« July 2004 | Main | September 2004 »

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

SPACE IS THE THEATRICAL PLACE

... continued from yesterday.

"It's an Emily Dickinson poem," Edgware Marker explains, reciting the text of the tattoo that runs across his chest. "'Tell all the truth but tell it slant...'"

‘Slant’ is also one of the names Edgware gave to his in-world theatrical project. We’re standing in the space station that Starax Statosky created for him, which is actually a set, intended for one of the group's debut performances. “[It’s for a] short play I wrote," he says. "[M]ore as a way to get things started, to see what the experience is like.” (The play’s pitch, says Marker: “An alien travels to earth exploring the notion of humanity.”)

“I am interested in the relation between these kinds of environments and (experimental) theatre,” Marker continues, “So, I want to create a theatre space in Second Life. Partially to explore the idea. Partially because I love theatre.” To do that, he’s bought the rental rights to two adjoining sims, Norwall and Backstage. (“One was supposed to be more of a backstage working area,” he explains, “the other for performances. I don’t know if it will actually work that way.”)

At some US$400 a month, it’s quite a price to pay for an experimental staging area. But, Marker says, “Compared to renting real life theatre space, it is pretty cheap... two sims cost less than a space in a parking garage in New York City.” So the main task for him now is to find a company of players and artisans, to help him bring his live stage productions to life.

“One of the challenges I am finding here is the lack of interest that people have in ‘serious’ theatre,” he says. “I really am not interested in doing bad theatre.”

“By ‘serious’,” I ask, “do you mean like highbrow, abstract, Brechtian or absurdist or experimental, [that] sort of thing?”

”Any of those would be fine. Perhaps ‘professional’ quality would be a better way to describe it… I see lots of theatre of all different kinds [and] I think the possibilities here are fairly unique-- and the limitations are unique as well.”

Edgware asks me if I’ve come across other residents interested in bringing theater to Second Life, and I refer him to a recent entry. The thing is, I point out earlier, while there have been many plays staged in Second Life, theater hasn’t quite become a regular part of the culture.

“I think I will need to look for people in the real life theatre world and bring them here to get things going,” he muses. “London is filled with people in that space.” (Originally from the States, Marker recently moved to England, where he plans to pursue graduate studies in digital culture and technology.)

“By the way,” he adds, “I am really not in a rush to get things done here-- I have a medium term vision for all this.” That sounds like a signal to wrap the interview up, for now, but as I turn to go, Edgware Marker asks: “Why do you think theatre has failed here in the past?”

“In a word,” I say, “Chat. It's just very difficult to type your dialog. I suppose you could copy/paste [it]. But even then, you go into that weird typing mime.” (In Second Life, when users enter dialog into their chat window, their avatars’ hands go into a pantomimed motion of typing.)

“With [custom] animations you can get rid of that easily,” Marker suggests. I nod. “I am thinking of combining text and actual sound,” he continues. “And if actors memorize their lines, or use pre-programmed dialog…”

We talk some more about the feasibility of bringing theater in-world. “Ultimately,” Marker concludes, “I think this will work by having the ‘audience’ play the parts. Rather than watching Hamlet (not you, the other one), one could be Hamlet. I think that is where the real fun will come in… it's premature at the moment, technology is not quite there, but six-twelve months? Perhaps.”

“Meanwhile,” I note, “you have a space station to play with.”

The bald man with the Emily Dickinson tattoo smiles. “Yes.”

Posted at 01:15 PM | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Monday, August 30, 2004

SPACE IS THE PLACE

Having just got back from vacation, I meant for my first return trip into Second Life to just be a quick look around-- but of course, after only ten minutes in-world, I met a guitar-wielding nerd angel who offered to show me the space station he'd made for a bald theatrical aesthete with an Emily Dickinson couplet tattooed across his chest. And so off we went.

"I made it for him," Starax Statosky tells me proudly. "He added lots of the furniture inside, though." We transport into a kind of space-themed aquarium, Starax and I, accompanied by Fem Daguerre, his titian-haired girlfriend in Daisy Duke shorts. When we arrive (via a teleporter pad located on a privately-owned sim called Backstage) I go bouncing around its plate glass walls, disoriented.

"Slight technical problem with being a pinball for the first minute or so after teleporting," Starax notes. "You soon toughen up," he adds, reassuringly. "I heard Captain Kirk has this problem in the early days."

The space station is actually a theatrical set, made for a play written by Edgeware Marker, who owns the place-- along with the entire simulator it hovers over. (More on him tomorrow.)

"I made the thing green at first," Starax says, showing me around. "It looked too menacing and slimey, though. The aliens in the script were intelligent and friendly."

"This seems more like Slaughterhouse Five," I observe, "with an alien recreation of a human space. Or 2001."

"Yeah, when I read Edgware's script I thought of 2001-- the white scene at the end."

It took Starax Statosky a week to build all this, he tells me.

"I expected a weekend," he groans. "It was difficult setting up the space backdrop because handling huge models in SL can be very fiddly." And while it looks like you're peering into infinite space and swirling stars, we actually haven't left the simulator of Backstage at all. We're just in, as he puts it, "a huge cylinder made up from rectangles and with a star texture added, and the 'animtexture' script, then a layer of particles on top." (Suezanne Baskerville helped him make the cylinder, he adds.) And while space doesn't go too far beyond the spaceship, I wonder how far it could go, if a builder decided to create an even larger void, outside.

"I don't see any limitations with size," Starax muses. "As large as the sim, probably."

I ask him how many building block primitives (or "prims") it took to make this station in a bottle.

"That's something that never concerns me," Statosky answers, rather dismissively. "I honestly never check." Because the thing is, Starax Statosky doesn't own the station we're on, or for that matter, any of the land where his many builds are located, on the simulators below us. Or any land at all.

"I used to be a sandbox bum," he says, "because it was cheap land [to build on]... then people started to invite [me] to their sims, so why not."

Edgwar Marker lets him build on the two simulators he owns-- this one, and the adjoining Norwal-- and so his creativity comes cost-free. To illustrate this, Starax follows me off the space station, to show me the gallows and the heaven's gate and the sleeping giant and the elaborate sculpture of a devil dragging an angel down into an oil cauldron. As he puts it, "Life's cheap here."

Fem Daguerre grins at her boyfriend. "He's a squatter."

While we chat, the voices of people with British accents discussing a human rights crisis keep echoing through the chamber.

"Am I hallucinating," I wonder, "or am I hearing the BBC talking about the Sudan up here in space?"

"Probably Edgware's radio," Starax tells me, grinning.

Tomorrow: meeting the man with the Emily Dickinson tattoo.

Posted at 08:06 PM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

ESCAPED FROM NEW YORK

I'm back from vacation and blogging live, having fled Manhattan just hours before the main force of Republican delegates and anti-Republican protestors stormed the place like D-Day. Fresh NWN entries are imminent; meanwhile, on the sidebar, I just added links to several Second Life bloggers of the non-Linden Lab sponsored kind: Zero Grace (i.e., Clickable Culture), Foster Virgo, and Tanaquil Karuna. Clickthrough and peruse while I cook up new content.

Also, if you visited this site earlier today, and could have sworn you noticed an unfinished entry featuring screenshots of a bald man and something about Foucault, don't worry, you weren't hallucinating: an accidental blog burp that was, notes for an uncoming post, now removed until it's ready for primetime. (Apologies for the post-modern mindgame.)

Update: One more blogger added, to the side-- Ming Chen.

Posted at 02:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Thursday, August 26, 2004

THE DREAM OF THE WHITE CHAMBER

One night when she was offline, Talila Liu dreamed of waking up in a pure white room.

“It was a large, empty room,” she tells me. “Everything was white except myself. I had one table with one lamp, completely white. I had one window that didn’t show [the] outside; it just kind of ended at white. I don’t understand a lot about it, but it left me [with] a major feeling of emptiness. I believe I had my face planted in a pillow crying in the dream.”

In it, she was terrified, and when she really woke, that was still the case.

“I think that was the same night I had a panic attack,” Talila says, “feeling the exact same thing, but flooded by many other emotions at the same time.” She frowns. “I probably should have cried in real life, but I couldn’t.”

The reasons for her conflicted feelings were many—her studies at college, for one thing, but perhaps more than that, a relationship that had gone bad.

“The relationship was here in Second Life,” she tells me.

I’m amazed. ”And it affected your dreams?”

“Yes.”

“How could it, do you think?”

“I don’t know,” says Talila Liu. “Because I want my Second Life to be my real life.”

So with the dream of the white room still fresh in her mind, she went into Second Life, to recreate it. “I think [it’s a gift]," she tells me, "being able to remember dreams so vividly; most of the time it’s not a dream, it’s more of another life, one that is choppy, and strange at times, but nice.”

First, she created the room from her dream, “[a] simple texture, a white box with lines on the edges, since in Second Life if I made everything white, it would kinda blend together. Then I made the lamp-- I had a lampshade already made so I used that. I made the alarm clock and the picture frame, and the little table to put them on. I then asked a friend for a bed I could use and re-texture… I put up the walls and I used a pose cube (me sitting on an invisible cube doing poses) for all the pictures.”

At the end, she had a series of images, a visual narrative that recaptures as close as possible the dream she had. “I took about forty pictures to get those nine I liked best, and I brought those into Photoshop, touched them up a little bit and re-uploaded them.”

“So basically,” I realize, “you had to re-enact the dream, to get those pictures.” I wonder what that experience was like for her.

“It helped calm me down, actually. Get my mind off of my other problems. Usually when I’m depressed or felling crappy, I build [in SL] to get my mind off of it.”

So she built her dream in-world, and re-experienced it in a place that she spends much of her waking life in, already. (She estimates five to eight hours a day in-world, on average.) And while I’ve often described the experience of Second Life as a kind of collective lucid dreaming, this may be the first instance where a resident has brought her real dreams to it. (Though it’s not the only instance where someone has recreated the landscapes of the mind here-- as we’ll see in a future entry.)

While Talila and I talk, she takes me through her new home in the winter region, where her windows look out on snowy peaks. Friends stop by to have a look at her sculptures, amazing in their intricacy— like a hollow cube, comprised entirely of whirling metal arcs.

“It’s all primitives,” she announces proudly, “only 184.” (“Primitives” are the essential building blocks which make up the substrate of every object in the world.) It took her an hour and half to make it, she says, “and that includes planning or thinking up each side one at a time.” She’s learned a trick for shrinking prims down to the size of a single pixel, she tells me, allowing her to build larger sculptures as intricate as the cube, and miniatures that are equally detailed—including the tiny silver angel she wears in her navel.

Far as her projects that require her to first be in a REM state, Talila has more plans for them, too. There’s a creature from another dream she had recently, and she’d like to instantiate into this waking life of hers, in-world. “I was going to try and recreate it in a 3D program like 3D Studio Max,” she says, “since I can’t do fur really well here…”

She walks me through her home, still being built, which she describes as her “dream house in real life”, until we’re at the rooftop, where she shows me one last sculpture, embedded within a glowing sphere. She’s joined there by a friend from England, an in-world tattoo artist named Pandora Greenacre. Talila herself lives on the West Coast, 9 hours behind Pandora; it's close 2AM, Pacific Standard Time, when they meet.

“I haven’t seen you in the longest time, Pan.” Talila hugs her. “I missed you.”

“You’re never around,” Pandora complaining, frowning.

“I’m always working, or sleeping,” says Talila Liu. “You had to live in the UK.”

So they stand there and chat, and catch up.

“I’ve had a few dreams where I’ve actually been in Second Life,” Talila tells me earlier, “and my friends were there, too, but we were in our real life bodies.” Recreating that dream in-world, however, may have to wait.

Posted at 01:53 AM | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

THE BODEGA DIALOGUES, PART III: CONTRACT DISPUTES AND GRIEFING THE GRIEFER

An extended in-world dialog on the ideas provoked by online worlds, with philosopher Urizenus Sklar and the Thinkers. Full context here, part two here.

In part three, we discuss social contract theory, utopia, and game theory in relation to understanding in-world behavior, especially griefing and socialization.

Hamlet Linden: I'm trying to think of a social contract theory where social disapproval is the essential element of forming rules and establishing order.

Urizenus Sklar: Hamlet, you might find something in Chinese political philosophy.

HL: My sense is Chinese emphasis is on duty or conformity, but here, we're talking more about, I dunno, being disliked as a means of keeping people in line.

Jinny Fonzarelli: People here are more like they are in real life because the social constraints here are much like real life. We can "see" each other.

HL: I wrote an entry awhile back mentioning social contracts, because when people move from MMOG to MMOG, it sorta reminded me of Rawl's original state, or whatever he called it [actually, "original position" - WJA], where we're abstractly negotiating the ideal society.

US: I wish people thought of it that way…

JF: I think a lot of people see Second Life as a chance to build something Utopic... is that a word?

US: Well... utopian, huh? I think it's OK to be utopian as long as you don't expect it to last. Hakim Bey was right about that much.

JF: Uri, I think such an attitude would prevent utopia!

US: Mmm, not sure we want our utopias to be permanent.

HL: [T]here seems to be a multitude of utopias being tried out, in here.

JF [laughing]: "In my fathers house there are many manions."

HL: Well, that's what Nozick would say. That the utopian society is one that allows and/or encourages a multitude of diverse attempts at utopia, without infringing on others' concept of it.

US: As opposed to Thomas More's, where every damn place was the same.

HL: If you go from sim to sim, there's a huge range of what people define as the good society.

JF [chuckling]: Like Jessie...

US: What I like about the Hakim Bey thing, though, is the idea that utopias are just temporary zones. That appear in cracks in the web.

JF: Yeah, utopia should be dynamic.

US: And people can enjoy them for a while before The Man finds them and shuts them down.

HL: We haven't seen much of that in Second Life, I think.

US: Well, "The Man" might be outside of the Linden universe.

JF: In theory, though, Linden Lab would shut down something that was across "the line". So they do have capacity to be The Man.

HL: Wanna talk game theory, Urizenus? How do you apply it here?

US: I've seen some interesting stuff. I'm reading a paper now by a grad student somewhere -- Irvine, I think-- who models two different kinds of game theoretic strategies. Strategy one is Hobbesian. You anticipate that the other guy is going to screw you over, so you strategize defensively. The other strategy is Lockean. The Lockean strategy is one of assurance-- you assume the other guy doesn't want war.

OK, what happens when you mix the strategies and allow dynamic updating, so that people can revise their strategies in response to how well they are working?

Baccara Rhodes: But why would we do that here? This isn't about winning and losing.

US: Well, the models I've seen show that it takes only a few Hobbesians to turn the whole grid Hobbesian. It's a way of showing that a few bad apples...

BR: I disagree with you. Can I explain why?

US: Sure.

BR: Here we have certainly had people who try to take advantage of any crack in the system. Whether it's griefing or land development, etc. And the truth is, they almost always fizzle out for one reason or another. Now I feel a bit qualified to say that, because I have been here watching very carefully and my friends and I are all pretty successful players, wouldn't you say Hamlet?

HL: Why yes I would!

BR: But we see literally hundreds [of exploiters] fall by the wayside. When they find out that Second Life is a bit different, [that] you cannot merely will your ways into being here. Even the ones who come in now and "buy" money.

HL: Why is that, Baccara? Because of the social disapproval?

BR: I believe so, Hamlet.

JF: I have tried to set up discussion groups online with forums and stuff... and they all fizzled out within a week. This I think is because they're all used to a Hobbesian, agressive chat environment. Whereas here... we're not. So the Thinkers have lasted.

US: One factor is whether the griefers are easily identified and marginalized.

BR: I think that social approval has proved very important here.

JF: Also not being able to change name at will helps.

BR: For the same reason, social events take on a big meaning, much more so than in other games. They mean something.

US: See, it's going to be very interesting to see why social pressure works here but didn't work on [another online world]. In fact, the griefers [there] seemed to crave the disapproval.

BR: I can tell you why. People popped in and out of characters very quickly. Here they stay in one persona. You can always transfer money [to a new account's character]. But a lot can be lost in a transfer.

US: That's very true.

JF: If Jinny F. screws up, I'm stuck with it, unless I spend [on creating] another [account]. You're stuck with your name unless you pay more cash. Something most wouldn't want to do.

US: There was a game theory study of this very issue, by an economist at Rutgers-- it was on the social cost of cheap pseudonyms. The claim was that when it is too easy to recreate, people introduce hazing to raise the economic cost of recreating [a character].

BR: Let me raise an interesting point for you, Uri. There are many players, myself included, who are incredibly busy here in this Second Life. So much that it is almost impossible to fade into the background or be alone without [receiving] IMs and [chat]. I am not complaining, it's the old "Be careful what you wish for". But where else would you say that a society is so strong that players have to have another identity, in order to just be alone a bit?

US: I had six [Instant Message] windows open as soon as I went in-game.

BR: Six. Penny ante. Try fifteen-twenty sometime.

US [laughing]: I'm small-time and anti-social.

Ulrika Zugzwang: Wow. I'm a loser. [chuckles]

BR: NO. You probably don't own a business. That makes the difference, I think.

US: Well look, we do this in real life too, escaping... We go [to a] place where no one knows us, we turn off our cell phones...

BR: But now we need escapes from the escape.

Posted at 04:52 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

OPEN TO CONVERSATION

I forgot to open the comments section of "Missing Conventions", last week's brief entry about the fascinating (and still ongoing) Forum conversations regarding self-governance and democratic representation in Second Life. It's open now. Hopefully it'll be a great space for residents and non-residents alike to discuss the latest news on the debate over the feasability and desirability of in-world political representation.

Meanwhile, back to vacation for me...

Posted at 01:12 PM | Permalink | TrackBack

Monday, August 23, 2004

SHOOTING TO KILL, PART TWO: THE COMPACT EXPLODER OF FRANCIS CHUNG

The ongoing effort individual residents and groups of residents to bring the world of multiplayer first-person shooters into Second Life. Part One, Ryen Jade’s Tartarus project featured here.

After we stop hugging (see 8/19 entry), and she’s offered me a martini, Francis Chung whips double pistols from her inventory, and proceeds to unload both clips into my body. I’m near-blinded by the muzzle flashes, as she squeezes off scores of rounds.

“How ironic is that?” she says, over the roar. “My primary sources of revenue are from selling guns and hugs!”

The latest model of Francis Chung’s Compact eXploder (v. 1.2.38) comes with an owner’s manual that’s nearly 2000 words long, including a technical FAQ and a descriptive background that’s translated from the Japanese. (The weapon is inspired by the work of anime artist Masamune Shirow, lead creator of “Ghost in the Shell” and “Appleseed”. “[T]he Seburo is this fictitious company that he made up,” Ms. Chung explains, “just for background in his series. This is sort of my tribute...”)

“The Seburo is tuned for high-velocity ammunition,” The manual boasts cheerfully. “We invite you to compare with other guns.” At L$1500 (about US$7.50), it’s not the cheapest weapon in the growing resident-made arsenal. But then, Ms. Chung offers owners a way of defraying the cost-- a customer referral program, which gets you a L$100 kickback, for every new buyer you send her way.

But it isn’t just the weapon itself, that they’re buying, because the eXploder is essentially a fully appointed kit to transform the experience of Second Life into an FPS.

To demonstrate this, Francis takes me to the Seburo shooting gallery, located in Chartreuse. It’s set hundreds of meters in the air, but because it’s hovering above the White Star Casino, we can still hear the classical music channel that’s being streamed from the land below. So while we engage in brutal gunplay, and bullet casings tinkle at our feet, the placid swelling of Bach and Schubert keep playing in the background.

Yes, when the Seburo is fired, not only do you hear a satisfyingly thunderous audio clip of high caliber gunfire (or an electrified “snick snick”, if you have the silencer attached) casings also erupt from the weapon, and spread out on the floor around you.

Francis laughs, and runs over a particularly thick pile of spent shells. “[D]unno why I love that jingle so much,” she says. And as her feet plow through them, it suddenly sounds like Christmas sleigh bells. (Or given the context, slay bells.)

I peer down, and the gamer in me gets the better of me because…

“THE SHELL CASINGS ARE SMOKING!”

The tiny wisps of black smoke pour from each shell-- just as they do from the gun barrels themselves, after they’ve been fired. It’s touches like this that make the eXploder seem like a professional product. Which is probably because that aspect of the weapon was, in fact, made by a pro.

“I have a specialized particle script that I wrote that allows me to do things that add random variation to the effects,” Neil Protagonist explains to me in IM. “Which is honestly the key in making an effect look good. It has many features the Lindens forgot to add (or didn't know to add.”) Then again, Neil would know: when he’s not adding things like the muzzle flash or the gunsmoke to the eXploder, he’s an effects artist in the game industry. His last gig was at FASA, a Microsoft game studio, where he worked on the Xbox game “Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge”, among others. (He’s now working with another studio, for an upcoming pirates-themed MMO.)

At the firing range, Francis fires another clip at the targets across from us. “Did you see the wall? If you shoot the target, you get
little bullet marks.” She smiles. “There's a different effect that plays depending [on] what you hit. If you hit a prim, you get a ‘KA-PWING’, and sparks. If you hit land, you get dirt clouds, and a thump sound.”

I unload by own pair of eXploders into Francis, and filmy plumes of blood erupt from her body. “The bullets detect if they've hit an avatar,” she tells me over the goy splatter, “and there's a particle effect that Neil came up with.”

On our chat window, the Seburo Compact-eXploder v.1.2.38c informs Francis: “You were shot by Hamlet Linden.”

“You don't even need to see the shooter,” she explains, “You *know* you're getting shot at by a Seburo.” Meaning, in Jessie’s combat sims, two or more residents armed with Seburo handguns effectively have everything they need to transform the world into an FPS playing field. (Though Francis herself has no plans to incorporate it into a larger world, like Tartarus.) If you can keep track of who shot whom, you’re pretty much ready to go.

(“I put that [tracker] in,” Francis explains, “because sometimes some jackass sneaks up on you, and just caps you. So it tells you who got you, so you know who to extract revenge from.”)

For all the coding she puts into the weapon, “The most flattering compliment I get about the Seburo is [from] people who are amazed at the ‘craftsmanship’ that we demonstrate.” That would include the custom animation poses that automatically kick in, whenever you hold eXploder, and whenever you fire it-- either singly, or with one in either hand, looking appropriately like a John Woo badass, as you let rip. (Linden Lab’s default gun posture, it must be said, it not necessarily the most stylish example of gun opera choreography-- it makes you look less like Chow Yun-fat, and more like a obstreperous old man with lower back pain.)

“The Seburo was just designed around the concept of cool,” Francis Chung tells me. “I think most people forget that-- making something beautiful is the hard part. Making it functional is easy. I think probably 90% of our time was purely focused on the audio and visual experience of the gun.”

Neil Protagonist expresses even loftier ambitions when I ask him why he spends so much of his free time improving the art and effects library of Second Life, when he already does such similar work at his office.

“[W]hat motivates me is a love for creating effects, my prime goal being to improve the state of visual effects in games as well as bring more cinematic elements to video games,” he tells me. “Primarily I am referring to the purposeful use of color theory and color psychology. But that’s a rant I'll save for another day... my goal in Second Life is the same goal I have at work: to improve the overall quality of the effects in the game.” Even if that means working with the more limited tool set available to him here, or having to sometimes build those tools, himself.

“Really, it boils down to a love for creating effects,” Protagonist says. “There is something fascinating to me about natural effects such as fire, steam, etc. Something about it grabs me and enthralls me.

"I think part of why I find it so interesting is because it is never static. It’s always in motion, never the same, always changing...”

Posted at 03:24 AM | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Thursday, August 19, 2004

PERMISSION TO HUG

Francis Chang has found the secret to bringing fully consensual physical expressions of affection into an online world, and it’s contained in a see-through box that’s stuck to her butt.

“There's this big invisible cube on my ass that holds the script,” she tells me, smiling. “So as long as you wear this attachment, you can hug people.”

This script, and another script that works in tandem with it, represents the code motor that powers the choreography for two avatars who want to come together, even across a crowded room, and warmly embrace.

“The main script listens for a voice command,” Francis explains, “and then when you tell it to hug someone, it scans nearby avatars for the person you wanted to hug. Then, when it finds [you], the second script asks [you] for animation rights. If you accept, the script goes into full gear. And moves my avatar into position to hug your avatar, and then we both play the hug animation.” (The animation for the hug was created by Launa Fauna, Francis Chung’s collaborator in the effort to bring more love into the world.)

As an avatar, Francis is a slender Asian girl with full lips, so when it’s time for her to give me a hug demonstration, I slip on my Hunter S. Thompson-esque avatar. I figure that’ll make for cooler screenshots. There’s another reason for doing that, too.

“I don’t want to make a longer explanation to my real life girlfriend why I’m hugging a babe,” I tell Francis, paradoxically embarrassed.

The run-up to the embrace looks like this, in the text window:

“Francis Chung: /hug ham”
“Hug Attachment (super long): Francis would like give you a hug. Say to accept.” [And here, if you’re inclined, you click Yes in the dialog window that appears, or type Yes in chat. It’s not just a permission request, to have your avatar animated-- it’s a way or insuring mutually consensual embracing.]
“Francis gives Hamlet a big hug.”

The hug that follows is warm and full-bodied, with arms around waist and cheeks pressed into shoulders or mussed hair, as a kicker to seal the deal. No sideways, heterosexual guy half-hug, this; no from-the-shoulders-up, awkward Christmas party affair, either.

In the realm of online worlds, the hug of Francis Chung and Launa Fauna heralds something of a mini-breakthrough. For unless I’ve missed some recent innovation, this embrace of theirs is the first credible display of player-driven physical affection to appear in an online, fully 3D world. (Hand-holding, furtive avatar bumping, or sitting position clutches notwithstanding.) And by bringing real substance, so to speak, to all the flirtatious and affectionate text that players have had to settle for, up to now, it might herald a kind of mini-revolution, too. What happens to all that pent up demand to touch each other, when it’s finally met? What happens to all that sassy eloquence with which people in the online world have charmed and seduced each other, up to now?

“It's brilliant viral marketing, when you think about it,” Francis tells me. “Every person that gets hugged instantly goes, ‘I LOVE THIS! I WANT THIS!’” And as Launa Fauna tells me in instant message, sales of their hug attachment at her store have been brisk, in the week since it hit her shelves. So far, she says, “I'd guess more in the 150 range.”

“I hope it'll add to the general happiness of Second Lifers,” Francis Chung says, beaming. “Launa tells me she always does an ‘Awww’ whenever she sees people hugging. She camps her store sometimes [to watch].”

Posted at 03:33 AM | Permalink | Comments (24) | TrackBack

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

MISSING CONVENTIONS

If you read this when it's posted, I should just be arriving in New York City, for a few days-- after which, we'll escape Manhattan right before the launch of the Republican National Convention. That means I'll be missing two conventions, so to speak, while I'm on a vacation over the next week and half. Because right now, the Second Life forums are starting to flood with debates and debates on debates, on the desirability (if any) of representative self-governance in the world. The inagural topic was launched last week by Linden Lab, located here, and since then, the conversation has been progressing at a furious clip. To be sure, the idea of a company floating the idea of letting its subscribers have a role in running their own virtual world is bound to attract passionate supporters and equally passionate detractors. Some Forum topic responses to that original conversation can be found here, here, and here. Most recently, as of this writing (August 15), the most striking Forum response to emerge from this is perhaps found in a topic called "Social Democrats Unite!". It begins with a proposal by resident Ulrika Zugzwang to form an in-world party that espouses principles of democratic socialism, in Second Life. ("We support the taxation of land purchases to discourage land barons... We seek to protect the snow sims, create open space, and minimize rotating for-sale signs to enhance the quality of life in sims.") Meanwhile, in-world, the response has been equally energetic: a new group called Anarchism is now one of the largest, in a short time boasting over 240 members. ("We believe in maintaining freedom from all forms of resident governance," runs its charter, "and a promotion of individual rights. Let those that wish to be governed, achieve this through Group membership-- we will walk our own path.")

Hopefully, some of my fellow Second Life bloggers will employ their reporting skills on the matter, while I'm away. Meanwhile, New World Notes entries will keep flowing in my absence, with a slate of stories already in the pipe. While I'm out-world, I should still be accessible via Instant Message, as those are forwarded to my e-mail inbox. So please keep sending me news tips/observations/opinions/etc., and I'll do my best to respond when I can, during my travels-- or when I'm back in my virtual office in Shipley, on the Monday of August 30.

Posted at 01:25 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Monday, August 16, 2004

POLITICAL ARCHETYPES

The in-world fallout from the real world presidential debate continues unabated, taking on new (but not unfamiliar) forms...

It's funny. While interviewing for the story that subsequently became "So Very Kerry", I really didn't perceive a broader pattern at work, that would tie it to the actual Presidential eletion. (Besides, of course, the fact that it involved pro- and anti-Kerry advocacy; but then, that's technically just a battle of ideologically opposing textures.) While writing the story, however, and looking back at it now, I do see some pretty familiar archetypes-- try and match them to their real world analogues, if you can:

- The Positive Young Idealist, who sincerely believes in their candidate, and refuses to engage in negative campaigning against the opposition.

- The Apparently Non-Partisan, Enthusiastic Antagonist, who in the spirit of providing balance (or at least, so claimed), floods the world with attack material against the Positive Young Idealist's candidate.

- The Apolitical Entrepeneurial Opportunist, who's more than happy to help the Enthusiastic Antagonist in their attack efforts-- for a price. And just as glad to sell their services to the other side, for another price.

- The Cheerfully Engaged Voter, who appreciates this back-and-forth debate, and likes to follow its progress.

- The Disgruntled Disengaged Voter, who's angry with the tone of the debate, the bickering of the partisans, and above all, the "in your face" inescapability of the whole thing.

And to these, perhaps, add the Cheerfully Disgrunted Young Agnostic. Because after most of my main interviews for the story were over, I met at least four of them, sitting on a sign that announced "Politics Suck."

All of them describe themselves as under twenty, in real life, and appropriately enough in-world, two of them have made their avatars look a little like the big-eyed kids you'd see in Margaret Keane's paintings.

"Politics do suck," a willowy young woman named Dooblet Beckenbauer says. "Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god-- for real." (Actually, she says, "Politics does suxor omgomgomg 4 reelz.")

Dooblet is sitting on the sign created by Magic Firefly, along with the rest of their Dysfunctional family (they share a large house in Ebisu, and Dysfunctional as a group name.) The sign is located right beneath the Kerry and anti-Kerry sites, to make sure that in this debate, their vote (or in this case, non-vote) is cast.

"So how come all of you are sick of politics in Second Life and real life?" I ask the Dysfunctionals.

Magic Firefly says, "It's annoying?"

Dooblet Beckenbauer says, "And silly?"

Kimberly Casanova adds, "That's all you hear about."

I ask them where they live, offline, and three of them coastal Southern states-- two of which the candidates are battling fiercely over. And now I'm really flummoxed.

"THOSE ARE BOTH SWING STATES! THE LAST ELECTION WAS DETERMINED BY A FEW HUNDRED VOTES IN FLORIDA AND YOU DON'T WANNA VOTE?!"

"He thinks we're young hooligans," Dooblet tells the others, "spoiled Americans!"

I say something about cynical kids today, and Mimi says, "Actually, it's the adults who make the country crappy, it's not our fault."

A few days after interviewing the Dysfunctionals, however, I learn that the anti-Kerry site has been taken down, while Ms. Zamboni's pro-Kerry site has been moved; it now floats at a high altitude above Ebisu, and you can only get to it through a teleporter in its original location-- presumably, to get the headquarters away from negative campaigning by the opposition.

Unsurprisingly, the ideological conflict has since relocated (for a time) to the Jessie warzone. Where two more possible archetypes emerged: The Passive Aggressive Provocateur, and the Aggressive Aggressive Retaliator.

“'The presidential [block]head,'" Cyanide Leviathan reads a caption out loud, seething. "'We'll pull him out of his hole with a chain around his ankles.'" The caption is positioned on a large cube placed near the center of Jessie, while displaying an unflattering photo of President Bush, mouth in mid-gape. The combat-enabled Jessie simulator is the domain of the WWIIOLers (fans of the strategy MMO called World War II Online), agroup known for its love of military hardware and (on the whole) conservative politics. (After the death of Ronald Reagan, for example, one WWIIOLer erected a large billboard, in tribute to the late president.) So this bit of Bush bashing isn't exactly a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

Especially because the person who owns the cube also owns the tiny patch of land beneath it-- and is using that to stream a left-leaning Internet radio station into their part of the world. So anyone flying through its airspace is inundated with a sudden burst of anti-conservative satire-- a standup comedy slagging Jessie Helms, for example, or the putative evils of the Bush administration, set to a happy musical jingle.

Given the location, all this is a little like running the trailer to Fahrenheit 9/11 during a commercial break on Fox News. So when I get there, I'm not shocked to see that the neighboring Jessie residents have already retaliated: the Bush cube has already been walled in from all sides by stacks of cubes attacking Michael Moore, anti-war protesters, and so on. (One pillar contains the friendly suggestion, "How about rooting for our side for a change, you liberal moron.")

"Every so often a left-wing twit comes around and get pwned," WWIIOLer Robo Hannibal shouts at me proudly, as I approach.

He turns around, and notices we're not alone. "Here's the whack job right here," Robo announces, then turns to the new arrival. "The mental asylum gave you a leave?"

"Gee," Kathy Yamamoto begins brightly, as she appears at her tiny site, "I'm getting a lot of attention here."

"So you own the one patch of left wing land in Jessie?" I ask her.

"Apparently," she says. Ms. Yamamoto managed to wrangle the purchase of this small plot from one of the few non-WWIIOLers with some property in Jessie. "Good thing I have the right to constant access."

"Second Life is huge," Hannibal growls at her. "Why come to a 95% conservative sim?"

"I was here when it wasn't," Kathy smiles back, sweetly. "You're the intruder." (And in chronological terms, she's technically correct-- a longtime resident, Ms. Yamamoto was a chief player in "The War of the Jessie Wall", the conflict which erupted shortly after Bush announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq, last year.) But then, her return to Jessie isn't necessarily out of homesickness. For one thing, she's the founder of a group called Leftists, Lunatics, and Liberals, one of the most popular affiliations in Second Life. And a few weeks ago, a WWIIOLer imported a picture of John Kerry into Jessie, and gave the image an extremely inflammatory caption. In the Forums, Yamamoto was the resident most infuriated by this. And now here she is, below her Bush cube with its own provocative caption, an Internet stream of anti-Republican radio blaring all around it-- as heavily armed Jessie residents begin to descend, and surround her on all sides. Insults begin to fly, most of them unprintable.

Many of the WWIIOLers are veterans or active-duty military, and I remember something that Kathy Yamamoto mentioned in the Second Life forums, which might be an unlikely bond between them.

"So Kathy," I begin, "is it true that you were in the Air Force?"

"Yes it was. But it was for a foreign country."

Robo Hannibal snorts. "France, maybe?"

"We called it The United States of America," Kathy declaims. "PRE-Bush. PRE-Reagan. What a waste HE was. And REAGAN was just a warmed up NIXON."

And with that, the rage keeps, well, raging.

While the insults are flung right and left ("anti-American" for "fascist", "traitor" for "bigot", and so on), Cyanide Leviathan turns to me. "Hamlet, aren't you supposed to report on SECOND LIFE issues? What I see here is a real life debate taking place in Second Life."

It's not an unfair question-- but then again, with an in-world war memorial, and a resident who's currently logging in from just outside Baghdad, for starters, I tend to think we've gone way past worrying about those distinctions.

Meanwhile, as Kathy sits on her anti-Bush cube, and the WWIIOLers beneath her keep roaring up at her, I ask her what she hopes to accomplish with this site.

"Exactly what I am accomplishing," she answers, serenely. "I just have to keep them doing my work for me."

I turn to the WWIIOLers. "So how come none of you have made a Bush headquarters?"

"Why would we?" group officer chaunsey Crash replies. He's a stern, bearded guy in a Viking helment.

"I thought many here are Bush fans."

"Sure," says Crash, "but what's the point-- Jessie is conservative, the rest of Second Life is hardcore liberal-- 99% of SL is liberal."

"I dunno, chaunsey, I'd say most people here are apolitical-- it's just that the loud ones tend to be liberal. And also conservative!"

Chaunsey laughs. "Have you tried posting as conservative on the forums here?"

"[B]ut just ten percent or so of the population posts [in the forums]," I say. "The folks who like arguing."

Which would likely include, I realize, as I glance around, the folks gathered here at the anti-Bush cube. Then it hits me. "I think everyone here is totally enjoying this [argument], frankly."

"I gotta agree, Hamlet," says Siobhan Cassidy, a young woman who's a friend of the WWIIOLers, but has been hanging back, watching the fur fly.

Robo Hannibal peers at me funny.

"Hamlet looks like a Commie," he decides. "Let's get 'im!!!"

That was last week. Since then, Kathy Yamamoto tells me, "I've deeded my patch in Jessie to my Leftists group and have taken my sign down. I gave it to them so there'd be a place to post an alternative point of view. Essentially what I bought it for, in the first place." So the debate has shifted ground again, but with more months until election, will inevitably makes its presence felt elsewhere-- in new ways, with new archetypes to remind us how the world outside keeps roiling.

Posted at 04:17 AM | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack