"They look like ants from here," Jenna Fairplay says, chuckling. She's standing with me in the private VIP suite of her pyramid-shaped nightclub, watching her clientele through a floor that's translucent from this side. "Just lets me see if someone is being bad." She laughs again. "They dont know I see all."
"Well," I point out, "they will now!"
"I'm clever, I'll find other means," she replies, unpreturbed. Then suggests obscurely, "Make my snake pit with laser beams again."
For the longest time, Jenna's nightclub, The Edge, has been among the most popular spots in Second Life, so when I clicked her place at random, I was expecting that our interview would be all about how her phalanx of casino games, live DJs, and half-naked pole dancers had transformed her into the ruling impresario of the in-world club scene. I wasn't quite expecting her to tell me that a Jewish-Russian immigrant psychologist who taught at Brandeis was the one who'd taken her to the top.
"Well," she explains, "I go by Maslow Hierarchy." In Maslow's model, human need is shaped like Jenna's pyramid nightclub, with the base being the fundamental requirements for survival, the second layer being safety and security, and at the pyramid's apex, self-actualization.
"I didn't know Maslow had booty in his hierarchy," I say.
"Yes," Jenna says earnestly, "booty is a very, very basic need." She laughs. "People come into Second Life and need to find their basic needs, before they want to grow. Safety, food are needs in real life-- belonging and booty are needs in Second Life."
Which is why, she says, the Edge has done so well in such a short time. "I think it's how we make anyone feel welcomed," Ms. Fairplay continues. "People come into the game and they are labeled 'the newb', regardless of their real life skills. People need to feel welcomed, find a place to belong and want to then do more."
"Topless dancers probably help in that regard," I suggest.
"Oh no no no," she answers quickly. "I don’t require any of that. That’s the thing many assume: it's a club [with] sex dancers, escorts. I pay the dancers, yes, but that’s all to dance. They are free to do what they want. Same goes for escorts. They asked for a safe venue where they aren't degraded. They are allowed to say Yes or No to me or any person who requests something. If they want to do more, it's up to them... I only pay them to come and dance."
Downstairs on the Edge's dance floor, one of Jenna's managers is barking out a sales pitch. "GENTS AND LADIES THAT SWING THAT WAY! ANDEE SAID SHE'D STRIP FOR TIPS! WANNA SEE THE PROMISED LAND… GIVE HER THE TIPS SHE NEEDS!"
But back to Maslow's hierarchy. "It's that," she says, "and what I call the Great Big Circle of Stuff. People come into the game, and they aren’t gonna run to the sandbox, or run to a skill class. [Sandboxes are regions where residents can practice building objects; skill classes are Linden-sponsored events which teach new residents how to use the building and scripting tools. - HL] They want to find a place. Form relationships. Have some aspect of real life in-game that they can connect to. Clubs are the first step [for] some who don’t go to them [in real life] anymore, or [have] never been to one. It allows that social life they never had.
"Once they feel a sense of belonging," Jenna goes on, "they then try new things, from making their own furniture for their house, to figuring out how the particle [system] works, so they can have those cool dance sticks. And then it goes on from there to higher levels and higher skills."
"Though to be a stickler," I say, "doesn't that mean they skip the first few rungs of the Maslow ladder? Where's shelter and food and protection?"
"Shelter, though, is security," she replies. "To some, security comes in the form of self-esteem. In Second Life, you can be anything, look like anything. So that in turn helps their esteem, which makes them feel secure.
"Then you got the Great Big Circle of Stuff. Social players are in part the majority of the game and a necessity. Without them there are no clubs, malls, vendors, etc. Social players are the ones who want to enjoy being able to shop, 'cause to them, that is something they don't get in real life, or [is] fun to them..."
And from all this, Jenna Fairplay built for herself a club that came to dominate in-world foot traffic in three months.
"Bought this land, 8/12. Did a small event, 8/24. Did some lag tests, 'cause this is Daboom. And opened on 9/01. Hit number one, 9/12. Hit record Dwell, 12/24." She grins coyly. "Interview by Hamlet, 1/19."
DaBoom is one of Second Life's first regions, or simulators, to exist, even during the world's pre-launch Beta period. Simulators of this age tend to lag, due to the accretion of objects from the many residents who've come and gone, over the years.
"Many said I was insane to buy land here," says Jenna. "I had to buy up a lot of land just to free up prims and scripts [i.e. building blocks and custom programs], make the place open and lag free. But we still suffer, but most feel it's worth it. We are the stepping stone for many new players."
Her rapid success has been the source of speculation, she says. "In real life, I'm a college student." She laughs. "And no, not a business [major] or something, as many think. I hear that I’m a millionare in real life, or I own some huge website and such. I have helped [game] sites, but as a player, not as a job… but no, I’m just a simple college student." She's actually studying to be nurse, she says, but given how well she does at this, she wouldn't reject an offer to work in games.
"I've played other online games, simple ones, where I held a high status as well. I just tend to... find what works and structure it so. Neopets was my first. I had a guild of 25,000+ members." She left that game, leapfrogged to many others, and stumbled into Second Life during a Google search. "Got sucked in. " In real life, Jenna is interracial, and decided to create an avatar which is, she says, based on her real life appearance. "Some can see it, some don’t."
Her Maslow realization emerged without fanfare, she says. "No 2001 musical moment. I guess when people wouldn’t leave my [in-world] home and looked to me to provide them something they weren’t getting elsewhere… You can go to any club-- hello, there are heaps. So many clubs just like freakin' Tringo." Tringo is a kind of multi-dimensional Bingo. "Don't get me started," Jenna seethes. "Tringo is evil. It's a game fad. Hit Events," she commands me.
"Events" is an interface button that displays the day's scheduled activities. "Look at the TRINGO INVASION." And indeed, the calendar seems to be crowded over with Tringo. "Anyone can offer Tringo," she sniffs. "But if you go [where] you’re getting your Maslow needs met then it's good times, and you return... It's funny. I’ve at one time employed most of the SL social community. The owner of the top clubs... [m]any worked for me and were trained by me. So it's interesting, I think."
Below us on the dance floor, one of Jenna's Managers is barking out a new pitch: "FEELING THE ANGST BURNING IN YOUR SOUL," Valin McTeague bellows. "FEELING THE DOOM OF THE WORLD COMING OVER YOU! WISH TO NOT SPEND YOUR ENTIRE TRIFLING EXSISTENCE ALONE? THEN TALK TO AN ESCORT. THEY MAY CHIP AWAY THAT BLOCK OF ICE HEART!"
She perceives a Maslow hierarchy in other online worlds, she continues. "[J]ust in Second Life," she says, "It's more important [here], because this game is not like any other... just something I saw the moment I realized I didn’t have to be 'the newb'. When I explored, spent my Linden Dollars on some attire, then was stuck with the question, 'Um, what now?' No L$, no fun for a new player. I went to some establishments and all they said was, 'Oh yes, you can be a dancer or escort.'"
An evil grin crosses her face. "All those establishments probably kickin' themselves in the butts for not hiring me now."