Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Mon 3 Mar 08 09:10
Our next guest, Wagner James Au, is the author of the recently released "The Making of Second Life: Notes from the New World," a book that explores the remarkable virtual culture and real-world economy that's developed through this wildly popular online entity. James has written about high-tech culture for more than ten years. He's been, at various times, a freelance reporter, a metaverse consultant, a game developer, a screenwriter, and since 2003, a white-suited avatar named "Hamlet Au," the first embedded journalist in a virtual world, a role he still plays on his blog, New World Notes (http://nwn.blogs.com). His work in Second Life has been cited or profiled in The New York Times, the BBC, CNN International, NPR, Wired, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, and many other publications and television programs. He also covers the game industry and online worlds for GigaOM.com. Originally from Kailua, Hawaii, he now lives in San Francisco, California. Jennifer Powell leads the conversation with James. Jennifer has been an inhabitant of the Internet for 15 years. She has a lifelong interest in community, both on the 'net and off, and has worked in hosting and management of online communities for many companies, including Netscape, ABC's Go.com, and AOL. Jennifer has also spent many happy hours - some might say too many happy hours - in multiplayer games such as Everquest and World of Warcraft, and in virtual worlds like Second Life. Welcome, James and Jennifer!
Jennifer Powell (jnfr) Mon 3 Mar 08 12:19
Thanks, Cynthia. And hello and welcome to my long-time online friend James Au. I'm really looking forward to talking with you about virtual worlds, which I know is a subject close to your heart as it is to mine. So, since some of our readers and participants may not have visited Second Life themselves, how about if we begin by having you introduce us to this new place. What will someone see and experience when they step into Second Life for the first time? What might a new person do there?
Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Mon 3 Mar 08 13:12
Thanks, Jen, great question to start out with. The first step is the hardest, because generally new users are teleported into an orientation island called Prelude, which is where they learn the basics of interacting in Second Life. After which, they're teleported onto the mainland to a beautiful courtyard Welcome Area, which is usually populated by volunteer greeters, and it's almost always a menagerie of longtime Residents in all their friendly strangeness: a vampire, a robot, an elf, a supermodel, a talking squirrel, and so on (and on.) Many users give up at this point, because the user interface is extremely difficult to learn, and the sensory overload coupled to a lack of game-like goals is overwhelming. New users ask, "What can I do here?", and the greeters cheerfully respond with variations of, "Pretty much whatever you'd like". Ironically, the freedom is probably the most daunting thing about Second Life.
Jennifer Powell (jnfr) Mon 3 Mar 08 16:07
A bit of jargon and info for our Hypothetical New User - the people you see in-world are called "avatars", and you too will choose an avatar, a graphical representation of yourself. Though if I recall correctly, the selection of avatars new people can choose is fairly standard and not too outrageous. But because Second Life is a world where people can learn to create their own graphical content, an avatar can be pretty much anything. When I first started in SL, I was very confused by the process of keeping track of clothes and "looks" that I had access to. I know there's at least one shirt/pants combo I used to have that I took off and never found again. But once you get past the organizational issues, I think that freedom to look any way you want is one of the things members love most about these kinds of virtual worlds.
Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Mon 3 Mar 08 19:52
Most definitely. I know a lot of Residents who keep dozens of different looks in separate folders in their inventory window (that's really the best way to organize things), so they can change their look/identity in an instant. (In inventory, you just click and drag a folder onto your avatar, and all the clothing items/hair/body characteristics "bind" themselves to your avatar.)
Jennifer Powell (jnfr) Tue 4 Mar 08 07:53
So, you step into your avatar and you arrive at the Welcome Center where there are lots of other people also walking around as avatars. But unlike in multiplayer games such as World of Warcraft, no one is there to give you a quest or a task like "Bring me 10 rat tails" or whatever. It's open-ended and freeform and you can do anything you want, well, within certain limits. Do you find that a lot of new people are confused by that and have trouble adjusting or figuring out how to fit into the world?
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 5 Mar 08 08:43
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Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Wed 5 Mar 08 11:36
"Do you find that a lot of new people are confused by that and have trouble adjusting or figuring out how to fit into the world?" Absolutely, the Welcome Area is ironically where most people who try Second Life leave, scratching their heads. The people who stay tend to be those who reach out and talk to the friendly robot or eight foot dominatrix or whoever that's lingering there in the courtyard. The veterans know where the great content and communities are, and a new user who wants a solo experience is bound to be frustrated. What's very interesting to me is that this Welcome Area experience has not changed much for five years, even though Linden Lab can see the poor retention rates caused by it. My belief is that this is fundamentally due to what inspired Second Life: Burning Man. CEO/Founder Philip Rosedale went there just as he was starting the company, and his big insight (as he tells me in the book) was how people at Burning Man were willing to go right up and talk with each other, no matter how strange or intimidating they might seem. Intentionally or not, the Welcome Area replicates that dynamic: If you're willing to get past your preconceptions and talk to Residents, you'll be shown Second Life as it really is. If you don't interact with the existing community, all you'll see are apparently empty buildings and bare landscapes-- the surface of the metaverse, the desert of the unreal.
Jennifer Powell (jnfr) Wed 5 Mar 08 13:32
I think one thing that might surprise someone who has never been in a virtual world before is how immersive the experience is, how much you in your real world respond to the virtual world as if it were happening in the flesh. I know that I, for example, because I am very nervous of heights, have a terrible time in any virtual world when I walk on small ledges or climb up high, flinching as if I really were standing over a canyon or the top of a building. It's extraordinary if you think about it. You mention this in your introduction, and say it's even been studied scientifically and found to be true.
Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Wed 5 Mar 08 16:20
Yeah, I referenced the studies mentioned in this Economist article. Though the scientists were using VR goggles, what's really interesting is they were creating an image that exactly replicates what people see when they use SL and most other MMOs-- looking over your avatar's shoulder: http://www.economist.com/science/displaystory.cfm?story_id=9682520 Dr Ehrsson and Dr Blanke wondered if they could design experiments that would induce complete out-of-body experiences in healthy volunteers. The answer, in both cases, was that they could. Dr Ehrsson did it by making his volunteers look at themselves from behind. He sat them in a chair and asked them to wear virtual-reality goggles, which work by projecting a picture in front of each eye... The subjects could thus see their own backs, in stereo, as though they were sitting behind themselves. Dr Ehrsson then tested how touch is combined with vision to locate the self. When he tapped his volunteers on their chests at the same time as he tapped the air at chest-height below the cameras, they reported feeling that the core of their identity inhabited the camera's position. They were, in other words, out of their own bodies, and they considered their real selvesseen through the gogglesas another person.
Linda Castellani (castle) Wed 5 Mar 08 17:57
I haven't been to Second Life, in fact I've only recently heard about it and would really like to know more, so I am avidly reading along. I wanted to address the issue of feeling what the avatar is experiencing. I hang out in a virtual world called IMVU, which is essentially a 3D chat with avatars and graphics and all kinds of things you can buy, places, to go and things to do, although I'm sure it's not nearly as sophisticated as Second Life. One time my avatar was visiting with someone else's avatar in a room with chairs in which we each were sitting. The chair includes a "pose" that your avatar takes on, and in this case, it was kind of a dejected pose. The avatars were slumped, one arm had an elbow on the arm of the chair, and the head rested in the hand of that arm. It felt kind of depressing and definitely boring. So I suggested we go somewhere else, and my host suddenly moved us to a world in outer space where we surfed on beams of light. Immediately I felt exhilarated, as if I were indeed experiencing the rush of surfing on a beam of light in outer space, all feelings of dejection and boredom suddenly gone.
Public persona (jmcarlin) Wed 5 Mar 08 19:48
I wonder if you would care to comment on my experience: A few months ago I wandered into second life just for grins. When I got to the Welcome Island I did not realize where I was and what was going on and assumed all the people there were old friends having a chat with each other. I did not want to break into the conversation so I started exploring other areas. I found the search function and wandered into computer vendor places since that's my work. In one place I got caught and had to crash my way out of second life; some bug I assume. I also explored art galleries and various structures some were quite good considering the limiting factor of a computer screen. One annoying thing was that I kept running into barriers that stopped me. I was and is not clear if that is just people having fun by keeping out the newbees or from a desire to have an in group with limited access or both. I found the interface so slow and clunky that it got in my way. I'd sit there and wait for the graphics to refresh. Maybe my machine is too old/slow (it's a few years old Dell), but the performance wound up annoying me. After a while, I had not found an interesting discussion group and so mostly lost interest. On the Well, I can have a rapid fire interaction with a number of people including the ability to be offline and catch up on the conversation when I return. Second life is or appears to be very ephemeral. I have the sense that if I really got into it, I'd find too often that the reality would be "it was a great party. Too bad you missed it".
Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Thu 6 Mar 08 15:03
That's a very typical experience. Think of it this way: imagine browsing the Web during the mid-90s, with no reference points, no working guidebook, and more problematic, without asking anyone for advice on sites to see. Your experience would have been pretty much the same, except in 2D. That's pretty much what dropping into Second Life is like now (though recently adding Google to SL's search function backend has greatly improved things.) That's why I recommend going in with a friend who's a longtime SLer, someone who can introduce you to his or her groups, show you their favorite sites. Even then, however, you do need to make that Burning Man social leap, walk up and talk to the supermodel with wings or the furry in powered robot armor or whoever. Generally they're fairly friendly if you're polite.
Jennifer Powell (jnfr) Thu 6 Mar 08 19:09
I've stepped into SL now and then, and wandered around, but not knowing people I never ended up staying very long. Then last year the folks from the DailyKos web site organized a virtual convention to coincide with the YearlyKos gathering. They arranged live video of various sessions and speeches, and had a go-between to relay our questions back and forth to the live conference in Chicago. It was really fun, and very different to be there with people who shared an interest. We'd sit around chatting (via keyboard) about the discussions, and because we were in another world we didn't even interrupt the real-time sessions going on. Then at night we'd go out ballroom dancing. It definitely makes a huge difference to have some kind of personal connection there.
Jennifer Powell (jnfr) Sat 8 Mar 08 09:07
When you think about how odd it can seem to step into an avatar and walk around a virtual world, it clearly takes a special kind of person to come up with the idea of creating that world in the first place. You describe Philip Rosedale, an original founder of Linden Labs, as just that kind of visionary. The team he put together struggled with a technology that was only beginning to be able to model their dreams. You describe the first creation as being only an ocean, and you say "In the beginning, all was without form and void." Do you think there was a touch of the god-like, almost messianic feeling at Linden Labs as they began to create a world from scratch?
Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Sat 8 Mar 08 11:45
Definitely with Philip, though not so much with the other top execs-- at the start, for example, VP Robin Harper saw it in line with Sim City and its many spin-offs, which she used to market, when she ran advertising for Maxis; Andrew Meadows and the other veteran programmers are more interested in it as a simulation/3D development platform. I'd say CTO Cory Ondrejka is in the middle of those two poles, idealistic about SL's transformative potential, though much more process and system focused than Philip. (Notably, Cory just left and/or was pushed out of Linden Lab a few months ago.) Also, far as "god-like", I don't think Philip himself wants to be the god of Second Life, just that he sees it as a means for human transcendence-- humans becoming godlike, by creating another world that mirrors the atomistic one. You see that at the end of the book, where he starts telling me what he sees SL becoming in the next couple decades, real visionary, transhumanist, escape-from-mortality kind of stuff. A lot of that I'm not sure I agree with personally, I'm probably more in Cory's school, but I thought it was important to put out there, so people get a sense Where This Is All Heading.
Jennifer Powell (jnfr) Sat 8 Mar 08 13:31
There are a number of things I had no idea about before reading your story, about the early days of Linden. One was that Second Life in the beginning was much more game-like, and more focused on sort of destructive activities, with using grenades to dig the ground, and having animal predators and so on. I guess that's not surprising since most of the virtual worlds in existence, even from the days of text MUDs and so on, were written as games. But as you describe the flowering of the creative side, the sandbox aspect that is what we know of SL these days, there are really some lovely images - like the staffer who built a giant, evil snowman and then someone else created a bunch of tiny snowmen to follow him around and worship him. It's such a perfectly human, whimsical reaction to what they were making.
Rick Moffat (rickmoffat) Sat 8 Mar 08 17:48
James, I've got a list of questions from reading your book, but they're unfortunately on my desk at work. I'll have some things to ask on Monday, but in the mean time, here's something that stumps me about SL (and about Entropia Universe, too). I can't find a way to ask this without sounding mean to both VW's. I've backspaced over a couple of attempts, but I guess what I'm wondering is why their worlds seem so technically primitive, and why they perform so poorly compared with mmorpg game worlds. I feel like I've just caught up technically with a machine that makes SL run at a somewhat-acceptable framerate, and it's a machine that could also play Crysis. It's not just a knock on SL, Entropia Universe performs poorly as well. I'll take a stab at some of the possible reasons, but I'm interested in hearing your take on it as well, and interested if you think SL is vulnerable to a competitor that can produce a polished VW sandbox. Factors that I see contributing to poor performance: First, with users able to build, the overall level of detail is much greater than an mmorpg, where the designers have a pretty good idea what the object max will be in a given area. Second, I'm wondering how extensible the SL codebase is, and how much they're just band-aiding things as the world continues to grow. Is there any talk of a SL 2.0? I'd be curious if the programmers chose paths early on in development that make things difficult to streamline now. It's not like you can just wipe out parts of the world to try new things, since users have put so much time and effort into building things. I don't know many hardcore gamers who can take extended trips into SL, so I also wonder about the denizens of SL. Clearly, the technical drawbacks don't affect them enough to keep them away, so maybe they're more oriented toward the social experience, chatting, building, things that don't require high performance. And maybe a lot of SL citizens aren't people who would enjoy an mmorpg, the structure of levels and classes and competition. If I'm correct in thinking there's a difference in what people want in a VW, between a mmorpg and SL or Entropia, maybe it's similar to the old MUD/MUSH division. Gamers played MUDS, social people played MUSH's. It's a generalization, but I suspect that one reason SL has never sucked me in is because I'm looking for an experience that isn't primarily social. I enjoy other people in MMO's, but it's not my primary reason for logging in. I suspect most people who stick around in SL are there for the community interaction. Hmm, sorry, there's a lot of thoughts in one post. I'm trying to get a kid to bed, or I'd break it into a few posts. Feel free to address things in pieces if it's easier!
Public persona (jmcarlin) Sat 8 Mar 08 18:04
> I feel like I've just caught up technically with a machine that makes > SL run at a somewhat-acceptable framerate I've been unable to find what level of machine I would need to have decent client side performance. I find stories like this one about performance but outside of the obvious "buy the fastest machine stuffed with memory" there's no good advice I can find. <http://secondlife.reuters.com/stories/2007/12/18/second-life-performance-impro ves-but-residents-dont-feel-it/> http://tinyurl.com/2vcaj3
Richard Evans (rje) Sun 9 Mar 08 04:20
Congrats on the book, James! I keep telling people that visting SL for the first time is like wandering around a foreign city: there is a lot to lok at there are people around but no-one is going to run up and invite you home for tea. Someone may invitie you out once you get talking to them, but that is an altogether different thing. Do you think people's expectations of immediate social contact in envioronments like SL has been shaped by things like myspace and facebook which not ony transfrom material contacts into virtual ones but are explcitly designed to make it easy to connect to others?
Rick Moffat (rickmoffat) Sun 9 Mar 08 10:38
"buy the fastest machine stuffed with memory" Yep, that's pretty much what I've got, <jmcarlin>. That's the only thing that made SL run better, and I didn't make one config change to the client this time. I just have enough CPU, RAM and video card memory to make things smoother. Areas still take a while to load, but once they've loaded, things are fairly smooth. I could race go-karts around a track and the performance was fine. I wasn't crashing into walls because of lag. I also experienced the dearth of information regarding performance in SL. The lack of configuration suggestions, or the lack of any real difference in performance after applying config ideas from people in SL, make me think that the average SL user isn't interested in performance. They're more interested in the social, business, and building opportunities than how quickly areas load, I'm guessing.
Jennifer Powell (jnfr) Sun 9 Mar 08 13:49
I wonder if it has to do with the fact that SL has to draw every specific polygon on the fly, rendering everything in real time. In games like WoW there are a lot of items that use the same models over and over so you can cache a lot of that information.
Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Mon 10 Mar 08 09:30
Yeah, everything in SL except your basic avatar is streamed, so there's gonna be a slight delay (or a longer one, if your broadband ain't great.) I think that's probably the biggest leap for people used to MMOs with all the graphic/audio assets stored on your hard drive. Generally if you wait a few seconds for a sim to entirely stream before moving around, you'll save a lot of frustration. I run it fine on my laptop. "I'm looking for an experience that isn't primarily social" That's probably a good distinction, yeah-- it's gonna take the upgrade to MONO and Havok 4 before SL really succeeds as a fully-outfitted game platform per se. There's some really interesting mini-MMOs in Second Life with their own game engines, but they still depend heavily on social gaming. Here's a great one called Midian, basically an interactive novel written on the fly by its 1800 members in chat: http://nwn.blogs.com/nwn/2007/12/the-storyteller.html
Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Mon 10 Mar 08 10:09
"Do you think people's expectations of immediate social contact in envioronments like SL has been shaped by things like myspace and facebook which not ony transfrom material contacts into virtual ones but are explcitly designed to make it easy to connect to others?" That's a good question, thanks. I think yeah, especially among the social gamers who comprise about 40% of the active users (by my rough estimate)-- the nightclubs, parties, etc., seem very much a virtual extension of MySpace-style socialization. They're the folks often pejoratively called "Blingtards" by SLers who are more into content creation/innovation. (Sort of like that MySpace versus Facebook socioeconomic rift danah boyd has talked about.)
Rick Moffat (rickmoffat) Mon 10 Mar 08 10:55
Could you define your "social gamer" for me? I'm trying to wrap my head around the differences between someone who logs into SL a couple times a week versus someone who logs into Eve Online or WoW, or more popular lightweight social/gaming spaces like Habbo Hotel. The only comparison that's working for me is the MUD/MUSH comparison, and I feel that's a decade old and not really accurate.
What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Mon 10 Mar 08 12:51
I don't have a specific question at the moment, James, but more of a talking point, and maybe you have thoughts in this vein, too. One of the things I value in your book is the in-world history. So much of what happens online is ephemeral, but it still can have profound consequences later for choices people make and for how they view new experiences or environments. So the fact that you're documenting (more or less) landmark events in SL stands to be important for understanding these spaces more generally in the future. Not very many people have done this sort of thing, it seems to me. (I can think of Julian Dibbell right off, and it seems to me there's somebody else who is just plain not coming to mind, and doubtless some I don't know.) So, there's a bit of history of Point MOOt that can be tracked down online, but nothing of MediaMOO, really. Morningstar and Farmer wrote some big articles about Habitat, but there's no real history of it. A few people have written about the Well, but there's no in-world history of CompuServ or AOL forums or Usenet News. And that seems a shame.
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