Op-Ed

Op-Ed
No Time for a Second Life

Russ Pitts | 19 Feb 2007 16:00
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imageI feel like I'm attacking the darkness.

I'm torn as to why. It's either because A) I'm the only one not being sucked in by the hype on Second Life, or B) all of you reading this already know it's a crock of crap, a dream built on fantasy architecture that will unravel into mist as soon as the dust clears and people figure out that "hey, it's kind of a waste of time, isn't it?" and are breathing a collective "duh" every time I mention it. Either way I'm going to keep casting magic missile at this thing until it bleeds. Tilting at virtual windmills, as it were.

Today, I spotted a bit of "reporting" that made my skin crawl. It reminded me of the number one reason that Second Life is getting much more leeway in the press than it should: a lot of the people reporting on it are fiction writers, and are reporting on what they want Second Life to be, not what it actually is.

The excerpt below is ripped from Reuters, penned by Warren Ellis, whom some of y'all may know from his work on the utterly fantastic comic book series Preacher. His column is one of many so-called Second Life travelogues, in which he spends a few hours or whatever in the virtual world, then emerges to tell the tales. There are many of these floating about, and as anyone in the game writing business knows, editors can't seem to get enough of them.

Ellis begins his latest with a tale of a virtual opium den, describes the effects of the drugs he's been offered, but closes with the suggestion that he was far too busy to take the time to actually experience the effects first-hand.

While your avatar is staggering and lurching under an animation replicating the outer effects of necking a handful of foul pills that some nerve-damage case mixed up in a bathtub and probably cut with talcum powder and rat poison, motion graphics and audio launch to commence a hypnotic induction. The inductive system is intended to, from what I can gather, get you good and dopey, disoriented, and wondering why the walls are melting and the floor is made of meat.
The whole experience apparently takes half an hour. That, sadly, was half an hour I didn't have this week. So go down to Seclimine Drug Shack and get good and messed up for me.

This is like Hunter Thompson taking a pitstop halfway to Vegas. Stopping , even though it's bat country, because he just can't hold his wee. "Gonzo, can you take these bennies for me? I have to piss like a race horse." And aside from being a complete cop out, it's bad reporting. Which, considering Ellis is talking about Second Life, is par for the course.

imageFor anyone unfamiliar with concept of travelogues, they were essentially created by magazine editors eager to share with their readers the experiences to be had in a rapidly shrinking world. Said editors would pay highly-skilled individuals literate in various languages to travel across the globe, have adventures, then write about them. Said audiences would then sit in their comfortable homes, read about the adventures of said highly-skilled individuals, and then sleep well at night comfortable in the knowledge that they didn't have to leave the house to know what life would be like in, say, Madagascar. Editor gets increased newsstand sales, highly-skilled individual gets a paycheck and audience gets to vicariously experience something they can't experience themselves. Everybody wins

What we're seeing now is the rise of virtual world travelogues. Game and technology magazine editors (and editors of those sections at larger publications) are looking for highly-skilled individuals literate in "MMO-ese" to venture into places like World of Warcraft and Second Life, have "adventures" and then write about them, as in the days of yore. This is ostensibly to boost traffic and deliver to the audience what they're supposedly demanding. The only thing wrong with this is that Second Life, unlike Madagascar, is easily accessible to just about everyone. In fact, unlike Madagascar, which has a thriving native economy and various industries unrelated to the arrival of curious Westerners, it needs the participation of the audience. Second Life would fail without it, in fact. So, if you're sitting at home, reading these travelogues about Second Life on your computer, a computer which for all intents and purposes is quite capable of taking you there to enjoy the experiences yourself ... well, then you're just being lazy. Or, perhaps the prospect of wasting time doing things in a virtual world which you're entirely capable of replicating in your own home just doesn't appeal to you. In which case, Second Life is doomed.

Then again, when the experiences aren't even compelling enough for those who're getting paid to experience them for you to bother with, then it's probably all moot anyway.

Most of the folks reporting on Second Life appear to have read the same book, that book being Neal Stephenson's excellent Snow Crash in which a pizza delivery guy from the future become a sword-carrying badass in the online, avatar-driven world called "metaverse." It's a great book, and the first time I read it (I've read it twice since) I decided that I simply had to live long enough for that dream to become a reality. The virtual world Stephenson described was simply too cool to ignore. It's no surprise then that I wasn't the only one affected by it, nor that many of the latest virtual world efforts have had the "metaverse" moniker appended to them.

Problem? Second Life is not the metaverse. But even if it were, I'd still expect the reporting to be better. Linden Lab, Second Life's creators, have proven themselves to be excellent media operators. The amount of buzz this thing has received is insane, and continues to grow. But I can't fault them for it. I blame those of us getting suckered in because we want it to be true so badly, we're not asking the right questions. Fact is, guys, these are the droids we're looking for. Stop falling for the mind tricks.

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