I asked the red man with the devil horns to tell me what happened at the Jessie wall, but he just shot me dead.
Getting gunned down is actually the kind of response you should expect in the Jessie simulator, also known as "the Outlands", where wanton violence is expected, even encouraged. The Outlands used to range over four sims, but by July 2003, had been restricted to Jessie, and demarcated from neighboring regions (where non-aggressive interaction is the rule) by a high, intimidating wall.
Nowadays, it's almost crumbled away into obscurity. But in its prime, it resembled a cross between the old Berlin Wall and a giant dam, built as if to hold back the kind of trouble you come into Jessie to look for.
The Lindens intended the Outlands to be the place where Residents could let their id rage, and on that standard, they succeeded. Because in April and May of 2003-- right after the full combat operations in Iraq, which is an important factor to this story, as it turns out -- the Outlands became a free speech fire zone, where political debate raged in three dimensions, accompanied by property destruction, failed peace treaties, and robot turrets.
After the authorities stepped in, at the end of May, the final parting shot was a jumble of giant cubes floating above the Jessie wall, left there by an angry player. On some was the flag of Communist China, inset with the official Second Life game logo. On other cubes was a message in a similar vein, but slightly less subtle:
"For all you Liberal Pinkos out there in Second Life, this is an official
From yours truly
P.S. Syank gives me the pleasure of unveiling your flag
Enjoy living in the USSSL (United Soviet States of Second Life)!"
The war over the wall had turned white hot just a couple moths after taking on my reporter’s role, and at first, I decided not to write about it. Probably because at the time, I was myself still edgy over the war and its aftermath, and the arguments I was having over both, with friends and acquaintances offline. In retrospect, I’d say it partly had something to with the vast gulf between this “war” on my monitor, and the first mechanized, division-strength military action in 12 years. Straight after the first Gulf War, Baudrillard argued that it had, in effect, never happened—since after all it had been reduced to a series of blobby computer game graphics, via Pentagon briefings conducted over video footage taken from missile-mounted cameras. And now I found myself literally in a computer game, often while watching the latest firefight coverage from the Sunni triangle from the television at my periphery. It seemed sordid, even disrespectful, to characterize what I was witnessing in Jessie as a war.
Come July ’03, however, when it looked like the actual war in Iraq was over— but for the swift, relatively painless transition to democracy— I decided it was time to give the conflict over Jessie its full due.
What happened at the Jessie wall -- everything leading up to it, and everything after – still strikes me as a microcosm for many things. It's about what happens when cultures clash and territories are disputed; when people misinterpret rules, or misapply them. It's about political debate, and what we believe to be political at all, depending on where we're from, and what assumptions we take with us, when we come here. And because you often learn the most about yourself when you come into conflict with others, it's also about the Second Life community's first challenge to define themselves. And in all this, there's a lot to be concerned over -- but a lot to be hopeful about, too.
But first, maybe it's important to describe what it's like to die.
Because the thing is, death isn't so horrible a fate in Second Life. When it happens, you just get transported back to the last "home" point you set. It can be irksome, though, because it means you have to spend time traveling back to whatever you were doing before you got killed.
It's even more obnoxious if you're not the kind of person who is in the world to shoot or get shot at it -- and at the time, at least, most Residents in SL were decidedly not in that category. This included the many subscribers who were not "gamers", and thus unaccustomed to shoot-em-up elements— or perhaps just as often, simply not comfortable with weapons in general.