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Monday, June 21, 2004

THE SECOND LIFE OF BAGHDAD

Dach Stryker is having connection troubles to Second Life, from where he works. (Dach's a new resident-- he joined in early June.) It's not the bandwidth that's the problem, because Dach shares a private satellite connection with his co-workers, and it's 768k/128K. A land line connection via DSL, say, or cable, would work better, but Dach's employer has set the office up in a fairly remote location, out in the countryside, so his options are limited, when it comes to getting online. Still, while he's only been in Second Life twice, and the day I meet him, he's pretty impressed, so far. "[Although] the lag can get frustrating," Dach acknowledges. "Right now, it is not too bad, [but] when I move around a lot it can get that way-- I get some packet loss."

Still, he decides, after I take him on a brief tour, "This game is a trip. You could get lost in here."

In Dach's case, getting lost may be a unique virtue to being in-world, because of the
occupational hazards he usually has to deal with, on the job-- and in the off-hours, when
he gets back in the morning from his usual graveyard shift.

"We get mortared every once in awhile," Dach tells me, "but it is not that bad. The attacks have calmed down a lot. I am not sure why; I guess they figured they were fighting a losing battle, I am not sure. I don't get much intel, so I have to assume, but I am not allowed to leave the base, so I am not sure what is going [on] here."

"You can't leave the base at all?"

"I am not sure I would want to," Dach says, drily. "People want to kill us out there."

That's because Dach's office is based on an old Iraqi air base in Balad, a little north of Baghdad, in the heart of the infamous Sunni Triangle, in a town that's sometimes described as the epicenter for Baath Party resistance in Iraq.

"I have been here about a month and have eleven to go," Dach tells me, standing at the base of Abbotts Aerodrome, Cubey Terra's village of floating air strips. "I am working twelve hours a day, sixty a week." Recently with the Air Force, where he worked on telephone switches in Qatar, during major military operations in Iraq last year (Qatar was the host country to CENTCOM), Dach now works as a civilian contractor for the Army.

"I am in a tent with five other people," says Dach, though adds, "we are supposed to get trailers soon, I hope." And this is where he is now, talking to me by the northern shore of Abbotts, and forty miles north of Baghdad. "I am on my laptop in my living tent. I have my laptop on a foot locker, and we have the Internet connection shared throughout the tents. We have Internet at work in a building also, but the firewall prevents playing. I have a hard line connected to a linksys router."

When I first meet him, it's around 8:30PM (PDT), on a Tuesday-- and 7:00AM in Iraq, where Dach is just getting off his shift. I ask him to describe the scene, outside his tent, and beyond the base's fortified barricades.

"Well, it is desert," Dach answers, "but we [have] a lot of trees around-- not too bad. We are close to the Tigris river and there's a lot of farms land around. Country, really." In the Bible, the Garden of Eden was located between the Tigris and the Euphrates; the city of Baghdad, due south of Dach, was founded in 762-767 AD by Caliph Al-Mansur, and according to an Iraqi newsite, "became the center of knowledge in the medieval ages." Some 110 miles south of Dach are the remains of Babylon, the ancient city founded in 2300 B.C. or thereabouts. This is where the Code of Hammurabi, by the first king of the Babylonian Empire, was set to stone in 1686 B.C. It's believed by many to be the first collection of written laws in the history of humankind.

So in a tent located in the cradle of civilization, standing here at the edge of a digital ocean, underneath a floating aerodrome, and the suburban hills of Abbots beyond, Dach Stryker is looking around, still getting acquainted with the society of Second Life.

"Where do people hang out in the game?", he asks from Balad. "Are there big hangout zones?"

I check the Popular Places tab, in my interface. At the moment, based on foot traffic, the clothing-optional Phantasie Isle Beach Club is number one, followed by Club Elite. "Sort of a sexy nightclub," I explain.

Dach laughs. "Let's try the nude beach."

So we teleport to Phantasie Isle, where as it happens, a beach party is already raging in full swing. Residents by the dozens in various states of dress (and undress) are dancing to the slamming techno music that's streaming into the world. It's actually a charity event, as well, and when we arrive, DJ Feliciaa Feaver is auctioning off the clothes on her back, to generate more donations to a cancer-fighting non-profit.

"CUM ON U GUYS," Feliciaa roars to the crowd. "I WANT TO BE NAUGHTY, AND TAKE IT OFF, AND, UM, YAH-- ITS ALL GOING TO LINDENS FOR LIFE... NOW 12K FOR THE DRESS ON MY BODY, CUMMING OFF AT 20K!"

I wade into the party behind Dach-- and I do mean "wade", because the size of the party, the streaming music, and everything else, is beginning to lag the world into a slow motion blur. (At least in my connection.)

"Hey everyone," I manage to say, amid the confusion, "say hello to Dach. He just joined. You'll never believe where he's logging in from."

Some of the party people chime back: "Hiya Dach... Hey Dach-- welcome... Welcome Dach!"

"Dach," I continue, "is logging in from Iraq."

More party people respond: "Wooot!... Wow!"

Feliciaa Feaver momentarily breaks from her strip auction. "OH MY GOD. WOO-HOOT."

And then they all go back to dancing.

Including Dach. From Balad near Baghdad and Babylon, behind a heavily defended gate, within a tent ringed by sandbags, Dach Stryker is getting funky in the crowd of avatars from everywhere in the world beyond. I have a hard time keeping track of him, lost in the twirling residents, and most of all, the lag caused by so much stimuli. On my screen, the residents are displayed as a blur, and the dancing looks like a kind of strobe-light flickering of limbs, flashing crazily in every direction.

Finally, I'm able to pull Dach away from Phantasie Isle, into a far less populated simulator, where the reality on my screen smoothes out, and returns to a more fluid time signature.

"Whew, OK," I say to Dach, relieved. "This is peak period, so some of the parties tend to get bandwidth-hogging."

"It is actually running pretty good," Dach Stryker says from Iraq.

I'm astounded. "[Your] connection is running better than mine, then!"

"Where are you at, geographically?"

"I'm in Oakland," I tell Dach. "Across the bridge from [Linden Lab]." But somehow, a satellite transmission from the Middle East bouncing a hundred miles up and ricocheting back down into the west coast of another continent in another hemisphere travels faster. In Phantasie Isle, at least, Dach is more in this world, so to speak, than me.

But now that we've left the party, and we're on another island, back in sync. So I go looking for a spot where Dach Stryker can bring a bit of Iraq into Second Life.

Tomorrow: The textures of Balad

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Comments

Is this the same guy who came up with a custom animation for peeing on Iraqi prisoners, or was that someone else?

Posted by: Grimmy Moonflower at Jun 21, 2004 10:22:44 PM