new personalities instead of the mall.

My barber shocked the hell out of me last week when he told me was playing Horde Priest. Who the hell cares if Joi Ito and his buddies have replaced their non-existent golf game with long sessions in Molten Core? Those guys are nerds. MY FRACKING BARBER IS A HORDE PRIEST PEOPLE. Rands

The real issue is that online gaming has been around 30 years and, thanks to steep drops in the cost of PCs and Internet connectivity, exploded from being a niche subculture to popular entertainment. Imagine if TV hadn’t blown two decades imitating radio and very slowly growing popular but instead sprang Athena-like into half of American households. Journalism has been catching up, trying to squeeze a huge infodump into a few column inches. Do you confuse the half of your audience who’ve never changed a channel or do you bore the half who’ve got surround sound? By exclusively addressing the former, journalism has alienated the latter.

Online communities take the form of chat rooms, blogs, forums, and virtual worlds (which includes games). Journalism more-or-less understands the first three, and the rest is easy from there. Virtual worlds are persistent chat rooms with a sense of place (though the folks involved will probably also talk on blogs and forums). Games are virtual worlds with rules and objectives. When journalists understand this background they can stop writing “This guy pretends to be an elf” and start writing “These elves are people“. When journalists understand this background, they’ll be fighting for column inches instead of wondering what to write, and gamers will be following the news instead of rolling their eyes.

The one lesson journalism must learn is to start treating gaming like the mainstream medium it has become. It’s news when there’s a major franchise release, or a small studio pushes boundaries, or genres wax and wane — whether we’re talking about TV, movies, or games. Journalism fails when it covers games because doesn’t yet have the expertise to tell dead horses from new developments or PR from reality. There are dedicated gaming news outlets, but they’re nearly all awful because their background is gaming, not journalism; the gaming press hasn’t been able to build the firewall between news and advertising to do much serious journalism. The few game publishers punish negative and merely critical reviews by withholding access to upcoming titles and gaming press doesn’t have the diversified income to weather the loss.

To briefly talk about specific virtual worlds, Second Life is one world among many, and it’s not a good one. Second Life is small, limited, and has no real community. It’s only been a media darling because it has a modern theme; if you’re new to virtual worlds Second Life is less intimidating than pointy ears and spaceships. Gaming is maturing into a huge popular medium, especially with the now-in-progress fusion of casual gaming and online gaming. Habbo Hotel and Puzzle Pirates are trailblazers, Club Penguin is the dawning recognition of big media, and Metaplace is the future.

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