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Wednesday, November 30, 2005


I'm still not exactly sure if this cameo appearance I got invited to for "Plywood", the Web-comic created and set in Second Life, is actually covert attempt to co-opt me, but I do like how it embroils media about SL into the plot. For that matter, I'm not exactly sure why an army of super-intelligent teddy bears is bent on gridwide domination, and a gender-obsessed superhero in tights is bent on stopping them, though I also like how the epic plot footnotes back to me. (A comic about an online world-- with research!) Guess I'll have to read the "Ursmancer" cycle from the very beginning.

Update, December 2: "Plywood" co-creator Moriah Moreau has a detailed how-to on creating screenshots for the strip on his blog. Required reading, I'd think, for anyone looking to create an SL strip of their own.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2005


Pierce Portocarrero is using Second Life machinima as a tool to create a feature-length documentary; now the irrepressible Aimee Weber has used SL machinima to create an educational film-- specifically, a pretty extraordinary virtual planetarium tour of the solar system, created entirely within Second Life. It's being hosted on the Alt Zoom site of BuhBuhCuh Fairchild, who may end up becoming the Robert Redford of SL Machinima, what with the loopy Ed Wood Film Festival he just sponsored, and the Take 5 festival coming up.

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Monday, November 28, 2005


Harmonizing international relations through online game development...

So we sat there by the side of the river, the ape, the chimp, the horus and the rest of us, and talked about the games we'd create to make the world a better place.

Like most conversations in Second Life, this one began with a specific topic-- developing SL games for a USC Center on Public Diplomacy-sponsored game contest-- and skipped quickly to related side conversations on race, violence, language, consumerism and avatar appearance in Second Life, and more. Rather than summarize all that, I'm presenting the heavily-edited chat transcript as a full-on Platonic dialog, with most particulars of the game contest toward the top, and deeper ruminations after the break. (Full details on the contest here, SL Forum topic on it here.)

The scene: Hamlet Linden's riverside office in Waterhead.

The players: Harmony Harbinger, numerous Residents interested in the contest, & yrs. trly.

Hamlet Linden: So like I mentioned in the Event [announcement], Harmony is with the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, the point person (or one of them) on their "public diplomacy games" contest. They're well aware of Second Life as a development tool for games, so Harmony very coolly offered... to give us the inside tips on creating such games for the contest...

So Harmony, want to talk a little about the contest?

Harmony Harbinger: Yes, let's! The deadline is March 1, 2006. Then we plan to announce the finalist April 1 or thereabouts, and then flying the finalist out to Los Angeles, May 8.

Hamlet Linden: Sweet, right during E3.

Harmony Harbinger: Exactly! Hoping to get comped tickets for the winners as well. Well, for all the finalists (crossing fingers).

Hamlet Linden: Are there game publishers involved in sponsoring this?

Harmony Harbinger: Bing Gordon from Electronic Arts is one of our judges at the moment. As far as sponsorship, I will hold have hold off for a little bit before I make an official comment on that.

Hamlet Linden: I might have missed this, but is it possible to submit an entry as a group?

Harmony Harbinger: Yes it is-- in fact we are expecting that. And expect to fly out the [winning] group as well, not a huge group but 2-3 per entry if it is a group effort.

Elle Pollack: Are you guys looking specifically for video games? Specifically, can more traditional card or board games be submitted, or would it have to be a computerized card/board game?

Harmony Harbinger: We're looking for computerized games, but realize we can get everything from a true prototype to a Shockwave file.

Elle Pollack: Harmony, Are there any books or other reading material you'd recommend for learning about the subject of public diplomacy?

Harmony Harbinger: Hmmm.... I would definitely check out our website, the general one. But I would also look up [Joseph Nye's] “soft power” as a key term.

jamie Martin: Who will control the rights to the project?

Harmony Harbinger: The creator, and if it's a mod, partly the original publisher of course.

Hamlet Linden: So what are examples of current or past games that are in the realm of what you guys are looking for?

Harmony Harbinger: Hmm.... well that's the trick, I don't think there's an obvious example. I think it will be a sort of amalgamation of MMOGs and maybe Civilizations or Rise of Nations. The concept came from [Star Wars] Galaxies originally. This idea that the ability to communicate across cultures and nations via a virtual world is the inspiration. So in a way that's what we're looking for, something that allows for a virtual exchange program.

jesz Murakami: I assume you're wanting a cooperative rather'n competitive game. Intimacy rather'n alienation.

Harmony Harbinger: Well it depends, if the competition depends on cross-cultural cooperation of some sort then that may work…

Kanker Greenacre: Have you guys tossed ideas among yourselves?

Harmony Harbinger: Hmmm... well let's see, I can tell you about an experiment I'm working on, that might help with ideas?

So my experiment. I had figured that if I were to ask the public to submit something like this, I should go through the process to a certain extent myself. Or if anything the "after" process. So I tried to break down what counted as "public diplomacy" within a virtual world-- and well, I'm still working on it. I have a blog at the contest website which will hold my research later. I'm looking to observe an American class and a German class interact within a virtual space (SL) and accomplish a goal together. And with surveying and post interviews track whether there was a image change. Or an interest change in regards to the other country.

Mallaien Massiel: I have witnessed this effect a lot, and there are ongoing discussions as more and more people play the same online games. And what I'm hoping is to be able to establish a type of experiment where we can say, yes, this does help image perception and interest and therefore public diplomacy.

Harmony Harbinger: Exactly Mallaien! Also about the submission. I'd like to stress we're looking for a really good idea, and understand that implementation can be difficult.

jesz Murakami: "Public diplomacy" --- what is the goal?

Harmony Harbinger: Well to me it's the ability to promote intercultural communication. International understanding. Non-violent conflict.

jamie Martin: But intercultural communication does not always lead to actual understanding. Quite often it leads to conflict.

Harmony Harbinger: True, but the ability to communicate through that conflict is the goal. And make it to the other end unscathed hopefully.

Elle Pollack: So you're looking for a game that promotes public diplomacy moreso than they're looking for a game about public diplomacy?

jesz Murakami: So this game should have assured rather'n assumed communication.

Harmony Harbinger: I think the competition could encompass a game that promotes public diplomacy as well as one about public diplomacy, to Elle's point. We don't want to narrow it down so much. As well as assured over assumed communication, as jesz mentioned-- I would say whichever proved or could be argued to be more effective. But understanding that maybe the best mechanic will hold one characteristic stronger than the other.

Mallaien Massiel: I would think that a majority of people playing American game products assume that everyone will speak English.

Harmony Harbinger: That's something I want to explore as well. How many non-native English speakers play with English speakers.

Hamlet Linden: That could be cool, a game where you have to work with non-English speakers by using building tools to illustrate what you're trying to talk about.

Mallaien Massiel: I have come to understand that communication isn't so much the key to perception, its the difference in the culture that adjusts people perceptions and it's the interaction that brings the cultures together and changes the perceptions.

jesz Murakami: Yes, Mall---but when people speak a same language, like English, they assume it's a language rather'n the medium for each personal language.

Mallaien Massiel: Yeah, there is a cultural binding on that; a lot of Americans will spend more virtual cash on something that makes then unique than others would for character abilities.

Vincent Doctorow: Appearance, I would say, runs most of the economy here in our little SL world. There is so much control over appearance that I'm almost intimidated by it.

Mallaien Massiel: I have been on Second Life only two weeks and I have all too well learned on the way appearance drives interaction here.

Vincent Doctorow: [I] read somewhere that Chinese MMORPGs tend to have lesser ability to control the appearance of your avatar. But American MMORPGs let you go bonkers with the way your avatar looks.

Harmony Harbinger: I remember when it was a big deal at Lucas[Arts] that you could make your avatar look Asian with a fold in the eyes.

Hamlet Linden: That might be an interesting game in itself-- each player takes on different racial characteristics, and the other players have to see if they can guess real life ethnicity beyond that.

Vincent Doctorow: Haha... that reminds me of a website that was themed "guess the Asian" and they showed you pictures of Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese and you had to guess what ethnicity they were. I totally failed. In the end I guessed based on what they were wearing, not their biological features.

Harmony Harbinger: Aahh! What do you all think my background is?

Vincent Doctorow: Based on your avatar’s appearance?

Harmony Harbinger: Just for fun... yeah!

jesz Murakami: Newbie, based on appearance.

Vincent Doctorow: I'd guess... Southern or Eastern Europe. Dark skin, but you don't have Asian eyes.

jamie Martin: I'm guessing your of Asian descent. For no particular reason. You're, I'd say, Inuit.

Harmony Harbinger: Well for the curious, half Chinese, half German.

[Enter: a chimp named Flyingroc Chung]

Vincent Doctorow: Speaking of ethnicities, here's a monkey!

Flyingroc Chung: Hello.

Hamlet Linden: Hi Fly, have a seat. Or sit on the ground and pick at fleas, as you prefer. No throwing poop, however, we have strict rules there.

After the chimp is seated...

Hamlet Linden: So does anyone want to talk about a game idea they have for this contest?

Harmony Harbinger: It's a great opportunity I think to showcase people's work, ESPECIALLY if they want to be a designer.

Hamlet Linden: And Cory Linden is a judge, too, remember.

Elle Pollack: The initial ideas I've been tossing around have been Civilization or
Risk-style board/card games...scaled to a large city or small country-- fictionalized, but not dissimilar to the state of Iraq or Israel, having two or more polarized factions occupying it.

Harmony Harbinger: Elle-- keep going with it, also there's a game in the works by Carnegie Mellon called Peacemaker which might be an inspiration about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And I like the gain influence part.

jamie Martin: I was thinking of abstracting things a bit, based on my impression from this meeting. Say each side plays a race that communicates very differently, and has different strengths. The effort of bridging the communication gap and exchanging memes would increase your combined abilities.

Vincent Doctorow: An interesting public diplomacy game would test how differing nations and cultures would react to a threat that is greater than their individual conflicts, like an asteroid impact. Cooperation in apocalypse scenario.

Harmony Harbinger: Totally. Well, it's what people often say will truly bring world peace, when something greater than the world threatens us.

Hamlet Linden: Harmony, would a game that includes violent conflict be precluded? Or can it have that as a gameplay mechanic as long as it leads to some kind of eventual, well, harmony?

Harmony Harbinger [laughs]: You know I think it could involve violence but you'll have to justify it. If you pitch it as a stepping stone... also, public diplomacy, well one goal of it at least, is to ultimately prevent violence.

Vincent Doctorow: Just like Elle's game, based on the Iraq/Israel thing... because if it's based off of that part of the world, half of the politics is trying to decrease the violence.

jamie Martin: I guess the question is how do you show the benefits of diplomacy without giving violence at least some credit. Violence isn't optimal for the world at large, but it often benefits one group quite well.

Hamlet Linden: All I would say speaking for myself is don't underestimate how complicated creating a game in here is. Last two [game] contests (the Linden-run ones) folks had some really great ideas, but occasionally bit off way more than they could chew. With Harmony's contest, it seems like they're more interested in the idea than the execution, though, so you may wanna shoot for the basic gameplay, getting that down, as opposed to all the pretty bells and whistles.

Harmony Harbinger: Exactamundo. A well thought out idea I think will be the key. Of course, you'll want to demonstrate it as best as possible but we know not everyone's a programmer…

Vincent Doctorow: My mom always got mad at me for playing video games too much, now I can show her contests like these. See mom, I really am making a difference.

Harmony Harbinger [grinning]: Hell yeah.

Thanks everyone for coming! And please feel free to contact me offline or in world if you have any more questions.

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Thursday, November 24, 2005


Giving thanks to the efforts of SL Katrina Relief...

A statue of Louis Armstrong greets you at the entrance, as do saxophone and trumpet sculptures standing 50 feet high. There's a French Quarter to stroll through, and a Jackson Square to stand in, eerily resembling the New Orleans location where President Bush delivered his Katrina relief speech. While reconstruction of the great city has only just begun, the virtual Big Easy is more or less complete now, construction stopped only because the region has redlined its object allowance capacity. Building in the Linden-donated land of Big Easy and Biloxi began in late September, was completed in late October, with benefits launched shortly afterward. All of this was spearheaded by SL Katrina Relief, the group of volunteers dedicated to keeping the fires of virtual support for Katrina's victims burning, long past the point when compassion fatigue usually sets in.

So here's to them, on Thanksgiving Day, all the folks who kept pushing in here for the folks out there hit by the Gulf Coast's worst disaster in decades. Here's to Frans Charming, who took up the building of Big Easy after some initial confusion among the volunteers, and even though he'd only offered to help with some minor scripting, ended up overseeing and executing much of the city's construction, spending up to 10 hours a day at the task. All this, even though Frans lives in the Netherlands, and has never been to New Orleans before. "Since I didn't knew anything [about] the city," he tells me, "I had to study it quickly, make a plan ASAP, and contact gifted builders. Luckily I met some good people who dedicated much of their time to get it done in time. I owe them much thanks." (Which would include Lektor Hannibal, who made sure his New Orleans cemetary included a sly in-joke to Linden Lab's embattled Forum moderator.)

"Frans Charming took over the role of coordinator starting from ground zero," Margaret Mfume messages me. "He is a true credit to SL or any other community and the built under his watch was pretty much completed by the end of October." For that matter, here's to Margaret, who organized so much of the fundraising, raising over L$100,000 (about US$400) during a series of live music performances, a Mardis Gras float contest, live DJ parties, and other events, and in an auction held last weekend with Katt Kongo's energetic assistance, raised L$605,807 more. (An extra US$2400+ added to the donation pot.)

The benefits are over for now, but Big Easy and Biloxi are still open to visitors. What now for the place? "Margaret and me have put in a insane amount of time already and could use a little break," Frans tells me. "But I can certainly imagine that we could do some fundraising events around Christmas." My personal hope is Biloxi and Big Easy remain, but get re-purposed as a general relief site-- not just for Katrina's victims, but for all the other natural disasters around the globe that have hit since then, and all those that are bound to hit in the coming year.

For now, though, here's a Thanksgiving toast to all the volunteers who contributed their time, talent, and donations to creating a place where even after the world's attention seemed to slip away, Katrina's victims were never forgotten in Second Life.

SL Katrina Relief officers, please use Comments to offer your shout-outs to all the builders, scripters, promoters, entertainers, and donaters who helped you out most!

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Wednesday, November 23, 2005


Sheltered and peaceful community for emigres who want a secluded home space from which to explore the wilder nation outside-- or sterile track homes in a suburb that fails to deliver on the ideal of neighborhood?

Last week, Linden Lab unveiled Blumfield, a planned community region, offering new Residents the chance to buy land and track homes at discount prices. Unsurprisingly, opinion of the project from veteran Residents has been mixed. Taking up the former view is Cyberpunk Community Relations Representative and ex-Homeland Security contractor Satchmo Prototype, who offers his positive appraisal on SLOG in this essay. The latter opinion is forcefully put forth in the new blog of architect and Foucault fan Jauani Wu in an entry here. (The Second Life Herald has a round-up of reaction here.)

Of course, as the in-world journalist, I prefer the three dimensional response from the adorably creepy alien Max Case, who immediately set about building a metallic, bobwire-studded Berlin Wall around the suburb, posting pink flamingos and teddy bears as guards, and a rainbow-colored sign pointing the way outside, through a Checkpoint Charlie for Blumfield citizens. (If they can make it past the bear with the whip and the shotgun, that is.)

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Monday, November 21, 2005


Primmies, winner of the 2005 Second Life Game Developer Contest, is the delightful strategy/puzzle/action game that resembles a multiplayer, three-dimensional Lemmings, challenging you to navigate your adorable tribes of Primmies across treacherous terrain, while preventing them from marching suicidally off the edge of the randomly generated maps which appear from a whirling vortex. In naming it the overall winner, veteran game developer and contest judge Doug Church praised it as "a focused and self-contained game... a game sandbox to play in," full of nice details that provide "a fun closure to it."

There's really just one problem with Primmies. Primmies is dead.

Co-creator Jeffrey Gomez discovered this shortly after the recent release of SL version 1.7, when he returned to the land he'd won from the contest, and fired his game up. The thing of it was (without overgeeking on the particulars) Linden Lab had just changed with 1.7 the way objects in the world handled collision detection. "Everything works but the Primmies themselves now," Gomez told me. "Who either collide with one another now (bad) or don't collide at all (worse)."

Or as Gomez surmises it, "Let's just say the cows have come home to roost."

For in his eyes, this was a sign of larger issues for scripters like him, as they attempt ever more ambitious projects that require months of development, through several updates. "[Y]ou had asked why big production games don't work in Second Life," he tells be. "That's why. The commands are just too subject to change at the higher levels... The higher-function stuffs, collisions especially, are changed pretty often." (In this particular case, an element in the collision system that would somtimes cause regions to crash was fixed, and in the fixing, Primmies was broken.) "It's tough working with code no one really understands enough to follow out to every logical conclusion," Gomez reasons. "Makes stuff impossible to predict."

Unsurprisingly, LL development coordinator Chris Linden sees it differently, pointing to Preview, which as the name suggests, is a pre-release version of Second Life where Resident developers and builders can test how the upcoming upgrade might impact projects they have in the works. "What is frustrating from our perspective," he e-mails me, "is that we advertise the Preview grid months before we launched 1.7. Jeffrey could easily have come to Preview and tested Primmies and discovered the problem and contacted us. If done early enough, there is a good chance we could have done something."

"The devs have been very supportive of fixing it..." Jeffrey acknowledges. "It's really not the fault of the coders. Or Preview grid. Or anything. It's a logical fallacy at the systems level. That being, when a new update goes live, it goes live everywhere. Contrast this with most systems builders and designers, who know it might break stuff, and basically give people the option to upgrade."

He explains his perspective in systemic terms, in comparison to the Internet itself.

"Current assumptions by the [Second Life] system:

1) Linden Lab controls all data.
2) LL employees are human beings, hence, they make mistakes.
3) All patches are final and happen everywhere at once, due to point 1.

Compare this with the way the Internet works:

1) No one controls all data.
2) People screw up.
3) Any changes to the system happen ONLY WHEN ADOPTED."

If there's anything to be gained from the inadvertant death of Primmies, perhaps it's Jeffrey Gomez's exhaustive white paper on where he believes the future of metaverse development should go. Read it all here.

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Sunday, November 20, 2005


First meditations on the Zen of SL...

A koan is a parable of paradox that clears away conscious thought in order to elevate one's mind to a higher plane. Build up a big enough body of them, and you got the basis for a new spirituality.

Torley Torgeson has invented Second Life Koans.

More here. My favorite from his first seven:

A monk walked into a club and was stopped by security. He was asked to remove his gun. "This is not a gun," the monk said. The monk was ejected. A griefer walked into the same club and was stopped by security. He was not asked to remove his sunglasses. "These are sunglasses," the griefer said. Security was ejected.

My own contribution to the genre:

An avatar woke from a dream that he was a butterfly, then wondered whether he was a butterfly avatar dreaming that his wing and attenae attachments had not fully rezzed.

Update, 4:44PM:

Read the Comments of this entry for an explanation from Torley himself on the genesis of SL koans.

This is as good a place as any to point out the blog of Resident Tenzin Tuque, manager at the Milarepa Land Trust, a group building Buddhist sites in SL. His latest entry contemplates the juxtaposition of their Tibetan Hermitage with a popular virtual strip joint, and remains, as it were, Zen on the subject:

All those little green dots on the Second Life map, each represents a singular consciousness. We're all flying about, not too unlike the arhats, adepts and bodhisattvas depicted in so many ancient Buddhist paintings, all highly-realized beings who can fly, withstand cold, not require sleep or food and/or conjure spells and various magical objects at will... Even with all its griefers and kink, Second Life might well embody core Buddhist teachings about how consciousness is not singular, that avatars are as real a phenomenon of one's mind as anything else.

More wisdom laid down here.

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Saturday, November 19, 2005


The USC Center on Public Diplomacy game development contest I blogged here now has a spokesperson in Second Life: Harmony Harbinger, who will be on hand this coming Monday at 7pm SLT to discuss the center's Public Diplomacy Through Games Competition, and how Residents can create Second Life games for this contest. I'll be co-hosting; come meet Harmony and bounce your grand ideas for an SL-based diplomacy game off her. Full event details here; SL Forum discussion on the contest here.

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Friday, November 18, 2005


A farewell to Second Life's first virtual sweatshop worker.

Few days ago, I got an urgent series of Instant Messages from liangmj Coffee:

"hello Hamlet, i'm considering maybe i can't play very long Sl, maybe i'll quilt my job..."

Because for her, as it happens, playing in Second Life is her job. She warns me that others may be taking control of the Coffee account-- her boss (who actually own it), or another employee, tasked like her with earning Linden Dollars to convert into cash.

I quickly reply to her IMs, but those go unanswered. And that's the last I hear from the person I've come to know as liangmj Coffee.

A day or two later, however, I get an e-mail from 163.com, a Chinese language Internet portal. It's a message from the girl who was once liangmj Coffee:

"I'm at hometown stay with my parents now, they discuss about my future with me," she informs me. "they said that I can't play game for money all my life, so they decide to let me go to school or find other jobs, and i'm still thinking and considering, I can't do a decide..." She's hoping to get a computer of her own that'll let her return to Second Life-- only this time, with her own account. She wants to come back to Second Life, that is to say, as herself. And I write back to tell her she should.

So the young woman I've only known as liangmj Coffee becomes another disembodied identity-- someone with a different name, represented not as an avatar but an e-mail signature. And I wonder if I'll ever see liangmj in Second Life again-- and if I do, who'll be inhabiting her. Not the liangmj I've gotten to know and like, first as a bewildered and frantic newbie, then growing confident and enterprising, and always, throughout her eight month career in-world, a sweet, chatty, disarmingly modest girl whose odd occupation involved pole dancing in Mature nightclubs, but who still refused to compromise her personal moral standards in the process. ("i'm poor," her profile firmly announced, "but i don't sell my self i cant sexy with men here.")

In her e-mail, she wonders if there are others like her, working in online worlds, turning a virtual wage into something like a real one. "I want to know if there has same peoples in USA or other countrys play game for money too as me," she says. "I want to know if playing game is a new pattern job all over the world or only appear in China." And I respond to her that it is a new kind of job, and not just in China. (Her question makes me suspect she was kept in the dark by her old employer, able to go on the Internet to earn Linden Dollars and other online world currency, but not to learn she was part of a much larger cottage industry.)

"If do that means game still has future," she reasons. "can be a good way to get money to me." And I reply to her that it can be. Only now, I tell her, if she can come back with her own account, the wages she earns will be hers to keep, and her identity hers to own. I hope she does.

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Thursday, November 17, 2005


He was the point man who brought Thomas Barnett into Second Life, and now the indefatigable SNOOPYBrown Zamboni is bringing in a legend of the medium: grey eminence Doug Engelbart, inventor of the mouse and co-creator of hypertext. (Engelbart's live presentation at the Bay Area chapter of Future Salon will be virtually simucast on Democracy Island, an education project that's brainchild of the always-excellent Beth Noveck of New York Law School, who recently wrote a First Monday paper that should be of interest to NWN readers.)

Anyway, details on Doug Engelbart's November 30 appearance in Second Life at Zamboni's SL Future Salon site here. No word if Doug will have an avatar of his own, so he click away in an immersive 3D world with his creation, but a girl can dream. (Hat tip to Hiro Pendragon, always quick on the draw to the latest in the SL blogosphere.)

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