Tuesday 10th March Virtual Worlds & RL

Part A : Representation, Landscape and Fictional Worlds

Landscape: the environment visually perceived

Landscape is a way of seeing that has its own history, but a history that can be understood only as a part of a wider history of economy and society (Appleton, 1984: 11).

Intuitions towards landscapes are ‘transformed, overlain and mediated by social, cultural and economic as well as personal meanings’ (Appleton, 1984: 12).



A useful 19th century example of this relationship to landscapes can be seen through the cult of the wilderness, a profoundly social and nostalgic consideration for landscape that is not inhabited by humans. Also emerging out of times of huge technological change, namely Britain during the Industrial Revolution, wilderness can be seen as an idealization of particular landscapes in terms of leisure and tourism, retreat and refreshment, pure and ‘natural’ in comparison to impure urban environments that is maintained in our contemporary imagination. Not coincidentally this was also the era in which New Zealand was being settled, a far away wilderness for consumption. More generally countryside becomes constructed as an antithesis to the city and it is not surprising that this countryside metaphor was the initial visual metaphor employed by the designers of Second Life (Aitchison et al, 1995: 51).

Colonial precedent from http://journal.fibreculture.org/issue11/issue11_mccaw.html

Second Life is positioned as a Terra Nullius and this applies layers of colonial meaning and association.

The term ‘terra nullius’ is from Latin origin, meaning ‘no man’s land’, or empty land, not possessed already by people. It has a close relationship to the term ‘res nullius’ which denotes objects that are not yet owned, such as wild animals, or abandoned property. The two terms form the legal the foundation and justification for colonial enterprise, whereby the act of ‘finding’ and ‘occupying’ land was justification for claiming ownership of that land, and its occupants: generally defined as fauna (res nullius). The relationship is primarily based upon the principles of economics. If land is not producing economic value then it is un- or under-utilized. Land and its use value become synonymous with ownership.

And while the designers of Second Life created a land conveniently without indigenous people, its first owner (the Linden Corporation who establishes initial trading rights for each ‘new’ island) and the Linden inhouse building tools frame the world. I suggest that the way that we construct the formation of culture in this empty land draws upon a colonial model and precedents. The research question that follows from these initial considerations is: is it possible to have new empty land that allows for a different model of colonization, or will older models prevail?

Link to conditions of Land use and cost in Second Life



BBC Radio 4 America Land of Liberty outlined interesting historical precedents in relation to land, colonization and ownership.

Program clips : The Wild West


In 1889, Oklahoma was opened up for settlement and tens of thousands of people flooded out across 2 million acres declared ‘free land’ by the government. In the 1830s, the area had in fact been set aside as reservations for Indian tribes evicted from their lands east of the Mississippi; now they were moved on again.

Further north on the Great Plains, the Sioux and Apaches resisted the settlers, most famously in 1876 when they annihilated Custer’s 7th US Cavalry on Montana’s Little Bighorn River. Outrage at ‘Custer’s Last Stand’ intensified the corralling of the remaining Indians on reservations. By 1890 Indian resistance had been crushed and, as far as most Americans were concerned, the Indian ‘problem’ was ‘solved’.

Once the West was conquered it was commercialised. No-one was more responsible for this than William F Cody – his ‘Buffalo Bill’s Wild West’ toured America and Europe for three decades, helping to create the myth of a heroic western past that never existed.

A different, though equally wild, image of the West was also emerging as President Roosevelt put ‘conservation’ on the national agenda. Until then, government doled out western lands for development with no thought for the ecological consequences. Against business opposition, Roosevelt created millions of acres of national forest and saved prehistoric Indian remains and sites of natural beauty like the Grand Canyon.

Second Life Differences

There are of course fundamental differences between the colonization of material geography and the relationship we have to the metaphoric landscapes of Second Life. The first major difference begins with our relationships to our avatars as body-metaphors, which online have no material needs other than a broadband connection to our keyboards, requiring neither food nor shelter. The laws of sustainable land usage, and the effects we may have within an environmental ecological system based upon material relationships therefore may be abandoned. New systems evolving in Second Life are based upon social relationships and economic models, with a limited range of tools (‘native’ proprietory software) accessible to all.

What we experience within this emerging and participatory culture is the realisation, or potential realisation, not of needs but of desires. And we witness increasing numbers of inhabitants in Second Life realizing their desires in traditional off-line ways. According to DC Spensley, the first economies to develop in Second Life were real estate, shopping, and followed closely by pornography.

The internal Market

Criticism of the internal market as faked, small and fixed and is compared to a Ponzi scheme.


The idea of SecondLife’s economy is simple. It’s just like a real world economy, except it takes place entirely within the company operated game servers.
Customers take on avatars which represent their presence in the virtual world.

As these avatars interact, commerce is conducted. One starts SecondLife with some fairly mundane clothing, for example. Upon entered the world, a new customer is immediately assaulted with a variety of clothes, jewelry, shoes, hair styles; and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. But nothing is free, not even in virtual reality. New customers are allocated a few “Lindens” or L$ (SLL being the standard trade abbreviation). Most new customers quickly blow through these starter L$ as they dress up their avatars.

New L$ are distributed to customers as they pump real money into the virtual world. Nearly all customers utilize the game’s built-in “buy money” feature, which allows them to charge their credit card or PayPal account “micropayments”. Micropayments are a popular, proven business model first established in the mobile-phone market. All SecondLife does is extend this concept to a virtual reality game world.

Another important source of SecondLife commerce is people “playing dress up” with their avatars. Buying clothes, earrings, new faces, or other more private body parts represents a great deal of the readily visible commerce outside of virtual real estate brokers.

Of course, anyone lingering in the world of SecondLife for more than a passing glance quickly discovers the real engine to the SecondLife economy: sex and gambling. A healthy share of micropayments are pumped into the system as customers engage in pulling the virtual slot lever or patronize one of the myriad virtual sex workers.

As opportunists and capitalists, we’re not particularly bothered by indications that SecondLife generates most of its economic “wealth” through a rampant virtual real estate bubble which makes San Francisco, Marina District condo look like a bargain. Nor are we particularly bothered that the virtual playground provides a safe harbor for what is effectively the phone-sex industry reinvented. And internet gambling, despite the US Federal Government’s recent protestations to the contrary, is inevitable. So why not profit off of it? And how better, than in a utopian Ayn Rand open market capitalistic metaverse?

The Test

In order to participate in a legitimate economy, there are a few basic prerequisites.
The first problem we encountered was one of counterparty risk.
Put simply, you can seldom trust those with whom you’re doing business in SecondLife. Even supposedly well established, well regarded business citizens are prone to defaulting on any obligations which prove inconvenient. Whole banks will disappear over night, along with your L$ balance.

Enter the second problem, the L$ exchange markets are effectively rigged. Sllrates20070122 At any given time over the past year or so, the SLL/USD exchange rate has hovered between about 250 and 300. That is, for every L$300 you earned, you could expect to get $1 USD.

The catch is, however, these headline rates only apply to small amounts. For small time buyers and sellers of L$ — be they virtual Johns paying up for sexy avatar escorts, or small time digital jewelry makers cashing out a couple hundred real dollars – this works well.
The private exchanges, however, are owned by the businesses which sit at the top of the SecondLife economic pyramid.

The Ponzi Scheme Epiphany

(def: a fraudulent investment operation that pays returns to investors from their own money or money paid by subsequent investors rather than from profit. The term “Ponzi scheme” is used primarily in the United States, while other English-speaking countries do not distinguish colloquially between this scheme and other pyramid schemes.

The Ponzi scheme usually offers abnormally high short-term returns in order to entice new investors. The perpetuation of the high returns that a Ponzi scheme advertises and pays requires an ever-increasing flow of money from investors in order to keep the scheme going.)

As we scratched our heads trying to figure out if there weren’t a more clever way of disguising our trades, or perhaps creating our own in-game banks and exchanges in order to arbitrage the other direction, it suddenly dawned upon me.

This game was just a pyramid scheme.

SecondLife is not a dramatic taste of our future, in which markets are virtual, currency is free from government control, taxes are non-existent, and normal people can become real millionaires simply by clicking their mouse a few times.

SecondLife isn’t even a simple virtual economy, with legitimate buying and selling, and opportunity for those who would compete.

No, SecondLife is a classic pyramid scheme. Or, more of an Amway-like pyramid: partially legitimate, partially ponzi. Sure, there are plenty of legitimate SecondLife customers who just like to go there to get their kicks, spend a couple dollars, and be on their way.

Politics of Second Life

Working for the Man


But videogames seem more and more to resemble work in a different sense: working for the Man. They hire us for imaginary, meaningless jobs that replicate the structures of real-world employment. And this represents a surprisingly literal fulfilment of the criticism Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer advanced of industrial entertainment more than 60 years ago:

Amusement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work. It is sought after as an escape from the mechanized work process, and to recruit strength in order to be able to cope with it again. But at the same time mechanization has such power over a man’s leisure and happiness, and so profoundly determines the manufacture of amusement goods, that his experiences are inevitably after-images of the work process itself. The ostensible content is merely a faded foreground; what sinks in is the automatic succession of standardized operations. What happens at work, in the factory, or in the office can only be escaped from by approximation to it in one’s leisure time.

All amusement suffers from this incurable malady. Pleasure hardens into boredom because, if it is to remain pleasure, it must not demand any effort and therefore moves rigorously in the worn grooves of association. No independent thinking must be expected from the audience: the product prescribes every reaction: not by its natural structure (which collapses under reflection), but by signals.3

If games are supposed to be fun, Adorno and Horkheimer might have asked, why do they go so far to replicate the structure of a repetitive dead-end job? Increasingly, videogames seem to aspire to a mimesis of the mechanized work process. I mean by this something different than the external recruitment process observed in the phenomena of beta releases and the mod scene, where players become unpaid testers and then contributors to the profitable extension of the corporate product.4 Rather, I want to point to the way that the classic single-player game already represents an “after-image of the work process itself”.
Shop till you drop

Today, the most common paradigm for progress in games, for example, is the idea of “earning”. Follow the rules, achieve results, and you are rewarded with bits of symbolic currency — credits, stars, skill points, powerful glowing orbs — which you can then exchange later in the game for new gadgets, ways of moving, or access to previously denied areas. The only major difference between this paradigm and that of a real-world job is that, whereas the money earned from a job enables you to buy beer and go on holiday — that is, to do things that are extraneous to the mechanized work process — the closed videogame system rewards you with things that only makes it supposedly more fun or involving to continue doing your job, rather than letting you get outside it. It is, you might say, a malignly perfect style of capitalist brainwashing.

In a great many games, the overarching economic system boils down to a matter of shopping. New skills — whether they be new physical moves, spells, or the ability to transform into a demon — are acquired instantaneously and thoroughly through currency exchange. In this way, adding insult to injury, the player is cast as a wage-slave in her leisure activity as well as in her daily life.

Some Links:

Reuters Pulls out of Second Life


Virtual Activism


Marxism Alienation and Second Life



1 Response to “Tuesday 10th March Virtual Worlds & RL”

  1. 1 gallagherproductions March 16, 2009 at 9:09 pm

    This is what i use secondlife for

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