Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Out Through The In Door

Sunday was supposed to be a fun day for me in Second Life. I had set aside part of the afternoon to attend two trivia events, one semi-regular game hosted by fellow Trivial Corsair Lebn, and another immediately after that marked the grand opening of a new venue called Monochrome. I was especially looking forward to it not only because many of the trivia regulars are online for Sunday games, but also because I'd made plans to play both games with my friend Geoff, who I'd somehow managed to convince to be online to have some fun.

So what should happen? I try to log in to Second Life, and get a message: "The system is logging you out right now. Your account will not be available until 11:54:03 AM PST." I think to myself, "Well, Lou, that's odd, since you logged out of Second Life more than 15 hours ago!" But sure enough, I check my Gmail (where in-world instant messages get sent when I'm offline) and there are dozens of messages from friends saying "Hey Lou, you're not usually on at this hour! What are you up to!" "Wanna teleport to a music show?" "Whatcha up to?"…and then the tone changed to "Are you OK?" "Is something wrong?"

So 11:54 rolls around, and I try to log in again: "The system is logging you out right now. Your account will not be available until 11:59:31." Lovely. Around this time I get a real-life (non-Second Life, anyway) instant message from Geoff: "The system shows you're online, but you're not, are you?" Five minutes later I try logging in again—now I'm missing my trivia game, gosh dern!—and, you guessed it, Second Life says my account will be available in just five more minutes!

When I'd logged out the evening before, I was at a public sandbox with some friends, just goofing around with some vehicles. The sandbox is not known as a particularly friendly place: you can build stuff there, but locals are likely to do rude things to you just for a laugh. I have visions of my avatar passively standing in this sandbox, being battered and pummeled and pushed around by all passers-by for over 15 hours. It's not like they could really do anything to me: avatars are immortal, and since I wouldn't be talking or clicking anything most tricks and traps wouldn't really work. But they could push me around, put me in vehicles, objects, or buildings, carry me around, do rude things Lou would never tolerate if she were really there, and just generally treat me like some inanimate object. I know SL Lou is just an avatar, but it's also me, dammit. When I'm not logged in to SL, I like the idea that SL Lou isn't standing around somewhere like a virtual puppet for other people to molest.

I ask Geoff to go to the sandbox and see if I'm there, and he says no: no Lou in sight. He goes on to the trivia game, and I fume for a while, trying to log in every five minutes. Second Life does have a Support portal, but guess what? Basic accounts like mine—meaning, non-Premium as in "non-paying"—don't get much by way of help. The first ticket I try to open is immediately rejected, saying "Only premium accounts can request help with login problems." Geoff suggests opening a "special questions" ticket that's apparently available to Basic accounts. I do that, and Geoff says he'll try to see if there's anything he can do.

I reply to a few instant messages via GMail—turns out you can do that!—and let some folks know what's going on. But rather than fuming about missing my second trivia game of the day—and with my avatar apparently floating around somewhere in SL like a Bizarro-world ghost—I decide to go for a real-life bike ride. Therapeutic. Get some aggression released in productive ways.

When I get back trivia is over, the Lindens haven't responded to my support request, and I still can't log in. Geoff has checked my "home"—the default location my avatar teleports if I use its "Home" command—and I'm not there. He's just packed it in for the day when my Gmail account gets a message from someone I don't know: "Lou, could you please not fly here?" I immediately write back, saying I can't log in, could you please tell me where I am so I can send someone to get me?! The person replies with the name of a private shopping sim I have never visited before. I grab Geoff via real-world instant messaging—he'd logged out of Second Life—and sent him off looking for me. And, sure enough, he found SL Lou, hovering in some strange latex fetish store, oblivious to the world. I was flying in a no-flying area, and I was apparently non-physical, because Geoff said he couldn't move me out of the store and into a less troublesome area.

Around this time I get a message from the Lindens that they've repeatedly reset my "presence" and I should be able to log in. I try and (of course) nothing happens. I write back saying I still can't log in, and eventually the Lindens say they've reset my presence again. That time it apparently took, and I was able to log in!

I was far too late for any trivia games, but I was at least able to catch up with some of my friends who had been worried about me—a few (including a fellow Corsair!) had apparently congregated at the store to look at my ghost. I tried to teleport there to behold myself but as soon as the real me appeared on the sim my ghost apparently vanished, although for a little while there were apparently two Lou Netizens on the Second Life grid: one the real me, and one just an empty shell.

So, now I'm having a lot more sympathy for those avatars you see sometimes hovering in strange spots, unmoving, apparently oblivious to the world: I bet a lot of them are accounts that have somehow had their in-world "presence" stuck on, but the users aren't there anymore.

And if you ever see me floating around somewhere strange, ignorant of the world…please cut me a little slack.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Everything Old Is Virtual Again

I don't know if it's unusual, but there's only one person I know in real life and in the virtual world. In Second Life he goes under the moniker Geoff Novi—and, although his "rez date" in early 2007 makes him only kinda old by Second Life standards, Geoff Novi is actually the (ahem) "new" Geoff. He dates back to early days of Second Life, although I guess he's been known to step away from the virtual world for long stretches. Presumably to, oh, I don't know, have a real life or something. Imagine.

Geoff introduced me to Second Life by kinda halfheartedly suggesting I might enjoy the in-world trivia games. (I had admitted to him I was burning out on real-life pubquiz.) Geoff doesn't live in my town, but work usually brings him here a couple times a year and we've made an effort to do pubquiz together when he's around. We have a bit of malicious fun playing trivia as a "team of two" and beating out teams of seven or eight people. We share a few other interests, and, thinking about it, I've known him longer than almost anyone in my life who's not family. Which is kinda weird. We aren't even the same nationality.

Anyway, when I started Second Life Geoff made an effort to be in-world and show me how a few things worked, and would often be available via real-world instant messaging when I had questions or problems. Although email and instant messages often go back and forth, he'll go missing from Second Life for long stretches. So imagine my surprise last week when I log into my computer and find an instant message from him: "Hi, I'm checking out those AM Radio spots in your blog. Let me know if you're online later."

Wow. My blog has a reader!

So I dropped everything—which, really, was just some laundry—and popped into Second Life to hang out with a real life friend I see all-too-rarely. We went to a couple low-key trivia games (where Geoff aced me out, as usual) and he caught up with some of his in-world friends. But the best part of the whole thing was that I got to play tour guide! Geoff is in-world so rarely—and usually just for specific events—that he doesn't explore much or check out new things. So I tried to drag him around to my usual haunts, my favorite places, and some music shows.

I have to admit we struck out on music performers—my faves weren't playing that evening and none of the acts we randomly picked out proved to be tremendously engaging—but I did drag him relentlessly from one cool sim to another until he finally begged off and we just chilled at dark-yet-brilliant sim Omega Point, chatted for a while, and I got a bit of an infodump on the history of Second Life and how live music streaming works. Gotta look into that.

Geoff and Lou hanging at Omega Point—Geoff called these "womb chairs."

One thing Geoff said kinda struck me: "everything old is virtual again." I would show him a place I think of as incredibly familiar, and he'd turn around and do some little bit of scripting magic and tell me about how a place was built, what software the sim was running, about active scripts in the place, and other esoterica. It was fun for once, in all the years I've known him, to get to play the expert and show him around something besides my hometown, and at the same time pick up new-to-me stuff from him.

A day unlike what I seem to normally do in Second Life. Since you're reading this, Geoff: don't be so scarce. Or I'll zap you. Or something.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Battlescar Avataria

So I'm realizing—from all the comments people have made—that the new 'do I sported to at the Buccaneer Bowl (and subsequently) needs some explanation. Just to put any rumors to rest, no, I haven't somehow forgotten how to put on prim hair, and, no, I haven't joined the Russian army. I have shaved the hair off part of the back of my head.

I've mentioned that Lou in Second Life is a lot like the real-life Lou: sure, it's not an exact match, but I try to keep the basics accurate. Although Lou in Second Life doesn't have my same wardrobe or mannerisms or affectations or dislike for eggplant, real-life Lou largely drives the appearance of Lou in Second Life. If I cut my hair in real life, Lou's hair changes in Second Life. Recently I'd been growing my hair out a bit, and SL Lou's hair had been creeping out a little too.

Well, a little over a week ago, real life gave me a surprise, and I wound up with some stitches in the back of my head. The emergency physicians shaved a bit of my hair to put them in, and for a couple days I just dealt with it…and I was constantly reaching back to feel that bare bit of scalp hiding under the regular mess of my hair. I doubt many people noticed, but it was driving me bonkers. So after a couple of days I took out some elastics, bound up the hair on top of my head, and used a trimmer and a razor to shave off the whole bottom half. What can I say? It's spring, a girl is prone to do crazy things, and at least I didn't shave my whole head. Not yet, anyway. I've done it before.

But I think my main motivation was just to gross people out with my stitches while I have them. What's the point in a big ugly gash if you can't show it off? But this presented a dilemma for Lou in Second Life: amazingly, it seems a virtual girl can't go out and just buy the top half of a haircut! However, thanks to a burgeoning blood and guts market in SL (I guess the vampires and zombies have to get their stuff somewhere!), getting ahold of some stitches wasn't that tough. So, I pulled out one of my earlier haircuts and edited it down—and if you're curious about why I'm missing half my hair, just cam around to the back:

That's a couple more stitches than I have in real life, but the shape and general character are about right.

Unfortunately, it grosses out far fewer people in Second Life than it does in real life. But, if nothing else, it helps Second Life Lou feel like, well, me. And I think that matters.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Bucc'ing the Trend

I am pleased to report that the monthly trivia event, the Buccaneer Bowl, held its fourth team-based event this weekend. BBowl IV was hosted once again by the intrepid Lette Ponnier, Lillian Shippe, and Thornton Writer, and a wonderful time was had by all! I am even more pleased to report that my team, the Trivial Corsairs, placed second out of ten teams, losing out only to the resurgent Triviators. The best part about coming in second is that the Corsairs beat out last month's winning team, Boomfire Circeschism (the name is a pastiche of the names of the team members), who came in third…and that should put an end to the "schism" member's Month of Gloating. This marks the second time the Corsairs have placed second in the competition, and I'm extremely proud of the showing my team-mates put in this month—they really truly lit up and proved their mettle, while Lou mainly battled Bad Lag. And, sadly, we did it in the absence of our gallant captain, Rain, who was unexpectedly kept away by real life.

The Trivial Corsairs: Lou, Lebn, and Nia (Accidently blocked in the picture: our good luck charm Preston! I'm sorry Pres!)

Although I missed the first Buccaneer Bowl due to a real life emergency, I wrote up the second and third Buccaneer Bowls. In a nutshell, the Bowl is unlike any other trivia event in Second Life because it is based on teams: during the general rounds, everyone can answer questions in open chat, and the first three correct answers earn points for their team. At the end of the round, the team with the highest score for the round gets a special bonus question only they can answer: if they get it right, a nice lump of Linden Dollars gets added to their pot; if they miss it, the sum gets distributed to all the other teams. Teams can collaborate on the bonus questions, and of course all the teams are constantly chattering amongst themselves in private instant messaging working out their strategies.

Hunting and pecking for Lindens at Buccaneer Bowl IV

Oh, and the Buccaneer Bowl is also notable amongst Second Life trivia events because it has substantial prize money: over $10,000L is on the line every month, with the result that the game attracts top players. And it rewards players for having low Avatar Rendering Costs (ARC scores): if you got your avatar's ARC under 500, you got $100L just for showing up. Having lower ARCs reduced lag, and makes the game more enjoyable for everyone.

This month's Buccaneer Bowl introduced a new feature to the bonus questions: if two teams are tied for the lead after a round, there's a special tie-breaker question to decide who can answer the bonus. The hosts announce a category, and the teams then pick one member from their team to answer the question: whoever answers first (and correctly!) wins the shot at the bonus question for his or her team. The Corsairs got to participate in two tie-breaker questions this month, and we won them both! Because we rock.

Even with ARC scores kept low, though, putting 40-odd avatars in a sim together can introduce lag and rendering issues—and they can persist a while because trivia players tend to turn of much of Second Life's graphical rendering in hopes of speeding up open chat and instant messaging. Even so, several of us were stunned at the height of Lillian Shippe's avatar during the game: she was gigantic! Although she was aware of it during the game, it's the kind of avatar deformation that can only be fixed with special tools (or logging out and logging back in again), and Lillian didn't really have an opportunity to do either while frantically scoring the fast-paced game. Even so, the ever-impish Chaddington Boomhauer asked me (since I'm short!) to stand next to Lillian for a photo:

Lou barely comes up to Lillian's belly-button.

I feel kind of awful posting an image of a distorted Lillian, who is routinely one of the most gorgeous and sophisticated avatars on the grid. Please check out her own Flickr photostream to put things in perspective. But it's not the first time Chadd has used me as a "compare and contrast" with some of the altitude-enabled avatars in Second Life. Here's a picture he took of me and my friend Rachella last January at a trivia event:

This month, the Buccaneer Bowl featured several new players (yay!) and new teams—whoo hoo!—including some seen-too-infrequently faces of avatars from around the world. I'm already looking forward to next month!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Guys' Guise

Lately I've been making an effort to attend live music performances in Second Life. SL has a fairly busy live music scene, typically with several shows happening somewhere in-world every hour…and that's not counting innumerable live DJs at clubs or other events. (No musician-v-DJ snobbery intended.)

As one might expect, the quality of inworld musicianship varies widely. Some performers are earnest amateurs essentially performing karaoke with canned music tracks: most sing, but a few play instruments along. Others are serious amateurs and semi-pros who can put on a good show, and a handful of performers are honest-to-goodness professionals (or good enough to pass for same). Some perform solo, while others play or sing along to pre-recorded music tracks; many of the pros and semi-pros play to backing tracks they've created themselves, rather than relying on canned material. Genres are all over the map: I've attended shows featuring everything from funk to acoustic country to pub songs to spacey synth-driven trip-hop to shred metal to singer-songwriters to progressive jazz…and, truly, I've only started to sample some of what SL's music scene has to offer. Eventually, I'll probably try to write up some of my favorite performers, because there are performers in Second Life who are very much worth hearing.

But one aspect of my experience in Second Life's live music scene seems oddly consistent: boys just randomly IM me. It's almost as bad as hanging around an infohub. I don't know if it's unusual for female avatars to turn up at music shows unescorted or what, but at almost every show I attend a male avatar will send me an unprovoked instant message—sometimes several. Believe me, I've done my time in live music venues in real life, and I do not get chatted up in real life—even alone and unescorted—to anywhere near the degree I get hit on in SL. Some of these are quite innocuous (perhaps the performer's manager or a venue owner is asking if I'd like to join a group) and some are purely procedural—folks who arrived after me sometimes ask if I know where a tip jar is, or whether there's a problem with the audio stream. A few even (gasp!) talk about the music! All of which is absolutely fine, and I'm proud to count some of the people I've met this way as my SL friends.

But some are just creepy. I default to being polite to everybody in SL, but lately I've been trying to shut down conversations before they wander off into super-creepy territory.

At a music event where a griefer attacked the performer and several members of the audience (thus, the reason I was desperate for a seat):

RandomGuy1: careful on that wall
Lou Netizen: had to find somewhere to sit ;)
RandomGuy1: i wouldn't want that pretty face on the cement below
Lou Netizen: 'preciate the concern - but I've fallen from 2,000m today
Lou Netizen: hardly left a mark :)
RandomGuy1: perhaps you need to be checked by a doctor
RandomGuy1: head injuries may go un detected
Lou Netizen: or might be indistinguishable from pre-existing conditions ;)
RandomGuy1: true
RandomGuy1: which ones do you know about?
Lou Netizen: well, there's the tendency to talk to strangers
Lou Netizen: and the useles information that spills out at inopportune moments
Lou Netizen: and that I'm apparently a griefer magnet
RandomGuy1: did you break someones heart?
Lou Netizen: not so far as I know :0
RandomGuy1: oh there are a lot of things you don't do in sl i see
Lou Netizen: one or two :)
RandomGuy1: such a list on your profile
RandomGuy1: might even stop a guy from trying to catch your attention
Lou Netizen: really?

These are more typical: for some reason people think if your avatar isn't dancing, there's something wrong. Sadly, these represent my more typical responses these days: blunt, to the point of rude:

RandomGuy2: How cum you aren't dancin?
Lou Netizen: Lou doesn't dance
RandomGuy2: why is that
Lou Netizen: it always ends in heartache
RandomGuy2: it doens't have to
RandomGuy2: dont sit by yourself
Lou Netizen: you're right. sometimes it ends with a trip to the police station
RandomGuy2: o_0

RandomGuy3: lou why u not happy?
Lou Netizen: Well, there's the lag. But who says I'm not happy?
RandomGuy3: you look sad
Lou Netizen: I'm not sad, the poseball just makes me look that way
RandomGuy3: so why sit there
Lou Netizen: did I mention the lag?
RandomGuy3: you should be happy
RandomGuy3: we could go somewhere else
Lou Netizen: technically that is true
Lou Netizen: but then I wouldn't be able to write in my blog about you

Others are immediately creepy:

RandomGuy4: hi baby
RandomGuy4: where are you from baby b
Lou Netizen laughs
Lou Netizen: I'm from here.
RandomGuy4: yes riht
RandomGuy4: lets go somewhere we can talk baby
Lou Netizen: We're not talking now?
RandomGuy4: somewhere nicer
Lou Netizen looks around
Lou Netizen: this place seems nice
RandomGuy4: you know what I mean
Lou Netizen: likely. but do you know what *I* mean?

And others are just a little odd:

RandomGuy5: you have a lovely face
RandomGuy5: well done
RandomGuy5: smiles
Lou Netizen: I don't deserve credit tho- I didn't make the skin
RandomGuy5: oh
RandomGuy5: nice
RandomGuy5: wonders
RandomGuy5: as a man would
RandomGuy5: the skin is about as lovely as I have seen
RandomGuy5: but also you seem to be a particular type of person
Lou Netizen: two legged? female? smartassed? ;)
RandomGuy5: sophisticated
RandomGuy5: haha
RandomGuy5: some body who has something to say
Lou Netizen: I mentioned smartass, right? :)

I'm starting to understand that people don't go to live music shows just for music: they also go to people-watch. But I can't imagine the attention the amazon barbies get if even little innocuous Lou is getting hit up all the time.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Getting Her Smartass Kicked

Apropos of supporting Second Life trivia events that are something other than free-for-all speed-typing contests in open chat, I was delighted to learn Hummingbird Forster, the proprietress of one of SL's popular trivia venues, was putting on a game called "Smartasstermind," based on the popular British quiz show Mastermind.

Mastermind contests have two rounds of two minutes each. The first round is a set of "specialist" questions on a subject of the contestant's choosing—if the player is an expert on the British royal family, planetary science, sub-Saharan Africa, computer languages, whatever, they can select that as their specialist subject and try to use their knowledge to rack up points. The second round of questions on on general knowledge, and that helps level the playing field between contestants. Winners are determined by who got the most questions right and (in the event of ties) passed the fewest questions.

Hummingbird's "Smartasstermind" (the name refers to daily trivia events which award small prized for the funniest incorrect answer) was a little different, to accomodate the realities of SL. Rounds were limited to five minutes, and only had ten questions each: thus, there was no advantage to quickly passing on a question you don't know in hopes of getting a better one. The maximum score would be 20 points: perfect 10s in each round.

Hummingbird hosts (right) as Lou (left, apparently in her Han Solo outfit) crashes and burns playing Smartasstermind.

I thought I'd do great at Smartasstermind: finally a trivia contest that would reward knowledge and thinking, not sheer typing speed. But it's amazing what being up on a stage (in a replica of that chair!) can do to your nerves: I was surprised to find myself nervous and twitchy, and when my specialist questions came—I'd picked "guitars" as my subject—I found myself immediately reverting to open-chat trivia norms, typing answers as fast as I could think of them.

The results? As pathetic as you might think! I believe I got half my specialist questions right. Way to go, Lou! And it wasn't that Hummingbird had picked things that were too tough—I in fact knew most of the questions but couldn't wrap my head around the game. I did marginally better at my general knowledge questions, having been chastened by my performance in my specialist round.

Other players had no such trouble, though. I watched eventual winner Maestrom Janus drolly type his way through both specialist and general knowledge questions—I think his total score was 17 or 18 points out of a possible 20. Mael's specialist topic was no surprise to folks who've made his acquaintance: Dr. Who.

Smartasstermind winner Maelstrom Janus blithely typing his responses.

I don't know if Hummingbird is planning another Smartasstermind event, but if so I will happily save up my Lindens for the entrance fee: the game was great fun and I'm totally behind new forms of trivia games in Second Life. I just have no idea what I'd pick for my specialist topic next time!