THE PRICE OF A NEW WORLD: AN INTERVIEW WITH PHILIP LINDEN

Originally published from December 18 to 23rd, 2003, here.

Inasmuch as my assignment as "embedded reporter" is to document the emergence of Second Life's in-world community, I try to stay as separate as humanly possible from the day-to-day business decisions of Linden Lab. (As I acknowledged in a recent Salon interview about in-world reporting, my position sort of puts me in the tenuous role of small town newspaper publisher in a company town. What I write is indeed journalism, but it's journalism that will sometimes be influenced by the outlook of the company that underwrites its publication.) But the Lindens' recent decision to alter the subscriber pricing system that will launch on December 22nd is so radical, and so widely discussed-- even outside the Second Life community-- I decided it was important enough to ask some direct questions about what it was, and what it might mean for the world.

And that meant taking some time to talk with Philip Linden, AKA Philip Rosedale, CEO of Linden Lab. I met his spiky-haired avatar by the shore of a Prelude island, where new residents learn the interface, and make the first attempt at creating their own online personas. What follows over the next few days are some excerpts taken from a larger interview recently made available to Newsletter subscribers, with some clarifications for non-resident readers.

Hamlet Linden: In a nutshell, please explain the new pricing structure.

Philip Linden: Well... as with many things SL, it's hard to cram into a smallish nutshell. But I'll try my best.

We are lowering the monthly price to $9.95 from $14.95, and we are adding an ability to have a more limited basic account which has a one-time $9.95 fee with no monthly fee.

Also, there will be additional fees according to the amount of land you own.

And, perhaps most significantly, a program where Linden Lab pays real money to our most successful in-world residents.

HL: And why is Linden Lab doing this?

PL: We are doing this for a bunch of reasons, most of them taken from listening and watching stuff going on in-world. We want Second Life to be as owned by its residents as it possibly can be, and also to evolve as quickly as possible.

We saw a pricing model that didn't fit everyone very well; some people wanting to just get an account and hang around once in a while, check out new stuff, and then on the other hand, people that are becoming the bedrock of SL, wanting to own and do and expand more than is possible with the existing tax economy.

So we tried to create a bunch of different ways to buy [into] Second Life, that fit those models. A simple one-time price for the folks who just want to check in on us once in a while, and ways for really involved users to control more of the world and actually make money.

HL: Give me a concrete example of how this plan will benefit the average resident.

PL: OK. So if you are someone who owns a little land, goes to events, occasionally buys stuff, etc, Second Life will get cheaper for you ($9.95 versus $14.95), and will also get much easier to use.

You won't get a tax bill anymore! (Oh did I mention yet we were killing all the taxes?) So that is a rather important point, maybe I can elaborate a bit.

We are turning off all object and land taxes, as well as 'rez' costs when you bring things out of your inventory. ["Rez" is SL-jargon for instantiating an object into the world. "Taxes" are automatic deductions of in-world "Linden Dollars" from the resident's account, based on how much land and objects they own.]

BUT we are keeping a basic stipend/grant, so folks will still get [Linden] money weekly.

We are going to limit objects by the size of the land parcel they are on. For things like attachments or vehicles, everyone will get a sort of 'traveling budget' that allows them to always have this stuff. So if you leave things on land you don't own, it will work like public objects work today; they will eventually just go back into your inventory. Land parcels will have little meters to show you how full they are with primitives.

So much, much simpler. And frankly, pretty well suggested/explored by many of our residents. Not like something we really had to invent ourselves!

HL: How will this plan affect the day-to-day experience of Second Life for the majority of users?

PL: If one could comically talk of the Second Life "middle class" (which I think is a somewhat different lot than most middle classes), I'd say very little will change. For about the same price, you can probably own about the same amount of land, there will be no tax bills to bother you, and you'll be able to build and play in about the same way as before.

For most folks in Second Life (we have the data), the changes will lower their costs to use SL. So mostly it will be an improvement in the removal of the taxes.

HL: Is the company in trouble, that you're doing something so radical?

PL: [Laughing] No way! We just think the way we are currently charging for Second Life isn't serving the really committed members of the population well at all, and is also putting the brakes on quicker adoption by a broader audience who doesn't yet know what SL is all about.

How many of us have thought, "Man if more people know about Second Life, they'd love it." Well, lower entry level prices will help a lot with that. Deciding to pay $15/month for something you don't yet understand is a tough thing to do. And I think making SL simpler wouldn't be the right way to go. Better to just have plans that can get newbies in the door and get them to see what we have to offer.

So no, we're not in trouble at all. In fact, last couple months have seen our fastest growth since Beta/launch.

Continue reading "THE PRICE OF A NEW WORLD: AN INTERVIEW WITH PHILIP LINDEN" »

WORLDS WITHIN WORLDS

Dark_life_entrance

Originally published December 8 to December 12, 2003, here.

Last week I spent a lot of time online in Second Life doing a set of things I never thought I'd ever do online again at all, let alone in Second Life. I spent a lot of time killing monsters, leveling up, acquiring gold, buying weapons and supplies, and healing my depleted hit points.

I spent a lot of time, in other words, playing Second Life like it was any other online fantasy role playing game.

To play "Dark Life", a user-made game within a game, you purchase a backpack and basic weaponry from a store near the dungeon area. The backpack itself comes equipped with a fairly complex bloc of Linden Language Script, which tallies and displays traditional RPG elements of Hit Points, Experience Points, inventory, and so on, while it's worn. Once equipped, you're ready to go questing.

Dark Life is the brainchild of designer/artist Pirate Cotton and programmer Mark Busch, and an extension of Dark World, a medieval town created and inhabited by a group of dedicated residents in the sim of the same name. "We want to liven up Dark World," says Pirate, "'cause it's a great town. And it looks the part, ya know."

But Pirate had another motivation in this, as well. "I was flying around Second Life," he says, "and while interesting, it made me think that what people had made was a 'Dali-esque shopping nightmare! Lots of odd stuff to look at, but not much to do if you got bored of building, or chatting up the ladies," he finishes, laughing. "So I figured, 'I bet you can make a [RPG] dungeon!' Ignorance convinced me it was possible."

Other residents have surely thought of doing something like this--in fact, as we'll learn in coming weeks, Dark Life isn't the only resident-made game in development-- but Pirate is uniquely suited for the task. Professionally speaking, when he's not in Second Life, Pirate Cotton is a developer for a major MMORPG. (He declines to state which one, for the record, but hardcore fans of the genre would probably recognize it immediately.) His co-workers don't quite understand why he's devoted so much time in his spare time to creating Dark Life. "I think when you code and art and world-build for a living it seems madness to do so for free," he says, smiling. But they do look over his shoulder, when he has a chance to work on his Second Life project from the office. "They love the technology, the programmers are in awe... and the artists have been impressed with my bugs and monsters, which is flattering! Hired one to make the [Dark Life] logo."

"Are you creatively frustrated in the day job MMORPG?" I ask Pirate.

"Actually, I'd say no. Right now, I have four hundred more quests to write [at the office]. So I get creative," he says, laughing. "But a forty-plus person team means I can't say 'let's do this' and two hours later, it's done or in testing. With Mark coding we can come up with ideas and it's done. Also, my involvement is more personal. I do all sounds and most building... yeah, there's a more personal involvement there."

After a mutual friend introduced him to Mark Busch, who also works for a game company, the duo set to work, with Pirate on design, sound, and art, and Busch on coding. After two weeks of effort ("the backpack has close to two thousand lines of code I think," says Pirate, impressed) they had a rough Beta of their game to show Haney Linden, the company's community magistrate.

By the time I had a chance to try out Dark Life, a few weeks after it had been opened for testing, it had already become an unambiguous success, despite its unavoidable shortcomings as an early Beta. A hundred-plus residents had played it, many frequently. Indeed, as I spoke with Pirate outside the main shop, residents streamed past us, on their way to adventure.

"Love it," a goblin called AstriX Fate told me, "if I had the skills, I'd help make it better." I noticed the Hit Points counter above his head was already at 317. Getting it up that high must have taken dozens of hours.

"Whoa," I said. "How long have you been playing?"

Pirate laughed. "I think I've seen someone with 900."

Before my career as Second Life's embedded journalist, I wrote a Salon article on the future of MMOGs. The only way they'd thrive, I suggested there, was by getting away from the Dungeons & Dragons-esque model of "leveling up" a heroic alter ego in a Tolkienesque world--the kind of thing that had limited appeal outside fans of the genre. The future of the medium, I suggested, should be non-genre online worlds where the users spend less time leveling up on the monster-bashing treadmill, and way more time creating the content of their reality.

But one leading designer of fantasy MMORPGs didn't like that thesis one bit, and he rather heatedly e-mailed me after the story was published, to explain why. "Leveling up" or something like it would still be a necessary function, he argued, even in the next generation of online worlds: "The player's ability to affect change in these future virtual worlds," he wrote, "will be directly related to the amount of time and effort they invest in that change. And, given human nature, people will want approval from others." They got this through the leveling up process, in traditional MMORPGs, or in non-genre games, through leader boards, where the wealthiest/most popular/etc. players are numerically ranked for all to see.

"But in a world which emphasized user-created content," I replied (in words to this effect), "levels and ranks won't matter. They'll be having too much fun creating, for example, a haunted house, whether it makes them popular or not. "

"Assuming somewhat equal 'creative abilities' or what have you," he replied, "the person who spends 50 hours adding content to and just making 'cool' her haunted house will end up with an experience an order of magnitude more compelling and entertaining than the person who invested 5 hours… the treadmill's still there, the time invested is still there, and the result of the time invested is still being communicated to the player in the form of improving traits and/or abilities in gradual steps (regardless of whether the traits are associated with the player's persona or their property, i.e., their haunted house."

In other words, he believed the time invested to build a haunted house online was qualitatively the same as the time invested to, say, get your half-Elf Ranger to level 10.

After all, as he added later, "Life is a treadmill, James. It takes time. Effort. Fortitude."

We agreed to disagree on that point. But I had to admit I was thinking about it, when I bought my backpack, and was led by Dark World citizen valacia Leviathan toward the place where Dark Life is played: a castle occupied by all manner of supernatural beasts.

You know, like a haunted house.

Continue reading "WORLDS WITHIN WORLDS" »

PRIVATE DANCER

Marilyn_murphy


Originally published November 7, 2003 here.

Before Marilyn Murphy begins her dance routine, I beg her to keep the act PG-13, so as not to scandalize the Lindens-- or even worse, my real life girlfriend.

"Now let's be crystal clear here," she says, "we are [only] talking about animated pixels."

"Well yes," I say, "but there are subtleties involved!"

So Marilyn complies. And as the music kicks in, she unleashes a dazzling-but-relatively-demure flurry of athletic dance moves, karate kicks, and assorted bursts of pantomimed sass, all perfectly timed to the swooping, driving beat of a pounding electronica track. It's the first dance routine I've seen that looks like something other than the generic moves available in the default avatar gesture menu-- in other words, to look like actual, professional choreography.

Mm_dance

"I hate scripted dancing," she says, after the song plays out and the applause from the audience gathered at Club Vogue dies down, "won't touch it. I memorize hot keys, and adapt as I screw up… I practice with a song [beforehand], and try to work with the beat."

In addition to performing in it, Marilyn also owns the Vogue, and believes it to be the only successful enterprise of its kind. Before building it, she danced at another club, and while she made money there, the property itself, like so many others like, went belly up.

"And I watched it fail," says Marilyn, "and I learned from it. The reason is, the guy who owns one-- a guy-- has to pay for the building and the land. So he has two choices: a large door charge, or take it from the girls who work there. Now, that don't work either way you try it-- so I built this." She was helped in this by fellow group member Siobhan Taylor, "Who assisted me emotionally and financially to remain in the game, and to Construct Club Vogue.

Now, she continues, "I own the land and everything you see, and I pay for it by dancing, and the girls who work here pay me nothing. I support the club totally from my dancing, and the girls keep all the money they make. How can a man own the club and show a profit?"

"I guess a guy with a hot babe avatar could do it," I suggest.

"I guess," she says, unconvinced. "My experience lets me work with guys much better. The other girls who actually become dancers here are too shy sometimes to cajole a guy into the deal. I can do it, and then turn them over to another girl."

Second Life is Marilyn's very first foray into the world of MMOGs. "My husband plays these games... some Camelot thing and some World War Two thing. He thinks this is for uh....well, not his type. And he showed this to me and he said he thought I could go shopping here-- and I said 'SHOPPING???!!!!'" And when it came time for her to start a business and bring in an income, Club Vogue was the ultimate outcome. And while she's not sure she'd like him to join her in SL, she says her husband's quite proud of the enterprise she runs in here. "I am proud of me," she adds.

I point out that much of the mature-rated content in Second Life seems to be developed by our women players. "Which," I say, "may seem counter-intuitive to many."

"I don't think it's so counter intuitive," says Aesendria Serpentine, a scantily-dressed brunette sitting nearby pipes up. "The anonymity allows you to do things you wouldn't otherwise do. But want to. In real life, I wouldn't be laying around in the nude, or even be in a strip club, in fact I still wont, but [in] here it doesn't seem to matter."

"Club Vogue is also a group," says Marilyn, "it's female only." At 48 members, it's one of the largest-- and only four of its members are in-world dancers. "And most groups may have a theme," she continues, "but I have tried to make the Club Vogue group actually mean something. We help newer girls who come in game with their avatars, and money and advice. So we try to act as a sorority sort of."

WHITE LIKE ME

Bel_muse

Originally published from from October 24 to October 28th, 2003, here and here.

It all started, as things often do, with J. Lo.

I'd known this resident from the very start of career as an embedded journalist. Since she's a veteran from the very early Beta days, I'd come to think of her as an elder citizen of Second Life, always able to offer detailed histories of the in-world community, and give sharp insights on the way it was now. She usually wore her avatar as a tan blonde with light eyes, which I assumed to be a stylized version of her online self. (As it usually is, among many residents.) But I'd wondered why her figure was a lot more, well, curvaceous then one would expect. Because while her avatar had a face like Jennifer Jason Leigh, she was a lot more like Jennifer Lopez, from the waist on down. And so I wanted to know how that happened.

She said a resident friend had designed it for her, based on the description she gave him, of her real appearance. "I suck at avatar construction," she tells me. "The only one I ever made myself I used the random button to make the features. But I typically find something about the avatars made for me have some truth about my [real] personality."

"And so the butt and the tan are the essential features?"

"It's not a tan," she says. "One of your articles mentioned my 'tanned avatar'...and we giggled over that. 'Cause it was my friend's interpretation of my African-American-ness, so to speak."

She puts on a very early model of her avatar out of her inventory, and describes it as the closest form to her real world self; and it is, indeed, African-American, perhaps with a touch of Latina or American Indian. Some time after creating that, she kept with the avatar I've described as a blonde, "tan surf chick"-- which is how I'd always known her.

And that's how I found out, months later, that she's actually a black woman who's been playing Second Life while looking like a white girl.

I never would have guessed it, I say rather lamely.

"Of course," she says, "how could you know? It was just a giggle to those who knew. Anyway, it tells you [why] I bless J. Lo for popularizing the can."

I ask her if she ever tried making her standard avatar's facial features look more African-American. The customization tools certainly allow for that-there's even an appropriate hair texture in the database.

"Nope," she says, "never thought of it. Cause that's what people see first in the real world. And I spend a lot of time after that convincing them I'm different [from] whatever pre-conceived notions they may have. So here, people get to know me... and then I sometimes let them know about other aspects of my identity."

She hasn't up to now had much desire to make her real life race a public issue. "The only time I was tempted to declare my race," she says, "was during the Jessie Wall crisis, when the Confederate Flag was up. And everyone was bending over backwards to assure them they were not offended by the flag."

"And you were offended, I assume."

"Yeah, but I supported their right to display it. That along with an antebellum mansion and pickaninnies in a cotton field if they wanted."

I ask her if she really believes that most people automatically have preconceptions of her based on her race.

"C'mon, dude, of course they do." Even when they don't intend to. "Doesn't mean they can't let go of them. But yeah, when I walk through a door there's a set of notions that they may keep or discard depending on the first thing that comes out of my mouth... I'm not saying I got a problem with mainstream folks," she insists, chuckling, "My boyfriend is white." Then again, she adds, "[I]t took him a year to tell his mom I was black."

I tell her this reminds me of the lesbian who says she stays in the closet in Second Life, just to avoid the pre-judgments she's afraid some will put on her, if she did.

"Well in some ways, yeah, I guess." On the other hand, she says, "I also like the secret glimpse into the mysterious world of the white man!"

I asked what she's learned, by putting on a white person's avatar.

"It's a white man's world, my friend...that it is," she laughs. "I was thinking about that 'Saturday Night Live' skit with Eddie Murphy." In the classic sketch, a wiseacre take on Black Like Me, Eddie gets his skin cosmetically lightened and puts on a blonde wig, and thus convincingly honkied up, is able to infiltrate the secret land of white privilege, where there's a round-the-clock party, when all the black folks have their backs turned.

"That's hilarious," she says, "but always [there's] that secret little niggling bit of doubt for some African Americans… like maybe there really is this magical world.

"So whenever you talk about your avatar being your true race... I think of that skit."

Continue reading "WHITE LIKE ME" »

OCCUPYING JESSIE

Meeting_the_terrorists_1

A gentlewoman comes to a war zone, and wreaks havoc...

OCCUPYING JESSIE, PART I: HOSTAGE SITUATION

Bhodi Silverman wanted her art gallery to provoke a reaction, and she quickly got it-- though maybe not the way she planned.

"Hamlet," a Resident named Ryen Jade IMed me awhile ago, "you may want to know, I am currently holding two people hostage at the Jessie arts center."

I'm skeptical: "Can you send me a photo of them holding today's New York Times, for proof of life?"

"No," says Jade, "but you will get a picture of me holding a gun to the monkey's head."

"I'll be there!" I say, and wing off toward Jessie.

Meanwhile, I'm getting IMs from Derek Jones, a Resident who plays as a chimpanzee, relaying the hostage-taker's demands: "They want their own combat sim they can control," says Derek. "They are shooting at people."

"What group is this?" I ask him.

"The Jessie Liberation Army."

Derek frantically copies the text they're shouting at him:

"Sit, Infidel Monkey!"

And then comes, "Your monkey shall be first to go!"

By the time I arrive, the terrorists have built billboards over the gallery, to warn of my arrival. Inside Bhodi's gallery, they are holding a monkey and another non-combatant at gunpoint. They've walled off the entrances, and after some deliberation (and my yelling at them through the glass), they let me in to talk.

After that point, things happen fast, and what goes down next quickly becomes unclear.

Continue reading "OCCUPYING JESSIE" »

RIDING OUT THE DEBATE

Pot_carnival

Originally published September 18, 2003 here.

Even in the Mature-rated, almost-anything-goes simulators of Second Life, you're not allowed to engage in behavior that would be illegal in real life. (A handy catch-all clause, in the Linden Lab Terms of Service agreement.) Oneironaut Escher kept this caveat in mind, when he built an educational installation in Stanford, dedicated to promoting awareness of sinsemilla, if or when it's decriminalized.

Pot_coaster

The centerpiece is a monster pipe, which you can ride like a roller coaster, in a hollow sphere which rolls you down the long, curlicue glass pipe, and plops you into the nearby water, where you usually keep rolling all the way to the bottom of the ocean floor.

Escher has some strong opinions about what he sees as contradictory laws in this country, and he’s put his personal position in that political discourse into 3D form. "It's something I'm passionate about," says Escher, "and SL gives me a little more anonymity than real life, so I feel a bit safer about being voiceful for the movement. It's ridiculous that something safer than aspirin and with great potential benefits is illegal in so much of the world."

A giant sign in the center of Escher's fairgrounds explicitly disavows any endorsement of illegally ingesting the weed with roots to hell, and warns residents to check their local laws, before applying anything they learn in here, out there.

I ask Oneironaut if he's a real-world activist.

"Not really active in real life," he says, smiling, "the Man keeps me down." But he's hopeful that changes will soon be coming to his neighborhood. "I'm on the East Coast. Canada is about to legalize -- that will cause intense pressure on the US to change its laws."

"SL is quite appropriate," he says, "for... 'creative' states of mind. It's both beneficial and helpful [to me]. Adds to creativity, but being easily distracted can make scripting difficult.”

TAX REVOLT IN AMERICANA!

Revolutionary_kitty

Originally published August 12, 26, and September 12 of 2003 here, here, and here.

In late July, a cadre of outraged Lifers began agitating against the Linden tax system, which they see as unjustly penalizing ambitious builders, who contribute so much value to the world. By August 2nd, their cause had broken out into open protest. The first blow was leveled on Americana, the user-driven project to recreate famous US icons in a city space. Dissent appropriately took a very American form: the project's Washington monument had been replaced by a giant tower of tea crates; the baseball stadium rendered unusable by similar stacks; the Route 66 gas station set ablaze by an insurrectionist midget shooting off seditious fireworks. Crates and signs were festooned everywhere -- there, and throughout the world. Contacted by New World Notes, Fleabite Beach -- the iconoclastic kitty who leads this revolt -- here pleads their case to the general public:

WHAT IS YOUR GROUP CALLED, OF WHO IS IT COMPOSED, AND WHAT IS ITS PURPOSE?

We are PATRIOTS to the man, woman and cat, as are all loyal subjects to the King who watch from afar as common sense and conscience are compromised, until liberty wells up in their hearts and they are forced to action. King Linden's laws have no power to make a man more just; and commonly, by means of their respect for it, even the well-intentioned are daily made the agents of injustice. Our purpose here today, as should be daily and everywhere, is one of a well-reasoned Justice and nothing more.

WHAT ARE THE PARTICULAR CAUSES OF YOUR GRIEVANCES?

The subjects of King George Linden serve the King, not as subjects and taxpayers and pay-to-players merely, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the Builders, the Scripters, the Texture Makers, the Events Coordinators, the Tour Givers, The Mentors, the Resident Instructors, etc. In most cases they are treated akin to horses or dogs, expected to serve and to work, not by conscience, but by din of a much heralded way and an unreasoned loyalty to a Mad King. A wise man will only be useful as a man and will not be submitted to the realm of beasts of burden.

WHAT DEMANDS DO YOU MAKE OF "MAD KING GEORGE LINDEN"?

The thoughtful consideration and realization of a means by which all Loyal Subjects can work toward the greater goods of community, god and country without the abdication of their moral relevance. We cast our voices upwards, as we think is right, but we should not be vitally concerned that right should come of it, only that our voices are heard and respected. Without true Representation there is nothing in SL but pixels that labor to arrange other pixels for the glory and prosperity of Kings.

WHAT ACTIONS DO YOU THREATEN, IF THE KING MEETS NOT YOUR DEMANDS?

Regarding future consideration by the Callous and Cavalier King George, we expect that our demands will fall on deaf or uncaring ear. Should this be the case, we shall make of ourselves soldiers of the heart, embracing Liberty and Justice for all; and rejecting law and dictate made in haste to the detriment of just and free-thinking men, women and cats everywhere. To the Mad Mad King George we shall say, "You and your kind will rue the day. To you, sirs, Tea Crates in the Bay."

IF YOUR DEMANDS ARE STILL NOT MET, WHAT SHALL YOUR NEXT RECOURSE BE?

There is naught to be done but act upon the heart. What man is given a conscience specifically to abdicate to Kings? Why have a conscience at all I say? When the time comes to stay the heart, none shall stop beating. When the time comes to lay down honor, none shall lay before the King's carriage, to be crushed beneath the hooves of those unable to do more. When the time comes, there is in the minds of all good men, only action.

-- and so the die is cast. But even now, a Linden loyalist movement has sprung up in opposition to the revolutionaries. Who shall ultimately prevail?

Continue reading "TAX REVOLT IN AMERICANA!" »

CRASH TWO

Two_towers_in_sandbox

Originally published August 5-8th 2003, here.

Strange, how even now, just seeing the silhouette can still feel like a punch to the heart.

Someone had sent me an IM from Olive, the "sandbox" simulator where you can build and experiment with pretty much any object, cost free-- even collapsible structures.

"Come to Olive," the instant message read, "We're about to knock over two buildings that look like the World Trade Center."

I paraphrase from memory, because what was about to happen was so object-intense, it would end up crashing the entire sim (and consequently, the chat log of everything leading up to it.)

My God, I thought, as I came flying up. Are they really going to do this? I wasn't sure I wanted to write about this. I wasn't even sure I even wanted to watch.

I had been to Ground Zero only three weeks after 9/11, when the surrounding buildings were still filmy with ash, and smoke was still spewing out of the charnel pit. So now, on the occasions when they once again air the news footage of the WTC's collapse, I still have to turn away.

But here were several Lifers, chatting away on the outside viewing platform between twin towers, eagerly waiting for the whole thing to come down.

Later on, Derek Jones insists he didn't have the World Trade Center in mind at all, when he began building them. He just built one, and then he started building another one beside it, and willy nilly, there it was. He does say that 9/11 might have had a subconscious influence. Derek lives near Chicago, and for some time after the original event, he worried about the safety of all the big-shouldered skyscrapers of his own city. "It made me feel pretty insecure," he says. "I couldn't stop thinking about it for a few weeks."

Once he's ready, all Derek has to do is toggle the physics properties of the buildings, and his unstable creation will succumb to the laws of gravity. In-world, Derek Jones' avatar is usually a monkey in a sci-fi uniform, as he is now, putting the final touches on a project that everyone gathered there agrees looks eerily like the towers that once anchored downtown Manhattan.

"Just without the crashing planes," Hikaru Yamamoto observes from the platform. In-world, Hikaru is a tiny girl, the kind of big-eyed anime tyke you'd see in a Miyazaki movie.

The young man who sent me the IM is right there beside me, too, raring for the crash to start; we'll call him Michael Mason. He's waiting to ride it out, largely because it'll be "fun", as he puts it later. But he's got another motivation for doing this.

On September 11th, 2001, a relative of Michael's was working as a manager for a financial services company in the World Trade Center's South tower. After the planes came plowing in, he did his best to evacuate his employees.

"From what I understand," says Michael, "many people saw him stay behind. And never saw him alive again."

Just two things belonging to his relative were left behind, and found: his billfold, lying a few blocks away from Ground Zero, and a small identifiable scrap of his body.

"They actually found [his wallet] the next day," Michael says. "But his DNA wasn't discovered until many months later."

I ask him if he remembered who found the billfold, which was recovered inexplicably intact. "I'm not sure, to be honest," he says. "But I do know that the wallet was in perfect condition."

When he saw Derek Jones constructing the two towers, he immediately identified them in his mind as the World Trade Center. "I wasn't upset that he was building it," says Michael. "I viewed it as a memorial of sorts. Even if it was a re-enactment."

Meanwhile, we're still waiting for Derek to sound the signal. I position myself on the top floor, where I still have a sweeping view of the ground below.

Not unlike the view from a corner office, I suppose.

Continue reading "CRASH TWO" »

WAR OF THE JESSIE WALL

Jessie_wall_1

Originally published from July 11 to July 17, 2003, here and here.

INTRODUCTION

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

F*** YOU!

From yours truly

Eukeyant

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.

Continue reading "WAR OF THE JESSIE WALL" »

HOPES, FEARS, DESIRES, PREDICTIONS

Originally published June 20, 2003, here.

So, one weekend away from the gates opening wide to a paying public, here's what some of the Beta residents are saying, about the new wave of immigrants that are about to hit the Ellis Island of their very comfortable world:

HOPES, DESIRES

Charlie Omega: That everyone is big enough to let the bullies, clowns have their fun and let 'em move on in boredom.

Ope Rand: That the current map will become a small speck on the future map.

Si Money: I hope people realize that we're in this game to be free, and to let people build what they please, and be what they please. I think our ultimate goal should be to overcome the things which people can't seem to in 1st life. Possible? Yes, but I have a feeling human nature will prevail in the fear category before the hope.

Dionysus Starseeker:
Second Life will become a staple for creative minds to come and utilize their skills and show the world what they can do with a few simple cubes and cylinders. The map will be infinitely larger, with groups of all kinds (yes, even a place for the normal people... in a corner somewhere, frightened and alone).

FEARS

Charlie Omega:
That the world will plummet into Chaos and despair. As we saw with the increase in attacks on other users and other such negative activities when we had a population boom before.

Si Money:
That more people will come into the game who are not tolerant of others, and will do everything they can to make sure that they get their way with everything... Unfortunately, this is how the world in first life is, and the more people that come in, the more of this will come with them.

Christopher Omega:
Liaison availability and issues with technical support and customer communication will make the Lindens feel more like gods then regular SL people, and that they will no longer function as friendly as they are now.

Maggie Miller:
My fear? That I'll be forced to find a way to make a living in SL. I don't wanna. Like many here, I'm sure, my real life is very complex and I have a lot of people dependent on me. Here, I'm a happy wanderer. I'm slowly learning to make things, but this is one place I *don't* want to feel a pressure to produce. I hope Linden Lab keeps a place for people like me here.

Chip Midnight:
That as the player base grows it will become more like a cross section of the rest of the world... 5% creative and cool people who are worth knowing, and 95% morons you wish would get the hell off your lawn.

PREDICTIONS

Merriman Brightwillow:
My expectation is that the Linden folk will advertise as necessary in magazines, on G4, etc. to be sure that the word is out there, and that they will be there every step of the way to manage the growth and to ensure that the Second Life experience remains a good one.

I feel as if we're a big family, and I hope this will always be so.

Charlie Omega:
People looking for another typical shoot 'em up, leveling and violence-oriented game may stay a while and cause some problems, but I think the majority of those will leave as they get bored.

Nada Epoch:
When we go live, I actually don't think much will change…The world will continue to be the wonderful chaotic jumble of structures and objects that it is today; there will just be more people and more stuff. Occasionally there will be some semblance of order, but it will only be on a sim to sim basis, there will not be some over- arching theme that dominates everything in SL. There are too many people with too many ideas.

Mac Beach:
My hope and fear are the same: There will be more users signing up than the current infrastructure can support and the whole thing will grind to a halt.

Add to my hope that I hope there is a "game plan" in place to cope with this eventuality.

Maggie Miller:
I must weigh-in as the older, non-gamer who just happened to drop by SL one day and then never left.

My prediction? When the doors open, there will be more like me arriving.