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Interface Seminar: Second Lives

For this Interface seminar, we brought in anthropologists Marina Kusko and Patrick Jagoda. In previous times, anthropologists went off to far-off ane exotic lands like Madagascar to study what appeared to be distant and strange cultures, all in order to discover what makes us humans the uniquely strange and wonderful creatures we are. Yet, in this postmodern age, anthropologists no longer have to go to distant shores to discover such things, but any of us can just boot our computer up and jump into a distant, and very strange, synthetic world. A world where flying is common, where half-men and half-animals fight giant wars over vast treasures, and well, people shop and trade and fall in love, and even take vacation photographs! They began by demonstrating Second Life and World of Warcraft, and before the end of the seminar, even I was ready to open up a Second Life account. The readings were short but very diverse. Betsy Book wrote perhaps the first piece of commentary I've ever read on photography of virtual worlds - a sort of strange and nearly absurdist hobby that seems, upon reflection, to be not so strange or absurd after all. In her "Traveling Through Cyberspace: Tourism and Photography in Virtual Worlds" Book claims that many of the motifs of virtual worlds are directly related to tourism, and marshals impressive empirical evidence to show so. She looks at the pervasive influence of "get-away" destinations, such as Atlas Casino in Second Life and tropical islands in "There" (what a remarkably strange use of deixis as branding, not very catchy I might add!) In fact, just as in real tourism, tourists appreciate signs marking destinations, but begin to dislike litter and advertisements, as happens in "There." "In virtual worlds, "recreation" equals "re-creation", not just of a visitor's work-weary psyche, but of reality itself."Virtual tourism makes lots of sense, as it allows people unable to go on long journeys, albeit in virtual journal, and actually communicate with people around the globe. People can even go back in time, as Route 66 in Second Life shows, or recreate destroyed places. Massive amounts of time are spent re-creating tourist destinations like the Sphinx in Ancient Egypt. Again, imagine vacations - to places that never existed, to places that no loonger exist! It does open the horizon for vacations. But why re-build the Sphinx? For free at that!"By replicating an object already associated with technical and cultural achievement, the builder borrow some of the prestige associated with the original landmark""If it is true that the tourist experience requires something outside the realm of the ordinary to gaze upon, virtual worlds are the ultimate tourist environments"Cindy Poremba in her "Patches of Peace: Tiny Signs of Agency in Digital Games" investigates how players use games to create independent artifacts the makers of the game never expected or intended, and how in multi-player games these artifacts have enduring and even subversive influence."By creating game artifacts,players are recognized as authors of new objects and contexts that are significant, expressive, and instantiate their agency"Pormemba looks at how users protested the Iraq War in the Sims by making little anti-war signs for their characters, often based off real signs from current groups and the 60s, called "Tiny Signs of Hope". Poremba also is interested in "Velvet Strike" where a Counterstrike mod is made that allows users to spray-paint anti-war graffitti in multi-player game environments where other players may not agree with the anti-war message. If our world now is virtual, then our protest must be so as well. The creation of these articulate by the player "validates these artifacts as independent form the primary games with which they are associated." So, where do we draw the line about where the game ends and reality begins?Tim shared a wonderful story about how one of his students proceeded to live primarily in the world of Second Life, staying up late in order to join his "party" on various "battles" and "raids", and only re-emerging from his attic abode in order to eat and work so he could play more Warcraft. In fact, it appears the average player spends hours there a day - so in what sense is it valid to say that this "avatar" isn't their real life? Is it more real than their "first life," their life of skin and bones? Perhaps, and perhaps it is not for us to judge. Economics has always been known as the dismal science, yet the world of video-games may show that even fun has an economic underbelly. Edward Castronova in his Synthetic Worlds: The Busines and Culture of Online Games makes that point using cold numbers and a warm sense of humour. Indeed, the economics of synthetic worlds is fascinating and, shockingly large. The future of capitalism perhaps as the natural resources of this world run out... Castronova is an economist who began studying the economies of online synthetic worlds (MMORPGS) and believes they have "real" economies with very real effects.Just a few statistics about online virtual worlds, a bit dated by now, that Castronova collected:

  • 100 million in commerce
  • 10 million users, Doubling at Moore's Laws
  • Many users spend 20-30 hours a week

As he sums it up: "Because no one can permanently separate events in one sphere of their life from all the other spheres, that part of human life taking place in synthetic worlds will have effects everywhere." and brilliantly puts the perspective of what may seem to be irrelevant videogames into context by noting "Synthetic worlds are simply intermediate environments: the first settlements in the vast uncharted territory that lies between humans and their machines."Indeed, it can even alter the laws of the dismal science. "What could the economy be, in a world where every physical object can be costlessly rendered in whatever quantities desired?"Interesting facts abound: Korea has the highest user base, while China has the highest numbers of users despite the low penetration of the Internet. It's not all white men: 43 percent of gameplayers are women, the average age of 29.They spend 20-30 hours a week in these virtual worlds. Are they addicted? How do we define addiction - only by negative impact to daily life. However, what if their entire daily life was in a synthetic world?In a survey of Everquest users, 20 percent wanted to spend all their time in Everquest. Indeed, this may not be too bad, given people's sometimes horrible existence in the flesh: "For others perhaps the fantasy world is the only decent place available."To take the point even further, why this bigotry against virtual worlds? "Earlier definitions of even "games" assume "real life was the only game. That is no longer the case....for the first time, humanity has no one but many worlds in which to live." Although, I would have to add that the continued existence of these synthetic worlds relies on the ecological and industrial stability of our not-so-synthetic world. If the lights go out, so does synthetic worlds - a sort of virtual apocalpyse that, as people invest their time in these worlds, should be on their mind. Are these synthetic worlds just an escape from reality? But do our social lives construct meaning such that even "unreal" things in synthetic worlds have "real effects"? Obviously they do.The makers say it best sometimes, as David Rickey of Everquest put it "At the most fundamental level, these games are about empowerment and achievement, providing a never-ending sense of increasing importance and power to the player"In fact, the growth of synthetic worlds can be directly relatd to the increasing number of problems in our first world: "The question of whether synthetic worlds will grow is therefore ultimately a question of how many ordinary human lives exhibit that level of cultural and emotional emptiness. If crtics from Charlie Chaplin to Michel Foucault are to be believed, the number of people who fit thiscriterion is very, very large."And this is both wonderfully exhilirating and profoundly distrubing at the same time. Call me old-fashioned, but I think we need to worry this not-so-synthetic world first before jumping ship completely. Although, if I need a rest, I might book it in virtual Ancient Greece. Santorini would be nice, perhaps before the explosion!

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