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.

16 comments:

  1. Sounds as if you ran into some typical libertarian suckers.

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  2. Possible. I have almost no clue about their politics. Oh, wait: Marine Park's owner really digs the Rolling Stones...maybe that's a clue?

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  3. I went to one Marine Park game a long time ago, and never went back. The experience was very much as you describe...except I didn't particularly know anyone so I didn't have IM as an outlet. The questions weren't great, the event had a massive unneeded "break" in the middle, and the entire experience was discomfiting and bizarre.

    Given your description, I'm surprised you put up with it as long as you did. And I love the title of the post. Very "Lou." :)

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  4. Not what you were writing about, but MP also does events where they essentially pay people - who've paid to get in - to go on rides and run around their sims. The trivia games are odd, but those events be bizaare.

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  5. So, so sad that being banned from MP without warning for "chatter" sounds completely in character with the place, but there it is. I nonetheless want to provide a differing viewpoint on their other practices -- the ones that dozens of us choose to deal with, largely for the moolah but also, I'd argue, for a few other reasons you haven't covered.

    Everything at MP is designed to do two things: 1) increase the degree of control the organizers have over the players and 2) increase the amount of tension among the players. Whether this is deliberate or not is a different matter, but their methods absolutely have these results. And although these are exactly the practices that nearly all of us bitch about (and I completely sympathize with anyone who dislikes them), I mostly find #1 amusing and #2 the reason I'm addicted to the place.

    Keeping the talking down... questions coming with no warning except the host's typing anim... rollovers called too quickly for brainstorming or googling... trivia so poorly written that only those accustomed to what questions like "Killer whales are the largest members of the dolphin family?" (Feb 8) are supposed to mean stand a chance... all these things can be aggravating, but they also contribute to how much of an adrenaline rush the place generates on every question. Complete silence followed by a rush of typing, waiting to see if your answer pops up first (or at least not fourth), hoping you can copy someone else's correct response quickly enough: it's stressful but stimulating. It's like trivia sport.

    The money's a large part of it. I wouldn't put up with it without the money. But the money creates the competition, and the competition generates the endorphins. It's all inseparable to me.

    MP is also the classic example of something we love to hate. I know I'm extremely rare in confessing that I not only like MP's money but MP itself. Most people do hate it. Many go anyway. And I'd suggest that although most would say they go despite the pain-in-the-ass rules, many probably go because of them, too... not necessarily for the same reasons I stated but because bonding over hating their rules is a central and essential part of the whole MP player subculture. There are a number of people I probably never would have chatted with if it weren't for that level of bonding. That social subculture is yet another reason not only to go but to appreciate the way they run the trivia even if you hate it.

    That said, Lou, I'm sorry they banned you. I think it was a ridiculous move, though I suspect it was largely symbolic, meant as a warning to others. It's possible they don't even consider it a serious measure, since they're doubtless aware of how easy it is to return with an alt (and it may not occur to them that you'd choose not to). We'll probably never know, but the enigmas of MP are, of course, yet another thing that continues to spur some of us to put up with their fullness of shit.

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  6. What's wrong with libertarians? Quiet during trivia doesn't seem so bad. There's always that trade off between how far you can bend over versus how much money you're making camping. Trivia players are after all just highly paid campers :)


    Now you've got two hours to do something fun :)

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  7. Use an alt account, go back to MP, take as much of their money as you can, laugh all the way to the Lindex.

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  8. Lou, I played many games with you at MP, including (I believe) those final ones in February that I guess led up to your banning. You were always good for a funny line or two, but were by no means disruptive, especially compared to some other regulars.

    I, for one, miss you. You never did the costume contests, you kept your spunk and dignity, and always kept the kitty company when she was banished over to the far edge of the area. But good on you for walking away, head high.

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  9. Of all the people to rail against MP, I should have known it would be you. :)

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  10. The no-talking thing is a bit new, but the spiteful bannings are not. MP encourages a kind of prison-camp mentality: when someone gets sent to the hole (banned) remaining inmates may lament, but they say to themselves 'at least it wasn't me'...then they grovel harder for the warden's favor and scraps. I second the "good on you" for walking away; but don't be disappointed when no one follows you.

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  11. ha ur just whinging because your source of ez lindens kicked you to the curb. xpect to see you pole dancing in some SL dive soon get in touch when you start escorting

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  12. Sorry I've been remiss replying to comments; busy busy busy.

    Anonymous #1: I don't know the politics of the folks who run Marine Park; I don't really know the politics of anyone I've met in SL. My understanding is that libertarians, among other things, are in favor of strong or absolute property rights. I don't dispute that Marine Park is a private sim, or that may ban anyone they want for any reason (or no reason at all). So far as I know, they're not violating any laws or Linden Labs' terms of service by doing so.

    Anonymous #2: Well, you know me and titles.

    Anonymous #3: I don't think I went to a non-trivia event at MP, but I certainly heard about them. They sometimes combine those rides-and-running-around things with "mini-trivias" - essentially, half a game. I did attend a few; one or two were kind of fun because I got to hang out with the trivia people and, like, talk, but I never kept any of the money—I'd tip it back at the end of the night. A few times I would try out some of the rides and stuff "for free" after a trivia game, but I'm really just not very good at that stuff. Not an SL action hero.

    Anonymous #4: Yes, the rules can ratchet up tension among players who are invested in the game for the money or the competition. I admit the first time I played there, my hands were shaking. And commiserating about MP does create a bond among the regulars—like a shared trauma. But you come right to the point: "I wouldn't put up with it without the money." I felt best about MP in the few moments after a game when I would TP around to donate winnings to in-world charities. I'll miss the competition and getting my ass kicked by My Trivia Betters, and certainly don't begrudge anyone enjoying the game. But the money factor was never there for me, I guess. Wouldn't be the first time I've stared money in the face and blinked.

    Chadd: Quiet during trivia isn't necessarily bad at all, and (as Anon #4 noted) could be a neat factor if someone wanted to create an intensive, sharply competitive in-world trivia event. I'd hope it could be handled without threats or hostility.

    Anonymous #5: No alts for Lou. I'll probably explain why in a future post. But, in the case of MP, going back as an alt would validate the way they treat people. It says "Sure, you can ban me and treat me like dirt...and I'll come back and ask for more! Thank you sir, may I have another!" No thanks. If the Lou behind the avatar Lou Netizen isn't welcome, that same Lou isn't welcome behind an avatar named Bumpersticker Foozlebrain or whatever.

    Anonymous #6: Thank you for your kind words. I didn't do the costume thing, but admired many of the outfits people came up with—even blogged about them here a bit. And I sat by the kitty so she wouldn't be by herself, and to make sure she would be in chat range of questions.

    Anonymous #8: You should have guessed it would be me? Why? You can message me back here: just write me a blog comment and say you won't want it published. I'll honor that.

    Anonymous #9: Others have mentioned MP used to tolerate more talking; however the bar kept getting lower and lower during my time there. I like your "prisoner mentality" analogy though…and no, I don't expect anyone will stop going to Marine Park because I was banned. In fact, a few might go more often, perhaps sensing there might be less competition.

    And Umgah Chrome. For folks who don't know the name, that the day-old alt account who griefed me back in January .and quite probably one of the people who harassed me for several weeks.

    So Umgah: You want an escort? If you think you've got game, bring it on. But I'm pretty sure you're scared of girls.

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  13. Good rant, Lou. Commenters, you guys are taking this way too seriously. They are a strange bunch who do exactly what they want, and we all go for the money (except psycho adrenaline junkie up there). I've never felt tense or controlled there or been bored. Buying into their bullshit is a choice, and (if you don't get banned first, sorry Lou) you can always stop going if you don't like it.

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  14. Aw Lou, sorry to hear this. MP won't be the same without you.

    For the record, I dig the quiet at MP and don't do much IMing. It's a nice change from all the yakking that goes on during other events, and I often multitask in another window. I also basically agree with the last commenter -- how tense or competitive you get at MP is up to you.
    *shrugs*

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  15. Psycho Adrenaline JunkieWed Mar 11, 04:26:00 PM PDT

    Generally speaking, I feel that the things about which people seem compelled to say, "you take that too seriously," are often either the ones that *should* be taken more seriously so their impact doesn't fly under the radar or (as in this case) are just fun to deconstruct. Some folks just enjoy the thought process. And it's ok if you don't, but one of my biggest peeves is criticism of those of us who do. MP is such an odd, odd place even within a world that practically defines itself according to its oddness. I find it fascinating to speculate on what makes it tick. It's part of its appeal for me.

    I *do* accept their bullshit, and of course it's a choice whether to go or not to go. I accept MP's bullshit because it's some of the most intriguing bullshit on the grid. And thank you for the nickname... I'll wear it with pride!

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  16. I don't know if MP is intriguing or if I ever took it terribly seriously, but *something* obviously kept me coming back all those months…perhaps the psycho adrenaline junkies. :) Mostly, many friends were there; without MP, I don't see them often or (it seems) at all.

    Mako, I agree: sometimes the nonstop chatter at typical trivia games can drive me nuts; maybe I've just gotten good at tuning it out. (I normally multitask during games at, say, Double Standards or Lilly's.) But I miss trying to measure up to players at your level at MP (and inevitably getting that big chip knocked off my shoulder in the process!). We don't cross paths often outside MP so I'm not finding your bootprints on my brain as often, and that feels weird. :)

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