Friday, May 20, 2011

On declaring one's RL gender

Permit me to point you at a fascinating and informative exchange in the SL Universe forums, on whether and when to declare one's RL gender in SL.

I'll have to come back to this later.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

WoW: Getting started

This is the first of a series of pieces about World of Warcraft for beginning players, or readers who might be wondering if it's for them.

When you sign up for WoW, you create an account (username, password and profile as usual). This account is not yet a WoW character, it's just Blizzard's introduction to RL-you. You may have up to fifty characters per account, with a maximum of ten per server.

The first question when creating a character is "on which server?" (This section is dull but of great significance.) Unlike SL which is one single contiguous world, there are hundreds of duplicate WoWs, and you can only interact with avatars who are on the same server as you. The practical consequence of this is that if you wish to join WoW to play with friends who are already there, you must find out the name of their server. (My Alliance characters are on "Kul Tiras EU," for example.) But there's a catch: the "EU" in the servername stands for Europe, and you won't be able to sign up there unless you entered the Internet from a European IP address. (To be clear, this applies only to creating characters, I was able to play on my European servers while in New York.)

A further complication, or enrichment, is that Alliance and Horde cannot communicate with each other. Your Hordie rogue cannot betray her comrades by sending their battle plans to your Alliance paladin (and that example is, of course, exactly why Blizzard enforces this restriction). Guilds too are faction-specific: either Alliance or Horde. Given, therefore, that your Allies and Hordies will be separated anyway, you should take advantage of this to create them on two different servers to have the maximum number of avatars available to each: my Allies are all on Kul Tiras EU, my Hordies on Arathor EU.

If you are joining friends, then clearly you choose their server, otherwise have a look at Warcraft Realms' information about the US or EU servers. What you should look at is first the language (if EU), secondly whether PvE or PvP, and thirdly the number of avatars in your chosen faction: if you are picking a server for your Horde characters, then choose one which has a largeish number of Hordies already registered. You need at least six thousand characters in your faction to find a dungeon group without waiting too long, and* in order to have a functioning economy in the server's auction house** (more on these in later posts).

Having got this far, you now face more interesting choices: your faction, race and class. If you are joining friends, then you'll need to be the same faction as them, otherwise you'll find that one faction appeals to you more strongly than the other. Go with that feeling. For example, I'm a natural-born Allie, even when playing a Horde character I feel like a double-agent spying for the Alliance.

Races (human, tauren, orc, night elf etc) are faction-specific, e.g. if you want to be a goblin then you have to be Horde. As a beginner, there is no particular reason to choose one race over another (other than to be in the right faction and class, see below) so choose an appearance that appeals to you. (Speaking of appearance, visitors from SL will be disappointed by the paucity of choice. You can change the style and colour of your hair later on in the game, but your name, gender, skin tone, facial shape and ears are fixed permanently at this stage.)

Classes (hunter, priest, mage, warrior etc) are race-specific: e.g. if you want to be a druid, then your choices are worgen or night elf (Alliance) or tauren or troll (Horde). This is probably the most significant choice you'll make, as the class of your character determines what xie can do and how the rest of the world will interact with hem. Let me take this opportunity to introduce the WoW Wikipedia and in particular its fulsome and excellent Newbie Guides. I strongly recommend that you read the Character creation guide at this point.

That'll do for now. If you have any questions, feel free to mail me at wol dot euler at yahoo dot de.

* Updated: dungeon teams are one of two exceptions to the rule that you can only talk to characters on your own server. They appear to be drawn from all servers in your language and domain (EU or US).

** Updated again: realm size alone doesn't guarantee a good economy. There are currently 6930 Hordies registered on Arathor, and its auction house is sluggish; but the 5709 Allies on Kul Tiras support a thriving AH. It's a mystery.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Reading list

I've been doing quite a bit of reading about virtual worlds over the last few months. The focus has mainly been on SL and WoW, but some general/theoretical stuff crept into the mix. For now, it's just a list of names; I will come back and annotate them later.

Here's the list, in the order that I read them (or will read them, for those yet unread).

Tom Boellstorff, Coming of age in Second Life

Edward Castronova, Synthetic worlds: The business and culture of online games

-- , Exodus to the virtual world: How online fun is changing reality

Janet H. Murray, Hamlet on the holodeck: The future of narrative in cyberspace

Zach Waggoner, My avatar, my self: Identity in video roleplaying games

Bonnie Nardi, My life as a night elf priest: An anthropological account of World of Warcraft

Ken Hillis, Online a lot of the time: Ritual, fetish, sign

T.L. Taylor, Play between worlds: Exploring online game culture

Celia Pearce and Artemesia, Communities of play: Emergent cultures in multiplayer games and virtual worlds

William Sims Bainbridge, The Warcraft civilization: Social science in a virtual world

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Reconsidering WoW

Being a cheap and lazy way to create another post in the series on World of Warcraft.

Aggers: So how have you been lately?
Wol: Busy as hell. I realized yesterday that I hadn't looked at facebook in a week
Aggers: Ok in yourself?
Wol: Middling
Aggers nods.
Wol: Tired, on a deep-down level. Not body, soul tired
Aggers: I understand
Wol: It seems everyone wants something from me, and I'm late with them all
Aggers: Nothing new
Wol: And all that I do goes wrong
Aggers: Ha, you too?
Wol: I'm making so many mistakes, forgetting so many things
Aggers: I always do, I put it down to age
Wol: Well, I didn't, and it worries me.
Aggers nods
Wol: Some of this is from being absorbed in WoW (confession time)
Aggers: Oh
Wol: I play nearly every night, at least 12 out of 14, after leaving SL. It's addictive
Aggers: 12 out of 14 what?
Wol: Nights, sorry
Aggers: Right. Thought you meant hours!
Wol: "Just one more quest" --- ha! No, that would be too extreme. I haven't yet missed work because of it
Aggers: Truly
Wol: But it is cutting into my sleep time and my everything-else time too
Aggers: No wonder you're tired
Wol: Yeah. That's the truth of it. I'm having something of a break this weekend, reading instead.
Aggers: Good idea
Wol: She said as she danced in SL.
Aggers: Do something different, break the monotony
Wol: The addictiveness of WoW is in the figuring-it-out challenge. It's a black box covered in un-labelled buttons and you have to work out what they all do. It's totally engrossing
Aggers: What is?
Wol: WoW
Aggers: Oh. Thought you meant your Mac :p
Wol: heheh. And there is actually social life there, I was wrong in that post about WoW, but it's all in guilds. Your guild is your tribe, your friends; them you chat with. Everyone else is a stranger to be ignored
Aggers: I see
Wol: But mostly just hello and congratulations (as one moves up the levels and completes quests)
Aggers: The team ethic
Wol: Yeah. Every time you do something right, it's announced to your guild
Aggers: And if you do something wrong?
Wol: If you do something wrong, you die :) but that is mercifully silent
Aggers: Ah. Well, at least you don't get called a prat
Wol: Ah, wait for it :)
Aggers: Uh oh
Wol: *Unless* you die while fighting as part of a group, because the odds are that your death will weaken the group and get them killed too. There is much prat-calling in that case. And worse, much worse.
Aggers: They revive you and take the piss?
Wol: The social ethic of WoW is "12-yr-old-boys in a tree fort". That gets kinda tiring
Aggers: Hm, not me for sure
Wol: Well, not all and not all the time. I'm in a good guild, there is little insulting done there. The tone is calm and friendly
Aggers: What is a guild exactly?
Wol: A guild is a formal group of people who join together for socializing or for organized fights. We have a permanent chat channel that only we can hear, in addition to the public channels and direct IM
Aggers: Ah, sorta like a clan in Final Fantasy
Wol: Yeah, I guess so. There are levels and hierarchies and points within the guild structure. You advance in the guild by doing good things, and as you do so your guild itself advances in the rankings of other guilds, bringing advantages in combat or in banking
Aggers: I see. And is there an end product?
Wol: Not really, no. The game changes direction as you progress in it. At the beginning it's you against the game, mostly fighting alone against single monsters
Aggers: Sounds like a typical MMORPG
Wol: Well, it is a MMORPG :)
Aggers: That's why then
Wol: But there are changes. At level 15 (of 85) you can take part in player-against-player combat in "battlegrounds": timed combat exercises, alliance against horde, with objectives to be met. Like "first to control all 3 bases", or whichever side has the most flags planted at the end of 10 minutes
Aggers nods
Wol: At level 70 there is another kind of combat available where you fight in groups against enormously strong bosses
Aggers: Vehicles?
Wol: Most races only ride animals, but dwarves and gnomes can make vehicles. Steampunk, very clunky
Aggers: Ah, not modern weaponry then?
Wol: Oh no. Mostly hand-to-hand combat with swords or axes or maces, except for the wielders of magic
Aggers: Was confusing it with... another one whose name escapes me
Wol: No, this is mystical/mediaeval/olde worlde stuff
Aggers: So it's like Neverwinter Nights sorta thing?
Wol: Possibly :)
Aggers: Mm, sounds like it
Wol: Yes, looks very much like that (google images)
Aggers: Use the Force Luke
Wol: Reminds me of something else: the camera position is fixed on you. You can't cam out and look around corners to see where the monster is hiding, which is sensible, but you also cannot change the camera position to get a decent screenshot of yourself. If you get close enough to see facial detail then you can no longer see your legs
Aggers: Oh that must be a pain
Wol: Yes!
Aggers: No snapshots then?
Wol: Yes but with this restriction. Your neck is always the centre of the image, however you rotate or zoom it
Aggers: Bugger. Definitely not as good as SL then
Wol: Different, very different. In some ways superior, actually. The graphical quality of the environment in WoW is great, because it's all made by experts.
Aggers: Unlike the Lindens :)
Wol: No, unlike *us* :) That's the point. SL is all homebrew, made mostly by untrained amateurs. This house of mine is pathetic, really, as a piece of virtual world archtecture
Aggers: I like it
Wol: It's nice because it's mine
Aggers: Right
Wol: But it is crap compared to the works of AM Radio
Aggers: Not right
Wol: All of WoW is made by people like AM Radio, whereas most of SL is made by people like me
Aggers: Well so it should, they get paid for it. You don't
Wol: Mind you the avs are inferior visually. Their appearances really suck if you're used to the avs in SL. And the body shapes are pitiful. You cannot change your shape at all, except by being male/female or a different race. Every male human has the same body, as does every female human
Aggers: Right. Boring
Wol: The faces are different (there are say 12 types) and there are maybe 10 hairstyles in maybe 10 colours each, but it's all the same body.
Aggers: No personality
Wol: mmhmm. And the players see it that way too. They talk about their "cartoons" not their avatars, certainly not about "themselves". When I talk about what my av is doing, I say "me". They say "he" or even "it"
Aggers: Of course :)
Wol: Not of course, aggs, that's the point :) We do that because we are in SL. They use their avs as tools, they do not *inhabit* them (by and large, I'm sure there are exceptions)
Aggers: And to me that's why SL is far better
Wol: Right, agreed :) but it is better in this particular sense
Aggers: Hm
Wol: I read a book called "My life as a night elf priest", about WoW, which Tom Boellstorff recommended. Very good, well writtten, instructive, thoughtful
Aggers: Not THE Tom Boellstorff?
Wol: Yep
Aggers: Who's he?
Wol thwaps you
Wol: One of the first and foremost theoreticians of SL. A sociologist, wrote "Coming of age in SL"
Aggers: I apologise profusely
Wol: Which is the go-to book if you want to start thinking formally about the meaning and nature of living in virtual worlds
Wol smiles and kisses your cheek
Aggers tingles

Wol: Anyway, Bonnie sees it the other way, since she started in WoW and then went to SL later on
Aggers: Bonnie?
Wol: Bonnie Nardi, the author of that book. She was disappointed by the crudity of the visual environment here
Aggers: Ah
Wol: The other thing about WoW, thinking further, is that there is no lag because it's all on your hard disk already.
Aggers: Well that helps
Wol: Playing WoW starts with a > 6Gb download :) Even if you bought the cd! But after that the network traffic is really minimal because there is no user-generated content
Aggers: Thats a plus
Wol: You need to get well over a hundred avs together in the same city before you see any slight deterioration in performance
Aggers: So you kill the orc before he kills you
Wol: Right, and you see him in full textured colour, not as a grey mass
Aggers: Well the orcs i know i wouldn't want to see at all

Monday, January 31, 2011


I was thinking about art in SL, specifically sculpture/installation art, and wondering why it works. This came up when I sent somebody a snapshot of Bryn Oh's lovely and poignant Rabbicorn; we started talking about what it was that our typists were looking at.

That it does work is pretty obvious, the success of Burning Life* and many inworld galleries and artists make that clear. A significant minority of SL residents regularly travels to remote sims to experience these works for themselves; as a percentage I'd guess that it is far higher than the prevalence of habitual gallery-goers in most of our RL cities.

But why do we do this? When our typists view 2d art in SL, or a snapshot from SL in Flickr, they look at a pixelly 2d representation of a 3d place. When we (avatars) travel to that sim and stand in the sculpture and look around us, our typists look at: a pixelly 2d representation of a 3d place. There are lovely machinima of all these pieces online; we could see the piece in comfort, without lag or other people standing in our way, with a soundtrack and sometimes commentary, without leaving our digital homes.

The reason is the immersive experience of being somewhere, the experience of moving and seeing in a 3d volume in real time; at least for those of us who do live in SL. Our typists are looking at a monitor, but we are living in a world. The monitor is just a tool in that process, in the way that somebody walking the fells would probably not describe their activity as "reading maps while wearing boots and a raincoat."

It would be instructive to find out how many of the regular visitors to SL art would self-describe as immersivists; I'd guess we are by far the majority.

* yes, I know the Lindens dropped out and forced a name-change. I can't remember the new name. Shoot me.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

More about SL and WoW

I've noticed another great and I think significant difference between Second Life and World of Warcraft: Connectivity and the context of my identity.

SL is a single, continuous, large world which is distributed in small pieces across many hundreds of servers. Each server holds a unique portion of the world, and all avatars can move freely between all servers. IM communication works across servers, you can speak to your friends regardless of where you or they are.

WoW is more like a set of parallel universes: it is a relatively small world which is duplicated identically on many hundreds of servers. Each shard contains exactly the same physical world and the same storylines, with the same monsters lurking in the same places and the same NPCs giving out the same quests. An avatar is restricted forever to one single shard, and can only interact with avatars who reside there. ("Forever" is a relative term: you can apply to have your avatar moved permanently to another server, but it's a one-way process that takes a week and costs a month's subscription fees.)

Because the WoW servers are discrete (unconnected), it suffers from the same disadvantage as OpenSim: your character and your identity exist only on a single server, and nothing prevents a malicious person from creating an identically-named character on any other server. This has obvious consequences for your reputation: how would you explain that the person creating havoc under your name in a sim you've never visited is not you? Why should you need to explain this?

RL deals with the problem of non-unique names by creating artificial identifiers (passports, drivers' licenses and the like). Websites like Avatars Online represent an attempt to achieve this by letting people declare all their identities in one location. Perhaps OpenSim needs a similar kind of central registry?

This isolation of avatars from each other has always struck me as the great weakness of OpenSim. Why would I leave SL, where my friends are, where (as a builder or musician or maker of clothing) my possible audience and visitors and customers are — to move to a place which has none of those? I don't believe that people enter online virtual worlds in order to be alone; certainly the majority doesn't, and the evidence of SL is that those who remain alone usually drop out fairly quickly.

That is different in WoW because the game environment keeps you busy: at lower levels, most races and classes don't need other players to interact with. You can't get far into the game without joining a guild and taking part in group battles, but there is no other need or reason for sociability there. And indeed there is no sociability to be had.

In other news I picked up a WoW special-issue gaming magazine in the airport on the way to Canada, and read some more background about the various races and classes, and have made yet another character: a human paladin. From the description, they can play the healing role that appealed to me, but also have combat abilities that the priests are lacking. I'm currently trying them both, and will decide soon which character will be my "prime."

Thursday, July 22, 2010

SL meets WoW, both survive

It is probably hideously presumptious to make statements about World of Warcraft on the basis of fourteen days' experience (and three characters none of which has yet passed level 11) but that's exactly what I am about to do. As always: IMHO YMMV. If your mileage does vary significantly, please tell us about it in the comments (or on your own blog and comment the URL).

I've been playing WoW for a fortnight now, having discovered a free-trial offer CD in the local computer store, and have noticed a few instructive similarities and differences between it and Second Life. First, "playing" is the right word to use. Anyone who is uncertain of whether to call SL a "game" should try WoW, the difference will be instantly clear. WoW is a game, people enter it in order to play a predefined set of actions according to a predetermined set of rules in a packaged environment with readymade avatars. SL is a world, people can do anything and everything in it, there's even a near-equivalent of WoW available inworld.

The graphics of WoW are (shall we say) disappointing to eyes accustomed to the glory of SL. Imagine viewing SL scaled down to 32k colours on a screen 100 by 150 pixels, that is roughly how WoW feels to me. It's low-rez and low on physical detail, the avatar mesh in particular is extremely crude compared to SL's.

The avatars are only slightly modifyable: you can select between a dozen skin colours, hair styles and colours, and facial tattoos/makeup — but that's it. The body shape is fixed, and laughably unrealistic. I've made three characters, all female because I simply could not stand to look at myself in one of the male bodies. You spend just as much time looking at your own back in WoW as you do in SL, and I just couldn't take those shapes seriously as "me."

I've spoken before about the standards of politeness, helpfulness and generosity that exist in SL. These are unknown in WoW. Newbies are treated as scum, requests for help or information are either ignored or trigger floods of invective. I think this is because of the competitive and combative nature of the game, my belief is that people feel that helping others would disadvantage them (though in point of fact there is no race to be won, and no shortage of monsters to slay or treasure to win). Updated: age is another factor in this, there is no "teen grid" in WoW. The battlefields are full of children, who act with all the subtlety and fineness of discrimination that one would expect.

There is no conversation in WoW. Starting a sentence with "hello" is socially unacceptable, people react as though you were wasting their time with worthless crap. It's an amusing paradox that I felt that there was more conversation in Dragon Age: Origins (which is a single-player CD-based offline game) than in WoW (which is online with other live humans). People don't talk in WoW. They offer to sell or buy, they ask for volunteers to join them in slaughtering this or that group of monsters, but that's it. Many people don't even bother to say "ty" when you heal or bless them.

Executive summary: It's different from, and in many ways it is inferior to, the visually and socially glorious world that is Second Life; but WoW has an attraction and an appeal of its own. I'm hooked and I will be going back — to both.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Not-human avatars

I was surprised and amused by the amount of difficulty I had in breaking this topic down into categories that made sense. It started out as a short discussion of furry, but I realized I had to explain that, and then to explain the difference between a furry and a realistic animal av, and soon found myself accelerating backwards at great speed.

There's a distinction to be made between several overlapping kinds of not-human representations in Second Life. (In my taxonomy, nekos and vampires and others of that ilk are differently-human rather than not-human, and are a separate topic for another day.)

It is easy to tell the difference between a representation of a black-and-white alleycat and a representation of Sylvester, the would-be nemesis of Tweetiepie. It is rather harder to explain the difference between that representation of Sylvester and a representation of a gryphon: neither of them has a biological existence in RL, but Sylvester is a caricature of a well-known RL type whereas the image we have of the gryphon is a serious attempt to make sense of the descriptions handed down through explorers' tall tales. And what then to make of the distinction between an avatar based on the canonical cartoon images of Sylvester, and a home-made furry cat avatar? Is the attempt at realism (in replicating the well-known cartoon image) to be considered differently from the furry-av-builder's act of imaginative invention (which may result in a figure that would pass muster alongside Sylvester in a TV cartoon)? Very tricky.

Nonetheless, on we go. This needs to be posted before I go to work today, but I'll come back and polish it on the weekend. Comments, suggestions and counter-examples are welcome.

I want to suggest that there are two basic classes of avatars: realistic representations (human avs that look human, four-legged tigers, faithful recreations of mythological beings or characters from popular culture) on the one hand and abstracted, anthroporphized figures on the other. This is not to suggest any kind of valuation between the classes or their subtypes.

RL animal avatars are biologically realistic*: they are quads (or have two legs and wings), their body shapes and faces are realistic in shape and size, and they usually can perform the RL-appropriate sounds and animations.

Mythological animal avatars are mythologically realistic, as it were: fauns stand upright on cloven hooves and have little horns, werewolves howl bloodchillingly and can stand upright or run on all fours at will, gryphons are quads with extra wings, dragons have scales and enormously long necks, etc etc.

The distinction between these types and those that follow is in the avatar builder's intention: the first two attempt to reproduce faithfully a well-known image, whereas the next types are imaginative and abstract.

Furry avatars are not biologically or historical-mythologically realistic (though they may be pop-culturally realistic as in the case of Sylvester). They can be thought of as cartoons or as caricatures of animals: like cartoon figures, they stand upright and have mobile hands, their heads are set atop their necks and usually have human attributes (e.g. binocular vision, whereas most animals' eyes are set on opposite sides of their heads).

Tiny avatars can been seen as a sub-class of furries (though both communities would probably disagree) in that they are specifically very small cartoon or anthropomorphized animals.

Practically speaking however, the most significant distinction between these types is this: that there are flourishing self-organized communities of furries and tinies (and a community of dragons in Wyrms) but natural-humans and quad animals don't seem to organize in this way. Natural-human avs are so common and so close to RL that it hardly seems worth celebrating our shared biology: "Look, I too have five toes on each foot!"

* within the limits of the SL body mesh and prim and texture technologies, obviously.

Friday, June 25, 2010



Different kinds of RP in SL: sci-fi, Pandora, Western, post-apocalypse, sexual.

Some would say that all of life is roleplaying: that we are different people at work than we are at home with our children.

Important distinction: an alt is not roleplaying, not in and of itself, though one may use an alt to keep one's RP separate from one's daily life.


When we are in SL, are we "playing"?

What does "play" mean anyway? When a hobbyist carpenter turns a table-leg on a lathe, is that playing? When a Grand Master takes part in a chess tournament, is he playing?

Lalo commented on an earlier post that augmentationists play with Second Life, as though it were a toy, whereas immersionists play in SL, as though it were a playground.

To be expanded.