Second Life? I’ve got enough on my plate with the first
These things I remember.
I’m in a car, bumping along a stony track in the mountains, when suddenly, to the right, a big, sand-coloured helicopter rises up out of a valley. It’s close - close enough to see the eyes of the heavy-machine-gun operator flick contemptuously my way, before dismissing me as a potential target as the aircraft banks and flies off.
I’m in a sub-tropical rainforest in the rain. Suddenly, from my left, I see a flash of movement: a wolf, its fangs bared, charging towards me. I pull out a sword and defend myself.
Each of these scenes is liable to flash into my mind’s eye at odd and unpredictable moments. The details in both memories are clear and in vivid colour.
But only one of them - the first - is a memory of something that happened in the real world. The other happened to my ‘avatar’ - my character - in an online game called World of Warcraft.
I started playing it as a way to spend more time with my youngest son, and continued for long enough to build up a store of ‘memories’ like that. The odd thing about them is that they’re much closer to the memories I have from ‘real’ life than they are, for instance, to the memories I have of my dreams.
World of Warcraft is one of many ‘virtual worlds’ which are showing an increasing tendency to leak into the real world.
The lines between reality and games are becoming ever more porous. I first saw this about a decade ago, when a young relative from the UK visited Sydney.
Edward was at least partly funding his trip through selling his virtual ‘possessions’.
For a couple of years, he had been playing a game called Ultima Online , and during that time he had become wealthy in the game.
Now he was in the process of selling some of his possessions. He negotiated the sale of a ‘palace’ for $US100. The buyer sent him the money - real money - via Western Union.
It turned out that, perhaps without realising it, Edward was a pioneer. The people who capitalised on that insight had the chance to make millions.
World of Warcraft has more than eleven million regular players, each paying a monthly subscription fee and many paying extra for more online ‘gold’ to improve their ‘avatars’ or help them reach in-game targets.
Perhaps stranger, though, was the insight of a company in San Francisco called Linden Lab.
They created a virtual world called Second Life, which - unlike World of Warcraft - had no monsters to kill and no quests to fulfil.
Thomas Malaby is an American anthropologist who spent a year at Linden Lab to write a book about Second Life, ‘Making Virtual Worlds’.
You can listen to him here.
He sees the project as a curious mixture of capitalism and sixties hippiedom, linking it to that phenomenon of 1969, The ‘Whole Earth Catalog’.
Linden Lab, like the, Catalog, places enormous emphasis on ‘access to tools’ - a philosophy of letting users build the world for themselves.
That creates paradoxes, summed up in Malaby’s phrase ‘creationist capitalism’; the libertarian philosophy of letting people do what they want in the World, up against the undeniable fact that the Lab itself, as the creator of the world, has the power to set all rules, make or break anything.
But for the user, Second Life is just what its name implies, which can make it hard for outsiders to see the attraction.
Malaby, for instance, found quite quickly that status—keeping up with the Jones’—can be just as important in Second Life as in reality.
It reminded me of the comedy sci-fi series ‘Red Dwarf’, in which the characters get sucked in to a virtual reality game called ‘Better Than Life”.
It has profoundly addictive properties for many, because it fulfils their dearest wishes.
Unfortunately, one of the characters, Rimmer, is so filled with self-hatred that his subconscious desire for humilation keeps surfacing - to such an extent that his world not only turns bad, it corrupts and infects the fantasies of all the others too.
In other words, if you go into ‘Second Life’ with problems, will you find that instead of letting you forget them it magnifies them?
Malaby tells of feeling reasonably satisfied at the way he’d shaped his ‘avatar’ when one of the Linden lab developers told him the jeans and t-shirt it was wearing weren’t good enough - he needed to spend money on a flash new suit.
So you can see why Malaby argues that the appeal of Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGS) is not -or at least not only - escapism.
He does see it as a way for people who have diffculty with social interaction—he gives Asperger’s sufferers as an example - to have fuller social lives.
Games and reality are increasingly intersecting in the wider world, though: I heard a British Cabinet Minister recently talking about how the high level Ministerial committee COBRA had ‘gamed out’ the possible results of a flu pandemic, over the course of an exercise lasting several days.
Second Life, it seems, is increasingly being used in education. Town planning educators have been quick to get their students to experiment with potential townscapes and planning schemes.
Maybe it’s my age, though, and childhood memories of being told to get out in the fresh air and do something active: I can’t quite shake the feeling that, rather than get a second life, people would be better off leading their first life a little more fully.
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