Media Theory for the 21st Century

February 12, 2008

More thoughts on Second Life

Filed under: Discussion — tjdanner @ 8:32 pm

            Independently of Renee, I have also come to consider Second Life in response to this week’s reading—particularly the chapters by Hansen and Prof. Hayles.  Neither explicitly references Second Life—sensibly, as the Hayles chapter predates it by 4 years, and it had existed only a year when Hansen’s book was published—but both discuss virtual reality, respectively in terms of feedback loops between machine and body, and the emptying out of physical space versus the totality of representational space.  In a sense, the genealogy of RPGs that traces along the decades from Dungeons & Dragons, etc., to avatar-based online worlds dedicated to fantasy (World of Warcraft), music (vSide), and “life” (SL), is a precursor to more sophisticated VR systems rather than a distinct beast.  To rankle Hansen for a moment and take up Manovich’s cinematic trope, Second Life is merely a diminution of full-body virtual reality, the former occupying a space along the simulacrum spectrum closer to television viewing, in which the screen is clearly a discrete unit present in a larger environment, the latter more akin to movie viewing, in which the large screen and darkened room creates a more acute sense of integration into the projected field.  I have never been interested in the on-screen simulator variety of VR (nor RPGs, for that matter), but the idea of full-immersion simulations has always been a fascinating concept—probably because of its futuristic fantasy appeal, but also because I have imagined it as a temporary diversion or game, not a long-running substitute for non-virtual reality.  RPGs are, of course, games in name and spirit, but they carry the potential (as many gamers have discovered) to be played in continuous and prolonged periods rather than diversionary sessions.  Full immersion VR carries this potential as well—certainly more radically—but the technology has yet to replicate reality to the exact extent that the helmet/body glove mechanism is more a novelty/gimmick than a lifelike simulation.  Second Life, it seems, has more or less outpaced full immersion virtual reality in its proximity to the cyberpunk fantasy of reality replacement, and certainly demonstrates Prof. Hayles’ remark that “[i]n cyberspace, point of view does not emanate from the character; rather, the pov literally is the character” (38).

            The strangeness of a virtual community that supercedes physical reality is undercut by SL’s popularity—over 20 million “Resident” accounts have been registered.  I.e., my resistance to the creepiness of living one’s life completely (other than eating, going to the bathroom, and showering, though this third is likely often forsaken) online is clearly not a full representation of current cultural memes.  (NB: I have several tabs open in Safari right now, and the browser, perhaps tellingly, elides the “Second” in both the secondlife.com and Wikipedia article tabs so that they both just say “Life”).  Second Life is not merely a representation or exemplar of online worlds, but a full ecology unto itself, a voluntary and virtual Truman Show—simultaneously (as paradoxical as it sounds) self-contained and integrated into external systems.  Which brings me to the point of this posting.  I recently read this article about a Second Life “bank run” this past summer in response to a global economic downturn: http://secondlife.reuters.com/stories/2007/07/27/ginko-financial-under-fire-caps-withdrawals/.  In a functional sense, the dollar-based virtual bank of Second Life is indistinguishable from a physical bank: maintaining checking accounts, lending with interest, etc.  But in a theoretical sense, the bank run is not merely a virtual Black Tuesday analog (on a smaller and less catastrophic scale), but also an indication of coincident economic systems.  Money borrowed from Ginko Financial (SL’s virtual bank) funnels both recursively into the self-enclosed system (e.g., to purchase clothing for avatars) and into external economies (an advertisement on the sites homepage reads “Need real life gear for your Second Life?  Pick up your Official Guide to Second Life, Creative headsets or First Bling! jewelry).  However, what appears a simple overlapping of markets has the potential to reflect a more dramatic abutting of two wholly separate economic systems, connected only by shared currency but existing in discrete realms of transactional reality—physical and online (PayPal, etc.) in the case of one, and entirely within the virtual boundaries of Second Life in the other.  I think there’s a cool connection to the feedback loops that Renee will be discussing today, which operate in the reverse direction: a murderer leveraging the SL system to enact “first life” mayhem, rather than embodied merchants leveraging the system to peddle virtual goods.

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1 Comment »

  1. Thanks for your post, Tim. I have been heading a Second Life design/build project at UCSB so your comments resonated with me. To see our virtual English department, visit here (that’s a link to a description that has the SLURL for those interested). It is a pedagogic initiative but the project has certainly raised all sorts of questions about the economies of synthetic worlds. The best book on this, by the way, is Edward Castronova, Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games. At the moment, I have a research interest in protests in Second Life, e.g. the virtual strike by IBM employees. How, I wonder, can we understand the relations between ‘real’ and synthetic worlds in such instances?

    Comment by rraley — February 14, 2008 @ 10:37 pm | Reply


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