Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

slvision

Three other blog posts generated a fair amount of feedback over at SL Universe this week.  First was a protest over in world copying promoted by the Shopping Cart Disco blog.  Second was an article at the Pixels and Policy blog about how real life gender affects second life play. Third was a proposal by Hamlet Au at NWN about integrating Facebook and Second Life in an effort to get more players into SL.

My response to all three was decidedly negative.  Even though these three separate issues have little to do with one another, they all deny the whole vision and purpose of Second Life as if they are a part of a concerted effort to turn SL into something it is not.  Have we lost the vision of what SL is supposed to be?

The bulk of my venom is over the second and third posts, but I should begin and end with the first.  I did not participate in any protests over copyright issues.  Not that I am opposed to copyright protection or removing counterfeit goods, or punishing those that violate copyright in world.  I am opposed to changing the rules of SL to accommodate copyright protection.  I have explained why in previous posts.

Every now and then we get an article about how people play avatars that are nothing like who they really are. Men pretending to be women, women pretending to be men, adults pretending to be children, children pretending to be adult, humans pretending to be animals, animals pretending to be human.  You get the picture.

My response is always: That is why it is called SECOND Life. Yes, there are fake people in SL. In fact the vast majority of players look nothing like their avatars in RL, whether it being a few inches taller, or 20 pounds lighter, all the way to playing fantasy alien species.

The truth is there are plenty of fake people in real life as well, the fake people in Second Life are a much more interesting fake.  In real life we pretend to be something other than ourselves, because societal norms tell us we should.  In Second Life what we pretend to be is a personal choice, a creative representation we choose to project.

As I have pointed out before, there is a large part of the general population that doesn’t get this.  They believe that our online persona should be real, that the virtual world should mirror the real world, they are offended by even the idea of “role play”, and they are likely to show up more often in social networks like Facebook.

I did finally get a Facebook account and use it to talk to family and old friends.  I don’t bother with all the other crazy stuff that goes on there like Mafia Wars and Farmville.  So yes I understand that SL’ers may be ok with social networks.

I’m not so sure a typical Facebook user would be that interested in Second Life.  Advertising SL or integrating Facebook in SL will not work.  The TOS policies in FB are decidedly anti role play, and they will occasionally suspend accounts of people using fake names or 3D rendered profile pictures.

Bringing in the Facebook crowd means bringing in the kind of players that reports people wearing child avatars for being under age; that think it is cool to “out” the gender benders; that take offense at furbys and goreans and nekos; the type of people that don’t understand “role play” and generally cause problems for those that do.

These kind of players don’t last long in SL anyways. If SL wants to attract future loyal players, they need to hit sci-fi and comic conventions, SCA and Renaissance fairs, war reenactors, and other places likely to attract the role playing types. I’ve met lots of SL players who are into all of this stuff IRL as well.

Second Life is a world designed and built for role players of all types. That is what it has always been and needs to remain.  Concerning yourself with real life identities is a waste of time.  Trying to “mainstream” Second Life is counter productive and wont work.

Linden Labs needs to stop marketing Second Life as a place to make money, especially since only about 2-3% actually do. They also need to stop marketing as a social chat environment as there are dozens of better places to chat.  It is far more effective, I believe, if SL were marketed as a fantasy mecca, as a place to create your world. Its what those misleading ads for Evony and IMVU do, and they have attracted millions of players.

Which brings us full circle to those concerned with copyrights and stuff.  SL was not designed to protect copyright. Many real life 3D artists don’t bother with SL for that reason.  I figured this out a long time ago myself. If you release something cool in SL, it will get copied and stolen, and spread around.  Somehow this idea that SL is a place to make money has caught on and has turned into an entitlement, they are demanding that the Lindens protect their investment with draconian rules to limit play for non-paying players, or to limit what can be uploaded and by who.

From a role play perspective this whole thing is silly anyways.  I build my character, make or buy clothing, make or buy housing and enjoy the world.  If I want to play the role of “fashion designer”, I design avatar clothing, and have fun doing it, and if I make money too, great!  It means I can play the role of successful fashion designer.  If others are making cheap knock-offs of my product line, well that’s the life of the virtual fashion designer.

Worrying about what others are doing with your stuff just leads to stress and burnout.  Aside from filling out the occasional DMCA ticket, people shouldn’t waste their time over it.  This is all antithetical to the whole spirit of Second Life.  SL was designed as a fun diversion, a fantasy escape, with as much freedom as possible, not a big business platform that needs to be scrutinized and regulated.

With the recent departure of some key players, Second Life seems to be at another crossroad point. In these times, there is always this serious risk that things could change enough to destroy what has been built.

It is time to remind people of what the whole purpose really is.

In lieu of a real original post (taking a short break), here are some other blog posts and form topics worth a look see.

Second Life Killer Apps and Weak Ties by Grace McDunnough

A good analysis of why Second Life has failed to reach “Killer App” status as “promised” by Linden Labs CEO M Linden (Mark Kingdon). M Linden responds to this post himself (see comment #10)

Second Life vs. Open Sim by Zonja Capalini

Thoroughly notated long post about the experience of moving from Second Life to Open Sim, including the reasons why and the advantages and pitfalls. This post is a first hand account of a move I believe a lot of people and companies will be making soon.

Symbolism and Second Life Forum thread at SL Universe.

A thoughtful philosophical discussion about how we experience Second Life. In the real world, we run into symbolism on a daily basis that partly defines our reality. The symbols themselves are immaterial just as cyberspace is immaterial. The “real” experience of Second Life is in the symbolic representations of the people, places, and things. Good discussion.

Second Life is falling off the mainstream radar, ironically Linden Labs is making a potentially hazardous move to try to become more mainstream. I have to ask: Is the party over in SL?

SL’s Declining coverage

I am noticing a major shift in the attention that Second Life has been getting lately. Mainly it is getting a lot less of it.  I have an RSS aggregator dedicated to SL which pulls stories from the biggest and best SL outlets I can find.

I used to feature Reuters, they dropped covering SL. Same with Wired. Electric Sheep Company seems to be pulling out of SL and blogging less. I yanked them all.

Of the ones that are left, they are still covering SL, but at a reduced rate. Former Second Life Herald, now Alphaville Herald (thanks to trademark enforcement) is shifting to Metaplace and other VW coverage. Massively, a site dedicated to all online gaming that bought up SLNN for more SL coverage, still has the occasional SL story, but only when there is some interesting development. They no longer seek out the stories themselves. Of the other blogs I list, only New World Notes continues to blog regularly. To keep the aggregator busy I added Koinup popular places and the Second Life Bloggers group at ning.com.

Mainstream press in general no longer seems that much interested. Part of me suspects that when SL was being judged by the number of accounts, the tens of millions generated some interest. Now that the “active” account number seems to hover around 500,000 and hasn’t grown much in nearly two years, its considered old news.

A couple of years ago the announcement to section off a continent for “adult content” would have gotten a few mentions in the mainstream press. Today nary a blip. The last SL story to get mainstream press coverage was last November’s headline of a real world divorce over the husbands SL “cybering” with another player. It was a strange human interest story, but that kind of thing happens a lot more often than you think. That story reinforced SL’s reputation as a “cyber sex” haven. The recent “adult content” announcement was an attempt to lessen that reputation.

“Adult Content” Continent

As  I have said before, the age verification is a game changer. There has been quite a confusing discussion about what exactly counts as “adult content” and many players are upset that Linden Labs is engaging in censorship.

What LL is proposing is a new mainland continent where adult content will be allowed reachable only by acconts that have been age verified or that have used a credit card for billing. The general consensus is this will be a “ghetto” continent, which could eventually be closed completely if LL decides it is necessary.

Personally I have a suspicion that this may backfire completely on every level. First of all, you are going to lose some of the 500,000 active players who no longer want to have anything to do with SL, best case is that they are replaced with new active players not looking for adult content.

But from my perspective, there are unforeseen benefits to this island. Adding verification for admittance means there will be no “kids” on this island, no “alts” or “alt griefing”, the vast majority of people allowed will be paying customers with lindens to spend, few “noobs”, few free accounts = no lag due to “camping”, and no one complaining about the content there, because everyone goes in knowing what to expect.

No doubt the immediate focus of this continent will be on the adult content, but these other ancillary benefits may actually drive more really active players there, possibly making the adult continent more popular than any other continent, possibly making the rest of SL the “ghetto”. A recent NWN post agrees with my assessment.

If Linden Labs sets the adult content bar real low (like no nudity) and strictly enforce it, this will almost certainly be the outcome. If this does occur SL’s reputation may continue to sour. New players will find new obstacles to the “good content”, ultimately driving a wedge into the community as a whole.

On the other hand, If they set the bar real high (like no XXX porn anything less is OK) and don’t enforce it much, it will change SL not at all and then LL can tell anyone interested that they are doing “something” about it without really doing anything.  The new adult only continent really will become a “ghetto” no one wants to go to.  Unfortunately, lax enforcement will lead to more player complaints ultimately driving a wedge into the community as a whole anyways.

Either way the community loses. Linden Labs has put themselves in a tough position that will affect every player one way or another.

Based on interviews at NWN and reports from the SL forums, there is lots of contradictory info coming out of LL’s offices. If they hope to have these policies in place by the end of summer, they got a lot of work ahead.

A divided community is an unhappy community, opening the door to the next cool thing taking away LL’s business. The party in SL will truly be over, moved to another venue.

This is the first of three “opinion” pieces I am writing about the future of 3D Virtual Worlds. I believe that ultimately the future looks bright, but we are at the beginning of a long overdue “shake up” that should finally separate myth from reality. Lets start with legal realities:

So one of the oldest but least successful MMO providers Worlds.com filed for patents of their 3D online technology back in 1995 and were awarded the patent finally in 2007. The two patents obtained were Scalable virtual world chat client-server system, and System and method for enabling users to interact in a virtual space

During those intervening 12 years a multi billion dollar MMO industry has grown. Some of it based around the same technology patented by Worlds.com.

So earlier this year I saw an announcement that Worlds.com has retained a major patent rights law firm to represent them, and on Christmas Eve they filed their first suit against NCSoft, founded in 1997 two years after the original patent application.

According to Wired, NCSoft’s official statement in response: “We can’t comment on potential litigation except to say that NCsoft takes all legal action seriously — even if the company believes a lawsuit has no merit. We intend to defend ourselves vigorously.” (emphasis mine because it is funny)

I have not studied the patents, and do not know how broad or narrow they are or what they actually cover. I do know that in worlds.com programs, you pre-load all the shapes, textures, etc. and there is virtually no way to do custom textures and buildings etc. MMORPGs work just like worlds.com programs, hence they seem to be the first target.

NCSoft is the largest MMORPG producer in the world (yes bigger than Blizzard), producing Guild Wars, City of Heroes/Villains, Lineage 2, and the upcoming Aion. They were part of a landmark suit before. Marvel sued them over the ability of players in City of Heroes to create custom heroes that look like Marvel heroes. The suit ended amicably, with CoH game runners creating “Generic Heroes” of characters that potentially violate copyright.

Worlds.com lawsuit has far reaching implications. If Worlds.com wins, they could theoretically go after every producer of 3D online games, potentially killing the whole industry. You can bet there is a lot of support building for NCSoft to do everything in their power to invalidate the patents.

Two things can kill a patent: Prior art, and obviousness. The other defense is that the burden of proof of patent violation is on the patent holder.

Prior art can come in the form of older patents. Like this one. Or it could come in the form of 3D online games that existed prior to Worlds.com development. Obviousness is also an obstacle as the whole concept of 3D online games is a combination of Habitat (a 2D virtual world built by Lucasarts in 1985) and Doom (a 3D game that included multiplayer network play in 1993).

Then there is the burden of proof problem. The patents were based on technology developed in 1995. The technology around online game playing has changed radically in the 14 years since, and there are many ways to do the same thing. In a future posting I plan to compare the underlying structure of Second Life, There.com, Guild Wars, and World of Warcraft. The technology behind these four games is so radically different there is no way they can be compared as using the same technology except in a “look and feel” way.

While I do not know the ins and outs of patent law I do know technology. The whole paradigm of online game play changed radically in 1997 with Diablo. Blizzard offered online play for the successful desktop game and ran into a huge problem: cheaters.

Before 1997, the only thing online programs dealt with was communicating between players was position, movement, and chat. Everything else was handled by the player’s own computer. People soon figured out that by modding the game on their hard drive, they could do things that other players without the hacks could not.

The fix implemented by every online game that followed was for the game servers to keep track of everything. Hit a beast with a sword, the damage is calculated on the game server and the info is relayed to your computer to display the damage. Swing the sword again and another exchange between your game and the game servers is made. This keeps the game fair for all players. It also requires a very different conrol structure for online play, different than anything worlds.com has ever developed.

This lawsuit is do or die for worlds.com. Once the star of online gaming they have watched dozens of upstarts fly right past them. They have announced two new virtual world projects, but I bet they do not have the money to actually do them. They are counting on winning lawsuits to get them the capital to go on. Losing is likely a death sentence.

Good riddance I say.

I believe that all software patents are an abomination and should end!! Copyrights are fine, if another company is using art or code without permission, go after them. But NCSoft has built all of their games from the ground up. They are mirroring what everyone else is doing true, but they are doing their own thing. For Worlds.com to profit off the work of others because it is “similar” to what they did first, seems to me to be immoral.

But since when has law been equivalent to morality?

A trio of articles about legalities of virtual worlds:
The Rocky Legal Landscape of Virtual Worlds, Part 1: Trademarks
The Rocky Legal Landscape of Virtual Worlds, Part 2: Patents
The Rocky Legal Landscape of Virtual Worlds, Part 3: Copyrights

Note: While Red Light Center was built by worlds.com, it is a seperate entity, and not part of the litigation.

Update: Case Has Been Settled!

Last night, the Google blog announced the end of Google Lively. This may rank as the shortest lived 3D virtual world ever, less than 6 months.

The first sign of trouble was the sudden jump in popularity, followed by the fairly consistent drop in popularity within a couple of weeks after release. It never picked back up, and apparently there is a ton or never released content waiting in the wings. The second sign was Google shutting down its offices on the ASU campus that served as the primary development location of Lively.

So what happened? How did the internet’s biggest developer release a cool product like this and fail? And what does this say about the future of similar projects like 3dxplorer.com, vivaty.com, exitreality.com, justleapin.com, scenecaster.com, and any other 3D worlds designed to work in 2D browsers?

(And may I also note, this is not the only high profile closure I am aware of. Cyworld is closing its US operations to focus on its Asian business. I wrote about it a couple of years ago, but heard diddly squat about it since then.)

I posted earlier that I thought Google Lively had the potential to be the progenitor of a 3D internet.  Guess I was wrong. In fact, this may require a rethink of the whole concept.

Here is my rethink: The idea of a 3D internet built to work in a 2D browser shall never succeed beyond the “novelty” phase. There will be the “ooh thats cool” exceptions that some advertising team does for some product, but the die has been cast. The concept is a failure. Lets move on.

Furthermore, and let me change to bold type, The failure of Google Lively puts the last nail in the coffin to the idea that any 3D virtual world can succeed under the same business model as 2D virtual worlds.

2D virtual worlds that run on 2D browsers are doing very well, but the additional overhead and useability of 3D kills much of what makes 2D virtual worlds successful. In 2D worlds you can buy a room and decorate it with purchaseable pre-designed items. The fact that is only 2D means that it is so simple a young kid can figure it out, and young kids love these 2D worlds.

The added dimension to 3D makes things harder. To build stuff in 3D requires understanding perspectives, camera controls vs avatar controls, size, yaw/pitch/roll, 3D texture mapping, etc. The people that cope best are experienced 3D gamers which instantly limits your audience. Then any useful 3D virtual world is going to require a seperate client download, which limits the audience further.

The successful 3D VWs (Second Life, There, and IMVU) allow users to create their own content and sell the content to others, something even 2D virtual worlds don’t do. This is the fundamental difference between 2D and 3D.

Google lively attempted to bridge the gap. They succeeded in creating a 3D web embeddable viewer, They made building and arranging your “room” amazingly simple and offered a large inventory of free stuff to put in the rooms. That, and the fact they are Google, offered the best hope of bridging the 2D and 3D gap. But, ultimately the useability wasn’t satisfying to the 2D crowd, and the lack of custom content wasn’t satisfying to the 3D crowd.

Hence the end of the experiment. The 2D and 3D virtual worlds are likely to evolve even further apart now that they have proven incompatible.

Online gaming is not my only interest. In the real world I have been lately interested in the phenomenon of “Peak Oil” and the eventual deleterious affects it will have on society in the near future. I don’t talk about it much on this site/blog, because the focus here is on online entertainment in general and 3D virtual worlds in particular. If you want a good breakdown on peak oil, there is this site.

My interest in this essay though is speculation about what will happen to online virtual world gaming in the event of a global economic depression which a peak oil generated energy crisis is very likely to cause. I am making an assumption that an energy crisis will have little effect on server farm maintenance or internet infrastructure, since the energy crisis’s biggest effect will be on transportation and real world mobility, and virtual world infrastructure is largely stationary.

Lets start at the beginning with the popular speculative fiction novel that started the whole metaverse craze to begin with: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. In this book, the United States has essentially collapsed and taken over by corporations. Most of the population is dirt poor and living in squalor, the main character (conveniently named Hiro Protagonist) lives in a storage locker. Parallel to this horrible real world is a virtual world paradise called The Metaverse, where Hiro has a modest mansion in an exclusive neighborhood of hackers near the busiest section of the grid.

Snow Crash is fiction of course, but it leads to an interesting question: How well can virtual getaways help us deal with real world stress? People have been using television, video games, etc. to relieve stress for years. Online gaming and virtual worlds are new to the equation, but those players involved find online gaming more immersive, and as a consequence more stress relieving than more passive entertainment.

We already know the consequences of too much TV or too much video games, so its important to keep all of this in proper balance. Online gaming worlds are still mostly just diversion entertainment and can be overused at the expense of ones real life.

But lets get back to the future real life bad times. A real world energy crisis will have a negative effect on everyone. Conservation will be the key: Smaller, more energy efficient housing, less long distance travel, living closer to work and shopping centers, mass transit, etc. The real world “lifestyle” will be on the decline for all, and if that does not cause a lot of real world stress, it will at the very least cause a lot of real world disappointment.

Can virtual success in online gaming relieve the real world disappointment enough to keep us sane? I’m not the only one who thinks about this sometimes. Here is a few choice quotes from the “Metaverse Roadmap Overview

The virtual worlds scenario imagines broad future participation in virtual space commons. Many new forms of association will emerge that are presently cost-prohibitive in physical space, and VWs may outcompete physical space for many traditional social, economic, and political functions. In the 20 year scenario, they may become primary tools (with video and text secondary) for learning many aspects of history, for acquiring new skills, for job assessment, and for many of our most cost-effective and productive forms of collaboration.

In the stronger version of this scenario, VWs capture most, if not all, current forms of digital interaction, from entertainment to work to education to shopping to dating, even email and operating systems, though the 3D aspects may remain minimally used in the latter contexts. Youth raised in such conditions might live increasingly Spartan lives in the physical world, and rich, exotic lives in virtual space—lives they perceive as more empowering, creative and “real” than their physical existence, in the ways that count most.

New identities, new social experiences.

Aided by VW interoperability, an individual may easily access a far broader set of experiences in digital settings than she or he could in the physical world, as well as a vastly larger social network. …

In a more limited version of the scenario, VWs become popular for a few social and professional interactions, and as an interface in certain social contexts, but end up filling a circumscribed role similar to that of present-day televisions, home game consoles, or personal computers. Much of what people do today in the physical world continues with little input from virtual worlds. This limited scenario came primarily from non-technologists, who thought cultural conservatism and economic barriers would be major roadblocks to the stronger vision.

Experience ha taught me that the “stronger” version is far more likely, especially when you expand the virtual world definition to include MMORPGs. Social virtual worlds are not for everybody, as witnessed by the 10% retention rate in Second Life, but “rich exotic lives in virtual space” applies just as much to a level 80 druid in WoW as it does to a mansion owner in Second Life.

One of my first blog entries on this board was about the advent of the “Virtual Third Place“. A small but growing crowd is substituting online destinations for social gatherings instead of traditional neighborhood pubs, clubs, and coffee houses. Business executives are going on WoW raids together rather than golfing together.

Not only are people seeing it as more enjoyable, they are recognizing it is also more economical, especially as gas prices rise.

As travel costs go up, virtual meetings, even whole virtual work places are going to be more and more common. All of this predicted in Snow Crash way before it became a reality.

Welcome to the new reality, with many parts virtual.

Most popular online worlds

So lately I have been having fun with Windlight, and focusing on how real Second Life is looking lately, but have not bothered to ask, “Is this a good thing?”

Above is a montage of screenshots from some of the most popular online communities on the web. World of Warcraft = 10 million subscribers, IMVU = 20 million accounts, HabboHotel = 90 Million accounts, 8 million monthly active users, WeeWorld = 21 million accounts, Runescape = 5 million monthly active users, Club Penguin = 17 Million Accounts, 4 million monthly active users (sources GigaOM, KZero).

What do they all have in common? None are designed to look “real”. They all purposely have a cartoon look to them. According to a recent NWN blog, this is a significant fact:

There’s little evidence of mass demand for an intensely immersive 3D virtual world; instead, indications suggest the market shrinks in inverse proportion to increasing immersiveness.

There’s several worthwhile observations you can make. First, none of them feature next gen, top-of-the-line 3D graphics. (WoW is 3D, but developed with graphics that run fairly well on older computers; also, the visuals are not realistic.) Besides Warcraft, however, none of these top MMOs are 3D at all; rather, they’re 2.5D. And while one hopes that 2.5D-based MMOs will whet the market’s interest in a more immersive, graphically rich virtual world, the exact opposite seems to be the case. (The still-popular Habbo Hotel was launched in 2000, and the cartoonish graphics are basically the same.)

Only after you drop down several million users do you start to see MMOs and virtual worlds incorporating next gen graphics that require high-end 3D cards for optimal viewing– Lord of the Rings Online at about one million subscribers, Age of Conan at about 750,000 subscribers… and Second Life at some 550,000 monthly active users.

Why is this happening? Here we enter the realm of speculation, but it seems that most people experience sensory overload with too much immersion; instead of being drawn into the intensity of the simulation, they’re repelled by it.

Before going into some of my objections to this idea, let me point out some other evidence to support it. Take for example the world of 3D animated films which I have written about. The most realistic looking 3D animated films have been Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, The Polar Express, Advent Children, and Beowulf. Not one of these have managed any real success at the box office, at least compared to the more cartoonish fare such as The Incredibles, the Shrek films, or Ratatouille. The more realistic films have an unfortunate creepiness to them that makes them seem weird and turns people off.

There is a theory in robotics about this effect called “The Uncanny Valley“. From Wikipedia:

The uncanny valley is a hypothesis that when robots and other facsimiles of humans look and act almost, but not entirely, like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The “valley” in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot’s lifelikeness.

Mori’s hypothesis states that as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong repulsion. However, as the appearance and motion continue to become less distinguishable from a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy levels.

This area of repulsive response aroused by a robot with appearance and motion between a “barely-human” and “fully human” entity is called the uncanny valley. The name captures the idea that a robot which is “almost human” will seem overly “strange” to a human being and thus will fail to evoke the empathetic response required for productive human-robot interaction.

One then has to wonder if it is possible for there to be a natural detraction to video games whose graphics are too real looking, and is this why Second Life may never reach Habbo Hotel like numbers?

I believe it is possible for games to become too real, but I am definitely not convinced Second Life comes close to that mark. I am also not convinced it is the reason it is less popular than the above named games.

Maybe some Playstation 3 games are getting too real looking. Maybe that is why the Wii is more popular? No, lets face it the real reason Wii is more popular is the innovative controllers.

World of Warcraft is cartoonish compared to more realistic Guild Wars, but it is more popular due to better marketing, the Blizzard name, and WoW has more immersive gameplay. There is more cartoonish compared to Second Life, and yet Second Life is the bigger of the two, for similar reasons.

The most popular online games are not popular because they are less realistic, they are popular because they have been around longer, or are marketed to kids (a huge market for the 2D worlds), or they are free or very inexpensive to play.

Take a look at the best selling stuff in There, IMVU, and SL: the more realistic stuff consistently sells better, because it looks better. QED

The ultimate point is this: Realism is not an important goal in a sucessful virtual world, or any computer game for that matter. Players appreciate realism up to a point, but if the realism comes at the expense of some players with older or less powerful computers, its not worth it.

I was thinking of blogging a review of all the changes to Second Life over the past year, and thought it sounded boring. I was also thinking about blogging about the major FUBAR advertising mess at Facebook, but everyone else has already, and the story is pretty over now.

But it got me thinking. I have yet to actually create an account at Facebook. I have gone over to the sight and clicked on the friendly green “Sign Up” and immediately felt intimidated by the fact that they want so much personal info right up front. That and the fact that the sign up captchas dont even appear in my browser of choice (Opera) tells me right away that this is a shady operation I want no part of.

This gets me thinking about the series I did earlier in the year about Second Life at the Crossroads and the two kinds of players you find in Second Life: The Role Players and the Virtual Utopians. It seems to me that the share everything about yourself philosophy of Facebook might appeal to some Virtual Utopians, while the Role Players would avoid it like the plague. But I think the reverse is true too; I’m not sure the typical facebook enthusiast would even “get” Second Life either.

Could it be that internet enthusiasts self divide into Role Players and Social Networkers with limited cross over?

One of my observations of the many changes in Second Life over the past year, is that many recent changes have negative effects on the SL role player community, and yet I have been observing that the Role Player community in second life is probably stronger than ever. In many ways, Second Life was designed primarily for role players. It is probably the best role player program on the web. In fact I think it represents an extreme in that regard. There are Medieval RP sims, Sci-Fi RP sims, Vampires, Goreans, and you can be back in high school if you want too.

Facebook represents an extreme on the social networking side. You can if you want get up to the minute reports on the happenings of all your friends and what they were doing on the web. The “Beacon” advertising program even allowed you to view where your friends are shopping. In today’s Reality TV “I don’t care if the Government spies on me” openness, it is no wonder why Facebook is so popular. Its like a “stalker’s” best friend.

In between these two extremes, you have much bigger entities like World of Warcraft and MySpace which have at least some limited appeal to both camps. If nothing else World of Warcraft is a fun game and My Space is a great place to show off how insane you are.

Anyways its an idea looking into. Do you like to go on the web as yourself or someone else? Are you a Role Player or a Social Networker? Apparently there is little crossover and a lot of weird looks across the divide.

An interesting but long article about the merging of virtual worlds appears in this months Technolology Review. Here’s the link, but it will probably require registration to read it.

This of course is an interest of mine. I love exploring multiple virtual worlds, and two favorites are Second Life and Google Earth.

The cliff notes version of the article is this:
Second life is a social virtual world you can explore and interact with using a customized avatar. People are building and programming cool things in Second Life, the scripting langage and access via XML allows people to build objects that tie the second life world to the real world.

Meanwhile, Google Earth is adding all sorts of cool things to their map of the world software, like building 3D models of buildings where they exist, linking to photographs, wiki information, restaurant and driving directions, pointing out geological features etc.

Wouldn’t it be cool if we could merge the two?

Personally, I do not think we could geographically merge the two, in fact I do not think we need to. I do not see the point of making the continents of Second Life conform to the real world.

What would be cool is to merge the abilities of both games, add avatar walking/flying and local chatting and maybe even scripting in Google Earth, while adding geotagging and other advanced web integration to Second Life.

As currently constituted though, this makes no sense in either program, If you want to add links to photos or geotags to wiki info in Second Life, just put a scripted object on your land. On the other hand, while it might be cool to be able to explore google earth with a customizable avatar, it would not really add much to the experience (unless it were possible to take your avatar to say Times Square and be able to chat locally with anyone else whose avatar is in Times Square)

What should be a goal is to create a 3D internet standard “browser” that can handle both kinds of environments. Instead of launching Second Life or Google Earth, you could launch one browser that could read both kinds of data and link back and forth or with the 2D web.

Click on a link and Boom, you are in Google Earth’s version of Times Square where you can get a geo link to the wiki page.

But, lets add a geolink to someone’s recreation of Times Square in Second Life, and instantly teleport there.

As you can see, this is already fairly easy to do. but you have to launch 3 seperate programs to do it. What if we only needed one, and what if the links all work the same way, and the avatars and usernames stayed similar, etc.

That is the goal of various metaverse projects. Thats where we are eventually headed.

In part one, I mentioned that Second Life players can pretty much be lumped into two categories: Role Players, and Virtual Utopians.

The role players are the ones who come into the game pretending to be someone else. It could be as simple as a change of race or gender, or as complicated as an alter ego. This is what Second Life was designed to be. There are lots of people who play as animals, or mythological creatures (there is a large Vampire subculture), or warrior like characters. There are also accompanying settings for all of these roles.

There is also the subculture of sexual role play. A lot of people who are in real life probably decent upstanding citizens, like to roleplay all sorts of sexual fantasies. Escorts and strippers are pretty frequently viewed. There is also Furby sex (people playing as animals) which is pretty much can only happen virtually. But there is also some sexual role playing that personally are a turn off for me. You have of course your BDSM groups, which are big enough that even if you are just a casual explorer in SL you have probably run into various props. Another related subculture are the Goreans or Master-Slave role players. Related to these is of course Ageplay where the submissive player takes the role of a child.

There has been a recent crackdown on ageplay in Second Life, partly because of its association with pedophelia and even fake pedophelia is illegal in some European countries, where Second Life is growing in numbers (in fact, Second Life is more popular in Europe than the US right now.) But the truth is that ageplay in second life always involves two consenting adults. Yes, occasionally kids make their way onto the main grid, but in order not to get caught, they ALWAYS play as adults. So any child avatars you see running around SL are adults role-playing.

The role-players of Second Life are pretty universally upset with the crackdown on ageplay. Not because they condone ageplay, but because a crackdown on one form of role-playing sets a precedence that other potentially offensive forms of role playing could find themselves under close scrutiny as well.

The other side of the player set are the Virtual Utopians. They pretty much play the game as themselves, or more accurately an idealized version of themselves… at age 20 and with a perfect body hair makep and clothing. They come to SL for various reasons, mostly to meet people, or make money, or build the perfect house.

From a standpoint of someone interested in making a mainstream metaverse, it is the virtual utopian view that should be emphasized. The Role Players do not have to be sold on a metaverse, but the vast majority of the population are not role player types.

And there lies the reality for Linden Labs and all other virtual world companies. If you really want to see growth, you have to sell the game to the virtual utopians out there. One upcoming virtual world (ok it was PS3 Home) has already announced that roleplay is pretty much discouraged and unsupported in the game.

So it comes as no surprise that virtually all upcoming changes encourage VU behavior rather than RP, even the seemingly innocent ones.

  • Lets start with Voice (which apparently wont be out for a few months). As a rule, role players dont like voice. It spoils the illusion, especially because most role players are crappy voice actors. Having been in There when voice came out, I can tell you that voice will have a divisive effect on the community. there will be those that refuse to use it, and those that refuse to associate with people that don’t use it. Virtual Utopians, in general like voice.
  • Age Verification (which rumor has it may not even happen) is another anti role play move. Role players prefer to keep online activities and real life activities as seperate as possible. The truth is, most role players don’t really give a damn who is on the other side of the keyboard, as long as they are into the same stuff.
  • I have already pointed out how the crackdown on ageplay affects all role players.
  • What about innocent radical changes like the new atmosphere effects? Role playing islands like strict control over their islands, and ideally want everyone to be experiencing the same thing. As cool as the atmosphere effects are, they will generally differ from player to player, thus at least partially disturbing the common experience of role play.
  • Sculpted prims pretty much benefits everybody though.

Lets add to the list the potential disappearance of internet radio, which LL has nothing to do with, but will ruin the game in many ways as I wrote earlier. Bottom line is that the Second Life experience may be very different by the end of the year. I forsee a lot of voluntary exits by lots of old timers over these issues.

For years there has been room enough in Second Life for both groups, and to tell you the truth I feel affection for both philosophies and I don’t like seeing them pitted against each other.

Legal Issues

It is only fair that I wrap this up by acknowledging the growing legal mess LL finds itself in. This seems the fate of anyone trying to be new and different. I already mentioned in part one the whole TOS being legally scrutinized by a judge in Philadelphia. It is also well known that the casino crack down and ageplay crackdown were the result of regional laws (US in the case of Casinos, Ageplay in the case of Germany) where Second Life does a lot of business.

But there is another ugly side. A recent court case sets a precedent that if Linden Labs starts censoring the players, they will lose an exemption under the communications and decency act. Could LL be forced to legally censor everything?