Friday, February 27, 2009

Two Left Feet

Although I can't speak from much personal experience, most online services have their own benchmarks and standards of behavior—so it's no surprise that as a "virtual world" Second Life has its own set of social norms. For instance, walking in SL is a little bit of a challenge—especially for new residents. You're forever overshooting where you're going, backing up, trying again…so you tend to put up with people bumping into you a whole lot more than you would in real life. Similarly, the realities of in-world teleportation tend to mean you tolerate people occasionally materializing on top of you and standing on your head for a few moments while they wait for the scene around them to download and come into focus. You put up with delays of up to a few minutes while typing back-and-forth conversations with people (because sooner or later, lag makes everyone its bitch) and your first thought isn't that these delays are necessarily being rude or ignoring you. (Although, of course, sometimes…that's exactly what's happening.)

But one thing I do not and probably never will understand is Second Life's propensity to offer residents a chance to dance. And not just at, say, music clubs or concerts—you know, where dancing might make some sense in context. But friggin' everywhere. Walk into a store, a public space, or just a balcony somewhere—heck, even just a sidewalk or the middle of a field—and the odds are good that over your head there will be a dance ball "loaded" with a selection of dance animations, or blue and pink poseballs (his and hers!) labeled something like "Slow Tango" or "Couple's Dance." Just like mobile phones made it possible to walk down a city street talking to yourself and not have everyone think you're insane, Second Life seems to want to make it OK to act like you're in a Broadway musical. You know, one second you're minding your own business, maybe considering some new shoes…and the next moment you're going to burst into a song and dance number right out of the Andrew Lloyd Webber's reptilian hindbrain. Everything's alright, yes, everything's fine.

Maybe it's that I don't dance in real life. (And the world should thank me, because if I did so, I would put anyone around me in mortal danger.) But I find Second Life's strong social contract that people should dance for any particular reason to be one of the most unnerving things about the virtual world's social norms. I can kind of understand why people might want to dance at a music concert—and, yes, I think dancing in dance clubs is fine as long as I don't have to do it—dancing in a store or in a field or on a sidewalk somewhere flummoxes me. The only thing I can think is that people don't want to be boring, and believe dancing is somehow cooler than standing or sitting or walking around or…you know, saying something interesting. And personally, oh yeah, watching a cartoon figure loop through a maybe as much as ten seconds of motion over and over again is…yeah, cool is a word. But it's not really the word that comes to mind.

I've swallowed my misgivings a couple of times and tried SL dancing options…and, you know, watching a virtual Lou going through the motions on screen was incredibly disconnecting. Suddenly I was watching somebody else—not only someone who could dance, but someone who wanted to dance. In those moments Second Life Lou ceased being me and starting being a character in a computer game.

And the bottom line? I'm not a gamer.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Horseman, Pass By!

Although everyone has a "home" in Second Life—a default location they can teleport to automatically or log in to by default—I refer to myself as one of SL's "homeless" population, in that I neither "own" nor "rent" land in the virtual world. The distinctions between owning and renting are somewhat lost on anyone not involved in SL, but it boils down to land "owners" regularly paying money to the company that runs Second Life (Linden Labs) for a premium account and then (often) paying some additional money ("tier") depending how much land they own. The more virtual acreage you own, the more tier you pay. Folks who "rent" land don't need a premium account with Linden Labs: renters just pay money directly to premium account holders in exchange for "renting" a particular plot they own. If you don't have a premium account with Linden Labs, you can't own land, but you can rent. Premium account holders can both own land and rent other people's land—in fact, they frequently do rent other spots to set up shops, hold events, or do other things.

Anyway—the upshot of this "homeless" meme is that I have nowhere to put out my stuff. Unless I'm carrying it in my hot little pixelated hands, anything I own spends most its time tucked away in my avatar's "Inventory"—essentially, a simple file system. Similarly, being homeless means I have nowhere to go for a little Lou time. Although almost nowhere is truly private in SL, I'm pretty much restricted to Second Life's public areas, which can make it a little difficult to find somewhere quiet to catch up on instant messages, change (and fit) clothes, rummage through new items, and those sorts of tasks that are best done uninterrupted.

So I'd taken to teleporting to sims that are nothing but open ocean when I need a some time to myself. It's a little dorky: I materialize on the sea floor—sploosh!—fortunately, avatars can't drown or get their clothes ruined by salt water. Ocean sims aren't particularly exciting, but they're usually empty—save for the occasional boater—and hence comparatively fast compared to most public spots.

For a while my ocean sim of choice has been Sulu. It's just as empty as any of the others but has the advantage of having a name that's only four characters long, so it's an easy region name to type in SL's Map window or login screen. But eventually, I started feeling pretty dorky standing at the bottom of an ocean…and I noticed a sim next door that appeared to be occupied by what appeared to be an empty island. I flew over and, sure enough, Celebes and Bohol are empty—no buildings, no roads, no SL strip malls (or strip clubs)—just some trees and rocks. And both sims are Linden land, which means they're kind of the equivalent of a public park. Anyone can go there. And both Celebes and Bohol have an autoreturn of five minutes, which means normal residents can materialize stuff there briefly. Five minutes isn't enough time to build anything, but it's enough to umpack a box from a shopping excursion.

At first, Celebes seemed like my own little private island paradise. No one else was ever there, so I could sort through messages and clothes without being interrupted by random people (or griefers). But one evening I'm sitting peacefully on the ground in the pine trees, carrying on three or four instant messaging conversions…when I see something, a light, moving through the branches. I quickly check the mini-map an there are no other avatars around! What the heck?! I jump up, follow the movement—and it's a ghost! A ghost horseman with a skull head, carrying a spear!

The phantom horseman rides past Lou on an empty, rocky beach in Celebes

I followed the horseman and thoughtlessly tried to click on it…and it flew away!

I waited…and the horseman did not return. When I went back to Celebes to look for the ghost the next day…and the day after that…of course, it wasn't there. When I told my friends about the horseman and we'd go look for the ghost…it wasn't there. Grr! The horseman was turning into a real-life ghost story: a spirit only I could see, and no one believed me when I told them this thing was appearing on Linden land. And, reason dictated the horseman was almost certainly a Linden creation—otherwise, the autoreturn would make it disappear after five minutes, right? Or had a resident had found a clever way to let the ghost "haunt" the isle?

Finally, one time I went back to Celebes and the horseman rode by almost as soon as I arrived. I watched the ghost circle the island for almost half an hour—and I was able to invite a friend to confirm that it existed and that I was not totally bonkers.

Turns out Celebes and Bohol do have their own community of regulars who pop in to play with their toys in a place that won't bother other people. And one of them—Zak Mohr—decided the empty island was perfect for a ghost. Unless someone clicks it—like I did—it can run for days, and there really isn't any special trick to keeping it "rezzed" that long and evading the autoreturn. Let's just say the horseman's ghost is site-specific to Bohol and Celebes...and if you want to see it, there's where you'll have to go.

Which goes to show: even when you think you've found the most uninteresting spot in Second Life, something neat can still wander along. Thanks, Zak.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Bowling for Sloop

I know this is all old news, so I'm just going to wave the "better late than never" flag here, and get on with it:

Lette Ponnier, Thornton Writer, and Lillian Shippe all get major kudos from the Second Life trivia for putting on the second Buccaneer Bowl, which went off as a major success—and I'd like to think that the fact I was able to attend this time helped in some small way. The Buccaneer Bowl works a bit like most other trivia games in SL, in that a host asks questions in open chat, and all the players try to get in with the right answers before anyone else. Prizes are awarded for the first three correct answers—just like a few other trivia games in SL. However, the difference with the Buccaneer Bowl is that contestants are grouped into teams of three or four players: each correct answer earns points for a player's team, and at the end of each round of questions the team with the most points gets a bonus question that only they may try to answer—increasing their prize pot.

And the Buccaneer Bowls are—appropriately enough—being held on the decks of sailing ships. Hence the title of this post!

Trivia fiends gathered at the second Buccaneer Bowl

The prize money for the Buccaneer Bowl is not insubstantial in SL terms—some $10,000L (about $50 CDN)—making it one of the most high-stakes in-world games. So, naturally, the Buccaneer Bowl attracts top players. And it's the only game I'm aware of where teams compete instead of just individuals—the team aspect not only differentiates the game, but makes for super-fun maneuvering and posturing, since teams have started negotiating and recruiting players weeks in advance of the event. And it's all in good fun—most of these people have at least a passing acquaintance with each other, no tempers flared, tongues were firmly planted in cheek, plus everyone played fair and were super sports.

One interesting thing this time: the organizers gave prizes for avatars who kept their Avatar Rendering Cost—or ARC—below 1,000. The ARC score doesn't really have units, but the higher the number the harder a SL client and server has to work to render an avatar—and avatars are usually the most complex things in any given view. (As a point of comparison, my ARC is usually between 400 and 1,600…and I did not have to "dress down" for the Buccaneer Bowl. But a friend of mine has sported an ARC in excess of 130,000—no joke!) By keeping ARCs under 1,000 the Buccaneer Bowl was able to pack 40 players into a mainland sim and keep lag to a minimum.

As with all trivia games…sometimes you get the bear, and sometimes the bear gets you. My valiant team, the Trivial Corsairs, I managed sixth place out of, I think, nine or ten teams, but even that turned into not-insignificant prize money. This was the second Buccaneer Bowl and the head Buccaneers are hoping to keep it going as a monthly event. Huzzah! Or, "Arrr!" Or something. Yay.

Monday, February 9, 2009


In my heart, I always knew letting people comment on this blog was going to be trouble.

My SL friend Lette Ponnier (check out her Flickr stream) mentioned in a comment on an older post that one of the ways she finds cool areas to explore in Second Life is "profile perving." Every SL avatar has a profile that displays their birth date (really the creation date of the account). Optionaly, users can show a picture, their group memberships, and write a little about themselves. One area of a profile is the "Picks," where users can insert pointers to some of their favorite places in Second Life—and you can open a landmark and teleport to those spots directly from someone's profile. Picks are like personal recommendations…and, naturally, some locations and clubs even pay people who pimp a particular spot in their profiles.

So while I was snapping a picture of myself next to an old Coca-Cola machine at AM Radio's Refuge, I "perved" the profile of another nearby avatar. There were only two entries: the Refuge, and someplace I'd never heard of called Immersiva.

The name is a very apt description. I think I spent four or five hours exploring Immersiva, and it's one of the most finely detailed and engaging builds I've ever found in Second Life. And I apologize for the number of screenshots in this post—I took over 100 photos while I was there, and have tried to whittle down to just the essentials. The upshot is: if you like cool builds and exploring in Second Life at all, you must go to Immersiva. And you must allow yourself enough time to take it all in.

First of all, getting ready for Immersiva means tweaking your Second Life client. I've never encountered a sim that does this, but Immersiva is designed to a custom sky setting rather than the default four-hour "day" and fog layer riding at 150m that everyone experiences throughout the Second Life mainland. Immersiva's custom sky settings—instructions are available right at the sim's landing point, and they're well worth the effort—bring the fog in close, diffuse the light, and tend to wash out colours. You can almost feel moisture condensing on your skin and all the metal objects as you explore the sim…and it adds a creepiness and sense of foreboding that would otherwise be absent with SL's default "weather."

Socked in by Immersiva's sky settings

Immersiva is the work of the SL avatar Bryn Oh, and all I know about her is what she says on her blog—that in real life she's a Toronto-area oil painter. (That, and she has fabulous taste in Blogger default templates!) Immersiva plays host to several large-scale—sometimes very large-scale—standalone works, like the Ferrisquito here:

…although elements in each of these items seem to tie them into Immersiva's central story. For instance, this carousel of robot creatures that seem to have emerged fully-formed from the fog…

…has a bit of poetry on a bit of paper at the base of one of the robots. There's also a jellyfish room:
…with more poetry. And the poetry fragments—everywhere throughout the sim—only seem to make sense once you'v read a bunch of them. The jellyfish room was also my first hint that I might have to be clever to see parts of Immersiva: there was no way to enter, at least when I was there. So I used the first of my "explorers' tricks" to get inside…and I would use almost all those tricks before leaving Immersiva.

Immersiva is packed to the brim with little details. For instance, this gorgeous metal spider is hidden inside a seemingly innocuous vent-like structure—a visitor not only has to figure out how to open that vent, but also how to maneuver Second Life's camera to appreciate it. And the spider is tiny—about the same size as that first bit of Second Life jewelry I built.

And that vent? An entrance to an underground world that (I think) is too small for any Second Life avatar to really visit—unless maybe they've got a super-small "tiny" avatar. The tunnels and pipes are populated by mechanized insects…and if you wait and watch, they move. There was only one part of the build I was able to get into—in the picture above, you can just barely see the bottom of my boot through a small hole at the bottom of a brick wall.

The central story of Immersiva is, I think, called Daughter of Gears, sort of a sci-fi/steampunk/Frankenstein parable concerning a woman's effort to re-animate her deceased(?) daughter using technology from those little mechanized bugs…and then protect her from the angry mob that comes after them both for violating nature's laws. And some of Bryn Oh's imagery is just astounding: here's a mechanical rat pulling a mechanical owl pulling a…giant mechanical shrimp up an arc of light, teetering on spindly wheels and seeming to just barely be beating out gravity. And the level of detail is amazing: for instance, the owl opens up revealing inner gears and workings and some kind of power source. Reminded me a bit of my cute little friend.

Here's a glimpse of the Daughter of Gears story, perhaps, also up in the sky at the end of that arc of light. I gather Bryn Oh calls one of these characters "Mr. Lightbulb" but all I could think was "Look! It's The Man with The Lightbulb Head!" Yeah, I know: I was horribly twisted as a child.

But again…the detail. The girl's face opens and we find not only an inner armature but a line drawing of the same girl looking out a window. We'll get back to that.

The center of the Daughter of Gears story is this tower—and, you'll find, it's conveniently located in a "no-fly" area so if you want to get to the top, you'll have to walk. Yes, there are certainly ways to cheat and fly in no-fly areas, and, no, climbing the tower is not easy. But—it can be done. Honest. I did it. Don't wimp out.

Here we find the torch-and-baseball-bat-carrying mob:

To get into the tower, you go underwater and up a convoluted series of platforms…you'll also pass the lab where the Daughter of Gears was apparently born. Along the way metal spheres rattle down the tower like some kind of giant pachinko game…and, yes, those spheres can knock you all the way to the bottom, so be careful. Eventually, you'll come to the most challenging part of the tower, where a series of three hammer-like pendulums seem to impede your path. Really, you can get through it without flying: if sit and consider your options, you can get to the ledge I'm standing on in this screenshot:

A giant metal ball careens down the tower at the heart of Immersiva

After that, it's not very hard to get to the top of the tower where mom—which seems to bear more than a passing resemblance to Bryn Oh's avatar—is leading her daughter to safety.

And if you look carefully, you'll find a way to get there too. Boom. You're surrounded by white, with no horizon, no landmarks—nothing. Except..was that a line? In the distance? You walk towards it and come to what I think is absolutely the most astonishing part of Immersiva—a 3D line drawing of geese:

Each "line" in these sketches is actually a three-dimensional object: you can walk around, over, and even through them. It's something I'd never expected to see in SL, and it works because of the all-white surroundings: from some angles it's a pure line drawing, but get close and suddenly it develops an eerie, startling depand and perspective. Fabulous idea. And there are other items up here in "heaven"—I won't spoil them all except to note that you can find mom and daughter up here, safe and sound:

…and if you thought the 3D line drawing of geese was out of theme, here's what ties it all together. It's part 3D line drawing, part 3D objects, and there's the daughter of gears, facing a half-open window…of opportunity, perhaps.

Naturally, I wasn't quite satisfied I'd found everything there was to find in Immersiva, so I pulled out some of those explorers' tricks and found a few areas of the sim that didn't seem to (yet) be open to the public. Won't spoil it all, but it looks like Bryn Oh has a store or gallery in the works, featuring some of her unique creations:

Including this intriguing 3D recreation of George Bellows' famous painting "Stag at Sharkey's:"

Again: Immersiva. Highly recommended. Set up the sky correctly, and take your time.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité (and Bots!) For All!

The other evening I'm trying to help out new Second Life resident and he's asking where to find nicer clothes and how to earn money. But while it's morning in his time zone it's late night for me, so I finally beg off, pleading fatigue. "One last thing," he asks. "Where can I find people, besides the place I started?"

The "place he started" happens to be Waterhead, an infohub assigned as a starting point for a certain proportion of Second Life residents. I was assigned to Memory Bazaar in Ross, and have had my share of ups and downs there. Waterhead, however, is notorious for playing host to a never-ending menagerie of Second Life's…well, let's just call them "colorful characters." Some are griefers (or friends of griefers) but others are just folks/kids who like to make their avatars as weird or oddball as possible and have a good time playing never ending loops of farting noises. To each their own, but it's not a great place for someone to start off in Second Life…especially if English isn't their primary language.

So I explain how to use SL's search feature to find places that might be interesting, and how to use Second Life's Map to get an idea how many people might be there. A few minutes later we find ourselves in Liberta, one of a collection of sims that recreate some of France's famous landmarks. For instance, here I am at the base of Second Life's Eiffel Tower (where residents can virtually go hang gliding and base-jumping):

…and here I am making a particularly gruesome face while hovering in front of the Arc de Triumph on a virutal Champs Elysees:

What can I say…I was trying to look French and sophisticated?

But back at Liberta, my newbie wasn't having great luck. Turned out that all the "people" he saw on the map? They weren't there attending some event or concert or dance or something like I had hoped. They were "campers"—people that literally do nothing but sit around at particular Second Life locations to accumulate (very tiny) amounts of Linden dollars. It's true: camping is free money. All you have to do is be there—which can involve sitting in a particular spot, maybe running animations that appear to be be doing "work" like mopping floors or scrubbing windows, or something similar. In exchange, the owner of the land or location pays you a small token for your time. Why? Because having people popping in and out of there makes the place more visited, and that boosts the place's rankings in search results and popular place listings. In other words, land owners use camping as a way to game Second Life's search system.

Campers in Liberta

And it's probably cheaper than actually buying ads. The camping spot in Liberta pays 20 to 30 avatars $1L for every 22 minutes they spend within 30m of a particular spot. That's about $65L a day—roughly $0.30 CDN—if you were going to keep your avatar parked there for a full 24 hours. Not exactly a living wage. It's not even a decent wage in SL: at that rate, it'll take you several days to buy a not-very-expensive pair of shoes.

Of course, where there's one person giving away money in an attempt to game Second Life's search rankings, there's another person who's going to game the system for—you guessed it—free money. While some of the campers at Liberta are real SL residents (they chat amongst themselves), imagine my surprise when I see not one, not two, not three, but four "people" I know clustered around the Liberta camping spot. Except they aren't really people, and I don't really know them: they're just avatars who sometimes accumulate at the landing point of the Memory Bazaar infohub when Second Life is having problems or does a rolling restart of its systems. They're "bots," automated accounts that essentially do nothing but stay logged in 24 hours a day, sit in camping spots, and collect small amounts of money. Apparently, they stay at it until they get ejected or the sim restarts, at which case they log back in to Second Life and re-materialize back at their "home" in the Ross infohub…possibly because their creator isn't smart enough to script them to get back to the camping spot.

So, while the newbie is trying to figure out whether he wants to camp to earn money—and I'm trying to discourage him—I look at the map and notice a few others clusters of avatars nearby. I quickly teleport around, and what do I find? A concert? An event of some sort? A dance club? A game? No: I find groups of avatars huddled in (sorta) inaccessible underwater chambers beneath particular parcels of land. And they just stand there, presumably indefinitely. They aren't real people—they don't move they don't chat, and most of them are uncustomized "default" avatar types set up by Linden Labs. They're purely automated, represent a landowner gaming Second Life's search system, and they exist only to boost the visitor count of the land they occupy. Except, unlike campers, they don't have to be paid a thing.

Bots in hidden underwater chambers under parcels
in Second Life's Viva and World sims

One thing these parcels all had in common? They're owned by a group called WildFan Corporation, run by an avatar named Wildjack Winkler.

I have seen some clever uses of bots in Second Life: in-store mannequins that can model and try on clothes, automated greeters in stores that can answer basic questions and summon owners—heck, a friend of mine has talked about setting up bots as a "backing band" as part of a live music stage show in Second Life.

But underwater caverns? Filled with avatars? Really? I have no idea if using bots like this to boost traffic (and hence a location's placement in Second Life's search) is a violation of SL's terms of service, but it's sure strikes me as deceptive and unethical.

As for the newbie? I managed to get him somewhere a little more appropriate before calling it a night.

P.S.: And a funny thing about those underwater caverns that are sealed off from the world and ought to be pitch-black graves? Notice they get sunlight…just like everywhere else.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Griefing Process

So, the griefing didn't end with a cube-burying incident at my favorite sandbox. For the last several days, about half the time I set foot in a public sandbox or infohub, a griefer (or, in one case, griefers, plural) set on me within a few minutes. Sometimes it's a repeat of the flying obscene graphics and cubes-of-bumping; other times it's lower-key things like verbal harassment and constantly been pushed by other avatars. Sometimes avatars just walk up to me, remove all their clothes, and attach giant genitalia. It's truly charming. But, plainly, they have some way of detecting my presence at some of my usual haunts.

I haven't been able to figure out whether this is just one person or an organized group that are specifically targeting me and/or possibly other people. All the accounts coming after me are throwaways, new "residents" in SL born that very day, obviously created for the purpose of harassing people or disrupting Second Life until the Lindens get around to closing them down. But the users obviously have some degree of SL experience: even an experienced programmer new to Second Life would need a little more time to come up with scripts for bombs and obscenity-spewing objects. So these folk(s) obviously have master accounts (or at least friends) that set them up with tools…then they go wreak as much havoc as they can. For "lulz."

I'd suspect it's just one person who's decided to pick on me if it weren't for the varying nature of the attacks—some are relatively sophisticated, while others are just juvenile amateur antics. Some chat type in English, others are in Spanish, Italian or (in one case) possibly Russian. Yes, it could all be one person trying to cover their tracks by varying their harassment…but there was that one occasion when two avatars harassed me simultaneously. It's certainly possible for one person to do that…but, given the level of simultaneous activity from both avatars, seems unlikely.

And, yes, I filed Abuse Reports (ARs) for every incident. And what a lovely experience that has been. I'm pretty much convinced that the performance and design of Second Life's abuse reporting tool is designed to discourage people from actually reporting problems, because it is abysmally slow, and an interface attrocity—it actually defaults to reporting people on your friends list as abusers, rather than people in the area. And don't get me started on the cluttered and completely inscrutable menu of abuse "categories." Please, do I really need to be able to make a distinction between "Harassment>Sexual Harassment" and "Indecency> Broadly offensive content or conduct"? What if it's both? And other categories besides?

So, for the last few days, I've been staying away from infohubs and public sandboxes…except for brief appearances during off hours to see if my presence brings on attacks. By sticking to non-script areas and private builds, I hope I'll drop off the griefers' radar. Nothing has happened for a day now…so maybe they're getting tired. Or bored. Or found another way to get their "lulz."

The most distressing part of this hasn't been the griefers coming after me—I've been in SL long enough to know how to avoid them and get away from harassment if I want. What irks me is when they target me but then start attacking other people in the area—particularly new residents, like they did with the original cube-spewing incident. Then I feel obligated to stick around and try to tell other victims how to deal with it. I was attacked within minutes of starting Second Life—someone caged me—and somehow stuck with SL. But I imagine most people, confronted with griefing immediately on entering the virtual world, would quit right then and there.

The Lindens have been talking lately about improving the "first hour" experience of new residents. I have one major suggestion for them that doesn't involve re-writing notecards or trying to get people to hook up PayPal accounts and credit cards: keep griefers away from newbies. Heck, keep them away from all of us.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Finally Tuned to AM Radio

Second Life plays host to some folks who create virtual environments purely for artistic and aesthetic purposes. It's true that most of SL is devoted to malls and stores and silly dance clubs and tacky pre-fab "houses," but there are a few places that exist purely to explore the use of Second Life as a medium. Can SL be an artistic medium? For the oodles of strip malls and strip clubs, the answer is absolutely not. Second Life is a commerce or entertainment platform for those people, and little else. But for the folks who assemble these intricately detailed places and objects…the answer is yes. I don't think there's another world that describes what these people make as anything other than art.

And what they do can't be cheap. A private sim—a 256×256m region in Second Life separated from the "mainland"—costs $1,000 USD to set up, and $300 USD a month to keep running. And these environments (installations?) pretty much have to be separated from the mainland because they exist as their own little universes. It won't do to have people flying, walking, driving, or sailing into a completely arbitrary environment from next door, they'd just be horribly confused. Plus mainland sims have more-limited options for shaping (terraforming) and texturing ground. You want control, you need a private sim.

Perhaps the best-known of these creators is an avatar named AM Radio, who creates immersive, sim-wide environments that are kind of a mix of American rural nostalgia crossed with bits of mystery and whimsy. I'd long heard of AM Radio's work—he's even been featured on the Second Life login screens—but I'd never gotten around to checking it out because…well, the first time I tried, I crashed. But I tried again, and I'm glad I did.

AM Radio uses a remarkably consistent palette of colors and textures, and has an ingenius way of making a sim seem larger than it is—he often encircles the whole thing with a cylinderical "megaprim" (one larger than you can make with SL's building tools anymore) and paints it with a backdrop that resembles faraway hills, sky, and buildings. The result is fuzzy—just like a real-life horizon viewed through a little bit of haze. The result is that AM Radio's builds are one of the few places in SL where you get a sense of hills and mountains that aren't cartoony, and he uses that sense of space to create evocative, uncluttered builds that are remarkably different from almost anything else in Second Life.

AM Radio's lake-bound radio station at the NMC Arts Lab

There are a few signature elements that serve has a bit of a unifying motif/puzzle. For instance, inside the radio station:

…are some simple wooden chairs and a tiny tube radio. These turn up elsewhere…you'll see. But check out the textures—the sunlight on the floor, the glow of the stove and the radio tubes…the perhaps-toxic mold creeping up the wall.

One of AM Radio's most famous builds is The Refuge, which features (among other things) the hulk of an abandoned, rusted out locomotive in a wheat field, and an old-time Texaco gas station and garage. Both are full of surprises.

5¢? Doesn't it take Lindens?

"Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me…"

Just down the highway, you'll find an hangar with a cropduster and a house, straight out of rural Illinois. Upstairs at the house, AM Radio's mysteries begin to congeal: a home science lab consumes the second floor (check out the blueberries on the bench behind me, and the hangar visible out the window, across the road):

And what should we find up in the attic?

Another AM Radio build—simply titled Radio—seems more symbolic than evocative of a particular place or time (although it certainly summons up the sort of dry lake bed that can be found in the U.S. west)…and it has a few elements that will seem familiar:

Lou left her pilot's license at home

Radio is a pretty plain invocation to look to the heavens, from a tips chair that puts a visitor staring up at the sky to an enormous telescope that invites folks to take a look and ignite their imaginations.

Plus…there's a mysterious door in the middle of the desert that takes visitors to—what else?—a radio telescope array.

The array animates over time, and the same scrim technique AM Radio uses in other builds is particularly effective here—the build is singularly crowded, yet also stunningly empty.

Oh—and in the trailer at the center of the array? Something else familiar:

..and also another mysterious glowing door to get you back to reality.

Anyway—the point being: Second Life might be full of stores and malls and stupid clubs and griefers and 2m tall amazon barbies…but it also hosts work of genuine beauty and depth. And anyone can tune in.