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How do you explain where you are going to someone when you enter a virtual world? Is it a secret adventure, another world or just a game?  Or is it a curiosity into the new. For those Gamers and Second Lifers, it’s a question we really never ask. In world – our world – the world we enter, is a way of life. To question it is the same as questioning the concrete world that we inhabit. Why do we exist? What is our purpose here? What is this existence for.

Sitting in front of a computer screen, we click buttons and move the mouse and then emerge as a character in an inexplicable world that sends the adrenalin flowing. It’s a new world, one devoid of many of real life constricts. It’s a creative, challenging, secret world. It’s a world that we can either shed all inhibitions or play out a life we wish we had. It’s an addictive form of escapism.

I’ve criticised the way that the controllers of such environments have manipulated such environments for commercial reasons. Second Life is run on real money with a real economy and creates real problems. Like any addiction, Second Life or many MMORPGs, the inhabitants find it hard to leave behind their concrete world and create a mirror image of it in world. But the potential of these environments is vast on many scales – the potential to breakdown barriers, to allow everyone to cohabit in harmony (albeit often at war with each other). We hide behind masks. We drag our alter egos into virtuality. We sit in front of screens en masse across every continent. Going there is just another inexplicable concept that we accept.

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If the Spacexcape Project had gone according to plan, we would be celebrating over 2 years of success today. Even though it was a very new installation, it was immediately featured on the projects page of the Second Life website as a ‘hotspot’. Phase One, that was open for just over three months, attracted over 500 people on peak days with 10,000 unique visitors in total.  The Artist in Resident programme was in full swing with a large gallery to showcase the work. On a monthly basis we were running art markets with various discussion group evenings and other events planned to attract people to the site. The potential was immense or so you would think. So what went wrong?

At a time when Linden Lab is being highlighted for its rejection of the non profit organisations, it opened up old wounds. The Spacexcape Project was not unique in its story. Projects like this need financing and for the first phase I did that personally, outlaying around $3,000 over the first year. $1k of that was on the purchase of a main island (sim) with two low usage islands – an investment of a sort. We rented the low usage land to the team at cost price on which they could build and experiment. The business plan seemed solid and would have allowed us growth. With the current phase operating well, we were in a strong position to prove the worth of such a project and raise sponsorship. Then came the crash.

The crash arrived in two different forms. The recession began to bite and the dollar against the pound weakened. Although we had outlaid $1k to buy the islands we still had a rental to pay to LL of around $300 per month! So the rental went from the equivalent of £200 to £280 almost overnight. In addition to that, LL made the extraordinary decision to hike up the tier on the low usage sims by 60%. It created a tsunami of anger. By the time LL realised what a huge mistake they were making, there had already been a mass exodus of residents. The community that had made Second Life what it was, was collapsing.

My official protests were never acknowledged by LL, apart from banning me from posting on the forums for being ‘hostile’! In an attempt to recuperate some of the money outlaid, a buyer for the main sim was found for less than half the price originally paid for it three months before. Damage limitation. The two low usage sims were surrendered and deleted and with it the initial outlay. LL process all sales of sims – only they forgot to deduct the $100 fee for the transaction before processing the sale and I refused to pay it back to them. The money had been swallowed up into overdraft.

The consequences of that were that they deleted the account – Spacexcape Bridges. With that action they deleted over $700 of inventory and nine months of art installation work.  The entire Spacexcape Project was gone with one flick of an administrator’s finger.

So whatever happens to Second Life, there can be no going back from that. Mark Linden (CEO) did a fast exit from LL in the summer and now Philip has now announced his departure along with many rumours. They claim that SL is on the up again and that they have growth. I strongly contest that. Unless someone deletes their account or has it deleted like Spacexcape Bridges, then you are one of their statistics. A statistic in an apocalyptic virtual space.

The Spacexcape Project will never exist in Second Life again. Is the Spacexcape project dead? We hope not. But at the moment we are living in a cardboard box under a bridge. Like so many that Linden Lab evicted.

What is it that you seek when visiting Second Life? or for any of the virtual worlds for that matter? I first found SL through an article in the Guardian newspaper that hailed it as the most exciting internet concept ever. Indeed, that is how I saw it for over a year until the events of late 2008 that drove so many, including myself, out for good.

I was somewhat shocked by a tweet today that purported to have the formula to ‘save’ Second Life from what seems to be an inevitable further demise from the recent decline in popularity. This blog made me so angry! If the only way to save Second Life is to improve the marketplace then the platform is already dead. It’s past saving.

Second Life’s demise has been a series of underhand actions by a money greedy corporation that have lost touch with the true potential of what they control. Linden Labs forgot that it was the vibrant, energetic and innovative people in its community that lead it to success in the first place. By excluding them in the way they have recently – by not supporting them and alienating them – they were driving away the catalyst for further growth. Second Life is unique in that it allows anyone to create. That’s a potent recipe.

Education and the Arts bring in crowds and we all know the formula for internet success – traffic, traffic, traffic. People who, in turn, would be the consumers that Linden Lab are so determined to target. A good property developer will watch the artist communities to see where they relocate. Generally, run down, cheap to live in areas, such as the East End of London 10 years ago. They follow the artists in and in a short time they can completely regenerate an area with new properties to create new prime locations. But in the process it too often makes that area unaffordable to the artist and educators community that created it in the first place. Savvy developers work with artists and schools to include them in their regeneration programme therefore looking for a more sustainable and long term solution to a never ending problem.

Linden Labs have not been savvy. They are driving out the very core of the community that visitors to Second Life are seeking. What will be left? Virtual shopping malls, virtual prostitutes and virtual boredom. Sounds too much like real life for me.

Second Life has no end of possibilities. The creative growth of it was not the work of Linden Labs. All they did was provide a platform. No, the creative instincts come from many different disciplines all brought together in a space that so inconceivable that all most can do is create another world so similar to the real life world that many confused the two. However, the work of the artists and educators was to invite the users of Second Life to think beyond a parallel life to ‘Another Life’. But how can they do that when faced with such corporate opposition? There has to be a better way to save this failing model than improving the marketplace tools.

Normally, before I have had my first cup of tea, I would have done five dailies, farmed justice points and collected 3 stacks of ore from Northerend. How could I even contemplate starting that sentence with the word “normally”?

The Social Network is not a movie – it is a visual book. Save your money instead – there is nothing in the movie that you cannot read about. Strangely enough, a few days ago I had randomly rented a movie through iTunes – The Squid and the Whale in which Jesse Eisenberg played a teenager so affected by his father’s legacy as an academic, that he resorted to cheating in order to impress him only to find that his father was, in fact, living a total lie himself. Here he is again, 5 years later playing a similar role yet with a lot of new moral, ethical and personal questions being raised. This is a movie not about Facebook, but about one blog entry published on the internet in a moment of rejection and anger, fuelled by copious amount of beer. A moment that was to change that one person’s life for ever. Everything else is built around it.

Mark Zuckerberg epitomised contemporary youth – seeking acceptance, wanting to ‘belong’ and angered by his exclusion from all the things that were ‘normal’.  Facebook was not the idea of a couple of jocks who already had that social acceptance – it was the result of a leader who translated the idea into his own language to create something so big that it is forever embedded into this historical culture.

It’s the living behind the screen that draws me most to the events in this story rather than the success of Facebook. Rejected by his girlfriend, Mark angrily posts defamatory remarks about her and her family in his blog. This is instantly proceeded by the setting up of a website to compare the female students at Harvard in a voting system that brings down the entire network. Brilliant! Brilliant because he was able to do it with such ease and brilliant because he knew that the site would instantly get the attention of his fellow students. Disrespecting others from the comfort of the screen is common place. On this occasion, the rejection by his girlfriend face to face was the catalyst to what has turned out to be one of the most successful innovations of this century. That was a key factor in this story.

The legacy of instantaneous posts is growing – the effect on careers and personal lives often takes centre stage in the media. Mark humiliates his ex-girlfriend on the internet and the emphasis that he did it ‘on the internet’ was far more powerful than if he had done it in ‘public’. To Mark, the humiliation of the private rejection was retaliated in force by his blog. That was Mark’s justice.

So before I have even finished that cup of tea, I have read 50 tweets, checked who is drinking a cup of tea on Facebook, and ploughed my way through 20 offers to turn me into a millionaire. Tempting, then I could but that new airbook. Why does this all feel so ‘normal’.

As an artist, like most I constantly strive to produce something ‘new’, ‘original’ and ‘authentic’ in order to captivate an audience that is becoming increasingly difficult to please. Artists have to do this without losing touch with the reasons that they make art in the first place and that is a very subjective reason. For me, personally, the audience is vital – I want to enter into a dialogue with the viewer and to create experiences that are not fleeting but permanent in their minds. The recent collaborative work with a sound artist was solely about the audience reaction to the work. In Second Life, the work was about collaborating across disciplines to seek out a new space that belonged to no one particular discipline. That project only made small steps into that but the virtual world was the ideal place in order to experiment with that idea.

There is a great deal of anxiety in modern culture about ‘authenticity’ most recently brought to us in the movie about the creation of Facebook ‘The Social Network’ . In our everyday lives as artists, musicians, designers, writers etc we continually come head to head with the issues of copyright and using ideas that are not claimed by others. But ideas come from interaction with others, from exposure through the media, film, books and TV. They come to us because we are passionate about something and because we want to enter into dialogue on that subject. Used in good faith, ideas should belong to everyone. The real question in ‘The Social Network’ was if those ideas were used in good faith.

The anxiety of the contemporary artist is less about authenticity and more about translating ideas through their own personal language. It’s their bid to engage with others in a unique and somewhat personal way. Authentic and unique are two very different contemporary issues.

In Bridges and Tangent’s blog today about the hostility witnessed in internet forums , “Alan Jacobs has a different answer to why so much hostility is projected through this media. He thinks it is because we have an over-developed sense of justice, that is not balanced or tempered by the virtues of humility and charity”.

In cyberspace, we are like guinea pigs, testing out a new system before it goes live. Only it already went live and the testing was not complete. Acclaimed as empowering, the users are free to explore and behave in whatever way they want. The speed of our communication continues to accelerate – in the last five minutes, I know from tweets that someone was too busy to drink coffee (and then the poster sends out five tweets in a row); what someone else just ate for breakfast (I love marmite); that someone’s relationship is breaking down (probably before the other partner does); and that the Frieze Art Show this weekend is more than about buying and selling it is about Grayson Perry in hot pink tights! By the end of today, we will have read and clicked on several million tweets and links. The world has reached a level of information – it overwhelmes and bewilders us and at the same time excites, intrigues and seduces us.

Across the internet we can be or do what we want be. Or can we? The story of Tyler Clementi shocked the world into the true implications of this. We can be who we want to be, but we cannot drag other’s in. Our actions, words, attacks, hostilities and rages projected outwards can cause all levels of harm to those who we interact with. The biggest problem we have encountered so far is that cyberspace does not exist – it is abstract and indefinable. When we cannot physically interact with something we face the biggest challenge to accepting that it is real.

The screen has been acclaimed as a 20th century revolution. But as we move further into the 21st century, the effects of the screen are becoming more and more apparent. Spending too much time in front of a screen can cause a number of side effects including headaches, eye strain, tension, hyperactivity and even depression to name only a few. It can affect sleep, relationships and self-esteem. There have been several reports of children committing suicide after playing for too long where reality and virtuality have blurred into one.

In the New Scientist today, Nic Fleming reports on the negative aspects of too much screen time for kids. .

Are we nurturing a generation who will have the worst psychological problems in adulthood that Western Society has ever seen?

About eight years ago, an American teenager in the same chat forum as I, complained that everyone was bored in life and suggested that what America needed was a war to liven things up. I remember the onslaught of replies that suggested America was invincible and such attacks would never happen. There was a feeling of shock running through me when he posted. Eight years later, the twin towers were brought down. That teenager would have been in his twenties by that time – perhaps newly out of university and just starting a career – perhaps in Wall Street. I always wonder if he remembered his post and if that was the war he envisaged.

Computer games are important in many lives. They create challenges and interaction with others and allow many with disabilities to communicate in a way that they could not in their real life. The environment is rich in visual stimulation and the designs are superb. Teenagers, who are predominantly the users of these games, constantly seek this form of activity. I would much rather see them gaming than creating havoc on the streets. But you need a computer to game and for some games you need a powerful internet connection. That’s not something that everyone can afford.

The media use the term ‘addiction’ more frequently than ever these days when discussing computer gaming. Stories of users committing suicide or relationship failures blamed on this addiction are rich pickings for journalists. But to what extent can we blame gamers for being obsessed with a world that takes them out of their real one?

Are you an addict? Take the test!

Entering the world of gaming was a mysterious adventure into what Spacexcape thought, at the time, was a new world. Forever the explorer, she found herself in land of breathtaking graphics and visual stimulation with constant challenges and achievements. It was not difficult to see why gaming is addictive and why users would rather spend hours in front of a computer than with friends, playing sports or even just watching TV. But the consequences of that are already becoming evident. Research is showing us that gaming is contributing to obesity, depression and violence. Yet it is one of the largest growing activities western society has produced.

Spacexcape’s experiences in World of Warcraft were very different to those in Second Life. In SL, she quickly found like minded people to collaborate with in both the real and the virtual world. In WoW she works in isolation wondering how or if that world could ever be what she needed it to be. 3D animation is a complex and time consuming practice, not to mention expensive and finding a way to progress with the project has been slow. But the gaming experience is very much a part of that progression.

 

 

The communications pod in SL

Communications Pod in the Spacexcape Project (Second Life)

 

There are over 10 million people subscribed to WoW. Gamers appear to fall into two categories – casual that play occasionally for fun and hard core who are totally immersed in the ‘life’. Spacexcape has met both. The hard core are ‘experts’ in their profession and life has to work around the game, rather than the game fitting into their life. This is the excessive, compulsive and addictive nature of the game. But at what price? Is gaming changing the way that people behave?

 

I recently posted a link to a short video that I had made of my mage gnome reading Sartre’s 1945 speech on existentialism, on the WoW forum – part of a piece I am working on at the moment but was intended as a piece of fun. I emerged with only some small pieces of flesh hanging from my skeleton! Gamers are a hard audience to address. Gamers like to be in control. One poster – Santea (in a guild called ‘My little Pwny’ on the Twilight Hammer server) posted a long, long diatribe about the lack of merit in my work and that it was not worthy of discussion … and yet had spent probably 20 minutes doing exactly that! There were other similar posts. One poster wrote “If you want to be an artist give up your dreams because you are terrible.” and another “If it IS serious however, god I do pity upon you.”

I found these remarks to be very insightful and exposing the type of attitude that is prevalent in game. Ask any gamer and they will tell you that the open channels in virtual worlds are swamped with users who seek attention through insult. As a player myself, I have become accustomed to being belittled by the hard core gamers – or those who strive to be. World of Warcraft breeds anger – and it is projected into forums, chat rooms and the world through violence, abuse, and prejudices.

Gaming is a dangerous and yet delicious exercise.

Spacexcape Bridges in Second Life

Does virtual reality allow us to look at the concrete world in in a different way?

– when we enter virtuality do we behave and act in a different way?

– do we see the world from a different perspective?

– does it help us to deal with constraints in our daily lives that hold us back?

Spacexcape was an avatar created in Second Life in 2003 after six years of actively participating in virtual discussion boards.  Now she continues with the same name and different avatars but always as the punk rebel who refuses to accept authority. Travelling across virtuality she is constantly seeking new ground to tread.

In this blog, Spacexcape will be writing about her journey in order to investigate the enquiry outlined above. She welcomes all feedback and help!