Pick your poison: Porn or World of Warcraft

A couple of threads of the "bad" or "dark side" of technology stories are running their course this week. On the one hand, CNN is doing a series on online porn addiction, claiming that the porn business makes more than all professional sports combined and is, therefore, an insidious threat to all that is good and right in the world.

A couple of threads of the "bad" or "dark side" of technology stories are running their course this week. On the one hand, CNN is doing a series on online porn addiction, claiming that the porn business makes more than all professional sports combined and is, therefore, an insidious threat to all that is good and right in the world. On the other, there is a fascinating confessional over atToday's intellectual property debates haven't even begun to touch the limits of crimes of extraction that lie over the horizon. SoulKerfuffle about one man's having gone way, way overboard with World of Warcraft.(UPDATE: And, by the way, we, that is the U.S., is just "full of Internet addicts." Quick, everyone out the back door while the addicts aren't looking.)

Let's dispatch with the porn thing first. The Glenn Beck series on CNN, Porn: America's Addiction, is reported in a grinding baritone and is cut like, well, a porn film or CSI: Miami. He says the porn industry makes $12 billion, more than football, baseball and basketball combined (wait a minute, what about NASCAR and the other sports?), but I'm going to go out on a limb here and say: a.) I don't think he's counting endorsement, merchandizing and other revenues associated with sports events, just ticket sales, and, b.) I am pretty sure the victims of this industry are not slouched on the couch in a dark room watching porn, but mostly sitting, lying and otherwise contorting in front of the cameras.

When Girls Gone Wild and its sleazy producer is not a fixture of cable advertising maybe we can worry about the "poor guy" who's addicted to porn. But as a crisis of the American values system, porn and related services businesses have outlived plenty of reform, abolitionist and temperance movements aimed at the buyer rather than the provider of vice (the performers are not the providers, folks). The Internet isn't substantially changing the picture or the threat profile. 

Apparently, though, we've moved from the largely disproved MySpace predators story to the next threat to American society, the Web cam. Only the medium is new, the product's as old as humanity itself.

The other story is legitimately important, but not as tale of victimization. A guest blogger on SoulKerfuffle talks about how his life went into the crapper because he played World of Warcraft constantly:

60 levels, 30+ epics, a few really good "real life" friends, a seat on the oldest and largest guild on our server's council, 70+ days "/played," and one "real" year later...

Mr. Yeager asked me to write this "guest blog" for him. I figured I should oblige him this request - it was none other than Mr. Yeager who first introduced me to (begged for me to buy, actually :-p) the World of Warcraft. It was the "perfect storm" for me; a time in my life when I was unemployed, living at my family's house far from my friends, and had just finished my engineering degree and was taking a little time to find a job. I had a lot of free time on my hands and WoW gave me a place to spend it.

Joi Ito's Arcanist RegaliaThe posting relates in great detail the seriousness with which players undertake to master this game and participate in the Guilds they join. He explains in terms that are recognizable to an entrepreneur obsessed with their business, a coder with their program, an artist with their painting and a politician with their polls why the game gets hold of one's soul. It's life in there, too.

You really should read it and look for the many hooks an obsessive personality can grab onto. I watch for this in my kids, who play Warcraft and am aware it could happen to me with Second Life, as well, if I didn't feel like I had very important things to do outside that world, like playing catch with my kids. (I point to Joi Ito's blog and forum for his Warcraft play, which is not to say Joi has a problem, just that he is documenting his participation in spectacular detail).

There's the predictable banter in comments on the SoulKerfuffle posting between those who feel badly for the guy, seeing the bad in Warcraft, and those who see Warcraft as the victim of this guy's whining.

Rather than dismiss this as the cautionary story of a kid who couldn't control himself, I think there is something important to understand in the Warcraft obsession, which is encapsulated in the writers statement that "The game ... provides people with a false sense of security, accomplishment, and purpose."

As we build more elaborate forms of virtual engagement, we need to think carefully about what we are asking of and taking out of our customers. Those senses of accomplishment and purpose are not produced by the game, they come from the other players. Are we building empty places we must fill with our own selves at the expense of the world around us, that living breathing one with people, children, dogs, neighbors and so forth? 

Consider living in a house where everyone is using one of Toshiba new head-mounted displays, the Head Dome Projector. The thing fits over your head like a badly-spec'd Darth Vader helmet and encloses the you in 120 degrees by 70 degrees views that track with you as you turn your head.  Fully immersive play. Really cool. But there's not going to be a lot of intergenerational interaction going to be going on in the house with one of these things. If there is only one in a house with two kids, there will be a lot of intragenerational bickering, which isn't good.

As the Warcraft blogger over at SoulKerfuffle explains, we literally do extract energy and vale from our lives to inject them into virtual spaces. Rewards are manufactured by developers, but do those rewards translate into value for the player?

Remember, Google bought YouTube, a place filled up with people's freely uploaded movies in which they don't share any revenues, for $1.65 billion this week. Where did that value come from? The community. What did the community get for their participation? Some more server capacity and ads. What a deal.

Think of the head dome late at night, after the kids have gone to bed. That's a porn addiction waiting to happen, too. But I digress.

The point is, the technology of immersion turns us into the performers, which has both satisfying and rewarding social value, because we can test new roles and ways of playing more safely, but we can also be exploited, like the performers in a porno film.

I'm not saying we should ban Warcraft or head domes, just that we shouldn't be distracted by "crimes of indulgence" like watching too much porn when the real question the Net raises is where and when we are creating for ourselves and our own enjoyment versus being plugged in and milked for our intellectual output.

Someday, a game community will be sold and it will turn out everyone's attention and intelligence has become a corporate asset that cannot be exercised in a particular way outside of the game. Today's intellectual property debates haven't even begun to touch the limits of crimes of extraction that lie over the horizon.

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