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.
In the first weeks of April 2003, a group of World War II Online players trickled into Second Life, attracted by the free-fire anarchy promised by the Outlands, and the ability to make their own WWII-era weapons and buildings. WWIIOL is a complex massively multiplayer simulation game which makes the whole European theater its playground. The people who play it tend to be older history buffs and experts on the weapons and tactics of the era; many of them are veterans, active-duty military, or military brats. And as a brief article in IGN.com, a major gamer website, reported at the time, these first settlers used Second Life as a kind of online CENTCOM, from where they could plan their combat strategies for their main game.
This group represented "The First Wave" of WWII Online fans, who then created their own Second Life group, WWIIOLers. (A “group” is a formal affiliation, which enables Residents in to engage in collective Instant Message communication, among other advantages.) For the most part, it seemed, they were welcomed by the Residents, providing as they did a fresh new element to the world. While combat is not at all uncommon in Second Life (the Lindens even hosted a kind of online laser tag, at the time), the WWIIOLers' focus on historically accurate military hardware and tactics would be a unique addition to this already burgeoning community of eccentric creators and online socializers.
"Most of them are late 20s, early 30s, some in [their] 40s" says Lyra Muse, when I asked her and Bel Muse to speak on the subject. (Both the Muses are longtime citizens in SL.)
"So they are a group of players that were ideal in some ways," adds Bel. "These were the folks that lasted through initial bugs, and were able to appreciate a game that didn't rely only on first-person effects."
Meanwhile, in the world outside, the coalition invasion of Iraq was reaching its apex. A day after IGN published its piece about World War II Online fans in Second Life, US tanks rumbled into Firdous Square in Baghdad. The statue of Saddam was ripped from its pedestal, and hundreds of Iraqis poured in, with shoes to pound the toppled sculpture, and kisses to welcome the American troops. ut the debate surrounding the war did not end; it actually seemed to grow even more bitter between the most vehement pro- and anti- war opponents; only now, they were divided into teams of We Told You So versus This Proves Nothing.
Ironically, according to Eukeyant Skidoo, his World War II Online group originally hoped Second Life would offer a respite from the politically heated, Iraq-related talk that had scorched the game's off-topic discussion board.
"It was a low, rolling boil," says Skidoo, "up until March 20th, when it got REAL quiet." (But it wasn't quiet in Baghdad: the 20th was the day of the "decapitation strike" targeting Saddam and his sons, and the start of the shooting war.)
A few days after that, they learned about Second Life, just as their own boards were lighting up with extremist anti-war posts. "Lots of crazy 'trolling' from free-trial account users," Skidoo says, "wishing death on the troops, etc." This new MMO called Second Life would be just the thing, many of them decided to take a breather from all that.
But inside this world, debates can take on solid form. And as the war came to a close, a conflict very much related to the larger one in Iraq raged to the surface.
The article on IGN attracted a second flood of WWII Online emigres. By all accounts, though, this wave was far more aggressive, and much less inclined to assimilate into the community as a whole.
"I went to the Welcome Area one day," said James Miller, “and there were forty WWIIOLer's fresh from Prelude [the newcomer orientation area] shouting 'WHICH WAY TO BUNKER??' The WWIIOLers had sent their OWN liaisons to pick up their people and transport them to Outlands to help fight off the original Residents [living there]."
"Due to [a] land crisis," as Bel Muse told it, "many people had built homes in the Outlands. So when the WWIIOLers came in with the very correct assumption that combat was OK [there], they conflicted with the existing homesteaders."
"Yeah," Lyra Muse chimes in, "those existing homesteaders had made it all into one big suburbia."
"When they came in, it was a huge arms rush,” Malaer Sunchaser, one of the original settlers, reflected later. “Yuniq Epoch had a gun store -- she made literally tens of thousands of dollars that first week."
The Outlands was their playground, the invaders decided, and the game they were there to play was full scale, no-quarter carnage.
Some locals welcomed the anarchy: "It was like we were invaded," says Lyra Muse, "it was GREAT." But it didn't sit well with many others. Particularly those who were already homesteading in the Outlands, and would rather just be left in peace.
Nothing doing: WWIIOLers swooped down on the Outlands, loaded for bear, and used its longtime residents for live target practice, killing them again and again, and maybe yet again. Because most Residents, unsurprisingly, set their home point on their home property, many folks living in the Outlands were stuck in an infinite cycle of violence, to be shot on their land then resurrected and shot again, in perpetuity, until they logged off the game entirely, or their antagonist finally got bored. All of which was perfectly permissible by Linden Lab since, after all, this is precisely what the Outlands were designed for.
"[A]t the time," WWIIOLer Eukeyant Skidoo said readily, "we cared for nothing but our own intentions: to 'own' the Outlands. [And] as far as we were concerned, being the most dangerous would be 'owning' [it]."
"They came into Second Life with the theory that they could take over with violence," said James Miller. "That is not what our community was about, and that is not what we will ever be about."
Still, some Outland natives fought back with violence. Malaer gathered a sizable group of Outlanders and confronted the WWIIOLers in the Hawthorne sim, where the newcomers were building a giant fortress. ("Next to some guy's art gallery." WWIIOLer Eukeyant Skidoo noted.)
Malaer's entreaty quickly backfired.
"They started on a genial note," allowed Eukeyant, who was in the bunker at the time, "sort of 'we don't appreciate that eyesore here'. Then we told them to suck it up, or thereabouts, and they didn't like that either."
"So you guys show up," I asked Malaer, "this ten-fifteen member coalition of the willing, and try and talk with them, and they open fire and it's a huge battle?"
"Ya, pretty much," he says, "'til [the server] crashed, over and over and over that night."
The firefight lasted the entire evening.
MAKING THE JESSIE MANDATE
As the firefights and bloodshed continued, the complaints mounted, and the Lindens stepped in, attempting to act as a kind of United Nations that imposed peace between the aggrieved factions.
"After examining logs and such," said community moderator Peter Linden (something of the Kofi Annan of Second Life, in that era) "we found it to be reflective of a universal problem -- 2% destroying everything that 98% had worked for." Three WWIIOLers in particular were eventually suspended multiple times, "until they just got tired of spending five minutes in then waiting five days" to sit out another suspension.
The Lindens also brokered a new land partition, to accommodate the warlike settlers.
"We changed the land rules per our ideals of self-governance," Peter e-mails me. "Essentially, the Outlands had been co-opted by the community to be a housing district, located in a Mature area. Everyone COULD shoot each other, but no one did." But the WWIIOLers had challenged that assumption with a hail of bullets.
Accordingly, the Lindens changed the rules governing these occupied (or depending on your point of view, disputed) territories.
Their solution, implemented in late April, was to designate three of the four Outlands sims as no-kill -- and from that point on, deadly war games were restricted to the Jessie simulator.
A lot of WWIIOLers apparently considered this to be some kind of confinement, and lashed out. If they couldn’t shoot at people outside their territory, they’d find other means of mischief.
"So they'd come around with penis attachments on their head, or wherever, and raise hell with people," Malaer remembered.
"In Jessie?" I asked him.
"No. ALL OVER. Even PG eras. Even Linden-sponsored Events."
Meanwhile, inside Jessie, they got war they wanted. Because by then, they weren’t just feuding with Outland residents looking for revenge; they now had to contend with the cyberpunk-oriented Noise Tanks, who were just about as violent as them. Through the rest of April, while the news networks featured coalition troops engaging violent dead-enders and looters in Iraq, Jessie also became a savage battleground.
It led to an escalating arms race, powered by ever more powerful weapons technology, made possible by Linden Lab’s internal programming system. One Noise Tank, for example, created a bullet-proof sphere and floated inside it high over Jessie, sniping WWIIOLers at will. To counter that, Davada Gallant spent a week building a voice-activated turret that could fire shield-penetrating seeker bullets. Other combatants waged war by eyesore, dropping house-sized cubes covered with the Noise Tanks' robot clown logo into Jessie; someone else figured out how to toss so many grenades into the region at once, the entire simulator to go down.
When I took a screenshot of the Jessie Wall on May 5th in preparation for my May 14th entry, the only political statement near the Jessie wall was a rather non-controversial one (in the US, at least) in support of Bush and the American troops still in Iraq.
All the chaos on the other side was still contained by the wall, but that was quickly about to change; the wall itself would soon become a part of an even greater turmoil.
THE BATTLE OVER THE WALL
At sixteen acres, the Jessie territory is actually rather small; in its heyday, when it suddenly became the only simulator for war games, it was a heavily-armed settlement, bristling with gun turrets, tanks, and cannons. Someone imported audio clips from Full Metal Jacket, so R. Lee Ermey’s deranged, hyper-obscene drill sergeant rants echoed through the place like a megaphone, giving the place that extra tinge of madness.
Jessie was home to most WWIIOLers in Second Life, and many of them felt boxed in from all sides by hostile communities. Some outsiders would make frequent guerilla raids into Jessie, targeting members at random; but when the WWIIOLers got their guns and went after them, to retaliate, the insurgents would flee into an adjoining simulator, where violence was strictly forbidden. Killing them off-territory meant risking the wrath of the international authority -- i.e., Linden Lab. (And a lot of them did, and were duly punished with suspensions.) The Jessie residents would get terrorized by sniper attacks, firing with long-range rifles from the safety neighboring sims. To be sure, the WWIIOLers who’d caused so much mayhem had provoked much of this prankster hostility. But they were still isolated in a single geographic area, where they could be easily targeted, and antagonized.
And that's about the time when the Jessie wall itself became the stage for a giant political war.
It really started as an internal dispute with a few World War II Online players, according to WWIIOLer leader Chaunsey Crash. "He is actually one of us, so he knew it would piss us off. He knows us and our beliefs from our forums," said Chaunsey. "We support the war; he doesn't."
Since the alleged griefer is no longer in Second Life, we'll call him Gadfly Daffodil. And evidently, Daffodil followed them into Second Life, went to the wall, and where the message of support for President Bush and the troops hung, he added a message of his own.
This particular one also featured Bush -- but in Gadfly's poster, Bush's image had been set alongside Osama bin Laden, and the words, "Fear creates patriots."
Rage ensued. Gadfly's posters infuriated the WWIIOLers, and not just because most in their group were conservative. Since Jessie was now known as their territory, and the Jessie wall was where they put up their group logos, they were afraid that neighborhing Residents would think they were the ones who'd put up the far-left propaganda.
"Then we covered it," says Crash. "Though not with political stuff. Then he put up dozens."
"Then we asked the Lindens to take the whole thing down including our [posters]," Syank Nomad adds.
"So that's when we fired back with the political propaganda," Crash says. "It got far out of hand." No longer waiting on the Linden's intercession, they papered over the bin Laden poster with an American flag, and other images.
But by now, other SL residents had joined this odd battle of ideological iconography conducted with 3D graphics. And whether it was payback for previous WWIIOLer sins, or political commentary, or both, they went at it with gusto. Suede Fever, for example, slapped up posters depicting a turtle helplessly flailing on top a wooden post— only with President Bush's head poking out from the shell. WWIIOLers covered that up with the image of a crying baby, with the title, "The Official Seal of the United States Democratic Party"— but then that was covered over by rows of posters with a geometric pattern, and a single word: "Leftist". And so on, back and forth, like two partisans trying to defeat each other with the sheer force and volume of their imagery.
THE BATTLE OVER THE BATTLE OVER THE WALL
Kathy Yamamoto was the creator of the original "Leftist" poster that ended up on the Jessie wall. "There's a reason I call myself a radical or a leftist," Kathy explained. "Mostly because of what an indeterminate label anything else has become." And she objected to the "Republican-esque" feel of the "Support President Bush and the Troops" posters.
"I feel the POSTERS were meant to designate the poster as a Republican, and everyone else as 'Wrong'. Mine was simply meant to proclaim that all other thought wasn't dead… [My] real purpose is to have people think outside their normal channels...I'm more a Yippy or a Prankster than a socialist."
For his part, Suede Feaver’s reasons for posting the Bush turtle poster were "mostly in the spirit of 'equal time'…I got tired of it all being one-sided." Before the war at the wall, Suede had property near the Jessie simulator, on which he'd also displayed those posters— until, that is, he was descended upon by a pack of WWIIOLers, who considered them a direct provocation. They surrounded his property, kicking and shooting him, some even accusing him of being "anti-American".
Still, he doesn't cite grudge-settling as a motive for posting at the wall. "I felt that if no one showed the opposite view, then newcomers would feel everyone here felt that way,” he says. “On a personal note, I don't care for Bush, no. But that wasn't my point."
In any event, this political to and fro was basically trumped when WWIIOLer Syank Nomad went through his inventory of images, and began adding a symbol that totally changed the debate: the Confederate flag. (Or to be more exact, the Confederate battle flag, or even more precisely, the Confederate Naval Jack.)
None of these distinctions mattered to some Residents, who saw the flag as a symbol of racism and slavery. On the company website discussion board, an extended argument broke out, with several members arguing that Syank had thereby violated Linden Lab’s Terms of Service rules against "hate speech".
And so a recurring national controversy found its way into Second Life. It's worth pointing out a contrast in demographics: while the largest aggregate of Second Life players are from California, many if not most of the WWIIOLers were from the South.
"At the time I posted the Confederate Naval Jack," Nomad e-mailed me, "I honestly did not expect to stir up a heated political debate." In any case, he argues, "More slaves were held under the US flag than any other flag in our nation's history…[D]uring the [Civil] war, in states like Ohio, Indiana, and even Lincoln's own state of Illinois, blacks were entirely excluded from even settling within their borders." He says the symbol is, to Southerners, largely a race-neutral expression of regional pride ("I had neighbors in Florida," he says, "Black neighbors, who had the rebel flag on their trucks"), and he bristled at the idea that unfurling the stars and bars makes him into some kind of hatemonger. "I am not a bigot, or a racist, I am not living in the South anymore, I am half Hispanic, and part Native American." All this is mentioned by way of saying that on many issues, such as this one, Northerners and Southerners seem forever condemned to talk past each other, each assuming the worst.
Whatever role the Confederate flag had on their decision, if any, the Lindens stepped in, and set the Jessie wall to "No Build"— meaning that from then on, no one but the company would be able to attach anything to it. The surface was returned to its original state of blank, gray stone. And just like that, the war of the Jessie wall was over.
The repercussions, however, would continue long after.
"A virtual world acts as a kind of fun-house mirror room when it comes to our off-line culture," said Kathy Yamamoto, reflecting on the Jessie wall incident. "Distorted or otherwise, this world only reflects our offline world. I didn't expect to escape brutish behavior when I came here."
I wondered aloud if we'd see more conflicts of this kind, with Second Life about to open to the public.
"I plan on it," says Kathy.
I laughed. "Hope, or plan?"
"Let me put it this way,” she replied. “I believe cultural change is driven by conflict...I think conflicting ideals do the most to motivate change."
In other words, when other political clashes arise (and they will), she fully intends to jump in. So I ask her how Linden Lab should respond, if these kinds of thrashes cause people to quit in disgust, and they begin to lose subscribers.
"I have a lot of faith in democracy," says Kathy. "If they are brave and ride it out, more will come in to replace any who leave because of the mess."
Other Residents weren’t as sanguine about the idea of turning Second Life into an online experiment in democracy. "If you feel strongly about guns, flags, freedom of speech and many other issues," Mac Beach posted on the discussion board, "then by all means write your congress-person, march in a picket line, sign petitions. But please don't bring those things into Second Life, because hashing those issues out in SL won't do a darned thing to solve those differences in the real world, and the process of all the endless debates will make our collective second lives miserable."
"If I wanted to invest the time," Catherine Omega told me, "sure, I could go around telling everyone I met that I was queer, or a socialist, or [offer] my opinions on reproductive medicine, genetics research, religion, et cetera. The problem is that the VAST, VAST majority of people really do not care at ALL, or if they do, simply don't want to be bothered to argue the point…SL gives us all a freedom beyond nationality or birth, or conventional perceptions of resources or wealth. Real-world politics simply don't matter there."
As for what she did at Davada's bunker, building a wall to block it off from the rest of the neighborhood, Catherine said, "I was in the wrong. It takes a lot for me to admit that, too, but then, it was a pretty immature thing I did. There's nothing like a difference of opinion to bring out the best in people."
Other Residents express disappointment at how the WWIIOLers were treated as a group. "People were a bit hostile I think," says Bel Muse. "Most of the [longtime] players in saw them as an incursion, not as players equally able to contribute too."
The problem, as Malaer Sunchaser puts it later, was that some veterans "envision this game as a 'utopian community', and that'd be great and all, but I enjoy the chaos factor it still has, how the Lindens let us handle our affairs, and try to stay out of it as much as possible."
Despite that, he adds, "I want the Lindens to have a big ceremony and tear down the Jessie wall, like the fall of the Berlin Wall."
"Why's that?" I asked.
"It'd be kinda symbolic I guess?"
By July 2003, the Jessie wall was almost gone. Whole sections were lost, and scattered remnants of it dangled uselessly in the air. It didn't go down all at once, in the kind of dramatic, Berlin Wall tear-down that folks like Malaer Sunchaser were hoping for. Instead, it just kept withering away, day by day, lost in the digital ether. New settlers were already moving into Jessie, and most of them were probably oblivious to what kind of warfare had went on there, only weeks before.
Outside their fortress, I'm greeted by Syank Nomad, who wears black leather and a dark ponytail, and Chaunsey Crash, a hulking cigar chomper in a Viking helmet, along with a few of their remaining comrades. All of them, of course, are armed to the teeth.
"Good to see y'all," I said warily. "Nobody shoot my ass."
We talk about a lot of things: the feud between them, the Noise Tanks and Gadfly Daffodil, and the meaning of the Confederate battle flag. We chatted also about the culture clash that emerged, between longtime Second Life residents and the WWII Online fans who gave SL a try.
"It seems this game attracts more liberals, in my opinion," Chaunsey Crash said. "The whole artsy creative side, I think it is. Meanwhile our game attracts a vast majority of right-wing folks."
"People thought we came in here to kill kill kill, and that we only had hate to bring," his friend Goeth Fredericks added sarcastically.
Still, Chaunsey granted that a lot of his crew went over the line, with immature behavior and general noxious havoc. "Many of our guys did deserve to get banned, though, that is for sure. Goeth here ain't no angel," he added, chuckling. (In an earlier conversation, Eukeyant allowed: "The fact was we were aggressive, and maybe responded too harshly when provoked...we were on an 'eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth' gig at the time.")
We talk about Kathy Yamamoto, with whom they've had more than their share of political arguments with. "The thing is with me," Syank Nomad fumes, "I told her there are probably many issues I would agree with her on, because believe it or not I have a lot of liberal opinions on issues. But she still called me a fascist."
"What if you guys talked right now, if she came over?" I suddenly said, without quite thinking it through.
Chaunsey Crash was agreeable. "Though I think we've got a few guns tracking her." (Because they suspect she was part of the vandalism on the WWII Online museum, they've rigged gun turrets that automatically home in on her, whenever she neared.)
Too late: I've sent the Instant Message, and Kathy Yamamoto was on her way to the Jessie simulator.
"Can I shoot her?" Goeth Frederick asked.
"Better not," Crash growled. Meanwhile, they power down the turrets, so she can arrive without getting killed.
"OK," Kathy announced cheerily, when she arrived. "Hands up, who wanted to talk to me?"
And they go at it from there, Kathy and WWIIOLers: who shot who when or didn't, who vandalized what or didn't, who started the whole conflict or didn't.
"You were [originally] shot by Gadfly," says Chaunsey.
Kathy Yamamoto isn't persuaded. "Really?"
"He was killing everyone, and that's where it all started, then you started shooting back, and I and others started shooting you as well. But the main thing is the signs you put up got these guys pissed, and that extended a simple little misunderstanding."
"One sign," Kathy insists. "Against a sea of dozens— and I took it down when you told me that it made you mad."
"That's the thing, we didn't want those dozens," said Chaunsey. "We didn't start that propaganda war."
"Here's the deal," Kathy finally said after more of this. "You don't shoot me and— as I said before— I will not bother your stuff, shoot you, post posters, talk naughty or look mean. That's the deal."
"Well that's the thing, Kathy," Chaunsey offered, "we never started the whole problem with you. But neither did you."
"Well, if you really believe that," said Kathy, "then we should be able to agree now."
"Are we on the roadmap to peace?" I asked.
And after a bit more bickering, and cross talk, and a WWIIOLer who flies by stark naked ("Dude, put some pants on," said Syank), Kathy left Jessie unscathed.
And for a while at least, it looked, more or less, that we were.