Described as "The Visionary" in Second Life: The Official Guide, Gwyneth's latest contribution to New World Notes (first one here) is, appropriately enough, a profile of the Kuurian Expedition, a group of academics dedicated to exploring many online worlds first-hand. Read on for that, and a fascinating conversation on mixed world interaction, "leveling up" and social classes in Second Life, and other topics befitting the people of Kuurian.
Exploring Ideas with the Explorers of Worlds
Poinky Malaprop, Grace McDunnough, and Frank Koolhaas are collectively the visible front of the Kuurian Expedition in Second Life (KE), a group of researchers who, among other things, set up recurring conferences in SL that address several issues related to synthetic worlds, their society and economy.
Why the weird name for an event organisation? “Prof [Edward] Castronova started a Kuurian Expedition guild in World of Warcraft as a way to give synthetic world researchers a place where [researchers, educators, academics, journalists and other professionals] could get support and help from other professionals and not be yelled at by the teens for being n00bs,” explains Poinky.
Frank Koolhaas, the Italian member of the group, adds: “These expeditions permit to build a personal way to study SL through meetings studied to give an interpretation of that world, one after another”.
So the KE is sort of an inter-metaverse society, where researchers (in the loose sense of the world) are able to find a group of “in-world” guides who will help them out to better observe and understand the way a specific synthetic world is organized, and how its society works. Currently, Castronova deals with the World of Warcraft group, and, naturally enough, wishes to open up a group for Everquest as well.
Poinky and his group do the hand-holding in Second Life. “I think that is a central point,” explains Frank, “that the same people go in different worlds so they can take experience and knowledge of one world in another...”
This is not the only example of cross-world interaction: SNOOPYbrown Zamboni (of SL Future Salon fame and now working with The Electric Sheep Company) has been planning a “mixed world” interaction where images from World of Warcraft would be streamed into Second Life, and residents in SL would be able to chat with users of WoW. Marco Behrmann, of Entropia Universe, is planning to set up a private island inside SL to use it as a vehicle of advertising of his own MMORPG. The boundaries are beginning to get thinner and thinner.
The models for the “expeditions” are different from world to world. For instance, inside WoW, the KE mostly goes on a raiding quest with the researchers— an activity that would be typical for WoW.
Inside Second Life, however, people go... to conferences! “In SL you communicate and share ideas, so that's what we do,” explains Poinky.
While SL has been criticized for a certain lack of “gameplay”, Frank does not agree: “I think that it is quite simplistic to say! Here we have creative people— the game of creation, of ambiguity, of identity... it is another sort of game, more related to the mind, mind games, like John Lennon said.” Grace agrees: “I think there is a very different mindset, that changes the ‘game’ ... directed, programmed, versus-non directed and organic."
The analogy of “TV vs. theater” was thrown in for discussion— WoW and Everquest are more like TV, where the content is fed to the consumers. Second Life is more like a theatre, especially the ones presenting “interactive performances” where actors meet the public and there is a thin line separating both. Poinky comments: “It's a lot easier to watch TV thanto go a theatre.” This would explain the incredible commercial successes of WoW or EQ.
Interestingly enough, they tend to agree that you need some creativity to be able to enjoy SL.
Grace: “If you are not open to thinking creatively, SL might not be for you.” Frank and Poinky: “What I believe [is]we should define what is creative and what is naive creativity... Here everyone makes different fashions or architectures, by just right-clicking on the target, [hitting] a few buttons, and then move on, but it does not mean they are all interesting because they are original.”
It was time to understand a bit more about the type of conferences that the KE does in SL. Are they targeted to the SL audience, the RL audience, a mix of either? What types of speakers do get invited?
“In general I try to interest also RL people to make a bridge... I think it should be also for people who do not know about SL,” answers Frank, and Poinky agrees: “Anyone can come to the meetings... and I think we just try to find people who are doing interesting things”. The KE is currently already organizing more than one meeting per week, and they tend to fill whole sims with their conferences— mostly with existing residents, although “[w]e do have people who have just singed up join to get a ‘leg up’,” admits Grace. New World Notes covered their very first meeting with Chili Carson, who was a rather brand new SL resident at that time; some people register at the KE blog and create their first account in SL just for attending the KE conferences, either as speakers or in the audience.
Frank then explains how Second Life is “felt” by many— echoing, not surprisingly, Philip Linden’s comment in May 2004 to Wired Magazine: “Another thing is: people don't have realized yet that we form a new brand nation, without boundaries. You see, [we] four, we are from different nations [in real life] and we feel like we were in the same country. At least I think so, it is a great thing.”
Poinky also explains that there is a tension between “bringing in the well-known people” (from SL or RL) and the less-well-known ones that “are doing really interesting stuff”. Grace admits that she is looking for the "non-celebrity" types, but mostly people who are innovative. “Pretty much everywhere you turn, there is someone doing something amazing,” adds Poinky. Frank, in turn, looks to art and fashion in his search for interesting speakers. He’s also interested in documenting the evolution of art and fashion over time in SL, and be able to say: “ah look how we were in SL ten years ago” in 2016.
An interesting aspect that they touched on, when comparing SL to other MMORPGs, is that there is indeed a notion of “leveling up” in SL as well. “I think that here there is the same process: you level up [by] being more creative up in the SL society,” says Frank. “You start from zero and there are no cheats. Here people judge yourself from what you REALLY are. There is no way to dissimulate. They are critical: You can be rich, handsome and powerful, but here you must gain the [trust] of people... You are on a stall in front of the real world watching you— you are naked in front of the world.”
But far from a “classless society”, there is indeed a hierarchy of different types — “levels” — of users. “Cliques have formed,” says Poinky. “It's high school all over again... But, eventually your association with a clique will give you status.”
I protest, saying that you can have effective “cliques” in a world the size of a high school — say, around 10,000 users or so— but hardly so with hundreds of thousands of regular users, and, who knows, 8-10 millions next year!
Frank replies to that: “[T]o be well known here, your avatar must be well known in real life.” Poinky claims that “some think they deserve fame just because they do something”. On the other hand, SL is a good facilitator for getting in touch with “famous people”. Frank describes his experience: “How do you think I would ever reached Castronova and a boss of Turner Communications?”
Grace, however, smiles and replies: “Does anyone think it’s ironic that a platform that allows that type of connection... has ‘hierarchies’ or social classes?”
The KE does not have a set agenda. They are a group of individuals, each looking to SL in a different way, and trying to document what they observe, and encourage others to do the same. Grace suggests that their agenda is really about “stimulating thought”, and showing people things they may not otherwise discover — “it's the DIVERSITY that is key", she adds.
And like a real life expedition, they delve into the deep corners of the virtual worlds, and bring it out into the light for everybody to see.
Some pictures of recent Kuurian Expedition quests are available here.
The Synthetic Worlds Initiative by Edward Castronova is here.
The blog for the Kuurian Expedition in Second Life is here.
Gwyneth Llewelyn explains the future of Second Life at her blog. Author disclosure: Gwyneth was a speakerfor an event organised by the Kuurian Expedition on the topic of 'crowdsourcing' with the participation of Bingham Roundfield, better known as Wired's Jeff Howe, who coined this concept.