Friday, 14 March 2008

Fixing Second Life

Is Second Life broken? If it is, can we as residents do anything to fix it? If we can, should we bother?

At the recent Game Developer's Conference held in February 2008, Jane McGonigal made the following surprising statement (as reported by Terra Nova and blogged about by Prokofy Neva):

"Reality is broken, and we're not fixing it…"

She goes on to explain: "If reality is broken, why aren't game designers trying to fix it?" Let us withhold for a moment any judgement about this statement (the judgement follows just after the fold). Consider instead the following hypotheses. Assume that reality is, as stated, "broken," and that Second Life is a mirror of reality. In that case, could trying to fix Second Life teach us anything about how to "fix" reality?

McGonigal's idea is of course preposterous. Reality is not "broken," it is simply whatever it is. In everyday usage, reality means "the state of things as they actually exist." Who ever promised us a rose garden? (Karl Marx did propose a "scientific" method for making a rose garden, and other less dangerous thinkers have envisaged a variety of utopias, but they've all gone out of fashion.) Following Voltaire, however, we have all hoped that increased knowledge - "enlightenment" - might make the world a better place. But there will always be tragedies. Even if the extropians succeed in making everyone live forever (and that might be the ultimate tragedy), there will always be cases of "A loves B but B loves C," and similar heart-rending imbroglios. Growing children even *need* a good dose of frustration in order to develop, so that they can create themselves in the struggle against the "resistance" that life (or parents) can put up. So reality will always be hard to take.

But let us be charitable towards McGonigal, and assume that she just means that we should try to improve the world, rather than to "fix" it (this recalls something one does to cats). At the same Game Developer's Conference, Raph Koster delivered a similar message, saying: "Why do we build theme parks instead of parks?" In other words, why are we spending time building theme parks in virtual worlds, such as in Second Life, instead of building real parks in the physical world? (Added note: Raph actually meant something different. See his comment below.)

Are these game developers suffering from spasms of rich white "game-god" guilt, as Prokofy Neva would have it? Whatever their motivation, they are trying to bridge what is perceived as a gap between the virtual world and the real world. More than that, they seem to think that games can somehow help us to find real-world solutions. Thus the question: can Second Life help us to develop solutions to real-world problems?

Of course, as a platform Second Life can be used for organising and educating around real-world problems, but so can any internet program or platform. The question is more whether Second Life, as a virtual world, can teach us about solving real-world problems, due to the way it *models* the real world. (Added note: someone will probably object that virtual reality is a new part of reality, with its own characteristics and validity, rather than just a "model" of something else.)

At the risk of writing another of those long posts that no one reads all the way through (unless they are written by Prokofy Neva or Gwyneth Llewelyn), I propose to investigate the questions set out at the beginning of this post: is Second Life broken, can we fix it, should we bother? But I'm going to take them up, rather illogically, in reverse order. Before looking at whether there is a problem, or whether we can do anything about it, I'm going to ask whether we should even bother.

Why Bother about Second Life?

Part of the hypothesis stated above is that Second Life could help us to solve real-world problems. But if the goal is to improve real life, why take a time-consuming detour through the nether-realm of virtual worlds? Just roll up your sleeves, and deal with real life directly.

This is the message coming at me from my real-world environment. My wife hates to see me on the computer - she thinks I'm totally wasting my time. She would rather see me reading books, or better yet, writing them. I explain that I'm reading and writing things on the Internet. But to her, it is all just stupid geek stuff. And my shrink suggests that I should limit the number of hours per day that I spend on the computer. (I started seeing him a few years back when I had serious workplace problems, all of which disappeared the day I moved to another company - but the habit of seeing the shrink remained.) He seems afraid that I've become "addicted" to Second Life, to which I reply that I in fact spend most of my online time reading blogs. Are those around me just expressing an old-fashioned bias against digital culture, or is it true that I'm fleeing from real life?

Between real-world demands on my time, and the social pressure to stay off the computer, the time I can devote to Second Life is rather limited. I would be part of the group that Prokofy snidely suggests forming, called "Too Busy in Real Life" (added note: Prokofy apparently *has* created this group):

"There ought to be a group, like Not Possible in Real Life called Too Busy in Real Life with a very lite SL browser and readers' digests of blogs and rapid-fire tours of interesting sims that they take only 15 minutes a day to consume."

In all fairness to my wife, children, shrink and others around me who find I spend too much time on the computer, I *have* been totally absorbed in Internet for over a year now. This is new. Up until the end of 2006, I was just a casual user of Google, like everyone else. What sent me over the edge was my desire to create my own website. I'd wanted for years to make a real website, rather than a blog, but I kept getting hung up on the initial difficulties. I finally decided to make a big push no matter how much time it took – and disappeared down the rabbit hole.

After figuring out how to use the space I had rented on a distant server, I went through successive stages of learning about: FTP, domain names, HTML, PHP, MySQL databases and various software packages. Then I settled down to creating content for my new sites. But I discovered with horror that most of my pages weren't even getting picked up by Google. So I dove into learning about Search Engine Optimization (before finally deciding that it was pretty much a waste of time). My increased involvement on Internet also led me to activities such as reading blogs, contributing to Wikipedia, and – signing on to Second Life. And I'm only getting started: I have yet to use RSS feeds, Digg, Facebook or Twitter.

But here is the point: the personal returns are spectacular. After years of suffering from an inability to communicate about the ideas that interest me most, I'm suddenly sharing them with the entire cybersphere. A classical exercise when using any new software program is to try to print out "Hello World." I feel I've managed to put a big "Hello World" out on the Internet – and the world is talking back!

Which is why I conclude that it is worth bothering about Second Life. Those around me fail to understand that Internet has become the new agora. Online communication is now as valid a means of expression as going to a meeting, writing an article or talking on the radio. When I participate in a meeting in Second Life, I exchange ideas about significant topics with real human beings, even though to casual observers I may just seem to be sitting alone in front of a screen. The other participants in the Second Life meeting take for granted what has been said above, but many of us have to deal with resistance from our real world environments. And that resistance limits how much time we can put in. We might find that improving Second Life is worth it, and yet be Too Busy in Real Life to do much about it.

If it is worth the bother, what then can we do to improve Second Life? I recognise the limits of my own first-hand knowledge, due to my newbie status, and to my being Too Busy in Real Life. But I've gleaned some information reading the blogs, and I'd like to throw out a few informal ideas. The following are just random reflexions, rather than systematic study.

The Political Dimension

In my recent post Back to Building a Country I presented a brief overview of the history of Second Life politics. There seem to be two basic attitudes among residents. The "platformers" hold that Linden Lab just provides the platform, and should intervene as little as possible in what residents do with it. The
"interventionists" hold that Linden Lab should regulate the in-world society.

In my post I payed considerable attention to Prokofy Neva's advocacy of interventionism. (This may be why he has graced me with a place on his list of smart Second Life blogs!) It should be obvious that I personally think Prokofy is on the right track in his long struggle to get the Lindens to regulate abuse such as griefing and ad-farms. But just at a time when the Lindens have finally begun intervening as never before, as told by Hamlet Au, Prokofy declares that he is "done with the Lindens". It is not just that they are always doing "too little too late," it is also that their way of implementing the new Department of Public Works resembles the worst of their favouritism towards what Prokofy has called the Feted Inner Core.

Recent events confirm that the Lindens are basically platformers. They did intervene massively at the beginning of Second Life, in order to ensure its success, as Gwyneth Llewelyn has described. But now that Second Life has grown beyond what anyone expected, intervention is expensive, and the Lindens try to avoid it, for economic reasons if nothing else. They recently introduced new regulatory measures which they felt to be strictly necessary, but the enforcement turns out to be weak, and their attention is clearly turned elsewhere. So Prokofy says he's "through" with them.

Yet Prokofy was the foremost advocate of government by the Lindens, by "King Philip" as he called Philip Rosedale. Prokofy repeatedly said that the residents should ask King Philip for a Magna Carta to establish a government and rule of law throughout Second Life. However, in 2004 Robin Linden did ask if residents wanted self-government (as I mentioned in my last post) and the answer on the forums was a resounding "no." And Prokofy himself has been opposed to various proposals for a resident-based government, such as those made by Ashcroft Burnham.

Let us step back from this puzzle a bit, and try to put the pieces together. Apparently nobody wants the Lindens to initiate resident self-government. Prokofy no longer has much hope in asking King Linden for a Magna Carta. And there is widespread hostility to Ashcroft Burnham's scheme, because Ashcroft picked up the question at the wrong end. He started with the idea of enforcing the law, and thus asked residents to turn over their land to a central authority, which would have the power to confiscate the land as punishment for breaking the law. But no one wants to turn over their land to a central authority which would have the power to confiscate it, and understandably so!

The Magna Carta would immediately make one think of the English Parliament, which the Magna Carta helped to institutionalize. But living in France, I thought instead of the Estates-General, and of their role in the French revolution. Both the English Parliaments and the French Estates-General were called by the King, generally to get consent to impose new taxes. In a few instances, such bodies turned upon their Kings, and cut off their heads (Charles 1 of England, Louis XVI of France). But such an outcome was rare, and King Linden - or his successor - should be able to keep his throne in a Constitutional Monarchy.

What is important to note is that these bodies were only called together for *discussion*. The participants were bound by no other obligation than that of verbally representing their constituencies. Thus Ashcroft's land-donation scheme is totally unnecessary. Before going to Metaverse Republic, Ashcroft operated within the Confederation of Democratic Sims (CDS), which may be where he got the idea of collective land holdings. And as a current participant in CDS, I have postulated that the holding of collective property is the basic cause of some of the repeated conflicts within that small realm. Thus neither CDS nor Ashcroft has the proper model for Second Life democracy.

A Second Life Parliament should begin just as a place to talk, nothing more. (I use the word "begin" because there may a wider range of alternatives to be considered in the future.) It should also begin as a totally voluntary exercise. And it should probably also be geographically-based, as are all real-life representative democracies.

All we have to do is to define a procedure for representation of each sim (or group of sims, since there are 16,000 of them) by a locally-elected (or even locally-appointed) delegate. Then set the time and place for the big meeting, establish the procedures for the discussion, and issue a call for participation. Those who want to send delegates will; the others are free to abstain. Is anyone interested in forming a group to get this rolling? I'm tempted to offer my services, and to participate, as did my namesake Georges Danton in France. But I'll probably be Too Busy in Real Life.

The Economic Dimension

The economic aspects of Second Life are complicated. One undeniable success of Second Life is its amazing in-world economy. I made an initial study of it for my Funny Money post, in which I concluded that Second Life has something less than a real economy, since the currency lacks strict exchangeability. I may have been wrong. Since then I've read a paper by Cory Ondrejka, in which he suggests that even playing at business in Second Life is true economic activity, based on exchange between real individuals linked into networks.

By and large, the Second Life economy seems to work, despite problems such as fraud and Intellectual Property theft. One major worry was fraudulent banking schemes, which Linden Lab removed by banning unregulated in-world banking, although that also removes potential resources for in-world economic growth. Since the economy generally works, I will leave most of the in-world economic issues to specialists, and will focus on one particular economic problem: land use planning.

The problem of land use planning, or rather the lack therefore in Second Life, has often been discussed, as in a post from 2005 by Gwyneth Llewelyn. This problem seems to be directly related to the Linden Lab business model. I've seen it said on the blogs that the Lindens depend on the auction of new sims as a major source of revenue. Someone stated recently, for instance, that the Lindens introduced ad-farm restrictions only after seeing Umnik Hax devalue a set of brand new sims by putting an ad-farm right at the corner where four of them met.

It therefore seems that their business model requires the Lindens to keeping cranking out new sims, like sausage for the masses, as Sleazy Writer put it. To impose restrictions on what people can do with their land would be unpopular. Prokofy has repeatedly denounced the prevalent attitude of "I will do what the fuck I want on my land." But above all, to impose such restrictions might slow down sales.

And sales have been good: there are now some 16,000 sims! I've explored only a tiny percentage of the existing regions, but as I fly around I ask myself in wonder: "Who the hell MADE all of this stuff?" This is certainly a prime example of the power of massively distributed collaboration. But on the mainland these creators are all stepping on each others' toes, doing the exact opposite of what their neighbours are setting up, destroying whatever "ambiance" the next guy has made. Many of the islands of course are well planned, which is why Anshe Chung and other "land barons" have made fortunes. But the mainland is just one solid mess.

Are there solutions? Prokofy Neva has set himself up as a one-man urban renewal committee for the mainland. His answer to Sleazy's complaints was:

"No. If you don't like the weather, change it. In SL, you can do that. Buy land, fix it up. Or, support others who buy land and fix it up -- which I know you do with our SL Public Land preserve."

Prokofy's Ravenglass Rentals is a small empire of residential and commercial rentals scattered across mainland territory. In managing his rentals Prokofy simultaneously tries to upgrade the value of the mainland environment, which is one reason for his struggle against ad-farms. And this is part of why Prokofy is so exasperated with the Lindens' ludicrous attempt to improve the mainland with their new Department of Public Works. Fixing a few roads and adding a bit of other infrastructure will hardly put a dent in the land use chaos.

A real solution would be for Linden Lab to institute land use planning and zoning on the mainland, as is done in any real-life urban or sub-urban area. But we will probably have to wait a long time before they do so. Another solution would be to follow Prokofy's lead, and to do something like what he has undertaken as a rugged (grins) individualist, but in groups.

There is again something to be learned here from the Confederation of Democratic Sims (CDS). As I pointed out in a recent thread on the CDS forum, the CDS community is currently set up both as a political democracy, and as an *economic* democracy, because all CDS is essentially collectively owned. Since Linden Lab recognizes only one official owner for an island sim, each of the three CDS sims is currently owned by one person acting as caretaker for the group. Individual members "buy" plots, as on any island, but such individual ownership remains as much a fiction as in the case of a sim owned by a land baron. The real owner is the CDS group as a whole. And this is a curse, because CDS is un-gated, meaning that anyone can join. A cooperative business can work if it is gated, with a selective recruitment process. But collective property in an un-gated environment belongs to everyone, and hence to no one. As per the principle known as the tragedy of the commons, such a situation easily leads to collective disasters such as those seen under soviet communism.

I have therefore proposed that, in order to remain un-gated without provoking endless conflict, CDS should transform most of its collective property into private property. This drew puzzled comments from CDS members who thought that the property was already private, since each member "buys" one or more plots. But to understand the real situation it suffices to look at the cash reserves, which steadily accumulate because rental payments from members outstrip the tier payments, and which are clearly the *collective* property of the entire CDS group.

In order for the property to be private, in other words clearly divided up among the members, some sort of contract is required, spelling out exactly who owns what. There is of course the risk that members will default on the contract, but if the group is large enough, this risk is shared and thus reduced. And this brings us back to the possibility of forming economic groups to develop the mainland.

This could work as follows. A group forms with the goal of rehabilitating some part of the mainland. They should do this for the fun or for public service, because the profits accruing to each member would most likely be insignificant. The different members of the group would then buy adjacent individual plots, and set up a *contractual relationship* between themselves to develop the region in a harmonious way, and to divide up any possible profits according to the some predefined scheme. The CDS experience suggests that this last point is crucial. Even if in the end there are no profits at all, the contractual relationship must still define how to divide up any *possible* accumulated wealth, for example on the basis of the initial investment, plus some measure of each individual's contribution (for example, m2 of build). Some such scheme might evolve into a successful model whereby resident groups could rehabilitate portions of the mainland. Any takers?

Other Dimensions

There are many other dimensions to consider when talking of improving Second Life. But this post is already long, and I lack expertise, so I'll just list a few of the better-known dimensions and issues:

*Technical Dimension: libsecondlife, Copybot, User Interface, rolling restarts
*Service Dimension: customer service, online help
*Social Dimension: griefing, ad-farms, bot-farms, newbie experience, avatar rights

I could have linked each of the above issues to some blog post or other, but that would have been a lot of work. And what important dimensions or issues have I forgotten?

I've failed to address one of the key questions above, which was: how we can learn from Second Life as a *model* of reality. Perhaps that will be the subject of a future post. But it is time to move along...

Is Second Life Broken?

Now for the very first question of all, which I have deliberately left for the last. Is Second Life "broken"?

Of course not. Second Life is no more broken than "reality is broken." As long as we are able to log on, to find our avatar, inventory and sims, to use the software, and so on, Second Life works. But we could always make Second Life better – and we could always do the same for reality.

6 comments:

Raph Koster said...

"At the same Game Developer's Conference, Raph Koster delivered a similar message, saying: "Why do we build theme parks instead of parks?" In other words, why are we spending time building theme parks in virtual worlds, such as in Second Life, instead of building real parks in the physical world?"

To clarify, I actually meant "why do we spend so much time building rigid entertainment experiences in virtual worlds, the equivalent of themeparks, rather than more environments that allow user freedom?"

SL is an example of a park, not a themepark, in this sense.

Danton Sideways said...

Wow, Raph, that was fast. I was still polishing up the post when your comment appeared. Thanks for the clarification. Now I'll have to write a whole new post to set things straight. :)

Yolto.com said...

Hi

Here's the collection of digests you were talking about in the beginning of the article http://yolto.com
We are restructuring it right now though, there will be three sections of the Metaforum (as we call this thing): "Gamers Say", "Residents say" and "Real life", withought that it's kinda' 'messy'. It will be ready next week... on Wednesday I guess.
Regards

Danton Sideways said...

Yolto -

What collection of digests was I talking about? Or do you say that to all the guys (or gals)? Anyhow, I see you put a link to my post, and I'm grateful for that.

Yolto.com said...

Hi, Danton. I didn't mean any offence of spam. Here's the quote from Prok you used: "There ought to be a group, like Not Possible in Real Life called Too Busy in Real Life with a very lite SL browser and readers' digests of blogs and rapid-fire tours of interesting sims that they take only 15 minutes a day to consume."
It was in the context of explaining the way 'Busy in RL' people WANT to get information about VW and games. I just said that it's exactly what we do - assemble posts from multiple blog feeds into MEANINGFUL 'Topic digests' for readers. Examples: http://yolto.com/FeedTopic.aspx?Id=305 or http://yolto.com/FeedTopic.aspx?Id=158 with all proper links to sources (I'm not posting these two as links if it bothers you).
It's still a bit of a 'work in progress' but we are finishing it next week.
Once again, sorry if I didn't explain it clearly and it looked like spam or something.
Regards, Alex

Danton Sideways said...

Alex -

It's perfectly alright with me if someone wants to leave links. I was just at a loss to figure out what you were referring to, so thanks for explaining.

I recognize you as the "alex" who sometimes comments on Prokofy's blog. Welcome to mine!