Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Dance Clubs, Indians and Porn Stars

For me, first logging into Second Life today was akin to stepping back a few years to visit an old neighborhood and finding it mostly unchanged but somehow even smaller and seedier than I remembered. I've kept accounts in Second Life during my final year of college as I was working on my undergraduate thesis on the Avatar and revisited it for various classes at Georgetown, but I've never been very interested in the world for my own pleasure. I've been an inhabitant of virtual worlds most my life, from the chat room and message boards of Mummies Alive role-playing that I lived in during middle school, to the fantasy world of Asheron's Call, to the space-sim of Anarchy Online, and now to the plains of Azeroth in World of Warcraft.

But those worlds satisfied many needs for me, often dependent on the era. My middle school role-playing group used the simplest of text-based communication systems, but they were the closest to virtual friends that I've ever made--I connected to this small community through email, message boards, chat rooms, and the exchange of stories and images generated among ourselves: this was our own virtual world. Since then, I've mostly entered virtual worlds as a participant in someone else's story rather than as a creator of stories--Asheron's Call and World of Warcraft use the model of telling the player the story rather than having the player tell them. Second Life, on the other hand, is a world without story.

New Beginnings and Snobby Indians

Unfortunately, Rathera Quasimodo, my old Second Life alter ego, has wasted away with the past year's neglect and I can't pull up the email account to get her back. Undetered, I decided to start a new avatar, this time tied to the Dreamlands world instead of beginning in the dreary commercial environs of the Second Life mainland. My new character is Wistfully Iwish, a pale red-head with unnatural coloring. After picking up a few boxes of free clothing, I ran into my first Second Life native, a man fully decked out in a Hollywood style Indian outfit. His presence inspires me to put together something besides the basic shirt and jeans combo, and in a few seconds I'm working my way towards looking out of someone out of a Forever 21 catalog with a barely-there top and pants that would only stay on in animation. I at least surrender the urge to try for a Jessica Rabbit look. Strangely enough, the Indian still declines to speak with me. Clearly it's time to fly to more welcoming places.

I pass over one area that looks lusciously decorated only to be ejected immediately after I started taking advantage of their pool--apparently it's not a public one, though what harm a virtual swimmer can do I still don't know. But the Dreamlands is filled with opportunities, and so soon I found myself at a seedy looking hotel, Club Tropics. There were a few people there, but they seemed to be engaged in the type of activities that don't invite interruption, so I left them undisturbed. Walking around the exterior of Club Tropics I get a message from a nearby object: Wistfully Iwish feels a sudden urge to go dumpstering. Well, I can't say that I've ever felt a great need to go dumpstering in my life [antiquing, maybe, but I'd like to think that's a bit higher on the scale of desperation.] Nonetheless, I went over to the dumpster past the Sesame Street lookalike and picked the ever-so-attractive menu option of "dumpstering."

A few minutes later I had myself a genuine "Rolexxx." Just the thing to add some spice to my outfit put together from the free clothing castaways in the newbie area. Clearly, I need to get a job: I can't spend the rest of my life--even my Second Life--living off other people's castaways. Still, I decided to dig a bit more in the dumpster, and came up with a chair and a bar stool, both of which I'm still carrying in my inventory--though where my avatar finds the space I have no idea.

Moving further around the virtual world reveals that everyone here is involved in the spending of money. I'm confronted with one storefront for what seems to be virtual sex toys. The owner of the shop is dressed only in a batman mask and cape and wields a virtual phallus--custom made, no doubt--as he plays virtual pool and awaits customers or companions. I'd like to ask him about his profit margins and customer base and the realities of life as an online virtual merchant, but he seems more interested in the prospect of animated cybersex, and I move on with a quick teleport.

It's All About the Money

Unfortunately, getting a job is easier said than done. I went over to the Second Life Newspaper Office, but the application on the desk informed me that they wouldn't take anyone who was under 30 days old. Clearly, this new character was underqualified; a shame, since I've always wanted to write for their Red Light section. They did point me to the SL classifieds, but I can't afford the body I'd need for dancing in this universe, and that seems to be where the major market is. Nowhere is there a listing designed for sarcastic wallflowers. So much for that.

But I do know of a much less lucrative way to make money off of dancing with far lower entry requirements, so I headed to the Black Pearl Mall. The Black Pearl Mall is an imposing structure filled to the brim with new body parts, slutty outfits, and skin lightening and tanning agents of all kinds. The mall is not like one of the commercial areas one reads about in the economics journals and newspapers covering Second Life: this is definitely part of the less talked about adult section, with everything dedicated to making your avatar more attractive.

Already there were a number of avatars gathered, most absorbed in the constant task of putting together outfits and updating their image. A few other poor souls were already taking advantage of the various low level money earners, dancing on the paid dancer circles or sitting on one of the pay out benches. I found myself a spot on a dancer circle that pays out at $3 for twenty minutes of dancing, and went at it. The strangely hypnotic dancing of an animated being wears thin after a while, though, so I only made it up to a meager fortune of $3 before I left in search of more interesting diversions. A fan took pity on me and bestowed a folder of more appropriate clothing, so I too took on the task of avatar editing, making myself a new outfit from the scraps I'd been handed.

Dancing Through [Second] Life

I've left the realm of Forever 21 and moved to something that's more of a crossover between Hot Topic and Victoria's Secret. I've matched my clothing to my hair and created an image that's perfectly Not Me, which is something I've always thought is important around here--unlike the Real Me, my avatar is definitely set to hit the club scene. But it's been too long since I've traveled these worlds and I don't know where the action will be. Thankfully, the map search engine will point one anywhere [and I do mean anywhere--do a search on Sensual Stoneworks and say hello to the gargoyle if you don't believe me, but don't say you weren't warned.] A search for "club" gives me a long list of options, and I'm not sure where my pseudo goth newbie avatar is going to blend.

I picked one at random, Club Jenna, and ended up at pornstar Jenna Jameson's virtual dance club. There was a large concentration of people gathered to enjoy the DJ, who seemed to be live and was continually reminded the audience that he worked for tips. After crossing DJ off my list of possible Second Life occupations to pursue, I headed in to enjoy the dancing. For a while all I did was bump into walls, as the server struggled to load the fancy club environment around me. Flying made the problem even more noticable, as I hit obstacles that for all I could tell didn't actually exist. But after a long struggle, I was on the floor with a crowd of people gradually resolving into unique forms and wrapped up in their dance.

That is, if you could even call it dancing. I suppose it's a vague approximation of what goes on at a club: I wouldn't know, I've only been at a Salsa club the once, and after that lead to one of the worst heartbreaks of my real life I have no desire to repeat the experience in virtual. But here, no one dances together, and the beat of the music doesn't seem to have much effect, so it doesn't seem like anyone's at much risk of falling for someone's virtual flair and smooth moves. It's like watching a bunch of generic hip hop background dancers move in vague paralell on a dark and unimpressive floor. Virtual dance doesn't strike me as much of a contest to the real thing, and yet there are dozens of people in this one club alone--not to mention on the nearby Dance Island, which I visited and left quickly.

I think I'd rather not spend any more time in *this* life dancing by myself, so I leave the club and its world behind for today. I don't think I have many of the motives that might drive one to spend time in Second Life. Companionship? I don't have enough time to spend with everyone I'd like to in the real world as it is. Love? Sex? I'll stick with reality on those, thanks.

And as for dance? Well, I'd rather dance with a partner, with hands and body providing a connection I can touch without feeling the plastic keys of a keyboard.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Textual Memory

I've spent the last two days exploring an new Facebook application, Visual Bookshelf, that's been surprisingly apt at triggering my memories: all it is at heart is a database for storing all the books I've read, but it's given me a different way to think about my reading. I have an easier time remembering those books that I devoured in youth than the books I've read over the last few years. Of the hundreds of titles I've uncovered just wandering about and trying to remember my past favorites, most are picture books or children's fantasy novels.

Perhaps the most disturbing part has been trying to recognize the covers that I remember so clearly in the modernized rereleases of most of the "classic" children's books--though that's at least more heartening than seeing other books I grew up loving, like The Last Elegant Bear and Amy's Eyes, that have fallen so from the world that even Amazon can't bring up an image of their covers anymore. Some of the titles leap to mind as I delve further into the virtual bookshelf, like Dragonsong or The Power of the Rellard. I remember little stories... like trying to find my own copy of The Power of the Rellard after checking it out of the library almost constantly for years to read the story of a crippled girl who comes into tune with a strange natural force. I finally asked one summer at a used book store in California if they could hunt it down, but before I talked my parents into forking out the fees for the search I happened across the book in a remainder bin at a Books a Million of all places. [This was before the days of point and click used book internet surpluses, which have sadly made great quests for a remembered book obsolete].

There are books just beneath the surface of my memory that I still can't find, like a series of science fiction novels involving a girl and psychic struggles that I could have sworn was by Anne McCaffrey or a story of a rat living in the sewers with a matchbox for a bed...

Then there are the books long forgotten that suddenly emerge full-thrust into my brain at the sight of the cover unwittingly pulled up through the library's recommendation feature, like Mrs. Piggle Wiggle and Mr. Popper's Penguins. How could I have forgotten those? I must have read them each more times than any book I've picked up as an "adult." Or what about The Cricket in Times Square? When I saw the picture of the cover of that story--a cover that was so perfect it's been spared the changes of time--the big city adventures of Chester the Cricket and Tucker the Mouse seem like they were part of my life only yesterday.

There's some memories that are so old I didn't know I still could call them up: like my old school addiction to John Bellairs's children's horror novels, long forgotten. I stopped reading them years and years ago when I read one called "The Eyes of the Killer Robot" and couldn't get the memory of the robot out of my head. I hid the novel under the sink downstairs so I wouldn't have to keep it in my room, and I never read them again. With a click of a mouse I can have another copy sent to me...I might cave to that particular impulse. I'd like to know why it left such a mark on my psyche.

The pictures come to my mind and disappear faster than the search engine works. I find myself wishing for a search engine that would let me type queries like "that book with two women, one a mage, one a warrior, sworn to the same bloodoath quest in a strangely dark universe that bears no resemblance to Xena, Warrior Princess, I swear." I'd love to put my own memories on a data network in searchable form, and figure out more of the patterns of the memory. I'd like to see the day of reading books hidden in my texts through class after class that links a glimpse of a familiar pattern of equations with Raistlin Magere's haunting golden hourglass eyes. [I went back to visit one of my science teachers from middle school and to judge their science fair a few years back. She still remembered me as the girl she constantly caught reading books during the lecture. Eventually she'd given up on stopping me.]

I found the Anne McCaffrey science fiction novels only because the cover--The Rowan--hasn't changed. I still can't remember what happened within them, even though I must have read them all a dozen times and even checked out the books on tape over and over again. The covers tell me absolutely nothing, just beautiful women sitting alone in graceful poses on each sequel, looking defiant and inscrutable. Another remembered story I may have to visit as an adult.

When old stories come through my dreams each night I never know where they come *from*, but I sometimes feel the threads of old stories--of mice come to life and organized for battle, of children hiding in libraries, of closet doors that contain whole worlds. I know there was a book where a boy ordered mail order wings. He painstakingly assembled them and flew across the world only to learn that the price of wings was gradual transformation away from humanity. [This book I still can't find, much to my dismay. When armed with neither title nor author, I can't even expect the "Visual Bookshelf" to be of much use.] There was another book about a girl captured by another Indian--I suppose the PC term is Native American, back when I learned it we still said Indian--tribe who runs back across the country to her own people. That book I found--Naya Nuki, Girl Who Ran. I don't think I have it anymore, though I remember where I got it, in the small children's section of the UCSD bookstore. These stories, of escape and flight and transformation, these still shape my dreams.

I recognize the fragments even though I've long forgotten the whole.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Where Everyone Can Be A Hero

When I started out playing my first Massive Multiplayer Online Game, Asheron's Call, my immediate family bought three copies: I was in high school at the time, and my parents and I decided to move from Diablo-esque games to the big time. We weren't alone: my cousin, uncle, and aunt all joined up too. We occasionally teamed up with other players, people who weren't members of the Salter clan, but mostly these games became our family past-time. They live far away in Florida, so actually seeing them often would have been quite a feat while a weekly (or more) night of Asheron's Call--and later Asheron's Call 2, Anarchy Online, and now World of Warcraft--is much easier to arrange. We’d started as single-player gamers exploring dungeons alone, and now, with the rise of virtual worlds, we could suddenly be heroes together. The Salter clan could be a team ala The Incredibles.

Watching the media discovering the virtual worlds of Warcraft and Second Life, it’s easy to think there’s something very new going on in this world of massively multiplayer gaming. Actually, these ideas are as old as the Internet itself (which is to say, not very old at all). The predecessors to these fully three-dimensional environments opened the door to more unassuming worlds, first constructed only from text and ideas. These games, Multi-User Dungeons or “MUDs”, still exist today: you can log in and join a social world building stories of fantasy and conquest. But these worlds, and the object-oriented dungeons—MOOs—that followed them never gained popularity outside of small niche markets. Those were games for geeks and nerds, the sort of person who builds his own computer and goes to sci-fi and fantasy conventions. It wasn’t until the descendents of those games, now with flashy graphics and fully realized elf-babes, that the idea of playing in a virtual world became “cool.”

My Virtual Worlds article continues here on CinCity2000. We just wrapped up our video gaming week on CinCity. Current virtual world speculation includes some concern about the bottom line: following on the trend of Web 2.0 the Financial Times proposes "Economics 2.0. Of course, sex and gambling are the foundation of this new economics--which emphasizes if anything how far we haven't come. However, Noam follows the common trend of looking at Second Life first and foremost just when many investors are starting to come to terms with Second Life's flaws as the forerunner of a digital age--The Boston Globe writes about the rats jumping the virtual world ship in the article "Second Life's allure fading". This comes at a time when even narrative media is attacking the dark side of virtual space, as with Law & Order taking on real world crimes stemming from a Second-Life style universe