cover_story (2007-10)

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Avatar :

Metaverse :

Noösphere :

Second Life :

The emergence of cyberspace will most likely have... as radical an effect on the pragmatics of communication as the discovery of writing.

You're not saving any princesses. All around you, the green, pixilated grass stretches out towards the horizon, where several tall buildings are uploading into view. First, the outlines of architecture appear as solid gray cubes, just before each minute detail slowly morphs into itself as the world is born onscreen. Soon there's an entire skyline.

The beauty of this world is only limited by the imagination. A woman walks by wearing an exotic bellydancer's outfit. She's being followed by a dapper fellow with a Fu Man Chu, who's sporting a nice, clean Steve Dahl-approved suit. Overhead, a colorful hot air balloon passes by, going nowhere in particular. There's Yoda. You're just here. Life, or so it seems----

A Quick Reference Guide

Avatar : A graphical image that represents a person online. It enters computer lingo by way of Hindu mythology, where an avatar is the incarnation of a god. Krishna, for example, is Vishnu's avatar.

Metaverse : A term lifted from Neal Stephenson's Snowcrash , which has entered geeky parlance to describe fully immersive 3D virtual spaces, such as Second Life .

Noösphere : Otherwise known as the "sphere of human thought." It was also used by the French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to refer to a transhuman consciousness. Simply the unification of all human knowledge.

Second Life : An internet-based virtual world that took off in 2006, when news stories began to appear to tell the tales of great debaucheries and voyeurism. 1,549,396 people have logged onto Second Life in the past 60 days.

What makes this game different from most computer games we've become addicted to ever since the days of the Atari and its seminal geekfest, Pong, is that just about everything--every character, building, even most of the terrain--has been created by the individual user, people just like you. Maybe it was innovative, back in 2003, when the San Francisco-based Linden Labs first opened Second Life , a bona fide virtual world, to the public.

There's a certain cowboy charm when your computer's jacked inside Second Life ; it's the belief that, if you hold the biggest gun or the biggest brain, you're going to go far, that you're still the master of your own destiny. This idea, this cowboyism, boldly assures you that you're going to make it in this vast untamed online wilderness, even if this space doesn't actually exist . If cyberpunk culture has taught us anything, it's that the future possibilities of carving a digital space of your own are limitless. You just need to know the rules of the game. The American Dream, for better or for worse, has gone digital.

"It's freedom," says Jay Roberts, owner of Epic Computing in Seymour. "If you're limited by any program, you can always write your own." Roberts is part of that next generation of cowboy, out surfing the Net to help distill random acts of knowledge into some kind of meaning. He's part of a complex web of users, even if he doesn't know it, the very same people that Second Life and other online communities hope to connect in some utilitarian way. Right now, maybe we just don't know where it's going. Not yet.

"We are the generation of nextness," Stuart Moulthrop writes in an essay entitled "You Say You Want a Revolution?" Moulthrop, a professor from the School of Information Arts and Technologies at the University of Baltimore, writes about the horrors of excess and sheer redundancy of technology run amuck. "If history is a nightmare," Moulthrop said at a lecture he gave last year, as a guest of UT's English department, "then technology is torment."

He added: "Now with 38% more nothing!" In short: There needs to be a revolution. "Electronic information," Moulthrop's essay continues, "may be rapidly duplicated, transmitted, and assembled into new knowledge structures. From word processing to interactive multimedia, postmodern communication systems accentuate everything the mind touches in its gnostic (noö) sphere...'"

For the online world, there is no supply curve, only demand.

It is the broadway, the Champs Élysées of the Metaverse. It is the brilliantly lit boulevard that can be seen, miniaturized and backward, reflected in the lens of his goggles. It does not really exist. But right now, millions of people are walking up and down it.

This passage, from Neil Stephenson's novel Snowcrash , describes a huge online world, where each person interacts via a digital body, or avatar. The similarities between Stephenson's imagined world and Second Life are striking. Of course, it's all part of the design, which Linden Labs based on much of Stephenson's hypothetical Metaverse.

"This is the New Media Consortium campus, which they had built on an island," says Chris Hodge, the coordinator for SunSITE (Sun Software, Information & Technology Exchange) at UT. He's brought his avatar to a section of the Second Life grid that's devoted to higher learning. "Here's the directory, there's the student center, plaza, ballroom, museum, amphitheatre. There's the library, which was pretty empty the last time I saw it.... They're building a hospital to do medical simulations."

Hodge, along with other likeminded folk at UT, says that their biggest challenge is successfully convincing university administrators that there is pedagogical value in games and simulations. The New Media Consortium, the space where Hodge's avatar is currently standing, is an amalgamation of academes. The land, an entire island on the Second Life grid, was bought solely through membership contributions. UT currently does not have a paid presence at The Consortium.

Founded in 1993 by a few hardware engineers, software developers and innovative publishers, The Consortium seeks to validate the wide-ranging possibilities of multimedia-capable products. Second Life , then, is just a part of their agenda. Its members now include more than 200 colleges, universities, museums and corporations (visit www.nmc.org ).

"I think a lot of our faculty here are very interested in collaborating with other faculty members at other universities, in the U.S. and globally, and having their students collaborate with other students," says Jean Derco, director of the Innovative Technology Center for UT. If a digital world like the one engineered by Linden Labs can ape just part of something as far-reaching as Stephenson's Metaverse, then it is indeed a powerful tool:

The dimensions of the Street are fixed by a protocol, hammered out by the computer-graphics ninja overlords of the Association for Computing Machinery's Global Multimedia Protocol Group. The Street seems to be a grand boulevard going all the way around the equator of a black sphere with a radius of a bit more than ten thousand kilometers. That makes it 65,536 kilometers around, which is considerably bigger than Earth.

"The Consortium relies heavily on digital media," says Julie Little, the associate director for the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative at UT (visit www.educause.edu/eli ). "More creative thinking and learning. They're really into the visual aspects of thinking and learning and technology.... Institutions are using these as extensions of the classroom.

"Not only might I meet the students face to face, but I might also have a virtual classroom, where other meetings can occur. So we, via a team project, or just speakers, or collaborations with other institutions that have a Second Life classroom, it could be an extension of the face-to-face classroom. We're also seeing it used purely as a representation of a classroom, so there is no face-to-face student experience. The classroom experience is occurring within Second Life ."

Real dollars are being exchanged to build this world. The Linden Dollar (L$), Second Life 's only form of currency, is currently valued at roughly L$270 to one U.S. dollar.

Like anything in Reality, the exchange rate of the L$ fluctuates daily. Linden Labs, in an attempt to keep their exchange rate relatively stable, will often buy or sell L$. As of September, 2006, Second Life was reported to have a GDP of $64 million, with as much as three million dollars changing hands in a single month.

Like any place in Reality, the Street is subject to development. Developers can build their own small streets feeding off of the main one. They can build buildings, parks, signs, as well as things that do not exist in Reality, such as vast hovering overhead light shows, special neighborhoods where the rules of three-dimensional spacetime are ignored, and free-combat zones where people can go to hunt and kill each other.

"We just had a meeting with some engineering faculties," Hodge says. "We talked about building models and simulations for real life scenarios. And I think that's a little ways off for us and for Second Life , but I think it has the capacity to support that. So it has a lot of different possibilities. What we're seeing more and more is lectures and presentations, and speakers, you can go in and it's like a videoconference. You just go in and watch."

"This is not a new phenomenon," Little goes on. "these kinds of spaces have been around.... Remember a little game called Oregon Trail ? The whole idea behind these ideas, it's about contextual-based learning. The students are given a set of variables, and with those variables, they have to make decisions. There are consequences; they don't always mean bad things.

"With Oregon Trail , if you made the wrong decision, you might not make it westward. We have seen a growth with these kinds of environments, where students enter into an interface on the computer. They have variables to work with, be it tools, conditions, or a social situation. Then they have to interact as a quote 'professional' or 'a participant,' and a professionally driven one, to make decisions about math, or politics or science. Really, the growth in this has happened over the last 20 years. As the computer technology has improved, computer power has gotten better, network has gotten better, and we've seen really powerful interfaces emerge, like Second Life ."

Universities, such as Ohio State, have created virtual campuses on Second Life . These are designed to accurately mimic the layout of the real life campuses. The idea, then, is to allow the virtual residents to explore college campuses without leaving their living rooms.

Everything is made to order, everything's prefabricated with a programming language called Logos. And everyone who jacks into this world becomes an author, as they actively direct the future of Second Life , no matter how subtly.

There's no shortage of digital worlds, either. Active Worlds , There , Entropia Universe , Dotsoul Cyberpark and Red Light Center all offer virtual residents an opportunity to trailblaze and forge their own e-destinies. The digital world, after all, is your world. Second Life only seems like a natural steppingstone. But towards what? Cue Stephenson:

Your avatar can look any way you want it to, up to the limitations of your equipment. If you're ugly, you can make your avatar beautiful. If you've just gotten out of bed, your avatar can still be wearing beautiful clothes and professionally applied makeup. You can look like a gorilla or a dragon or a giant talking penis in the Metaverse. Spend five minutes walking down the Street and you will see all of these.

An old cartoon by Peter Steiner comes to mind. It ran in the July 5, 1993 issue of The New Yorker . It read: On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog .

----You're walking down the main boulevard. There are scenic oceanside high-rises with luxurious Lamborghinis and concept cars parked in the driveways. Behind you is a large medieval castle, where the turrets proudly display Gay Pride flags. The discothèque is packed, giving real life DJs an opportunity to spin to audiences around the globe. You continue down the road, and Radio Radio, the official radio of Second Life, plays a soft jazz tune from a composer in Sheboygan, Wis.

There's a "For Sale" sign on an empty plot of land, just begging you to make something out of nothing. Hit the "Fly" button, and you take off, soaring through the heavens like Superman. It doesn't exist? That's a limited worldview.

It Takes a Thief...

The real kicker, however, is that this theft was completely legal, completely within the rules of Eve . On April 18, 2005, Mirial, the CEO of the Ubiqua Seraph corporation, a well-established and extremely wealthy group in this game, was killed. Her death contract was signed a year earlier when assassins from the notorious and deadly Guiding Hand Social Club began infiltrating the powerful organization. Every single hangar controlled by Ubiqua Seraph was raided and gutted. PC Gamer described the destruction: "Miral's ship was destroyed, her escape pod nuked and her vacuum-frozen corpse scooped into the cargo bay of a Guiding Hand Social Club vessel. This was the only proof their client had requested."

GHSC, by the end of the day, had pulled off the greatest heist in online gaming history. It was called an act of despicable brilliance. Yet for a game to be truly open-ended--for there to be any true measure of freedom--there must be a possibility for evil and cruelty. On gaming message boards throughout the Net, the common sentiment seemed to be that this kind of nefarious activity is what makes Eve Online so cool in the first place. Tell it to the Ubiqua Seraph corporation.

Real World Gaming

When playing Morton's List , there are 13 different themes that your "quest" can fall under, including but not limited to, chaotic, social, physical, spiritual, good and evil. All we know is that a 30-sided die is required (download one at www.niagara.com/~mcarter/rpgroll.htm ). Also, before anyone plays the game, an oath must be taken. Those who break the oath must be wary: Bad karma and unforeseen dangers await . Finally, someone found a way to combine computers and Dungeons and Dragons. Maybe it's a backlash against the addicting online games, as it forces participants to actually leave their living rooms.

It's not the first backlash, either. Darren Barefoot, a founding partner at Capulet Communications, a Vancouver-based public relations firm, created a satirical website called "Get a First Life." Eschewing the obligatory "Cease-and-Desist" letter, Linden Labs typed out a "Permit-and-Proceed" letter.

Get Connected

The site also features an instructional video, which was made by a fan and posted on YouTube.com. The name SpruzMe comes from the idea that they're "sprucing up" or making online community-building better for everyone. There are currently over 1,000 registered accounts. "If this catches on," Roberts says, "remember that it started right here in Seymour." Try it, if you haven't found enough ways to connect with other people online. It's free.

Gone Gaming

Online gaming was nothing compared to what it is today. There are kids in China making six-figures at gaming competitions. It only seems natural that online gaming has grown as large as it has--what's the point of playing these games if you never know who's the best of the best?

"We're doing pretty good," says Mark Waugh, the owner of Game Connection in Halls. "A lot of it has to do with the emergence of the live playing. It's different sitting in front of a game, and it's just you and the computer playing, or you and a friend. But now, you can play with up to 30 people, with people all over the U.S."

"It's its own community, I guess," adds Richard Young, who has been working with Waugh for nearly 20 years, back when Waugh owned a video store. "I think that's one reason it's really grown. What we're trying to tap into here is the online play. It is more of a community than it has ever been."

There are more than a dozen high definition TVs lining the walls of the Game Connection. Walk in on a random Saturday, and you're likely to see a birthday party, and each partygoer will be glued to a TV, trying to best all of his buddies in a battle royale.

"This is like a modern day arcade," Waugh continues.

"Look at the Play Station 3 or the Xbox 360, the graphics look real. It becomes more popular. War games-- Call of Duty , Halo , online games--that's mostly what people play. When you get in there, it feels like you're really in it.," says Bob Miller, the store developer. "People are now looking for new things--American culture is so inundated with so many things--they're looking for something to do for a little while to get away. It's just the way it is now. Whatever you find that you can isolate yourself for a little while, it makes everything okay.

"Some people drink, some people play computer games."

© 2007 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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