Thursday, May 28, 2009

Lou's Clues—Live!

Well, I've finally gone and done it: I'm running my own trivia game!

As I've made abundantly clear in this blog, I've been playing trivia in Second Life ever since I created my account. In fact, trivia was kinda my main reason for getting into SL—which is a little embarrassing but, there, I've said it: the truth shall set me free!

One thing that's irked me: I've always been a trivia consumer. Although I try to tip generously and be a positive presence in SL's nerdiness-for-money community, I've always felt like I'm a bit of a leech. I'd show up, poach a few questions, crack wise, say thanks…and then pop to the next game and do it again. Yay me.

I'd long considered starting my own game as a way to give something back to the SL trivia community, but the logistics were kind of daunting. I'd have to buy or rent some "virtual land," build a venue, figure out a game format, commit to a regular event, promote and advertise it, find Linden dollars to fund prizes, and all that jazz. Plus write trivia questions! Although I've answered untold thousands of questions, I'd never once written any. And, after I'd gone to all that trouble and work, well, it would just figure that no one would show up. After all, irony is alive and well in virtual worlds.

So when Jez Oh and Sinnamon Sands asked out of the blue if maybe I'd be interested in hosting a trivia game at their brand-new club [MonoChrome], I was completely and totally flattered. But my initial instinct was to issue a polite no-thank-you. What did I know about running a trivia game? And who would show up, anyway? But then I suddenly thought "OK, why am I thinking of saying no-thank-you?" There was really no good reason: Jez and Sinn were taking a lot of the hard work out of running a game: they'd built the venue, they have a ton of experience running and hosting events, and they have about five and a half million oodles of credibility on the trivia circuit. I had nothing to lose.

So I said yes. Squee!!! If you're in-world at noon SLT on Saturdays, pop into [MonoChrome] to see Lou's Clues, live and in-person! Or, in-pixels, anyway.

Running my first ever trivia game! (Image from Chaddington Boomhauer.)

Turns out one of the toughest parts of establishing a regular trivia game is picking a time. I don't know if it's always been this way in Second Life, but all the decent times to schedule a regular trivia event seem to be taken. A ton of events have established daily and weekend time slots, along with established crowds and audiences. But another huge variable in running an event is my real life: until now, Second Life has largely been something I can log in to—or not—purely as real life allows and enables. Once I start hosting a regular event, I'm kinda committing to being in-world at a particular place and time on a regular basis…and that's when I realized part of what I like about my RL schedule—it's flexible, ever-changing, and never-the-same-twice—was going to be a liability in Second Life.

So, I tried to pick a time that would be workable for a good portion of the trivia crowd I know and see regularly, but that was also at least feasible for my real life schedule: 12 noon SLT on Saturdays. I know there are other trivia events running at the same time, and I'm sincerely not trying to cause a problem for them. Right now, I'm running the game as general knowledge trivia in open chat (for $50L per question, which is pretty good by Second Life standards—almost 20¢ Canadian!), and as I get my hosting chops together, I'm hoping to add additional elements to distinguish my game further from other things going on in Second Life: that way, there won't just be different games, but each game will be clearly distinct from the others. More types of games = more fun for everyone…or at least I hope so!

Running my first "official" trivia at MonoChrome (image courtesy of AnaMaria Quintessa)

Having never hosted a game before, I threw a surprise impromptu trivia on May 21 at [MonoChrome], just to make sure my tools and scripts worked and to get a quick taste before diving in with both feet on my first Saturday outing. I was a total bundle of nerves…and thought for a moment that I might have completely misgauged my audience when my very first trivia question ever asked in Second Life blanked everyone. Gah! No one had a clue. (BTW, the answer was "megamouth shark.") But things picked up pretty quickly, and I'd like to think everyone had a good time. Because that really is the whole point!

I launched the regular Saturday game last week on May 23, and it seemed to go well—a ton of people turned up (thank you thank you thank you!), Sinn spun some tunes, and I gave away a lot of Lindens. I'll be running another one May 30—turn up if you want to get rich or get blanked trying!

As for writing trivia questions? Not as difficult as I'd feared, but it sure does take some time! Fortunately, it's really the kind of thing I can do onesey-twosey throughout the week, so it hasn't been a problem…so far. At least until that flexible schedule kicks into a more "interesting" mode.

But the best part about it is feeling like I'm finally giving a little something back to all my friends in Second Life who've been so gracious and welcoming to me. Thank you all, and if you can turn up on Saturdays I sure hope you have fun!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ambling Through Andalus

It's funny how Second Life can become a lot like Real Life…first it's fun and new and wonderful and you'll full of enthusiasm, and next thing you know you're in over your head with commitments, things to do, stuff to get done, and deadlines.

Taking in the sunset in Al-Andalus

More on the "what's Lou been up to, anyway?" thing in a minute, but I thought I'd briefly mention I'm still trying to get little bits of exploring in when I can, although my goals lately haven't been so much to find cool and unusual sims as to find quiet and scenic places where I can chill for a while, catch up on messages, type up my notecards, and generally try to get my Second Life slightly more organized. Lately one of those places has been Al-Andalus, a series of sims in Second Life themed off 13th century Moorish Spain. I don't know much about the intentions of the build, but it seems to be a virtual experiment in creating an Islamic caliphate—complete with judiciary—based on pre-colonial Islam. (And, indeed, as a female avatar I am asked to remove shoes and don a veil before setting foot inside the mosque. I cammed through the walls from outside, thanks anyway.) Parts of the build are just exquisite, and it does a great job of evoking the atmosphere of old Cordoba in Second Life.

Among the battlements, fighting the IMs

So far, I haven't run into many people in Al-Andalus—which has kinda made it a little getaway-within-a-getaway in SL—but those I have encountered have been friendly and and welcoming. And—until this post, anyway, it's probably the last place any of my SL friends would come looking for me.

Anyway—if you pop into Al-Andalus and see a tiny girl sitting on a grassy hill or on top of one of the city's towers…that might be me.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Bucc'ing Nuts!

Has it been another month already? The fifth Buccaneer Bowl, Second Life's premier trivia event took place this weekend, once again ably organized and hosted by Lette Ponnier, Lillian Shippe, and Thornton Writer. I've written about the Buccaneer Bowl several times in this blog (really, you can see for yourself!). Briefly, for any new readers, the Buccaneer Bowl is a high-stakes, team-based trivia contest: players group into up to ten teams of three to four players each and compete for som $10,000L in prize money, based on their collective performance in five open rounds of five questions, plus bonus questions for teams that win a round. As one might imagine, most of the top players in Second Life's virtual trivia community show up, as as the game has gained momentum—this is its fifth month!—the competition and rivalry between the teams has reached new (and good-spirited!) heights.

I've played all the Buccaneer Bowls (except the first, which I missed due to a real life emergency) with the Frivolous Corsairs—cue fanfare, da tada tada! The Corsairs consist of Lebn Bucyk, Nia Jinx, our captain Rain Ninetails, and lil'ole me. It's a great team with a strong balance of skills—we've always done well—but the difficulties of trying to arrange schedules means (I think) we've only played one of the Buccaneer Bowls as a complete team. We inevitably lose a player at the last minute to real life contingencies, although I'm pretty sure Lebn—and Lebn alone—has made every game. Other teams experience similar variations from game to game, and its common to arrange for substitute players or pick up a member just before the game begins. The Corsairs have been dogged by losing team members at the last minute, but this month Nia Jinx let us know she wouldn't be able to make the game about a week ahead of time. Of course, I immediately panicked—I consider Nia our ace-in-the-hole!—but having some notice gave the Corsairs an opportunity to recruit the fantabulous Sinnamon Sands for this month's event!

The Corsairs! Left to right: me, Rain Ninetails, Sinnamon Sands, Lebn Bucyk

The Corsairs have always done well at the Buccaneer Bowl, and last month we managed a second-place finish even with only three players! This month we gave the two-time Buccaneer Bowl champs the Triviators a run for their money, fighting them right down to the last bonus question, with Sinn catching on fire in the final rounds and putting on a simply dominating performance. The final scoring was tense, but the Triviators just barely edged out the Corsairs in the end for their third Buccaneer Bowl championship. And they've earned it: they're a wonderful team, and performed very consistently from round to round. Congrats to Nelly Swindlehurst, Lotus Ceriano, Starla Gurbux, and Mako Kungfu!

Now, I know I've probably made it sound like two teams have been kinda dominating the Buccaneer Bowl, but that's simply not true. My descriptions of the games are necessarily abbreviated, and with eight to ten teams and 30 to 40 people playing at once, it's impossible to give a blow-by-blow analysis. The quality of the questions and (more importantly!) the players means that any of the teams has a reasonable shot at winning the Buccaneer Bowl—and the way the scoring works, teams can earn not-insignificant money even if they aren't top scorers. Plus, even better, the Buccaneer Bowl's ARC bonuses—which award $100L to every player with an ARC under 500, and $50 to players with ARCs under 1000—means no one has to go home empty-handed, even if no one on their team comes in first, second, or third on any question.

As always, Chaddington Boomhauer took great images of the teams, including this portrait with our captain in the foreground:

The Buccaneer Bowls have been marked by excellent quality, great competition, and good sportsmanship all around. They've truly become the highlight of the Second Life trivia calendar, and I'm already looking forward to the next one!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Plays to Place

Lately real life has been keeping me plenty occupied, so my time in Second Life has mostly been spent relaxing: playing trivia games, going to concerts, and generally not going anything productive. But I've still done a few things (and taken a few screenshots) that I thought I'd pass along.

Second Life's basic object and texture capabilities are pretty limited, but builders and creators still manage to put things together in interesting ways. Arguably the best water effect in Second Life is the Linden's own water, available to parcel owners (I think) in every sim if they lower their land far enough. With the right client settings, it has reflects and ripples an motion and does a passable job of imitating standing water. It doesn't react to objects moving through it (so no wakes) and doesn't lap against shores or anything. But it can look pretty good if your computer can display it properly.

But if you want to build a fountain, a pool, a waterfall, or something like that, you can't use Linden water: you have to use standard prims and textures and try to fake your way through it. And if you want weather—SL has limited wind, but no precipitation—you really have to work. So I like to keep an eye open for nice efforts at water and other environmental oddities.

So I'd heard that a spot called Nah had some nice atmospherics and rain effects in a skybox/store area, I had to go check it out. Although Nah is not large, it's a nifty, evocative, atmospheric build.

Portrait of the artist as a slightly damp avatar.

I also had to go check out a build called Templum ex Obscurum—and I think it qualifies as the darkest, swampiest place I've seen in Second Life. I need to go explore it more, but I have the sense it's more of an environment than a theme—and by Second Life standards, you can practically feel the water oozing down the rocks.

Lou swears she saw something moving in that pool.

Lollygaggers represents a different sort of environment entirely…it's a heap. Literally, in places. Unlike many nifty builds, Lollygaggers is on the SL mainland—and seems to have some issues with its neighbors because they mostly have giant scrims up to attempt to blog Lollygagger Lane from view. Why? Because it's a dump. Livestock roams the streets, a fetid ditch by the side of the road is filled with stagnant water, rot, and…you don't want to know. The buildings—if they are buildings—are dilapidated lean-tos and shacks. Litter fills the street along with discarded furniture and junk. And…unlike almost anywhere else in Second Life, dust and litter literally blows down the street:

Foreground, a newspaper blows down Lollygagger Lane. Background, Lou considers breaking into a furniture joint.

On an entirely separate note, I couldn't bear having the only picture of Buccaneer Bowl ringmaster Lillian Shippe in my blog be the one where she's all distorted and a million feet tall. I was recently invited to an event in the steampunk sim Armada Breakaway where I managed to get a picture of Lillian in her everyday glory, along with Rach Borkotron and Lette Ponnier.

It's like Lillian knew I was behind her angling for a screenshot.

We were all there to watch our buddy Mako Kungfu take part in a synchronized swimming exhibition—as a merman! I don't know much about Armada Breakaway, but it's apparently modeled after the steampunk novels of China MiĆ©ville…and merman, half-mechanical folks, and floating wooden cities apparently figure into it. I haven't explored the sim fully yet, but it's a gorgeous build, and while it is a role-playing environment, everyone has been very welcoming.

Mako (purple merman on the right!) and troupe put on a show.

And as for what's been taking up all my Second Life time otherwise…I hope to have an update on that real soon. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Of Bots and Bits

I realize I'm behind the curve on these topics—real life has been keeping me far too entertained in recent weeks, leaving little time for Second Life or musings thereon.

In the last couple weeks, the owners of Second Life, Linden Lab, have rolled out a couple major new policies. One concerns bots—headless avatars driven by software programs—and the other introduces sweeping regulation of "adult content" in Second Life. In other words, naughty bits and anything related to them.

First the bots. Linden Labs has announced that any use of bots or other automated accounts to boost traffic figures for a parcel will be considered a violation, leading to warnings and/or account suspensions if offenders persist. Linden Labs plans to enforce the policy on both the Second Life mainland as well as private regions and estates, meaning that even folks who pay Linden Labs for their own private sims won't be able to use hordes of satellite accounts to boost traffic figures for their regions.

Most of the bots I've seen in-world—and I have seen some pretty big clusters—seem to exist solely for the purpose of making particular locations rank more highly in Second Life's in-world search feature. Every parcel has a "traffic" figure associated with it, which is supposed to have something to go with how many avatars visit a parcel and (I guess) stay for a little bit. I guess the idea is to rank searches using a primitive form of crowdsourcing: if lots of people go to a particular place, it's more likely to be a desired search result than somewhere no one ever visits, right? So Second Life's search ranks the more popular spot first.

Obviously, scammers latched on to this idea and created hordes of "bots"—Second Life avatars that they control with scripts and other tools, but which aren't being driven by people sitting in front of a computer. If a landowner wants their parcel to list higher in search, they can simply camp a bunch of these bots on their plot (usually underground or in a skybox, so they aren't in routine view of "real" visitors) and jack their search rankings.

Traffic bots are problematic. First, they're just gaming Second Life's search, skewing results towards places that are willing to spend the most time and resources faking their traffic figures. Second, those bots are usually scripted pretty poorly: if a sim reboots or SL suffers one of its very-frequent hiccups, the bots tend to accumulate around infohubs and other default home locations, often sticking around for days and degrading new users' first taste of Second Life. Imagine: new users pop into Second Life for the first time and appear to be surrounded by people (wow, look, Second Life is full of wonderful interesting people!) but they're all mute zombies (why won't anyone talke to me?! Second Life is full of assholes!). Third, bots take up resources that are intended for real people using real avatars: if a sim can support 40 avatars but 32 of them are bots, that means only 8 "real" people can visit a sim. Think that figure is exaggerated? That's the number of bots I counted in the Viva sim in Second France one day.

The Lindens aren't banning all bots: just ones used to boost traffic figures. Bots that act as models in stores, backup musicians at gigs, concierges, and other purposes (I ran into one recently that claimed to be an in-world agent for a search engine) are apparently all fine. The Lindens are also leaving land bots alone—I gather they basically sit around and wait for a particular parcels' prices to reach a certain point then snap them up near-instantaneously. I don't much care about that—don't own land, can't imagine getting into the virtual land game—but I bet landbots still take up avatar slots and crowd up at infohubs.

I'll be curious whether banning traffic bots will result in any improvement in Second Life's search feature. Maybe I've just been spoiled by the likes of Google, but I've personally found SL's in-world search to be well-nigh useless when it comes to looking for places (unless I already know the name) or items. I search, and I get a tiny, short, slow, unhelpful listing of things which, at first glance, rarely seems to have any relationship to what I wanted to find. I once spent over three hours looking for a simple pair of granny boots using Second Life's in-world search and I never found them or anything close.

The events listings and people search are basically functional, however, and they're about all I use.

Next up: naughty bits. Back in March the Lindens announced they were working on ways to segregate adult content in Second Life, and a couple weeks ago they (ahem) laid out their plans. Adult-only content will be physically separated to a new "adult continent." Anything on the Second Life mainland that includes expressly sexually-themed content, photorealistic nudity, or representations of illegal drug use or of intense violence will have to relocate to the adult continent or a private region designated as "adult." Access to adult regions will be restricted to "verified" accounts—that is, accounts that have jumped through hoops to prove to Linden Lab (through a third party) that the account holder is of adult age, or have verified payment information (credit card, PayPal, etc.) on file.

Search results will be similarly filtered: only verified accounts will be able to see search results from locations designated as "adult."

Under the new regime—expected to be in full force around the time I reach my first rez-day—everything in Second Life will be designated either PG, Mature, or Adult. PG areas aren't supposed to have anything that even mildly suggests drug use, or sexual or violent themes. Areas designated as Mature can have some content that's sexual or violent in nature (or, presumably, refers to drug use) so long as it doesn't "promote sexual conduct" or use adult search tags.

The idea behind the segregation of adult content—kind of creating a virtual Red Light District within Second Life—seems to really be an effort to make the Second Life mainland friendlier and potentially less offensive to educational institutions, organizations, corporations, and others who want to get into virtual worlds but don't necessarily want to expose their users to—well, everything.

Personally, I couldn't give a rat's ass about adult content in Second Life. If people really find some titillating value in watching cartoony people doing jaggy gyrations and putting on (then taking off) impossible-in-real-life lingerie or sex toys…OK, great, have at it. I'll be exploring some cool sim, listening to music, playing with prims, or (if I'm really bored) trying to get some stupid LSL script to work. But I'll happily watch paint dry and crack before checking out the "adult content" in Second Life. Maybe I'm a loser, but I just don't understand the appeal.

One thing that does concern me about the Linden's new adult content policy is that I suspect some of the places I frequent—trivia and music venues—may find they have to retool or relocate to adults-only areas. And at that point, I'll probably never turn up again. The risqué activity and content at some of these places already makes me uncomfortable and feel unwelcome—I just do my best to ignore it and leave each to their own. But if I have to teleport into the Continent of Dildos and Heaving Bazooms just to play trivia—I'm thinking I'll just log off instead.

And that leaves aside the whole issue of becoming a "verified" account. Various virtual pundits have repeatedly made the case that, eventually, almost every active Second Life account will get payment information associated with it—and thus become "verified" under the new scheme—because they will eventually want to buy Linden dollars to do things or buy things in SL. Maybe I'm the exception that proves the rule, but Lou Netizen is very active Second Life account, and I have never bought Lindens—hence, I am not verified. And unless something changes radically, I can't see why I would need to buy Lindens. I don't own or rent land, and I don't have some bizarre SL shopping habit to support. I earn (or win) more Lindens than I can spend in-world without even trying, just by making things for people, writing scripts, and even answering trivia questions. I give away probably 90 percent of the Linden dollars I pull in—either to in-world charities or as tips to venues, hosts, or performers—because, really, what am I going to do with it? Do I really need more virtual shoes?

So here's what really troubles me about Second Life's pending adult continent: by mandating that only verified avatars can go there, the adult continent is likely to be an almost entirely grief-free zone. Griefers—folks who get their kicks disrupting Second Life for others—typically use brand-new, anonymous, throwaway accounts. After all, the Lindens will eventually get around to disabling the accounts when enough abuse reports pile up, so why risk an established account when new ones are so easily obtainable?

The result may be that, despite being the Continent of Dildos and Bazooms, Second Life's adult continent is likely to become prime Second Life real estate simply because residents will be much less likely to be abused, harassed, and griefed if everyone there has a verified account. Which may leave the mainland—and those restricted to it, like me—dealing with griefers on an ever-more-regular basis.

As a girl who runs into griefers all too often, I can't say this prospect excites me.

How about, instead of an adult continent, maybe we can have a grown-ups continent in Second Life? Where residents don't have to put up with immature antics of /b/tards and script kiddies? Please?