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[i wasn't kidding with that headline; if i were going to tag the content of the following post it would be "video game" + "theory" + "ps3" + "instant readership genocide." consider yourselves warned.]

I've been following a lot of the press for Sony's PlayStation 3, probably because I am looking for ways to rationalize the poor impulse control that led me to purchase a PS3 instead of paying my rent. [PSN name: "tremble"] For months, the press on PS3 was invariably dismal—poor sales, paltry game catalogue, insultingly high price tag, loss of exclusive titles, etc. etc. Every night I would come home, give my PS3 the finger, and then settle in for about 15 minutes to play a free demo of Motorstorm. (The only title available that actually seemed suited for the extraordinarily advanced hardware running it.)

Then Sony made a very big announcement at the Game Developers Conference earlier this month. They were in the last stages of developing something called "HOME," which finally showed Sony and the PS3 in a cool, possibly enviable light. HOME is Sony's answer to both Nintendo's adorable "Mii" community and Microsoft's game achievements (which I still don't entirely understand, or understand at all), but it also contains elements of Second Life. Basically, HOME allows PS3 users to create an avatar of themselves, rendered in a somewhat photorealistic style (the avatars kind of look like customized players in the Tony Hawk game series), and then use that avatar to explore and occupy a large, 3D landscape.

But, since this is a gaming console we're talking about and not just a "free space" where your alter-ego can roam free without worrying about his real-world cleft palate or male pattern baldness, there are plenty of predetermined things you can do. For instance, you can meet up with other avatars (your friends with poor financial management skills who, like you, paid $600 to play Q*Bert; also, PlayStation Network pals you met while playing Q*Bert online) in one of HOME's many lobbies, and make group decisions such as:

  • "Let's leave this lobby and join up elsewhere to shoot each other in the face during an online multi-player game of Death Merchants: TOE TAG SALE."
  • "Let's all go to my virtual apartment, filled with virtual mid-century modern furniture for which I paid real money, and listen to MP3s together."
  • "Let's just hang out here and talk about, you know, stuff."
  • "Let's all check out all the cool advertisements that have crowded into every possible free corner of HOME in order to defray the cost of developing such an ambitious user interface in a completely free network service."

There are other things you and your friends can do, but that's a real grey area right now. HOME is a pretty open platform and, while Sony has some specific immediate plans for it, there are many other things it hasn't even considered yet. Even though I've never been attracted to games like The Sims or free-for-alls like Second Life, I'm definitely curious about the potential of HOME, particularly as a gaming interface. And, while one of the the first questions that keeps coming up, long before HOME has been populated (or even gone live) is the very obvious, "well, aren't there a lot of immature assholes who play video games? And would I really want to live in a virtual world populated by semi-literate fanboys, trash-talkers, and those guys who robbed PS3 pre-order customers at gunpoint back in November?" There certainly exists the possibility that HOME could become broken and dysfunctional very quickly, if all these people are allowed to run around, uncensored.

One thing Sony has officially said on this subject, regarding jerkfaces and meanies who roam HOME, is that you can instantly "block" anyone who hassles you (just like over email, or in your instant messaging program). Makes sense. You can also report someone to the network administrator, which seems less productive to me. Snitching has always struck me as a protracted, ineffective process, and usually just makes the snitch feel stupid and more impotent in the end. It's going to be hard to police every creep who hangs out in HOME, and some see this is a tremendous disadvantage for the platform, but I seriously see it as a great opportunity.

After all, PS3 is essentially a gaming platform, right? Sony has even said that eventually your avatar might be able to walk up to an arcade cabinet in HOME and immediately launch himself or herself into a game of pinball, bowling, Galaga, etc. Why not use this in other seamless real-world situations. What if you were being bullied by some other avatar and you could instantly challenge him to a fight, right in HOME. You set the location, and the time, and an invite gets posted all over HOME so other people can show up. Then, at the given time/location, you and your tormentor enter a full-featured fighting game, like Virtua Fighter or whatever. Only the two fighters are YOUR AVATARS. And, in the background, you'll see all the other user avatars who decided to show up to watch the fight. You could even charge them admission to attend.

Better yet, you and your competitor could set stakes for the fight. Suppose there was a system of money-like credits in HOME. You could set a purse for the fight. Additionally, you could set other stakes like "Let's play for clothing." Then, whoever wins the fight also wins their challenger's clothing, and that challenger has to walk around HOME naked and humiliated until he/she can procure more clothing, either using credits or by challenging another person to a fight.

Or, why not challenge someone else to a drag race around HOME? Winner takes loser's vehicle. (PLUS, loser has to pay for any damages to person or property caused during the race.) This could go on and on and on, with various other game-inspired challenges where gaming skills=survival skills. Eventually, HOME could potentially have "bad" neighborhoods (like Grand Theft Auto) you'd only visit if you were looking for fake IDs, tattoos, dice games, and other kinds of low-level mayhem.

Of course, Sony can easily prevent certain types of counter-productive behavior an environment like HOME—for instance, they can make sure it's impossible to murder another person's character—but you can't really 100% enforce an anti-bullying policy. However, HOME presents a tremendous advantage. Here, physical strength and confidence don't figure in at all, with regards to bullying. A new set of rules and attributes prevails—namely, wit and skill. Why not allow the currency of HOME to flourish? Obviously, you wouldn't have to accept any challenges issued to you by other HOME avatars, but it could be a great chance to shut down an annoying bully if you were interested.

Even if it meant getting my ass kicked, I would love to play a "real world" fighting game where my fighter is me. And, of course, I would also like to see other people's avatars naked.

WE FIRST MET ON 03.17.2007

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