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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

SWEATING THE DETAILS

The "virtual sweatshop worker"-- the real occupation, or the roleplaying persona, or both-- finally arrives in Second Life.

"I'm a Chinese girl," the new resident tells me, by way of introduction. "My work is playing this game for my boss in real life, and my boss asked me for 500 Lindens a day, or I'll be fired, and I'm poor in Second Life and real life, so don't have any chosen.

"So," she concludes, "I'm in trouble now, sir."

"Why does your boss want 500 Lindens a day?"

"Because," she explains, "500 Lindens equals US$2, and US$1 equals 8 Yuan. So I have to finish this task… Do you know my job now, please sir?"

And of course I do know what her job is. The wonder is that I haven't met her kind sooner. At the moment, she's a voluptuous blonde woman with white angel wings, and a spear in her hand. But she's also the latest incarnation of an even more elusive figure-- and perhaps one that's just as fantastic.

"As some of you are probably aware," Persig Phaeton posted to the Second Life forums a few days ago, "other MMO titles over the years have had to deal with an influx of actual sweatshops in Third World countries. These sweatshops force young, underpaid workers to play [popular MMOs], not for enjoyment, but solely for the purpose of harvesting gold to be traded out... to be eBay'ed." This apparently happens on more traditional online role playing games, where it's possible, for example, to earn gold coins or whatever else the official currency of the realm happens to be, by having one's character perform some simple, mindless task like mining or fishing for hours at a time. With enough low-paid laborers doing these tasks on a battery of workstations, the theory goes, it's possible to auction off a large block of the currency on a site like eBay for a profit.

Since there's no simple, mechanical way of earning in-world money in Second Life, however, Persig believed the phenomenon wouldn't come here.

"Last night, however, I had a disturbing experience."

And Persig went on to tell the story of how he met a new Resident near a telehub, where she pleaded with him in fractured English to help her secure some land-- on pain of real world unemployment, if she failed.

"I could tell she was having trouble and she was in distress," he continued in his post. "Finally, she blurts something like, 'Please to be helping me! If I don't buy land in three days, my boss will fire me!'"

At this point, Phaeton sought help from Anshe Chung, one of the most well known (and controversial) personalities in Second Life. Because as it happens, Anshe is publicly known to be Chinese, in real life-- Chinese-German, to be exact-- and Persig hoped she could help translate.

"I just talked to her short time," Anshe tells me, when I follow up with her, "and tried help her with land buying. Finally got her buy First Land plot." (This is a program for new users who want to begin their Second Life career on a small, low cost square of property.) "She said her boss would want to play here or something." Anshe chatted with her in Romanized Mandarin, "and her pin ying (using Latin letters to spell Chinese) was quite good." So, she speculates, "Central or North China, as opposed to Hong Kong (Cantonese)."

On the Northern continent of Second Life, we search awhile for the land Anshe helped this new Resident buy, flying over fields strewn with For Sale signs, along the shore, and farther in-land, over untrammeled forests and fields. Meanwhile, Anshe forwards via IM my request to interview this new resident.

"'Eh, ni hao. Ne ge Hamlet Linden xiang gen ni tan hua. Wo jue de ta ke yi bang ni yi huir'," Anshe cites for me, quoting the message she just sent to her.

"For your records," explains, winking.

I ask her if she believes the new Resident's story.

Anshe shrugs. "Dunno. It sounded quite real.”

Finally, we arrive at the girl's half-built property.

"Oh! A money tree sponsored by her!" Anshe Chung exclaims, surveying her land. "I use this in my malls to give money to newbies. The tree spawns dollar bills that newbie can pick up and receive L$1 or L$5 payments. You pick up and the tree pays you. Maybe she hoped to use it earn money. Or to attract friends for her boss. I remember she told me her boss wants to invite guests."

In any case, a few hours pass, and Anshe tells me the Resident has agreed to my request for an interview. And that the Resident-- who I'll call Hsiao-Tsing, for this story-- happens to be online now.

And within minutes, I'm standing with Hsiao-Tsing at her new home in the mossy tundra.

"What kind of company do you work for that your boss wants you to make Linden Dollars?" I ask her.

"Computer Internet Game company," Hsiao-Tsing replies. "There are many in [China]. Just like the Lineage 2 or World of Warcraft or Heaven 2 game, they all can make money for him. But we learn this game just five days [ago], so no one know how to play [Second Life], and get more money, so I'm in troubles, in a big stress... The life in China is so hard to live on thank you." She worries that her account will be cancelled, if her moneymaking purpose comes out; and though that's not true, I promise not to reveal her Second Life name, for this story.

"Could you help me please, sir?" Hsiao-Tsing persists.

For awhile there, I consider paying her L$500 from my own account, to allay her fears for today. After some deliberation, I decide to avoid the ethical tangle of that option. Instead-- give an avatar a fish, she eats for a day, teach an avatar to fish, she eats for a lifetime-- I tell her that I'll explain how Residents usually earn their Linden Dollars.

"Thank you sir," she says. "If [you do] that I won't worry... For I must work hard overtime day to night day and night."

"In Second Life," I say, "people do not make money as they do in [traditional MMORPGs.] It's not possible to sell gold pieces, etc. to make real US$. To do that, most people make clothing or weapons or other items. People buy them, and they take the Linden Dollars and convert them to US$. Also, some people buy land, improve it, and then sell it to other Residents at a profit. That's another way. Anshe Chung, who you met, does this."

There's a pause, as Hsiao-Tsing absorbs this information.

"So I must take your advice," she says. Then, "Please help me sir, tell me what shall I do, please?"

"Another way to make money," I continue, "is to be a dancer at the nightclubs. Or another kind of entertainer."

"You mean I have to find some job [in] the first place, sir?"

"Also, you can make money by playing games like Tringo," I add.

"Thank you, but my boss' office seems doesn't have this game."

"No, Tringo is a game inside of Second Life. If you like I can show you."

"Sir, you mean that game can make money please?"

"Yes," I caution, "if you win at it. You have to be a good player." I ask her if there are other online games people in her company are paid to play.

"A xing Qiu Da zhan xing ji," Hsiao-Tsing answers. "Just a moment, I'll search its English name." There's momentary silence from her side. "Star Wars, sir. Do you hear and play?" I tell her that I have. She apologizes for her poor English. "So sometimes will communicate slowly." I tell it's way better than my Cantonese, which is next to nil, beyond what I've learned from Hong Kong movies-- even though my own grandfather immigrated from Canton. She tells me that she lives in a province near Canton, but it's not one I'm immediately familiar with.

"So please help me to find some jobs can make more money to finish my task," Hsiao-Tsing says, "then I'll try to build and trade. Please, sir? I must over work and my health is get bad quickly... and I work in big city, have no house, live in my Company, and the bed is so bad, and so dark and so cold, and my meals are also well, often yucky. And I search for how to play this game, and can't sleep and eating well. Do you understand my hard condition sir?”

I tell her that it does sound hard. Though something about the tone of the plea seems off, somehow.

I'm having trouble with my computer, so I tell her to wait while I log off, and that I'll be back in a few minutes to take her to a Tringo contest. But the technical troubles persist, and I'm not able to return into Second Life for another half hour or so.

And when I return, Hsiao-Tsing is no longer in-world. Leaving me to wonder how much of her story was true, and how much of it might have been clever role playing. Almost exactly two years ago, shortly after taking on New World Notes, I left off with similar questions, wondering whether the story of a homeless hacker with a Second Life mansion were true, or an admirably elaborate fiction. Then again, that was before the third party exchange of Linden Dollars for real money was permitted; that was before the stakes had been raised so much higher.

For Persig Phaeton's part, since meeting Hsiao-Tsing, he's had some time to think about the story she told him, too.

"I hope it's a practical joke," Persig writes me. "If this girl really is buying land for her boss," he says, "I hope it isn't in a sweatshop atmosphere... I hope [her boss]... pays her better than a subsistence living wage. I hope. I hope... I hope."

In recent weeks, it's worth pointing out, noted game journalists and academics have begun to wonder if the stories of sweatshops for online worlds in developing nations were apocryphal, to begin with-- or if they exist, whether they merit the term "sweatshop". Since, after all, sweatshops usually involve industrial machinery, toxic chemicals, dangerous equipment-- not people sitting at computers in an air-conditioned office, endlessly (but not miserably) clicking away. Not necessarily something deserving of an in-world labor uprising, in other words-- as tantalizing as that hypothetical is.

In any case, as Linden Lab CEO Philip Linden posted in the official forum yesterday, "We will make sure to the greatest of our technical abilities that simplistic money-mining (buy account, give stipend to other person, make profit) doesn't work."

No doubt true. Though for my part, I can also imagine an entire office floor of a skyscraper in Shenzen or Shanghai or cities unnamed, housing an endless stream of highly skilled, underpaid college students at their workstations, devoted 24/7 to the business of beating all comers at big pot Tringo.

"By the way," Anshe Chung tells me, when we're flying over the new continent, in search of Hsiao-Tsing's land, "I have ten sims ordered now. Going expand my continent to fourteen sims as soon as Ryan [Linden] can deliver… different themed sims, making use of land deeding feature and the first sims were successful." So her own in-world holdings continue to grow.

"You all know Anshe Chung and you know how the poor situation of my own family in China was one motivator for me to work hard in this space," the real estate tycoon wrote in the Second Life forum. "The 'sweatshops' will come, yes, and I admire the people who will work in those sweatshops."

For confidentiality's sake, some descriptive details of "Hsiao-Tsing" and her property may have been changed for this entry.

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Monday, March 28, 2005

THE WORD MADE REAL

Bringing Cory Doctorow back in-world-- and bringing his new book with him.

What began as an online book club has evolved into a kind of virtual Gutenberg project. Somewhere between early and mid July, famed Boing Boing blogger and award-winning science fiction writer Cory Doctorow will be re-appearing in Second Life in avatar form, to discuss his new novel, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. Cory did Second Life's first in-world Book Club almost two years ago, and it was a massive success, with some 120 Residents jammed into the auditorium. This time, Cory very generously offered to send me a ASCII version of Someone Comes to Town, so that, after it hits the stands in physical form, the novel can also be read by Residents in-world.

However, I didn't want this version to be just a very long text file on a notecard, so I challenged Residents to come up with a way to turn Cory's entire 320 page tome into an actual, three-dimensional book in-world-- a book with text transposed to a readable typefont, on 3D pages that you can actually turn, in a physical form you can set down and open in front of your avatar. I suspected something like that was feasible, because variations of such books already exist-- Trent Hedges' SL Graphica, for example, is an in-world magazine with text and illustrations, and pages that flip, when you click them. (Thanks to Francis Chung's scripting skills.)

So for the next couple months, in preparation for Cory's appearance, Residents will be creating book prototypes, and submitting them to me for an in-world expo, so the community can choose which one provides the best in-world reading experience. Within 48 hours of the announcement, one Resident had already submitted a screenshot of his own prototype (bottom screenshot), which sharp-eyed readers will recognize as the opening page to Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, the novel he discussed with Residents at the first Book Club. The one to win the most votes at the Expo will get the honor of publishing Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town in Second Life. (Though of course, my personal hope is that this also helps launch a mini-explosion of virtual book technology in-world.)

More details on the appearancel of Doctorow and his book as we enter Summer...

UPDATE, May 16: First prototype described here.

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Thursday, March 24, 2005

LINKS OF THE WEEK!

Notes from the new new world...

Linden Lab recently opened up a new continent to the North, and the SL blogosphere is buzzing with reportage fresh from that unsullied land, including here, here, here, and here.

Meanwhile, back at the intersection of Second Life and our world, Gwyneth Llewelyn has another thoughtful entry on her blog, this one contemplating the coming effects of internationalization on the culture of SL:

I still think this is not a problem - yet. I believe, however, that very soon there will be "critical mass" for non-native English speakers. If a certain language group reaches around 1000 members, they'll be able to live on their own community, never to travel beyond their environment. They will announce events in the Event list - in French, in Korean, or even in Portuguese or Spanish. Their scripts and objects will have instructions in their native tongues, and be sold mostly to native speakers of other languages besides English. These will be tiny exceptions at the beginning, but the exponential growth of all things Internet-related may well mean that in a few years we'll have a "fragmented" virtual world, with signs "On parle Français ici" or "Man spricht Deutsch" warning potential travellers that they have now crossed the border into territories where English is simply not the "major language"...

And I just added four new SL bloggers to my ring on the bottom left: Jillian Callahan, Nala Galatea, Shiryu Musashi (the race car driver mentioned above), and Ryerro Rocco. I also added my own del.icio.us page directly on the left-- most links related to Second Life, virtual worlds, and computer games. If you come across any links you think would fit there, please e-mail them to me.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2005

WATCHING THE DETECTIVES

Got a philandering spouse? Property needs securing? Marked for vendetta? Online gumshoes for hire in Second Life-- rates from L$100/hour, plus expenses.

Laura Skye had an inkling that her lover was unfaithful, and had gone back to tomcatting in the racier nightclubs, where the working girl avatars come with loose clothing and even looser morals. So she hired herself a private investigator, to do some snooping.

"I found out he went with an escort," she tells me at my office, "and we had a big argument. And then he promised no more. But I didn't trust him." So she clicked on the Find button-- Second Life's equivalent of the yellow pages-- and put "detective" in the search slot.

Which is how she wound up at the office and the private cave hideout of Markie Macdonald, P.I.

"We set up a honey trap," says Ms. Macdonald. "You know, nice female avatar... flirted quite a bit."

In a honey trap, a gorgeous woman or a handsome man is hired to approach the target of an infidelity investigation, lay down some seductive patter on him or her, and see if the suspected philanderer takes the bait.

"The avatar was ordered only to take it so far," Markie tells me. "[W]e charged L$1,000-- it was a one night job."

In-world, Markie Macdonald is a slinky, voluptuous redhead in a form-fitting gown; were she in a Raymond Chandler novel, she'd be the ingenue who undulates into Marlowe's office pleading for help. Instead, she's the one who owns and runs an investigation firm, with several undercover agents in her employ. (When she's not overwhelmed by her real life job as an IT manager for a multi-national based in Scotland, that is.)

And as odd as it may seem, Markie Macdonald isn't the only private detective in Second Life.

"[I]t appears as if infidelity is a big problem here," Bruno Buckenburger notes, chuckling. A friend once asked Bruno to investigate her cheating boyfriend, and this gave him the idea to hang out his own for-hire shingle. When we talked a few weeks ago, Bruno hadn't even started advertising, but "through word of mouth, we've gotten referrals. Again, women (mostly) want to check up on their men, and so they introduce the agent to the boyfriend, and the agent hits on the guy, and in all cases... the guy bites and winds up cheating." So Buckenburger runs a successful honeypot operation of his own, though he's careful to make sure his employees don't run afoul of the law-- i.e., Linden Lab's Terms of Service agreement.

"We do review TOS with them and make sure they don't wind up stalking the guy just to get the job done," says Buckenburger. "We make sure the client introduces the agent to the boyfriend so it doesn't wind up being stalking. So far, the boyfriend always winds up hitting on the agent right after the introduction." To prove their case, Bruno prefers that his agents take an incriminating screenshot with the target-- or just as good, have the agent teleport the client right to their location, to catch their unfaithful partner in a compromising position.

"Then," Bruno adds, "the agent gets out quickly." But the tricky bit there is billing.

"It's T and M work," Bruno explains. "The time is charged up front for the effort and the materials are billed upon delivery. If you sell a pic you collect right away. If you have a teleport situation, you have to get the money after they have seen the cheater." Buckenberger's worried that once the client has teleported to their partner's den of iniquity, they can just teleport away, without paying the remainder of their balance to the agent on site.

"My gut tells me that we will have problems," says Bruno, "since contracts here seem to be hard to enforce."

Buckenberger's fees for this service run around L$500. "But, as with any other service," he says, "it depends on time and task. Really, it only takes a couple hours to wrap up a case, as long as everyone is online." He roars with laughter. "I mean after all, hot babes and cheaters-- they are not going for coffee." Like Markie, Bruno's roster of undercover sting agents is secret; and in his case, at least, they're even secret to themselves.

"Two of the agents know each other," he says, "but I am the only one who knows all of them."

Not all the detectives' cases involve infidelity. Macdonald's taken a couple security jobs, for example, one involving straight-up property surveillance, another involving a misplaced alarm system. ("A security orb was set too high," she says of the latter. "The client was very happy, he thought there was a vendetta on him.") In this, the online private detective assumes the role of both technical support and standards enforcer-- jobs usually reserved to company employees. Then again, this is not necessarily surprising. In the real world, the private detective is also a surrogate for the State, responding to structural or practical shortcomings in governance, taking on cases that law enforcement officials are too constrained or too strapped to handle.

More often than not, however, the bread and butter of the Second Life private investigator revolves around the affairs of the heart, and the deceptions they bring-- and this being Second Life, they also revolve around the question of what those two things mean, to different people.

"[T]he interview is where people get tense," Markie Macdonald tells me. We've gone to the private cave she shares with several Residents. It's surrounded by a security barrier, which makes it the ideal place to take her clients, when they're ready to tell her their story in total privacy.

"One minute it's funny, then next, reality hits," she says. "I've had two people walk out, just 'cause I warned them of what might happen... We try and warn people that just 'cause they are in Second Life love... some people may not be as serious as the other [person]."

And so Markie puts some hard questions to her would-be clients. "Do you want to waste the fun? Why not ask them [if they're cheating], without paying a stranger? Do you want to think your Second Life or Real Life partner would set a honey trap, or get strangers to spy on their partners?"

Because as she tells it, many of her clients have a Second Life partner who also happen to be their real life lover.

Which was the case with Macdonald's client Laura Skye. Dave Barmy wasn't just her partner in Second Life. In the material world, they also share a home together. They don't log in-world at the same time, however, since they have two computers but one only working monitor. "We take it in two hour shifts," Laura explains. So only Dave was in-world, when she passed by their monitor, looked over his shoulder-- and found him in flagrante delicto with a working girl avatar. Laura Skye was not happy about that, not at all.

"Why, exactly?" I ask her, when I meet with her at my office on Shipley cliffs. "It's just in a computer, right? He's not really cheating."

"He says the same thing, but I don't agree," says Laura. "I feel it's cheating with me. Because it's something I don't agree with... he knew it, and it hurt my feelings."

In Second Life, it's possible to designate another Resident as your "Partner", and have them listed on your in-world profile as such. (A way of giving virtual weddings more substance beyond a public ceremony.) Laura Skye and Dave Barmy were designated as Partners, until she walked in on him and the tart for hire.

"Then I divorced him in-world," she says, then throws her head back, laughing. "I went on the Second Life website and clicked on the divorce thing. He got an e-mail saying I left him." And she made him promise that he'd never seek the company of another in-world woman again.

Still, she had her doubts.

"If you had found out he was cheating on you in Second Life," I ask her, "how would that effect your real life relationship?"

"It would be the end of the relationship."

"You would break up with him in real life?"

"Oh yes."

"That'd be difficult, too, wouldn't it, since you live together?"

"Yes it would," Laura Skye tells me, "but I would not allow that to happen."

So she set the agents of Markie Macdonald on Dave Barmy, and waited to hear what happened.

"[Markie] reported back to me every day with timings," she says, "where he was, and at what time. Amazed me. Like he went shopping, went to a few nightclubs, stayed at his house."

Then he met Markie's honey trap. And they set to talking.

"And guess what," Markie Macdonald says, picking up the story. "He talked about his partner [with her] all night! Who says men are all bad!" Given the opportunity to cheat, Dave Barmy had just talked about Laura. "When we reported back," says Markie, "the client was head over heels as well."

"I was very relieved," Laura tells me.

But I'm curious how he felt. "Was he angry with you?"

"A little, but I had every reason to do so... I have no reason to feel guilty. I don't want to seem like I'm a control freak or anything like that," she adds, "'cause I'm not. I've just been hurt a lot in the past... I'm a very emotional person and I do allow my feelings to come in here."

For his part, Dave Barmy described himself as "shocked, I guess", when his real life partner told him about the in-world test he'd just passed with flying colors. Still, he insists, "I had nothing to hide so I didn't really mind-- if she wants to waste her money on a private dick, that's her problem."

I'm talking with him on the rooftop of his winter chalet, next to his Cobra gunship. He's streaming a classic rock Internet radio station onto his property, so while we talk, Aerosmith's "Love in an Elevator" beats around us.

I ask him why he wanted to solicit a lady of the evening avatar in the first place.

"Well," says Dave, "I just hadn't done it [before], so I thought I would try to see what it was all about in Second Life... It was OK, but I can think of better things to spend L$500 on." Dave Barmy has a dark goatee and wears a giant chain on his bare chest. "I didn't realize going with an escort would hurt [my] real life girlfriend.

"It's good," he says of their relationship now, post-honeytrap. "Ups and downs like all relationships, but mostly good."

"Things are a lot better now," Laura agrees, earlier. "Still a few little arguments, but every couple has 'em... there isn't so much tension as there was before." But that's just in their day-to-day world offline. They still haven't become a couple again in Second Life.

"Maybe one day when I feel ready," says Laura Skye, "then I might take him back in-world."

* * *

"Business is running well," Markie Macdonald told me last weekend. "Maybe too well. I need more staff." I had originally spoken with her several weeks ago, and I wanted an update on the business.

"In fact," she continues, "just followed someone to the boxing [match]... With no advertising, I've got three cases on just now." This would make it twelve clients, in just three months of operation. Among them is "one hell of a jealous man! He wants 24x7 surveillance. Been three days now." And on the third day, she says triumphantly, "We got her! Being totally unfaithful. Having an affair with a male stripper."

But that case gets more complicated. "This story also has a family," she says. "[T]he target and the client are the 'parents' of three kids." Some Residents not only have partnerships, but end up "adopting" children, or quite literally create some of their own. (Longtime Resident Andie Apollo recently devoted her Second Life to creating babies that cried and cooed and responded to their designated parents' voice-- and gave them up for adoption to dozens of Residents.)

So Markie's latest case could ruin an entire in-world family, too. I ask her if she'd regret having a hand in this.

"But she is being unfaithful, so she is breaking up the family!" says Markie.

When I last spoke to Bruno Buckenburger, he was hoping to get away from the honeytrap line, and pick up more clients in the often cutthroat business of nightclubs.

"I would really like to focus on that area eventually," he says. "For some, there are real money issues [involved], and they would benefit by having someone on the inside." Many of the more popular clubs are run on large tracts of land, or private islands, and that costs their owner's money-- sometimes hundreds of US dollars per month. Then again, the most successful clubs can bring in a sweet cash take for them, too. So when Second Life nightclubs engage in sabotage and other acts of vandalism, to bring their competitors down (as it's rumored) things can get ugly. This behavior would constitute "griefing", and a violation of Linden community rules-- but then, maybe some owners would prefer to hire their own flatfoot to track the saboteurs down, rather than wait for the cops to arrive.

"I was in the Air Force and did some work with military intelligence," Bruno says. "You ever heard of C3I? Command, Control, Communications Intelligence? Mainly making sure important data was transferred securely. Back in the 80s. Cold war stuff. Nothing terribly sexy. We watched the Soviets, they watched us." Maybe that background will serve him well, in his next venture.

"Really," he says, "it is just a matter of having people gathering information from the bombers. I've met some interesting characters who are like informants... the key is separating the B.S. from fact. That is a tough nut to crack, since we need multiple sources for confirmation of information. Plus with [alternate accounts], we have people keeping an eye on us too." He grins, and winks. "It's a pretty shady underworld here."

Before Laura Skye left my office after a long conversation, she added one last thing.

"The reason why I'm fed up with being hurt," she told me, "is I was married before." This was recently, in the real world. In fact, just before she got together with Dave. Her ex-husband was abusive, she says; so abusive, that at one point, she actually feared for her safety.

"I'm more mentally scarred than anything," she adds. "I still suffer flashbacks... [my] relationship died on that day. I got married too young, that was my problem."

I ask her if this explains her protectiveness over this relationship she has with Dave Barmy, so fierce that she brought in a third party, to investigate the truth behind it.

"Yes, very much so," says Laura Skye. "I'm scared of being on my own."

Last I heard from Bruno Buckenburger, he was still building the office on his property which will house his agency, "so clients can see a storefront."

But not much more than a storefront.

"Agents aren't allowed to be seen around here," says Bruno. "Anonymity. Probably over-cautious, but we don't want random people seeing who comes and goes. If an agent hangs out here, someone may (or may not) put two plus two together."

So the undercover agents keep roaming the world, unknown to anyone but the detectives who employ them, seeking out their targets in secluded places, looking for some crucial breach of trust, or some momentary loss of faith. Or on better days, an opportunity to digitally validate the realness of love.


Belated postscript: many thanks to RenZephyr Zircon for the initial tip on this story.

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Thursday, March 17, 2005

SOCIAL EXPERIMENT, CONTINUED

... are the nightclub venues popular with residents because they help fulfill a basic human need... or because they're the easiest and most accessible Second Life locations to visit?

That's the question I posed more than a month ago in "Social Experiment", in response to recently-implemented Linden Lab policies that ended financial support for sponsored events-- which many nightclubs had been depending on for their economic survival. From then on, the Lindens only paid out a Linden Dollar cash stipend to Events with educational value.

What's most essential to human nature? Being a social animal, or taking the path of least resistance? If the former, then the nightclubs will probably thrive even without Linden subsidization; if the latter, most of them are probably fated to decline.

The screenshot on the left was taken on February 9th; the one on the right, March 10th. Both of them show the Top 20 most popular sites in Second Life, based on foot traffic, as calculated with the Dwell metric. Which gives us a concrete way of quantifying how the culture has changed, since these policies have gone into effect-- if at all.

On February 9th, the breakdown read like this: Twelve top spots were nightclubs; five of these emphasized Mature-themed sexual content. Three locations were primarily billed as shopping malls; two others emphasized casinos and casual games. One of them was a social and sandbox hangout for the Furry subculture, another was a thematic recreation of New York City; still another, Dark Life, was a mini-MMORPG.

On March 10th, however, only eight of the top twenty sites are nightclubs (including CLUB PLATINUM & PLATINUM MALL, Club Elite on Elite Island, DWA Dancing with the Angels Nite Club, and The Edge), and four of which (Le Cadre - Pure Passion, G Spot, Lestats Dark Erotica, and Siren's Call) emphasize M-rated sexual content. Five are primarily casinos (ICE DRAGON, da Penthouse, Kojin Casino, Las Vegas, Tropics Casino), and four are primarily shopping malls (Paradise Island, SOUTH I ESTATES, Wixom Wild West, and V^Vampire Empire^V.) The mini-MMORPG Dark Life retains a top spot, as does The Forest, a Furry-haven. Lastly there's The Shelter, which is, interestingly enough, billed as a response to some trends in other popular sites ("You wont find Sleeze, Tringo or Drama at the Shelter! Newbies welcomed, Dancing, Freebies/Free Money!") Speaking of Tringo, that culture-changing game is hosted by four of those sites.

What conclusions can we make? Though correlation is not causation, it does seem likely that the change in policy caused the significant drop in the number of nightclubs from the top slots, and the subsequent rise of casinos in their place. Some Residents predicted that the end of Linden Lab sponsorship for social Events would inspire nightclub hosts to "go sexy", and offer more explicit adult content. Numerically, at least, that doesn't seem to be the case.

So where nightclubs once overwhelmingly dominated, now casinos and shopping malls are a close second, with room at the top for a few non-casino, non-nightclub places. I'll check back in another month, to see if any new patterns emerge.

But is this new state of things better, or just different, or neither? That, of course, is for the Residents to decide...

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Monday, March 14, 2005

VIRTUALLY TRUE: EMBEDDED JOURNALISM IN AN ONLINE WORLD (A SXSW TALK)

Or, how Hamlet Linden became a way better journalist than me...

Expanded notes from a talk about New World Notes for the South by Southwest panel "Virtually True: Journalism and Blogging About Online Worlds" (Monday, March 14, 10:00am-11:00am)

SECOND LIFE DEFINED: A persistent, streamed 3D reality that simulates a world. Using the building and scripting tools available to them, the paying subscribers (or Residents) create and own all the objects contained in it: homes, public buildings, vehicles, weapons, clothing, etc.

MY ROLE IN SECOND LIFE: I began as a game writer and freelance technology journalist for Salon and Wired, then was contracted by Linden Lab in early 2003 to cover the development of Second Life as an emerging community for a blog called New World Notes. My in-world avatar is "Hamlet Linden", modeled after myself, but wearing a white suit in tribute to Tom Wolfe. My alternate avatar (while covering wars and other chaotic situations) was inspired by Hunter S. Thompson. (Avatar discontinued in respect to Gonzo's passing.)

New World Notes functions in at least two discrete but often overlapping kinds of journalism.

AS A CATALYST FOR REAL WORLD JOURNALISM-- SOME EXAMPLES:

- In-world technological innovation with social and scientific transformative possibilities:

Science and technology journalism, as in "Lever to Move the Mind", my report on a UC Davis medical doctor and programmer creating a simulation of visual and audio hallucinations, based on testimony of real life schizophrenic patients. Scientists, programmers, engineers continue to use Second Life as a research and development platform-- as do social science academics.

- Enabling story subjects to recount deeply personal issues from the protected anomynity of their avatars:

As in "The Freeform Identity Bebop of Eboni Khan", which takes a discussion of her avatar's racial characteristics to discuss her own personal perspectives on race as an African-American woman. Since Second Life policy forbids disclosure of Resident's real life identities, and the immersive-but-safe intimacy of the 3D online experience, people feel comfortable to tell their stories of their lives, and how they relate to larger issues.

- Numerous opportunities to interview Residents from diverse, newsworthy backgrounds:

As in "The Soldier's Mistress", profile of a Resident just returned US military service in Iraq-- including a period of intense combat at Fallujah, during the first siege. Again, recounting intense, grim subjects behind the protective veil of anomynity.

In the same way, the displacement of real-time interaction in an online world as avatar who represents you (but at a safe remove), enables my reporter character to ask more provocative, confrontational questions I often hestitate to ask as an in-person reporter-- or even via e-mail or phone. At the same time, the immersive intimacy makes me more protective of my subjects, and that much more committed to telling their stories.

AS A MICROCOSM OF REAL LIFE ISSUES-- SOME EXAMPLES:

- Exploring who we want to be, and who we want to desire-- and why.

As in "Man and Man on Woman on Woman", about two (self-identified) heterosexual men who each play female avatars-- and decided to have their avatars fall in love with each other. (See also Eboni Khan's profile, where she discusses straight men she knows who play women-- so they can start relationships with other women, and then later "come out" to them as being straight men.)

- Modeling the role of religion and sexuality in culture.

As in "The Sacred and the Profane", the story of a man who built a Roman Catholic cathedral in-world, and even held recreations of Sunday mass service in them-- then later took the church down, because he felt celebrations of organized religion weren't welcomed in the relatively libertine culture of Second Life.

- Documenting the clash between capitalism and community.

As in "Anshe at the Gates". In 2003, Linden Lab announced a laissez faire policy on the buying and selling of Linden Dollars (Second Life's in-world currecy) for real money, and several third-party sites engage in such commerce. This has opened the door for Residents to make a real income from their activity in Second Life-- including real estate maven Anshe Chung, who recently bought a private island which had been home to a close-knit artistic community-- then got rid of the existing neighborhood (including its tribute to Christo's Gates), and converted it all into a vacation suburb for French and German Residents.

SOME LIMITATIONS TO AVATAR JOURNALISM:

- Objective truth is server side.

Hard to establish anything not witnessed first-hand to any fully reliable degree (chat transcripts can be altered, screenshots can be Photoshopped.) This sets a limit on "investigative" journalism, on the one hand, and threatens to turn stories which involve conflicts between Residents into He Said-She Said. My solution is not to emphasize the particular conflicts, but the larger themes they involve.

- On being paid by The Man...

Problem: how can you be an impartial journalist reporting on a world, when you're paid by the company who makes money from it? Tentative solution: state biases up front, and take on active role as ombudsman, promoting community concerns to Linden Lab. (Example here.) First Amendement irony: New World Notes stories which involve Residents being critical of Linden Lab (such as the tax revolt covered here) tend to be the most well read, and indirectly promote Second Life as a democratic online society.

- Time!

The world has grown so large, it's far exceeded one journalist's attempt to cover it. Fortunately, there are nearly forty Resident-run blogs, and my hope is to become just as much a straight SL blogger, as a journalist, acting as editor for dozens of different points of view.

And that's an open invitation for more bloggers and journalist bloggers to add online worlds to their beat...

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Sunday, March 13, 2005

THE FREEFORM IDENTITY BEBOP OF EBONI KHAN

Part III of "THE FIVE PEOPLE YOU MEET IN SECOND LIFE", a series of random interviews with Second Life Residents—details here, Part I here, Part II here.

I met Ms. Eboni Khan, a Black Republican Buddhist Fortune 1000 executive who is testing the appeal of upscale social events with no explicit sexual content, by moving my mouse over a list of Residents online during the day, and clicking on it with my eyes closed.

I first got acquainted with her in-world at a live jazz performance in Beverly Hills, a private island simulator, and after the event was over (she was its hostess), we went on a couple short tours of the sim, chatting about race, race and avatars, jazz clubs, socialization, men who seduce women while acting as women, going in-world from airport terminals, and more.

On her Second Life...

My main gig in SL is Event Manager for Beverly Hills [a private island simulator]. It is the most time- consuming, but I also make futons and clothes. I am building a new store right now; I do it out my pocket. I am working on a fashion show for Saturday, and I had a modeling agency cancel on me, and I had to get another, so now I am regrouping some things...

Event hosting is a lot of work... but I love this sim so much. I am committed to event hosting here.

On the success of Beverly Hills:

Beverly Hills usually stays in the top twenty [most popular places] with no events-- that is pretty impressive, since most of the top tweny sims run events 24/7. [I attribute Beverly Hills' success to] the beauty of the sim. [It's] laid out like a city-- sidewalks, roads, in a grid, with an entertainment area in the back. It's clean, neutral, yet slightly flashy, and all the popular designers are there... With so many unzoned and ill-planned and unstable sims, Beverly Hills is stable in design and well-planned. People like structure-- just like children.

As much as people like unrealistic things in virtual worlds, they love the realistic. Not everyone can shop on Rodeo Drive in real life. Or on 5th Avenue. But you can come on SL, and with your meager stipend, buy a rather expensive dress, at an exclusive boutique in Beverly Hills. It makes people feel good…

On what she spends her in-world money on:

This is a skin [I bought], but I did the features. Does anyone make their avatar anymore? Second Life is my relaxation point, so I only make things that interest me and bring me pleasure. If it is frustrating or not cost-effective for me to spend leisure time on, then I buy. I make enough money in real life to spend money in Second Life-- it's part of my entertainment budget. What I spend in one month in SL isn't even one night at the bar. [laughs] So it's a savings.

On her ongoing in-world social experiment:

Basically, I want to see if upscale events will be well-attended in SL. The club (which I can show you later) does not look like other clubs in SL. I have made sure of that... no strippers, no escorts, although there will be dungeons below, that are separate from the club.

But upstairs, where I am, will be clean... I enjoy the element of completely creating a second life, and am open to all that SL has to offer, but I'm not for public nudity or public sex. Even if it is just pixels. [smiling] My avie has strong morals.

Well, I am sure it will fail, so "failed experiment" has a better ring to it. The other title would be "My new way to pour money down the drain experiment"... I doubt "upscale" can compete with sex.

On Eboni Khan, in her first life...

[I'm a] mid-level Executive for a Fortune 1000 Company. I'm a technology manager-- I travel the US doing site visits with customers.

I think coding is for monkeys. It's slave work, so I do other things. But I know how. I have an Engineering degree from a top engineering school. I only did it in college, or out of necessity at work. I have always been middle/low level management, high-end tech support. [Now] I do mostly servers and networks, but also manage people.

I get online [into Second Life] from hotels with my laptop... it depends on the network speeds in the hotels. If they are slow I just give up and hit the bar. [smiles] I sometimes log on in airports when I have layovers, or my flight is delayed. It's not great [connection quality] but it works. Most airports have high speed wireless; I use it all the time, probably sucking all the bandwidth for the terminal. [laughs] So Second Life has become my home on the road.

My life is in constant flux. But SL is a stablizing factor.

I have tried to get more of my real life friends to play Second Life, so I can spend more time with them, but they have declined. But I am still working on them. They say if I don’t cut back they are going to perform an intervention. I showed them my futons on [in-world commerce website] SLExchange, and they have decided that Second Life is a little too involved. But really, they are supportive.

On the club she'll manage with owner Amy Stirling:

My [intent] is to run the club more like a real nightclub. At least a real [big city] nightclub... years of [real world] clubbing, running events in college, and dating DJs and club managers teaches you a little.

People crave change. And people love something new. As much as people like the familiar, they crave the new. Notice how new sims are snapped up. So a new club, offering something a little different on a popular and well respected sim, means something.

While touring the club, still under construction...

The stage here with the wood [surface] is for [jazz musician] Flaming Moe. More intimate environment. Since all the other clubs have huge stages, this one will allow people to be closer to him. Every [real life] jazz bar I have been in is a hole in the wall. Even the nice ones. You are almost sitting on the stage. These huge venues are ridiculous here…

On socialization in Second Life...

[In the previous world she was a member of, p]eople spent a lot of time in their homes socializing with friends, etc. That doesn't happen here. I rarely ever go to a person's home and hang out… [because] you can build. You can make things and have instant satisfaction... I do sit around in the house with my boyfriend a lot and talk religion and spirituality and assorted other pointless and deep thoughts.

Yes, my Second Life boyfriend. I am very single in real life. Can't have a man when you are on the road five days a week.

Her thoughts on why some men roleplay as female avatars:

The men pretending to be women are more into dressing themselves and admiring themselves-- and attempting to build relationships, which is interesting. The men that I know [who] are women here, are very feminine. And strive to have loving friendships and relationships. Which leads me to believe a lot of men think they can't accomplish the same thing [while] being a stereotypical male.

Sensitive and tender? Pretend to be a girl, then seduce the girl of your dreams. Then tell her you are a man, and hope for the best. I think the majority of these men just want to be tender and loving, and think a female avie makes it easier for them to do it.

On her avatar's appearance...

[My] avie looks like me, if I was six foot tall and ultra thin. Always as dark as possible, with African features... I have been going for an "aging African model who made it big in Europe" look. But I wonder what would happen if I looked more like Alec Wek than Iman.

I am trying to get someone to make me a darker skin, but you lose detail with darker [features]...

I have tried to be lighter, or a different race, but it makes me uncomfortable. I had a hard time in real life being a darker Black person. It took me a long time to be comfortable in my own skin. So an avie that isn't dark like me makes me uncomfortable. [laughs] Like I am passing...

[I'm] more of an Oprah color, in real life... peacan.

On race in Second Life...

Race is pretty much a non-issue here. Although when I first started playing, there were very few African-Americans in the game. Now there are plenty. Or plenty pretending.

You don’t find many African-American people being dark online. Which is funny, because there are plenty of dark black people in real life. I came from [another online world], and I was one of the few chocolate avies. Most were caramel. They blamed it on clothes being designed more for caramel [skinned avatars]. But that's a cop-out. I think it speaks to larger issues with race and skin tone. But you can't preach to people online who only want to get virtual ass. So I keep my observations to myself… People come online in these worlds to have a good time, not engage in deep socially political talk, which is what I crave.

I rarely interact with African-American avies, only a few people that I know from [the previous online world].

On whether that matters to her.

Nope.

Well, yes. Let me not lie. I wish I could interact with more black people [in SL]... From various backgrounds. It would be nice. My interactions with them are limited in real life, to some extent.

What does bother me is that most of the things [here] seem to appeal to the lowest common denominator. And that extends to [in-world] Mafias. I hate the thug culture. Pointless drivel. People have computers worth hundreds of dollars. The know-how to get online. The ability to navigate Second Life, which is not the most intuitive software. And they want to pretend to be thugs. Real thugs are on the street making money. These people are lame, pretending. If they ever met a real thug they would piss their pants. Owning a JayZ CD and some Roc-A-Wear doesnt make you a thug, pimp, or a balla… it sucks that all people see [about] black culture is thugs. There are so many black scholars, inventors, business people, but you never hear about them. The celebrity worship culture in Western society is against that.

On once being uncomfortable in her own skin...

Well, it was more growing up… My father was very dark. He and my mother hated each other. Me being dark reminded her of him, because I looked like him, and it made it hard for her to love me… [also] where I grew up, most of the Black people were poor and uneducated; my family was upper class. My grandmother was a veternarian researcher at a university. Not many Black vets, not many Black doctors. And for a lady her age, well…

On whether it had anything to do with white on black racism.

Nope. Not at all. White people are far more accepting, at least in my life they have been. Your own people can be the cruelest... And my unique personality-- I'm not, umm, the stereotypical or average Black person… A lot of Black people seem to hate when other people act differently. They take it as you think you are better, and that you are trying to be white. It seems impossible to just be different. [But] I will never apologize for being smart. Or [liking] sci-fi.

On revealing herself to the world...

I have started coming out more to my friends. Being a conservative Black female Republican Buddhist isn’t easy. I just started admitting I am not a Christian, which is hard. Even for your non-religious friends, because most of them still believe in Christianity, even if they don’t practice… I have been exploring other religions for about 13 years. [I like Buddhism's] simplicity, the singleness, the fact I don’t need to be with or around other people to practice, the explanations about life. It seems practical.

On the Republican part:

[Laughing] Again, seems practical to me. But my family has always been Republican. My grandfather was the head of the local NAACP, and he used to talk about how Democrats wouldn’t let them vote. I learned to loath Democrats early on.

I am really more libertarian in political leanings, but I vote Republican. I dont care for [President Bush], but I don't like many politicians. I do respect him greatly as a strong leader-- he seems to do what he thinks is right and to hell with polls and public opinion.

The first Black or Hispanic [to be President] will be killed, my personal opinion. Or people will try, hard. This country hasn’t came that far.

I get on a plane in a suit, with a laptop, Blackberry, expensive cell, and people ask me dumb questions and seem surprised I have a marginally impressive job. You would be surprised how shocked people are when I sit in First Class. I deal with a lot of people traveling. This country hasn’t come far enough for a Black President.

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Thursday, March 10, 2005

LINK OF THE WEEK!

Live photoblogging from Second Life! Cristiano Midnight recently unveiled a cool feature on his site that takes advantage of the client's "Postcard" function, which lets you send in-world screenshots to people via e-mail. With Midnight's Snapzilla, you can e-mail such postcards directly to his site. For visitors, this means a near-real time visual document of Second Life as it's lived. The potential for photoblogging (screenblogging?) is pretty obvious. In fact, I recently came across a whimsical visual update of the story I wrote here, and a picture really is worth the proverbial thousand words I'd otherwise blog about it. In the near future, I'd like to use a feature like this to re-do my "Day in the life of Second Life". (After I get a good night's sleep, that is.)

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Tuesday, March 08, 2005

THE TRAGICS OF TRINGO

An in-world game developer creates a phenomenon, garners enormous financial success... and alters the culture of an entire society, in the process.

So I spent the last year or so predicting to anyone one who'd listen the imminent arrival of the Counter-Strike of Second Life, and when it finally gets here, I'm slow on the uptake.

In the 90's, a kid working out of his parents' basement used the level-editing tools of Half-Life to create the Counter-Strike mod. It got so popular, people began buying the original Half-Life, just because you needed to install it, to play the kid's game. It got so popular, in fact, it had a broad impact on multiplayer gaming and the game industry's attitude toward modding.

In a similar way, my prediction went, a Resident would one day create a game that's so addictive and popular, people will end up logging into Second Life just to play it. That will be the tipping point when things change-- for the Second Life community, and the way it was perceived by people outside it.

Trouble for me was, all along I had been expecting that game to resemble something like, well, Counter-Strike-- a multiplayer FPS like U:SL, for example. My own bias as a gamer had blinded me to the realization that the Counter-Strike of Second Life was really this simple, innocuous looking, casual game which involved nothing more spectacular than a bunch of people sitting around poking at two dimensional boards.

Oh, I'd noticed its arrival, and mentioned it back in January, in my profile of club culture doyenne Jenna Fairplay-- but that was just in passing. By the time realization finally hit me full, it had already pushed past that tipping point; in here, and in the world outside.

So it was last week that I met Kermitt Quirk for the first time, outside his home near the Tringo board which he used to host himself (though he's been too busy to do that lately). Since he's based in Australia (while originally from New Zealand), arranging an interview conducted via a 18 hour time difference was a challenge in itself. But despite our distance, the quality of his connection is just fine.

"I just got a new graphics card yesterday," he tells me. "Second Life runs smooth as silk now."

"Bought it with your Tringo earnings?"

"Pretty much, yeah," he replies. "Not actually from Second Life money cashed in, though. I haven't done that yet. I'm gonna just keep it in there as a nest egg, I think."

But Kermitt Quirk's fiscal success isn't a topic for this entry-- by now, that's already become an item for the mainstream press to report. This is the story behind its creation, and just as important, the way its unprecedented popularity has impacted Second Life society-- for better (as many believe), or-- as some strenuously argue-- for worse.

TRINGO: THE GAMEPLAY

Disarmingly simple, Tringo consists of a display board, to track scores and pieces in play, and game cards, for the individual players. After they place their bets in a winner-take-all pot, they compete with each other to fit their pieces together onto their cards.

"Basically," says Kermitt, playing me in a demonstration round, "as the pieces show up you need to click your card for where you want to place them... The idea is to make solid blocks of 2x2, 2x3 or 3x3, then the scores are 5, 10, 15 points, respectively. You get 10 seconds for each piece, and lose 7 points if you fail to place one in time. The best technique seems to be to try and go for as many 2x3s as you can, and avoid the 2x2s if you can afford to-- or 3x2s, of course."

Heedless, I end up slapping pieces down in a way where it quickly becomes impossible to form a full row.

"Ack, boxed myself out!"

"As you can see," Kermitt says, grinning, "you'll get blocked if you ain't careful." And reassuringly, "Most people seem to pick it up after one or two games."

TRINGO: THE CODING

"I'm more of a business programmer really," says Kermitt. (He writes in-house applications for the Australian arm of a large American manufacturer.) "Making games is just a hobby, and I really never thought I could compete with the stuff that's out nowdays. That's where I like Second Life, 'cause I never really got into programming 3D stuff, and SL already does all that stuff for me."

I ask him how he scripted the puzzle pieces to randomly display and then calculate when players have selected the correct one, and then factor that into the current score.

"It all comes down to bitpattern maths," Quirk explains. "A lotta people use strings to represent the map of squares, but the string and list functions are relatively slow. With a bitpattern, it means I can store the entire 5x5 card grid in one integer. Then it's just a matter of using bitpattern operators like AND, OR and the left/right shifts to merge bitpatterns or test for matches, etc. I have [fellow Resident] David Guillaume to thank for a lotta that. I sorta new this stuff, but he made it heaps clearer and taught me a lotta tricks I wasn't aware of...

"And that's the secret to why Tringo is so fast even in a slow sim. The lines of code it needs to run though are heaps less than if you used strings and lists. Like a test to see if you can place a particular piece on the card is basically one line. Of course," he adds, "when 20-30 people turn up for an event with all their attachments and such the sim still tends to suffer, unfortunately."

TRINGO: THE ECONOMIC MODEL

Quirk developed Tringo over last Christmas, and put a copyright to it (in the release notes, "Kermitt Quirk" is named as the rights holder), just before New Year's. He sensed he had a phenomenon on his hands before the official release.

"I ran it as a Beta for a few days. That was in the Barnyard run by Omar Drago. And even then the word seemed to spread really quick. After I released it for sale, it just went nuts, with people buying it over the first couple of weeks... I broke the one million [Linden] dollar profit mark just a couple of days ago."

At L$15,000 a copy, as of last week he's so far sold 69, primarily to Residents who want to make money hosting Tringo matches.

"And all it took was a couple of weeks during my holidays," he says, "and a bit of customer support." (About five hours weekly, by his estimate, helping Tringo owners with technical glitches.)

"Which is," I calculate, in current US$/L$ exchange rates, "about $60 each!"

"Actually more for me, 'cause then you need to convert that to Aussie dollars." That's to say, the currently weak American dollar on the international market means more purchasing power for non-US Residents, when they convert from Linden Dollars to US dollars and then to their own currency.

"Well, [the Australian dollar's] actually been dropping recently," he amends. "Another of the reasons I haven't tried to cash it in yet."

TRINGO: THE SOCIAL CATALYST-- AND THE CONTROVERSY

"So why do you think Tringo became so big in here?" I ask its creator.

"Mainly I think because the concept is so simple that people can pick it up real quick and be winning after even only two or three games," Quirk tells me. "The way I see it is that you could play a lotta games that are in SL anywhere, if you wanna play them alone. I think it's much better to get people together in groups so they can chat while they play."

An indication of its success is not just found in the number of Tringo-related events (which on some days make up more than 25% of total events), but in the vertiable subculture of Tringo groups Residents have started up. There are at least 21 of them now, with names like Tringo Busters, Tringo Sluts, and Tringo Zombies. In essence, they're analagous to gamer clans and informal leagues, started up by enthusiasts of the game. (Somewhat related to this, Kermitt is trying to collect screenshots of Tringo as it's played in the dozens of locations and environments throughout the world. "Might put the word out for people to send photos to me," he asks me, "'cause I'll miss most of them with the time difference.")

Unsurprisingly, success means a level of in-world fame for Kermitt Quirk.

"I dunno if I'd call them fans," says Quirk. "I don't get packs of people running after me or anything. But if I turn up to Tringo games people seem very amazed to actually meet 'the creator'. But then," he adds, grinning, "they start cursing me when the right pieces don't come out for them."

Just as unsurprisingly, Tringo has its share of Resident detractors, who believe the game has come to overwhelm their society.

In a testament to its influence, Jinny Fonzarelli, a British Philosophy/Theology student and Resident who runs Thinkers, a group devoted to discussing political and metaphysical topics, now plans to dedicate an upcoming debate to "The Tringoization of Society". Which would be, if you like, a cultural debate held within a game about the mini-game that's beginning to impact the community of the larger game.

"It ain't really Tringo I object to," Fonzarellis tells me. "It's the fact that it's everywhere, all the time. Games are meant to be an escape, not where you live. Between Tringo and pointless contests, I know many people feel their Second Life has been immensely devalued."

Eboni Khan (a Resident I'll be profiling in a future entry) helps run the opulent Beverly Hills resort simulator, and regrets her experience with the game.

"I brought Tringo here," says Eboni, "which I now hate. People just leech off Tringo, and they seem so addicted... and people come, just play Tringo, suck out money, and don't even look around the sim. Sim owners have Tringo to attract people to the sims [but] Tringo players rarely look at the sims. They just go from game to game. If their friends IM them that there are big pots at the next place, they leave. And they don't chat, because they are too into the game. So it's not even social, which I don't like."

I bring these objections up with the game's inventor.

"That's a tricky one," Quirk acknowledges. "I have had a few people ask me if I was going to remove it from sale, because I was flooding the market... that may be fair for them, but what about other people that wanted to buy it and couldn't afford it [when it was on sale]? And when it comes down to it," he continues, "if people really didn't want, it they wouldn't support it."

As for it hurting socialization, he says, "[T]hat depends how seriously you take it, I suppose. From my experience with Tringo events it just isn't like that. There's always someone chatting even if they end up missing pieces because of it. You could argue that a [in-world] club is more sociable, but then people are just away from keyboard all the time [at clubs], so isn't that just as bad? At least Tringo keeps people active in world."

You can pretty much find a game of Tringo in Second Life at any hour. Even at 3AM, which is when I found a match going strong at Jvizzle Jacques' Ice Dragon Resorts, currently the world's most popular site, located in the winter simulator of Eaton. On what used to be a hill of driven snow now stands Jacques' raucous mini-mall of stores, floating billboard cubes, a ceaselessly blaring stream of pop music-- and at the center of it all, the Tringo game room, done up in chrome and flashing colored lights.

When I arrive, the players (including a leggy brunette supermodel, a humanoid lizard, and a punk rock demon) are waiting on game host Ezri Martin to start a new round, but she's momentarily away from the keyboard.

"SORRY," she says after a brief delay. "JUST ATTENDING TO MY DAUGHTER."

And after taking bets to the winner's pot, another round begins.

For the most part, this is an international crowd of players, with a few in Australia and least one in France. ("Midday," the Frenchwoman shouts. "WOOOHOOO!")

"Late night international tragics!" Magenta Eldritch adds from the bleachers.

"GREAT HEADLINE FOR YOU THERE, HAMLET," says Ezri. As it turns out, she's talking in ALL CAPS not to shout, but according to house policy. At the Ice Dragon Resorts, Tringo hosts must always speak in caps, to distinguish themselves from their players.

"IN AUSTRALIA," Ms. Martini continues, "WHEN SOMEONE IS ADDICTED TO A SPORT OR PASSTIME, THEY ARE REFERRED TO AS A 'TRAGIC'. E.G., A CRICKET TRAGIC, A FOOTBALL TRAGIC. AND NOW-- A TRINGO TRAGIC!"

Meanwhile, the time for this round is winding down, and players are counting their scores.

"Crushed me like a bug," groans Magenta.

"Sometimes you are the bug, sometimes the windshield!" offers Evan Yaffle, philosophically.

"AND SOMETIMES," Ezri Martini calls from the back, "THE WINDSCREEN WIPER."

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Monday, March 07, 2005

THE SOLDIER'S MISTRESSES

When I last heard from Dane Street, he had left his Second Life and his sister Mistress Midnight behind for one more year of duty in Iraq. There'd been a lull in communication, leaving her and their real life family and their mutual Second Life friends wondering if he was safe and how he was doing-- posted as he was in a camp outside Fallujah.

Aimee Weber finally heard back from Dane a couple weeks ago.

"He has Internet," she tells me. "Apparently a fast connection, so we were in Instant Message. He can't install Second Life because they are government computers. He says things are totally quiet over there. Like NOTHING is going on. I guess he is so hyped up for battle that quiet makes him really nervous."

"He said that he was cold and bored a lot," Mistress Midnight expands to me later. "And they're staying right now in a building with no flowing water, but with Internet."

I meet Ms. Midnight for an update at the black and gold donation donation box that she's built for her brother and the other boys of his battalion, in Midnight City (Umber/100/127). That's where she's been taking Linden Dollar donations through Victoria Lament, an alternate account she created for this express purpose, converting these L$ donations into US$, to buy and ship care packages to them-- the "Treats for our Troops" fund, as she calls it.

When she arrives, Mistress is joined at the box by Aimee and Torrid Midnight, another friend and Dane supporter, and since all three of them are established fashion mavens (as reported here, here, and here), a few simple screenshots quickly become more like a Maxim magazine photoshoot, or some kind of virtual USO-- an online cheesecake spread uploaded For The Boys. In previous wars, American servicemen stuck photos of Betty Grable or Raquel Welch above their bunks. Now they can have hot babe avatars to use as screensavers on their computer terminals-- even in a building outside Fallujah with broadband Internet but no running water.

Then again, there's worse things to worry about, than lack of plumbing.

"He won't tell me about anything dangerous," Mistress says, in between poses.

"Well, he doesn't want you to worry, is all," Torrid Midnight points out, vamping beside her.

"He's told me the big 'deal' has passed," Mistress goes on. "If anything was gonna happen, it would have been around the [Iraqi] election. He said things were surprisingly calm, and he's decided when he gets home, he's going to buy a Corvette."

Torrid Midnight makes a face. "Out of one kind of danger into another... pfft."

"And I am yelling at him for buying a Corvette," Aimee adds, "when he should be stashing the cash for school." Aimee's lounging on the grass by the box, her violet butterfly wings flapping as she speaks. "I want Dane to go to an Ivy," she adds.

"He's pretty," Mistress agrees, "like a Harvard boy."

"Corvettes are dangerous cars," Torrid presses, "And I'm sure he's not going to drive it nicely at the speed limit."

"Pfft, Dane can handle a Corvette," Aimee counters, "but he shouldn't blow his money on shtoopid sports cars."

"You say he can handle it," Torrid frets, "But he's a young man! And they like speed!"

Mistress Midnight offers a diplomatic alternative.

"But if he wants to spend money on something fun and silly (the American way) I'm okay with it. He's allowed amnesty from stupid spending, and smoking for now." After all, she adds, "I once pulled a blanket from under him and he fell head first into a brick fireplace."

Now Aimee is actively joining Torrid's anti-Corvette lobby: "No, Mis. [Dane should] spend it on school, and then in five years he can have a Corvette for every mood."

Eventually, I have to interrupt this passionate debate over what Dane Street should buy with his own combat pay, to ask what Mistress Midnight has bought, from the donations to the box and Victoria Lament, which have so far totalled more than the Linden Dollar equivalent of US$80.

"I bought subscriptions online to a few magazines, and the rest has been just random treats, baby wipes, Cheez-Its, Doritos, beef jerky," she says. (As it happens, baby wipes are an indispensable tool for battling the layers of dust and sand the troops get covered with, while on duty.)

"Hmm," Mistress continues, "Ritz and Cheeze Whiz, the little lunch sized juice boxes, and I'm going to head out and get more candy on my way [to the shipping center.] Honestly, it's a lot of what we'd say is junk, but that's what he misses the most. I'm really happy people are donating, little or big, it all helps, and it's not just going to Dane-- also going to people he's with right now."

"Now we should all take nudes and have you send those," suggests Torrid.

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