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.

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