Thursday, March 26, 2009

There Goes the Neighborhood

Like real life, Second Life has a few places that are just painfully hip. One of them is a sim called Tableau, which I don't know much about but folks assure me has been home to stylish designers and funky avatars forever—which I interpret to mean since at least 2006. I do know Tableau is home to SL designers Nylon Pinkney and Polyster Partridge, who I gather respectively run the in-world SL business Nylon Outfitters. Or have something to do with it anyway. Their items have a distinct, playful, slightly disturbing, off-kilter retro style—but, so far as I've seen, they're high quality and often very whimsical. Nylon Outfitters was even tapped for some of the default avatars and accessories offered to new residents when they sign up for Second Life.

Anyway—confession time. I found Tableau fairly early in my Second Life adventures…and found it to be a distinct, playful, slightly disturbing, off-kilter and laggy sim populated by avatars who were all hopelessly hipper and cooler than me, sporting mammoth 'fros, enormous bell bottoms, t-shirts and suspenders, Toughskin jeans with iron-on patches, and all manner of tacky plastic jewelry. The first couple times I landed there—usually as the result of an inworld search—I dutifully looked around and got frustrated by lag. When I got a better computer, I went back…and got frustrated by vendors in the stores because I couldn't tell if any of the clothing items would actually fit an avatar of my short-for-SL stature. (Although I didn't say so at the time, some of my SL fashion rant back in January was directed at stores in Tableau after a particularly exasperating shopping experience.)

But a few weeks later I found myself hanging out in Tableau with my friends Lette and Trilby. Apparently the sim was going to be torn down for redecorating and, therefore, was being "attacked" and set on fire by giant hamsters (did I mention whimsical? And slightly disturbing?) in a last gasp before the owners blocked it off and rebuilt it. It was actually quite an odd night—we were set upon by a kinda amateur griefer (Lette has some pictures of the incident…sigh). And Tableau played host to a gathering of veritable Second Life celebs who all gathered around to watch the sim burn.

SL celebs watch Tableau burn back in February:
Polyester and Nylon are to the right.

What was my interaction with this higher social order? Did I impress them with my wit, my erudite conversation, inimitable fashion sense, or stunning smile? Nope. Instead, Polyster had to come play nanny and ban the griefer from the sim.

I think after that I decided I was done being passive with griefers.

Anyway—Tableau recently re-opened, and it's a whole new sim! Most of it is propped up on a mesa just below SL's perpetual fog layer (familiar to anyone who hangs out at Ode) but it's a vastly different look: crooked, ramshackle buildings that kind of look like they've been sketched into place, a wacky central courtyard…and, yes, the sim is still littered with painfully hip avatars. Last night Lette, Trilby, and I went back to hang out on a rooftop patio:

Mhmm. Yep. I'm the one in the middle with the
star-shaped glasses and UFOs coming out of her head.

No griefers accosted us this time, but I'm sure the creators of Tableau are thrilled I was there, bringing down property values in my granny boots and sweater. It's true: they'll let pretty much anyone in. Until they catch you, anyway.

And the product vendors in the new Tableau? Seem pretty much the same as the old Tableau. Sigh. I guess all the cool kids will just have to cope with the burden of staying cooler and hipper than me.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Slugfest

A virtual world like Second Life can give rise to events and traditions that simply…well, that just make no sense or couldn't happen at all in real life. I've attended conferences with educators from all over the world, live music events from artists I will probably never have a chance to meet in real life, and visited places (many many places) that simply would be impossible to create in the real world.

One of Second Life's most whimsical—and apparently long-standing—traditions is the Giant Snail Race. The premise is that SL residents don preposterously large and crazy snail avatars, and maneuver them (quite clumsily) over obstacle courses and tracks to…well, see who has the fastest snail! I'd heard about the snail races but had never been…but yesterday a friend instant-messaged me in the middle of a game saying "Come quick! Giant snails are racing by the infohub!" And sure enough—the giant snails weren't racing on a pre-defined obstacle course: they were racing through roads in the Second Life mainland in a Relay for Life event to benefit the American Cancer Society.

Giant snails cross that bridge when they come to it!

The snails are massive: in human terms, they're probably 10m tall and even longer. Each snail was labelled with the name of the racer, clicking a snail enabled avatars to donate the ACS, and the snails were totally tricked out for the race, sporting all manner of decorations. Avatars lined the route, flying to catch up with the leaders then watching the procession of snails go by. The event is just as wonderful—and just as silly—as it sounds, with these totally unwieldy snails attempting to navigate basically human-scale roads.

Snails pile up at the border of the Noyo sim, trying to complete the race

I only caught the very end of the race…and the snails ran into a bit of a roadblock with a sim near the finish line being too full to admit new avatars (even giant snails). Snails piled up on the sim border like...a giant slimy pile of snails!

The event seems like a lot of fun, and I hope to be able to catch the "regular" Giant Snail Races in the future.

O Buccaneer!

It is with great pleasure I report that Second Life's third Buccaneer Bowl took place this weekend, and was a tremendous success. For readers unfamiliar, the Buccaneer Bowl is a team-based trivia quiz in Second Life organized and run by Lette Ponnier, Lillian Shippe, and Thornton Writer: three big names in the trivia community. And, besides being the only team-based trivia contest in SL, the Buccaneer Bowl also boasts some pretty substantial prize money. The result is that most of the trivia heavyweights take part in the game, there's competitive negotiating and wrangling for team members, and serious bragging rights to the winner! (Or, at least, the winners sure brag about it…which may not quite be the same thing!)

Teams assembled at the third Buccaneer Bowl

The format of the third Buccaneer Bowl closely matched the second one, with the exception that the bonuses for low Avatar Rendering Costs (ARCs) encouraged people to keep their scores below 500 rather than 1,000. (And, again, I didn't have to dress down at all…apparently I'm not fancy enough to be a problem!) The organizers also introduced a new format for the timed bonus questions: teams who won a round got a special question just for themselves, and it required two answers, each of which shared a word. For instance, one pair of answers was the Chaplin film Modern Times and the English new wave band Modern English. I loved the idea—it rewards actual knowledge, since the questions have to be answered in 75 seconds. Not really enough time for Google to come to the rescue.

The Frivolous Corsairs take on the world!

My only hesitation about the Buccaneer Bowl is that I might be holding back my team! This was the third Bowl, but only the second I've attended—a real-life emergency kept me away from the first one. At the first bowl, apparently my gallant team, the Frivolous Corsairs, came in second without me! Since then—with my "help"—we've placed sixth and fifth. Still, a good time was had by all and the event truly seems to be picking up momentum. I look forward to many more!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Just Ducky

One unexpected bit of Second Life culture: while there are occasional in-world celebrations to mark the birthdays of people behind avatars, it seems far more common to have "Rez Day" celebrations marking an anniversary of an avatar's first appearance in Second Life. The information is readily available in avatars' profiles—in fact, it's one of the most-used details in a profile, since residents frequently want to know whether they're dealing with a newbie or a sage old-hand at the virtual world game. I recently popped into a trivia game to discover the entire event was a massive Rez Day party for one of my closest in-world friends—and I hadn't brought anything!

But yesterday I was able to attend an actual full-blown Rez Day party for Chaddington Boomhauer. Almost anyone who knows Chadd knows that one of his favorite avatars is a duck: sure, he has wolves and hippos a human or two and who knows what else, but when you think of Chadd, you think of a duck. Sometimes he's a police duck with riot gear; lately he's Sheriff Duck with a lariat, spurs, and a spanking cool badge he got, I don't know, somewhere.

So Chadd's partner Shale Nightfire had a wicked cool idea: wouldn't it be funny if people came to Chadd's Rez Day party…as ducks? She put together cute boy and girl duck avatars—complete with color changing options—for folks who (imagine!) don't have their own duck outfits. I know I've made a big deal about SL Lou being analagous to real-life Lou, but I just couldn't resist:

Lou gets her mallard on. That's Chadd there in the background on the right.

And…yes, it's true. Hot on the heels of writing why I don't understand why people dance all the time in Second Life, there I am, as a duck, doing a ducky dance.

A good time was had by all, Chadd pumped some rockin' tunes, everyone quacked bad jokes, Chadd received a suitable hard time and refused to share any wisdom he'd garnered from his one year in Second Life, and the flock of ducks at one point swelled to over twenty. A highlight for me was when a very tall and elegant duck appeared in our midst:

All us wee ducks bow to our tall ducky overlord!

To understand what a momentous event that was…well, trivia peeps will understand when I say he's best known for his stripes and khakis.

Turning back into human Lou after the event is presenting something of a challenge: I was able to successfully save my regular avatar and get mostly back to normal, but as with so many things in Second Life, like positioning prims, lining things up, and trying to get things just spot perfect—the numbers may match but the results aren't the same. Statistically my avatar is back the way it was, but clothes, hair, jewelry, and other items don't fit quite right, and for some reason the system thinks I'm taller than I was before…despite all the height and length and other attributes being precisely the same. So, I'll have to spend more time tweaking myself back to normal…but it was worth it! Quack!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

…and The Horse You Rode In On

One of Second Life's most lucrative—and most notorious—trivia games is held regularly at a place called Marine Park, on a pair of private sims over (waves hand) thataway with no connection to the Second Life mainland. Marine Park trivia games are not notorious because they roll out particularly finicky questions, run at a grueling pace, or do silly things like conduct entire games in Esperanto. (In fact, with some exceptions the questions are middling and the pace painfully slow.) No: Marine Park games are notorious because the entire outfit is operated as a capricious, despotic fiefdom, governed by mostly unstated rules of conduct, punctuated by arbitrary authoritarianism.

Which is a roundabout way of saying I have found myself banned from Marine Park.

Here's the dealio: Marine Park games are conducted or supervised by the sim's owner and anywhere from two to five other staff members. These folks are never present at any other trivia event in Second Life, so they aren't part of the broader SL trivia community. Sometimes one of the staff conducts a game, but otherwise the staff play minor roles like tallying votes for a themed costume contest, or—to outward appearances—doing nothing at all. Unlike any other trivia game in Second Life, players aren't supposed to talk while a game is underway. Players may answer questions, and the staff will tolerate a few congratulatory comments between players, but that's it: crack a joke, type a smiley, or even raise a question, and the response is an immediate, sharp rebuke for chat silence. That's right: Second Life is essentially a 3D chatroom, but no talking is allowed at Marine Park games.

The only reason players tolerate this crass, dictatorial treatment is that prizes at Marine Park are typically double to quadruple those of any other high-paying trivia games in Second Life (although a few, like the new Buccaneer Bowl, can get into the same league). In fact, coming in first place on a question can sometimes pull in twenty to thirty times the Linden dollars offered at everyday trivia events. Players have to pay a small fee to get onto the estate for every game, but coming in even third place on a single question is enough to earn back the entrance fee and more.

The result is that Marine Park tends to attract top players: if you want to see how you measure up against some of the best, Marine Park is one of the few places consistently offering that level of competition—at least, when the questions are good (and that's by no means a guarantee). A player who can do well at Marine Park can pull in semi-real money: easily enough to pay for a Second Life premium account, to rent or buy some virtual land, or sustain a virtual shopping habit. No one seems to know how Marine Park games are funded, but the owners are certainly not earning enough off the entrance fees to pay for the games.

To my knowledge, no one at Marine Park has ever offered a reason for their no-talking rule. I was once present when one of the staff mentioned talking makes the Second Life chat log scroll, and the scrolling made it difficult to score a question and mete out winnings. This never held any water with me because—at least in all the versions of the Second Life client I have used—the chat window stops scrolling just by selecting some text or moving its scrollbar up, enabling users to read chat history regardless of what people might be "saying" around them. Maybe that hasn't always been true, but it's been true as long as I've been in Second Life, so I call bullshit. The Marine Park staff enforces a no talking rule purely because they don't want any talking.

A few people occasionally push the envelope, making a pun or a joke in open chat—sometimes the staff lets one or two of those slide by, but the typical response is an immediate admonition to "keep the chatter down between questions." Folks who have been long-time attendees generally get a little more leeway, but the result is that, to outward appearances, most Marine Park attendees huddle in obsequious, cowed silence.

Behind the scenes, most Marine Park players are anything but silent. The public side of the game is so alternately infuriating and snooze-inducing that many of the players routinely use private instant messaging to talk to each other throughout the game, just to let off steam. Among many Marine Park regulars, the tone is typically one of exasperated resignation; with new players (who rarely come back), we're constantly trying to explain the unspoken, unwritten rules so they don't say anything that would run afoul of Marine Park's régime.

Because—I'm case and point—they'll just kick your ass out simply because they can.

Here's my particular story: Marine Park games are typically held in the early evening "SLT"—Second Life Time, corresponding to the U.S. Pacific time zone. I've been attending Marine Park events since at least September of 2008: one of the regulars brought me and suggested I might enjoy it. I'd typically make it to one or two Marine Park events a week, but there were times when real-life commitments would keep me away for a while.

On February 17, I attended a game where several of the regulars were "pushing the chatter envelope" during the game. Since these are folks I know and hang out with regularly in-world, I also tossed a handful of comments into the mix over the space of, I'd guess, 90 minutes. The staff eventually asked for quiet, and to my knowledge we all complied. I certainly did.

On February 19, I showed up at another game. Before the game began, one of the staff contacted me via private instant messaging asking me to be quiet during questions. I said I would do so, and I did—I was completely mute during the entire game save for answering questions. However, I was privately fuming—what made my tiny handful of comments so egregious that I had to be preemptively shushed? I was not new to Marine Park, and certainly didn't have a reputation as a troublemaker. During the game, I polled several regulars players—especially the folks who talk more than me—to ask if they had received similar warnings. None had. Nonetheless, I completely sat on my hands during the game save for answers, and, I believe, a brief thank-you when I left. But I was plenty riled up, so I decided to skip an event the next night even though I had time to attend.

Schedule conflicts and real-life goings-on kept me away from Marine Park for a couple of weeks. Then, when I attempted to attend a trivia game March 5, I found I was completely banned from the region. At first I thought something must have changed in the intervening two weeks: maybe I wasn't aware of some new access policy or a change to the sim? I contacted a few friends who were actually at the game—they were uniformly astonished that I, of all people, had been banned, and they weren't aware of any changes to the sim or policies. After almost an hour of embarrassing myself trying to get into the game—thinking this must all be some sort of mistake, right?—I received the terse message from a staff member that I had been banned for "all the comments after questions."

Well, that eliminates the notion the ban was a mistake, doesn't it?

I had completely honored a request for silence. And I hadn't been at any events in two weeks so I'm rather confident I didn't make any comments during those games. And the frequent talkers? They're not banned.

So, there's the bottom line: Marine Park will ban people just because they can. You can comply with their rules, cow-tow, say please and thank you, bow and scrape, put on lots of fake smiles, tip the staff generously, be a perfect servile little avatar, and do everything they ask. And you're still banned.

They're within their rights: Marine Park is a private estate, and they have full control over who may and may not go there. If I'm not welcome, I'm not welcome: it's as simple as that.

And I'm kind of relieved to be able to put the charade of the Marine Park behind me, because aside from the behind-the-scenes chatter with my friends, it wasn't much fun anyway. And I don't have a Linden-intensive SL lifestyle to support: I don't own or rent land, I don't get into virtual shopping, and just view SL as a diversion. The Lindens I won at Marine Park were split 50-50: half went back to the staff as tips, and the other half went to legitimate in-world charities. I'd keep enough to pay the next entrance fee, and that's it.

I'll say here and now that most players do not enjoy the Marine Park games: they attend for the ridiculously high payouts. Precious few people have fun being ordered around and tongue-lashed into silence. Second Life is an escape for most people, a way to blow off steam and take a break from their everyday lives. Marine Park is neither friendly nor welcoming; it's purely a lucrative source of Lindens for smart people who are fast typists. I'll continue to happily attend trivia games in Second Life with lower prizes—or no prizes at all—because they're fun and feature smart people.

But at this point, Marine Park couldn't pay me enough to come back.