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15 Minutes of Fame: MIT Media Lab director Joichi Ito on WoW

From Hollywood celebrities to the guy next door, millions of people have made World of Warcraft a part of their lives. How do you play WoW? We're giving each approach its own 15 Minutes of Fame.

Let's get Joichi Ito's professional credentials out of the way first. The 44-year-old Japanese venture capitalist is the incoming director of the avant-garde MIT Media Laboratory. A self-professed "informal learner" (he dropped out of college twice and never finished a degree) now shines as one of the stars of the digital age, serving on the board of directors for Creative Commons, Technorati, ICANN, and Mozilla, and catching the wave as an early-bird investor in Last.fm, Flickr, and Twitter.

Currently a resident of Dubai (he moved there so he could get a better feel for the people and the region), he circumnavigates the globe a full two times every month in the course of his international pursuits. According to his Twitter stream, he's been scuba diving in Japan this week taking underwater radioactivity samples; after catching the bug to learn how to dive, he promptly became a master diver and now is a PADI open water instructor. He's the godson of psychedelic explorer Timothy Leary ...

... and a guild leader in World of Warcraft. "My feeling is that what we are doing in WoW represents in many ways the future of real time collaborative teams and leadership in an increasingly ad hoc, always-on, diversity intense and real-time environment," he wrote in his blog back in 2006. In fact, one of his presentations on WoW made it into an early incarnation of our Moviewatch feature in 2007.

So yeah, we're going to talk about WoW ... Need anything else to cement his gaming cred? Two more tidbits: Ito's GMed a WoW raiding guild since the original days of Molten Core, and he owns an actual handwritten map drawn by Richard Bartle, creator of the first MUD -- it's like the Magna Carta of gaming.

Main character Jonkichi
Guild We Know
Realm Eitrigg (US-A)

Joi Ito: So yes, I'm a big fan of WoW Insider.

15 Minutes of Fame: Why, thank you! Great to hear! So you read us currently?

I read it when people send me links, which is often.

So are you still actively playing? Most of the posts and comments I've seen from you seem to come from the Molten Core days.

Back in the Molten Core days, I was on every single day, and we did two full days on the weekends. That was probably when I was playing the most, and I was the guild leader and the class lead and all that stuff. Lately, I pop in. I don't raid. Mostly, I just take care of guild administration. Mostly, I participate on the forums. I love that the iPhone Armory now lets you do guild chat; that's fun. I think if I had more time, I'd play again. It's not like I've quit; I just got a little busy. I'm kind of in AFK mode.

It sort of goes in waves. I've done the first round of the basic quests and I'm sort of in dailies mode right now, just sort of gearing up to – but you know, it's going to be hard to catch up to the rest of the guild, 'cause they're all sort of marching along ...

Oh, it goes surprisingly fast!

The reason I think the guild survived is we have a fairly diverse guild of hardcore raiders and hardcore PVPers and pretty social people, and a lot of us have gotten to know each other in real life -- probably like a lot of the older guilds. But it is true: People are pretty tolerant of other people popping back in. And the neat thing is that despite the fact that we're kind of casual, our raid progression is not the best, but it's also enough to keep the raiders interested.

It's kind of a fine balance, though. We always have this where the hardcore raiders will go off and join raiding guilds because they get frustrated ... but they always come back.

Let's go back a little bit -- I understand that you're a MUDder from way back.

At Essex University was where Richard Bartle made his first MUD. I don't think he was playing at the time, but somewhere I do have the original handwritten map of the first MUD that Richard Bartle wrote. And we didn't have the internet back then, so I used X.25 to get over to the European network and logged in there. The MUD was really cool, because it was where all the hackers hung out. And they would teach me how to get into the various networks.

Then there was another MUD that popped up at Essex after that, and several other places started doing their own MUDS. It was the very early days, so the MUD was very rudimentary. But it was life-changing for me. This was probably like -- I'm trying to remember what year this would be -- this was probably like '83, '82, somewhere around then.

And then you ran your own, later on.

Yeah, for a while, everyone was trying to run their own. It ran for a little while, but it never took off to be anything. It may have gone on to become something, but I kind of lost track of it.

But the real hours I put in were in the Essex University MUD. And the way that they had it, the early MUDs, when you died, you died. You lost everything. I can't remember what level it was, but I was a neuromancer, which is like the one level before wizard. And once you became wizard, you were immortal, and you could change the world and you could do all kinds of stuff. So I was one level before that -- and I got killed.

So that was like a lot of time, you know, tons of hours ... So after that, that was kind of the end of that for me ... I was still friends with people and I would go hang out and stuff, but I didn't really want to rebuild and re-do all of that. I mean, you think about it now and the way we just walk from the graveyard. But in the old days -- and this is a PK, this is some guy that would just sit around and ... I got ... I think I ... I'm pretty sure ... I think I got ganked, if I'm not mistaken. Anyway ...

It was one of those things where, you know, it's amazing how things have changed.

But then after the MUDS, I would hang out on different people's MUDs and played around with MOOs and stuff like that. And I remember Pavel Curtis at Xerox Parc was kind of [asking], what if the whole world were a big MUD? I really liked the metaphor of MUDS where you could modify your own worlds -- and that was kind of what I didn't like about the commercial games, was there was very little user-generated stuff.

I think I wrote a paper at some point about this -- but to me, the metaphor I used for this was that the MUD is like the DNA. All the people who are programming the MUD are like little agents of the MUD collecting information and thoughts from the real world, and all of the time people spend leveling up and being in your MUD are like investments of the real world into this MUD. And then when a MUD forks, it's like cellular division, and you have different types of MUDs, so those are different types of DNA ... And I thought of MUDs as like this life form that was drawing life force from the real world into the online.

And some of these MUDs had so much really interesting information that was the result of all these people building things into the MUD. To me, that was what was really cool about the MUD. Because at some level, the gameplay wasn't really that balanced or sophisticated, so ... I thought the building part was really neat.

I didn't get into Second Life because to me, it was kind of clunky. MUDs were so much easier to do stuff in, so I didn't really get into Second Life. And even WoW, I kind of looked at it from the outside for a long time. To me, the lack of user-generated stuff just seemed like it would be not that interesting. But then once I started playing, I quickly latched onto the social part and realized that there was a lot going on that I hadn't seen.

I wonder what you think about the evolution of WoW, then, how it's much more of a closed system now than it used to be.

Part of what I love about WoW right now is the diversity of the people. In my guild, we've got academics and working class and kids and adults, and we're kind of all over the place. I think the idea that Blizzard keeps lowering the bar is a good thing, because the way in which you can play and participate has gotten a lot easier. It keeps people engaged. In the earlier [MMOs], you'd spend hours trying to get through the mountain pass and find that little pixel you needed to hook on to in order to hop over this little ledge. There's so much time spent doing mechanical maneuvering that I think getting away from that was a good thing. Some of the quests were just impossibly hard in really stupid ways.

Having said that, it really has become kind of mindless for some. If you read each quest and you think about the lore, you can get into it, but you can also just kind of click through everything. I think the plus is, it's probably easier to get more people to play, and so it makes the social dynamic more interesting. But I think the downside is that a lot of the hardcore people burn through it really fast.

It seems as if we need more niche MMOs, so that different types of players can find the rhythm and rhyme that works best for them.

I think that would be neat. I think also you could probably do more stuff in the game. I know they're trying to solve for so many parameters that it's probably pretty hard. But the one thing that I do -- and this is just from a purely selfish perspective -- I do miss the big 40-mans. That was like "the ball." That was kind of where everybody would show up that week, and all kinds of stuff could have happened that week, but everybody showed up for the 40-man. It was kind of like this thing, it's kind of what everybody got dressed up for that weekend.

And now with all the smaller ones [raids], it's kind of splintering everything a little bit. It makes sense I think to help the smaller guilds, but it does make the bigger guilds kind of awkward to run.

And the of course, the Dungeon Finder has further removed a great deal of the sense of community.

Exactly. That was a big thing in the early days for a guild. We had a couple of people who were very social, and they would just sit and run -- I remember, there was an epic ZG that they were running for over a day. Literally. [laughs] They weren't doing very well. They just kept going and going. It was epic. I'd go to sleep, and I'd wake up, and they were still running it. But they kept pugging more people and pugging more people. But they were also kind of goofing off.

But the thing is, you would meet tons of new people, and we'd end up guilding them. The PUGs were really social. We also used to pug MC. We'd just go into trade chat and go, "Hey, anybody want to come to MC?" And we had kind of gotten MC down to a certain level, so if we had enough of our strong members there, we could pull people along. And that was a blast. At the time, the other guilds were happy, and we got a lot of positive feedback. A couple of smaller guilds ended up merging with us because they just met us through these MC PUGs.

Read Part 2 of our interview with Joi Ito, including his thoughts on why some people with MBAs make crappy raid leaders, how WoW builds stronger bonds between people who work together, and his plans to bring WoW along for the ride at MIT.

"I never thought of playing WoW like that!" -- and neither did we, until we talked with these players, from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Aron "Nog" Eisenberg to an Olympic medalist and a quadriplegic raider. Know someone else we should feature? Email lisa@wowinsider.com.

Filed under: Interviews, 15 Minutes of Fame

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