Socialised entertainment

Publication date: 8 February 2013
Originally published 2012 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 08-Feb-2013.


Regular readers will know I'm very enthusiastic about entertainment becoming less like ordinary retail products, and more like improvisational theatre.

Modern mainstream entertainment has settled into a pattern of big companies making mass-market products, selling them at substantial profits to audiences and/or advertisers, and getting very cross, to the point of self-destructive spite, if anybody manages to access these products without paying.

This does not encourage innovation in mass-market TV, movies, music or games. The "triple-A" top-flight big-budget game industry is now every bit as merciless as the movie business. Kingdoms of Amalur, the odd single-player RPG that's extremely reminiscent of MMORPGs because it was meant to be one before they ran out of money, sold 1.2 million copies in ninety days. This made it, of course, a miserable failure. It needed to sell three million just to break even on the development budget.

But there have always been musicians and storytellers and actors and artists of every other kind who perform for little or no monetary reward. And today it's becoming easier and easier for people to team up and produce remarkable works without needing expensive recording studios, or agents, or ticket-selling middle-men. The mod scene (not that one) is becoming a major part of this. The heavy lifting of making game engines and everyday content is done by one of the big studios, scripting systems come from those same studios or somewhere else, and then random people on the Internet stand on these giants' shoulders and make the game better. Or strip it to the chassis and turn it into a whole new game.

Internet interconnection has made life easier for people in older creative businesses, too. Unknown writers, for instance, used to have a terrible time getting published, often but not always for good reason. Now, your brilliant space opera, rant about Freemasons or Twilight fanfiction can be offered to an audience of millions with a few mouse-clicks.

That's still a few-to-many model, though. There are a lot more modders than commercial software companies, but modders are still massively outnumbered by players; good modders are much rarer.

I don't think it has to be that way, though, because there are already some collaborative creative works where the creator-to-consumer ratio is surprisingly low.

The obvious example is games and singalongs and so forth conducted among friends, but there are also already many-to-many entertainment... things... that bring complete strangers together.

Take the Internet Oracle, for instance. It's "an anonymous, cooperative email system for creative, (usually) humorous writing, serving the Net since 1989 and realizing its first virtual personality."

Send a question to with "tell me" in the subject line, and you will in due course receive an answer to your question from the Oracle Most Wise. You will probably also receive a question from someone else, which you can answer in the persona of the Oracle; that's where all of the answers come from. This requires a bit of familiarisation if you want to follow the forms and characters and in-jokes the Oracle's accumulated over the years. But, as with Wikipedia, you won't get in trouble if you just jump in and have a go. (If you'd like to answer a question but don't feel like asking one, e-mail the same address with "ask me" in the subject line.)

Nobody gets paid for answering Oracle questions, and not all of the answers are good. But over the twenty-three years the Oracle's been running, it's come up with a lot of very good humour, the very best of which you can read here.

There are many other online collaborative creative endeavours. The SCP Foundation; crowdsourced creepiness. Pretend Office, which is what it sounds like and is funnier than you might think. Public Minecraft servers (we don't have multiplayer Dwarf Fortress yet, but that's probably because the world's computers don't add up to enough power to run it). New ones pop up every day. (Can you, for instance, think of an amusing memo that Nick Fury might send? Contribute it to!)

And then there's the explosion of Mystery-Science-Theater-style Let's Plays and related projects, that piggyback on a movie or game or other such work.

It's not yet possible for a person who wants to make a game or mod to do so if they're not also, at the very least, competent with a few development tools, which are usually even less immediately intuitive than Photoshop. There are a few ways to be a real-time online dungeon master for a tabletop-style RPG, though, and there are other little oddities like the lo-fi one-on-one Sleep Is Death. But even if you only want to make yet another pervy naked-chicks mod for Skyrim, you'll need to learn rather a lot.

This is changing, though. Faster computers make less efficient but friendlier development techniques more useful. Public-domain graphics and sound archives are getting better and better. A couple of Kinects are almost good enough for high-grade motion capture:

Full synthesised voice acting isn't quite there yet, but working with voice actors over the Web is achievable, if still strangely uncommon. And we demonstrably already have a large and functional world of music and mods and cartoons and other stuff I'm too old to understand, all being given away by the creators, in return for nothing but applause and tips.

Almost nobody's going to make Madonna money on the new frontier of democratised entertainment, but most YouTube performers just want to share their work with the world. The price we must pay is all those nude mods, and also Justin Bieber.

But I still think it's a tolerable deal.

Other columns

Learning to love depreciation

Overclockers: Get in early!

Stuff I Hate

Why Macs annoy me

USB: It's worth what you pay

"Great product! Doesn't work!"

The virus I want to see

Lies, damned lies and marketing

Unconventional wisdom

How not to e-mail me

Dan's Quick Guide to Memory Effect, You Idiots

Your computer is not alive

What's the point of robot pets?

Learning from spam

Why it doesn't matter whether censorware works

The price of power

The CPU Cooler Snap Judgement Guide

Avoiding electrocution

Video memory mysteries

New ways to be wrong

Clearing the VR hurdles

Not So Super

Do you have a license for that Athlon?

Cool bananas

Getting rid of the disks

LCDs, CRTs, and geese

Filling up the laptop

IMAX computing

Digital couch potatoes, arise!

Invisible miracles

Those darn wires

Wossit cost, then?

PFC decoded

Cheap high-res TV: Forget it.


Dan Squints At The Future, Again

The programmable matter revolution

Sounding better

Reality Plus™!

I want my Tidy-Bot!

Less go, more show

In search of stupidity

It's SnitchCam time!

Power struggle

Speakers versus headphones

Getting paid to play

Hurdles on the upgrade path

Hatin' on lithium ion

Wanted: Cheap giant bit barrel

The screen you'll be using tomorrow

Cool gadget. Ten bucks.

Open Sesame!

Absolutely accurate predictions

The truth about everything

Burr walnut computing

Nothing new behind the lens

Do it yourself. Almost.

The quest for physicality

Tool time

Pretty PCs - the quest continues

The USB drive time bomb

Closer to quietness

Stuff You Should Want

The modular car

Dumb smart houses

Enough already with the megapixels

Inching toward the NAS of our dreams

Older than dirt

The Synthetics are coming


Game Over is nigh

The Embarrassingly Easy Case Mod

Dumb then, smart now

Fuel cells - are we there yet?

A PC full of magnets

Knowledge is weakness

One Laptop Per Me

The Land of Wind, Ghosts and Minimised Windows

Things that change, things that don't

Water power

Great interface disasters

Doughnut-shaped universes

Grease and hard drive change

Save me!

Impossible antenna, only $50!

I'm ready for my upgrade

The Great Apathetic Revolution

Protect the Wi-Fi wilderness!

Wi-Fi pirate radio

The benign botnet

Meet the new DRM, same as the old DRM

Your laptop is lying to you

Welcome to super-surveillance

Lemon-fresh power supplies


Internet washing machines, and magic rip-off boxes

GPGPU and the Law of New Features

Are you going to believe me, or your lying eyes?

We're all prisoners of game theory

I think I'm turning cyborg-ese, I really think so

Half an ounce of electrons

Next stop, clay tablets

A bold new computer metaphor

Won't someone PLEASE think of the hard drives?!

Alternate history

From aerial torpedoes to RoboCars

How fast is a hard drive? How long is a piece of string?

"In tonight's episode of Fallout 4..."

How hot is too hot?

Nerd Skill Number One

What'll be free next?

Out: Hot rods. In: Robots.

500 gig per second, if we don't get a flat

No spaceship? No sale.

The shifting goalposts of AI

Steal This Education

Next stop: Hardware piracy

A hundred years of EULAs

The triumph of niceness

The daily grind

Speed kings


Game crazy

Five trillion bits flying in loose formation

Cannibalise the corpses!

One-note NPCs

Big Brother is watching you play

Have you wasted enough time today?

The newt hits! You die...

Stuck in the foothills

A modest censorship proposal

In Praise of the Fisheye


The death of the manual

Of magic lanterns, and MMORPGs

When you have eliminated the impossible...

Welcome to dream-land

Welcome to my museum

Stomp, don't sprint!

Grinding myself down

Pathfinding to everywhere

A deadly mouse trap

If it looks random, it probably isn't

Identical voices and phantom swords


Socialised entertainment

Warfare. Aliens. Car crashes. ENTERTAINMENT!

On the h4xx0ring of p4sswordZ

Seeing past the normal

Science versus SoftRAM

Righteous bits

Random... ish... numbers

I get letters

Money for nothing

Of course you'd download a car. Or a gun!

A comforting lie

Give Dan some money!
(and no-one gets hurt)