Sunday, September 19, 2010

Creating a Life in Second Life

Second Life (SL) is a virtual world with more than 2 million inhabitants. Have you wondered how presence and identity in a virtual world might work? This course will go through everything from avatar (the virtual representation of you) creation to buying land and starting a business. We'll look at how to be in Second Life, and look at examples spanning from virtual art to real business.

What is Second Life?

Second Life (SL) is a virtual world developed by Linden Lab that launched on June 23, 2003, and is accessible on the Internet. A free client program called the Viewer enables its users, called Residents, to interact with each other through avatars. Residents can explore, meet other residents, socialize, participate in individual and group activities, and create and trade virtual property and services with one another, or travel throughout the world (which residents refer to as "the grid"). Second Life is for people aged 18 and over, while Teen Second Life is for people aged 13 to 17.

Built into the software is a three-dimensional modeling tool based around simple geometric shapes that allows a resident to build virtual objects. This can be used in combination with the Linden Scripting Language which can be used to add functionality to objects. More complex three-dimensional sculpted prims (colloquially known as "sculpties"), textures for clothing or other objects, and animations and gestures can be created using external software. The Second Life Terms of Service provide that users retain copyright for any content they create, and the server and client provide simple digital rights management functions.

More on What is Second Life

Virtual Worlds....What's the Deal?
Virtual worlds are three dimensional mediated representations of spaces and places that are distributed and stored over the Internet. Virtual worlds are shared or single user and are persistent (meaning the contents do not disappear when the user logs-out, but rather continues to change and develop). The social aspects of virtual worlds are important, and Second Life is perhaps the most social or all the virtual worlds.

Scalable City; an example of a virtual world as an artistic project. Scalable City creates an urban/suburban/rural environment via a data visualization pipeline. Each step in this pipeline builds upon the previous, amplifying exaggerations, artifacts and the patterns of algorithmic process. The results of this are experiences such as prints, video installations and interactive multi-user games and virtual environments.

Throughout these artworks, a variety of computer concept buzzwords take on physical form. Wallowing in them provides equal measures of delight and foreboding, creating a vision of cultured forms that we are rapidly creating. The project neither indicts nor embraces this future, but offers an extrapolation of its algorithmic tendencies, heightening one's awareness of the aesthetics of the underlying logic as it becomes the determinant of much of our cultured existence.
A virtual world can be many things. A book can be a virtual world, as can a game, a nightclub or a favorite holiday spot (e.g. Disneyland). The specific type of virtual world we are dealing with in this course is:

* Online: therefore it is shared by multiple users, is social with potential for economic and and commercial applications.

* Persistent (it does not close down just because you log off)

* Embodied (spatial, temporal, designed) in that it occupies a conceivable arrangement of space and time (usually similar to the one/s we experience in day to day life here on Earth)

* Enables user creation (you can make and change stuff in it) and is therefore a source of and a site for artistic endeavor.

* Is three (and often two) dimensional and therefore navigable (i.e. ‘you’ can move around)

* Avatar centric (you need some sort of representative construction to interact in and with the world) and these avatars are mini-worlds in themselves often involving in more complex worlds such as Second Life scripting, costumes, media and gestures. An avatar can be defined as “the “object” representing the embodiment of the user. The term “avatar” can also refer to the personality connected with the screen name, or handle, of an Internet user.” (Wikipedia)

* Often simulative which allows for many users beyond the purely social, artistic or game orientated. A virtual world with simulative capabilities can be used for business (advertising, product research, branding, opinion), academic research, experimentation and activism.

A number of themes emerge in relation to virtual worlds. The blog Massively was set as a text for this lecture to give some idea of the scope and dimension of contemporary Massive MultiPlayer Online (MMO) worlds in terms of culture and development. The themes which emerge from the Meadows readings that I want to discuss today are:

* Point of View
“These dimensionally different avatars have dimensionally different points of view, too, each giving a different perspective on the narrative in which they are involved. This is an important distinction and allows for a kind of taxonomy for avatars.” (Mark Meadows, I Avatar, 20)

Perspective in multimedia 3D virtual worlds is not just visual but is created from audio, architectural, spatial and of course visual elements. Being able to detach hearing from the avatar and have it attached to the camera and then zoom around in the space while the avatar interacts at ground level through chat or voice is one example of the complex assemblage of perspectives that is possible in some MMOs. Point of View, as Meadows suggests, is very interwoven with concepts of identity. How identity is formulated with the multiple possibilities for presence in MMOs is a large area for consideration.

* Real/Virtual
The popular distinction between ‘virtual’ and ‘real’ can be confusing and even misleading at times. The extreme sense of realism that is possible with rapid digital media technology has created the conditions for a range of descriptions concerning ‘virtual reality’, ‘cyberspace’, the ‘blogosphere’ and so on. These terms suggest that when people interact with these media they go somewhere else. This is clearly not the case, and the fact that people need to have a well grounded understanding of contemporary culture and media to enjoy such media as Second Life suggests that they are not leaving reality when consuming them. Computer games, online worlds and others in which avatars are important, communication in real time and environments immersive, should be thought of as mediated experiences.

Examples which provide insight into the tensions between the concepts of real and virtual include:

* Virtual Money: Money exists in Second Life and other MMOs. Objects in world can be brought and sold. Wages can be earned and services paid for. Real people make real livings from working in world. An example of how virtual property is treated as real is a Dutch teenager being arrested for allegedly stealing virtual furniture from "rooms" in Habbo Hotel, a 3D social networking website. The 17-year-old was accused of stealing 4,000 euros (£2,840) worth of virtual furniture, bought with real money. "It is a theft because the furniture is paid for with real money" Sulake spokesman BBC

Second Life has its own economy and a currency referred to as Linden Dollars (L$). This economy is independent of the Pricing, where users pay Linden Lab. In the SL economy, residents buy from and sell to one another directly, using the Linden, which is exchangeable for US dollars or other currencies on market-based currency exchanges. Linden Lab reports that the Second Life economy generated US$3,596,674 in economic activity during the month of September 2005, and as of September 2006 Second Life was reported to have a GDP of $64 Million.

In 2009 the total size of the Second Life economy grew 65% to US$567 million, about 25% of the entire U.S. virtual goods market. Gross Resident Earnings are $55 million US Dollars in 2009 - 11% growth over 2008.

* Cybersex: Sex is a major theme in many adult MMOs. Sexual interaction is common in Second Life with systems of etiquette in place regarding behaviors. Redlight Center is a MMOs built specifically for sex play and interaction.

* Global Culture
Perhaps one of the most interesting things about the current MMO phenomenon is the globalized culture which is emerging from it. Using MMOs teenagers are able to communicate with other their own age from across the world. It is now possible to visit simulated environments from history and the great capitals of the world. Millions of people visit MMOs every day, often they communicate with other people.

For more on Virtual Worlds see Eleven Terms You Need to Know to Talk Virtual Worlds

The word 'avatar' has many meanings. For the purposes of today's discussion, avatars are the physical representation of a person in a virtual world. In three-dimensional virtual worlds avatars can take numerous forms:

People and Their Avatars, from the book, Alter Ego: Avatars and their Creators by Robbie Cooper.

The avatar is the central point for life in a virtual world. An avatar (अवतार, from the Sanskrit word for "descent") is a computer user's representation of himself/herself or alter ego, whether in the form of a three-dimensional model used in computer games, a two-dimensional icon (picture) used on Internet forums and other communities, or a text construct found on early systems such as MUDs. It is an “object” representing the embodiment of the user. The term "avatar" can also refer to the personality connected with the screen name, or handle, of an Internet user. Avatars as extensions of people is illustrated by this program about virtual adultery and Second Life. Most people who are serious about virtual worlds treat avatars as people.

Starting Your Second Life
Once you have created an account in Second Life and claimed an avatar, you need to begin exploring this new world. There are different ways of doing this. I spent my first months in SL (in mid 2006) simply wondering around, sometimes walking for miles, flying over oceans without any idea of where I was going. I had no home and knew nobody. I visited empty mansions, attended film screenings, went to parties, took part in political protests, went to discos, just missed concerts by U2 and Suzzane Vega, made friends, and eventually got a job. Once I started working in SL I began meeting lots of people and making firm friendships. I got a job as an English language guide at the embassy of Sweden in SL, The Second House of Sweden. Around the same time HUMlab, where I work, brought a small parcel of land in SL and I began managing it as a space for art and research. This was the beginning of a serious involvement with SL that still is ongoing. I would like to describe a few of the stages along the way for deeper involvement in Second Life, and virtual worlds generally.

The Social
Making contact with other avatars is important if you are to find a 'place' for yourself in SL. I have met people in SL based on what they are wearing, the name of their avatar, or both being confused and lost in the same place. Be ready to talk to people. When I started in SL it was just chat, but now there is voice. The social side of SL cannot be ignored if you want to start a life in world. Find places and people who share your interests. Create a avatar profile that suits how you want to project yourself.

The profile is a way for other avatars to find out who you are, what you do, what you are interested in. The other way of providing information to others in world is through calling cards.

A calling card is an inventory-only item which is basically a shortcut in one resident's inventory that points to another resident's profile (when double-clicked). A calling card can be given by right-clicking an avatar and then selecting More -> Give Calling Card from the pie menu. If the other avatar accepts, the calling card will then appear in their inventory in the "Calling Cards" folder.

Calling cards are different from friendships in that one resident can give another their calling card without receiving one. Also, calling cards do not show if the resident is online (unless that resident is a friend) or allow tracking the resident on the world map. Calling cards of residents not as friends will not show up in the friend window either. Adding someone as a friend also gives their calling card automatically.

Calling cards are useful in that they can be used as a calling card in real life is: to remember the name of someone met. Calling cards can also be sorted into folders and then everyone in a folder can be IMed or sent items. Calling cards are also a good way to get to know people without allowing them to be able to track a resident on the map or see when they are off/online (but they can still see off/online status from the search anyway).

Fashion is very important in SL. Your avatar must look like s/he has some sense of style. This is most often linked to who you are, what you like, how you see yourself or how you would like others to see you. Not changing your avatar will lead others to assume you are either new, or not interested in the medium.

Property, Building and Ownership
In order to build in Second Life, or to have a home there, you have a couple of options. The easiest way to build things in SL is to use sandboxes. Once you have built something you can click on it and select Take and it will be kept in your inventory.

A "sandbox" is a parcel of land which has been put aside for practicing building. Much like real sandboxes and the concept of sandbox games, creativity and chaos tend to emerge. Several sandboxes exist for specific purposes — such as the Weapons Testing Sandbox — but the majority of sandboxes are simply for regular building.

Signs within each sandbox area make it clear what's allowed. Sandboxes usually have autoreturn enabled to clean themselves several times a day, so before building, look for info so you aren't caught by surprise. Since sandboxes are experimental, they may also be unstable — be sure to regularly take Inventory backups of anything that's important.

For more on Sandboxes see the Linden Wiki.

Once you have perfected building and have a group of friends you may make the next step and purchase a property in SL. This requires a payment and then a monthly fee (Tiers). Tier is not the land itself. It's your potential container to own land. Think of it like this: each land parcel is a toy block like Lego (larger parcels are bigger blocks), and tier is a box. Buying land "fills the box with blocks". For more on land tier see the wiki.

Once you own land you can build and you may want to create groups in SL. Groups are important. A group in Second Life is an organization which consists of at least two Residents.
Groups get a moderated group chat, at least two (and up to ten) roles with different abilities and are able to own land and items. Members in special roles can send notices to all group members and can create proposals where others are able to vote. Any Resident can be a member of up to 25 different groups. You can distinguish two types of groups which are
  1. Open group (might have an enrollment fee)
  2. Closed group

You can easily join open groups by searching them and pressing the Join (L$X) button in the groups info tab. In case there is no Join (L$X) button at the info tab of the group you're looking for, the group is either a closed one and you can only join when you got an invitation, or you are already a member of the group.

Working in Second Life
Once you have taken up a permanent residency in SL you may need to find a job there is order to keep up payments on your house and land. There are many types of work in SL but they can be broken down into two basic categories, (virtual) goods and services.

Making things and selling them in SL is just like the equivalent in the physical world. Cars, clothes, buildings, wigs and countless other objects are created by residents in SL and sold or given away to other residents. One thing that is not found in the physical world that are a popular consumable in SL are skins. Skins are the appearance of the avatar in terms of texture, proportions, body features and markings. Skins are made by residents and can be brought to customize the appearance of an avatar. Goods are brought and sold in SL and (for the moment) on the Xstreet market place (which seems to be closing on 6th October). Payment for goods in SL can be made in Linden Dollars or in national currencies, often using Paypal.

Services that can be payed for in SL include
Pay in SL tends to be fairly low. However, high end production of such things as skins, hair and scripted objects can cost quite a bit. Building is also a well payed occupation if you have some skill.

For the second part of this workshop we will go through some of the points raised above for each participant. By the end of the session you should be better equipped to live in Second Life.

1 comment:

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