In January of 2007, Sweden announced its intention to become the first country to open an embassy in a virtual world, promising to establish “diplomatic representation” inside the five-year-old online community Second Life. Unlike more traditional online communities, where users represent themselves to one another using text, photographs, and profile pages, Second Life (2L for short) is more of a sprawling videogame, its two million-plus registered users (or residents, as they call themselves) pursuing various forms of self-realization via high-resolution avatars. 2L’s residents interact with one another in standard chat formats (2L’s creators, San Francisco based Linden Labs, promise in-world telephony in future iterations); they dress themselves and craft fanciful hairstyles; they engage in animated cybersex and hold poker games, poetry readings, and constitutional conventions. Residents walk, swim, or fly like digital superpeople over a world of oceans, landmasses, and archipelagos, the smaller islands of which are available for rent from Linden and developable using a variety of architectural coding languages, commerce and media engines, and other tools of display, beautification, and interaction.
Second Life is not the most populous virtual world — South Korea’s MapleStory role-playing game boasts more than 110 million members and can host several hundred thousand simultaneous users during peak hours. It is neither the oldest (dozens of virtual worlds have come and gone since the late 1990s) nor the most profitable (as of this writing, that title belongs to Blizzard’s World of Warcraft), but 2L is clearly the reigning champion of fantastical virtual announcements. Over the past year, the sound of journalists, futurists, and businesses clamoring to get in on the new new thing has become deafening. Conceptual artists have released artworks there, wire services have set up 2L bureaus, and film festivals have held screenings, showing films in virtual theaters. You can either watch your avatar watch the film, or you can stream the film directly to your screen. Outside, in the virtual lobby, stars and directors update the old internet gambit of the chatroom meet-and-greet by appearing, live in Second Life via mingling avatar.
Honest-to-god Yankee dollars are directly converted into Linden dollars (2L’s internal currency) at a clip of over $200,000 per day, even as thousands of square kilometers of virtual land reap monthly “land use” fees for Linden Labs, the privilege of metaphorical ownership substituting for traditional subscription schemes. The Gap and Best Buy have opened virtual showrooms, while thriving markets in virtual real estate and high-end avatar construction have escaped the gravity of 2L’s internal economy to land on eBay and PayPal. Some of that money flows downward to the usual plethora of quasi-licit hustles — escort services, for example, where players pay to engage in naughty chat with pneumatic avatars. The thriving sexual economy in turn breeds scandal, as when it was revealed that Anshe Chung, Second Life’s richest avatar, had made her fortune as a 2L escort and sex therapist, providing in-world, highly demonstrative classes on what the press chastely termed “virtual lovemaking.” Gossip columnists quipped that at least Chung had been a classy virtual ho, her fortune having no genesis on any of 2L’s numerous “rape play” islands, where residents can become rapists, victims, or bystanders for $220 Linden dollars.
While it’s clear what Chung gets out of being a resident of 2L, as measured by the stored value of her Linden dollars, it doesn’t take a Luddite to wonder what an entity like Sweden will get for the trouble of establishing a virtual outpost. As wire service reports explained, the proposed embassy “would not provide passports or visas,” instead being designed to “instruct visitors how to obtain such documents in the real world.” So said Olle Wästberg, director of the Swedish Institute. The embassy will “inform people about Sweden and broaden the opportunity for contact with Sweden easily and cheaply.” Practically speaking, then, the new “embassy” will give the Swedes (and prospective Swedophiles) nothing that they can’t already find at www.swedenabroad.com.
The proposed 2L embassy, then, will serve no purpose other than to let Sweden shout “First!” into the historical ether. How sad for Sweden that the first political entity to set up virtual shop in 2L was not a forward looking Scandinavian nation but the Youth Wing of the French National Front. The December 2006 arrival of the French racists associated with Jean-Marie Le Pen, far from calling into question the foundations of consensus reality, followed a trajectory familiar to anyone who has ever participated in that oldest of virtual interactions, the email flame war. The group’s virtual headquarters on Porcupine Island soon became the site of an escalating cycle of protest that, a few weeks later, spilled into an all out and thoroughly surreal cyberwar. Second Life blogger James Wagner Au offered the following testimony:
It’s unclear when the shooting started, or who fired the first shot (several witnesses claim [National Front] security forces assaulted them with “push guns,” weapons capable of flinging a Resident across the island like a ragdoll), but in the final days of last week, at least, the assault raged from both sides… a ponderous and dreamlike conflict of machine guns, sirens, police cars, “rez cages” (which can trap an unsuspecting avatar), explosions, and flickering holograms of marijuana leaves and kids’ TV characters, and more… One enterprising insurrectionist created a pig grenade, fixed it to a flying saucer, and sent several whirling into National Front headquarters, where they’d explode in a starburst of porcine shrapnel.
Reaction to the fracas (whose signature image became the aforementioned exploding pig) ranged from the amused to the eye-rolling, as at the US technology blog Valleywag, which opined that “whatever your politics or personal thoughts about virtual playground Second Life, after reading [Au’s account], it will be hard to avoid thinking of the service as little more than a romper room for retards.” Valleywag exists largely to translate the interests of technology companies and venture capitalists into snark, but there is a sense in which Second Life actually is a kind of romper room for forms of unrestrained, unbridled hype. Consider this description of life in virtual worlds by futurist Howard Rheingold from his book, The Virtual Community:
Similar to the way previous media dissolved social boundaries related to time and space, the latest computer-mediated communications media seem to dissolve boundaries of identity as well… I know a respectable computer scientist who spends hours as an imaginary ensign aboard a virtual starship full of other real people around the world who pretend they are characters in a Star Trek adventure. I have three or four personae myself, in different virtual communities around the Net. I know a person who spends hours of his day as a fantasy character who resembles “a cross between Thorin Oakenshield and the Little Prince” and is an architect and educator and bit of a magician aboard an imaginary space colony. By day, David is an energy economist in Boulder, Colorado, father of three; at night, he’s Spark of Cyberion City — a place where I’m known only as Pollenator.
These words could easily have come from any contemporary 2L enthusiast, but they were actually written by Rheingold ten years ago (hat-tip: Clay Shirky), this in reference to online experiences that were even then paltry in comparison to those readily available on a Nintendo or Playstation, like the early Final Fantasy games.
The virtual excitements of the current moment certainly point us in useful directions when it comes to thinking about the dream of the transformative second life — a parallel universe where increased peace, safety, agency, wealth, well-being, power, beauty, and/or pleasure awaits. But then, so have a host of other indicators and trendlets going back to, say, Mikhail Bakhtin’s medieval carnival, or Peter Lamborn Wilson’s observations (written under the pseudonym Hakim Bey) on “pirate utopias of the sea-rovers and Corsairs of the eighteenth century.” According to Wilson/Bey, these pirate utopias not only constituted an “information network” that spanned the globe hundreds of years before the first packet ever made a 2L avatar dance, they also created “temporary autonomous zones” where the various strictures of the era’s first lives could be shrugged off.
Primitive and devoted primarily to grim business, the net nevertheless functioned admirably. Scattered throughout the net were islands, remote hideouts where ships could be watered and provisioned, booty traded for luxuries and necessities. Some of these islands supported “intentional communities,” whole mini-societies living consciously outside the law and determined to keep it up, even if only for a short but merry life.
It’s hard to imagine anything occurring in 2L being so well remembered in a year, let alone in 200 years.
For the last several years, Joseph DeLappe has regularly logged into America’s Army, a free online first-person-shooter combat simulation owned and operated by the United States Army. Built by American gaming companies and maintained by the Department of Defense as a recruiting tool, America’s Army features team-based combat missions in “real” fields of action such as Iraq and Afghanistan. “Dead in Iraq,” DeLappe’s intervention into America’s Army’s field of play, involves typing in the name, age, service branch, and date of death of each US serviceperson who has died in Iraq.
I enter the game using my login name, “dead-in-iraq,” and proceed to type the names using the game’s text messaging system. As is my usual practice when creating such an intervention, I am a neutral visitor as I do not participate in the proscribed mayhem. Rather, I stand in position and type until I am killed. After death, I hover over my dead avatar’s body and continue to type. Upon being reincarnated in the next round, I continue the cycle.
DeLappe’s virtual actions are astounding. Although his tone and claim to memorial elides the fact, “Dead in Iraq” is a direct assault on America’s Army and its players, which include active military personnel and Iraq veterans as well. As a hack, “Dead in Iraq” is more profound than any attack on a virtual National Front, for the simple reason that attacking the Le Penites is at worst akin to defacing an advertisement. Subverting America’s Army runs the risk of injuring someone psychically, of course, and perhaps for a good cause, but injuring nonetheless.
As Julian Dibbell suggested in My Tiny Life, his 1993 analysis of an online sexual assault, under the right conditions an attack on the “second,” psychic body can be nearly as devastating as attacks on the first, given the virtual identities created by users of online technologies and the time and effort they put into creating and inhabiting them. Demolishing a virtual headquarters is, by contrast, a crime against intellectual property and (maybe) commerce. Instead of leading us deeper into the pixilated hearts of networked men and women, the battle for Porcupine Island leads us back to courtrooms and position papers, into ongoing debates about copyright, graffiti, hacking, and so on, which will follow their own appointed trajectories with or without Second Life.
CHINA, THE ORIGINAL FUTURE
If Second Life is a kind of romper room, where is the future actually being lived? The intuition of the 1980s cyberpunk novel was that the virtual world spoke Japanese. But it is in Korea that videogame players have achieved the fame of professional athletes, and it is in China that more than 250 million active videogame players line up at cybercafes in search of diversion from life in the People’s Republic. Mostly that virtual nation seems largely interested in playing and profiting from games. Over the last few years, no gaming symposium has been complete without mention — half awed, half hysterical — of Chinese World of Warcraft (WoW) sweatshops, where part-enslaved, part-employed “players” sit (chained?) to computers and “farm” monsters for gold and loot, which is then laundered into US dollars thanks to lazy American gamers via the magic of eBay and the like.
Lately, Chinese virtual currencies have begun to affect the value of the nation-state’s real-world economy. Recent fluctuations in the yuan were blamed on increased trade in the QQ, a phantom currency introduced by Tencent, China’s largest instant messaging platform, as a sort of “frequent flyer” incentive allowing the purchase of virtual tchotchkes. As the number of subscribers approached the 200 million mark, users began exchanging QQs to pay off debts or transact person-to-person purchases, while online gambling companies soon started accepting bets and making payouts in QQs. (Needless to say, it has long been possible to purchase cybersex in QQs.)
When compared to Second Life or even World of Warcraft, the virtual worlds of East Asia bring to mind Wilson/Bey’s pirate utopias, being technologically primitive and devoted primarily to banal business; but it is in them that the seeds of future relations and habits are likely growing to fruition. Consider this sequence of virtual, perhaps apocryphal, events found on a Chinese blog:
• A man takes care of his recently unemployed wife.
• The unemployed wife plays WoW in her newly found free time.
• The man discovers his wife’s chat logs, in which she talked to another lover.
• She met her lover through Yanshan University’s [online WoW players club/guild] the Sentinel Union.
• In fact, her lover is the president of the guild.
• The husband confronts his wife; he is brought to tears and loves his wife too much to leave her.
• The husband writes a forum post and tells the other man to stay away.
• The other man replies, “If you have guts, you come for me!!”
• A group of 1000+ people, angered by the lover, gather in WoW.
• The 1000+ rabble wage war against the Sentinel Union, their goal, “the condemnation of the Sentinel Union’s president.”
These are the sorts of scenarios that keep men and women, each for their own reasons, up late into the night wrestling with their own private possibilities and nightmares. Imagine what Chinese government officials must make of such events. Imagine how the world would gasp had Sweden announced that it would be opening an embassy in the World of Warcraft in the form of a 5000-strong Swedish guild — say, “Knights of Malmo” — staffed by consular employees. “Player characters in the new Swedish guild will fan out throughout the Azeroth to personally instruct visitors how to obtain visas and to act as a link to web-based information about our country,” Swedish Institute director Olle Wästberg might declare.
“And, of course,” Wästberg would continue, “should any deserving player require them, our swords are theirs.”