(Image from Flickr - no idea who made the mural)

Going into 2008, a lot of folks had high hopes for user-generated content. We expected to design our own lifeforms in Spore, build whole levels felt-and-cardboard wonder in Little Big Planet, and write the next “Young Folks” in Guitar Hero World Tour. Even though the 90-9-1 rule is well-established (thanks Brinstar for this link), and nobody expect that every single gamer would suddenly become a creative mastermind. But it’s fair to say we hoped this would become a “thing.” It reminds me of the excellent music documentary Scratch, where a whole generation of turntablists talk about discovering turntablism because they all saw Herbie Hancock’s “Rock-It” on TV and watched Grandmaster Flash scratch records, and they said, “Wow, a turntable can do that? I want to try!”

At the same time, games like Little Big Planet or for that matter, Spore, implied there would be more for the 90% to do while the 1 and the 9 were creating and sharing all that great content. I haven’t seen any pans for LBP, but there’s a gulf between the raves and the yawns, and user-made content is partly to blame. (Spore has too many of its own problems to factor into the discussion.) Never mind that we might enjoy a flood of levels from other users: it’s unlikely that the common gamer will finish a level, produce something she’s really thrilled by, and see much of himself in what’s happening on the screen.

User-generated content clicks when the user can go, “Hey, that’s me!” In games, this has required learning specialized and even arcane skills like: platformer level design best practices, 3-D modeling, simple scripting, and how to fart around with kludgey interface tools (looking at you, Second Life). As I said in Variety, it struck me as funny that games were expecting people to suddenly master and embrace these practices when the two things that people produce and upload by the gigabits every minute of the day – text, and photos – are just left out.

So why don’t we aim for a new tier – something that takes a chunk out of the 90, to lead it closer to the 9 and the 1? Why not give users a chance to enter something personal and creative, but let the system mediate, moderate and filter it into something useful?

Let’s call this “user-generated, machine-mediated content,” pronounced UGH-MECK. Here are some examples.

- Games can show newer players the paths left by older ones. This is already happening in the Mirror’s Edge time trials, or (UPDATE: fixed the name) Jesse Venbrux’s “Deaths”, which shows you the scattered bodies of other players.

- I’ve never run into a quest in an MMO, and rarely in a single-player RPG, where I actually had to type something in during a conversation. We’re nowhere close to a natural language processor in these games. But why not use simple algorithms to parse simple comments and invite simple levels of creativity? Here’s an easy example: in World of Warcraft, a quest giver can tell you to go to such-and-such city – and write the mayor of the town a haiku or a limmerick that uses the word “axe.” Any text entry that follows the word and syllable count and includes that word will pass. It doesn’t have to be art. But players would have a lot of fun with this.

- Ever since Twitter exploded, people have written many programs to parse and analyze and psychoanalyze what people are typing. How about just porting it into a game? In The World Ends With You, players can “scan” the thoughts of the people around them. The canned text written for the game is good, but I’d love to eavesdrop real-time in real Twitter feeds.

- So many games include bathrooms. Why can’t we all write on the walls?

- I’m a sucker for a good Flickr mash-up. If you throw in a few tags and search for photos marked “interesting,” you get fascinating results – for example, my favorite one, Snapp Radio: an Internet DJ plays a song; Snapp Radio looks up the tags for that song on Last.fm; it uses those tags to find relevant photos on Flickr. Sometimes you get photos of the band, but in one case, I was listening to a Clash song and saw street riots, pictures of George Bush, and awful mismatched furniture – the colors “clashed.” It’s a bit of a parlor trick, but I’d love to see more games use pics this way, for a collage effect or just for a headtrip. I understand Little Big Planet will be able to import your pics by right about now. But I’d love to integrate with Flickr as well. Surprise me.

… and I didn’t even touch on music.

What are some other ideas? Or other examples of people who are making this work?

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