< Second Thoughts


Friday, September 22, 2006

BROOKE GLADSTONE: At the dawn of its creation, Second Life was a vast virtual prairie, studded with mountains and lakes, home to a rugged few.

JAMES AU: It was very much like when Native Americans were roaming the country, and it was relatively Arcadian.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: James Au is a reporter in the real world hired by Linden Lab back in early 2003, when the game was still in the experimental or beta stage, as its first embedded reporter. Au watched as the swelling population transformed the landscape, and in the process, transformed Arcadia into America. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

JAMES AU: Because what happened immediately after the beta period was a group that came from another game, called World War II Online, discovered Second Life, and they jumped into it en masse. Over a hundred of them came in and they started building tanks and fortresses and shooting people, and they actually took over an area that was meant to be a free-fire zone. But the original Second Life settlers were kind of living there peacefully, and so they just jammed into this free-fire zone area and they started [LAUGHS] killing the original natives. And so that became a big battle. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Second Life continued to relive American history with a revolution. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Linden Lab was charging people for the things they built to fill the empty spaces of their world, because all that digital construction was overloading their servers.

JAMES AU: So what they did is put a tax on that. You'd have Linden dollars deducted from your account. But what happened was there was a group called Americana, and they were creating an area that would be a tribute to American icons, like the Washington Monument, Fenway Park, and this was meant as a public works project, but they were getting taxed up the wazoo because it took a lot of objects to create this, a lot of building blocks. And finally they said, look, because they're an Americana group, they launched a tax revolt.


JAMES AU: And their leader was this cat, Fleabite Beach, and Fleabite Beach sent out a Henry David Thoreau declaration against Mad King Linden, and they covered the whole Americana area with giant tea crates.


JAMES AU: And they set the Route 66 driveway on fire. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Soon after, Linden Lab ended the tax system, ushering in an era of unbridled commerce, fueled by Linden dollars, purchasable by credit card at the current rate of 300 to the U.S. dollar. Now, instead of taxes, people pay Linden Lab for the land they buy, spruce it up with new content, like buildings and trees, rent it for virtual money that they can then trade in for cold, hard cash.

JAMES AU: There's a woman named Anshe Chung, and she makes a estimated 150,000 a year and owns a whole continent, and she's actually set up a shop of content [LAUGHTER] creators in China to outsource 3-D development.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: With its population growing by more than 25 percent a month, Second Life is an increasingly popular world, but some locations are more popular than others, hence the land boom. It's also a very social world. People go to a lot of parties and they want to be all that they can be – or someone they can't otherwise be, so there's a design boom, too.

JAMES AU: The top fashion designers make upwards of 70,000 a year. That's people who create fashions for avatars, clothes, shoes, also hair. Hair extensions are really popular.


JAMES AU: Jewelry. What are called "skins," which is kind of like a full-body tattoo.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jane McGonigal is an expert in the field of participatory gaming and what's called "immersive play."

JANE McGONIGAL: The most interesting thing about Second Life is how intrigued its residents are by playing with the line between the virtual life, or Second Life, and their real lives, or what they call their first lives. You know, you've got mixed reality parties.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's when you go to a real-life party and the Second Life version is projected on a wall.

JANE McGONIGAL: So you can see people you know who aren't in the same city who are in a virtual version of the room that you are in, having an actual party.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: A real-life musician even staged a virtual concert in Second Life. [CHEERS AND APPLAUSE]

MAN: Hello out there! Hello in here! This event is the first time a major recording artist has performed live in avatar form. And without further ado, Suzanne Vega. [GUITAR MUSIC]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But it's not all fun and games. Jane McGonigal.

JANE McGONIGAL: And you have real-world psychologists who have set up shop in Second Life who are offering mental health services to people who, in their real lives, have mental health needs.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: James Au has even written about Second Life detective agencies which specialize in catching virtual adulterers.

JAMES AU: The detective will set up a sting operation, a honey trap, where they'll put a hot male or female babe into the setting with the client's suspected unfaithful partner and see if they take the bait.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But, as you pointed out in your story, when the hot babe sting operation takes place -


BROOKE GLADSTONE: - almost every single male avatar folds -

JAMES AU: Oh, yeah.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: - like a house of cards, within seconds.

JAMES AU: Yeah. Yeah. So there's a lot of it [LAUGHS] going on.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Second Life is so much like real life, it even harbors real-life anxiety about addictive, antisocial, productivity-shriveling video games. Science and technology writer, Clive Thompson.

CLIVE THOMPSON: I actually wrote a story a while ago about an Australian inside the game who created a little video game called "Tringo," and it's sort of a mix of Bingo and Tetris. It's a lot of fun. It's enormously fun.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the Australian invited Second Life pals over to a Second Life place to try the game and buy it and take it back to their virtual apartments to play. He sold enough of them to earn about 4,000 real dollars. Tringo became so popular, in fact, that it became a threat.

CLIVE THOMPSON: Yeah. Because Second Life is not really a game, because it is a social environment, there's a lot of emphasis put on the socializing, on the talking, on the making stuff, on the hosting of parties, on the visiting other people, on being creative. And so suddenly, people were logging into Second Life just to go and sort of sit in front of a Tringo game with a dozen other people sort of playing Tringo. So the thing that people were saying about it was that this game is ruining the quality of life inside Second Life. And this cracked me up, because, of course, it was people complaining that a game was ruining life inside a game. [CLICKING SOUNDS]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: I asked Clive to take me in.

CLIVE THOMPSON: Here we go. Logging in.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: I chose a name, an avatar – it's kind of cool picking a whole new look – and he sent me sailing over the landscape of Second Life. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

CLIVE THOMPSON: Now, here you are. There you are in your outfit. You've got sort of nice sort of dirty jeans on.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: I look pretty hot, I have to admit.

CLIVE THOMPSON: Yeah, yeah. You look great. Here's something fun. I'll just show you here. We can fly.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: We land where some people are milling around, and suddenly a song comes up. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Master and slave toy store.

CLIVE THOMPSON: Yeah, master and slave toy store.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's where we are.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Gee, thanks for taking me here, Clive.

CLIVE THOMPSON: No problem. Yeah, I aim to please.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: There's a guy. Let's go up to him. Ask whether he comes here often.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Heya. I didn't ask you to say "heya." [LAUGHTER]

CLIVE THOMPSON: [LAUGHS] Nice way to start a conversation.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Greetings lady. Ask are they in the market for something? Alan Tainy said, to find somebody interested by spankings. I don't think he's really an English speaker.

CLIVE THOMPSON: All right. Well, we'll just head out.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, they say the more you go in, the more friends you make, the richer the experience in Second Life, where activities range from getting and spending and building and selling to flirting to flying to inventing stuff to self-invention – and to spanking, I suppose. But I asked Clive, why bother when you can do all that stuff in the real world?

CLIVE THOMPSON: Yeah. That's true. The difference is that Second Life is a lot more beautiful than the real world.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: On a flat screen made of pixels, with pixilated people, I mean, how persuasive is that kind of beauty?

CLIVE THOMPSON: Well, it's pretty persuasive if you live, you know, in an industrial park in Ohio. A lot of people inside these games live in incredibly boring places, locked into [LAUGHING] incredibly boring jobs. You have to ask yourself, which is fundamentally a more fun reality?

JANE McGONIGAL: There's definitely a sense that you have a little more creative control and personal power in Second Life.


JANE McGONIGAL: I mean, the question is do gamers and residents of virtual worlds want to role-play or do they want to real-play? Any time you talk to a World of Warcraft player, they talk about it as a way of escaping their regular life, and you don't really hear that from residents of Second Life. It's very much an integral part of their identity and their lives.

ED CASTRONOVA: I want to go play in somebody else's world.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Edward Castronova writes about the economics of online games. He says that the profit motive built into Second Life tracks pretty much with reality. That's why he doesn't spend too much time there. He prefers fantasy games, like EverQuest, where, unlike Second Life – and the real world – you don't set your own goals. Your tasks, whether grand or mundane, as, say, carrying some gold to the next village, are all designed for you and all-important in that world.

ED CASTRONOVA: The fantasy worlds, they focus not on commerce, per se, although there's plenty of commerce, but I think what really attracts people to them is the map of meaning, the fantasy that creates good and evil and puts significance behind what people are doing. Every time you do something in the fantasy virtual worlds, you are told that you matter, and that is something missing from the real-world economy.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: In his free time, he prefers his meaning readymade. That's more fun. Fun is fundamental to all virtual worlds, and this, says Castronova, has policy implications for the real world.

ED CASTRONOVA: Let's look at this Iraq war as a game designer would. Let's say we're making a part of the game environment of our people, and we want them to be happier. And then you might think, gosh, that's why Iraq I was more fun than Iraq II. Iraq I had a victory condition. You know, it was limited in time. It didn't go on forever, [LAUGHS] and so on and so forth. And I'm not suggesting that we really should do policy this way right now. What I'm suggesting is that over the next hundred years, as more and more people grow up familiar with game design as a part of their policy environment within these games, we will see increasing pressure and new insights in real-world policy, where people go, hmm, now, is that the funnest inflation rate that they could have designed? Don't we want a more fun one than that? And we're going to have to deal [LAUGHING] with this.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: What he's saying is you may not get the world online, but sooner or later, that world is going to get you. You'll see game thinking play out in tax policy. You'll see it in education. You may even see it in war planning. We like to play, and politics is the biggest game of all. Maybe that's why Mark Warner, an early adopter, jumped into Second Life so soon.

MARK WARNER: And you know what I'd say to any of the other potential candidates? You know, come on in. The virtual world water is fine.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the shopping's even better. You can even buy a whole new face, which could come in handy – if you're running for office. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

MARK JURKOWITZ: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York and Mike Vuolo and edited by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Alicia Rebensdorf. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find free transcripts, MP3 downloads and our podcast at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at onthemedia@wync.org. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

MARK JURKOWITZ: And I'm Mark Jurkowitz. Bob Garfield will be back next week.