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.

Monday, June 14, 2010


Short for: alternative account, a second name under which to log into Second Life.

I suspect that most people who embody strongly in SL have alts: that the experience of embodying in this particular shape/gender/species would make them curious about how it would feel to embody in a different one. That is how Wol came to be, and I can confirm that the embodiment is very different.

(There are of course other reasons too: builders and store-owners and famous people often use an alt as a stealth account for times when they want to be in-world without interruption; people with intensely busy social lives have alts as a way to get around the 25-group limit; invested roleplayers and the sexually adventurous use alts to segregate their "fun" persona from the habits and conventions of their "normal" identities.)

A successful alt is a minority personality, the virtual incarnation of a piece of yourself which doesn't get expressed in your usual lives. Wol has abilities and attributes that aren't easily available to the rest of my identities, and we are trying with some success to learn from her.

Given this, it's not really surprising that alts start as "just a name" but develop into distinctive personalities who are in meaningful ways not your usual "you." This has been confirmed nearly unanimously by people I've spoken to about their alts.

Alts generate a great deal of unhappiness in people who don't have one: they are felt to be deceptive or fraudulent. There is an overlap between the fear of alts and the fear of "false genders" i.e. that the attractive female you just met is really your gaming buddy Fred in disguise. (Actually it occurs to me that the word "disguise" is a very revealing one in this context. To me alts are not disguises, they are something different. When Wol wears silks and a mask, that is her-wearing-a-disguise; when her typist logs in as an alt, that is not her: the alt is a different person. To be discussed.)

Saturday, June 5, 2010


It is interesting and highly significant that almost everyone who blogs about SL or posts photos from SL on Flickr, does so in their avatar's name. [More later, it's 3:30am and I am happy but exhausted after seeing Grace McDunnough perform at SL Pride.]

This is of course simplistic and reductivist, and intentionally so. These posts are not meant to be fair and balanced essays to be delivered de haut en bas, I am gathering talking points for a workshop. However, the observation stands — with one qualification: it depends on the speaker's relationship to their audience.

When [Botgirl|Grace|Dusan|whomever] blogs about SL-ness and identity, they are by and large speaking as one of us, peer to peer, within a community and a shared culture. They can assume that we will to a large extent share their experience (by being inworld) and interests (by being curious enough to be reading their blog) — though this does not mean that we necessarily share their values (cough Prokofy Neva cough).

When they talk to "outsiders," they often do so in their RL names, for example Hamlet Au's New World Notes lists both of his identities. [more later]

Friday, May 21, 2010


Tabitha Eichel made a great long comment on the Linden's drive to link our SL and RL identities, which was republished by Hamlet Au on his New World Notes blog. Here's the heart of the matter:
Why is it so hard for some people to believe that a large portion of the Second Life community is there for escapism and not to interact with real identities? This escape was what made Second Life desirable for many people. Not everyone is beautiful, popular, confident or whatever in the real world. There are many difficulties interacting with real people, that were negated in Second Life. It didn't matter what you looked like or where you were from. That made Second Life great for us.

But now, just like in real life, the beautiful, confident, fully-abled, popular people are calling the shots.
Quite right*, and it's why the Lindens are absolutely wrong to force this integration. Read the rest here.

I'm not quite as happy with the word "anonymity" though, because I think that our identities in SL are not truly anonymous but rather pseudonymous: I don't know the RL name of the person behind the SL avatar "Agatha Macbeth," but after talking to her for half a year, I feel that I know that person quite well.

We are not blank pages. We have identities in SL, we have reputations and histories and connections here. I'll expand on this idea later.

* I'm a bit uncomfortable with "escapism," but that may be just a question of vocabulary.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


Dusan Writer wrote a really interesting piece about the direction that the Lindens seem to be taking SL: integrating it into our offworld-but-still-digital real lives. I find this direction really worrying, because I do not wish to have my lives commingled in this way. There are some people offworld whom I tell about my time in SL, just as there are some people inworld who have also met my meat avatar, but that's as far as it goes. Right now, I control who knows what about me, and I wish it to stay that way. The Lindens' new plan feels like it will take that out of my hands.

Augmentationism is one of a set of words describing people's opinions (or opinion-driven actions) about what SL is for. Augmentationists believe that so-called real life is the only valid reality, that anything that happens outside of RL cannot possibly be other than a more-or-less meretricious form of entertainment. Hence they believe that SL exists to enrich and enhance our offworld lives. They believe that SL has no separate existence, no culture of its own, and no community.

I suppose there's no reason why an augmentationist could not have a differently-gendered avatar or be another species, but those whom I have met tend to believe that these things are false, morally wrong. Some even reproduce their RL appearance in their avatar (though these too are often suspiciously tall and fit and beautiful).

(The opposite of augmentationism is immersionism, but that's a subject for another day.)

Saturday, May 1, 2010


There should be many of them. Yes.

Graphics preferences
Appearance editor

Actually, it's probably not a good idea to make a list of topics, let us rather let them arise as needed.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What is it that I remember, when I remember SL

I was thinking about memory, about the Me-component of my memories, about how my body is part of many memories: its position, actions, movements, experiences. That made me realize one of the defining effects of embodiment in SL.

When I remember communicating with a fellow resident of SL — I'm deliberately framing this awkwardly, all will be revealed — I do not remember what my RL body did i.e. sitting in my home office with a typewriter* under my fingertips and a cup of tea on the desk, looking at a screen.

I remember being in SL, not my home office: I remember sitting together at the Playgoda, or dancing together at Fracture, or trying on clothes at AVid, or lying in hammocks on the beach at whatever that place was called.

I remember talking, not typing: I remember the words we spoke and the feelings that they brought forth.

I remember the outfit I wore in SL, rather than my RL sweater and slippers.

I remember the glass of red wine I held in SL, rather than the cup of tea on my desk.

Second Life is a place in its own right. It's neither here by me nor over there where you are, but in some neutral zone at right angles to the RL distance between us. In that place, there is no separating distance and no timezones**. This is another distinction between SL and many, perhaps most, "games:" no matter how many hours I spent playing the Sims or Civilization IV or Blades of Avernum and the like, they never became places that I could be in.

The key is immersion, and in my experience flat games on a screen don't offer that.

Actually, that reminds me that we could try to get some WoW players to talk to us. That would indicate whether the place-ness of SL is specific to it or perhaps a more general attribute of MMOWs.

* Sic, what a marvellous slip that is. I wonder when I last used a true typewriter? Probably when I left college in 1984. One of the first programs I wrote was a typewriter emulator, which sent keystrokes directly to a dot-matrix printer. Such were the joys.

** Time itself does still exist, remind me to talk about lag.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


1. Second Life is a game, according to Linden Labs, because that places it in the category of "online entertainment" for taxation and general legal purposes.

2. Second Life is not a game, according to almost everyone who visits it regularly. I have never heard a SL resident refer to it as a game or an entertainment.


Thursday, April 15, 2010


"OMG most of the women avs in SL are males in RL."

For starters, that is not true, at least not everywhere. Almost all of the women who attend Kira and Play as Being are also female in RL, for example — and they are a third to half of the attendees at most events.

But the larger question is, why does it matter? Why do people not say "OMG did you know that almost all of the lions in SL are human in RL?"


"For me the avatar is the 'physical' embodiment of the mind that controls it. The avatar is in this sense a more acccurate portrayal of one's soul than is the arbitrary real-life body."
Darwin Mizser

Saturday, April 10, 2010


Among the most striking features of SL sociability is the widespread culture of helpfulness that obtains here. Most people are very generous with time and information, and will go out of their way to assist others. Newbies are encouraged in SL to an extent that is virtually unheard-of on the Internet. In all other online togethernesses that I have experienced, newcomers are assumed to be socially inferior and are often told so explicitly: "you're new here, sit down and shut up" or "aw hell, another fucking n00b."

Where does this come from? Can it last?

Why are we not naked?

One of those apparently simple questions that has a very complex answer (if indeed there is an answer).

Propriety? Embodiment!

Friday, April 9, 2010


Taking skills learned in Second Life into RL.

Example: one of Rivka's associates, a transwoman, who studied female AOs and animations here for tips on how to appear more womanly in RL.


One of the few aspects of Second Life (and other MMOWs to some extent or other) which have no parallel in RL is the rather ambiguous state of being known as afk, Away From Keyboard.

It's a way of recognizing and dealing with the fact that our avatars do not map 1:1 onto our physical selves.

Monday, April 5, 2010


This is the key concept: that the pixels on screen are me, that what they do is happening to me.

Strong or weak embodiment.

"/me reaches across the table and takes your hand"

The workshop

I'm preparing a weekly workshop on the SL-ness of SL, to be given at the Kira centre this summer. (I'm writing about it publicly here in the hope that this might just get me off my arse to do something about this idea, which I've been talking about since last Autumn.) I will be using this blog to record and develop ideas for sessions and exercises.

The workshop will be in the usual Kira style: a combination of brief lecture/explanation/introduction, discussion and exercises.

The general themes will be appearance, character and identity, how the medium of SL expresses these, and how they relate back to our so-called real identities in the so-called real world. My hope is that members of the workshop might come forward to lead off sessions on subjects that are significant to them. (Example: QT said that he hadn't been able to create an alt because he couldn't think of a good name. I would love to discuss with him the significance of names in SL, since these are arbitrary in RL.) Once the series has built up a certain amount of momentum, I would like to bring in guest speakers to talk about specific identities in SL: furries and tinies and nekos, oh my.

There will be much discussion of alts, since they are central to cross-gender and cross-species exploration. Practical exercises would be very informative (!) but I can see that this might be too "hot" for some people so I'll go slowly there. Perhaps make it an "extra credit" topic, one that won't be on the end-of-term exam.

(Just by the way, and perhaps as a note for a pure-discussion session: It amuses me no end to hear people say that our personalities are constructions of habit and prejudice, that there is no separation and therefore no Self, that all identities are artificial — and then in the next breath they firmly declare that identities which exist only in SL are inferior to those which exist in RL! What the fuck is that about? This point needs discussion.)

There will be trips to various stores (skin and hair in particular, since these places always offer freebie or dollarbie demos) to try on different appearances, again with the intention of seeing yourself in the new appearance.

There will be excursions to strongly-themed locations and stores, like AVid or RP sims.

There will be exercises, oh yes: for example: being a neko for a week, and paying attention to how this feels — and to how the world reacts.

There will be workshops on the appearance editor, with the practical goal of making a new shape during the session, to be "lived in" for a week and reported on at the next session. There will be at least one pair sessions on AOs, a discursive intro and a workshop the week after.

There will be shorter detours to look at particularities of SL, like "afk" or the culture of helpful generosity that has developed. I can imagine that there would be quite a bit of discussion of in-world ethics.