Burning Flipside, and the relevance of Burning Man to MMOs

I am taking off tomorrow morning to Austin, TX for my first trip to Burning Flipside, one of the larger ‘regional events’ associated with Burning Man. I’ve been to BM eight times now, every year since I moved to the US. Obviously I think it’s worthwhile, and not just because it’s a big silly vacation in the desert with my pals from all over the world and 40,000 other crazy dorks.

I think Burning Man is very interesting from an MMO perspective. At the excellent Austin Games Conference last year I moderated a panel on ‘User Created Content’, and set out an opening position as follows; I believe that MMOs (or Virtual Worlds, or whatnot) are tremendously important as the dominant media of ‘The Future’. In this context, there is a War for the Future. I likened this to a Tale of Two Cities.

Both are cities in Nevada that are primarily recreational in purpose.

One is a temporary autonomous zone created and dismantled over a week, built almost entirely by its residents, who bring nearly all the entertainment and consumables they require. No money changes hands. Incredible feats of creation and destruction occur. People party hard, fall in love, enjoy epiphanies and sometimes hard falls. It’s physically and mentally gruelling. ‘Participants’ spend months preparing and then weeks or months winding back down. What happens at Burning Man people carry away with them, changing them.

The other is a cynical corporate machine designed astutely to extract money from visitors whilst giving them the apparent sensations of fun. Everything is for sale. The buildings and scenes are extravagent and beautiful, mirroring the wonders of the world. The shows are astounding and intricately produced. What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Give or take a good number of marriages, some broken banks and some terrible hangovers, most of experiences are ephemeral.

The analogical contrast between Second Life and expensive content-driven theme-park MMOs like World of Warcraft is obvious.

If humanity has a future (i.e. if we don’t blow ourselves up, or devour ourselves in green or grey goo), then I believe we’ll largely live lives of leisure. How will fill that leisure time will be profoundly important. As a creator of leisure, a builder of (virtual) leisure cities, I would much rather people spent most of their time at a virtual Burning Man than Vegas. That said, Puzzle Pirates is more Vegas than Burning Man. Heck, we’ve even got Poker. Clearly I have some work to do!

At the end of the Austin panel, after a great debate from the chaps there (Jim Purbrick from Second Life, Walter Yarborough from Dark Age of Camelot, Dr Cat from Furcadia, and Andy Tepper from A Tale in the Desert), I asked the audience to vote; Vegas or Burning Man? It was about 50/50. Here is the powerpoint from the panel, mostly images of Second Life and Vegas/Burning Man images I snagged from Google image search in the 30 minutes beforehand.

This year at the Austin Game Conference there’s going to be a whole panel about the connections between Burning Man and Vegas, with a bunch of fresh newbies who’ll still be dusty from their first trip. Should be fun!