Greetings, true believers! So, regular readers already know that I have recently developed an all-consuming obsession with the alternative-reality online videogame Second Life; it's way, way too much to try to recap anymore, so instead I'll just link you to parts 1, 2 and 3 if you want to know more (say, about 5,000 words more, in fact). Oh, and by the way, exactly how goddamn cool is this? It turns out that I have already come to the attention of employees at Linden Labs, the owners of the game. Wow! It started with a guy named Pathfinder, in fact, the person at Linden in charge of Community Relations, who actually runs watchlists at Technorati and Flickr, specifically looking for people talking about the game; he added me to his Friends list at Flickr after coming across my massive photoset of screenshots of my first weekend of playing, which prompted me to write to him and to send him my chat addresses. That then prompted him to add me as a Buddy in chat, which prompted me to beep him, where at that point we had something like a three-hour conversation about SL back and forth yesterday, which was just fascinating. And even better, he's forwarded all my thoughts to the person there in charge of evangelizing and viral marketing; so who knows? Maybe I could convince them to actually hire me on, in the same capacity that Flickr brought on Heather Champ - as a professional cheerleader, that is, talking constantly in the non-game world about the latest going on within the game, and why you should become a new member too. At the very least, so far it's been extremely cool to hear stories about SL straight from the puppetmasters themselves; very informative tech details about what I exactly will and will not be able to do, for example, as well as stories about what they themselves dream about, the "wouldn't it be cool if..." stories that Linden employees themselves talk about over cocktails after work on a Friday night.

Anyway, anyway. Yesterday I was getting into a field report about it all, explaining my first weekend of play within SL and detailing more about what exactly I want to do over there once I'm up and running; but that started running way too long, so I'm hoping to finish it up today. Don't worry, all you gamer haters! Today will be the last about Second Life for awhile, for reasons that will become clear by the end.

Screenshot from Second Life

Okay. so yesterday I left off talking about Help Island, the place all new gamers (or "newbies") are sent when first starting to play. Here I am at one of the many plazas on the island, in this case talking to two players known as "mentors," long-time citizens who are volunteering to help newbies out; that's Ginny on my right, playing from Canada, and Teteru in the background, playing from Australia. And let me just confess, the combination of an entire "help island" with these dozen mentors floating around, was just the perfect thing for me to ease gently into gameplay itself. Because let's face it, this is an infinitely complex game, which is why those who play it get such an obsession with it, and why for example the members exchanged over $5 million in real money between themselves last year. And not only this, but I'm not even one of those console people either, because even those are just too complicated for me; I haven't regularly played videogames, in fact, since 1983 or so, going all the way back to one-button Galaga and shit.

So it's extremely cool to have this nice little closed island, where you can just take time walking around and flying and getting used to all your complicated movement and camera controls; but then to also have these very friendly and outgoing vets walking around as well, more than happy to sit around and have long talks with you about all your newbie questions. (Ginny and Teteru, for example, were the ones who told me a lot about the current club scene on the mainland, the BDSM scene, how many people are looking for cybersex but can't find anything organized, etc.) Ginny, by the way, is a former club owner herself, who is just starting to get into a new one; she's invited me to come visit her, get a tour of the place and meet her friends, as soon as I'm up and playing as a regular citizen. Teteru, I take it, is somewhat of a legend in SL; she's considered by many as primarily responsible for Help Island itself (a new idea there, just recently implemented), and I know that there's a group in-game called "The Cult of Teteru." Oh, and she even does a real-life blog, done under the name and attitude of her SL avatar; and it's really good, too, full of all kinds of insights about social and group behavior, based on what she's witnessed in-game.

Screenshot from Second Life

And while we're on the subject, let's just take a moment and talk about how amazingly cool SL's interface is for chatting, precisely because it so naturally mimics natural behavior. I want to emphasize, for example, that it's not just for business reasons that one might get involved there; you could just permanently have a free account, for example, and hop in only for fun group chat sessions in the evening, and nothing else. You know, what you used to do at Yahoo Chat all the time, before their service just started sucking so unbelievably bad, forcing you to never go back again. And if this is all you want to do, SL is amazing at delivering this, because it's such a more sophisticated interface than text-based "rooms" and "private messages." I mean, just look at the above photo; all you do is simply walk around in this environment, and if you stumble across a group like this far away, you know that they're all standing around talking about something...just like in real life, natch. And then instead of "entering the room," you simply walk up to them, and when you reach 30 meters you can start hearing what they're all saying too. And you can turn your head to look at a specific person, stand close to another to signify that you and they are chatting privately at the moment, or just scroll your camera back to a wide view, to simply be a silent voyeur.

Screenshot from Second Life

This is cool enough, of course. But now imagine, instead of typing shortcuts that bring up emoticons, like you do it in chat right now, that the shortcut produced an actual video and audio animation from your avatar, in real time; typing "LOL," for example, makes your avatar bend in half in laughter, grabbing their hips, making an actual laughing noise, all delivered in real time to the person you're chatting with. It's UN-FUCKING-BELIEVABLE, man; you simply have to try it to understand it. And then other things, like what you're seeing above; how you can actually lean in, to metaphorically show that you're listening intently; how you can wave your arms, shrug, do all the subtle body motions we do in the real world as well, when having a full and multi-layered conversation. It changes chat into this entirely different thing, when both people are willing to add the actual body gestures while conversing; it changes it into a freakily-realistic duplication of a real conversation in the physical world. Now combine this with live audio back and forth, if you and the person both have it set up (or are just talking on the phone while in-game), plus fetish clothes, plus sexy avatars; now do you see why so many people there are apparently desperately seeking cybersex? And why I want to open a sex club to cater to them so damn badly?

Screenshot from Second Life

Oh, so if I haven't explained this yet, there's a really brilliant way to control the camera (that is, the viewpoint by which you're seeing things in-game); the zoom control, to be precise, is married to your mouse's scroll wheel, if your mouse has one. So above, for example, is a special little demo they've set up on Help Island; you're looking at the amount of land you're automatically given when you become a Premium member, and what a typical player might do with it; build/buy a private home, that is, then landscape the rest into a yard. (The Premium account is $10 a month, or 5 pounds, 8 euros; or if you buy the first year at once, it's $72, or 36 pounds, or maybe 55 euros. Or you can actually earn that money in-game and pay your bill that way - $10 for a month would be 2,500 Linden Dollars.) So I'm actually sitting in a chair on the house's front porch there, so that my character will stay still; and by flicking my scroll wheel back and forth, I'm able to zoom in and out of the picture, again with all of it updating and rendering in real time on my screen. It's just unbelievable, man, which I know I've been saying a lot when it comes to this game. (There are lots more photos of this demo house at my Flickr photoset, by the way, including a tour of the inside. It's a great metaphorical idea, I think; that every time you log into the game, you port to your house on your land, where you can first quietly check email and messages by yourself, before going out into the "public.")

Screenshot from Second Life

And finally, I thought you'd like to see a shot of me actually flying, so here you go. Yes, also updated in real time, in full detail, even with artificial fog added to create a sense of depth, updated in real time as you fly over your surroundings. Yes, you're allowed to drop your jaw now.

***

And now, ladies and gentlemen, time for The Big Trouble With Second Life: namely, when I finally got used to the controls and was ready to port to the mainland for the first time, I discovered that all the extra avatars, buildings, scripts and animations just crashed the fuck out of my poor little G4 here at home. Fuck! FUCK!!! I can't play! Not at all! Man, and just when I had all these big plans for what I was going to do, and just when I was starting to have all these really great conversations with the actual employees of the game itself. And this was actually going to produce some tertial benefits to you readers as well; like, it would finally allow me to raise the money to print off the paper copies of my travel books, that I've owed some of you in some cases for almost three years now. Plus it'd let me raise the $4,000 on my own that I need for my South Africa tour this August, without me having to beg money from you at all; and that in turn would let me be able to release the full-color, interactive PDF version of the South Africa book for free, instead of charging money for it, letting anyone who wanted just download it.

Okay, so, I'm so hopped up about this, how about I make a proposal to you readers? A Paypal fundraiser, in fact, to buy me a new Intel Mini, which only costs $500, which is all I would need, since my current monitor and keyboard will plug up to it. And I'll make this promise right off the bat:

If I can successfully raise the money to get this Mini, I won't do a South Africa fundraiser. Instead I'll earn the $4,000 needed for that trip myself, producing social events in-game, letting me share that travel book for free with all of you, not just a select number who helped raised the funds for the Mini in the first place.

And, I'll have the paper travel books out by spring 2007.

Oh, plus I will spin off my thoughts about Second Life to a separate blog, actually maintained by my character much like Teteru does for hers. So this is extra incentive for all you gaming readers out there, who really want me to keep talking about SL in the kind of detail I've been doing this week.

So what do you think? Willing to help me get a computer that will get me in the game regularly, in exchange for this above? Vote with your wallet, if you want; here's a link to my Paypal account:

Which, er, actually is my dad's account, because I fucking hate credit cards and refuse to own one, and my dad is on vacation right now; so if you end up sending money, definitely drop me an email about it as well, or else I won't know that you've done so. Five bucks? Ten bucks? There's a lot of you out there, apparently, so small donations would add up fast if you all did it. Regular readers of course know that I do not request these things lightly; it's been almost two years, in fact, since the last time I asked money of my readers, and otherwise just try to give out all my work for free instead, and not even run my Paypal link on the front page. So anyway, if you'd be willing to donate to the cause, I'd be ever so grateful. And so would a couple hundred very horny Second Life citizens as well, just salivating over the idea of attending this sex club I want to open.

Copyright 2006, Jason Pettus. All rights reserved. This was published under a Creative Commons license; click here for details. Contact: ilikejason [at] gmail [dot] com.