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7:00pm on Thursday, 26th August, 2010:

I Give Up


It used to be that I'd read every paper about virtual worlds because I'd written them.

Then, other people started writing on the subject. I eagerly tracked down and read every single piece of academic work I could find. Even in the late 1990s, it was possible to do this: a newcomer to the field could sit down for three or four weeks and read pretty well every major piece of work on the topic.

Well, in English, anyway — I had some foreign-language papers too but I couldn't make head nor tail of those.

Books started to come out as well. I bought and read each and every one of them that I could find. Every couple of months, I would spend a few hours in the largest London bookshops looking through the indexes of anything promising, to see if there was a mention of MUDs, MOOs or (sometimes) me.

By the time my own book came out in 2003, though, things were starting to change. I could keep up with the books, but I had a backlog of papers starting to build up, mainly because of a few lengthy MA and PhD theses that took ages to read.

Shortly after, I started to discover areas of research that, worryingly, I hadn't come across before — whole seams of it, waiting to be mined. The reason I hadn't heard of it earlier was because the researchers involved hadn't heard about what the rest of academia was doing either. They had their own names for what at the time we were calling "virtual worlds", and were miffed that no-one would adopt theirs.

Five or so years ago, the floodgates started to open. Partly because academics were writing more papers, but mainly because Second Life and World of Warcraft garnered so much attention, papers started to appear faster than I could read them. Some areas, such as Serious Games, really rocketed. The quality of the papers went down, though; I was reading material that treated what we'd known for years as if it were a new discovery, or that made claims on flimsy evidence, or that had poor scholarship, or that misinterpreted facts, or that was just plain wrong. My pile of papers to read got higher and higher. I started to get a pile of books, too.

Still, I kept collecting every article on virtual worlds that I could find. If I couldn't read it right away, I might get time later. Often, I did get time later. The pile of "read papers waiting to be filed" I have next to me is about 35cm tall, whereas the one with unread papers waiting to be read is about 25cm tall. I keep a hard copy of everything because it's harder to lose. Also, because my collection started when hard copies were all there was, I'd have to scan everything I've already read to keep it in a consistent format.

I make an exception for theses, though. Some of those are hundreds of pages long — no way can I afford to print those off.

As of this morning, whenever I came across a bunch of papers, I would print them off and put them in my pile to read. Today, though, this arrived:

It's nothing out of the ordinary — it's Learning, Media and Technology vol. 35(2) — and it contains some papers that I do actually want to read and probably will. However, no fault of its own, it's the straw the broke the camel's back: I've lost the will to print off every single paper in it to add to my archive. Merely being about virtual worlds isn't enough of a reason to collect papers any more. I just can't keep up.

I'll try get hold of books still, but those are going digital these days. Twenty years from now, there'll be no need for someone to have collected them because they'll all have been scanned and searchable and, most probably, neglected. A couple of hundred years from now, historians will sit at a computer searching for articles to make whatever point they are trying to make; they won't know the good papers from the bad, and they won't necessarily care so long as what they find supports their argument.

Still, I wasn't ever collecting papers for posterity, I was collecting them to read. Now, I've finally had to recognise what's been obvious for some time: I don't have the time to read them, and a good deal of what's out there isn't worth reading anyway. I'll just have to be selective instead.

Besides, I've run out of shelf space in my office at the university.

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Copyright © 2010 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).