Friday, June 05, 2009

RMB City, Second Life, and the Future of Art by Daniel Kekacs

Daniel Kekacs

June 4, 2009

The Search for Real Meaning in Virtual Reality:

RMB City, Second Life, and the Future of Art

Creating a complex, interactive video game might be considered the
ultimate exercise in interdisciplinarity. The physical terrain must
first be constructed: sandy beaches, mountainous tundra, lush jungles,
fertile fields, fetid swamps, arid grasslands, and desolate wastes
flow like a palette of colors into one another and back again, forming
a seamless, logical, and hopefully realistic world. Defining
characteristics can be added next – moss-covered rocks, trees with
drooping vines, bales of hay, roads, and flowers, gradually giving way
to the addition of actual structures. Commonly, the type of people who
will inhabit these structures or the physical environment in which
they are located contribute greatly to the thematic mood and
architectural design of the buildings: nomadic people live in straw
huts in the grasslands, reclusive wizards live in spired castles
frosted with snow, and evil witches wear the skins of animals they
killed in the swamps, etc. But this is just the graphical, visual-arts
dimension of a video game. Once the entire world has been created,
even filled with doodads, textures, and thematic hues, the world still
feels one-dimensional. A story must be invented – who lives here, what
is their livelihood, what motivates them to go about their lives, from
what do they draw comfort, inspiration, and meaning? What are their
future hopes and greatest fears? Finally, a third element can be
introduced to further augment the quality of the world: sound. Music,
whether dark and foreboding or loud and triumphant, is but one element
to be considered, although it is certainly the most influential.
Insects chirp at night, waves wash against the shore, wind howls
through snowy crevasses and water bubbles through shady streams. Each
element – the graphics, the music, and the story – must complement one
another precisely in order to achieve an effect as fully realistic and
as fully immersive as possible. Without ultimate perfection in each of
these fields, a virtual world could not possibly hope to fulfill the
players who will inhabit it or maintain their interest for more than a
little while. After all, if the virtual world isn't perfectly
enjoyable, why would anyone want to remain in it instead of the real
world? At least, this is what I thought, until I encountered the
bizarre creation known as Second Life.

Created in 2003, Second Life has none of the elements
I've come to expect from a "role playing" game, fantasy or otherwise.
To be frank, the gameplay is chunky, the graphics are cheesy, and
there's no music to speak of, though there are occasional sound
effects. How can I feel like I'm surfing if I can't hear the waves?
But the fundamental difference between Second Life and other popular
role playing games, like World of Warcraft, The Sims, Everquest, Final
Fantasy, Ultima Online, and the Elder Scrolls, isn't that play in
Second Life occurs entirely online (some of these games are for single
players only, others must be played online with others). It has to do
with the way that content is presented to the player. In Second Life,
the player literally has complete freedom to do and create whatever
they want, a power that is at once both limiting and incredibly
liberating. Games like World of Warcraft, however expansive, beautiful
and comprehensive, force upon players a single story, a single world,
and a single way of interacting with that world and the other players
who inhabit it. Even with all the freedom that these role playing
games promise, none can grant the freedom one can enjoy in Second
Life. If you are the sort of person who happens to like a pre-
constructed world, or who is lucky enough to find that another's
conception of visual or aural beauty agrees with your own, then you
might never feel an urge to explore Second Life. This is especially
true if you are lacking in a creative imagination or skill with
computer graphical design – and I happen to fall into both of these
categories. But even as frustrated as I can become with Second Life's
inability to immerse me completely, and even though I could argue that
the game literally has no point, I can wholeheartedly admit that its
potential is great.

I am no "noob" (newbie, or newcomer) to the underground
world of role playing games, online or offline, single player or
multiplayer. In the Elder Scrolls I've saved entire races from
malicious gods (multiple times, all by myself), I've raised countless
families and built many mansions for myself in The Sims (I only cheat
sometimes), and every once in a while my father and I still fight for
the Horde against the armies of the Alliance in World of Warcraft,
although lately the undead Lich King has become a more dangerous
threat. Over the course of our years playing computer games (I still
very much consider myself a casual gamer, although my dad more and
more defends himself by claiming, "I'm just good at what I do"), we
have had several serious discussions about the ultimate value of
playing video games, and while I won't claim to have reached a
conclusion, I do have some well-defined thoughts on the subject. I
know next to nothing about economics, but the best way I can explain
the value of video games is as an investment: the ultimate price of a
video game is the amount of time you invest playing it. At certain
times of the day, or during certain parts of the year, investing that
time in other activities is more beneficial than spending it playing
video games, whether in terms of your social, physical, or mental
health. Sometimes the question is easy: "Should I spend an hour
fishing by myself in virtual reality, or spend an hour fishing with my
uncle at our favorite spot this one last time before the cancer takes
him away?" (Hypothetical.) Other times, the question is simply shades
of gray. Unfortunately, it ultimately becomes a matter of how much you
have invested in a certain game. The more time you've spent within a
particular world, the more time you will have ultimately wasted if you
suddenly decide that it is better for your marriage or your schoolwork
if you quit playing altogether. So it becomes a dual issue: you must
not only invest your time sensibly, but make sure that you are getting
reasonable returns on your investment. If playing a particular video
game isn't fun anymore, you are wasting your time. But if my father
and I enjoy spending an hour or two once or twice a week wandering
around World of Warcraft together, I think that is a justified use of
my time. I am interacting with other people, whatever the interface,
and more importantly, I am deriving enjoyment from the thing I am doing.

Interestingly, through my travels in Second Life and my
interactions with players there, I came to realize that for some
people, it is not necessarily an enjoyment of virtual life that drives
them to play online games, but rather a profound unhappiness with
their real lives. I spent about four days floating around Second Life
before I discovered that every character had a public profile that
other people could read. By this point I had already begun to assemble
my impressions about Second Life, the worlds that comprise it and the
people that inhabit it, but I will come to that later. On this fourth
day, on a virtual island of Oahu, Hawaii, walking down the docks to
vote in the Miss Tropic Hawaiian 2009 beauty pageant (the girls'
photos were displayed on walls nearby, and I couldn't tell if they
were real or virtual), I happened to find a woman sitting on a couch
on the dock. Her name was Delanna Anatra, and this is her profile:
"Sadly divorced, Live in Florida. Letting SL save me as i survive the
death of my parents. Thanks Second Life as I can finally laugh again,
without the help of my doctors prescribtions.

Pending a surgery I am afraid to have. Sl makes life fun again."

While the skeptic in me grated at the almost cliché nature of this
profile, I had just ended nearly three hours of wandering around the
most popular parts of Second Life and the "Showcase" areas, and seen
next to no one. I was feeling lonely and pessimistic because of my
experiences in a virtual reality, and I wasn't about to question the
legitimacy of this woman's actual reality. Delanna seemed absorbed in
thought as I stood nearby reading her profile, and I was reluctant to
disturb her. I teleported to Rome instead.

My encounters with other people were not more meaningful or uplifting.
I met my first friend, named Grave Rumble, flying around a beautiful
garden world named Botanica. I had already given up trying to meet
people in RMB City, and was going through a random player's Top 5
favorite places list that I'd found online. When I met Grave Rumble, I
was overcome with joy. "How come second life always feels so empty?" I
immediately asked. "I don't know. I don't see too many people," he
replied. Not sure what else to talk about, and not ready to get too
personal, I asked him if he had ever been here before. "No, I fell off
my friend's island, and now I don't know how to get back :( " and
later confided, "ur actually the first person ive talked to other than
my friend." A poignant image of this boy (or man, or whatever) falling
out of the sky and landing in some strange land full of people he
didn't know flashed through my head, and I thought of Dorothy from the
Wizard of Oz, but with scuffed black boots instead of magical ruby
slippers. "You should get a new texture for your eyes," he suddenly
told me. "Like this." I looked closer at his eyes: "They're black?"
"Nah, if you look closer its actually chain-link." I told him it
looked kind of creepy. "That's the point."

We flew around another minute or two, our conversational ability
exhausted. Finally, he asked me, "hey, I gotta go, but can I add you
as a friend?" Why not? If this doesn't count as friendship, then what
does? I said, "Sure." I haven't heard from him since.

As I said before, the islands of Second Life are not as exciting or
full of people as I thought they would be. Some like Botanica are
forest oases, and the emptiness feels peaceful. But in Paris, Rome,
and the one Celtic village I rode a motorcycle through, it felt more
like a post-apocalyptic universe than any utopia I would want to live
in. Where were all the people? The more beautiful and complex the
city, the more uncomfortable I felt wandering its empty streets,
passing hollow shops and riding empty metros. I do not know if you are
familiar with Shanghai's nearby European-themed cities, but I visited
the Northern European-themed city with a friend, and have also seen
pictures of Thames Town, the bizarre replica of London. Both seem to
be completely deserted. In the town I visited, all of the spaces set
aside for stores or cafés had unopened letters that had been slipped
under the door, everything was covered with dust, and it seemed
unlikely to ever open. I couldn't help but remember this feeling of
being in a ghost town as I wandered the empty streets of Second Life

Rome was a similar experience, although the poorer attention to detail
on buildings and the lack of "little things" made it feel less like an
empty city than simply an unfinished diorama.

I wound up in the Celtic village a few days later because I was trying
to find worlds with hot-air balloon rides, but I was pleasantly
surprised to find a motorcycle waiting for me. All of the buildings
turned out to be stores where people were peddling objects they had
rendered or clothes they had designed, but of course nobody was
present – you can simply click and purchase items, if you have the

Yesterday while searching for a world with a hang glider, I found
myself in Panta ta Ethne, which was an Egyptian-themed island, or so I
thought. It was one of the most beautiful places I have visited,
columns and sphinxes and pyramids galore, although when I tried to
ride the crocodile, a script had been written that made it appear as
if the crocodile were eating me! He growled and said something to me
about being stupid, but I just clicked "stand up" and was magically
out of his stomach. Something about the look of the papyrus reeds and
riverside dwelling nearby felt oddly familiar, until I heard a baby
crying, and I knew immediately that I had stumbled upon Moses, or a
world devoted to Moses, or at least something related to Christianity.
I noticed frogs hopping all around me; when my mouse flashed over one,
text popped up that read, "Want to know why there are so many frogs?
Click here!" I was pretty sure I already knew why. Before the locusts
could come, I ran away from the screaming baby until I hit the beach,
rode a surfboard (then an orca whale!), before moving on to explore
other parts of the island. I soon stumbled upon ominous signposts that
read, "Sick of Real Life? Click for some hope," "Loneliness. Can it be
cured? Click for notecard," and "Depressed? Learn about the Causes and
Cures." I clicked on them all, but either someone was playing a cruel
joke, or something script wasn't working anymore.

I had already made up my mind to leave when I spotted the last sign:
"Did this happen by accident? Click here." I'm pretty sure they
weren't referring to Second Life.

Although I already knew Second Life granted users freedom limited only
by their imagination, I realized in Panta ta Ethne that in this
virtual reality, people could literally do whatever they wanted. The
game even has features that enable users to embed audio and video into
certain locations, which is why I am now able to take you to the exact
place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were hidden (but I'll need an
internet connection and a Second Life account to show you). Whatever
your agenda, Second Life is a tool to use as you wish, which exactly
what Cao Fei's has done with RMB City.

Unlike "MAO – The Land of the Great Wall of China," a picturesque
world with an abbreviated but beautiful replication of the Great Wall
(plus a few rice paddies for authenticity), RMB City does not aim to
be a physical reflection of China or Chinese culture. In fact, most
worlds that I visited strove to be as beautiful as possible, but RMB
City is more of an abstract sculpture. Cranes fly in the sky, a Mao
statue sits tilted in the ocean, liquid pollution flows out of pipes
into streams while red and white striped smokestacks belch clouds of
smoke into the sky, something like the Imperial City in Beijing floats
high above the city, and above it all is a giant panda, suspended by a
crane that rests on the CCTV building. It's a jumble bits of pieces,
and I know there are plenty of "quirks" I haven't found yet, but its
more authentically Chinese than anything other Chinese world I
explored. While not exactly an inhabitable city, RMB City functions
more as a statement of contemporary Chinese issues than a place where
random Chinese Second Life players would be likely to come and say,
"Cool, I'm in China!" (Much like I did in Paris.)

To be honest, RMB City was one of the least interesting places I
discovered in Second Life. It was completely devoid of life, there
were no sharks or hang gliders to ride on, and the mayor's speech,
presumably defining the immediate purpose and goals of the city, was
vague at best:

"The stimulus package I am proposing has 3 parts: create jobs, offer
aid to those who need it the most, and stimulate the minds of our
fellow avatar citizens… Thousands are losing their jobs, people are
not spending, and our streets and buildings are deserted…We must now
act on a broad stimulus package to bring prosperity back to RMB City
and its avatar citizens…The time for talk is over. The time for action
is now! Let us learn our lesson: continue your excesses, not on
borrowing and spending, but on dreams and ideas instead!" – RMB City
Mayor Alan Lau

But as much as it fails at being a functional city – and was that ever
its intent? – I think it most effectively answers the question of what
the future of virtual worlds like Second Life can or will be. As I
mentioned before, constructed worlds are always confronted with the
difficulty of staying relevant and engaging to those who inhabit them.
RMB City addresses this issue by directly portraying real-life issues
in the virtual world of Second Life: it is not inventing narratives or
problems, but rather presenting them in a completely new medium,
allowing people to confront and question these issues at times and in
ways they never would have before.

Second Life could very easily become a new medium for integrating art
more seamlessly with our daily lives. I once searched broadly for
MOCA, and while I didn't find a museum, I did discover a world where a
man was selling his collection of Botticellis. RMB City is currently
hosting an exhibition within Second Life; although the project can be
viewed externally, it can only be experienced fully by avatars within
the game. Entrance is of course free, and available at any time of
day. Museums could easily construct Second Life extensions, and
immediately become accessible to any of its 15 million registered users.

But from my personal experiences and interactions in Second Life, the
purpose of the game seems, at least for now, to be a tool for lonely
people to add some excitement into their lives. I scoured many more
profiles, and while none were quite as heart-wrenching as the Florida
woman's I did stumble across on in Portuguese. Unable to speak the
language, I was forced to run it through Google Translate. When Jessy
Zardak is playing Second Life, this is the message she has chosen to
give to the rest of the virtual world:

is sad…….

It is not easy, not thinking of you
It is not easy, it is strange
Not tell you my plans, do not you find
All day in the morning while I take my coffee bitter
is still a day but faith you have in my hand
Actually, I need to learn
It is not easy, not easy

Where do you come, where are you?
Every time I leave I see you prepare for perhaps
Actually I need to forget
It is not easy, not easy

fica trissssssssssssssssssssssssssssssste

Não é fácil, não pensar em você

Não é fácil, é estranho

Não te contar meus planos, não te encontrar

Todo o dia de manhã enquanto eu tomo o meu café amargo

é, ainda boto fé de um dia te ter ao meu lado

Na verdade, eu preciso aprender

Não é fácil, não é fácil

Onde você anda, onde está você?

Toda a vez que eu saio me preparo para talvez te ver

Na verdade eu preciso esquecer

Não é fácil, não é fácil

The translation is rough, but the meaning comes through. And I am not
the only one to find undertones of emptiness and sadness in my Second
Life travels. For the 52nd Venice Biennale, Cao Fei created the short
film i.Mirror, chronicling her experiences in the virtual world.
Created with footage shot in Second Life, the film is just under 30
minutes long, and comprised of three parts: the first presents the
rampant capitalization and consumerism in Second Life, a trend not
limited to our own reality, while the second and third deal with the
feelings of loneliness that many people feel both in their real lives
and in their Second Lives. The best part, although it feels heavily
scripted, is part II:
China Tracy, Cao's avatar in Second Life, accompanies her friend/
partner "Hug Yue" through empty streets, while their piano duet plays
hauntingly in the background. "Why you enjoy SL?" asks China Tracy. "I
am looking for something, I think," replies Hug Yue, "But I don't know
what." "Forgot your pain?" continues China. "I suppose SL is a drug,"
comes the reply. Their stunted dialogue and the distance between these
two acquaintances further emphasized by China's broken English, only
reinforces the distance between their Second Lives and their
realities. "There is a cross-over between RL and SL," explains Hug,
"as you know, it is hard to separate feelings." As their feelings of
affection become slightly more developed, the pair are seen running
towards a dead end road, but a fence blocks their way. They cannot
jump to either freedom or death, as the chase camera angle would
suggest. Instead, they simply stop at the fence, and stare at the sign
"Bridge Out." Eating dinner against the background of New York City,
China asks, "What do you think it about the digital world?" "It's one
that is dominated by youth, by beauty, and money. And it's all an
illusion." Finally, the handsome Hug reveals that he is in fact in his
60s: "So there you are. I am old enough to be your father." China
seems unfazed: "Well, in SL, we are young forever." "Yes," Hug
concludes, "another illusion…"

Enjoying the rides in an amusement park I thought was
abandoned, I suddenly discovered myself in a water ride with another
woman. "Is second life always this empty?" I asked her.

"Not if you have friends."