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Future Tense: Rebirth of Worlds


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Rumilisoun in Lord of the Rings Online

Rumilisoun lecturing you at Elrond's Library in "Lord of the Rings Online."

Credit: William Sims Bainbridge

From Elrond's Library at Rivendell in Middle Earth, I write to you about a serious threat that endangers the connection between our worlds, and possibly the worlds themselves. I am Rumilisoun, an immortal Elf lore-master and historian, responsible for preserving ancient manuscripts, artifacts, and memories. The connection I speak of, between Middle Earth and your Internet, is Lord of the Rings Online (http://www.lotro.com), and similar connections exist between our worlds and many others that are in imminent danger. Lord of the Rings Online is today quite healthy, though none can predict whether it still will be in 10 years. The history books about Middle Earth written by J. R. R. Tolkien some 60 years ago will still be read in thousands of years, translated into whatever language people use then, and the movies made from them will endure in constantly renewed digital form. Yet many virtual worlds have already died, leaving no copies in libraries.

The Matrix Online closed July 31, 2009, ending forever the possibility of directly experiencing the city depicted in the 1999 movie. An intriguing pace-travel world with an interesting philosophy, Tabula Rasa, died February 28, 2009. The Sims Online died August 1, 2008. In all three, though the companies operating them calculated they were no longer profitable, they have shown no sign of wanting to put them in the public domain. Contemporary novels in public libraries cut into the profit of trade-book publishers, even though academic publishers depend on libraries, and the owners of virtual worlds have no incentive to give up their property rights. Indeed, allowing a nonprofit organization to operate virtual worlds would compete directly with their commercial counterparts.

Transferring virtual worlds to a digital library would entail some cost, in part because they differ so much from one another and need maintenance, and in part because some changes would be needed to make them maximally valuable for researchers, teachers, and students. On the client side, a virtual world consists of a user interface plus graphics files, and on the server side of network-management software and an immense database that reliably describes the moment-by-moment condition of thousands of avatars. Without both sides of the Internet connection and without at least a few hundred inhabitants, a virtual world cannot exist.

Consider the world inhabited by my friend Edmund Bainbridge. Born in New Jersey in 1702, he voyaged at age 18 to the Caribbean for adventure and to try his hand as an English freetrader and shipbuilder in Pirates of the Burning Sea (http://www.burningsea.com). He had a marvelous time sailing across a realistic sea in a variety of authentic sailing ships, blasting away with his canon at the French, Spanish, and occasional pirate. He set up timber mills in two forests, one for oak for the hulls of his ships, the other for fir for their masts, operated a sulfur mine because that ingredient for caulking was not available in the auction system, and is able to construct many different craft in his shipyard. He enjoys the cultural life of the most advanced ports, including the recent musical fad for string quartets and harpsichord recitals, and regularly assists the Royal Society in its scientific research on the tribes and wildlife of the region.

It was with extreme incredulity that Edmund heard there were Barbary pirates in the Caribbean; he thought they were confined to the Old World but soon learned the very concept of "Barbary pirate" was slanderous European propaganda against the North Africans, who were behaving no differently from the privateers commissioned by European governments, with their letters of marque and reprisal. Pirates of the Burning Sea occasionally plays with the facts of history, but always frankly, showing great respect for the truth and admiring the remarkable accomplishments of the 18th century. Yet this marvelous virtual world has few visitors.

Another educationally valuable virtual world is A Tale in the Desert (http://www.atitd.com), a set of nonviolent social games with an ancient Egyptian motif with perhaps only 1,000 subscribers today, one 10,000th the peak population of World of Warcraft (http://www.worldofwarcraft.com).

Tens of thousands of people might suddenly subscribe to both Pirates of the Burning Sea and A Tale in the Desert, though this is probably a vain hope. More realistically, leaders of government, education, and computer science in your world could establish a digital library to host the best of the early virtual worlds, not as historical curiosities, but as immortal masterworks of culture and living laboratories with many uses in teaching and research. Legislation comparable to what was used to establish the U.S. Library of Congress (http://www.loc.gov) might be needed to encourage cooperation by the owners of the intellectual property.

It will also be necessary to create some curriculum in and around the worlds and tweak some of their parameters so users with different goals are spared having to invest months of effort to gain full access, as they are today. For example, Pirates of the Burning Sea allows users who select rare nationalities to advance up the experience ladder twice as fast as others. Both World of Warcraft and Age of Conan (http://www.ageofconan.com) allow advanced users to create new characters who start their virtual lives already far advanced.


The best of the early virtual worlds are immortal masterworks of culture and living laboratories with many uses in teaching and research.


My avatar in your world (I call him Bill) has held conferences in both Second Life and World of Warcraft. It would be a simple matter for him to create a high school or college course in either Pirates of the Burning Sea or A Tale in the Desert. The former would be good not only for courses in history but also for political economy. Quite apart from its Egyptian motif, A Tale in the Desert offers challenges in puzzle solving, logic, and the engineering of industrial supply chains. Urban studies could be taught in The Matrix Online, and teaching modules incorporating experiments in many social sciences could be added to any of these worlds.

The library where I work in Rivendell is 1,000 years old, and I have trouble imagining all the difficulties you might face if you were to try to build a Digital Library of Virtual Worlds. Yet what a shame it would be if the glorious creativity of the first generations of virtual worlds were truly gone forever.

The first great grand opera, l'Orfeo, composed by Claudio Monteverdi in 1607 is still performed today, and anyone may buy a recording for a few dollars. Four hundred years from now, I hope your descendents will still be able to visit me so I can introduce them to Frodo, Bilbo, and Gandalf... and perhaps all go Orc hunting together.

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Author

Rumilisoun and Edmund Bainbridge are avatars of William Sims Bainbridge; the real Edmund was Bill's great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, and Edmund's grandson, Commodore William Bainbridge, was held captive for two years by Barbary pirates.

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Footnotes

DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1859204.1859233

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Figures

UF1Figure. Rumilisoun lecturing you at Elrond's Library in Lord of the Rings Online.

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