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A study of human interaction and socialization within non-role play graphical virtual worlds (Mainly Second Life, but might also to a lesser extent do some interviews in the graphical virtual world named “There”)
My aim is to illuminate some social communicative aspects of virtual worlds.
I am interested in how players, or inhabitants as they usually are called, contemplate their identity and their relationship to others while being in-world. I am interested in how they choose to present themselves and how the identity one chooses for the virtual world influences how one behaves, communicate, interact and simply comprehend being an avatar . I also on a more theoretical level want to compare and reflect about how GVW are structured for sociability and play compared to other more traditional forms of computer mediated play (Tetris, MUDs, MMOG).
I use what has become named virtual ethnography as my preferred method, which means immersing myself in the virtual environment doing in-depth interviews. I will strive to establish a close relationship with my interviewees which involves trying to keep in touch with them on a weekly basis for several months. Because of the nature of my study I am especially interested in immersed inhabitants (or hard-core gamers), that is players who are logged on for several hours a day.
In one way or the other, all my articles tries to grasp something about the sociability and the potential for expression of self in virtual worlds. In that regard I am interested in how people behave and socialize in the virtual world, as well as how they contemplate and relate their online behaviour to their offline behaviour.
When studying how people communicate/express themselves in a VW in particular, and in computer-mediated-communication in general, one traditionally investigate the limitation, or the differences, of VW-communication compared to RW-communication. Or put differently, how the medium at hand change/alter the communication compared to face-to-face communication. In other words we study how people are able to overcome and find other means to express themselves when real life communication “tools”, such as bodily and facial expressions, as well as tone of voice and the ability to feel and touch are deprived them.
To illuminate this point: If the interface of a VW becomes to real, that is, if we no longer are able to notice the interface (keystrokes and mouse clicks) but simply are present with our physical bodies within the virtual space (Matrix), it will no longer be interesting to study the mediation of the interaction (which is what I do), since then we in fact will be studying the “purest” form of human communication (FtF), not the a mediated one. (Put differently one would no longer need media sociologists but simply sociologists...) So, what I am studying is really the effects and consequences of the mediated communication among people in a GVW
Earlier studies on textual virtual worlds, also called Multi user dungeons (MUDs) have emphasized the significance of elements such as name and style of writing. Since one in a textual world is unable to express facial emotions, a unique computer mediated language has emerged, which are meant to function as substitutes for the physical gestures we use in real life, like an iconic smiling face created with colon and parenthesis :) :(
What the example of textual virtual world illustrates is that people uses the means available to them to express themselves. In SL, in addition to text, one also has a graphical persona and the opportunity (though seldom used) to use ones real voice when interacting with other avatars. Given the novelty of virtual bodily experience I am especially interested in investigating the how the new graphical experience influences upon issues such as avatar-to-avatar relationship, understanding of self as well as topics of conversation.
Second Life is a 3D graphical virtual world almost entirely built and owned by its residents. Since opening to the public in 2003, it has grown to around 10 million registered users (inhabitants), although rarely more than 50 000 are online simultaneously, and about 1,5 million have usually logged on during a 60 day period
SL was created and developed by Linden Lab, a San Francisco-based company founded by Philip Rosedale. More specific, what Rosedale and Linden Lab have created is a platform and some tools for creating content. They have in other words “outsourced” the building of the world to the players.
Almost all the objects you will find in Second Life are created and built from solids (3D geometric shapes) called prims. These prims can assume any shape you want, and are the basic building blocks of the virtual world, like atoms in the RW.
Second Life attempts to replicate the basic elements of the real world. It features men and women, land and sky, day and night, flowers and trees. You can build houses and shop, you can work or play, you can make, save or spend money, you can hang around in bars, watch bands, go on dates or simply choose to stay home.
SL consist of interlinked regions that contain land, water, and sky where each region has an area of approximately 65 thousand sl square meters (US$195 monthly land-use fee).
Sl residents often refer to regions as sims - short for simulators. This is because originally, one server or simulator held one entire region. (Now there are two regions per server, but the old name has stuck). SL regions are both geographical and administrative units: they are governed by rules and regulations that may change from region to region governed by a given set of rules which the owner(s) of the region define.( That is the person who pays for it)
There is an internal currency with real market exchange, where Linden Dollars change hands every month for the goods and services residents create and provide. (with an exchange rate on L$300 to US$1)
From June 2003 resident creations have been protected by copyright/permission system. This means that you and not LL are the owner of the things you make in-world. For instance, a SL resident, Kermit Quirk created a game called Tringo which could be played inside SL only. Quirk went on to sell the game to Nintendo which made an offline version on their Game Boy Advance. There are also a number of opportunities for making money (Lindens) in-world. One could for instance develop and design everything from pets, vehicles, clothes, to avatar skins.
One could compare the openness of SL to the openness of the worlds first mass produced computer: The Apple II (1976), which was an ideal computer for anyone who wanted to produce software (content) and make profit from their creations. This because apple’s engineers (wozniak) chosed to be open about design and documentation, hence, making it easy for everyone with the abilities to develop software that worked with their hardware. In other words, much like SL innovators.
Building tools, the prim, landscape and the in-world Tringo game
Like many other virtual worlds or massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGS), Second Life owes much of its existence to the imagination of great authors, but rather than medieval fantasy writers like J.R.R Tolkien, which has influenced online games such as World of Warcraft and Everquest. Second life takes its inspiration from the science fiction genre, that is from the cyberpunk and the so-called post-cyberpunk genre.
Philip Rosedale, CEO of Linden Lab and the inventor of Second Life has publicly recognized the cyberpunk novel “Snow Crash” as of great inspiration for him when he created SL, and that ”Snow Crash” has the closest practical resemblance to Second Life as it exists today: a parallel, immersive world which simulates an alternate universe, which thousands of people inhabit simultaneously for communication, play and work, at various levels and variations of role playing with their avatars”.
William Gibson with his novel ”Neuromancer” 1984 is usually acknowledged for having written the first widespread cyberpunk novel. Gibson here explores the dehumanizing effects of a world dominated by technology, writing of a future with widespread violence and absolute free market forces. The novel has had significant linguistic influence, popularizing such terms as cyberspace and the matrix.
With “Snow Crash” (1992) Stephenson created an online ”metaphysical universe” called the Metaverse populated with human beings, represented by ”avatars”. Both terms widely used among SL-players. The story takes place in a hypothetical future reality in the USA, where the United States Federal Government has ceded most of its power to private organizations and entrepreneurs which has created a society dominated by individualsm, drug trafficking, violent crime, and traffic congestion.
In Stephensons Metaverse, status is a function of two things: access to restricted environments and technical acumen, which is often demonstrated by the sophistication of one's avatar.
Similarities and differences between the cyberpunk genre and the actual world of Linden Lab (SL)
Even though SL’s founder Philip Rosedale claims he created SL in the picture of Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash there is nevertheless quite a bit of differences between the two. Maybe the most striking difference is between the surroundings, where most places in SL is southern, picturesque and rather utopian compared to the dark and pessimistic localities where the typical cyberpunk novels take place. The most popular places in SL are palm islands with beaches and up beat jazz music. The tourism scholar Betsy Book have compared them to virtual fantasy islands loaded with tourism metaphors.
SL is free to enter and everyone can create their own avatar, although in order to build something you need to either buy or rent land.
Status in SL is largely dependent upon avatar appearance, this is further dependent upon skills or money, if you don’t have the skills to create an impressive avatar, you can buy one. This is reminiscent of the cyber punk, that is, everything that is worth something in terms of status is possible to buy, like, territory, property, appearance or even friends (you can give out stuff for free!)
System of government/law enforcement: there is no paramount government in SL, although different groups have experimented with different system of government in different private territories. Everything is private owned, that is, you could buy an area (sim, island) in SL and choose to just let in the people you want, for the uninvited a invisible wall will appear while trying to enter. Although some places are closed for the public, most places are not and the general assumption is that you can go everywhere as long as you behave yourself in a normal fashion.
Even though Linden Lab doesn’t officially have stated it, I think they easily could have adopted Google’s saying: “Don’t be evil” as their philosophy. Nevertheless if you do want to be evil in SL, Linden Lab offers you the ability to do so as long as you don’t hassle anyone else. That is you can do whatever the person(s) who owns the area you are located on decides, so if you own your own area you can set your own rules.
Structure of ”play”: How Second Life differs from traditional computer games
So how do you play it? The answer is: You don’t. Second Life is not a game. From the very beginning, Rosedale declared that his goal with SL was to create a whole virtual society, with a functioning and successful economy, not a game per se. ”I’m not building a game,” he said. ”I’m”, building a new country...
In comparison traditional computer games like Tetris and Tomb Raider are for the most part about solving quests and following the rules that are scripted within the game. In other words, to execute a predestined activity which results in a clear outcome at the end:
A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that result in a quantifiable outcome (Salen and Zimmerman: 2004)
Unlike gamers, residents of Second Life have no particular quest to fulfil. There are no levels to go up and no evil to defeat. The point of Second Life - much like real life - is whatever you want it to be, and if you want it to be interesting you have to put in a little effort. All SL really is, is a virtual environment in which residents can create the world in which they would like to live in .
To sum up, within the classical game genres, the superior “meaning” is normally to execute an appointed activity. Therefore among other things what we see (the graphics) is not as important as structure and plot, which is what games basically are about (the underlying structure). In contrast one can compare SL to an empty sheet, that is, without a clear defined structure or content. Instead it need to be filled with meaning by its users to make sense.
When you arrive Second Life for the very first time, you get teleported directly to a place called introductory island. Here you get the opportunity to learn the basic skills you have to know to interact within Second Life. The island features small stations that teach you the basic operations, such as basic chatting, camera zooming, and how to change appearance.
When you have finished the “introductory program” you are left pretty much to yourself and teleported to the mainland. It is now that your real ”second life” begins, which quite frankly can be rather confusing (for not to say boring).
Many inhabitants I have spoken to state that the weakest part of SL exactly is in introducing newcomers to the world. That is because as an newbie it's hard to figure out what to do. This is in fact one of the main challenges for Linden Labs, namely how to get people to enjoy it before they give up and leave. As one avatar named Magic Starbrook told me:
[ 13:27] Magic Starbrook: the first impression is very important
[13:27] Magic Starbrook: you have to play secondlife for a while before you start appreciating it!
[13:27] Magic Starbrook: but the experience is poor
[13:28] Magic Starbrook: so experience is key! Positive experiences!!!!
[13:28] Magic Starbrook: that is one thing
[13:29] Magic Starbrook: but also knowing what you can do
[13:29] Magic Starbrook: what it offers to you
[13:29] Magic Starbrook: having already some friends that guide you
[13:29] Magic Starbrook: these things.....
[13:29] Magic Starbrook: that is in fact the problem
As of today approximately ten million people have registered for an user account in Second Life, but in contrast, it is my experience, that “only” about 20-50 thousand of those are logged on simultaneously (this number is very stable).
In their article, Play and Sociability in There , Barry Brown and Marek Bell write that a key problem with There, as I have found with Second Life (although not claiming it necessarily is a problem), is the lack of an overall goal. Its design challenge then, conclude the writers, is to find a way of connecting its rich support for sociability with a "deep and true relationship to the world" (Schroeder 2006:242).
One possibly reason for that so few people choose to stay could be that they are not used to putting in the effort SL requires for learning how things work as well as to develop the necessary in-world social network. So saying if one were to compare SL to a game, the goal could be said to be to create your own experiences and your own digital life, not just getting it while arrive. To learn by developing your virtual self over time::
[10:52] Sebastian Fuller: in the begining I was an explorer and would fly around as much as possible . did not use the search function as much
[10:53] Sebastian Fuller: then I disceovered weapons and spent alot of time in the combat sandbox
[10:53] Sebastian Fuller: all this time learning how things functioned in SL
[10:54] Sebastian Fuller: I would compare it to being a child :)
[10:54] Sebastian Fuller: learning from experience
There have been done several studies which aim has been to create a taxonomy of players of virtual worlds. This includes among others the inventor of MUD, game designer Richard A. Bartle who has written the reputable article: Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players who suit MUDS (1996). Bartle distinguishes here four common player types in a regular MUD (though the theory is often used for other games). That is: achievers, explorers, socializers and killers.
SL is still a relatively new phenomenon, therefore few studies have been conducted in regard to player typology, with the exception of the former in-world journalist Wagner James Au who posted a blog (NWN) about social circles among active residents in SL. James’s social circles includes:
Social gamers, which are residents who frequent areas where social intercourse or casual gaming is central (nightclubs, parties, gaming sites etc.)
Fashionists, which include designers, consumers, and any business or setting where customizing avatar appearance in itself is primary.
Role Players, which include the participants in mini-RPGs or discrete, highly defined subcultures like the Furries .
Capitalists, which include the business-focused residents who are reporting a positive cash flow. And lastly,
Innovators, which includes the builders and scripters, the Web-to-SL transformers, sandbox denizens and junior innovators (James Au 2007).
As with Bartle, James also states that the different categories overlap
A rough draft of some major player activities (player behaviour) within SL:
I have in this model chosen to break up player activities into five groups. These groups include as the above figure illustrates: Creators, groupers, voyagers, players and griefers. In the middle of the model I have placed the so called socialisers without having further specified what kind of activities ”members ” of this group engage in. I have done this to symbolize that all SL players to some extent can be said to include an element of a socialization player type. Hence I argue that socialization is the one element that unites all the different player types (as well as activities) within SL .
It is a fundamental and apparent problem when creating a typology of players within multiplayer games and Virtual Worlds that the strict theory (taxonomy) fails to explain the complexity of player behaviour. That is to say that most who have ventured into a multiplayer online game have also explored different aspects of play simultaneously . So saying: Most players belong to several groups (participate in several activities) at once, not the same group the whole time.
To exemplify the above mentioned I want to show an extract from an interview I did with an avatar that regarded himself as a builder. (In fact people had suggested for me to interview him if I wanted to speak with a builder). Asked on what activities he engage in he lists up a whole range:
[18:25] Golam Amadeus: build
[18:26] Golam Amadeus: management(sim)
[18:26] Golam Amadeus: friends
[18:26] Golam Amadeus: some shopping as well
[18:26] Golam Amadeus: some exploring as well (very few latelly)
As already mentioned, everything except the mainland in Second Life is player-created, with the in-built graphical based building tools, everyone is free to create whatever they desire. A large amount of SL’s inhabitants therefore spend their time in-world building things, that be everything from clothes, buildings, trees to avatar skins. One of my core findings in that regard is that when these people get together, they discuss their creations as well as share experiences and knowledge of how to create:
7:24] Researcher Merlin: To sum up, you are in SL first and foremost
to be creative?
[7:25] Langie Ling: Yep and to chat while doing it, sharing my Creativity.
[7:30] Researcher Merlin: so you like to chat and meet new people too?
[7:30] Researcher Merlin: or is that just " a part of the package so to speak?
[7:31] Langie Ling: Its no fun if you can't share what you create, so yep. Its all part of the package.
On that note one could say that Second Life offers creative people the means to express their creativeness. Like the avatar Langie Ling tells me, the main thing for him with SL is the opportunity to share his creations with peers who share his interest for creating.
[7:33] Langie Ling: This is the best place to meet creative people who share a creative interest.
I have more than one time in my relatively brief time as a SL citizen been invited to see someone’s house, new terrace or new bag shop. The more the person has done himself, in terms of creating or in some way or the other contributed to the virtual environment, the more interested he or she seems to be in telling others about the process involved, as well as to showing it off.
From the moment you log on to SL, you in addition to your real physical self, also become a virtual being in form of an avatar in the virtual world. Then it is up to you if you want those two identities to correlate or if you want them to be separate and unique.
My impression is that people do indeed explore different aspect of themselves in SL, but that those aspects in many cases tend to be more centred about appearance rather than what one would recognize as “inner personality”. What I indicate is that features that are easier to change than someone’s personality that have been socialized and “cultivated” through ones entire life, is the features avatars choose to “play with”:
I want to exemplify this through an encounter I had with an avatar inside the Second Life -universe. This person presented herself to me as a 31 year-old student from Chicago, but after some months of conversations ended up sending me an e-mail where she explained her real life identity, which didn’t correlate with her avatar’s identity in some key respects: (from an e-mail she sent me explaining how she perceived her virtual identity before her disclosure,)
Vicki Glushenko was born in SL in November 2006. She is a 31-year-old graduate student who is seeking a degree in counseling. She lives in Chicago area with her parents because it was too expensive to live on her own and attend grad school. Her family consists of her mom and dad, a married sister with three children, a brother who is an artist in Wyoming, and a brother in law who is employed by the University in some research and teaching capacity. She has a boyfriend who she dates exclusively in RL but he does not like SL and has only been there one time so she doesn’t speak about him much.
After we had “known” each other for some months Vicki sent me an e-mail with the subject: “Hi Eivind, this is the real story”, in which she told me that she had lied about her real world identity, that she had at first thought about SL as a game, but that she after some serious thinking had decided she wanted me to know the truth:
Gosh, this person is here doing real life work”, Vicki said to herself many times, “I really should be honest with him, I don’t want to lie or damage his research. So Researcher, this is for you. I lied. You asked me if Vicki was my real name and I said yes. It isn’t. My real name is (made anonymous). I am a married woman with three grown children. I didn’t lie to you about graduate school. I am getting a Master’s degree in counseling and really love working with people. I live in a suburb west of Chicago.
In other words, the information Vicki the avatar had given me about her real life wasn’t correct, although it wasn’t all lies either, as come forth in my further interview with her.
“ I know the RL person is me, but the SL person is my idealized self. If I could be the physical Vicki I would love it because that time of my life where men stop what they are doing to talk to me is basically over. I don’t turn heads in RL like I do in SL. However, my personality is really me whether in RL or SL. I am careful not to offend or cause harm in my SL persona just as I would be in RL. In RL I try not to judge people for morals that are different than mine and I find in SL it is the same thing.
This is just as Lori Kendall observes in Hanging Out in the Virtual Pub: Masculinities and Relationships Online (2002). Despite the common assumption that the personas participants craft for themselves bear little resemblance to reality, Kendall discovers that the habitués of the textual virtual world, BlueSky, stick surprisingly close to the facts of their actual lives and personalities.