Urban Environments and Interactive Technologies

Designing Interactive Virtual Worlds

Friday, Sept. 25, 1998
11:00 am - 12:00 pm

Moderator: Larry Vale
Speakers: Bruce Joffe and Linda Stone

[These are edited summaries, not complete transcripts.]

Larry Vale: Our next pair of presentations explore recent efforts to design interactive virtual worlds. Bruce Joffe is an alumnus of MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning and founding principal of GIS Consultants in Oakland, CA, which provides planning and implementation management services to cities, counties, and utility companies around the world. He serves on the editorial advisory board of Geo Systems Magazine and works on city simulation games in his spare time. It is in that latter capacity that he is with us today, since he helped with the design of the original SimCity game and has continued to follow its millennial evolution to SimCity 2000 and the forthcoming SimCity 3000. His remarks are entitled, "SimCity Myths and Folklore."



Bruce Joffe: Almost every computer game out there today is incredibly violent. I find it depressing to have those kinds of games be our major cultural icons. So when my neighbor across the street was designing and programming games, I suggested to him that we do a game that was not violent. He had just designed one that featured a helicopter pilot flying over islands and shooting at people and things, but prompted by my suggestion, he agreed that all he really liked about that program were the islands and maps. So he countered with, "You're a city planner, what kind of a non-violent game could we create using cities?"

After a couple of weeks of bandying ideas back and forth we came up with SimCity which turned out to be immensely prosperous. The company has sold millions of copies, which indicates that as many kids are drawn to thinking about interactions within complex systems and not just to shoot'em up games. It is my hope that the popularity of SimCity represents a reverse trend to the anti-urbanism mentioned earlier. I think that the kids playing with this game develop a desire to build a successful city. And I believe that as they grow into adulthood and into professional life, some of that sensibility will stay with them.

To the marketing people, SimCity is a game and its purpose is to be fun, and there are a lot of features of the game that meet that bill. Players enjoy the power of being both Mayor and City Planner; they get to build a city and see it go through changes from prosperity to disaster. But an inherent feature of the game that may not be a selling point but gives it its real value, is that the player learns to deal with complex problems, by learning that their solutions are never simple and are often indirect.

The player must discern the best course to follow: who gets funding and how much, what ordinances to pass, what deals to make. Let's say a nuclear power plant wants to move into the area and offers to pay the property taxes for the whole town, the player has to weigh all the consequences to determine whether to go ahead with the plan. There are advisors that pop up during the game, but their advice is not always sound. There are also Simulated Trigger Events which, when selected, put the player's city into a certain track. For example, a player may make the choice to put a military base into his city and that brings with it a whole series of components that follow, such as defense contracts which bring in big business -- the city may become prosperous initially, but then military bases are also subject to being closed down. One never knows.

It is a pretty complex simulation model. The way I understand it -- you've got the grid cells which keep score for each element: the crime index, the health index, the density, the land values and so on. And there are rules that drive the simulation model, that is, if you have a certain level of crime and a certain level of population density, the land value may go up or down. And as the land value fluctuates, so does the population density, provided there are linkages to transportation. All of the factors interconnect with each other.

There are a complex set of rules that govern how one thing changes another. Like real life, when you are trying to do something about high crime or high pollution, it is never a matter of doing just one thing to solve the problem. In the shoot'em up games, all you have to do is shoot the bad guy and you win -- that's a horrible subconscious message to send children about how to deal with problems.



The scores are represented in the graphic tiles, such that if a neighborhood is going down, its image will change to reflect degradation. You start to see more dirt and more garbage. There are also sound cues -- if a neighborhood has a high crime rate, the player will hear sirens coming from that vicinity. The player, seeing this graphic representation of the scores, can then take action to change the situation. The model drives the scores and the graphic tiles. Then there are the Simulated Trigger Events, the advisors, and the ordinances which present themselves for the player to act on or not. There are ratios that can be adjusted among the types of property -- whether residential, commercial or industrial -- and among the types of people -- children, working people, retirees. There are changes to be made that effect commerce such as adding a new seaport or airport.

The way I am describing it, SimCity could be a real urban process model. The people at Maxis want the game to be fast, fun and visually exciting, but somehow there are a couple of programmers, who keep managing to put more and more good stuff into the model. For years I have tried to get them to open up the model so that urban planners like us could change the parameter settings and actually play with it, but since there are only 100,000 urban planners in the whole world and there are millions of kids, this is a commercial product.

The difference between a game and reality is that the game emphasizes graphics, manipulation and response time. In reality our models offer more types, more qualities, and more complex equations as to how things interact. In both cases the information you get is often spotty and inaccurate. In real life, getting the data is the biggest expense, in the game, the information is offered, but it is designed to be untruthful. Maybe the Web will provide us with a better version of reality by offering us data in a more useful interface.

So how does SimCity compare with your city? In real life, planning is proactive and politics is reactive. While planners anticipate problems and prepare for them, politicians never spend money on a problem until it happens. So there is a basic dichotomy. And, of course, your city is filled with independent actors and everybody has their own agenda.

The nice thing about SimCity is that you are both the planner and the mayor so you can be as proactive or as reactive as you choose to. But nevertheless there is still never any direct cause and effect -- just like in your city. This reinforces the point I have been making throughout this talk, which is that SimCity is complex enough as a game to demonstrate that the technology is there for real city planners to have such a model to work with and learn from.

Until that happens, at least the kids playing this game have a chance to develop, on one hand, the skill of balancing that proactive/reactive dichotomy within themselves, and on the other hand, the ability to deal with the concept that problems never have simple solutions. If they can accomplish that juggling act, then we have hope that they just might grow up to create better cities in the future.



Larry Vale: Linda Stone is the widely acclaimed director of Microsoft Research's Virtual Worlds Group -- a team of engineers, artists, and sociologists working to develop multi-user, multimedia technologies for the construction of social environments in cyberspace. She will let us know more about one of Microsoft's Virtual Worlds.



Linda Stone: My group at Microsoft has been together for about four years. We have attempted to blend together technology, sociology, and design -- three fields that want to be friendly, but that are often at odds. We are looking at social life on the Net and what tools and technologies might enable constructive community life. We have built a distributed persistent object architecture on top of which you can develop customizable interfaces -- a 3-D interface, a 2-D interface, an interface that supports streaming video -- we really believe that social experiences and multi-user experiences will come in all flavors and forms. But today I am only going to show you one of the pieces we have done. It's a 3-D interface and although I have always personally had trouble with 3-D representational interfaces on the Net, this particular project that I am going to show you is the first one where I thought a 3-D interface was an appropriate match for the application.

This project is a collaboration between the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center based in Seattle and my group in Microsoft Research. It came about because of my own experience: I went through a period of two years when I was fairly ill and because I had the motivation and the tools, I used the Internet to research my own illness. I started with searches which led me to university research information, then I found people's personal Web pages, bulletin boards, and ultimately I got into some chats and found out that I had been misdiagnosed -- that what was happening to me could be much more easily handled than I had been told. I found this out because the Net had empowered me. In fact, it was recently reported in the NY Times that two thirds of the users on the Internet are looking up health related information. I'm sure that the 40-somethings who have been involved in the genesis of the PC industry and who grew up eating from the programmers' four major food groups: sugar, salt, caffeine, and grease -- the contemporaries of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and so on -- will be having some difficult talks with their doctors and will all turn to the Net.

When my group was talking about the types of applications that might make sense in 3-D, one idea that came up was to use this technology to enable a community of people who were all going through something similar such as a health challenge and yet were geographically disparate and did not have the ability to come together. In this case, people with cancer often have suppressed immune systems yet they still need social support. There is research from UCSF that indicates that a group of women who were diagnosed with breast cancer and were in a support group, were all still alive after five years. While the women who did not have access to a support group, but had the same level of cancer did not survive. So the psycho-social elements of healing are increasingly coming to our attention.

Other companies have come out with 3-D virtual worlds,--"this-makes-a-community" technology -- but my group was interested in what we could learn by using our technology for an already existing community. Our focus was not just on the technology, but how it could be applied to enable that community. The Hutch got involved because they wanted to enhance their service offerings to their patients.

Initially we struggled to define the audience, we wanted to keep it small -- was it appropriate for patients as an extension to the inpatient activity? Or were we going to serve friends and family? Ultimately we decided that, for our earliest deployment, the population we wanted to serve was the friends and family. After all, this was beta software, and we imagined with horror someone who was really ill getting a message like "Fatal system error." Of course as we started working on it, patients who became aware of our project began to demand that they be a part of it.



We needed to identify content experts at the Hutch to help us figure out what issues the patients and their families were facing. Those of us at Microsoft wanted to be imaginative with the design of the space -- avatar graphical representation and such -- but the Hutch just wanted a rendering of the inpatient facility to serve as a psychological anchor to those patients who were already dealing with so much change and so much that was unfamiliar. They did not want too much imagination...they wanted familiarity. We came to realize how important this was over time. With the avatars they wanted realistic photographs so that prospective patients could see what the staff looked like before they arrived. The Hutch was interested in building a sense of familiarity for their patients and not in all that our designers could offer.

We also thought we could have interesting visualizations related to healing, and related to medical information that would help the patients, but the people at the Hutch pushed that idea off to a later point in time. Their concern was that friends and family know where to get a haircut, or where to buy things to help entertain their loved one. So once again they pulled us back into the real world that they deal with. The Hutch folks had a very realistic sense of what the audience would need. We learned quite a bit working with them.

Meanwhile, it was a long steep climb for the Hutch to understand what the technology could do. We did several iterations of the design specifications. And now that we have a few basic things deployed, the patients and their families are telling us what kinds of things they would like to see added. Ultimately the tools will be there so that they can add those things themselves.

Did we include medical information? This turned out to be fraught with legal issues for the Hutch. There are now many discussions going on among the clinical staff and social workers to determine what is and isn't appropriate to include in the virtual world. Should it be open or password protected? The people at the Hutch felt very strongly that it needed to be a safe place for prospective patients and in-patients so they wanted it to be password protected. At the same time there are people at the Hutch who come from all over the world and they would like to be able to invite their friends from back home into the virtual world. Based on this feedback, we have created a couple of spaces: one where people could invite their friends and one that is completely private.

[Editorial Note: At this point, Linda Stone showed a video tape of a guided tour through the virtual world of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center with Lili Cheng of the Microsoft Research group showing us around the Reception area of the Center and some of the features provided to the users of the site.]

Linda Stone: That should have given you some idea of how the virtual world works. You can see how prospective patients and their families can get a chance to view their apartment, and see ahead of time what is going to be in the apartment, and they get to see the staff members with whom they will be meeting. There were a number of things that we learned from this experience in determining how to have a real world manifestation and an online manifestation for those people who otherwise would not be able to go there.

As Lili Cheng said in the video, "this has been a fruitful collaboration for both the Hutch and for Microsoft. Microsoft is able to better evolve new tools and technologies for the virtual worlds and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is discovering new ways to reach out to its community." It is a good example of how an interactive technology can not only mirror, but enhance the environment of an already existing community.


Compiled by Mary Hopper

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