Utopia Hidden Underground: Another Look At SL

Recently, I’ve been spending more time in the media’s favorite metaverse, Second Life. What follows are some random observations. Take from them as you will.

First, and most obvious, Second Life is wackily broken. *Wackily*. It’s straining under the load of its own success, and buckling. Often I was randomly booted in mid-conversation. Others report inventory just missing randomly, which in an economy benchmarked on RMT, is kind of serious. Without this being fixed, and rapidly, everything else will be kind of moot. Everyone I talked to online is waiting – with an almost quiet desperation – for a “Second Life killer” to come out.

The following statement will infuriate anyone who plays SL. It’s also true. Second Life is a level and class driven MMO.

The levels are social acceptance. The classes are social groups. The grind is real. Luckily, I was powerlevelled. In Second Life, you are twinked just like any other MMO… only here your armor is your skin. Literally.

The first level are newbies fresh off the “Island”, who have newbie skin, generic clothing and worst of all, bad hair. Thus, the people who are not newbies can be told from the newbies literally – literally – at first glance. The cost of not being a newbie – a photo-realistic, professionally designed model/skin, and actual hair that doesn’t look like a Gourard-shaded model from 1997 – is minimal; in the best shops perhaps $3-4 worth of $L, and often given away for far less, or for free as promotions. The real cost is knowing that you should do this. Knowing WHERE to do this. Knowing that these options exist. Knowing, period. Knowledge of Second Life isn’t just power, it’s experience points. Enough knowledge – enough XP – and you level. Ding. The newbies have their own level of hell, which mostly consists of wandering amongst the powergamed “popular sites” (more on that later) accosting each other for random sex and failing. (Link NSFW). A quote I heard on another blog was that of an experienced user dismissing a random newbie groping and flailing with the devastating retort, “I don’t talk to people with newbie skins.”

The social groups in SL – the classes – are somewhat better known to outsiders, simply because they are easy enough to see. The bondage/BDSM community is huge, as are the furry community, probably since it’s painless to experiment in both. Something Awful has a massive presence, hated by the rest of the “grid” or server. A university, Woodbury University, had its online presence infiltrated and annexed by the notorious /b/-4chan website community. Goreans have their own community, as do Star Trek fans. Sometimes next door to one another, using banlines to war with one another.

Finding these classes requires its own form of XP, because the ability to find anything in Second Life without the help of someone already there is completely broken. Scam artists have completely subverted the in-game search tools in SL, primarily through ‘camping’, or encouraging broke users to remain in their area and thus driving up their traffic rankings in return for a paltry, sub-penny trickle of L$. In a social MMO, the fact that there is no real in game search for social events is unfathomable. It’s as if television networks just stopped posting or following schedules, and expected fans of each show to notify each other, through word of mouth, when the next episode would air. Everyone in SL knows this is a problem, and shrugs eloquently. It’s broken, like much else in SL.

What isn’t broken is sex. Not so much the animatronic sex that SL is known for (link NSFW, durr) — that’s usually kept safely behind closed doors, if for no other reason than privacy – as in the hypersexualization of avatars. Everyone is pretty, has perfect skin, big tits or washboard abs, and perfectly coiffed hair. Or you’re a newbie. There’s so few nonperfect avatars that going against the grain is actually a viable market niche for people that want to look different. With that hypersexualization everywhere, as can be imagined, sex happens, and becomes its own subculture – it’s own class within SL.

And of course, behind the scenes there’s politics and intrigue. This Rolling Stone article, linked to by Something Awful’s latest Second Life Safari (a freewheeling series of videos highlighting the most outrageous and stupid parts of SL), seems to track with what I’ve seen in game and in the community outside it. Namely, the specter of a wildly, laughably utopian/libertarian Linden Labs running smack up against their chief nemesis, an ex-Sovietologist cum forum troll. It has to be true, because even Gabriel Garcia Marquez wouldn’t fantasize such a pairing. Like most online games, a “feted inner core” is widely rumored to abuse access to their friends with the game’s developers and much forum drama results thereby.

But what surprised me is what actually isn’t broken. Within all this random wreckage of buggy clients and randomly crashing servers and drama and politics, microcommunities are forming. People are making a living off this stuff, a few pennies at a time. Some are making quite a living indeed. Anshe Chung isn’t so much a fluke as simply the outlier best at playing the press.

Another surprise was that the further you went in levels, the more the men disappeared. The top tier of Second Life is run by the women. Whether or not those women are actually women in RL is (frequently) debatable; what isn’t is that women avatars run Second Life’s communities. The further you leave the newbie island, the further you leave behind men.

Some of this is explained by a social and builder MMO such as Second Life naturally attracting women, while men looking for the drops from orc pirates are a bit dismayed at the lack of structured violence. You’d think that would be stereotypical, until you realize that once you level up into SL’s more gated communities – there just aren’t that many men.

There’s a few reasons for this. One, it’s hard for men to play the SL fashion game. There’s a lot of clothes for women. Men – not so much. The market drives a lot of this, of course, but it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Also, men are seen as the teeming horde of newbies sending random crude ‘Barrens-chat’ style come-ons to the unattainable women walking through with perfect skin and hair. It’s harder for men to earn XP in SL because of this. Literally. Men become less easy to trust, simply because they are part of the flailing mass and *don’t fit in*.

But the converse to that, as someone told me explicitly, in these exact words, “In Second Life, men tend to become worse, and women tend to become better.” Freed of their concern for their appearance, age, and RL social status, women take to SL with relish and feed off of each other positively. Most of the most dramatic areas in SL are female-owned. It’s been known through studies that middle-aged women tend to be the social hubs in MMOs – in a social MMO like SL, this becomes raised to the Nth degree.

It’s alien to almost anything online that’s come before, and I suspect that alienness – that singularity – is what inspires SL’s most fervently myopic defenders to tilt at the wheel again and again. Because in spite of the flailing newbies, crashing platform and constant drama – this is something that SL’s partisans want to see remain. It’s what is missed in most media coverage, and it’s what the partisans are terrified may go away, washed away in a tsunami of media backlash, moral judgement and clueless administration.

That core of the singularity is what is actually Second Life’s core strength, and what keeps its users struggling through the level grind and the broken client and the lack of governmental, er, Linden oversight. Because as a social MMO, once you get past all the clutter and dross, SL actually works. I can honestly say that nowhere else online have I argued about Islamic fundamentalism at one in the morning while lounging in a pool with a half-naked demon-thing. Much like how people played Ultima Online despite its rampant peekay and endless bugs simply because it was the promise of something new, people find the core of SL is actually the other players. That’s something that’s difficult to break.

As for myself? Like most in SL, I’m finding my own way around now that I got to the endgame. If you’re looking for me when I’m in SL, I’m an insane angel from the future in the City of Lost Angels, last seen in the Free Kitten box, attaching random scripts to his cane, and wondering what a brother’s gotta do to get their weapon SDK.