For people who haven’t experienced online virtual worlds, no doubt they sound like a pretty weird thing. Although if you’re reading this post, you’re probably more than usually open to the idea of online communities in the first place – what is a blog but an online discussion point? Nonetheless, I don’t think I could have understood the lure of online virtual worlds so well if I hadn’t had a period of my life where I was obsessed with World of Warcraft (described here). One of the aspects of the game that fascinated me then was the WoW Auction houses:
My husband was not so good as I at levelling his characters, but he was really awesome at making money by selling stuff at the Auction House. He always had 10 times the money that I did. It was a very interesting study in marketplaces and economics. What is more, “virtual” goods have a real life price, and rare weapons and the like can be purchased online.
Logically, you know it’s just a bunch of pixels and none of the commodities you are “buying” are real. But humans will create a market for anything (of course, the game aids and abets this with its “rare drops” and the like).
I got quite fond of the pets my hunter had. At about Level 7, you “tame” an animal who accompanies you everywhere, fights for you and is generally with you for a long time. You have to look after the animal to keep it happy or else it will leave you. When the time came to retire my first pet (Glittercat), I didn’t free her. I kept her “stabled” because I couldn’t bear to lose her. She’d been with me since the beginning. I had cared for her and kept her happy. I felt loyalty towards her. Which is silly because logically, I knew none of it was real; it was virtual.
This is known as the Tamagotchi effect, named after the virtual Japanese pets which became a worldwide sensation. People can become emotionally attached to things which have no emotion, particularly, I suspect, if they have had to care for and feed the virtual thing. The amateur psychologist and mother in me suspects that perhaps it is related to how we care for our babies. Newborn babies do not have much complex emotion, and initially are incapable of responding to us in anything but the simplest ways, nor do they really “care” for us until they are older, but we care for them deeply, and this must be built into our psyches.
This interesting piece at Mindjack discusses the Japanese phenomenon of virtual and robotic pets:
Japan is world leader in the areas of research and development of robots. In 1999 it was home to 55% of all industrial robots in the world…and an even larger percentage of recreational robots. From Japan came the first robot-pets, be it the bygone Tamagotchi™; or the brand new Aibo™, a dog with adaptive behavior. These inventions coexist with large scale, business-oriented applications, such as Honda’s Asimo&trade™, a 4-foot, 95-pound, humanoid robot; and with a series of robots that defy classification, such as the healing-robots, robots whose only goal is to be looked at for therapeutic purposes of relaxation, for instance jellyfish robots… .
In fact, the proliferation and acceptance of robots in Japanese culture is so large that when Sony first released its Aibo, it sold out so quickly that Sony was flooded with letters begging for more! The demand was so overwhelming that Sony decided to do some research into Aibo’s target group. Sony found that it was constituted mainly of two main types of consumers: young men who like new gadgets and/or who are interested in computers (robots as a way to enjoy science and technology), and people who genuinely enjoy having a robot as their pet.
Aibo’s proud owners dress up their puppies (although this is not recommended by Sony) and teach them personalized tricks that help them develop their own personality. The connection between owners and their pets is so strong and personal, that “that at one Aibo get-together, owners were able to distinguish their pets from other Aibo dogs”… .
The differences become apparent here: Japanese industry invests heavily into the recreational/leisure robots that seem to nourish emotions in their users (rather than trying to create robots that decipher their users emotional states). These users, in turn, are open to think of these robotic pets as intelligent and emotional living beings (rather than considering them mere machines to serve us).
The robot industry is years away of creating the perfect Jeeves butler, the servant that cares for its owner. However, the technology to create a robot that is “merely” a friend is already in place. Pets like Aibo, or the older Tamagotchi, are good examples of this. These robots do not strive to understand their owner’s emotional state, although Aibo will “understand” when its owner is angry and pats him (or it?), but they do have the ability to create emotions in their owners.
In fact, rather than aiming for absolute perfection, in Japan, a commonly used strategy is to use failure as a way to increase the realism of the robot. (This is only possible given its entertainment oriented goals.) For instance, one famous traditional Japanese automata, the “Bow and Arrow Boy” (yumihiki doji), a doll that shoots 10 arrows, is programmed to fail at least once for each set . Aibo is also programmed to ignore its owner every once and then, giving it an attitude.
By releasing thousands of ‘friendly’ robots into the commercial market, Japanese robotic industry progresses not only by getting feedback from users, but also because these robots have to get adapted to a variety of people, situations and environments. The knowledge learned here can then be applied to the creation of more sophisticated, business-oriented applications. There is a continuum in the progression from entertainment to “serious” enterprises. But it does more than this, it also helps people get acquainted, and sympathetic towards, different life-forms: The robot as a friend that needs attention and care.
But, why are robot pets such a mass phenomenon in Japan, whereas in the West, they are regarded suspiciously?
In Japan, says Machico, robots are deemed considerate and friendly. They are said to have thoughts and souls. This concurs with Japanese religious beliefs (Shinto and Buddhism). While in the Christian view of the world God created only people in its own image, in Japan it is believed that all things in nature have a spirit, there is not clear distinction between human beings and other life forms. As a Japanese saying goes, even a 1 inch worm has a half inch soul. Once you extend this line, how do you distinguish between life and nonlife?
Think, for instance, of the old Tamagotchi that died when it wasn’t fed properly or simply when it didn’t get enough attention and caring. The consequences of Tamagotchi death were so serious and emotional for many owners that cemeteries were created for them. When a Tamagotchi has this kind of reaction in its owner, and when the boundaries between humans and others is not clear cut, clearly the “life” category has been extended to it. (footnotes omitted)
Of course, when you’ve got property (even virtual property) you get disputes, particularly if virtual property is worth real money. And what happens then? Virtual life mirrors real life — people attempt to settle matters in game at first — but things end up in court, and real writs start flying. When you’ve got virtual pets involved, things get emotional.
The WSJ reports that there is presently a dispute in US courts regarding virtual pets in Second Life, a virtual online world in which people interact via online avatars. A company named Ozanimals Inc developed software creating virtual rabbits within the game, which proved very popular. Later, a company named Amaretto Ranch Breedables LLC developed software creating virtual horses. Legal proceedings ensued after Ozanimals alleged Amaretto had copied its virtual rabbit software, and demanded that Amaretto close down its store, which mean that people’s horses would starve, and Amaretto would no longer profit from selling feed. Amaretto counterclaimed, alleging Ozanimals was harming its business, and denying that it had copied Ozanimals’ software. The WSJ continues:
The suit between the faux-animal peddlers is just one of the real-world legal battles breaking out over imaginary goods. In a suit currently in San Francisco federal court, Linden is being sued by “Second Life” “landowners” over who owns virtual property. And in Oklahoma, a case filed in federal court earlier this year pitted another virtual-horse company against a former employee. The horse maker claimed the ex-employee was violating his employment agreement by starting a competing online-equine firm.The virtual-animal litigation comes several years after hype around “Second Life” seemed to be soaring. Once expected to grow to tens of millions of users, the virtual world had about 800,000 people who regularly visited the site in the first quarter of this year, according to Linden, down slightly from a year earlier.
People devoted to “Second Life” form relationships, go to virtual concerts and engage in a virtual economy in the online world. They buy and sell goods in “Linden Dollars.” One U.S. dollar is roughly equivalent to 250 Linden dollars.
“Virtual items are still increasingly popular,” says Justin Kwong, a lawyer who teaches a class on virtual goods law at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn. In the last quarter, “Second Life” users held virtual currency worth a total of $29.3 million in real-life cash, says the company. That’s up 11% from a year earlier, Linden says.
Naturally virtual horse owners in Second Life are worried, as the introduction to the WSJ piece makes clear:
A palomino mare named Star grazes on Debbie DeLouise’s clover meadow, hanging out at a salt lick there and frolicking with her foal Holly.
But a legal dispute may imperil their pastoral bliss: It threatens to close the only store where Ms. DeLouise can buy food for Star and Holly. Without their special diet, the horses would waste away and turn green.A virtual horse.
“If there’s no food, I’m not sure what will happen,” says Ms. DeLouise, a Long Island, N.Y., librarian. “I certainly hope no one has to find out.”
Aren’t human beings strange things? I guess we’ll wait and see what happens to the virtual horses.