Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Second Life Redux: An evening walk through my neighborhood

(In August 2012 I re-joined the "gameless" virtual world Second Life, for the first time since being active there in 2006 and writing an arts-and-entertainment web magazine about that unique universe; I'm there this time instead mostly to get a new prefab housing and furniture company up and going, so I can make actual money, although undoubtedly I'll still be exploring a lot of places and attending a lot of events. I'm documenting the entire thing here at this blog, and especially exploring all the sociological issues that come with this city-sized uncanny valley and the millions of daily-visiting citizens there. You can click here for the very first entry in this series if you want, describing my past, my new company, and my goals in a lot more detail.)

Well, this weekend I finally finished the process of getting my avatar set up, my premium account going, and my starter home picked; and this week I'm going through the process of land-shopping, so to have a workplace for constructing my prefab homes and also a retail space within the Grid (which I don't technically need -- I could just sell them at Second Life's in-house online marketplace, basically the Amazon.com of the Grid, and in fact I will be selling them there as well), and will have lots and photos and thoughts to share with you this coming weekend. But in the meanwhile, on one of these evenings here at Dollop Coffee in my Chicago neighborhood (which is where I'm always logging in to the Grid from, leaching off their broadband internet from my $300 "mom laptop" that barely runs Second Life adequately), when I had maybe a spare half-hour left before they closed, I decided to finally take a walk around my neighborhood, which I've been wanting to do ever since getting my starter home. After all, like I mentioned, Linden Lab (owners of Second Life) is doing this now a vastly different way than back when I was here in 2006, and I'm fascinated with how it works and in discovering how effective it's been.

See, once you become a premium member ($10 a month, or $6 a month if you buy a year at once), one of the perks is that you get a small plot of land for free, 512 square meters to be specific (1/128th of a "region," or one square on the big map, which is essentially one physical server in Linden's warehouse in San Francisco), usually assigned to you just randomly somewhere in the Grid's "mainland" (which from initial exploration seems to now consist of five continents, when there were only two when I was here in 2006...but a lot more on that in the coming months). And back when I was here the first time, that land essentially came to you blank, and you built whatever you wanted on it; and so these vast fields of starter plots essentially became these anarchic, immature, basically 3D versions of MySpace pages, full of crappily built houses, 50-foot-high neon-green penises, and an endless amount of shitty sex clubs and casinos. But this time when I signed up for a premium account, the Second Life website asked me what kind of terrain I'd like my starter home to be in (flat with lawns, hilly with woods, etc), and which of four or five different types of houses I'd like to have (different for each terrain -- think Epcot's League of Fake Nations); and when I got there for the first time, lo and behold I discovered that I was no longer allowed to do any terraforming on my starter plot, nor demolish my house, nor even do any landscaping. (My land literally extends just to the edges of the house; all the green space between the houses is owned by Linden, and all the landscaping up to them.) And so that instead creates more of a 3D version of Facebook, where everyone's home looks vaguely alike but with a pleasant aesthetic to it all, and with people allowed to decorate inside their home to their heart's content, just not to change the home itself.

And indeed, as I took a walk around my neighborhood the other evening (an area I've been calling "IKEAville" in my head), the simple fact is that there's just not much to it, which is both a good and bad thing, I'm convinced. Because let's say for example that you're a new player, that you're in fact some hipster mom who's been convinced to try it by all your Stitchin' Bitch friends (a demographic that makes up a huge amount of Grid citizens); in that case, at least you're not going to be chased off immediately by giant hundred-foot porn pictures and slot machines and neon-green penises, with such a bland yet aesthetically pleasing environment probably just the thing to help you ease into the daily life of a Grid resident. But on the other hand, this creates yet another of what tech people call a "barrier to adoption" for new people -- because if you simply spend an afternoon wandering around IKEAville and never transporting to any of the other continents, you'll undoubtedly quit Second Life that same afternoon, convinced that there's nothing in the entire Grid at all besides endless fields of empty suburban housing. And man, Second Life already has just such a tremendous amount of barriers to adoption already; does it really need another?

But still, like I said last time, there are some players who are taking to their starter homes quite nicely, and decorating the interiors to reflect their individual tastes, just like you adjust your Facebook or Twitter page to reflect your individual taste. And frankly, this is all that a whole lot of Grid citizens are there for in the first place, is to have a unique little place to have their friends over and chat; because as popular as chatting through text or voice online has been over the last twenty years, you can just imagine how more intense it is when you have literal 3D cartoon figures representing each person talking, and with thousands of unique "conversation enhancement" animations you can deploy while chatting (winking, shrugging, frowning, etc), and with texts appearing literally as cartoon voice bubbles above people's heads, and even with the opacity of those voice bubbles becoming more solid or more invisible based on how far away two avatars are from each other. So here above, for example, is someone four or five doors down from my place, who's tricked out the inside of their home rather nicely; and since it's literally impossible to steal things from other people (or indeed to even pick things up on someone else's land unless they specifically give you permission), a lot of people leave their places "unlocked" so that others can roam in and out at will, although there's also an option for turning on an impenetrable electric field around your land as well. (Also, you can ban individual people from entering, which very neatly takes care of cyberstalkers.) So imagine having your usual fun little Skype conversations with your friends like you always have; but now imagine that everyone's audio is getting streamed into this virtual house, and with all of you possessing avatars that can interact in 3D space even as you're talking. And now you're starting to see why Second Life is so addictive to some people, and why a lot of them are perfectly happy with a little home like this and don't really need anything else.

Oh, and a technical note, for those who aren't already aware; that since people are scattered throughout the real world when all logged into this one virtual city, the day and night cues can't be synchronized to anyone's local time, so most people just manually set the day or night graphics to whatever they want. (This can also be manually set for all avatars by a land owner, for example if you own a goth castle where it's supposed to be midnight all the time.) So here's how I look in the Grid in the middle of the night, which I don't think I've actually posted any photos of yet.

Oh, and one more tech note for those who don't realize -- that the sophistication of the graphics is automatically modified according to the power of the computer you're on. And like I said, I'm on a puny little $300 "Best Buy Special" laptop, perfectly fine for updating my blogs and getting on Facebook and all the other reasons I bought it, but just barely able to handle Second Life in any way whatsoever; while the images above, for example, are all from $5,000 screaming fast gamer systems, which always make my jaw drop whenever I come across another one of them online. All of these particular shots, by the way, come from Linden's in-house Photo Of The Day blog, which I really encourage you to stop by and visit if you want to see some truly breathtaking screenshots from this infinitely varied digital world.

So like I said, when you first become a premium member anymore, the first thing Linden asks you is what kind of terrain you'd like your starter home to be in; and as you can see from the big map at the beginning of this entry, they're essentially including all of these terrains in one big "suburban continent" (which based on its size leads me to believe that this entire concept of a suburban starter-home continent is a fairly new idea). And so this basically creates these "buffer zones" between the terrains, which are exactly one server wide; and you can actually go walking through these buffer zones while you're there, like you're seeing in the above photos, which I find just really fascinating.

This entire suburban continent is now being maintained by a brand-new employee group at Linden, known in-universe as the "Public Works Committee;" and as you can see if you click through to the large version of the map screenshot directly above, obviously one of the perks of being in this employee group is that each of them gets to design one cool or funny thing to go on each of these buffer servers between terrain zones. So here on the server closest to my house, for example, is a humorous fake historical marker, supposedly honoring the slot where thousands of suburban home owners from my zone were once slaughtered by all the Asian samurai in the zone next door, just to have the entire zone abandoned again when the notoriously shy samurai discovered that none of the blinds in the suburban homes actually work. Cute, Linden, cute.

And then make a 180-degree turn at this monument and walk thirty seconds, and you're suddenly in the next major terrain zone of this continent, in this case the woodsy Asian setting previously alluded to. And as you can see, this works essentially just like my section does -- four or five homes to choose from, arranged closely together but not packed in, with a sort of basic infrastructure for at least moving around in the neighborhood.

So that's it for now from here in the heart of IKEAville; although the next time we talk, I'll have moved out of my starter home altogether, and will finally be on a much larger piece of land that will serve as my home, workshop and retail space. That's coming this weekend, as part of a huge report on how exactly one goes shopping for land in the Grid, so I hope you'll have a chance to come back again then.

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