Exploring Ethnic Representation in Virtual Worlds

The Ankh

The Ankh taken by donhosho on Flickr

A study from Northwestern University states social and racial biases are carried into virtual worlds; this isn’t surprising. It’s human nature to stick to the familiar, either by engaging in familiar environments or seeking those with like opinions, thoughts and preferences. This is easily seen by the familiar clothing, buildings, and objects (such as cars) that exist in Second Life. By design virtual worlds do not care for each individual thought, opinions or preferences, they are neutral to human subjectivity. They do have parameters users much abide by, usually these parameters do not penalize you for choosing a specific gender, ethnicity or hair color. Virtual worlds are built by humans, all with different point of views, opinions and thoughts lending for the possibilities of differences concerning the choice of one’s gender, ethnicity or creature.

The representation of ethnicity and avatars does play out in very interesting ways. The same way men create female avatars in virtual worlds, ethnic identity is carried out in very similar but more complex fashion. Like the ability to represent one’s gender in a virtual world, ethnic identification is just as important. Many develop a bond with their virtual avatar as it is a representation of their own identity. In order to delve into the differences of ethnic identity in virtual world, I believe there are four factors to example: accessibility, preference and perception, life experiences, and “the goal.”
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Dear Press, Stop Looking For the Addicts!

Today I had a conversation with a producer of a documentary seeking students who are very involved in new media. For those not in the know, I’m finishing my BS in Computer Science at Empire State College (looking at a June graduation!) After beginning my degree after high school I took a few years off, due to work. The conversation started with several general questions about what I do and my familiarization with Twitter, Facebook and Second Life. These introductory questions are easy to answer; it’s pretty much listing my personal resume surrounding new media. The next question is always an indicator of the direction that journalists and producers are heading towards, and that is my approach new media. I explained that I’m quite active on throughout many different services and in many ways they have become an addiction to my life; Twitter and Facebook have become ways for me to communicate with others, and Second Life has become a source of financial gain. However the conversation took a quick right turn into a neighborhood I’ve been into with so many other members of the press, addiction.

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Creating a Successful Strategy for Second Life

I find it interesting that many people who I talk to concerning their project within Second Life don’t have a clear strategy for building and maintaining successful brands, builds and projects. Many seem to go at it until there’s some success paired with a prevalent Angles in the Outfield Theory (“If you build it, they will come”) that exists throughout Second Life, even among large groups and corporations. Having a beautifully built space or a really great idea doesn’t provide any clout unless a message and idea of clearly conveyed. Through my experience in Second Life, I’ve learned some lessons as to what a successful strategy entails, here’s what I’ve found to be several key elements.

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Kirstens Viewer Meets It’s Hype

I’m usually weary of a viewer that claims to be better than then Linden Lab’s. Alternative viewers usually claim improvements but seem to be very similar versions of the official Second Life™ viewer. However, when Hamlet drools over something it’s worth taking a look at, in this case it was Kirstenlee Cinquetti’s new Second Life Viewer dubbed "Kirstens Viewer". After a solid weeks use, Kirstens Viewer boasts significant improvements and features, making it a worthwhile alternative.

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Linden Lab purchased XStreet SL and OnRez

Linden Lab has announced their purchase of the two web based merchange systems XStreet SL and OnRez. Their plan is to incorporate these services directly into Second Life. This is a smart move on Linden Lab’s part; by incorporating these service merchants are able to streamline their items, and goods through one platform. When Linden Lab created LindeX, the currency exchange service, it tied the purchasing and selling of currency to user accounts making it more accessible and easier to transfer currency throughout the platform. I feel the XStreet SL and OnRez acquisitions will provide a similar ease of use, a more robust classifieds system and an easier method for searching for virtual goods within Second Life. Continue reading

Connecting With the Second Life Community via Plurk

plurk creature

The Second Life community is spread throughout many social media services. Regardless of the platform you’ll find residents communicating with one another outside of the grid. Plurk has become one of the many interesting social networks that has drawn a lot of attention from Second Life residents.

Plurk is a timeline based micro-blogging service that allows threaded conversations. Think of Jaiku, but horizontal. In some aspects Plurk acts like a forum, the ability to respond and discuss topics leads to some very interesting conversations. The downfall is that responses are limited to 140 characters. Unlike some other micro-blogging services, Plurk easily integrates YouTube and Flickr into updates, making it more enticing to the Second Life user. There’s also an ability to format links and to send messages to a group of people privately or publically.

If you are on Plurk, but would like to interact with other residents, Moggs Oceanlane has compiled a list of Second Life Plurkers, one which many keep on adding to. For those unfamiliar or new to Plurk, there are several resources that introduce and discuss many of Plurk’s features, here are a few I like:

You can also fan or friend me and Plurk and join in the Karma fun!

Scion City To Close on January 31st

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The Nexeus Fatale loft at Scion City

 

The residents of Scion City were informed that the city will be closing at the end of January. Scion City, built by Millions of Us, is a beautifully designed series of urban sims centered around the Scion brand. Since its conception it became a small community that brought together residents, a major corporation, and Second Life through giving loft spaces to active Second Life residents (such as yours truely.) The project attached several interesting components together, including a sci-fi machinima series SAND that took place in the future  Scion City where archeologists were trying to find the city.

I’ve always felt Scion City was one of those great projects that a group of community members backed. It’s interesting to see how a brand can extend into an idea. Scion City is open until January 31st and I recommend residents visit the area before it disappears into the digital void.

Frustrations of an Ethnic Avatar in Second Life

My real life identity and ethnicity bleeds into my Second Life; I am a Hispanic/Black male and would like to have my avatar resemble my ethnicity and race. Within Second Life I’ve found that this can be a hard, tiring and frustrating process. The reasons are not technical in nature, it has nothing to do with my inability to wear skins or a graphics card failure; it has everything to do with inaccurate and insufficient content. While there’s an abundance of “dark” or “tan” skins, they do not have the features of the ethnicities and races they represent; clothing, hair, and accessories suffer from a lack of accuracy, identity and quality. This has caused me a great deal of frustration.

I grow more frustrated by the current ethnic content; while many exist, it does not seem correct and lacks details I’m used to in real life. I have yet to find a designer who is completely exempt from my ire. Some designers do better than others but they seem far and few in between. My current avatar has flaws I would like to see fixed by other designers in the very near future. In some sense I feel as if I’m settling for an appearance that does not fit my identity.

Before continuing, I want to be clear about my frustration; it is the inability to represent myself as an Hispanic/Black/Ethnic avatar due to the poor quality and/or limited options available within Second Life. I’m not claiming racism (that I’m denied access due to the color of my skin), if anything I’m saying there’s ignorance (possibly bordering on negligence, although too harsh of a word) among content creators as it pertains to ethnic avatars.

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Top Virtual World Topics of 2008

Welcome to part 3 of my Best of 2008, where I take a look at popular music, indie music, and virtual world topics that rocked everyone’s world. This installment is all about the top Virtual Issues that made headway in 2008. While I’m very interested in many MMO platforms a majority of this list will stem from the Second Life world. Lets begin!

The Picks

  1. Early in 2008, Phillip Rosedale announced he was changing jobs within Linden Lab and was stepping down as CEO of Linden Lab. In April, Mark Kingdon was announced as the new CEO of Linden Lab. M Linden is an interesting follow and seems just as passionate and invested in the platform as Phillip. It is way too early to grade M’s overall effect on the grid, he’s been at the job for less than a year. However there seems to be a lot of positive momentum in the works.
  2. In October, Linden Lab announced a $50 change in pricing tier for Openspace Sims. I felt it was for the best but I was the minority. Certain members of the community strongly disagreed (an understatement). Through much of the resident “feedback”, Homesteads, a cross between Openspace and full sims was introduced addressing some residents complaints but not others. The policy goes into effect at the beginning of the new year.
  3. At this years SLCC, I met Eshi Otawara and found her to be a very delightful and talented person. Last summer, due to her husbands unexpected death, she became embattled with the United States Government and faced deportation. It was announced a week ago that Eshi won her battle and is now a permanent resident of the United States. Congrats Eshi!
  4. After a very successful release in the post-WoW age of MMORPG’s, Age of Conan suffered from several problems. Patches seemed to plague the game every other day, there were major balancing issues in PVP (something the game was based on), and the producer and game director QUIT! I am very familiar with FunCom, I’ve DJed at conventions for them, met game directors and their staff, and was a member of the radio station they sponsor. I like FunCom, I think they are a creative bunch and have great ideas. It seems they didn’t learn from their mistakes with Anarchy Online. I hate to say it but FunCom really earned the name FAILCom with the snafu over AoC. I hope in 2009 things are remedied.
  5. After releasing employees during the holiday season in 2007, along with several commercial companies leaving Second Life, the Electric Sheep Company seemed to be the next group heading towards the exit sign. ESC released WebFlock which is a flash based platform geared at individual corporations. WebFlock is not Second Life and in my opinion does not serve as a replacement for it. It seemed to be a reaction to industry reports slamming Second Life by providing the flexibility and focus they require for virtual world projects. I’m not a fan of WebFlock (especially after trying one of The L Word rooms) but the platform may improve in the upcoming year. The idea is interesting, one I believe Second Life will be venturing further into this year. (Note: I do perform some work for the Electric Sheep Company as a consultant.)

Honorable Mentions

Talking about Virtual World platforms, the death of Google Lively was a top issue this year. Lively seemed to serve the promise of the next step to virtual world environments. It never panned out for many reasons to long to list here.

With MMO’s becoming increasingly popular, Second Skin, a documentary displaying the lives of MMORPG gamers was released and has received a lot of praise (including mine).

Within the Second Life community, Bone Mosten was deemed New World Notes top male of 2008, Ultra 7 Lounge launched with a very different approach than other Second Life clubs (less sleaze more class and use of passes), everyone is revealing their secrets anonymously (and causing MORE drama and backstabbing through it), Prokofy announced the FIC 2.5 (and I’m on it!), and a couple gets divorced due to an affair in Second Life.

I want to round this list up with a mention of two projects that show a lot of promise in the future development of Second Life, first is the Imprudence browser and the second is the Tunes inSL aimed at aiding musicians within the community. I believe both will have positive effects on the community in the future and both should garner a ton of credit for launching such interesting and useful projects.

Google Lively Closes on December 31st

Google Lively Image

Me hanging out in Google Lively

Lively was Google’s attempt in the creation of a browser based virtual world space (although there was still an application download) and will be closing on December 31st, 2008. Lively was an interesting product, but as designed its failure stems from it’s approach, Lively was built more as a 3D chatroom instead of a virtual world. Rooms were never connected to each other, there was never a sense of community or the ability to connect several rooms together in the creation of a larger space. Instead when filled a room became unorganized chaos as avatars would merge with one another.

Lively also suffered from several difficulties, it’s movement system was mouse based (and unintuitive), keeping up with conversations through a bubble like interface was annoying, is lacked audio streaming but had video and image streaming, and there were not any integrated tools to create items inside of Lively (let alone share them).

Lively’s approach of a virtual world is the wrong approach. It treated this space as an extension of a chatroom rather than the extension of the Internet. Where people could interact with one another not just through chat but through media. Lively was not the first virtual world of its kind and it will not be the last of its ilk to fall. I suspect other virtual worlds or flash based worlds will ultimately fail for many of the reasons Lively has.