Archives for May 2010

Book Review: Online a lot of the time

Online a lot of the time
Ritual, Fetish, Sign

Author: Ken Hillis
Publisher: Duke University Press

When my editor sent me this book to read and review, the title and intriguing cover image prepared me for an engaging and witty romp through online usage, telepresence, identity and more littered with illustrative reminiscences. Something to be read, savoured and enjoyed.

In that, I was initially somewhat disappointed. The book is truly dense, more reminiscent of a thesis (or several), backed with copious notes and bibliography. The dichotomy between title/cover and contents amusingly reminded me of the old maxim about judging a book by its cover. Nevertheless, I stalled on my first attempt to tackle the book; and then again on the second attempt.

The third time around I’d adjusted my expectations, and Hillis’ treatise does actually contain everything that I’d been looking for, and quite a bit more.

You might be fooled into thinking that the book is about the Web, virtual environments, online chatrooms and so forth. It isn’t, really – at least not solely. It’s about us … people, humanity, society, groups and individuals. It’s about our psychology, narratives, fetishes, quirks, rituals, expressions and signs.

It’s about the one thing that makes the virtual environments, the Web, and the Internet important: people.

Are networked individuals always running after the truth that passes them by even as it remains right behind and within them, a part of it lingering, like a cosmetic, on the surface of their “soul”? Does ‘here” for them always already mean “everywhere else”? These are the questions that, ironically, tend to get dismissed as (implicitly the “wrong kind” of) metaphysics by those who argue for the experiential reality of digital telepresence. – From “The Political Trace”, Chapter 3: SIGNS

You might find the prose and style to be fearfully dense, with paragraphs often running for more than a page. This is no ‘For Dummies’ book. This is one for the serious thinker who wants to be treated like an adult, and not coddled or talked down to.

Words and images, operating within specific sociopolitical circumstances, differently represent the possibility and potential of experience without a subject. However, particularly given the digitization’s opening of typography to new forms of visual design, there are increasingly meaningful overlaps in the ongoing expectations we bring to typographic and image forms, even as they each help organize in different ways what we find meaningful and how we do so. Theorizing the increasingly leaky experiential boundary between words and images has important implications for how subjectivity is organized if we are at the historical conjunction where the Web must be taken seriously as not only beginning to renovate some of literature’s forms but also forms of social relations. – From “Graphical Chat’s Debt to Free Indirect Discourse”, Chapter 4: AVATARS BECOME /ME

While I may not ordinarily be able to compose a higher praise for a book than that it makes you think good and hard about its foundation and topics, perhaps there’s something to be said for at least some accessibility.

Whether the text contains any truly revolutionary thought on the subjects of virtual environments, avatars, identities and telepresence is a bit harder to say. It has given me so much to think on that it could be quite some time before I can reasonably answer that question.

Nevertheless, if you’re an avid, virtual-worlds thinker with a mature attitude and able to keep your head above water in the deepest portions of the English language vocabulary, this book is definitely for you.

The Watch – virtual worlds in the news

1. USA Today (USA) – Spending on virtual goods continues upturn. “Spending on virtual goods in games, virtual worlds and on social sites such as Facebook continues to show real increases. About 13% of Americans bought virtual goods in the last 12 months, with average spending of $99, up from $87 last year (a 14% increase), finds a new survey from research and consulting firm Frank N. Magid Associates and virtual goods monetization firm PlaySpan. The nationally representative online survey of 2,412 was conducted May 7-14, 2010. (1,955 were aged 18-64; 457 were 8-17). And more than one-fifth (21%) of spenders say they expect to spend more in the coming year. Biggest spenders? iPhone owners, with 43% of them saying they made virtual goods purchases (up from 28% last year). Next came virtual worlds visitors, 41% of whom say they have bought digital goods.”

2. Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (USA) – Caprica, Gamer, & Surrogates: Overlooked Benefits of Virtual Worlds. “In its first season, Caprica has done an excellent job of exploring the ethical issues relating to V-World (the virtual world created by the ultra-rich Daniel Graystone), looking at the dangers of becoming overly immersed in V-World, and whether an avatar constitutes a real person. Also in the past year, we’ve seen Gamer and Surrogates, two movies that explore some common themes with interesting parallels to those in Caprica. In Caprica, Tamara Adama’s storyline is what gives us the richest opportunity to explore V-World. Killed in Zoe Graystone’s MAGLEV bombing, a copy of her lives on in V-World as an avatar. Her father Joseph, although he’d never used a holoband before, becomes obsessed in his quest to find her avatar, neglecting his son and turning to drugs to make himself faster in the game. Joseph says Tamara isn’t dead, because according to him the avatar is his daughter. At the same time, Tamara meets a man who’s obsessed with the game as it finally allows him to be something. Tamara suggests that maybe if he didn’t spend all his time in here he would be something out there.”

3. Federal Computer Week (USA) – Government-only virtual world on the way. “Federal employees and managers will be able to meet, interact, train and learn together in a government-only online virtual world being created in the vGov project. The Agriculture and Homeland Security departments, Air Force and National Defense University iCollege have joined to create the vGov virtual world behind a secure firewall that can only be accessed by federal employees with authenticated identities. Paulette Robinson, assistant dean for teaching, learning and technology at the iCollege, said at the Gov 2.0 Expo today the project will use the three-dimensional immersive experience of virtual worlds to bring employees together from locations worldwide for real-time interactions. People will use avatars to appear in the virtual world, where they can chat with other avatars and interact with the environment.”

4. 3 News (New Zealand) – Like a drug: Videogame addiction. “A lot of us can confess to being addicted to videogames. Whether it’s spending your hard-earned moola on the latest console, suffering sleep deprivation, taking days off work or missing homework in order to get your gaming fix. Plenty of you reading this right now will be familiar with the impact that being a gamer can have on your everyday life. However at what point does an enthusiastic pastime get out of hand? Sadly, there have been many cases around the world where gamers have not only destroyed their own lives, but affected the lives of others as well.”

5. Hypergrid Business (Hong Kong) – Paper: Second Life, OpenSim best for education. “The Second Life and OpenSim platform are the best bet for educators, according to a white paper released today by virtual worlds research firm Daden Limited. “It is the only one offering reasonable graphics with in-world building tools, and as a result high levels of flexibility,” wrote author David Burden. The platform also offers the largest user community, he added, and a high degree of innovation. “If the shared hosting of the Second Life main or Teen grid are a blocker to adoption — or there is a need [for] access across the age 18 divide — then Second Life Enterprise … or OpenSim may be a solution.”

6. The Online Journalism Review (USA) – Learning by doing: Seeking best practices for immersive journalism. “Ernest Wilson, the dean of the Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism, put it like this: What if, after receiving the home and garden section in the morning, the reader could walk right into the section and visit a garden? This bucolic vision reflects one potential scenario for what we are calling at Annenberg “immersive journalism,” a new genre that utilizes gaming platforms and virtual environments to convey news, documentary and non-fiction stories. As a senior research fellow, I am prototyping immersive journalism stories, hoping to discover and create best practices for a burgeoning filed that can capture audiences increasingly accustomed to experiencing digital worlds. The fundamental idea of immersive journalism is to allow the audience to actually enter a virtually recreated scenario representing the news story. The pieces can be built in online virtual worlds, such as Second Life, or produced using a head-tracked head-mounted display system, or HMD.”

7. ARN (Australia) – CeBIT 2010: NBN will lead to crime surge, expert claims. “Vice-president of IT security group Cyveillance, Eric Olson, has warned cybercrime will surge with the increased connectivity of the National Broadband Network (NBN). Olson’s keynote presentation was delivered during CeBIT 2010 in Sydney. He said the benefits of fast and readily available Internet outweighed the negatives, but told communities and governments to be ready for the rise in crime. Large-scale data theft, wage slavery due to Internet gaming and the number of computers being taken over by bots would sharply increase because of the ubiquitous Internet provision provided by the NBN, Olson claimed.”

8. Sydney Morning Herald (Australia) – Red Dead to revive the Western. “The Western genre, long described as dead, could be set for revival thanks to the most anticipated video game of 2010. Red Dead Redemption, from the makers of the hugely successful Grand Theft Auto franchise, has been released to almost immediate and universal critical acclaim. Set in the dying days of the Wild West, RDR is inspired by such Westerns as 1969’s The Wild Bunch and Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western classic The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.”

9. Seattle Times (USA) – Displays of the future: Smart, bendy, 3D and more. “Talk about gazing into the future. Imagine ultra high-definition TVs not much thicker than a millimeter. How about electronic books made with plastic screens that flex like a magazine? Or perhaps a display that lets you touch a virtual version of yourself on the other side of the glass? The technology to build these crazy new gadgets is being shown in Seattle this week during Display Week, the Society for Information Display conference. A combination science fair and industry bazaar, the event is drawing 6,000 people from most of the companies developing TVs, monitors, touch screens, electronic books and cellphone screens. Inventors and component manufacturers will be showing their latest creations to consumer-electronics companies, looking for technology and materials to build the next iPad or wafer-thin 3-D TV.”

10. Virtual Worlds News (USA) – Club One Uses Virtual Worlds To Battle Obesity. “The Second Life virtual space Club One Island announced that participants in its behavior modification program had lost more than eight pounds over the course of a twelve-week period. A control group that was attempting to modify behavior using the same methods but without the aid of a virtual world lost, on average, slightly less than six pounds per week. Club One attributes the virtual world’s success in aiding weight loss to certain key features of how people interact with virtual spaces. “Club One Island is a new approach to health that encourages individuals and organizations to rethink how we deal with obesity issues in this country,” said Celeste DeVaneaux, Creative Director of Club One Island, in a press statement. “Program participants are very pleased with their weight loss results and we believe that there are tremendous implications for companies, health insurance providers, and governments looking to reduce the burden of health care costs and improve the lives of entire populations.”

Weekend Whimsy

1. San Francisco in Second Life

2. Decisions by Ne-Yo ft.Brandy : A Second Life Music Video

3. Breaking Dawn Trailer – #9 SL YouTube Vid

Government and virtual worlds: Australia on the catch-up

The issue of virtual worlds getting on a government’s policy agenda is something we’ve examined pretty closely, and like most of you reading this, it can get frustrating sometimes seeing the pace at which change is occurring.

In recent days I was again struck on the world leadership role the United States Government are taking in regards to virtual worlds. This report by Dawn Lim at Nextgov showcases beautifully both the depth and breadth of work going on across a range of US Government departments, including the cross-agency vGov portal which is currently under development.

The contrast with Australian government departments is fairly stark. Educators and artists are certainly leading the way, but things get pretty sparse beyond that. In the e-health sphere, there is only limited awareness of the potential of virtual worlds and there’s certainly no active strategy to incorporate them into developing standards.

That said, the Government 2.0 Taskforce report commissioned by the Australian Government does hold some promise. You can read the Government’s full response to the report here, but the standout recommendation for me is 4.4, which states:

Agencies should support employee-initiated, innovative Government 2.0- based proposals that create, or support, greater engagement and participation with their customers, citizens and/or communities of interest in different aspects of the agency’s work. They should create a culture that gives their staff an opportunity to experiment and develop new opportunities for engagement from their own initiative, rewarding those especially who create new engagement/participation tools or methods that can quickly be absorbed into the mainstream practice that lifts the performance of the department or agency.

That’s the open invitation for Australian Government Departments to start innovating, and the US Government example is certainly one worth exploring for its applicability here. In that example, it was the usual story of small groups or individuals advocating for change and driving that change with minimal budget support. Government Departments here obviously don’t have the critical mass that their US counterparts do, but the very nature of virtual worlds means that’s not a significant roadblock.

The main barriers still seem to be awareness and a reliance on stereotypes to inform decision-making. Only those handful of people working within the system will be able to change that, although fighting against short-term political prerogatives isn’t easy at the best of times, let alone in the midst of a heated debate over internet filtering.

Over to you: are you aware of governmental initiatives underway that may help in shaping policy agendas in the medium term?

The Biker and the Bridge

A man on his Harley was riding along a California beach when suddenly the sky clouded over above his head and, in a booming voice, God said, “Because you have tried to be faithful to me in all ways, I will grant you one wish.”

The biker pulled over and said, “Lord, build a bridge to Hawaii so I can ride over anytime I want.”

God replied, “Your request is very materialistic; think of the enormous challenges for that kind of undertaking; the resources it would consume; the supports required reaching the bottom of the Pacific and the concrete and steel it would take! I can do it, but it is hard for me to justify your desire for worldly things. Take a little more time and think of something that could possibly help mankind.”

The biker thought about it for a long time. Finally, he said, “God, I wish that I – and all men – could understand women; I want to know how she feels inside; what she’s thinking when she gives me the silent treatment; why she cries when she says nothing’s wrong; why she snaps and complains when I try to help; and how I can make a woman truly happy.”

God was silent for a moment and then replied: “You want two lanes or four on that bridge?”

The Watch – virtual worlds in the news

1. The Australian (Australia) – When games start playing you: cyber addicts. “Obsession, fantasy and the internet can be a destructive trio, as a South Korean couple learned last month. The pair were sentenced for negligent homicide after allowing their three-month old daughter to die of malnutrition. In the cruellest irony, the couple apparently neglected the infant for up to 12 hours a day while they were in internet cafes playing Prius Online, a fantasy game in which players rear a virtual girl called Anima. The disturbing case not only hit headlines worldwide, it highlighted the seemingly addictive allure of the internet. Although the medical world is divided as to whether internet addiction exists, Online Gamers Anonymous offers a 12-step program to help players wean themselves from games such as World of Warcraft, EverQuest and Final Fantasy. David Smallwood, addiction treatment program manager at The Priory in London, believes such games are particularly addictive for young men, who gain status through online prowess they couldn’t get in real life. But University of Sydney psychologist and clinician Andrew Campbell isn’t convinced.

2. VentureBeat (USA) – Sulake’s Habbo virtual world for kids keeps growing at fast clip. “Virtual worlds aren’t fashionable in the age of social networks. But Finnish virtual world operator Sulake reported strong growth in the first quarter as its Habbo Hotel expanded quickly despite the lingering recession. Helsinki-based Sulake said its revenue grew 25 percent to $20 million in the March quarter compared to a year ago. Thanks to cost savings achieved in part through layoffs in the fourth quarter, the company reported earnings before income taxes and depreciation (EBITDA) of $3 million, compared to $1.3 million a year ago. Habbo Hotel is a virtual world for kids and teens. Its more than 15 million monthly unique visitors (11.8 million a year ago) spend a total of 45 million hours playing each month versus 36 million a year ago. The simple Flash-based world is available in 32 countries and 11 languages.”

3. MedCity News (USA) – Mayo Clinic explores the virtual world of Second Life. “Mayo Clinic is a world famous hospital and research institution. But owning a tropical island seems a bit excessive, especially for a non-profit organization. Alas, “Mayo Clinic Island” isn’t real, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. The island only exists in the virtual 3D world of Second Life, where avatars, online personas of real people around the world, freely mingle and attend lectures on cancer and heart disease.”

4. afaqs! (India) – Turner Interactive to launch Tom & Jerry virtual world. “Turner Interactive, the digital arm of Turner Entertainment, is developing a 3D online virtual world which will be based on the popular cartoon characters Tom and Jerry. The virtual world will be available as a dedicated website and will enable users to create their own cartoon characters such as ‘cat’ and ‘mouse’. There will be many environments or destinations such as parks and malls inside the world, where users will be allowed to roam and socialise. The company will embed various games inside the world to raise the level of engagement. The virtual world will be launched across various parts of the world. “India could be the first market where Tom & Jerry virtual world will go live in the second half of 2010,” says Benjamin Grubbs, regional director, interactive media, Turner Entertainment, during an exclusive conversation with afaqs!.”

5. The Irish Times (UK) – Avatars play starring role at virtual seminar. “The programme for the recent Metameets conference at Dublin Institute of Technology – flagged as Europe’s Premier 3D Internet and Developer Conference – carried an unusual little note after each speaker’s name: “live” or “virtual”. For a conference about 3D and virtual worlds, perhaps it isn’t odd at all that about a third of the presentations were given not by someone standing before the audience, but by their avatars in some online virtual world like Second Life. That a good proportion of the audience was scattered across cyberspace too is the norm for this international event, now in its second year (it debuted in Amsterdam last year). Add to that the oddity of having the conference organisers listed by both their real-life and their avatar names, and you get the picture. These are people passionate about the virtual, who do not consider it just an amusing pastime, or a hobby, but a significant element of daily life and for many, their chosen area of entrepreneurship and business.”

6. Gamasutra (USA) – Analysis: Being Characters In Game Worlds. “To what extent do we embody the characters we play in games? That question was on my mind at the GameCamp in London event, at which 150 attendees spent the day discussing, debating and theorizing video games. With sessions run by a variety of games industry veterans and interested outsiders alike, the event sparked a series of enlightening conversations between a group of people fiercely passionate about the medium. This question in particular emerged from a session on video game narrative, chaired by Rock, Paper, Shotgun editor Kieron Gillen. During the discussion, Kieron invited me to speak about “context as narrative”, and the ways in which I attempted to utilise this method while creating my Half-Life 2 mods, Post Script and Nestlings, which I’ve written about on these pages before.”

7. Reuters (USA) – “R U There” moves too slowly for gaming crowd. “The films in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes seem to be holding a special sub-competition of their own, to see which will have audiences checking their watches most often. The topical story and strong leads in David Verbeek’s “R U There” feel like a great short stretched into a feature that cannot sustain the tension for which it so earnestly strives. The best target audience for this film about a young gaming champ should be the enormous gaming/”Second Life” community. Yet gamers, for one, inhabit virtual worlds that are far faster and far more action-filled than the slow-paced, moody “R U There.” Ominous music throughout sets up a thriller, but it’s actually a “boy meets girl but does better with her avatar” story.”

8. Businessweek (USA) – Alcohol Companies Use New Media to Lure Young Drinkers: Report. “Alcohol companies are increasingly using the latest new media technologies — including cell phones, social networking sites, YouTube and other features of the expanding digital universe — to reach young drinkers, a new report contends. And existing regulations may not be keeping up with the marketing trend, the report’s authors added. They’re calling on the Federal Trade Commission, state attorney generals and others to investigate the phenomenon and examine whether current mechanisms to protect youth from alcohol marketing still work effectively in the digital era.”

9. AFP (France) – Teen dramas in virtual worlds darken Cannes. “The dark side of the virtual world descended on Cannes Sunday in teen suicide dramas playing on the potentially dangerous blur between reality and the Internet. “Chatroom”, the first of a trio of cyberspace thrillers chilling the film festival, sees a dysfunctional youngster (upcoming British star Aaron Johnson) obsessively watching Japanese suicide videos in a dark locked bedroom. He sets up a chatroom with four other troubled teenagers, but seems only to want to mess with their heads.”

10. CMS Wire (USA) – The Next Wave: Enterprise 2.0, Immersive Workspaces and Virtual Worlds. “When Second Life first appeared on the web in 2003 I never got into it in a big way because it appeared to me to be more distraction than useful. My work with the disabled soon made me aware of the potential of virtual reality as a means by which those with immobility impairment could walk or even fly using this technology. But it was a remark by Dr. Cheryl Shavers, former Undersecretary of Technology and senior advisor to the Secretary of Commerce in the Clinton Administration, at a speech she gave in Toronto last week that got me thinking about avatars, virtual reality and enterprise once again. Dr. Shavers had said no one knows what you look like in a virtual reality environment. They measure you by your communication and your intelligence, not by the color of your skin, or the shape of your eyes. Dr. Shavers, an African-American woman, saw in Second Life a means to eliminate race from the conversation of business.”

Weekend Whimsy

I don’t often comment on each week’s machinima roundup but I’m struck this week on the outright quality of each of the pieces below.

In the more than 2 years (140 weeks and counting), we’ve been featuring machinima each weekend, there’s always something funny, inspirational or just plain wacky to watch.

Over that time, like you’d expect with any artform, it’s continued to mature and the three pieces below certainly show that. As always, if you have your own machinima that you’d like featured, drop us a line. Enjoy!

1. It’s a wonderful Second Life: Breathe 2

2. mAdvertising

3. Second Life – Falling In And Out @ Element The 7th

Merged realities – events and issues for virtual worlds

1. Car manufacturer Ford has started using a virtual human to improve the ergonomics of its manufacturing plants.

2. In a month’s time, Second Life’s 7th Birthday celebrations kick off.

3. I hadn’t stumbled across the world of Tinier Me until received a press release from their PR company announcing the debut of “popular Japanese anime character, Gloomy Bear”. Now you know.

4. Crisp Thinking, the company behind the NetModerator platform for MMOs / virtual worlds, has announced multi-language support with the addition of French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and Russian. Chinese (Cantonese), Chinese (Mandarin) and Korean are on the way as well.

5. Prolific machinima creator Draxtor Despres has created a nice overview of an upcoming iteration of the Amputee Virtual Support System on the SL Enterprise platform:

Little Johnny’s Sister

Little Sally came home from school with a smile on her face and told her mother, “Frankie Brown showed me his weenie today at the playground !”

Before the mother could raise a concern, Sally went on to say, “It reminded me of a peanut.”

Relaxing with a hidden smile, Sally’s Mum asked, “Really small, was it?”

Sally replied, “No… Salty.”

Mum fainted.


In the hospital the relatives gathered in the waiting room, where a family member lay gravely ill. Finally, the doctor came in looking tired and sombre.

‘I’m afraid I’m the bearer of bad news,’ he said as he surveyed the worried faces. ‘The only hope left for your loved one at this time is a brain transplant. It’s an experimental procedure, very risky, but it is the only hope. Insurance will cover the procedure, but you will have to pay for the BRAIN.’

The family members sat silent as they absorbed the news. After a time, someone asked, ‘How much will a brain cost?’

The doctor quickly responded, ‘$5,000 for a male brain; $200 for a female brain.’
The moment turned awkward. Some of the men actually had to’try’ to not smile, avoiding eye contact with the women.
A man unable to control his curiosity, finally blurted out the question everyone wanted to ask, ‘Why is the male brain so much more than a female brain?’

The doctor smiled at the childish innocence and explained to the entire group, ‘It’s just standard pricing procedure.
We have to price the female brains a lot lower because they’ve been used.’

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