28 June 2004

Postcards from the metaverse

This one's for you, MKB and Clive Thomson.

Second Life is a recreational virtual environment. It's a simulated 3D world, where your probably-but-not-necessarily human-looking “avatar”—a representation of you—can wander around, talk to other avatars, and presumably see cool stuff and have cool adventures.

If that sounds silly and boring, I think I agree with you. In his talk The Point Is, which I keep trying to get y'all to read, Brian Moriarty claims that this whole idea is boneheaded.

In the cyberpunk novel Snow Crash, there is a very exclusive virtual night club called the Black Sun. One of the things that makes the Black Sun so exclusive and special is that, unlike the low-rent portions of cyberspace where avatars pass through each other freely, patrons of the Black Sun must walk around each another or collide. I read this description and thought it was a witty satire. Unfortunately, many would-be engineers of shared illusion have read Snow Crash and adopted it as a specification. The heresy needs to be spoken: The cyberpunk conception of virtual reality is not really very interesting. Only a hacker would find the problem of avatar collision interesting.
Space and time are not intrinsic properties of virtual presence. Space and time will not exist in virtual presence unless we bring them with us. Space and time are boring. Let's not invite them.

But what do I know? EverQuest has hundreds of thousands of players, in spite of being saddled with the the ultimate dorkiness of being a swords-and-elves game. Human nature being what it is, it's well known that many of those EverQuest players aren't much interested in the game, and just go to socialize.

Indeed, EQ users hoard virtual posessions, as Clive Thomson documents for us.

The Gross National Product of EverQuest, measured by how much wealth all the players together created in a single year inside the game. It turned out to be $2,266 U.S. per capita. By World Bank rankings, that made EverQuest richer than India, Bulgaria, or China, and nearly as wealthy as Russia.

It was the seventy-seventh richest country in the world. And it didn't even exist.
WITHIN MONTHS OF ULTIMA ONLINE'S LAUNCH in 1997, the game spiralled into a currency crisis. The developers woke up one morning to discover that the value of their gold currency was plummeting. Why? A handful of sneaky players had discovered a bug in the code that allowed them to artificially duplicate gold pieces (called “duping”). The economy had been hit by a counterfeiting ring. Inflation soared, and for weeks, players would log in each day to find their assets worth less and less.
Three years ago, a company called IGE, whose sole function is to buy and sell virtual goods, launched. I met one of the company's founders, Brock Pierce, at a gaming conference in New York. A fresh-faced, blond twenty-three-year-old who is based in Boca Raton, Florida, he said IGE has “thousands of suppliers” who scout the games all day long to find cut-rate goods. He has a hundred full-time staff members at an office in Hong Kong to handle customer service. On any given day, he says, they handle “several million dollars’ ” worth of virtual inventory.

Maybe the folks at There.com—another subscription virtual environment, like Second Life—are not in fact crazy to hope that they will make money selling us virtual Nike sneakers.

Now consider: a moblog is a blog that consists of pictures taken with the camera on your phone: interesting things you've seen in your meanderings. Many moblogs consist just of the pictures; others have commentary. I've dipped my toe into those waters myself.

So in a strange fusion of two elements of online culture, there's a guy who has figured out a hack to moblog from Second Life.

Despite my initial disdain for moblogging (mobile weblogging), I should soon have some moblog entries here. More specifically, I am in the process of setting up a moblog to display “live” screenshots and commentary documenting my Second Life travels.

The system will allow me to take “photos” in Second Life and send these along with comments from within SL to an external email account—this is a standard SL function whereby users can send their friends e-cards. The email is collected by the blogging system and stripped of text I don't want, leaving only my message and a picture. Hopefully I'll have this implemented soon, the technical aspect is all handled by the blogging system, and it's not too hard. The end result will be the ability to report “live” as events happen in Second Life. Pretty cool!

Perhaps, as Moriarty would say, “only a hacker would find this interesting.” I'm pretty sure that Sandy Stone would have something interesting to say about it. Does that make her a hacker? I just rambled on about it at length—perhaps, in spite of my best efforts, I'm a hacker after all.


Anonymous said...

Sushi K and Hiro Protagonist rock! EverCrack, however... since I am not a teenage boy, I just don't get it. There are other things I'd much rather spend my time doing.

- yezida

Jonathan Korman said...

Hey, now. Research indicates that EQ players are just shy of 26 years old on average --- and 16% of them are women, which is a better proportion than motorcyclists.

I suspect that there must be a side of you that would enjoy pretending to be a buff yet curvy priestess with magical powers, roaming the land clad in black and crimson, having adventures and romancing charming rogues whose long hair is as wild and untamed as their hearts. You know, to get away from your day-to-day life every once in a while.

Anonymous said...

Pshaw! What a fantasy! [she says, sternly pushing her glasses back up on her nose. And giggling.]
- yezida