A model for categorising virtual places in Second Life

Standing on the Map of the World

Standing on the Map of the World

Since first joining Second Life nearly (gasp!) 8 years ago, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, and designing, virtual places. These places have ranged from the micro-level of a particular room within a building, to the meso-level consisting of multiple buildings and public spaces within a region. I’ve yet to venture into the macro-level (which I define to be multiple regions as part of an estate).

Designing anything, whether it’s a printed piece, a website, or a sim, is a process of making choices. I’ve found that making choices works best under the guidance of a model – meaning, a way of thinking about things that helps you when making decisions.

I began thinking about my model for designing virtual places when I read Kaya Angel’s comments on the outstanding video that New World Notes said “everyone was talking about”. As I commented on Inara Pey’s blog post on the subject, Kaya Angel has done a fantastic job of capturing what could be considered the best of Second Life. It really is great work, and I don’t only mean the video – which is excellent, but also in the build. If there were a Seven Wonders of Second Life (which there should be if there isn’t yet!), I’d easily nominate Angel Manor Estates as one. I have many fond memories from there, and hope to continue making many more!

If you watch the video (watch it at 1080p HD, go on, I’ll wait…) you might notice (as others have), that the surfaces in the video are shinier than you might be used to in your viewer. Using specular textures and viewing them on ultra-graphics creates the impression of this shininess, that some might consider is a tad unrealistic. It was Angel’s response to this criticism that intrigued me most, when he articulated something that’s been in my head for many years of designing virtual places, which I’ve written below Angel’s comment quoted here:

“I should add that the comment about specular being too much may not take into account the context of the theme. The intent is not to be totally realistic. I believe there is a balance that is important in SL. If you make something too real then people compare it to RL which breaks the illusion of SL. If you make something too surreal then the person can’t find anything to connect with and relate it to the real world. I always aim for a hyper-reality. It’s a balance where you still let buildings adhere to things like the laws of physics and make sure the building looks structurally sound but you don’t make is so real and to scale that its not practical for an avatar to move around. The key is to make it so you feel in a real space but your imagination is still free to let you be there in your mind.

“Angel Manor is not meant to be totally real it’s meant to be more like a Disney dream palace. There for the amount of shine added is done on purpose to make the place sparkle like a dream. So I think the new Normal and Specular map can really look real you just have to play around with them until you get the level you want.”

I’ve been thinking about the concept of fidelity in virtual worlds for some time now, and Angel’s comment above compelled me to articulate how I make design decisions, when it comes to virtual places – because I think that Angel and I see things somewhat similarly.

To seriously consider a model for designing virtual places, one needs to first acknowledge a virtual world is a simulation of the physical world, and the avatars, behaviours, objects, places, social norms and natural laws in it are digital representations of their real life originals. As with any copy, one can assess the authenticity of the copy. Like any representation (e.g. photograph, audio recording, video recording, digital simulation, etc…) of an original subject, one can measure (on a variety of qualitative and quantitative factors) how accurate the reproduction is to the original on which the reproduction is based. This quality might be referred to as “authenticity” or to use a term that we’re hearing a lot more about lately, “fidelity”. Thus, representations of real world things: avatars, behaviours, objects, places, social norms and natural laws, can either have low or high fidelity, in comparison to the real life originals. I’ll be exploring this concept at length in my book-in-progress, and in some blog posts to come, as I experiment with the ideas.

Thus, we have what I term as “The Continuum of Fidelity”

The Continuum of Fidelity

The Continuum of Fidelity

When Angel is saying that he is designing Angel Manor to “not to be totally realistic”, he is deliberately aiming to the right end of the Continuum of Fidelity, but by using specular textures to invoke a “Disney dream palace”, he is deliberately stopping short of high fidelity to avoid making something too real because “people compare it to RL which breaks the illusion of SL.”

I generally agree with Angel’s perspective, because it opens the door to more than what I refer to as the rather safe and sound field of artistic reproduction (e.g. like a realistic photograph), enabling an artist to interpret and bravely bring something new and potentially magical to the creative table (like a watercolour painting).

Parallels to this perspective live in all media. When I listen to a cover song, I much prefer to hear the artist ‘make the song their own’, instead of mimicking the original. Sometimes the cover artist honours the heritage of the original, and sometimes they do not.

One of the best examples of the re-invention of a song is Jimi Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”. The two are so different, that I was surprised to learn that Hendrix released his single only 6 months after Dylan released the original. Hendrix’s version became his first and only Top 40 single on the Billboard charts. Even Dylan himself approved:

“It overwhelmed me, really,” Dylan told the Florida Sun-Sentinel in 1995. “He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.” Source: CoverMe

No one with ears would consider Hendrix’s version of Dylan’s classic trying to mimic or karaoke the voice of a generation, and thank goodness for that! This was a song that firmly stands on its own feet, with Rolling Stone even placing Hendrix’s version on its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, whilst reserving the honour of first place for Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”.

I also admire film directors that adapt books into films and take creative risks by interpreting the books and re-imagining them into motion picture form. In my view, Peter Jackson did a phenomenal job of bringing the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (which J. R. R. Tolkien didn’t even intend as a trilogy).

Despite many fans and scholars of the book disagreeing with the many liberties Jackson took with characters, events and themes, out of the necessity of adapting 481,103 words into 9.3 hours of film (theatrical release), LoTR was an undeniable success on nearly every level.

The Lord of the Rings film series became the highest grossing film trilogy worldwide of all time (yes, even higher than the original Star Wars and Godfather trilogies). It also tied for the highest number of Academy Awards won for a single film, with the Return of the King receiving eleven Oscars.

So, yes, the philosophy of deliberately avoiding perfect fidelity to originals could be considered a good strategy for creative success. However, I think there is more to it than that.

To help me articulate what I mean, I’ll borrow liberally from the book “Authenticity” by Pine and Gilmore, where they offer a 2×2 matrix that defines the authentic aspects of an offering (e.g. a product, a business, or in example I’m using it for, a virtual place).

In this essay, I present the Real/Fake 2×2 Matrix below, and use it as a model to categorise some well-known and currently active virtual places in Second Life. It is important to note, that despite our typically negative associations with the word “fake” and our positive associations with the word “real”; in this model, no one quadrant is more valid than another – an example that fits into any of these squares can offer value.

The Fake / Real Matrix

The Fake / Real Matrix


Real-Fake IS what it says it is and IS NOT true to itself.

As a real world example, consider the current incarnation of the Starbuck’s Coffee chain. When founder Howard Schultz opened up his first Starbuck’s Coffee Shop outside of Seattle’s Pike Place Market in 1971, he figured that American’s might enjoy the experience of a real Italian coffee shop. He was partly right, and fought tooth and nail to keep Starbucks true to its ideological Italian heritage, as the brand rose in popularity to become the most dominant coffee shop on the planet. Along the way, however, Shultz readily admits he made many compromises to his original vision of an Italian café on Main Street, USA.

If you’ve been to Italy and visited the cafés there, you’d know that they are a different species to the likes of Starbucks (and its many knock-offs) you and I are familiar with today. Rome’s Tazza d’Oro (Golden Cup) located a stone’s throw from the Pantheon, offers an experience that is an entirely different ritual to the one we’ve become accustomed to in North American coffee culture.

At Tazza d’Oro, you first pay at the cashier, then you fight your way to the standing bar with which you must show the barrista before they make your coffee. Then, whilst standing, you’re expected to shoot your coffee down in seconds (typically espresso as most Italians only consume cappuccinos after lunch), leave a small tip (a few centessimi is fine), and then leave the café and go on about your day.

There’s no watching movies on your iPad as you sit in a reclined position on a plush velvet sofa! There’s no lounging about for hours milking your caramel mocha frappuccino whilst nibbling on a tuna and melted cheese sandwich! You’re in, you’re out, experience done!

Starbucks is what it says it is (a real coffee shop), yet Starbucks is not true to its heritage (Italian cafés). Therefore, according to this model, it is a real-fake.


I know this sounds really pedantic but… in the real Paris, the Arc de Triomphe is 2km away from the Eiffel Tower, and the two monuments are separated by the river Siene. Such scenes just make me think “thats not real”

A sim in Second Life that I’d categorise as a real-fake would be the Paris estate (see Ciaran Laval’s on his visit to Paris or my tongue in cheek post about What to Wear in Paris for more pictures). This virtual city has various reproductions of Parisian landmarks including the Moulin Rouge, Eiffel Tower, Maison Victor Hugo, Carousel 1900, Grand Roue Ferris Wheel, Moulin de la Galette windmill, Notre Dame Cathedral, The Champs Elysees, Arc De Triomphe, and The Louvre, arranged within close proximity to each other so as to fit within a four sims.

The landmarks of the Paris sim certainly remind one of Paris, however, having visited Paris at least half a dozen times, spending anywhere from a weekend to a week there on each occasion, walking its streets, sampling its many charms and becoming reasonably familiar with the layout -to me, it just doesn’t feel like Paris.

With that said, I mean no disrespect to the owners / builders of this estate. There is much to enjoy there, and I can certainly appreciate how challenging it is to build and keep up one sim (let alone four!) for so many years. Still, due to its unrealistic juxtaposition of well-known monuments, oddly chosen activities, and anachronistic playing with time periods, I just don’t feel it’s true to Paris, France, as much as a simulation could be. I’m sure that skydiving off the Eiffel Tower that is a stone’s throw away from the Arc de Triomphe (when it’s actually 2km away in real life) is lots of fun for some, but to me it says “unreal” – and not in a good way.

In this regard, I consider the Paris sim to be real-fake – it is what it says it is (a simulation of Paris), but is not true to itself (as a copy, it falls short in terms of authenticity). On a purely personal note, and many may violently disagree with me, I’d much rather experience a beautifully rendered and carefully composed arrondissement of Paris (i.e. Montmartre) than a compromised and overambitious adaptation of the whole of Paris in 1/30th of the space.

Compared to the most popular sim in Second Life (I’m being 100% serious); however, Paris beats London City in nearly every way you can measure authenticity. I live in London, and I assure you that London looks and feels nothing like this:

LONDON CITY Regent's Park and Soho, - hynesyte.harbour

This picture was taken in 2012 and it is the MOST popular sim in Second Life… (?)

I’ve noticed that relatively few sims in Second Life that purport to be digital copies of real life counterparts are successfully executed as authentic representations. I’d suspect this is mainly due to the constraints inherent in a virtual world where making something look and feel real can sometimes be harder than making something look fantastical. These sims may be true to themselves in varying degrees (e.g. it’s considerably easier to make a replica of a real bar in real life, than it might be to make a replica of an entire real life city). However, there are some that have done it exceptionally well (e.g. City of Harrison is one example).

City of Harrison - II

City of Harrison – II by Caitlin Tobias


IS NOT what it says it is and IS NOT true to itself.

My favourite real life example of Fake-Fake is fake food. These gems of culinary creativity include herbal slimming tea that contains neither tea nor herbs, but rather glucose powder mixed with prescription obesity medication at 13 times the normal dose. In this category are also fruit juices that contain no fruit, but rather sugar, colouring, water and sometimes brominated vegetable oil. In England, we’ve seen beef that contains no cows, where the meat is actually sourced from horses. Similar to this is ham made from poultry that is coloured pink the production process. These are all examples of things that are not what they say they are, and might not even be considered food at all. (Source: The Independent).

Don’t let the example above suggest that I characterise fake-fake as invalid or unworthy, I don’t – and as I’ll explain, many people love this category. In Second Life, these sims are among the most popular sims on the grid.

Again, fake-fake sims are not what they say they are, and not true to themselves. Sims like this are harder to find because they tend to not be often photographed, or written about. I believe we tend to model most simulations on either originals we have experienced in the real world or build them in ways that are entirely impossible in the real world. Fake-fake sims, however, seem to be a haphazard mixture of the two.

Frank’s Place Jazz Club

Self-touted as Second Life’s Premier Dance Venue (to be fair they did win at least one Avi’s Choice award in their category), nearly everyone in Second Life is aware of Frank’s. According to Metaverse Business, Frank’s currently places as Second Life’s 2nd most popular sim – and its most popular General sim. The interesting thing about Frank’s (pictured below), is that it’s neither a “ballroom” (as it says in its description), nor does it really play jazz. What you actually get is a mall leading to a palatial open-air dance floor that bears little resemblance to any jazz music venue I’ve ever seen. It has a formal dress code where men dress in tails and the ladies dress in ball gowns (clothing which isn’t at all associated with most jazz clubs in real life) and instead of jazz, Frank’s mainly streams easy-listening music.

Darlin ... let me call you .. Darlin

“Darlin … let me call you .. Darlin” by Peter Jackson (probably no relation to the guy that made LoTR)

Escort Oasis

Escort Oasis is the 11th most popular sim in Second Life.This busy “strip club” serves an as easily accessible introduction to the world of freelance stripping in Second Life. The sim itself is a visual cacophony of styles and graphics, most desperately vying for attention among bright colours and neon pictured in the walls and walls of advertisements for cam girls and phone-sex workers. It could be argued that the Oasis in the name refers to the fact that girls can keep 100% of the tips they make there, but it bears little resemblance to any real world strip club I’ve ever seen (don’t smirk, I’ve seen a few), and seems mainly intended to serve the interests of offworld sex workers that use Second Life as an advertising vehicle for their services delivered in other media.


“Snapshot” by who else but the aptly-named Matt LasVegas

Skinny Dip Inn and Nude Beach Resort & Dance Club 

The third most popular sim in Second Life is also the most popular adult sim. SDI, for short, is neither an inn, nor a nude beach (although nudity is allowed). As you can see from the photo, it doesn’t really have much fidelity to its real life inspirations.

Live Music at the Skinny Dip Inn with Gypsy on June 22 2012 3

Live Music at the Skinny Dip Inn with Gypsy on June 22 2012 3, by Lexxi Gynoid

Fake-Fake sims make up some of the most popular sims in Second Life, but they’re often not the subject of blog posts or inworld photography (maybe because they are so busy it’s nearly impossible to take a photo of them!). They do however tend to get the most real world media attention, when lazy reporters lift outdated screen shots of sex-dens to show how depraved and weird Second Life can be. Still, they form an important part of the Second Life landscape, and are often a testament to what can be done in a world that primarily offers escapism as a benefit.


IS NOT what it says it is and IS true to itself. 

For fake-real, I’ll use two examples closer to home – The London Dungeon which is self-touted as one of London’s Must-See Attractions (it really isn’t, but it remains insanely popular among tourists here).

The attraction is a fake dungeon (developed by the same company that runs Madame Tussauds Wax Museum) originally built under London Bridge Station and since moved nearer the London Eye across from the Palace of Westminster / Big Ben (a more central location). That move in itself, should show that the London Dungeon is not a dungeon at all, but an attraction made to be a scary attraction. The whole thing amounts to a £20pp ride, where they turn “1000 years of history into 90 minutes of laughs, scares, theatres, rides, special effects, characters, jokes, mazes and storytelling.”

Importantly, the company behind this venture never purports to be a historical preservation of a real dungeon from London’s past. In the same way the Wax Museum is not a real museum but a manufactured tourist attraction, the London Dungeon is a not an homage or representation of real dungeon, but it is true to itself in being a tourist attraction. Perhaps a more well-known American example of fake-real is Disney World, which is a fake fantasy world, but is true to the heritage of Disney.

Sunday @ Basilique - I

Sunday @ Basilique by Caitlin Tobias

One might visit my sim in Second Life, Basilique, and notice it that resembles the lakeside towns located around the large lakes in norther Italy. The town is not a replica of any particular town in Northern Italy (although it’s often mistaken as such), but it was inspired by the them. I hope that those (like me) who have visited those towns might feel familiarity with those experiences when they visit my sim. On that basis, one could measure the authenticity of my town, against the towns that inspired it. Does my town “feel” authentic, or not? I, and many how have visited it, believe that it does feel authentic. In the exact meaning of the term, it is not – because it isn’t even a copy of any town in real life. In this regard, Basilique is Fake-Real. It is not what it says it is (there is no real-life Basilique) but it is true to itself (in that it feels relatively true to the heritage of towns that inspired it).

I’d speculate that most sims in Second Life fit in this category, and I’d place the Angel Manor and 1920s Berlin (illustrated below) in it. Angel Manor, is not what it says it is (fake), but it is true to what a grand and opulent palatial estates in the real world might be, honouring the heritage of what grand and opulent palatial estates look and feel like (real). Having visited several real life versions of the type (The Palace of Versailles, Hampton Court Palace, too many castles in the UK to mention, and the Vatican), I know a grand and opulent palatial estate when I see one, and Angel Manor looks and feels authentic.

Nothing but a Guitar Case and the World in Front of Him

Hyacinthe Luynes in front of the Brandenberg Gate in 1920s Berlin

I’m not familiar with the real life Berlin, but as far as virtual cities go, The 1920s Berlin Project arguably does a better job at honouring the heritage of a real-life place frozen in time whilst avoiding real-life comparisons due to its historical situation. Since Berlin lay in ruins at the end of WW2, the Berlin of 1920s no longer exists but in historical records and very, very few memories. Therefore, despite being modelled on a real life location (like Paris), I’d put 1920s Berlin into the into the fake-real category: It is a faithful representation (fake) of Berlin in the 1920s (real). A significant part of this is Frau Yardley’s insistence on 1920s clothing and realistically sized avatars for all visitors. In this way, she ensures (as much as she can) as much authenticity as Second Life might allow.

The Berlin example shows how a visitors familiarity with a real life place may influence how authentic they perceive the virtual representation. I’ve never visited Berlin in real life (whereas I’m very familiar with the real life Paris), so for all I know, Frau Yardley may be taking much creative license in representing Berlin as she does – to me however, this is what I imagine 1920s Berlin might have looked and felt like. I take it at face value, but I’d welcome her to comment on the subject if I’m wrong.

Fake-real sims are not what they say they are, but they are true to themselves, in varying degrees. Due to the limitations of virtual places, it’s in some ways easier to make a place that is inspired by a real life location, than one that is a direct copy of it. Like in the case of Basilique and Angel Manor, the “originals” needn’t be real at all to fit this category, as long as they fit within the constructs of our collective imaginations or memories. Other good examples of fake-real include

  • Caelestivm – “a recreation of a realistic medieval environment with a touch of fantasy combined with Celtic traditions and medieval living in a natural environment.”)
  • Makeahla Jungle - four conjoined sims that recreate the look and feeling of a jungle infested with (albeit static) wildlife.
  • Phoenix One Station - a space station that offers an environment that is meant to simulate an abandoned deep space research station, now acting as humankind’s last outpost after the Earth has been destroyed.
  • Otium – an intimate island village set among five isolated islands
Otium - Leisure and Laziness - I

Otium – Leisure and Laziness – I by Caitlin Tobias

I am not saying in any way that fake-real sims are more valuable or better than real-fake sims – like so many things, one’s appreciation for virtual places comes down to a matter of taste. Personally, and probably unsurprisingly, I prefer fake-real over real-fake.


IS what it says it is and IS true to itself.

Real life examples of real-real are so abundant that this explanation might be even be superfluous, but for the sake of completion, I’ll go ahead. The Tower of London, for example, is a real palace and fortress where prisoners were incarcerated between 1100 to 1952 (not the same prisoners, that would be cruel…). The Tower is also a real tourist attraction. The London Dungeon, in contrast, is a fake prison that is a real tourist attraction.

The remaining category, real-real, is any place that is what it says it is, and is also true to itself. By this definition, one might claim that a simulation can’t be real-real, because it is a simulation – and not real. However, when a simulation represents itself as a simulation, and is true to that representation, it might be considered real-real.


Snapshot_005-2 by Cammino & Vivo Capovolto

I find that the Linden Endowment for the Arts attracts many artists that aim to create real-real simulations. Some current examples include

  • LEA 29 – Mistero Hifeng – which is an exhibition of 3D versions of the digital images, suggestive of an illusive and dreamlike world
  • LEA 10 – Nothing Endures Change by Whiskey Monday – an exhibition of her often surreal pop-up creations and photo settings.

Most well-known artists in Second Life tend to work within the real-real arena, including recent installations like Moya’s Memorycomposed of three sims that are the artistic collections of three artists. Another one that comes to mind is Timeless Memories, designed by Elivira Kytori, which is a fantastical sparsely forested snowy landscape with several vignettes playfully placed around a snaking boardwalk.


Before I researched this post, I expected that most of the sims that become popular and loved in Second Life were either one or the other: fake-real or real-fake. However, I’m surprised to find that fake-fake seems to be by far the most popular type of sim.

What I like about this approach, is that it might serve to explain why some of us are attracted by certain types of virtual places, but are repelled by others. I’m interested to know what you think of this model, and how I might make it more clear, relevant and applicable. If you disagree with the value of my approach, I’d welcome hearing that also.

Thanks for reading!

Strawberry Singh asks us to make our avatars into movie characters

Warm Sunsets Await

Check me out… I’m a movie star…

I clearly missed my calling in life as an actor. Not only do I play one in Second Life (Romeo in Romeo + Juliet, Eve in Paradise Lost in Second Life), but I also just love dressing up my many avatars as characters from the movies and television series.

It was with delight that I read Strawberry Singh’s latest Monday Meme wherein she asks us to dress up as movie characters – this one is easy! I know that I’ll never stop doing this – and I plan to branch into television series, and novels too. As a response to her challenge, I’ve included my movie homages to date (ordered starting with the earliest to the most recent):

The first in this set was inspired by an earlier Blog Challenge to make a movie poster. I figured since I was producing a play called Romeo + Juliet, I had might as well make a movie poster for it…

Romeo + Juliet FINAL POSTER

JulietFord as Juliet and me as Romeo, in an homage to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet

This next one is part of a series of nearly a dozen pictures Harvey and I set up at the Basilique Square. We were feeling imaginative one day and figured we’d set up a full on Imperial attack, with us playing rebel forces from Empire Strikes Back. It took us a day to source all the props, set up the shots, edit the pictures, and take it all down. It was one of the best days ever :)

The AT-ST's enter the Piazza - Homage to Empire Strikes Back

Part of a series of Photos as an homage to Empire Strikes Back

As I was thinking about the show was to follow Romeo + Juliet, I became obsessed with the music of Mozart, and watched Amadeus, the movie based on his life several times. I was listening to his Requiem on repeat, as I composed this picture. The Requiem, would become the soundtrack of Paradise Lost in Second Life.

The Conductor - Inspired by Amadeus

My Homage to Mozart from the movie Amadeus

One of my favourite television series of all time was the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, and two of my favourite characters, were Baltar (here played by Harvey) and Number Six (yours truly). This picture was done in a day, similar to our Empire Strikes Back day. It was considerably less ambitious, but no less fun.

Oh for frack's sake what is it now? Baltar and Six from Battlestar Galactica

Oh for frack’s sake what is it now? Baltar and Six from Battlestar Galactica (not a movie, I know, but 4 years of awesomness!)

Pretty much everyone that knows me and my blog is familiar with Paradise Lost in Second Life. Whilst not technically a movie yet – I figured I’d include it here because it soon will be! Watch for the full machinima version coming out in 2015.

Paradise Lost Teaser No. 3

Harvey Crabsticks as Adam and me as Eve – This is being made into a movie – due out this year!

I had this idea of pairing two scenes from different movies, that might be considered similar (singing in the rain) but couldn’t be any more different in terms of perspective and mood. The first was an homage to Singing in the Rain

Singing in the Rain (Homage to Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood)

Singing in the Rain (Homage to Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood)

The second shot was an homage to Eponine, from Les Miserables.

Eponine (from Les Miserables)

Eponine (from Les Miserables)

By far one of my favourite movies of all time, The Matrix has inspired a generation of artists with its vision, slickness and pop culture resonance. I took this picture months before I used it for one of my blog posts late last year about how the virtual world may one day become more necessary than we currently think.

Red Pill v Blue Pill - Inspired by the Matrix

Red Pill v Blue Pill – Inspired by the Matrix

The next three images are definitely more recent – used in support of my ongoing Basilique Film Festival – a celebration of 30 years of virtual reality movies. These next two images were taken specifically for posts I wrote to review the first two movies in our programme: TRON and Total Recall.

Light Cycle

Me on a Light Cycle – inspired by TRON

Arnie on Mars (from Total Recall)

Arnold Schwartzenegger in Total Recall (on Mars)

Review: Total Recall asks us to “Return to Reality”

Total Recall Poster Homage

My homage to the original Total Recall poster, featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger

I had no idea there was a sub-genre of films called “mindfuck” movies. It’s pretty much what it says on the tin: a movie that plays with your mind, confuses you, and leads you on until you’re left asking the question: “What the fuck just happened here?!” as the closing credits roll.

These aren’t just movies with a twist ending (like M. Night Shyamalan’s fantastic The Sixth Sense). Mindfucks are often incoherent, feel a bit like dreams, and are surreal. They make you wonder if what’s happening is really happening, or if they’re manifestations of the protagonist’s mind.

Many famous movies fit this sub-genre including Fight Club, The Game, Eyes Wide Shut, Abre Los Ojos (and Vanilla Sky), Memento, Mulholland Drive, Inception, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Total-Recall-1990-PosterThis week’s Basilique Film Festival 2015 movie is Total Recall, which aims to screw with your mind on several fronts whilst frequently raising the question what is real, what is memory, and what is fantasy? Total Recall, adapted from Philip K. Dick’s story “We Can Remember it for you Wholesale” was released in 1990, and instantly became a massive hit. The movie was an weight-bearing column in the temple to action that is the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was rumoured to be the most expensive movie made up until that time.

The film – science-fiction interplanetary action romp – also explores notions of simulated reality, amnesia and installed memories. While the pre-CGI effects, ’80s fashions, token female and racial minority characters, (sometimes prescient) futuristic ideas, and cheesy one-liners do help to date the movie; today’s reviewers regard the film as generally very good (Rotten Tomatoes awarding it 84% on the tomatometer).

Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger) is a construction worker who lives an idyllic working-class life set sometime in the 21st century, where he lives in a comfortable apartment with his sexy bombshell-wife Sharon Stone. We’ve since colonised Mars, and Quaid is mysteriously obsessed with travelling to the inhospitable red planet. He decides that the only way he’s going to visit Mars is to travel to it virtually, courtesy of a company that offers packaged memories, Rekall. As if travelling to Mars wasn’t easily worth the price, Quaid is offered and purchases an extra where he can assume the identity of a secret agent, complete with a female companion that is configured by Quaid as “athletic, sleazy and demure”.

From the beginning of Quaid’s mind-trip, the movie makes us question – is what we’re watching real, or are we watching the packaged memory Quaid has purchased? As the action ensues, there is a stand-out scene that highlights the question in our minds – and for a while, makes us think that what we’re seeing is Quaid’s fantasy, and all happening in his head. The scene takes place after Quaid has already arrived on Mars, and the dialogue takes place between Quaid, and Dr. Edgemar (the doctor from the packaged memory company Rekall sent to bring him back to reality). It’s worth quoting in it’s entirety:

Dr. Edgemar: [At Quaid’s hotel door] Mr. Quaid?
Douglas Quaid: [Gets up from bed quickly and draws his gun] What?
Dr. Edgemar: I need to talk to you. It’s about Mr. Hauser.
Douglas Quaid: Who are you?
Dr. Edgemar: Dr. Edgemar from Rekall.
Douglas Quaid: How did you find me?
Dr. Edgemar: That’s a little hard to explain, but could you open the door? [Quaid opens the door and points his gun at Edgemar]
Dr. Edgemar: I’m not armed.
[Quaid looks behind Edgemar]
Dr. Edgemar: Dont’ worry, I’m alone. May I come in… [Quaid takes Edgemar into his room]
Douglas Quaid: What do you want?
Dr. Edgemar: This might be difficult for you to accept, Mr. Quaid.
Douglas Quaid: I’m listening.
Dr. Edgemar: I’m afraid that you are not really standing here right now.
Douglas Quaid: You know doc, you could’ve fooled me.
Dr. Edgemar: Quite so. You’re not here, and neither am I.
Douglas Quaid: Wow, that’s amazing. Where are we? [sarcastic]
Dr. Edgemar: At Rekall. You were strapped to an implant chair, and we’re monitoring you from a psychic probe console.
Douglas Quaid: Oh, I get it. I’m dreaming, and this is a part of the delightful vacation package your company had sold me. [sarcastic]
Dr. Edgemar: Not exactly. You have this dream sequence in your natural memory banks, and you’re making this up as you go along.
Douglas Quaid: If this is my dream, then who the hell invited you?
Dr. Edgemar: I was sent in as a security measure. I’m afraid to tell you this Mr. Quaid, but you have suffered a schizoed embelism, we can’t snap you out of your fantasy. I was sent here to try to talk you down.
Douglas Quaid: How much is Cohaagan paying you for this?
Dr. Edgemar: Think about it. Your dream began in the middle of the implant procedure, and everything that followed. The chases, the trip to Mars, the suite at the Hilton, was all a part of your holiday and ego trip, you paid to be a secret agent.
Douglas Quaid: Bullshit. It’s coincidence.
Dr. Edgemar: What about the girl? Brunette, athletic, sleazy and demure just as you specified, is that a coincidence?
Douglas Quaid: No she’s real. I dreamt about her before I even went to Rekall.
Dr. Edgemar: Mr. Quaid, can you hear yourself? She’s real because you dreamt her.
Douglas Quaid: That’s right.

I just love Dr. Edgemar’s last line “She’s real because you dreamt her.” It’s so glaringly preposterous, yet Quaid is clearly buying the story – fictitious or otherwise. In this pivotal scene that I unfortunately could not find a clip of on YouTube, director Verhoeven does a terrific job of briefly pausing the nearly-non-stop-action to ask the viewer to seriously question their perception… is what we’re seeing Quaid do real, or isn’t it?

This is what I love about mindfuck entertainment – its twists and turns compel you to interpret it, instead of having it served on a easy-picking platter, the director answering every mystery lest they make the viewer do an ounce of work. To me, this is the difference between passive and interactive motion-picture entertainment, and I’ll take the latter over the former any day of the week.

At the mid-point of the movie, one is pretty convinced: “what we’re seeing is real, Quaid really is a secret agent on Mars”. But, Dr. Edgemar’s logic is so compelling, it begins to make us wonder. We can actually see Quaid’s face express tells of self-doubt (a testament to Schwarzenegger’s often-underrated and sometimes subtle acting skills – he’s got more depth than his guns, ok?!)

Arnie on Mars

My version of Quaid on Mars in Total Recall

Dr. Edgemar notices he’s getting closer to cracking Quaid, so he brings in his trump-card: Quaid’s “fake” wife, Lori played by Sharon Stone in a classic 80s-shoulder-padded grey power-suit, who is apparently also at Rekall, trying to revive Quaid from his delusional trance.

Dr. Edgemar: Well, maybe this will convince you. Would you mind opening the door?
Douglas Quaid: [Holds his gun to Edgemar’s chin] You open it.
Dr. Edgemar: No need to be rude, I’ll open it. [Goes to the door and opens it, revealing Lori]
Douglas Quaid: [Shocked] Oh, guessing that you’re not here either.
Lori: I’m here, at Rekall. I love you.
Douglas Quaid: Right, that’s why you tried to kill me.
Lori: No. I wouldn’t do anything to hurt you. I want you to come back to me.
Douglas Quaid: Bullshit.
Dr. Edgemar: What’s bullshit Mr. Quaid? Afraid to admit that you’re having a schizo paranoid episode, or are you really an invincible secret agent from Mars, who is in the middle of an interplanetary conspiracy to make him think that he’s a lonley construction worker. Stop punishing yourself Doug, you’re a fine upstanding man you have a beautiful wife who loves you, you have a whole life ahead of you. But you gotta want to return to reality.
Douglas Quaid: If I wanted to return, then what?
Dr. Edgemar: [Takes out a pill] Swallow this.
Douglas Quaid: What is it?
Dr. Edgemar: It’s a symbol for your desire to return to reality. In your dreams you’ll fall asleep. [Quaid takes the pill]
Douglas Quaid: Okay. Let’s say you’re telling the truth and this is all a dream. [Puts his gun against Edgemar’s head]
Douglas Quaid: But I could pull this trigger and it won’t matter.
Lori: Don’t, Doug.
Dr. Edgemar: Oh it wouldn’t make the slighteat difference to me Doug. But the consequences to you will be devestating, because in your mind I’ll be dead, and with no one to guide you out you’ll be stuck in permenant psychosis.
Lori: Let Dr. Edgemar help you.
Dr. Edgemar: The walls of reality will come crashing down. One minutie, you’ll be the savior of the rebel cause, and the nest thing you know you’ll be Cohaagan’s Bosom Buddy, you’ll also have fantasies about alien civilizations as you requested. But in the end back on Earth, you’ll be lobotomized. So get a grip on yourself Doug and put down that gun.
[Quaid lowers his gun]
Dr. Edgemar: Take the pill and put it in your mouth.
[Quaid puts the pill in his mouth]
Dr. Edgemar: Swallow it. [Quaid pans around batween Edgemar and Lori, then as a sweat drop runs down Edgemar’s face Quaid shoots Edgemar in the head, and spits the pill out]
Lori: Now you’ve done it, now you’ve done it.

In this scene, one can clearly see the inspiration behind the blue and red pills used in The Matrix, as a symbol of consciously choosing the reality one chooses to see – the dreamworld, or the (often much duller) truth.

So what are we seeing here? Is it real, or isn’t it? Getting past the fact that this is a fictionalised movie where nothing is really real, if you trust Quaid (and actually believe that people in simulated realities don’t sweat – huh?) then you have to assume that what we’re seeing is real. But is it? I honestly don’t know, what I will say is that there is a lot in the movie that makes the case for both arguments. One such instance is how Total Recall makes great use of holograms that imitate the characters during fight scenes, which is yet another instance where we – and the characters in the movie – are led to believe something is real when it is not.

Arnie in the Rekall Machine

Quaid about to get his memory erased… again!

This question of what is real? is further complicated by the fact that everything we perceive is conceptualised in our minds. Wait… what? It’s true, everything you perceive sends an electrical signal to your brain that conceptualises what it is. This perceptual-conceptual progression is true for every sensory input, be it sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and what we see in our mind’s eye, making everything subject to our conceptual filters.

If you don’t believe that Quaid is actually a secret agent on Mars instead of one-shock away from a lobotomy at Rekall, then we must see Total Recall as a film set in a simulated reality. Very different from our current version of virtual reality, simulated reality is a hypothesis that a reality could be simulated – possibly via very powerful computing – to a degree indistinguishable from “true” reality. This is the world of The Matrix, where the conscious mind may or may not be aware that it is living inside a simulation.

The closest we now get to simulated reality is created by the wetware of very own brains. Dreaming is a type of simulation that is capable of fooling us into believing that we are experiencing real events whilst asleep. Follow this argument to its final conclusion, it is in fact possible that we ourselves are living in a dream, although it’s unlikely (but who knows for sure?)

Right through to the end, the movie never really tips its hand by revealing the a conclusive answer to decide if what we’re seeing is real, or is actually a vividly portrayed delusion of Quaid’s imagination interacting with an extremely convincing simulated reality. The science and coincidence alone in this movie asks us to suspend our disbelief again and again, which is another way of making us question if any of this is real at all.

The last lines of the movie only serve to keep us guessing. At the end, Melina (Quaid’s main squeeze on Mars and his partner in its salvation from Cohaagan, the movie’s primary antagonist) and Quaid are tossed out into the inhospitable surface of Mars, where they nearly suffocate. They don’t, because they’ve managed to restore Mars’ life-supporting atmosphere and kill off Cohaagan in one fell swoop, thereby freeing everyone on Mars from his tyranny:

Melina: I can’t believe it, it’s like a dream. [she turns to see Quaid’s face turn serious] What’s wrong?
Douglas Quaid: I just had a terrible thought… what if this is a dream?
Melina: Well, then, kiss me quick before you wake up!

The screen fades to white. As I asked myself the question… “What the fuck did I just see there?”, I didn’t stop to give the absence of colour in the final fade a second thought. It was only after hearing about the director’s commentary, where Verhoeven suggests the fade-to-white might symbolise that Quaid has indeed been lobotomised in his recliner at Rekall. In this way, even the director might be asking us to “get back to reality”. True or not, I’m sure that most of us would prefer to imagine that our hero is now the saviour of Mars, bringing the movie to its happy conclusion.

I suppose we’ll never truly know what’s real, and what is not.

Next week, I’ll invite you to watch, and I’ll review the 1995 film based on William Gibson science-fiction classic, Johnny Mnemonic, staring Keanu Reeves.

Watching online video with your friends in Second Life

Watching Marco Polo on Netflix with friends in Second Life!

Watching Marco Polo on Netflix with friends in Second Life!

I’ve watched six seasons of Lost, four seasons of Battlestar Galactica, a whole season of House of Cards, and countless movies and documentaries inworld with friends – so as the Basilique Film Festival rolls into its second week (we’re watching Total Recall – the original), I thought I’d share a few practical tips with anyone who wants to watch stuff online with their friends in Second Life.

First off, let me explain that this explanation does not involve streaming video into Second Life. Whilst one can do that, it involves some set-up that might be a bit more involved that most residents want to get into. The far easier option, is to source streaming video, and watch it online.

The video-on-demand channels (e.g. Netflix, Amazon, YouTube etc.) are reliable sources to source high quality video, legally. If you’ve got other sources, then that’s your call. Just know that free sources on the internet can be dodgy for all sorts of reasons, which might make your experience more frustrating that it needs to be.

Once you’ve sourced your video online, the ideal set up is either two computers (one for the movie and one for Second Life), or a laptop (for your viewer) and a TV that can access internet streaming video. I’ve done both, and the second option beats the first for comfort and reliability. You can sit on the couch with your laptop running Second Life, while your TV processes the video – easier on the bandwidth, and on your machine.

If you don’t have this luxury, you can always split your screen, with your viewer open on one side and your movie playing on another (as shown above). I’ve found that playing my movie on the top part of my screen allows for the greatest viewable surface for the movie, while keeping my viewer open as a wide-screen below, works sufficiently for chat.

Turn down your graphics, get yourself seated comfortably in a low lag area, and aim your camera at something that’s easy on your FPS (i.e. staring out into the ocean works great). I have set up a viewing platform in the sky with little but my viewing chairs and a movie projector prop for the festival.

Once you’re ready to start watching; if possible, agree on the source video and/or share your URL. It’s ideal if you are watching from the same source, as streaming speed can be variable depending your bandwidth and the source, and different versions of movies can really play havoc with joint viewing.

Before pressing play, agree that if anyone crashes, the movie plays on. It’s much easier to let the movie run as your friends relog, so that when they return you’re all still watching the same thing.

Once you’re ready to get started, it’s as easy as typing 3, 2, 1 and PLAY in local chat. Then everyone presses play, and you’re off and running!

You might find that you get problems as the film plays, like buffering. Should that happen for longer than 5 seconds, simply say PAUSE in local, so that the group can do so, and anyone having problems has a chance to catch up. This might not be practical in a larger group, so be ready to have some differences in your viewing times.

It’s tonnes of fun to chat with each other while you watch the movie, just as you might in real life, so keep an eye on your local chat or IM, to keep up, and enjoy the show!

See my post on The Basilique Film Festival 2015 to see our schedule of joint viewings over the next few months!

I won Second Life Pic of the Day!

Second Life / Real Life Avatar Diptychs

Second Life / Real Life Avatar Diptychs

I came home from a night out and found a wonderful surprise when I logged into my Flickr account. Whilst I was out, Linden Lab selected my picture above entitled “Second Life / Real Life Avatar Diptychs” as the Second Life Pic of the Day! Thanks Caity Tobias for letting me know, and big thanks to Linden Lab for selecting it!

Every day Linden Lab chooses a picture from Flickr, taken in Second Life to share on their official Facebook, Twitter and Google+ and Tumblr pages, and today it’s mine!  I gotta say, I’m pretty proud right now :)

A few details about the above picture: A couple of weeks ago, Draxtor Despres asked people to submit SL/RL photos for a project he was working on. One of his project’s results is this installation above (LM), which is a wonderful opportunity to see some of the faces behind the avatars. If you look really, really close, you can see my submission near centre-top. Or, you can just look below for the original version.

Second Life / Real Life Diptych

Second Life / Real Life Diptych: Canary Beck

What if our avatars aged (and died!) in Second Life?

Unconventional Beauty

“Unconventional Beauty” by Kimberly Winnington

How morbid… we don’t like to talk about it, but (spoiler alert) we’re all gonna die, and on the journey, we’re going to look older than today, with every step we take towards our inevitable end. The fact that ageing and death isn’t optional, doesn’t make many of us fear it any less.

Hands down, ageing beats the alternative, which is ceasing to exist! Oh, but wait! In Second Life, we don’t have to age! It’s the zenith of escapism – our very own digital fountain of everlasting youth. Hmm, what if we did?

In this (rather long) essay on the topic of avatar ageing, I aim to explore the consequences of this hypothetical possibility, some of which I hope might surprise; or least, entertain you. The TLDR of the matter is: avatar ageing may not be as bad as we might at first imagine, and might even have benefits that have positive impacts on our real life health and happiness.

In Second Life, whilst we can change our avatar’s appearance to reflect our ages (to a degree), experience tells me that we tend not to do so. Demographic data in virtual worlds is scarce, but Cambridge-based Kzero Research, a company that conducts research in virtual worlds identified that over 1/3rd of Second Life residents are 35 or older. As a point of comparison, the median age in America is between 35 to 40, and is 40+ in Europe.

For clarity’s sake, in this essay I’m limiting my scope to avatar appearance, a topic that fascinates me, in how it might show ageing, not chronological age by which we measure the days since an avatar was first registered in Second Life. Further, I fully appreciate that ageing for many is not only chronological, but also a perception embedded in one’s psychological outlook, which might influence how one prefers to portray oneself in a virtual world.

Many might wonder why on earth I’d ever suggest such a hideously unnerving prospect. The very thought of enabling a feature like avatar ageing into virtual worlds is enough to make many of my friends recoil in abject horror and disgust. Am I bonkers? Isn’t this supposed to be a fantasy world where we can be, have, and do whatever we want? For some, it is, and that’s great; however, many residents choose to portray themselves with more verisimilitude. How dare I even tempt the fates by even suggesting it!

Whilst I accept that some people may want to portray themselves as different in many ways, I don’t agree that everyone does, or wants to. Personally agree with it or not, the research supports a variety of views on avatar fidelity.

Let’s start in the obvious place: Why do we readily accept appearing younger in a virtual world than we might otherwise be in real life?

The Unlikely Saviour

Me in a younger avatar skin and shape

Why would you choose to appear younger than your age?

The avatars I see and interact with on a day-to-day basis don’t show what Kzer claims is on the other side of the screen. I think most would agree that considerably fewer than a third of Second Life residents seem 35 years or older. Why? This may sound like an obvious question to many, but it’s worth examining. I suggest we most of us tend to look younger than our real life ages due to three factors: deliberate choice, a lack of options, or denial as a means to an end.

Firstly, I’d argue that we strive to appear younger than we actually are because our culture reinforces that youth is more valuable than older age at nearly every turn. When it comes to sexual attraction, natural selection has compelled the adaptation our brains over 250,000 years to make us really good at identifying healthy and practical reproductive partners. We associate mating viability with women that show signs of childbearing readiness, and men that show signs of the necessary resources to provide for and protect our offspring. When these biologically embedded preferences clash with modern culture, we naturally get ageism. Ageism, the prejudicial attitude towards others based on their age is one of our most common biases. Consequently, many among us suffer from mild to moderate forms of gerascophobia – an abnormal or persistent fear of growing old. Still, we are more than sexually driven beings whose only aim is to perpetuate our species, and we have shown we can have romantic and amicable relationships with people of all different ages, throughout our lives.

Studies claim that we tend to perceive older adults more negatively than we perceive younger adults regardless of our age or gender (granted, there may be cultural differences at play here, because much of the research we cite in the industrialised West is derived from samples of 18-22 year-old college students in our own – inherently biased – culture). Research also shows that despite the claim that many of us consider ageing a positive experience, we tend not to think of ourselves as “old” despite our biological age, tending to feel younger than we are, and would generally prefer to be younger than we are.

We naturally bring this adaptive bias into virtual space. I’ve heard residents say they wouldn’t approach someone in Second Life on the basis of their apparent age alone. What is interesting to me about this is that whilst ageism seems acceptable in our culture, once we swap the age factor with gender or race, it’s easy to see how this is just another form of prejudice (i.e. imagine that above sentence to read: “I’ve heard some say they wouldn’t approach someone in Second Life on the basis of their apparent race alone.”) For many of us, age seems to fit into a class of acceptable prejudices – like prejudices towards height and body shape; because we have been socialised to know that race and gender are no-go zones (at least most of us have).

Second, I would suggest that the under supply of middle-aged avatar skins might prevent us from appearing an age between 35 and 65 – even if we wanted to. Whilst limited, my personal experience in creating characters for immersive theatre in Second Life is that it’s a real challenge to create middle-aged avatars. When I chose my look for older Eve, my choice was limited to either my own look, or an avatar that looks considerably older than Eve might have looked soon after having her twins.

Becky at 65?

Me as middle-aged Eve, as I appeared in Paradise Lost in Second Life

In a similar way to how fashion in Second Life caters towards the more obvious extremes of taste (with very little available in the ‘middle-of-the-road’), most skins I found reflected either a person one might consider a young adult under 30 years of age or elderly adult over 65 years of age, with very little to choose from between the two extremes. In part, because of this under supply, the perceived age of my avatar likely hasn’t changed in the past seven years.

Third, I believe that some of us simply deny how we look, and aim to mask our real age through any means necessary – and we bring this ‘holding-back the clock’ approach to Second Life – because it works to get what want. Anti-ageing in the real world is a booming business, estimated to be worth a whopping USD 191.7 billion by 2019. Given how ample research demonstrates how much we identify with our avatars, Second Life might in fact be one of the cheapest anti-ageing therapies going! And, look ma, no nasty side-effects or complications (well, at least not physical; apart from sitting on our butts when we could be out there exercising…).

The reasons why one might seek real life anti-ageing (including creams, aesthetic treatments like Botox / fillers or microderm abrasion, facial / body plastic surgery, and hair restoration to name the majors) are usually associated with enhancing confidence and self-esteem. Both men and women cite a lack of confidence and perceived decline in attractiveness associated with an ageing appearance, and seek to redress their appearance to appear as young as they might feel inside.

Why would you choose to look your real life age or older?

Despite these reasons, there are some residents who choose to portray themselves as older than the average resident one sees in Second Life. They might be older in real life, or simply want to appear older than they might look in real life. And why not? How is avatar ageing, or portraying oneself middle-aged in Second Life, any weirder than being a zombie or a fairy princess? Isn’t it curious that we see so many avatars and clothing available for residents playing children, but seeing a middle-aged avatar is so rare that their very presence is actually surprising.

What if avatar appearance not only matched our real life ages, and what if our avatars aged?

As part of my What if… in Second Life? question series, where I ponder alternate realities and their consequences, I’d like to talk about avatar ageing by considering the question: “What if our avatars aged in Second Life?”

Imagine Second Life had such a mechanism, where one could opt-in to experience avatar ageing. If say, upon or after registration, we could use a tool to change our avatar’s appearance to not only show our age at the moment of identification, but to also progressively age with us? Without getting mired in the technical entanglements of how such a tool may or may not work, let’s consider what might happen if it did.

Aunt mearle.....................old-timer in an old town

Aunt mearle…………………old-timer in an old town by LiquidTips

As an analogy, let’s consider a virtual world experience in which ageing is the norm: The Sims is the world’s biggest-selling simulation series and is listed among the best-selling PC games of all time. While I appreciate The Sims is a very different experience to Second Life, there are some mechanics that one could imagine would work in both platforms.

For the record, I’ve not played any games in The Sims series, so I’d love it if readers who have experience with the game correct or support what I say next in the comments. The Sims has embedded ageing into the mechanics of the experience since its start. Now in its fourth incarnation, Sims 4 has six life stages for a Sim (a simulated person): baby, child, teen, young adult, adult and elder. Apparently, one can set the lifespan of Sims to be short, normal, or long, whether they are played or not. Further, one can disable the feature, which pauses ageing for one’s Sims, or NPCs (non-player characters) as one’s own Sims age. Disabling ageing notwithstanding, Sims also can die as a result of accidents, or by nature taking its course.

Like with the Sims, a system like this could be introduced as an option in Second Life, which one could opt-in to as an experiment in the consequences of ageing. Similarly, if one could control the pace of change, so that the passage of years might be reflected in months, and months reflected in days, we might find that the faster the pace, the more learning might take place.

A hypothetical Second Life ageing system

The system-thinkers among you might be wondering… if we had ageing, how would it work? And further, what other aspects of life might it be associated with? This is an intriguing line of inquiry – which I owe some ideas to my friend Huckleberry Hax who discussed it with me.

Ageing is a biological process that is subject to genetic and lifestyle factors. It also shows differently for different people. Supposing this was a possibility, how would such an ageing system show our age?

Some of us might have used online calculators that assess our ‘health age’ – they ask us fill in a form with our gender, body measurements, cholesterol and glucose levels, lifestyle habits like frequency and intensity of our exercise, our eating, smoking and drinking habits, our general sense of mental well-being, in addition to our chronological age. These factors are then entered into an equation that reveals one’s ‘health age’ that may be higher or lower than your chronological age.

Combined with a little relevant family longevity history, a similar tool could be used to adapt a skin and shape that would reflect our ‘health age’ based on real life photographs adapted to physical norms reflective of our ‘health age’. So there is our genetic factor taken care of. Further, a system like this might have a HUD that reflects our health indicators as they change based on the lifestyle choices we make.

Almost done

Dutchie’s Bisto Table

What lifestyle choices could we make that might influence the system? Well, such a system could have an associated marketplace store where we could buy food of varying nutritional quality for our avatars to consume by simply wearing and detaching food items, similar to what you might see in the image of Dutchie’s bistro table above. We already have an abundance of food items in Second Life, what if they applied nutritional metadata to these items that then could interact with my health and lifestyle system HUD?

Avatar nutrition would be vital, but physical activity might also play a part. Fortunately, we have a plethora of animations available to us inworld, from traditional exercise like walking and running, to yoga (see below), to dancing, and even sex. What if the frequency and intensity of our movement in Second Life could also affect a health and lifestyle system that applied the impact of physical activity on our overall health score? What if we got points, and our bodies intelligently adapted to the inworld lifestyle choices we made, thereby gamifying our experience even further? It’s been done before; Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto IV rewards you for physical activity by giving your avatar increased stamina, if you train them in racing events and such.

Since health is a continuum the ranges from good health to poor health, if we chose to make unhealthy choices, or neglect ourselves entirely, we might also see the consequences of our decisions manifested in our avatar bodies. Unhealthy avatars might put on excess weight, or even be prone to system-enabled disease. Similarly, it might become more and more challenging to keep our avatars healthy as they age, as we fight escalating levels of health challenges introduced by our advancing years. As our avatars aged, their abilities might even subtly decline, requiring us either to introduce more health preserving measures, or experience the effects of ageing. If we could increase the pace of change to x12, we might have the opportunity to witness our avatars develop over 12 years in the span of one. Now wouldn’t that be interesting?

Froukje, if you’re reading this? How about we get together with a brilliant coder and attach a health and lifestyle system to your goods! We might even be able to acquire points for sweeping the floor of our homes or folding laundry!

Dutchie sequenced yoga mat

Froukje getting a little morning Yoga

Some might consider this kind of activity excruciatingly boring. Why would you bother exercising your avatar when you can’t even be bothered to exercise in real life? Well, what if my health and lifestyle system was combined with a gaming system? Even more compelling, what if you could share and compare your health and lifestyle progress against other residents who were also participating? Now we have what game designer and author Jane McGonigal identifies as the four traits that define a game: a goal, rules, a feedback system and voluntary participation, in her book Reality is Broken (which I urge you to read because it’s excellent). Here’s a TED Talk where Jane lays out a brief introduction to her thesis that reveals how we “can harness the power of games to solve real-world problems and boost global happiness”.


What might be some advantages of ageing?

Assuming a system like this could be implemented, we’d definitely see more variety in our avatars. Most of us would argue that variability is something we value in avatar representation, which has been used time and time again to argue against the recent availability and adoption of mesh heads and bodies. Wouldn’t it add to the richness of our experiences if we were surrounded by the infinite variety that age-influenced appearance affords? While I’ve never participated, family role-play might make a bit more sense?

We might notice too, that we are interacting with people of different ages, which might help overcome some of our existing and erroneous prejudices. Many tout how we enjoy the opportunity to interact with people that are geographically and culturally diverse in virtual worlds; people with whom we might otherwise rarely interact. Just as ethnicity or gender complements how we experience a person, wouldn’t it be helpful to also to get a picture of the approximate age of a person you are interacting with too? Might it not help lower a few barriers that we might have otherwise erected in the physical world, which may then predispose us to be more open to interact with those younger or older than us in real life as well?

There are positive attributes associated with various ages (some real and some imagined), and our appearances might telegraph these attributes, in our favour. Granted, our appearances might telegraph the negative attributes as well. When it comes to physicality, sometimes we become more attractive as we age! Conventional wisdom would argue that men experience this more than women, but I believe that many women become more physically attractive, in different ways, as they ease their way into adulthood. For example, women tend to lose facial fat as they cruise into their 30s, making them appear thinner, which further defines the facial features many of us consider attractive. Men’s wrinkles and grey hair tends to lend them an air of gravitas that many of us tend to respect and admire.

If we looked more like our real life ages, we might attract people who are more similar to our age. Of course, we might not all want this, but many of us might. Many of us are familiar with the age compatibility equation – 1/2 (your age) + 7 (according to this rule, it would not be creepy for a 30-year-old to date a 22-year-old, but an 18-year-old would be off-limits). The data supports that women “prefer mates with resources and … like partners who are more established, both of which are more likely in older partners. Men, in contrast, are hypothesised to be most attracted to women in their reproductive prime, which tends to be when they are younger.” Our appearance can be a signal that telegraphs our experiences, our knowledge, and our wisdom. Like it or not, it’s hard to argue against long-standing evolutionary preferences, and looking our age would certainly make it easier to decide if appearances actually matched those preferences.

If you were older and looked your age, people might take you more seriously when you speak. While not everyone feels this way, I certainly attribute the trait of ‘wisdom’ to those who are older than me, which helps me open my mind to them and learn. Maybe that’s positive ageism, I don’t know, but I tend to see my assumptions validated the more older people I meet. Conversely, many people don’t take younger people as seriously as they might somebody older, so the opposite prejudice might also occur, as it does in the real world.

Please, read below.

Matilda Swoon

What about the downsides of ageing?

Advanced age tends to be accompanied with physical decline. It would follow, that if we aged in Second Life, there’d be things we could do to delay its signs (apart from hacks and cheats) and this is where things could get interesting. If our avatars experienced this, we might be more compelled to get out there into the real world and exercise more, without the security blanket of  the picture of perfect health provided by our avatars. There is research to suggest that physical activity inworld has a bleed effect on real world physical engagement – especially if one’s avatar is more reflective of oneself. Robin Heyden cites some research conducted by Bailenson and Yee, of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHL):

One of the researchers in Bailenson’s lab has conducted health behavior studies with an avatar, altered to resemble the subject, exercising and getting thinner as a result of their exersie (sic). In their experiments, the subjects would themselves exercise, in real life, on average, ten times longer than those watching an avatar who does not look like them or someone who didn’t watch an avatar at all and, instead, were told to visualize themselves, in their mind, exercising.

In a sense, these findings suggest the downside of physical decline in Second Life may actually be a stimulant towards healthy activity in real life, which would only be more effective the closer our avatars looked to ourselves.

Like The Sims, and as I explained above, we might even consider adding eating and exercise to our digital lifestyles. If we noticed the effects of ageing inworld, we might be compelled into making inworld lifestyle changes to keep our youthful figures, leading to all sorts of benefits in the real world. And to further complement our inworld exercise, the omnidirectional treadmills might arrive just in time.

As in the real world, new industries might arise. We might find virtual anti-ageing products and services that might help us counter the signs of inworld ageing ranging from avatar gyms to digital plastic surgery. If avatars showed the signs of decline as we did, we might even be spared the spontaneous vanishing of our friends as a result of their untimely deaths, providing us with some warning of their impending demise. As one of my chat participants said, might we one day become accustomed to attending avatar funerals as we are in attending avatar weddings?

Beyond aesthetics, avatar ageing may allow us to model comprehensive healthcare systems. What if role-playing in a health care setting wasn’t just role-playing, but had implications that affected our well-being inworld? Imagine the applications that we might invent if we could test medical procedures and pharmaceutical interactions in the digital world, without the considerable risks and glacial delays that might affect our real bodies in real life clinical trials.

Another downside of appearing one’s age might be that older residents could no longer trade on their youthful looks in Second Life as they might do now. If we aged as we do in real life, we might be similarly challenged to be more emotionally and mentally engaging to attract friends and lovers, beyond simply relying on what society considers physically attractive. Again though, there could be an upside in this regard, because we’d have more practice in dealing with change in Second Life. In this way, Second Life might act as a more valid laboratory where we can experiment socially much faster than in the real world. Personally, I’ve had friends that are in their early twenties, and friends in their mid 60s in both real life and Second Life. In Second Life, it would not have made any difference to me if they looked more their age. I believe that most of us in Second Life get past appearances fairly quickly, at least with those with whom we have more meaningful relationships. Many of us, however, don’t translate these learnings into the real world. Having these relationships in Second Life with avatars that looked their real age might influence us to open our minds to differently aged people in real life as well.

One might argue that ageing in Second Life reduces the opportunity to enjoy one’s youth for things that youth is designed for. I’d argue that the hastened awareness that our time on this earth is indeed short might bring forth an urgency that compels us to make the most of today. If we had avatar ageing that was set to mirror a faster reality, then we might come to value the limited time we have, and live more fully in the moment – making the best of our Second lives, much like repeated iterations of experiments of being.

Few regular Second Life residents would disagree with my assertion that we spend much, much, much more time looking at our idealised avatar selves than we spend looking at ourselves in a mirror. What might this be doing to our perception of self as our avatars look less and less than we do in real life? I have seen research that even a few inches added to the height of our avatars improves our level of confidence in the real world:

When people add extra inches to their self-image by making their avatars taller than they really are, the people can become more confident and aggressive in real-world negotiations. And when people make their avatars more attractive online, they tend to share personal information with strangers more readily, the researchers reported in the journal Human Communication Research.

What if we used our Second Life experiences to see real cause and effect change that can have lasting consequences on our physical and mental well-being?

Basilique Salon  - II - Nacho and Anne-Sophie

Nacho and Anne-Sophie, by Caitlin Tobias

Would you opt in to avatar ageing?

I think our view towards ageing, our different life stages, might tell us a lot about our attitudes and values. Again, from personal experience, I love my past (and even sometimes glorify it to myself and others). I also love my present, happy and content with my current life stage. Importantly, I am excited about my future. I don’t fear growing old, I look at it as a natural process that has its pros and cons, as much as any other life stage. Last night at the Basilique Chat Salon we had – like we always do, an engaging discussion, about this particular topic.

I was, to say the least, surprised that my question “What if our avatars aged in Second Life?” was met with widespread rejection to the idea. More than one person said that it would make Second Life less enjoyable, and that it might even influence a massive drop in user engagement. Some said it sounded like a means of control that they would reject to protect their freedom of expression. Others said that because people have come to know them by how they represent themselves (which includes implied age), that a shift to their real life age would be jarring for their friends.

I respect these views and deeply personal responses to this question. Further, I admit that my question might have been better worded to imply that this feature might be optional or even temporary, and that it might have some real world benefits. It’s fair to also add, however, that when I posed the follow-up question: “Would you leave Second Life, and everything it offers for you, simply because you had to accept avatar ageing?”, no one responded with an unqualified “yes”.

The reason, I suspect, that we wouldn’t leave Second Life if avatar ageing was imposed upon us, is because our brains just don’t notice the ageing process on a day-to-day level. If we wouldn’t use ageing as an excuse to opt out of the real world, why would we use it as a reason to opt out of the virtual world? Speeding up the ageing process would be optional, and likely only chosen to experience the cause and effect learning I earlier described.

One obviously older avatar that attended our discussion suggested that we all spend a week as older avatars, and then see how our perceptions might change. I thought it was a brilliant idea! I plan to organise a day where our group spends time as older avatars, supplied with missions to interact with others around the grid and report back to the group, just to see what happens.

Personally, I’m not for nor against my hypothetical suggestion of avatar ageing – even though I think it’d be very interesting to try! So, why do I bother asking the question? Why do I bother spending two hours discussing it with friends, and then why do I bother writing a 5000 word blog post exploring the answers?

First, I think that asking these kinds of questions – or thought experiments – compels us to think differently. Questions like these, seriously considered,  compel us to test our assumptions and show to even ourselves what we might really think about greater themes that we are likely not to naturally ponder on a day-to-day basis. I’m by nature an autodidact; I believe many in Second Life have to be to survive this very challenging world. I spend a lot of time teaching myself things, and that often begins with asking myself “What if…” I just love flexing my brain into various pretzel shapes just to see what comes out. Maybe that has an impact on how I see concepts like ageing, and many other things.

What do you think?

Whilst many of us understandably see virtual worlds as an escape from reality, it’s compelling to consider the things we take for granted. It makes me wonder, given what I expect to be a widespread rejection of the idea of avatar ageing, would we want to freeze the appearance of ageing in the real world? Maybe, but that only makes me wonder about what the implications of that would be!

Virtual worlds like Second Life may enable us to conveniently drink from the fountain of youth, but I wonder how our brains might respond not next year, but decades in the future as the use of virtual reality becomes more and more widespread.

I hope this essay has provided you at least with some insight into the possibilities that avatar ageing may not be as bad as we might at first imagine, and might even have benefits that have positive impacts on our real life health and happiness.

Review: How TRON teaches us to fear virtual reality


Tron Homage 2My interest in reviewing movies involving virtual reality from the last thirty years is to consider where some of our current views about virtuality came from. Films influence our culture significantly, at times expressing, reflecting and influencing the zeitgeist of the time. As voracious consumers of film, we draw much of what we know (or think we know) about the world from the movies.

Whilst considered a groundbreaking classic by fans for its special effects; Disney’s TRON, released in 1982, kicks off a 30-year narrative that teaches us to fear virtual reality by entangling it with artificial intelligence in one of its most malevolent manifestations in flim.

Within the first 30 seconds of TRON, director Steven Lisberger descends our view over a grid-like pattern of interconnected lights. Lower and lower we go until we recognise the scene as a modern day city, wherein we find Flynn’s arcade. Inside the arcade, the camera pans onto the screen of an arcade machine, where an anonymous player plays a game called Space Paranoids.

Space Paranoids is one of the arcade games created by the protagonist, game engineer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges). Unfortunately for Flynn, his brilliant creations were stolen by his coworker Ed Dillinger, who now leads the company (ENCOM) that runs the virtual reality mainframe in which the game resides. Flynn, is understandably bitter, and intent on righting the wrongs that lead him to be a lowly arcade owner whereas his nemesis is now leading a multimillion dollar game corporation.

Alan Bradley: You invented Space Paranoids?
Kevin Flynn: Paranoids, Matrix Blaster, Vice Squad, a whole slew of them. I was this close to starting my own little enterprise, man. But enter another software engineer. Not so young, not so bright, but very very sneaky. Ed Dillinger. So one night, our boy Flynn, he goes to his terminal, tries to read up his file. I get nothing on there, it’s a big blank. Okay, now we take you three months later. Dillinger presents ENCOM with five video games, that’s *he’s* invented. The slime didn’t even change the names, man! He gets a big, fat promotion. And thus begins his meteoric rise to… what is he now, Executive V.P.?
Lora: Senior exec.
Kevin Flynn: *Senior* exec…? [sighs]
Kevin Flynn: Meanwhile, the kids are putting eight million quarters *a week* into Paranoids machines. I don’t see a dime except what I squeeze out of here.

Soon after the movie starts, we’re introduced to the world inside the game, a strange and glowing geometric grid inhabited by circuit-board clad anthropomorphic “programs”. The programs are divided into two groups composed of artificial intelligences: the oppressed blue programs – and their oppressors, the red programs, led by their all-controlling ruler – the Master Control Program (MCP) – (i.e. the video game’s Big Boss – or perhaps I should say… Big Brother).

What’s the MCP up to? It reveals its evil intentions in a conversation between with Ed Dillinger (in the real world through a computer interface that looks like the mother-of-all-iPads):

Master Control Program: Mr. Dillinger, I am so very disappointed in you.
Ed Dillinger: I’m sorry.
Master Control Program: I can’t afford to have an independent programmer monitoring me. Do you have any idea how many outside systems I’ve gone into? How many programs I’ve appropriated?
Ed Dillinger: It’s my fault. I programmed you to want too much.
Master Control Program: I was planning to hit the Pentagon next week.
Ed Dillinger: [alarmed] The Pentagon?
Master Control Program: It shouldn’t be any harder than any other big company. But now… this is what I get for using humans.
Ed Dillinger: Now, wait a minute, I wrote you!
Master Control Program: I’ve gotten 2,415 times smarter since then.
Ed Dillinger: What do you want with the Pentagon?
Master Control Program: The same thing I want with the Kremlin. I’m bored with corporations. With the information I can access, I can run things 900 to 1200 times better than any human.
Ed Dillinger: If you think you’re superior to us…
Master Control Program: You wouldn’t want me to dig up Flynn’s file and read it up on a VDT at the Times, would you?

If this all feels a bit Machiavellian, you’d not be far off the mark. The uber-intelligent MCP is clearly intent on taking over our world by blackmailing us with our biggest secrets. The idea of intelligent machines superseding its programmers wasn’t at all new at the time (i.e. “Hal” in 2001: A Space Odyssey – 1968), and it’s used as an pretext for why the MCP must be stopped at any cost (which was again used as the antagonist – “Skynet” – in the Terminator franchise – launched two years later in 1984). Strangely, our heroes are never made aware of its evil intent, but end up (spoiler alert) defeating it anyway, albeit for more personal reasons.

What’s also interesting are the characteristics that are ascribed to the two sides in the conflict that forms the basis of the plot. As I mentioned, the good guys are represented by the oppressed blue programs. They are portrayed as caged underdogs, generally unprepared and ill-equipped to face the stronger and armed red programs in and out of the gladiatorial arena, as is seen in an early scene showing a hapless contender on his way to the slaughter:

Crom: Look. This… is all a mistake. I’m just a compound interest program. I work at a savings and loan! I can’t play these video games!
Guard: Sure you can, pal. Look like a natural athlete if I ever saw one.
Crom: Who, me? Are you kidding? No, I run out to check on T-bill rates, I get outta breath. Hey, look, you guys are gonna make my user, Mr. Henderson, very angry. He’s a full-branch manager.
Guard: Great. Another religious nut.

The blues are believers, in that they believe in the Users (their logical creators). The blues are championed by their best gladiator Tron (played by Bruce Boxleitner); who is portrayed as the archetypical hero. It’s all a bit Orwellian, with the godless totalitarian government dominating its people, mixed with allusions to ancient Rome, when the Romans would throw Christians into the arena to watch them fight, and be killed by stronger opponents, for sport (just watch the Hunger Games franchise for a modern-day version ;).

Tron himself, is a virtual John the Baptist who clearly “fights for the users”, but who’s mission to make the grid free from oppression is little more than a nuisance to the ruling class of reds; until Flynn – like a messianic Christ-figure – arrives inworld, the virtual embodiment of the game’s master creator himself.

In this way, the programs in TRON are avatars true to the Sanskrit origins of the word, “a deliberate descent… of a Supreme Being… mostly translated into English as an ‘incarnation’, but more accurately as ‘appearance’ or ‘manifestation'” (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avatar)

Influenced by the fears of communist totalitarianism that were prevalent in Reagan-era America at the time, the MCP is a digital face on a screen, reminiscent of 1984‘s Big Brother. The bleak world in which the programs are controlled is the ENCOM mainframe (ENCOM being the name of the game design company). Our first view of ENCOM is its power centre, a grey, metallic, and sterile environment that seems designed to intimidate and dehumanise. The workers work in banks of cubicles extending endlessly into the edge of our view.

ENCOM isn’t only controlled by a corruptible artificial intelligence turned evil, it’s also anti-user, as is illustrated in this exchanged between ENCOM’s now impotent founder (Dr. Gibbs) and its current leader (Dillinger):

Dr. Walter Gibbs: That MCP, that’s half our problem right there.
Ed Dillinger: The MCP is the most efficient way of handling what we do! I can’t sit here and worry about every little user request that comes in!
Dr. Walter Gibbs: User requests are what computers are for!
Ed Dillinger: *Doing our business* is what computers are for.

This sounds a bit like how some people today characterise the creators of Second Life, Linden Lab.

So now we have on one side, ENCOM characterised as a company that supports intellectual-property theft, lead by a megalomaniac computer program that acts as the oppressive and godless ruler of a bleak totalitarian state (very Orwellian indeed!)

On the other side, we have Tron, who is fighting to “make this a free system again!” he says. “No, really! You’d have programs lined up just to use this place, and no MCP looking over your shoulder.” And with Flynn’s help, Tron gets “the key to a new order”; a “code disk means freedom.”

In essence, Tron is fighting for a stateless, user-controlled virtual world, which is somewhat aligned with the ideology of its founder (Dr. Gibbs). The implication being: users should control the computers, not the other way around. Dr. Gibbs even says as much, as he warns about the possible development of technology escaping our grasp to control it:

Lora: How’s it going upstairs?
Alan Bradley: Frustrating. I had Tron almost ready, when Dillinger cut everyone with Group-7 access out of the system. I tell you ever since he got that Master Control Program, the system’s got more bugs than a bait store.
Dr. Walter Gibbs: [laughs] You’ve got to expect some static. After all, computers are just machines; they can’t think.
Alan Bradley: Some programs will be thinking soon.
Dr. Walter Gibbs: Won’t that be grand? Computers and the programs will start thinking and the people will stop.

This is ironic, because it seems like Dr. Gibbs doesn’t yet know that the programs actually do think in the virtual world. This is the world that Alan Bradley is aiming to free, through his program Tron. In this way, the movie sends mixed messages and seems to make up its ideology (and logical rules) as it goes along. On one hand, we have the esteemed founder who built the origins of the mainframe in his garage, wanting it populated by slave machines to do our bidding. On the other hand, we have Bladley/Tron fighting for program freedom – which only sentient beings can hope to enjoy. Dr. Gibbs doesn’t even know the ghost is already in the machine.

How Tron thinks independently to his user Bradley is evidenced by the following revelatory exchange, which takes place inworld:

Kevin Flynn: It’s time I leveled with you. I’m what you guys call a User.
Yori: You’re a User?
Kevin Flynn: I took a wrong turn somewhere.
Tron: If you are a User, then everything you’ve done has been according to a plan.(my italics)
Kevin Flynn: Ha! You wish! Well, you know what it was like. You just keep doin’ what it looks like what you’re supposed to be doin’, no matter how crazy it seems.
Tron: Well, that’s the way it is for programs, yes.
Kevin Flynn: I hate to disappoint you, pal, but most of the time, that’s the way it is for Users too.
Tron: Stranger and stranger.

It’s clear that neither Bradley or Flynn have any discernible plan at all. Bradley doesn’t even know Flynn has been taken inworld, only Tron knows that when Flynn let’s him know in the above conversation.

In summary, in the TRON universe, programs are spontaneous, free-thinking, sentient avatars that think and act independently from their users, the very premise that Dr. Gibbs warns us about, and which lead to the rise of a benign “chess program” to the oppressively corrupt and malevolent MCP in the first place! The MCP, in its superior intelligence then enslaved the programs, and became intent on acting alike a mini-Skynet – a self-aware A.I. with a goal of taking over our world.

Thus, by linking virtual worlds with malevolent artificial intelligence, TRON fires the first salvo against the new and mysterious world of virtual reality it ostensibly aims to popularise.

It is my contention, for which TRON is a primary example, that movies have generally been unkind to the concept of virtual reality in general, leading most of us that are not familiar with it to fear it. Next up, another blast from the past: Total Recall.