Just Me

Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Feminine Mindset of Second Life

I have never found a game before that was quite like Second Life. (I imagine that The Sims would be the closest thing I would find outside of it, but I just never got around to playing that.)

After spending a few weeks here, I’ve noticed that the designers have taken a much more feminine approach to this MMO versus the male-dominated reasoning that underlies many other popular MMOs such as CoH or EQ or WoW.

Most MMOs are typically male-oriented, which means achievement-based. They possess some type of leveling system that rewards players by strengthening their powers and abilities, and the more competent players are able to exploit what they gain in order to level even more quickly.

All characters eventually “cap out,” or reach the level where they are as powerful as they are going to be, and after they become bored playing at that level, players retire their current character and start over with a new one.

While it is true that these MMOs can be utilized for other purposes (such as socializing, exploring, or role-playing), the rewards offered and the ways in which the software is designed provide the most benefit to players who emphasize active achievement – defeating monsters or completing missions in order to gain experience so as to level one’s character. Even though you can sometimes get rewards for discovering new locations and items in-game, or you can increase another player’s reputation for good role-playing, these seem to be “tacked on” to the overall idea of defeating things in order to grow more powerful.

It’s to be expected. Designers are predominately male, as are the players, and the male mind-frame is geared towards the reaffirmation of his ability and adequacy.

Second Life is different on a very basic level, for it focuses more on “being” than “doing.”

For one, there are no arbitrary limitations placed upon participants. In a normal MMO, a “first-level” character can in no way compete with a “high-level” character in terms of what she can accomplish, but a first-day Second Life player has the option of doing the same things as a years-long player, as long as she possesses the knowledge necessary for doing it. My avatar can do whatever I can do.

In fact, the link between the player and her Second Life character (or “avatar”) is much more direct than in many MMOs. In most virtual worlds, my avatar has skills that I do not possess, whether it be casting magic or waving a sword around or creating potions, and even when my avatar becomes proficient in these things, I do not. Likewise, I have skills that my avatar does not. My avatar’s knowledge and ability remains distinct from mine, and success is based on not what I do but by achieving a certain result dependent upon my skill levels and random numbers generated by the software.

In Second Life, however, my avatar is literally me. It knows nothing more than I do… and nothing less. It can do whatever I can do and nothing that I cannot do. And there is no “probability” of success: Either I do whatever I set out to do, or I do not. I can just keep trying until I get it right.

In Second Life, rather than jumping through hoops as a way to barter for power, I create my own opportunities and express my creativity directly. I can spend my time making things (whether clothes, or furniture, or homes, or behaviors, or other in-world items) or relating to other people (by socializing, or teaching a class, or interacting somehow with them). The emphasis is on creating, not conquering, and the things I produce are more a revelation of who I am at this very moment rather than one step along the way towards changing who I am into someone more powerful.

There is less ambition in some ways, more revelation of who people actually are at the present moment. And we are encouraged to create -- pull life out of nothingness and nurture it into full flower.

So Second Life is designed specifically to reward players for expressing their creativity and for relating well to others.

Yes, there can be some competition in the realm of economic savvy (you can actually make money in SL, and so the normal rules of free trade apply), but in general the world is more about interrelating with others in the present moment rather than ambitiously working to increase my power or ability for its own sake.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Problem with Clothes

My respect for Second Life ® clothes designers has increased… along with my frustration.

I’m not a computer newbie. I’ve used PhotoShop (maybe not the full extent of it, but at least the basics) for ten years or more, I’ve used computers for over twenty years, I’ve played with TGA files and web graphics and the like. And I am just pulling out my hair trying to get these darn templates aligned correctly.

The problem is that the templates are two-dimensional, while the worn clothes are three. If you just slap a texture down on the template, any faces that are away from the “front-on” view (i.e., the sides, the underneaths of things, etc.) will terribly stretch the fabric as well as any design it bears.

So it’s easy to put detail in the middle of your shirt, for example, but as soon as it wraps around the side, you will see tremendous stretch. You need to shrink the design on that part of the template so that it will be “stretched” to the normal size when rendered in SL.

And it all seems to be trial and error, and I’m still not sure how to quickly and easily stretch asymmetrical chunks of my main digital canvas. Selecting and Transform > Distort leaves gaps where the fabric pulls away from the non-selected piece. The filters do not accurate distort the area, although they can to some degree. Even with the special templates provided by master designers, who have added colored hashes to show where the edges line up with other edges, is not nearly as helpful as I had expected.

(No fault to them, all fault to me -- the next blundering fat-fingered Versace wannabe that I am… Blech.)

The best shortcut I can picture would be to load the clothes up in a 3D program like Poser or DAZ Studio, where hopefully the texture will be wrapped around the figure equally rather than distorted as it is from the 2D PSD template.

Then you could screen capture the image of the virtual dummy (wearing your texture) at approximately the right size from the flat front angle – basically making the 3D software do all the distortion for you in 3D and you are simply capturing it back to a 2D image, to upload into SL so it can reconstitute the image in 3D.

(Ummm… Did you get all that? Never mind.)

One of the resident expert designers gave a rather amusing piece of advice: “The first 500 things you create will be crap. There’s no avoiding it. So just do it, and get it out of the way.”

Sigh. Forgive my malaise, but what am I going to do with 500 pieces of crap?

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Prejudice or Not? [Furry Boundaries]

I stumbled across a thread the other day in the forums, where a furry [someone with an “animal” avatar rather than a human-looking one] was complaining about how they had been kicked off Gorean [those who are committed to recreating the society of John Norman’s “Gor,” which can be controversial since it involves certain types of slavery] land for failing to comply with their stipulations.

Basically, communities who own their own land (and sometimes island) can bounce or punish those who fail to follow the rules – in other words, a self-enforcing community not under the direct control of Linden Labs, the creators of Second Life®.

It’s a complex issue. The OP felt discriminated against because she was being judged and punished for her appearance, just as someone might suffer prejudice because of the color of their skin or national heritage. She also felt that, in the past, she had been permitted on the land as a furry but now they were “cracking down” because they were being mistreated by others.

I can empathize and feel bad for her, because it was obvious how much hurt she was experiencing over what happened. But the problem really raises questions about the essence of the “Second Life” – what is actually is, versus what it looks like and tries to emulate.

Second Life obviously seeks to imitate Real Life and in some ways succeeds admirably. But it is not Real Life and is not under the same stipulations as Real Life. What looks like prejudice on one hand, I think, is not necessarily prejudice at all.

In the end, Second Life is less a “real society” and more of a virtual playground where portions have been purchased by those who wish to create a reality of their own choosing. We all have agreed to “play in the same sandbox” (so to speak) but have staked out our little turfs just as artists occupy different areas of a museum and yet are all under the umbrella of that museum.

The situation could also be compared to someone inviting you into their home, or to help write a novel they are creating, or to help paint a portrait they are painting.

By any standard I can imagine, an artist is not obligated to allow just anyone who “wants in” to be part of her creative canvas. It’s a nice gesture and an honor to be allowed to participate in someone’s creative work, but it’s not prejudice for the artist to say, “This is the general tone of my piece; and if you don’t want to take it in that direction, then maybe you’d best not participate – no harm or offense meant at all. But this is my work.”

While Second Life models very well many aspects of First Life and can even be mistaken for it, I think it is still really just an unfolding, interactive creative work rather than “reality.”

Prejudice is not involved when people put limitations on others’ contributions to their own work. It IS involved when people are not given fair opportunity to create their own work in SL. But in this case, it seems very clear that the OP and the Goreans have been given equal opportunity to carve out their own little niches in the virtual social canvas that is Second Life.

I can’t see that there is any prejudice happening here – at least on the surface, from a furry being bumped from Gorean land because furries are not part of the creative story they are telling. The Gorean's goal was not to "exclude" people who were different but to "preserve" the integrity of their culture so that visitors could experience it authentically.

Returning to the museum analogy, visitors are usually given free reign of the museum in order to experience the art of different people. But what if the exhibit is not static but environmental – i.e., you are actually entering a room or location where the visitors become part of the experience of the art itself? In this case, to preserve the integrity of the art, it is acceptable and even necessary to ask the visitors to fit a certain standard that will not ruin the expression of the artist’s intent.

Probably the closest real comparison would be to the Amish people in the United States. If you visit the Amish country, you would do well to respect their culture and act/dress appropriately (simply as an act of courtesy for who they are) rather than trying to disrupt it.

You would not bring boomboxes and blast them, even if you like that sort of music. You would not wear inappropriate clothes (although you might not be obligated to dress “Amish” either – just conservatively). You would refrain from taking pictures because you know how much they dislike it and even feel it to be morally wrong.

The problem is that Second Life looks so much like Real Life. The thing to remember is that appearances are deceiving, and in this case the two lives are NOT the same thing at all.

Friday, February 24, 2006

The Ivory Tower

I used Find > Places to locate the Ivory Tower last night and took a short trip there to see what it was like.

(I suppose with teleportation, though, every trip in SL is short: There’d be barely enough time to get your little bag of peanuts open before the attendants would be telling you to put your tray table up.)

I didn’t spend as much time there as I wanted to or needed to, but it was a wonderful place, and I’m glad someone thought of it and actually took the time to create it.

The Tower is essentially a hands-on tutorial of the SL building process, starting literally with the basic blocks at ground zero and layering other more advanced lessons on top of that as you ‘port up through the different floors. As far as a lesson plan goes, the building design is very logical and very intuitive.

Each floor is dedicated to a different type of shape (plus anything you’ve already learned), and on each floor are a number of stations where you are given instructions on how to do something specific. So you can go to a station, do the lesson, then move to the next station, and teleport to the next level when you’ve finished everything on the floor you are on.

My project last night was not very ambitious – I created a cube, stretched it, moved it around, layered it with a texture, tinted it a new color, made it transparent. Now that I have mastered the cube (mua ha ha!), I can move on to more difficult projects involving the tetrahedron and the sphere.

Sigh.

I think it’s just a matter of plodding through all the basics and then just trying to build things, seeing what works and what does not.

While the item-movement system (with the blue, red, and green arrows used to slide the item around) is fairly intuitive, it is still a little difficult to get something in the right position (such as a hat) because I have to keep spinning around myself to make sure it is aligned perfectly on all sides. I have clothes that are slightly “off” in their positioning, leading to embarrassing clipping problems (“Why do you have hair growing out of your lower forehead?”), and I’ve had a hard time in moving them to the correct location.

Hair problems aside, the Tower is definitely a must-see if you have any desire to craft things and so far seems invaluable to the learning process.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Black Like Her

I do take time when I remember to read Hamlet Linden’s posts, which really try to put a thumb on the pulsesbeat of SL living. His columns are wonderful because of their relevance not just to SL but to FL as well.

Today’s story grappled with the proliferation of racism in SL – a very odd concept in a virtual world where anyone can look like anything (human or not) at any time and thus race, gender, appearance, nationality (even species!) should not matter.

One of the main appearance designers (clothes and skin) likes to test out his creations by having one of the more social citizens wear them publicly for a time and seeing how people respond to them.

Chip’s most recent creation was a black skin, very realistic and very beautiful. (Hamlet compared the appearance of it to Serena Williams, and I can see why – Serena is a gorgeous and strong woman, with a great deal of confidence in who she is, and this skin radiates those same feelings.)

While there was much positive feedback, there were also some very negative reactions from white SL’ers to the new skin.

Aside from the obvious racial slurs overheard in chat, Erika claims that some of the people who used to be her friends when she was a Caucasian blonde no longer associated with her now that she has been black a few months, and even her long-time friends sometimes say things like, “So when are you going back to being yourself?”

As if she is not herself right now?

Repeat after me: Appearance matters. Perception is everything.

Oh, we say it doesn’t and it isn’t, we maintain the feeble pretense that all we care about is who we are inside these mostly irrelevant bags of flesh and bone, but experience dictates otherwise. We can’t seem to separate body from soul when our personal lives are involved, when our little carefully constructed worlds are shaken against our will.

It’s not unexpected. But it’s sad and sometimes even shameful.

I hope one day we will all be as comfortable with each other as we pretend to be. Since it disconnects appearance from reality (leaving visible only the core -- the essence -- of a person's soul), the virtual world if anything should, rather than inflaming our embarassing prejudices and preconceptions, demolish such things and allow us all to connect even more deeply.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Where's All The Dreamers?

I have only been here in SL for a week now, but I am finding myself increasing disappointed by the experience – made all the worse because I see something that in the mind’s eye is very special going unrealized.

I’ve been pretty much on my own since I got here. I didn’t bother with the Welcome service when I first arrived. Perhaps I should have, but I was admittedly a little nervous talking to people I didn’t know in a place that I’ve never been before (introversion apparently is one thing that carries over from FL to SL and back again), since I wouldn’t even know what to ask until I played around a bit.

I also thrive on figuring out things as I go and asking for help when I need it and not before. (I’ve just never been much into that “men do it on their own, women like to ask for help” thing. We are much more capable than we pretend to be.)

It only took me a day or two to adequately figure out the basics of SL (navigation, clothing, shopping, inventory management, and so on). I then spent a few days browsing the stores, mostly out of curiosity.

That staled quickly. Does anyone make clothes that don’t look like they were lifted out of a Frederick’s of Hollywood catalogue or made for a 14-year-old mall rat or nightclub drag queen?

(And I guess I have to be honest, I never much liked bell bottoms the FIRST time they were in vogue! :) )

I think some of this has to do with the weaknesses of the clothing templates and where the “forced” separation is between tops and bottoms, but still… I did not come to Second Life to play dress–up, even in spite of the fact that you can have a body (if you so desire) that can handle clothes that your FL body would die of shame over.

And that has been the other disappointment. There seems to be no shortage whatsoever of gambling houses, gentleman’s (*cough*) clubs, brothels, and trendy clothes stores, but very little of normal content I would expect to find in a city.

It has been frustrating trying to find something normal to do and normal people to do it with, at least by using the Find feature. I have spent a few hours ‘porting around Second Life, resulting in a handful of encounters including:

  1. White-trash adolescents hanging out in parking lots, purposefully running over people with their monster trucks and military helicopters and tossing around profanity like ketchup packets in a fast-food restaurant. (I didn’t want to believe the white-trash clichés, but I suppose each one has a grain – or maybe a ten-pound sack – of truth at its core.)
  2. Guys trying to round up all the women they could find within visual proximity of the dance clubs. (No, I am not interested in being just an "arm ornament" for the evening.)
  3. Girls shopping for outfits that would make their parents lock them in their bedrooms until they were thirty-two before letting them out.
  4. A Gorean woman wearing a collar (whom I almost talked to out of sheer curiosity but finally just didn’t have the energy to brave it out…)
  5. A woman telling a man things like “Stay away from me!” and “Get off!” and “Don’t touch me!” – things that would have him charged and locked up in FL -- but for some reason continuing to keep company with him. Were they a FL life couple, sharing their dysfunctionality with the world? (How sweet.) Or was he a stranger clumsily vying for one more story for his jealous friends? Or maybe all of the above? Why do we tolerate such things? I don't know whether to laugh or scream.
Last night I spent over two hours trying to find some place worthwhile to go and found nothing but ugly billboard advertisements and gaudy stores peddling the same tired inventory. There were the occasional instances of beautiful cathedrals and seaside cafes and bountiful gardens and artistic museums… but all uninhabited. All empty.

Please please PLEASE tell me there are others out there who are creative and deep and curious and skilled at what they do and see Second Life as a wonderful place to explore and learn and build and share with each other.

I just hope that I find them before I finally decide it is no longer worth it.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Box Trick

Oh what a mess, having to figure out how to do everything and then clean up after myself again.

I am glad that I built myself a little cabin in a non-descript sliver of land (expensive, I thought, for being little more than a rural alley between two much larger properties).

In that wonderful isolation, I can make as many stupid mistakes (including but not limited to inadvertently taking off all my clothes, eeek!, and fumbling around with how to get them back on again) as I would like, with no paparazzi to snap slews of unsolicited pictures or pedestrians to cover their mouths in horror and flee to the nearest police station to report the crazy woman who invariably caught their eye.

Let’s not talk about how my first attempt at property landscaping ended up with floating trees in the yard and pots of flowers sticking through my walls. (Nor all the times that I turned off Flying three stories up and landed on my face in the mud below, right in front of gawking passerbys.)

Probably the worst was not knowing that some purchases came in boxes that had to be opened in order to get at the contents. As intuitive as the right-click menu is, it’s of little use if you don’t have at least a basic understanding of what you are doing or how certain things work, and the items that showed up seemed to be the items to actually be used, rather than items in which other items were boxed.

I didn’t even know that there WERE boxes, let alone that things came in them.

Why was this the worst? Because I had no idea why I would put on what I thought would be a new blouse or a fresh hairstyle, and suddenly found myself wearing a crate (or what once looked like a huge picture frame, no kidding) over my head. Besides not being able to fit through standard doorways, let alone find them in the first place, I expect that casual conversation would become difficult for most people.

(“Hey, look, it’s the crazy lady — yeah, the one wearing the shoebox on her head! Five bucks says she can’t fit inside the car with that on without rolling down the window first!”)

This sort of thing is what led to me building my cabin in the first place, and always teleporting home before trying out a new purchase. After the first few public tragedies occurred and I was forced to watch my dignity expire, shuddering, before me, I never tried on anything in the store again. Eyeliner has always been a redeemer for sore eyes, but "blush" was quickly becoming my makeup of choice.

But once I figured the Box Trick out , I almost laughed in glee when they opened and I was able to move the contents into my inventory. (“Look! The crazy woman’s laughing now! Keep your fingers away from her mouth!”)

So it turns out all the shopkeepers HADN'T pegged me as an easy mark to peddle bad merchandise to, while pocketing my precious Linden dollars. I am glad I figured this all out on my own, before having to go back for help and exposing my occasional lapse into airhead-ism.

(“Crazy woman," I can hear them say, "she doesn’t even know how to open a box!”)

In any case, I now wear my hair on my head, and I throw out my boxes when I am done with them. Life is getting better and better in Rhynalae’s little log cabin, let me tell you -- even with that clumsily laid pile rug sticking through the back wall.