Intro to the Other Life: Creating Second Lives Conference 2008

I just spent the last two days looking at still shots of avatars and raids, learning about first person shooter games and suicide bomber games, and pondering the gender-imbalance issues in World of Warcraft. I sat in (or chaired) every possible session in this past weekend’s Creating Second Lives Conference at NIECI, Bangor University. What did I come away with? A burning desire to live in a fairy land in Second Life, and an impression that so far, researchers in New Media are often forced to make things up as they go along.

It’s a new field, game study, online anthropology, virtual world sociology. We had many discussions on how difficult it is to explain what we do to people not involved in the creative industries: often we’re reduced to “those people who play online all day and then try to write a paper to justify it.” It only takes one weekend among these researchers to realize that is not at all the case.

Many are not gamers at all (many are, of course). All, gamers and non-gamers alike, are interested in the effects of this paradigm shift to “virtual” worlds on communication, sociology, gender-relations, power of the individual, the economy…You name it, online activities shape it somehow.

It’s a new area, not only to the world, but to research. It showed up in a lot of places this weekend. Almost every presenter introduced their paper with a slide on terminology – each one had to be explicit about their understanding of the same terms (reality, virtual, actual, etc.). Almost all had varying definitions, nuances of understanding. This field is so new we haven’t even agreed on the definitions to the basic terms we use when speaking about it, even to each other!

I have firsthand experience of this difficulty: every time I try to explain my PhD topic to anyone, it runs about 5 minutes of pure explanation of what a digital narrative is, what it can be.

Other items of interest to me were the notions of world forming the story, not just the experience. Espen Aarseth’s talk (regrettably cut short by his need to catch a plane) touched briefly on this topic, but it really resonated with me. As a writer, I know how important setting, i.e. world, is to a story, how it can influence the mood, the tone, the characters, the plot. So it makes sense that in a virtual setting, the world is just as important. It’s on my task list to email Espen for his paper (if any) expanding the topic.

I was also intrigued by Joseph Clark’s paper on Nature in virtual worlds. He pointed out that many of our real life experiences with nature are on some level artificial – gardens, parks, set up for scenic vistas, funneling you to certain areas. Even the real thing is often manufactured to a certain degree. The lack of rich nature and ecosystems in virtual worlds is a little disturbing. Maybe the complexity of programming a natural world, even a small one, is more than most developers can handle. On the other hand, maybe it’s an indicator of how little we think of anything beyond the surface of pretty views.

In the end, it was an enlightening – if exhausting – experience, and I got a lot from the weekend to inspire me. I have a lot of avenues to explore now, and I look forward to them.

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