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mariaI’ve just noticed my novel “Between The Tides” popping up for sale on various strange websites, adult sites, the sites you hesitate to click on, so I refrained from further investigation. It used to happen a lot with Amazon too, my stuff getting stolen and sold by pirates. The first couple of times this misappropriation and misrepresentation bothered me deeply. It used to feel like a violation.

It’s my business if I decide to give away a novel I’ve spent years writing, quite another if some n’er-do-well cuts and pastes it and charges $5 for the download, but for all of that it concerns me less nowadays, and there’s nothing I can do about it anyway. I hasten to add “Between the Tides” is not an “Adult” novel. It’s a contemporary literary romance, so anyone paying their $5 and expecting pornographic rumpy pumpy are going to be disappointed.

Technology opens up all manner of possibilities, not all of them for the better. The Internet enables many, like me, a means of self expression, changing the definition of what publishing actually is, and I count this on the plus side. But on the other there’s a million new ways of exploiting the innocent, of scamming them, hurting them, even enabling new forms of global warfare with whole nations trying to shut down each other’s essential infrastructures, like electricity or air-traffic control. And its effect on global politics is only just becoming apparent, sophisticated algorithms undermining the democratic process and swaying election results in favour of the plutocratic moneyed minority.

I’ve always been a progressive when it comes to technology, but some of the visionaries driving it now are clearly nuts, also unfortunately incredibly rich and powerful. Technology changes lives, brings about revolutions in the way we live and work. These revolutions used to take centuries to come about, then it was decades, now it’s down to a few years. The pace of change is accelerating, and some visionaries, real live CEOs of Silicon Valley companies, extrapolate a future where the time for change is compressed to zero. They call it the Singularity, and it’s at this point everything happens at once.

Really, forget religion, the techno-visionaries are quite evangelical about it. The Singularity is analogous to the Second Coming, or the End Times, or the Rapture. It’s at this point, they tell us, machines will become conscious beings in their own right, and we will have achieved immortality by virtue of the ability to “upload” our minds into vast computational matrixes, like in some hyper-realistic massive multi-player online role playing game.

But given the darker side of technology, is this something we really want? I’ve only to watch my kids playing GTA to know it’s the last place I’d want to be trapped for eternity. Or perhaps, given the inevitable commercialisation of the meta-verse, our immortality could only be guaranteed provided we obtained and maintained sufficient in-game credit, and when we ran out, we could be deleted. Thought you’d be safe from market forces when you died? No way, the visionaries are working on ways of it chasing you into the afterlife.

Certainly our machines are changing how we live at an ever accelerating pace. Meanwhile we remain essentially the same beings that walked the planet two thousand years ago. Whether or not you believe it’s possible to preserve your essential thinking being by uploading it to a computer depends on how you imagine consciousness coming about in the first place. There’s the mechanistic view, that the brain is a computer made of meat, so as soon as we can make a computer as complex as that, Bob’s your uncle. But I’ve never been of that view, so I’m able to rest a little easier that my afterlife will not be spent avoiding evil bastards in a GTA heaven or keeping up the payments on my immortality.

In the matrix, there’s nothing I can do to stop the bad guy from stealing the book I’ve written, but he cannot steal the one I’m writing nor, more crucially, my reasons for writing it. Such a thing transcends the mechanistic world view, a world view that’s a century out of date, yet still cleaved to by the technocracy with all the zealotry of an Evangelical Preacher. The technocracy long ago deconstructed heaven and transcended God with their own omnipotence, but what they’re offering in its place now makes less sense for being all the more transparently absurd, and for the simple fact that machines do not come for free, that those who own them are paid by those who do not. Bear this in mind and our relationship with machines will remain balanced, and correct. Forget it, and the machine will eat your brain long before you get the chance to upload it.

 

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Let’s take a tour of Linden Labs’ Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, Second Life, and ask the simple question: what is it?

I need to own up here and admit to a continuing fascination for Second Life. I’ve been messing about with it since 2007, dipping in and out and wondering what to make of it. I finally created my own little office in there about a year ago, in order to shamelessly advertise my scribblings and I’m currently getting about fifty visitors through the doors a week. All right – there are places in here that get more than that in an hour, but every potential reader counts, and it was great fun setting it up. That’s where we’ll start this little tour, at the inworld offices of the Rivendale Review. Here it is:


That’s me in the suit, though I should say I’ve never like the cut of it and the least said about these flared pants the better!

I’ve written a lot about my early engagement with this place on my website, here, and reading back over those notes I’m struck by a continuing ambivalence towards it. I am by turns seduced, repelled, puzzled, horrified, and amazed,… and I suppose that’s the reason for its fascination. Anything that makes you think, is potentially important and useful because it’s by the basic engine of thought that we learn. We also like a good enigma. It’s simply human nature. I suppose the biggest enigma of them all is life itself – real life, that is. And if that’s true, then a close second has to be, well, Second Life because the latter is very much an expression of the former.

I think a lot of people try Second Life but tire of it quickly because they can’t see the point of it. They expect it to be some sort of game where they score points and enhance their status over other players, but really there’s no more point to it than there is to real life. There are areas of the game where role-playing scenarios exist, but these are like dressing up parties played long certain rules agreed by the players themselves. These things come and go like fashions but Second Life remains nad much of what goes on here is more open ended and anarchic.

There’s a craze at the moment where others will offer you an attachment that basically renders your avatar helpless while someone else’s avatar pretends to take a bite out of your neck – a sort of vampirisation. You either refuse the attachment or if you make the mistake of accepting it, you simply throw it away. There’s also a craze for dummy avatars dressed to look like novices – in the sorts of basic clothing you’re kitted out with in the beginning. These dummies are then shown impaled on spikes or suffering all manner of painful, bloody death, as if there’s an intimidating in-world vendetta against newcomers. Whilst sinister, rest assured, your avatar – new or old – cannot be killed – and I only mention these dark fads, not to frighten off potential visitors, but to illustrate the humanness of the behaviour you will find in here, which is sometimes very silly, but as I hope to demonstrate this evening, mostly harmless and potentially liberating.

The point of real life is a metaphysical question, and one cannot ask the same question of Second Life without again wandering into metaphysical territory.  Of course, you don’t have to explore the nature of reality in here, but that there is sufficient scope and depth in Second Life to enable you to do so, is a testament to its potential as a medium of human expression. In short, Second Life is not really a game at all. If that’s what you’re expecting, then you will tire of it very quickly. It’s more than a game. It’s an experiment in collective expression – in all its forms,  a place where cutting edge information technology and collective art meet.

So, to recap, there’s this online thing, and there’s no point to it, yet as I write it’s 8:30 in the evening, (GMT)  and there are 70,000 people all over the world engaged doing whatever it is they do in this pointless place. So, what are they doing? Well, let’s start with what  I’m doing.

Here I am now:

As you can see, we’ve left the office and we’re standing in a gallery of sorts, waiting for pictures to resolve. This is known as rezzing in SL jargon. You teleport into a place (another bit of SL jargon) and then you wait for everything to rezz in. The place assembles itself one bit at a time, and then the textures come gradually into focus.

This is one of the biggest problems for users like me: Bandwidth. Second Life runs on computers sitting out in California, and my existence within their virtual world is determined by the amount of information I can squeeze down a copper wire, here in rural England, so it’s a small miracle I can get in here at all. If you’re living in a metropolis; say London, Manchester, Birmingham or whatever, you’re probably getting a decent proportion of our recently much hyped 20 megabits per second – maybe even as much as half of it – and your experience is going to be much slicker than mine. However, if you’re like me, living in the second tier of the broadband hierarchy – even though you’re paying the same as everyone else, you’re lucky if you’re getting a tenth of that 20 megabits per second, and consequently, you’re going to struggle with things like Second Life.

Okay. So, we’re in a gallery, the SL Literary to be precise. What’s this place about? Well, it’s art you see? And that’s a funny thing in itself because it’s art based upon and created entirely within this place without a point called Second Life.

The models in these pictures are Second Life characters, dressed up and posed in Second Life scenes. The pictures are then composed and captured entirely within Second Life. Like much of this place when it’s at its best, they possess a dream-like quality. I can’t say why, but I particularly like the picture on the far left, the one with the girl looking through the telescope. My thanks to Elysium Eilde the Second Life  photographer, fashion blogger and clothing designer, for giving me permission to use her images. For more of her incredibly sexy work visit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ely_eilde

Other artwork here consists of dynamic – i.e. moving – textures, so I can’t really do them justice in a still frame, but the other interesting thing to me is that this is not a virtual recreation of a real life gallery. Its virtual nature defines its only reality.  Not long ago, the technology to achieve any of this was impossible. Now though, it’s moved rapidly beyond the possible to the point where artistic individuals have taken hold it – and they don’t care how any of it works – they just want to know what they can do with it.

If we move on a little now, go up the stairs and to the left, we come across this  poster for the SL Literary magazine. This in-world publication carries poetry and fiction inspired by Second Life, as well as testing the interesting boundary between Second Life and Real Life. The pieces are thoughtful, inspirational and psychologically probing. So far as I’m aware, computer games do not inspire poetry. Second Life apparently does.

Now – what’s this? We’ve got some posters advertising plays (in Second Life?) What’s this one? The Globe Theatre? They’re putting on some Shakespeare? Now that sounds interesting! Lets go and take a look. Where’s the landmark? Click the teleport and,… Whoosh!

So, now we’re standing outside as something that looks remarkably like the Globe Theatre assembles itself plank by plank. We’ll just give it a minute or two, then go inside. My radar tells me there’s no one else here, so I’m guessing we’ve missed the performance – which is just as well because if I get more than a dozen people in the same room it tends to crash my connection (bandwidth problem again). Okay – so, here I am sitting in  the theatre, directly above Her Majesty’s chair (yes, really!)

The view of the stage is excellent, not that it matters, because I can use my remote camera to go right down on-stage in the middle of the performance if I wanted to. The blurb tells me there can be as many as two hundred people in here when there’s a play going on. That would be very interesting to see, and photograph for you, though completely out of the question, because it might melt my telephone wire.

My point in all of this is to perhaps challenge your preconceptions, or even your misconceptions about Second Life. Even if you’ve never been in here, you’ve probably read about it in the press, and the press seems so universally negative about it, though in my opinion, without good reason. If you’re an ordinary, well balanced human being, your experience of Second Life will be similarly well balanced and you will attract like-minded Second Lifers to you. If, however, you’re an obsessive misanthrope, you’re not going to be any different in here, are you?

The newspapers tell us it’s a place peopled by sad, geeky losers: as well as pornographers, terrorists, money launderers, and all manner of bogey men out to steal our children. The truth is, they don’t know what it is any more than I do.  You might ask the question though, why am I in here, on a Saturday night, pretending I’ve really been somewhere? What’s the attraction? Well, my only excuse is that the telly’s rubbish, and Second Life is often much more interesting – also less predictable because you never know who you’re going to bump into.

And on that note, let’s zip over to another place I know and see if we can find some other Second Lifers we can actually talk to. Let’s go dancing! Yes you heard me: Dancing!

Whoosh!

Welcome to Midsomer – Puck’s Garden to be precise. This is a favourite little place of mine. It’s a great, sprawling, beautifully landscaped domain. It’s been here a while now, and that’s a good sign because there’s often something ephermeral about Second Life – interesting little haunts coming and going so that a sense of permanence can be hard to attain. I generally drop in here to read the profiles of others, and if they sound interesting and sane, I’ll say hello. There’s also a fair chance someone else will say hello to me first.

One thing you’ll notice about Second Life very quickly is that the girls in here are all very good-looking. And before you ask me, no, I’m not on the pull. I’m married in real life, but it doesn’t stop you from chatting.

The clothes people wear are another way in which Second Life enables its members to express themselves – sometimes in ridiculous ways but also, it must be said, in ways that take the breath away. I mean, just look at this :

This elegant lady’s dress is a computer model, painstakingly hand textured, and it flows in diaphanous waves as she moves. Isn’t she gorgeous? Already I’m forgetting there’s a real life person on the other end, pulling my avatar’s strings. I have become immersed. I really am in Puck’s Garden, listening to the music and wanting to dance. I think we’ll say hello – I’m interested in finding out if she made that dress herself: Oops, too late. She’s grown bored and blinked out in a little cloud of stars. That dress really was something!

Okay. I’ve just spotted someone I know – or rather she’s spotted me, and messaged over. It’s a fellow scribbler who’s been gracious enough to say nice things about my work, following a previous introduction we had on a virtual beach, back in the days when we were both campers (another bit of jargon, but I’ll leave you to puzzle over it). I don’t think she’ll mind my saying she behaves, as mysteriously as a character from one of my most convoluted stories, but this makes her interesting to talk to. I’ve promised her a role in one of my stories, if I can find one that does her justice – but hang on – she’s already a sort of fictional character isn’t she? How does that work, then? A fictional character based upon a fictional character? It’s getting a bit late to work that one out now! She’s messaged over again and asked us for a dance, and she’s waiting so we’d better get over there. Okay, here we go.

She’s the good-looking one, by the way:

So,… dancing! How does that work?

Well, let me explain. Curiously enough there’s a popular dancing program on the telly right now. Indeed it currently fills our Saturday night schedule on the BBC. If you’ll allow me a moment’s digression, I used to be a keen ballroom dancer, so you’d think I might be interested in the dancing on the telly, since they make such a big fuss about it, but to be honest it bores the pants off me. Why? Well, apart from me seeing it as mainly yet another a vehicle for celebrity adulation, there’s really no interaction with it.  You just sit there and it comes at you, and you don’t have to do or say anything.

It’s not like that in Second Life.

So here I am dancing. By contrast with the technical perfection my real life instructor once insisted upon, the dancing I’m doing here is rubbish, because at the moment there’s only so much you can do with an avatar, and you obviously can’t feel the dance because you’re just sitting there in your armchair – but for all of that, I find it infinitely more interesting than watching it on the telly, because you never know who you’ll end up dancing with, or where your conversations are going to take you.

Now, I don’t just come here to talk to girls – there are plenty of guys who drop in as well, looking for girls, and they’re interesting to talk to as well -though us guys tend to be a bit more reserved – it’s the girls who really know how to converse. If you’ve had a trying day, and you feel your little bit of the the real world is about to tip itself over to the dark-side, I challenge you to come in here, talk to six random strangers, and not start feeling better. Some of your encounters will be no more than polite, and your conversations will be stilted, but I guarantee at some point you will “connect” with someone and your mood will be lifted.

Don’t forget, Second Life transcends national, religious and ethnic boundaries, so you might find yourself talking to anyone in the world – and you know what? It doesn’t matter where people are from, they’re all just like everyone else? Isn’t that amazing?

Now, as a married man there’s only so much one can get up to in here. A dance and a chat, and that’s old Cuchulain’s limit. Some married men have no such scruples of course – I know because I’ve talked to them. They’d think nothing of a bit of pixel dipping, (use your imagination) or even setting up virtual house with one of these pretty ladies, and they’d excuse it as “just a game”. Personally though I’d find that difficult to reconcile, psychologically, because I have not severed the link between my real self and the persona I present in here. I sit at the interface between the real and the virtual, and am careful not to slip too deeply in. Besides my wife would kill me, and I wouldn’t blame her.

Anyway, my dancing partner this evening says she’s English. She travels and writes poetry and she’ll forgive me for saying I think she knows a little more of the dark side to this place than she lets on. Her profile suggests she has “sapphic” leanings, though I don’t know if this is genuine, or if it’s to discourage what she calls “propositions from teenaged boys who want to pixel dip with her”. Nor do I know for sure of course if she is really a “she” and not some hairy arsed bloke, just as she doesn’t know if I’m really a “he”. And to be honest once you’ve been in here for a while such definitions begin to lose their meaning. You fall over the edge, so to speak, into a kind of pure soul, into dream soul, free of gender, nationality, or any of those other labels we collect. You become whomever or whatever you want to be. That’s when Second Life can become,… well,… shall we say psychologically dynamic? Damaging, or liberating, you take your choice. It depends on your politics, I suppose. Already we’re exploring boundaries here. We’re asking questions of identity and self – you simply can’t help it.

Anyway, my acquaintance is telling me of others she’s met recently who are engaging too deeply with the place, and are basically living in it. They never log out. They put their avatars into their jim-jams of a night, put them to bed, then get them up again in the morning. I find this disturbing, and I hope she’s having me on, but it’s a tale I’ve heard before, so I’m wondering if it’s true. I have, on occasion, wandered around the residential areas looking for these sleeping  avatars, but have yet to find any, so it could just be a myth.

For an adult, the role-playing aspects of Second Life are like going back to childhood and playing make-believe. Millions of real lifer’s come home from work, switch on the telly and slob out in front of two hours of soap opera every evening. They tell me it’s relaxing, and I don’t doubt that it is. But others come home and slip into Second Life. They become someone else, and trust me, make-believe is relaxing. Have you forgotten how you used to lose yourself for hours in make-believe as a child? It’s just that the make-believe here is very realistic, and on any one evening you have a potential 70,000 playmates.

Now, I can’t be as informative a guide to the darker side of Second Life because I don’t go there often enough, and if you’re interested in this aspect you’ll have to find your own way with it. The dark side raises other questions of course and we quickly realise the main difference between childhood and adult role-play is that some of the adult role play can be of a sexual nature.

So,… it’s about now you’re probably going to ask me about all that sex you’ve heard of that supposedly goes on in Second Life?

Well, yes – there really is a lot of it  – Strip Clubs, BDSM clubs, Orgies – escort girls – really! You name it. But it’s like real life: you know it goes on, but it’s up to you if you want to partake of it or not – and I won’t be including it in this little tour, because I’ve no way of knowing if you’re old enough. Perhaps understandably, this was an area of Second Life that came in for a lot of criticism in the early days because anyone could sign up and straight away be exploring the underbelly of the place in a way they perhaps would never have dared in real life. That’s okay if you’re an adult – but what about the kids who managed to bluff their way in?

It used to be easy to set up a Second Life account, lie about your age and therefore begin exploring the adult side of things, before you were old enough not to be damaged by them. Things have changed however. Nowadays, it’s still easy to set up a Second Life account, without giving away your name address and credit card details, but unless you have credit card payments recorded “in-world”, or you can otherwise verify your age, say with a driving license number and a real world address, the assumption nowadays is that you’re not an adult and the really naughty side of things is placed off limits.  I have to say it’s a major improvement, and must have taken some of the bite out of the anti-Second Life lobby’s teeth. You can still go over to that side if you want, but if it’s not your cup of tea, you’ll no longer find yourself stumbling over it on every street corner.

This also demonstrates another interesting aspect of Second Life: it’s very much a work in progress, and nobody really knows where it’s going. Linden Labs keep the computers running, and act as a sort of benign overseeing techno-deity, but the direction is very much up to those 70,000 or so people who log in every night, and play make-believe.

So, going back to our original question: what is Second Life? Is it life? Well, the best we can say is: sort of, but definitely not as we know it!

Okay, busy night, eh? Let me invite you back to my place for a cup of tea before we say goodbye, and hopefully I can entice you to download one of my free novels or short stories while you’re there?

Here we are. Have a seat. Relax. Do you take sugar? Just kidding. You’ll never find a decent cup of tea in here! Will coffee do instead?

Now, if you’ll excuse me I’d better get all of this scribbled down and uploaded to my real-world self, before I forget who he is.

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