Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Build, Display, Entertain, and Live

These four verbs explain the rationale for minors spending their hard-earned allowances on owning virtual real estate in Teen Second Life, the new supposedly child-safe offshoot of Second Life, a massively multiplayer online role-playing environment. The socially immersive Second Life graphic environment offers powerful scripting tools from which one can make digital objects in the online world, the ability to fly from place to place, and opportunities for do-it-yourself virtual community building from the State of Nature up.

Those who haven't been following the Second Life phenomenon (which is still dwarfed by online giant World of Warcraft, where millions of virtual political subjects engage in medieval fantasy play) might not be aware of how its series of disconnected free states represent experiments in civic organization oriented around new ideologies of object permanence in cyberspace.

Some of the governance attempts to create utopias for political activists who may be frustrated by real-world authoritarianism. The most ambitious laboratory for a would-be virtual nation-state is probably Democracy Island, where government entities and interest groups can have online space for rule-making exchanges. There are also local sites for real-time political occasions in Second Life. For example, you can hear a general counsel from Creative Commons speak or attend a an activist event and art happening for digital rights sponsored by Free Culture. It is interesting that personalities associated with the creative commons movement feel compelled to present avatars that approximate the general appearance of their real world public personae.

That doesn't mean that there isn't any Hobbesian skepticism in this virtual State of Nature. There is also political and legal conflict in Second Life. Readers of the Second Life Herald know that there can be real-life suits over virtual real estate deals gone bad. Those same readers also know that life as a muckraker can involve taking on gangsters and corruption. Of course, one contributor to the periodical, Marsellus Wallace, doubles as both correspondent and a mob boss.

The darker side of Second Life can present a pretty bleak existential landscape. Those who abuse their cyber-privileges may find themselves subjected to the cornfield punishment. Those who want to engage in more psychically twisted virtual tourism can visit a mental health clinic in Second Life and see the schizophrenia simulation that was initially developed as a training tool for health care providers by Janssen Pharmaceutica.

Of course, there's plenty of commerce going on, as labor is combined with digital raw materials in the Second Life world. Tringo, the game within a game in Second Life, has apparently found a real-life online market among casual gamers for its combination of Bingo and Tetris. Certainly, the space is being used by business professors and advertisers, and now even some companies are building virtual corporate headquarters for their time-shifting global workforce. For example, from a session on Corporate Opportunities for Multiplayer Games, which was associated with the Massive Games conference here at U.C. Irvine, I learned about how the Aerospace Corporation is building a "work-safe" project on Chatsubo. Apparently, Linden Labs, the corporation that runs Second Life, largely manages their experiment as a corporate-friendly, laissez-faire model. Nonetheless, they do have economists on staff to make sure that the currency remains stable.

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