May 15, 2005

Laws and Questions about Online Variations

by Nick Montfort · , 8:02 pm

I heard about GTxA commenter Raph Koster’s “The Laws of Online World Design” recently on ifMUD. It’s a provocative and thoughtful list of principles, some of which were evident back in the days of Habitat. While the page itself is not new – an Internet Archive search shows the page has been around at that location since 2000 – and there are no arguments offered for why these laws obtain, the page is still well worth reading, and has several thoughts that apply to one-player games as well.

Having used the Internet Archive to check the date this page was first posted, I also fetched the May 11, 2000 version of the page (the earliest one) and then ran diff on this old page and the current HTML. Which leads me to wonder…

Although there’s nothing to indicate it in the current HTML of the page, you can see from doing this that Dundee’s Law, Ananda Dawnsinger’s Law, Rickey’s Law, Darklock’s First Law, Corollary to Darklock’s First Law, and Darklock’s Second Law have been added, as you would note if you ran diff on plain text renderings of the HTML. There are also other changes visible when diffing the HTML, though. Line breaks that have been eliminated here and there; a jpeg bullet image is linked instead of a gif image.

Well, these particular differences aren’t startling or exciting, but they led me to wonder about how Web pages (and sites overall) are altered over time. What changes about them, and why? There are plenty of cases where where the White House has erased online government records to make the current administration look better (e.g., the list of coalition members, as reported later by Reuters), but what are the less sinister and more subtle changes that are made? Has any humanistic work been done on discerning and interpreting these changes from outside the site, using the Internet Archive or one’s one saved versions of pages? Such changes are beginning to be understood in the framework of machine learning and computer science – Google certainly takes changes into account, determining how often to refetch a page based on how frequent these changes are, for instance. But it will also be interesting to learn how such alterations reveal editorial activity and human intentions and actions. There seems to be room for large-scale work as well as well as close studies of specific documents.

So far, I’ve found one recent article that bears on this question, in the journal Information Research: “A longitudinal study of Web pages continued: a consideration of document persistence” by Wallace Koehler. This article compares samples of documents from between 1996 and 2003 to quantify Web page changes over time, looking at file size and links rather than all of the HTML. The conclusions are interesting:

…the half-lives of Web resources in different disciplines, domains, and fields differ. … not only are legal, scholarly, and educational electronic citations reported to have limited lifecycles not dissimilar to Web resources in general, but there is also variability among the disciplines.

The focus of this article is on “linkrot” and preservation issues, though – I’m also interested in finding out what the implications of such longitudinal changes are for textual studies and editorial practice, not just for library science and descriptive bibliography. I know Matt Kirschenbaum’s excellent “Editing the Interface: Textual Studies and First Generation Electronic Objects.” (TEXT: An Interdisciplinary Annual of Textual Studies 14 (2002): 15-51) deals with this issue, but unfortunately Matt’s article suffers from the ultimate linkrot – it was never placed online. I’ll have to fish it out of my files and re-read it at some point…

3 Responses to “Laws and Questions about Online Variations”

  1. Raph Says:

    Wow, I am surprised you hadn’t heard about that yet. That was the bit that first got me any attention as a commenter on online games. (Important, I am not the “author” of most of the laws. The ones with names are of course attributable to those people).

    The Laws are gathered by going through writings on MUDs and MMOs and extracting what seemed to mne to be timeless bits of wisdom or particularly acute observations. The majority of them came from MUD-Dev. In many cases, they exist as such solely so that complex dilemmas or problems can be referenced in shorthand. The Laws was undertaken as a bit of community contribution, and is a melting pot of many people’s observations, with the caveat that I get to pick what makes it. Laws get added very rarely.

    The HTML changes are because the site design has changed a few times. :)

  2. nick Says:

    Raph, I’m often surprised at the things I haven’t heard about, too. I must admit that I’m not really a multi-player virtual worlds sorta guy, though, although I make an attempt to read in this area, online and in print. One of the things that interested me most was how several of these also apply to single-player virtual worlds (and specifically interactive fiction), because I was reading with that in mind.

    For instance:

    J. C. Lawrence’s “do it everywhere” law
    If you do it one place, you have to do it everywhere. Players like clever things and will search them out. Once they find a clever thing they will search for other similar or related clever things that seem to be implied by what they found and will get pissed off if they don’t find them.

    Along with “If something can be abused, it will be” and “No matter how many new features you have or add, the players will always want more” and others.

    Then there are some laws that could apply to single-player games, but don’t seem to, e.g., “No matter what you do, someone is going to automate the process of playing your world.”

    By the way, this fine law:

    Koster’s Law (Mike Sellers was actually the one to dub it thus)
    The quality of roleplaying is inversely proportional to the number of people playing.

    Means that for quality role-playing, we shouldn’t have MMOs at all – single-player interactive fiction is best! Doesn’t it?

    (Okay, the obvious counterargument is that no, zero players are actually best…)

  3. greglas Says:

    >zero players are actually best…

    Hmm. My math skilz are rusty — would zero players make for infinitely good role-playing? Or would it just be impossible because we would need to divide by zero?

    Even if the roleplaying was of infinitely good quality, I don’t know if the human nervous system could handle infinitely good quality — but I guess it wouldn’t have to! :-)

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