Peter Zschunke/Associated Press
Imagine a modern video game player, probably a guy sitting on a couch. He presses buttons on a controller. He is engaged with a TV screen but otherwise detached from the world. His entertainment may be interactive, but he appears the very opposite of an activist. He is hypnotized by the screen.
It may be a common image, but it is not the impression Peter Ludlow, a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto, got in 2003 when he heard what some players of the game EverQuest had just done. EverQuest was one of the first widely successful massively multiplayer online (MMO) computer games, which allow players from around the world to log on to their computers, take the role of a fantasy character–a swordsman or mystic, for example–and experience adventures together. Dozens, even hundreds, could join together via the Internet to control characters that appeared on the same networked stage. What Ludlow discovered in 2003 was that a group of EverQuest players had simultaneously logged on and banded together to slay a dragon monster called Kerafyrm–a creature that the game’s developers had programmed to be unconquerable. It was the players’ second such attempt. The first time they tried to kill the beast, developers working for the game’s corporate parent, Sony Online Entertainment, alarmed at the players’ abilities to circumvent the rules, reset the game and blocked them from achieving their goal. The players became furious, posting on message boards that “a level of trust [was] destroyed.” The developers backed off, and a few days later the gamers took the monster down.
Playing video games, Ludlow and others have reasoned, is about more than that guy on the couch. It’s about pushing boundaries–trying to find the fractures in the worlds created by game developers by driving off the racetrack, figuring out the pattern in Pac-Man so that you never lose a life, killing the unkillable monster. Playing games, in other words, can instill revolutionary zeal–a fight against the machine. And the act of playing a massively multiplayer online game? That can inspire the zeal not just to knock down a machine but to create a better one.
All video games are products, and they may well be art. Online worlds like EverQuest, populated by thousands of players who spend dozens of hours a week adventuring in them, socializing in them, buying and selling things in them–sometimes with real money–are more than games. They are societies that are literally products, societies whose government is… who? The developers who shut off the game when the dragon is about to be killed? The corporation that sells the computer program that makes the whole thing run on your computer? The programmers who create the rules and possibilities for play? Or the people who hang out in the world five hours a night and who, by their actions, establish the norms? MMOs may be just another theme park, in which the people who pass through the turnstiles have little say or control over how high and fast the rides go. Or they may represent a wholly new frontier.
Virtual world stakes are both lower and higher than they are in real life. Some residents treat their characters as playthings, no more meaningful a vessel for their consciousness or more useful as an instrument of social change than Super Mario Brothers. But some use the character they control–their avatar–in ways Super Mario Brothers would never allow: to socialize and deal in real commerce, creativity and matters of the libido and heart. And the powers that reign–the representatives behind the game, ranging from the system administrator walking her character through the same fields as the player to the executives at the top of the corporation that funded the programming of the game–rule not primarily with standards enforceable by law but by controlling the very physics of their lands. If they desire, they could rewrite lines of computer code to ban all avatars of a certain color (they haven’t); or to upend roadside commercial property values by granting every citizen a means to teleport anywhere (they did); or simply to raise the sun, drop the moon or plunk down a new continent of land.
The Second Life Herald is the history of what Ludlow found with co-author and reporter Mark Wallace in the game The Sims Online (TSO) and the not-quite-a-game massively multiplayer virtual world Second Life. (Wallace now has his own second life as co-founder and CEO of Wello Horld, a start-up developing virtual web technologies.) In TSO Ludlow controlled a character; in Second Life they both did. They visited these worlds by the seat of their pants, using mouse and keyboard to play the role of journalists. Together they reported on the stresses of a growing group of avatars chafing against the laws, and lawlessness, of the virtual world and the software-company architects who played the role of governors and gods.
The Second Life Herald isn’t really a history of the online newspapers Ludlow and Wallace created. It’s an account of virtual world unrest as witnessed (and sometimes participated in) by Ludlow’s avatars–Urizenus in TSO and Urizenus Sklar in Second Life. The philosophy professor had been a participant in chat rooms, video games and text-based virtual worlds since the 1980s. In August 2003 he entered TSO. Partially inspired by the role Benjamin Franklin played establishing the independent press in the Penn Colony in the eighteenth century, he decided to detail the activities of the neighborhood he lived in, Alphaville. So that October he launched the Herald. To kick things off, he wrote an editorial, asking, “What are the legal, social, and economic implications of what is happening in our MMO?” Answering that question would be the virtual journalists’ mission. And keeping check on City Hall–whatever that was.
With few models to follow, Ludlow and Wallace pioneered the role of virtual world journalist. Newspapers weren’t programmed into these online worlds, and they weren’t always met with approval by the people running them. The Herald, published on its own website separate from the game world, became a chronicle of other gamers’ boundary-pushing acts and an example of one. It made Ludlow and Wallace digital muckrakers. The paper was casual–someone might write about fashion, i.e., what the avatars were wearing. Someone might get fixated on an issue and file a series of reports, generally based on interviews culled from character-to-character text chats (imagine an exchange over Instant Messenger). Contributors came and went. Those who stuck around as regular freelancers would, in one era of the paper, at least, command $2 to $8 for articles of a few hundred words. Photos for these articles were screen shots, moments of in-world activity captured and saved with a couple of keystrokes. As of January 2005, the Herald had more than 1,000 unique readers a day out of a virtual community that, Second Life’s CEO told me, in late 2004 had 15,000 users. (The Herald is still being published today at secondlifeherald.com.)
The book shares the who and why but doesn’t dwell on the what, when and how of the papers’ histories. This history of–official subtitle incoming–“The Virtual Tabloid That Witnessed the Dawn of the Metaverse” is mostly vague about certain details. There’s little information about the Herald‘s schedule: it seems the authors did one story per weekday for a while; later, with freelancers, as many as five. We don’t learn much about the process of running a virtual newspaper or how that changed over the course of four years, how one courts advertising or deals with competition. It’s a fine history of the ideas behind their reporting, but it seems odd to write about a supposedly pioneering newspaper and mention so little about how the operation actually worked. We do learn its slogan, “Always Fairly Unbalanced,” and that despite any headiness, the paper regularly featured risqué content. In fact, the article that drew the most comments ever was a lengthy chat between Ludlow and an anonymous “submissive” player about TSO’s emerging bondage scene. While explaining the good and bad of the game’s definitely not company-sanctioned BDSM (bondage, domination, sadism, masochism) community, Anonymous opined, “There are a lot of people who come into the community only with a view of getting their rocks off and taking advantage of subs.” Bear in mind that TSO graphics displayed activities little more explicit than cuddling, making the meaning of “taking advantage” a central question of the interview. More than 400 comments ensued.
The Sims Online was launched in late 2002 by video game publisher Electronic Arts (EA). It was the first online edition of the popular Sims computer game series, which let players control the residents of a home as if it were a digital dollhouse. Sims itself was an outgrowth of the Sim City urban-planning series, created by game designer Will Wright. Everything about TSO was supposed to be major league. The Sims-branded games had sold millions of copies. Electronic Arts was and still is one of the world’s largest video game companies, and Wright was and still is seen as one of the world’s top two or three game developers. TSO would let thousands and, EA hoped, even millions of people play a Sims-style game on a grand, networked scale, making the MMO style of game inviting for people who didn’t want to kill dragons. To join TSO, a player had to buy the game ($50) and pay a monthly subscription fee ($10). TSO made the cover of Newsweek, but its popularity sputtered and it never reached its intended millions. (MMOs that involved killing dragons, like World of Warcraft, launched in 2004, did.)
The programmed goal of TSO isn’t society building and certainly isn’t journalism. Players are supposed to keep their characters “green,” meaning they must keep meters measuring such things as hunger, rest and social happiness at a healthy level; they also work scripted, mouse-click-driven virtual jobs to earn fake money to buy virtual things. What caught Ludlow’s attention was what players did unofficially–trade their Simolean “money” or, say, a virtual poodle for real money over eBay, scam new players, hack the program to automate all the greening tasks, attack other players by tagging them with red enemy links, form Mafias to attack more aggressively, form a Sims Shadow Government to combat those Mafias and so forth. They pushed boundaries the way the EverQuest players had when they attacked Kerafyrm.
While all that provided Ludlow with enough material for months of stories, he was most energized by the way Electronic Arts reacted to his coverage. In December 2003, EA kicked Ludlow out of TSO. In a story that made the front page of the New York Times, Ludlow was cited for cheating and for the infraction of listing a commercial site (the never quite clearly money-generating alphavilleherald.com) in his game profile. He assumed EA was just trying to shut him up and got a chance to vent his claim in a segment that appeared on The Daily Show–the very show that later provided an inspirational model for him and Wallace at the Second Life Herald. “The paper (like The Daily Show),” they write, “was at its best when it skated the line between fun and serious business.” (When I interviewed Ludlow last spring for an article about the virtual journalists in Second Life, he told me, “I think when we’re at our best is when we’re right on the edge, when people aren’t really sure if we’re playing a reporter or if we’re being serious reporters.”)
Was virtual reporting a real role or just role play? Was Ludlow’s beat a real world or just a fancy Monopoly board? The seriousness of what’s going on in the virtual worlds fluctuates in the telling, but the progression of Ludlow and Wallace’s account is one that undulates generally upward, to higher and higher stakes. In Second Life, where Ludlow next roosted and where Wallace joined him, users are granted more power. Second Life, launched a year after TSO to slower and steadier growth, had a stranger design. It looked like a video game but wasn’t meant to be played–just lived in. There were no meters measuring health or strength. It was more like a visual chat room, a shared continent where avatars could dwell and users could create objects and animations. It was founded by a small company called Linden Lab and has been free to visit for anyone who downloads a Second Life software program onto their home computer. After some early changes in payment structures, Linden Lab settled on collecting fees from players who rent land on Second Life’s continent, upon which they can build virtual homes and businesses. (Monthly fees range between $5 and $195 depending on the size of the plot.)
Trading virtual money for real money is encouraged and endorsed by Linden Lab. Most of the virtual items and applications created in the Second Life world are made by the users. Their creations include everything from avatar clothing and virtual buildings, books and furniture to nongeneric animations for characters, which could be waving, hugging, dancing and, of course, having sex in lots of different positions. These creations remain the intellectual property of those users, safe to buy and sell to others. Goods can’t be resold, but some users have tried to hack the software to create duplicates of objects. (The Herald followed the story, of course.)
The great powers granted by Linden Lab were essentially greater liberties. And in bequeathing so much influence and ability to their customers, Linden Lab ensured that its virtual world would be a laboratory for the ramifications of such extended freedom. One thing Ludlow found was that some of the players of TSO who behaved badly in that restrictive virtual world changed when given a taste of the greater liberty of Second Life. A few TSO scammers started “making and selling clothing, hair extensions and fashion accessories, and becoming an active part of Second Life’s commercial scene.” In an interview with one of them, Ludlow was told that they had been scammers–or, in MMO parlance, “griefers”–in the previous game because it was a good way to get attention. Ludlow reasoned that Second Life gave them more acceptable avenues to gain notice. Referring to Ludlow’s avatar in the third person, Ludlow and Wallace write:
What Uri had been saying all along was more clear than ever now…. If the tools of the world itself don’t provide enough opportunity, residents will find their own creative outlets, often in the form of griefing and scams. If the world itself does provide the right kind of outlets, though, much of that creative energy (though not all of it, as Uri would discover soon enough) can be channeled into more positive tasks.
Linden Lab makes money by renting land to its users, and it stands to profit only by increasing its continent’s appeal. But what the company leaves out, Ludlow and Wallace note, are developer-created mechanisms for enforceable social standards. That, they say, is what these societies need: a legal system to punish those who harm others.
Linden Lab does not concentrate on developing tools with which residents can do things like enter into contracts, vote on ordinances, and enforce the regulations that come out of such a process–in other words, tools that could be used to develop governance and society. Nor has the company taken any steps toward making its own “legal” guidelines clear, consistent, and transparent. Instead, the company has focused on adding features like streaming video, click-throughs to web pages and features like a “heads-up display” that mimics what one might see on the screen of a first-person shooter game.
Where are the leaders? In the minds of some software experts, possibility is all, and permissibility is measured according to the notion that “the physics of the world allow it, so it must be okay.” This is an ethic that certainly does not come from the real world, where societies agree to prohibit some very possible things, like murder. It is an ethic born of games: I grab the treasure that was just dropped by a monster you killed because I can. The game doesn’t block it, so it must be OK. Players aren’t going to be banned for doing it, just yelled at by other players. Other actions that are possible without clearly being harmful can nevertheless be disturbing and controversial. The Herald has reported on Second Life residents who role-play as romantically available children and on one who takes “pictures” of what is underneath female avatars’ skirts. (Just what is underneath female avatars’ skirts? Whatever they put there, of course! Blank as Barbie dolls by default, but the user can design an undergarment as elaborate as he or she desires.) This stuff can happen. In some virtual worlds it’s not blocked. Should it be?
In a vacuum of authority, what else emerges? Ludlow and Wallace cite examples of “whimsical ‘law enforcement.'” A player of World of Warcraft who sought to establish an in-game group that was friendly to lesbian and gay players was informed by the game’s creators that she had violated the game’s sexual harassment standard–that such a group would engender harassment. After some backlash, the game’s makers later backed down. Software companies mix a heavy hand (in the form of player bans) with the lighter touch of negligence (reluctance even to acknowledge some problematic player behavior). The Herald has aired the complaints of virtual-world citizens who feel that player-driven enterprises like the Sims Shadow Government are a poor stand-in for true justice, especially when MMO users are already paying developers to live in these virtual worlds. Shouldn’t the MMO users assume that what they pay–their taxes for citizenship, if you will–guarantees a rational rule of law? If they kill the monster, should someone else get the prize?
Yet the authors found that citizens of these emerging societies don’t always want the kind of equal representation we might expect from good government. In 2005 the Herald defended a Second Life citizen who goes by the name Prokofy Neva, who had forcefully, if profanely, used the Second Life message boards to rail against a “Feted Inner Core” of privileged Second Life citizens who were apparently consulted by Linden Lab about changes in the game world. Neva raised a question all too familiar to those of us in the real world: if the authorities consult elite users–those rich few who generate the most in-world commerce–when drafting policy, then how and when will the voice of the rest of the populace be heard? Ludlow and Wallace write:
In the end, all Prokofy was advocating was a kind of campaign finance reform for virtual worlds, a way to include the opinions and concerns of all residents in steering their online environment, rather than giving greater weight to those who generated greater corporate income.
But Neva’s incendiary style got him or her banned from official Second Life message boards, and the Herald was panned for rushing to the defense. “It seemed that many people, whether they realized it or not, preferred a world in which the unpopular were silenced.”
These are both boom times and early times for virtual worlds. From April 10 to May 9, Second Life had more than 823,200 residents log in (a person can have more than one resident, and there is no agreed-upon estimate of how many human users have Second Life accounts). World of Warcraft boasts more than 10 million paid subscribers. Over the last couple of years new online worlds have emerged, including the successful Lord of the Rings Online and, more recently, Tabula Rasa, which has struggled. This fall, Sony will release a shared online world called Home that resembles Second Life and would be free for all users of the company’s PlayStation 3 gaming console. These nascent worlds are barely administered by real-world governments, but with real commerce and real rights in play, they do seem to be a realm of concern for real government. Ludlow and Wallace do not directly call for government intervention in the virtual worlds in which they dwell. In fact, they seem more concerned about encouraging citizens of these worlds to resist whatever powers limit their gaming lives. Structure and standards of the new society, they seem to believe, will emerge from users’ fight for the rights they want. Ludlow and Wallace write:
Virtual worlds are currently, for the most part, an entertaining form of interactive art, the province of corporations that naturally wield a profit-driven control over who has access to which features of their software. But [what] happens when making a living in an online environment becomes a viable, not-at-all-outlandish alternative to holding an office job, building a career, or opening a business? Who will govern those societies? Who will say who can come and go, and what they can do there?
If the typical MMO user is a video-game-bred revolutionary, then the playing crowd is certain to become restless. A challenge to the software-designing governments is assured. And the still-emerging virtual world press will be watching–watching a revolution while everyone plays.