The Personalization of Second Life

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by: Gary Hayes

What is driving the current shared, participatory virtual spaces?

Giving audiences seemingly unlimited personalization and social structure, means big business, if it can be contained within a walled garden where everything you do is chargeable. A phenomenal strategy driving all web 2.0 services at the moment. Second life now with 200 000 plus subscribers and generating around $US80k per day is the current best of breed in the VR arena. Is it though about money, social change, virtual sex or a reflection on RL (real life) societies need to truly escape? I have been immersed in the environment as a property building resident recently to see how things have moved on since VR shared space projects I was involved in over ten years ago and various points between then and now.

When I first got into the ‘web’ in 1993/4 or so I created a homepage, stuff all about me, my partner and my life. Then I discovered that you could share that and meet like minded people just by cross linking or via cool, representational facades. So I was one of the first residents of Cybertown in 1995 a fictional ‘online’ city that you occupied and content from your homepage was ’sucked’ in. (Homepages BTW for those who have forgotten were basic blogs – especially if you refreshed your content with life ’stuff’ every few days). In Cybertown you could decorate your ‘flat’ a little with an occasional picture, but apart from the live forums it felt more like an offline environment – you left messages for others, retrospectively shared links and pointed people at your content. I joined and then left several other virtual reality variants like this over the coming years – it was just too time consuming to manually build up your profile though constant interaction and regular visits and the environment, although at first exciting, soon waned and paradoxically became two dimensional.

I joined a small team at the BBC working on many cutting edge projects – even now not realised. One of the first from this ‘multimedia centre’ (12 of us) was a collaborative project with BT labs, Sony and a design company called Illuminations. The project called ‘The Mirror‘ was a virtual world, six of them in fact, we also had video streams delivered to the different areas to draw people around the large screens to provoke semblances of focused and collaborative interaction. From the digispace article on the project…

This was perhaps the very first time that a prime time TV series was mirrored with live experiences in a virtual world. The figure below (above) shows a scene from the Memory world, where viewers donned avatars to view and share commentary on the 1966 World Cup (of soccer) final match. The match is being beamed an image at a time onto a screen inside the virtual world. The BT team that put this project together shares a vision I have had for years, that of making our favorite films, books, and TV media inhabitable.

You can imagine what the quality of the experience was like in 1996, VRML’s manifestation then was still very poor especially on dial-up, but all the right motivations were there with the project – to stimulate interaction, provide focus in an alien environment and collaborative creation. A little later at the BBC Imagineering dept where I was for several months, we created a range of VR properties, many looking forward to the AI component added to VR environments. Several looked at shows based around viewer created artificial life, re-rendered to super high filmic cg quality, others were about feeding the 1st world into the VR spaces to draw the UK together without geographical barriers. (The BBC recently pumped some fetival media into Second Life BTW – ZDNet article).

So 10 years on, after ‘existing’ in World of Warcraft and Everquest for a very short spell, where are we. I found the forced narrative and allegiences too daunting in many MMORPGs and as in earlier vr worlds wanted to be given more of a blank canvas to express and represent ego, and alter ego. So after a proper false start with Second Life a year or so ago I thought I would jump in. SL is a mac and pc friendly application that needs pretty good bandwith and graphics to run well – I found that more than 10 people in a shared area chocked my pathetic Australian 512k connection, but it is far more than the technical boundaries of course. I had a go with Second Life when it started but is was far from populated and I was busy (not the best combination). Now things are a little more active as you can see when you fly around the ‘google earth’ equivalent inside the application and see all the ’sims’ (land) that have been built on, it truly feels like a alternate world/life. I signed up again (in fact twice) and bought land for both avatars, then built, shopped and met like minded people. The interesting thing about SL (how we residents refer to it, RL is where most of the world is -still) and other virtual spaces – is it is like some kind of organised religion, existing participants do get rather evangelical about the whole thing. After being sucked into SL for a while I can see how/why the Linden Lab folk (the engineers and businessmen behind SL) have built three interesting social calls-to-action, that compells a high level of personal time investment (and associated money). These are my perspective as some folk are happy to pop in, take part in events and chat once a week and nothing else – in terms of developing the SL community, just like real life.

The first of these is appealing to your sense of belonging. If you join as a free member your profile shows it for all to see and I was surprised with my second avatar early on how differently I was treated from being a resident. Various SL mentors (sort of big brothers or rather helpful avatars providing orientation) and other quirky characters do the land hard sell -teleporting you to various dodgy plots and offering them at discounted rates (while we are on this subject, real world lawsuits are being brought out for SL property disputes – see this Wired article from two days ago). Other folk are kind of Stepford Wives and Mormon’esque in how they talk about SL. This of course may be an anomaly, but any organism needs to grow and the more land buyers in SL the more likely a point of no return will be met – strength in numbers and dollars. So you need to have a place in SL – or you are drifting, a vagrant hanging out in other avatars pads and there are certain things you cannot do if you are not a resident, naturally. Of course your subscription will jump up to $15, $25, $40 per month depending on the size of land in sq meters – and the land fee to our friends at of anything from $30 to $1500 and beyond. It is worth taking your time looking for a good spot, I flew around for hours looking for good neighbourhoods, good views, investment for the future and uniqueness. Distance is no object (you teleport everywhere) so look for spots reasonably developed otherwise you may end up surrounded by large buildings filled with porn or dodgy aircraft dealerships! Buying an island is an option for $1k US but not for most. USC Student Mike Shannahan had this to say in his student blog on the socio-economics of SL.

Maslow and other intellectuals explained that motivations of the human subconscious are predictable, and that we often are in one of 5 states of emotional maturity. On a base level, we are fight-or-flight creatures with a need for physical safety. Next we need shelter, such as a cave. Then we need food and water. After that, social needs, such as love and status dominate the human motivation scale. At the highest level, we search for meaning of life or focus on helping others as a selfless humanitarian. Second Life has allowed this behavior to emerge in its system through the virtual home. As was discussed earlier, the cyberspace inhabitant desires to work in a physical space with familiar environments. On the base levels, SL satisfies the human needs through the exemption of physical harm- the game won’t really hurt you- and the virtual home. The virtual home provides the cave that our base instincts desire. We own the land and the house and we hoard our resources in them. Instead of floating through the intangible cyberspace, we can relax and anchor ourselves in the familiarity and physical security of a 3D home.

Second is peer-pressure (which includes building up your profile, social ratings, and addition to SL society). The other kind is simply just “keeping up with the Jones’s” – you fly around (yes you can fly in SL, I find it better to use a jetpack as the built in flight speed takes too long, anyway) as you fly and look at all the other wonderful creations (98% of SL is built by its subsribers) you realise you have to do more than stick a box on the beach and add a couple of chairs and tables. – so you ‘must’ buy a house, furniture, landscaping, toys, media devices, carpets and ideally personalize all of these. You can build houses in the sky or underground too – which I have done and make them look like anything from fantasy castles, spaceships to boring old mansions and contemporary villas. This is virtual reality after all. This became the most fascinating aspect (after the social uniqueness) – how addictive the personalization element is. I can add any texture to any object on my ‘parcel’ (land) alter all the dimensions of the objects and generally import media for the outside (ok – the web url world, which feels like the outside bizarrely enough). I have my own pictures, music and films running on video screens inside and outside the house and on a small cinema I have also set up. (Personally I feel now pulling in 1st world photorealistic images into 2nd world VR breaks the fourth wall – I prefer anime, CG shorts or machinima of the world itself – in fact highly rendered cg films work great in this enviroment).

You still have to buy pre-made stuff though unless you want to become a 3D artist and that takes even more time! The various vendors inside SL that you browse in scarily real world type malls and stalls, range from cheap and cheerful to quite expensive. It is also obvious that if you do enough exploring and you can find most things free in containers lying around (this is only bits of script after all!)…but I decided to splash out on a nice grand piano that actually plays and a couch plus a few works of art, most everything else apart from a few buildings were free. The tools inside SL are a bit clunky to do major customisation, even repositioning items in rotated super-structures is a chore but re-texturing and object mods are easier. You can build from scratch using the normal 3D primary elements, but best to leave that to those who have time (to make money here) and buy their creations for equivalent of US$0.05 to US$3.00 at the top end. So yes, you have to make you place look presentable SL has set some high standards in exterior builds and interior design – you can peep inside residents houses, but beware of alarms and script bouncing! This land and the increased subscription for land ownership is the major spend inside SL. Everything else is now down to normal social rules – “go here it is great”, “wanna join my party?”, “I’ve got one of these, you should too”, and associated minor spend economics. Business Weeks article entitled “My Virtual Life” points out that all this time consuming, hard work by creative users is an opportunity in itself.

After all my travels around Second Life, it’s becoming apparent that virtual worlds, most of all this one, tap into something very powerful: the talent and hard work of everyone inside. Residents spend a quarter of the time they’re logged in, a total of nearly 23,000 hours a day, creating things that become part of the world, available to everyone else. It would take a paid 4,100-person software team to do all that, says Linden Lab. Assuming those programmers make about $100,000 a year, that would be $410 million worth of free work over a year. Think of it: The company charges customers anywhere from $6 to thousands of dollars a month for the privilege of doing most of the work. And make no mistake, this would be real work were it not so fun. In Star Wars Galaxies, some players take on the role of running a pharmaceutical business in which they manage factory schedules, devise ad campaigns, and hire other players to find raw materials — all imaginary, of course.

All this has some companies mulling a wild idea: Why not use gaming’s psychology, incentive systems, and social appeal to get real jobs done better and faster? “People are willing to do tedious, complex tasks within games,” notes Nick Yee, a Stanford University graduate student in communications who has extensively studied online games. “What if we could tap into that brainpower?”

Thirdly. Things to do – part of the attraction for me is the fact that you have to create your own narratives in SL, personalize to the Nth degree. Nothing happens unless you decide to make it happen. As it says inside one of the help areas inside SL “this is not a game, more an area to ‘play” – we all know web 2.0 based entertainment is going of course. Here there are events, clubs, places to explore, lectures, screenings, shopping, thousands of people to meet and do things with – while we are on that subject lets get this out of the way. We are all aware of the numbers of avatars cuddling, fondling, gently prodding each others bits of code, and likely in RL imagining what it may be like to do whats on the screen, perhaps (will leave the deeper meanings to those who think they know). Yes virtual sex/relationships may be the biggest driver of SL but are there other more esoteric areas to explore? I may be unique but I am more interested in the utopian fantasy of using worlds like this to create a better RL world and associated leap in consciousness. I have joined in a few house parties and been to some lectures but their doesnt seem to be just yet a threshold of social engineers balanced against those after a weird time. Speaking to other avatars it becomes clear that every type of persona is represented. Those who simply are lonely in RL and want any kind of contact and speak as the RL person while walking around as a tiger, those who are just living out a deviant fantasy (sexual or representational), those who are truly role-playing and atttempting to create a parallel world and then there are the researchers. Yes I am surprised in how many academics I bump into, all beavering around for some morsel for their next paper – I sometimes wonder if SL is full exclusively of PhD folk and overweight coders – that opinion has been expressed several times to me inside SL.

OK – I realise that this post is turning into a ramble but I will conclude with a few where is this heading points. I just met a computer scientist from San Francisco wandering along on a coastal path in SL. She said that this truly feels like the beginning, the personalization, the ability to create a world from scratch, without the limits of a so called professional guardian calling the shots. We talked about the quality of the experience, how theatre and machinima is very difficult, but we agreed things have started inside SL. It is a real shame that it may get way too expensive to get the several of millions that would really make SL kick off in a big way. Basic membership should include a small 256sqm plot of land on which minor builds can take place. Surely 10 million times $10 is better than 200 000 times $25? On a final point a friend of mine who is also setting up a mini empire inside SL talked about the strange feeling when I wanted to meet him inside SL. It suddenly dawned on me that these enviroments really are private insights into someones alter ego, what they would like to do free of the contraints of the ‘mundane?’ real world – the pictures here for example is one of my avatars and my house/s. (This may be breaking SL etiquette, but it seems fine to bring RL into SL?). Another person from Tokyo I met spends hours fine tuning her cat-like appearance, choosing better skins (the default avatar shapes and skins are considered second class) others simply gender shift, constantly change clothes, subtley enhance their muscular or large chested representation (dull), others become automaton or animal or spirit – and quite a few are pioneering new forms of participation. Great fun. The big lesson here is give people inifinite possibilities for free personalization and like flickr, youtube and real life they will get addicted and happily look the other way when those micro payments come their way.

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