Synthetic Excellence: Standards, Play, and Unintended Outcomes

D. Linda Garcia, Garrison LeMasters


Today, more and more efforts are devoted to promoting an open network environment (Libicki 2000). This growing enthusiasm for interoperability is understandable, given the economics of networks. (Shapiro and Varian, 1998; Varian, Shapiro, and Farrell, 2005). To make the most of interconnection today, businesses must enhance their services by adding a variety of functions (Blumenthal and Clark 2000). For these purposes, they are seeking higher-level standards in support of middleware and software applications.

While supporting the overall goal of interoperability, this paper sounds a cautionary note. It argues that the value of standards is contextual. Thus, while interoperability may be highly beneficial in a purely economic context, and with respect to the lower levels of the network, it might engender unintended consequences at higher levels where the network is intertwined with political and cultural realms. This paper contends that, as standards efforts become increasingly focused on the upper layers of the Internet, a broader set of evaluative criteria will be required to determine their true costs and benefits.

Employing an interdisciplinary approach, this paper takes a first step in exploring these issues. Focusing on the highest–level applications in particular, it examines recent calls to create standards across virtual worlds, using the MPEG-V working group as a case study. Advocates for these standards foresee clear economic benefits for producers and maintainers of virtual worlds, as well as for their inhabitants (Sivan). We argue that such faith in the predictable outcomes of standards betrays a tendency both to think of virtual worlds as the intentional outcome of rational design, as well as to misapprehend the roles of diversity and play in discrete environments. We question this narrow economic perspective. Arguing that a metaverse—like all worlds—is highly complex, we contend that virtual world standards—ranging from EULAs to the software code itself—can only beget unpredictable outcomes, which will not only affect relationships between worlds, but inevitably within communities. Definitions and standards, whether integral to a world or positioned "between" worlds, nonetheless comprise its finite bounds and become part of what Steinkuehler calls "the mangle of play:" Inhabitants of synthetic worlds habitually "amplify, enhance, negate, accommodate, complement, and at times even ignore" even hard-coded rules (200). To identify the costs and benefits of standards in these complex environments, all of these relationships must be considered (Steinkuehler, 2004).

As importantly, we argue that virtual diversity, like biological variety, is inherently beneficial to users of synthetic worlds. Inherently arbitrary, virtual worlds are de facto sites of playful activity: This is the source of corporate and individual interest in them as sites of innovation. To realize the benefits of what Sutton-Smith calls “the potentiation of adaptive variability,” we contend that what is needed is not standards across virtual worlds but rather a broad diversity of synthetic, discrete ecosystems.

To make our case we briefly identify the economic rationale for network interoperability; next, characterize the metaverse as a complex environment, and describe the role that standards might play within it; and finally, we examine the case of the MPEG-V Working Group to determine the evaluative criteria being used to develop standards, employing a rhetorical analysis of the documents, both formal and informal, associated with this process.


standards; evolution; play; interoperability; diversity

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