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Above: Cyberspace in 1982, ala TRON
In 1991 Michael Benedikt gathered 50 attendees at the first International Conference on Cyberspace in Austin, Texas. Cyberspace was not, at the time, synonymous with the internet or the world wide web the way it often is now – in 1992 Bruce Sterling described it as the “place between phones,” and “a vast flowering electronic landscape.” Come 2003 and things didn’t quite pan out the way the early poets predicted. In an interview with GAIN 2.0, Benedikt lamented:
“… cyberspace—that wonderful, phantasmagoric three-dimensional alternative reality imagined by William Gibson—was not actually shaping itself on-line as I and many others thought it surely would. What Mosaic, then Netscape, then Explorer delivered was mostly the content of your local drugstore newsstand, but worse: delivered more jerkily, more shallowly, and more resolutely two-dimensionally—like paper flyers blown against the back of the computer screen… To this day, only advanced intranet gamers have a foretaste of Gibsonian cyberspace: a real-time, shared, virtual space seamlessly mixing useful data, personal presence, and real-world, real-time connection.”
Neal Stephenson didn’t coin the word “cyberspace” – William Gibson and Neuromancer are credited with that – but Stephenson’s novel, Snow Crash, is a stellar example of the “cyberpunk” vision.
Snow Crash describes a virtual world that would make Benedikt proud (if it existed), and was a major factor in the popularization of the Sanskrit term “avatar.” Its hero, snarkily named Hiro Protagonist (now the Gamertag of J Allard), navigates a completely physically immersive virtual space ("The Metaverse”) which he can mold to his liking with his decidedly 1337 hacking skills.
The internet today has grown to similar lengths, sans the immersive virtual space. Whether or not it’s impressive to the fathers of the cyberspace concept, the internet relays massive amounts of data, and has a very real effect on economics, public opinion, and day-to-day life. But gee Mr. Writer, what does it all mean for gaming?
Ugh, Second Life. I didn’t want to, but I had to bring it up. It’s not that it’s the best MMOG out there, far from it, but its open-endedness, if clunky, makes it a good example of the cyberspace concept and its relation to virtual reality.
Second Life is no Snow Crash Metaverse, but it does apply many similar concepts. It’s a shared, malleable experience. And what is virtual reality, after all, if you’ve no one to share it with? In what “reality” are we surrounded by artificial characters? MMOGs like Second Life represent a major step toward the realization of the cyberpunk vision.
As for the future, the number of MMOGs which currently exist or are in development is massive, and the genre’s growth doesn’t seem to be slowing. What began as text based D&D clones has evolved, and continues to evolve at a heavy clip.
Enhance the graphics, physics processing and apply less rigid rule sets and something approaching the poetic visions of cyberspace begins to emerge. It may not be where the internet in general is heading (why complicate the ruthless efficiency of HTML?), but it is certainly a more fun and exciting way to interact online, and gamers seem to be the most willing to explore the possibilities laid out by the cyberpunk genre.
On the next page: Augmented reality, and what to expect in the foreseeable future…