by Alphaville Herald on 16/04/10 at 11:50 am
by Bubblesort Triskaidekaphobia
Much has been written about whether SL is a game or something else. Most people I know in game call SL a “virtual world.” Most professors I know in real life call it a “serious game,” although I do not think the eggheads are deliberately implying that SL is serious as opposed to fun (it’s a shame they’re so out of touch like that).
It is time to re-examine SL’s status as a non-game, because the idea that SL is not a game is counter-productive and ignores the basic realities of the platform.
Tools of the Trade
In SL we create with scripts, prims, textures, animations and sound clips and that is great, but we are still building things with the tools that Linden Lab has given us. We aren’t really building anything from scratch. When we build we are engaging in the same activity as mainstream MMO players. When we look at why things are created we see that there really isn’t any important difference between mainstream MMO gamers and SL gamers.
When we build we are creating artifacts to go along with narratives, and the narrative is what is important in all MMOs, SL included. A narrative artifact is anything that goes along with your identity or your groups identity in SL, like a medieval roleplay avatar or a half-human, half-dolphin furry (dolphins are mammals too!). Narrative artifacts can be created to go along with a flame war, as we see with the protest signs when Linden Labs hikes sim prices or bans gambling.
In SL we can create these narrative artifacts fairly easily from a technical standpoint when compared to mainstream MMOs. That said, there is nothing stopping people in mainstream MMOs from doing the same thing with the tools that their chosen world has provided for them.
For example, in WoW you can change the appearance of your avatar and you can create your own guild insignia. You can program HUDs in WoW, in fact there is even an integrated development environment (IDE) designed specifically for creating WoW add-ons. This is not exactly the same as creating an SL avatar from the ground up, but as with any set of tools, there are limitations and there are benefits. Mainstream MMO players never have to worry about making a combat system, for example.
Second Life Narratives
In the good old days of SL we had a blank slate as far as narrative goes, or as close to a blank slate as one can get. SL is no longer like that.
When a noob enters SL they are presented with an orientation experience that assumes that there is no built in narrative going on in SL. If they get past orientation they soon find out that this is simply not true. After orientation, if the noob makes it this far, they become an explorer, and soon they will be presented with a series of narratives that they can choose to participate in.
A few examples of narratives the noob will be presented with: Linden Labs wants the noob to buy into the narrative that there is a gold rush happening in SL, so they need to jump in by buying and selling virtual goods. Sex sims want the noob to buy into the narrative that SL is a place to let their libido roam free. Roleplay sims want the noob to buy into the narrative that they should take on a role and perform it in the plot line happening in the roleplay sim. Goons want the noob to buy into the narrative that there are people who do it for the lulz and there are lulzcows who are there to be messed with. Shadow government types want the noob to buy into the narrative that greifers must be stopped and the world must be regulated by them.
Nothing is stopping the noob from creating their own narrative outside of established narrative frameworks like these. Most of the time, though, the noob will just buy into the first narrative they find that appeals to them. This is why most people in SL can’t even build. They purchase items from others who cater to these pre-defined narratives.
Mainstream MMO Narratives
In mainstream MMOs a noob logs in and their first task is to create a character. The first step in creating a character is usually to choose which faction they want to be in. In WoW you have horde vs alliance, in Star Trek Online you have Federation vs Klingon Alliance, in EverQuest your race determines if you are good or evil. Once that is done, you choose a class which gives you skills that will define what your character can do with the game mechanics in the virtual world you are about to enter.
Once you enter the world you can play along with the narrative of the character you just created, or you can create your own narrative. There is nothing in the rules that says you must kill ten rats every time some random peasant asks you to. The game mechanics of class, race, XP and loot can be viewed as a set of hard and fast rules for your character to operate within, or they can be viewed as a suggestion. There are roleplay servers and normal servers, but I have never heard of somebody getting banned for roleplaying on a non-roleplay server. Nobody is going to ban you if you choose to roleplay a narrative that does not exist in the MMO’s built in narrative, unless you have to break TOS to create said narrative. This is a restriction that exists in SL as much as it does in the mainstream.
Creating your own narrative is not as rare as many would have you believe. EVE Online ran a banner ad recently saying something along the lines of “We create the world, our players create the headlines.” Articles and blog posts about EVE are usually not about the machinations of CCP (the company who runs EVE). Articles about EVE are usually about players’ actions.
One could create their own narrative by playing Dr. Who in any MMO, for example. They might have problems getting their hands on a Tardis or a sonic screwdriver, but in the TV show the good doctor didn’t always have easy access to these things either. This kind of narrative is rare, though. Most people just accept the narrative they are given or they go with standard narratives of making money or getting laid.
The mainstream MMO corollary to the SL business owner is the gold farmer. Gold farmers can make as much if not more money than the average SL busines owner. There are usually risks involved, because gold farming conflicts with the published narrative and TOS in most MMOs, but it is done all the time. Gold farming is a 500 million dollar industry. By comparison, the gross resident earnings in SL were only 55 million dollars in 2009.
Another example of players working outside the narrative they are fed by the game publisher is the virtual brothel. Most MMOs have them, although they are rarely a part of the published narrative of the game (the exception being places like Red Light Center). Some of the Herald’s first big stories were about bordellos in The Sims Online. It’s common knowledge that WoW has brothels. It would not surprise me in the least if a story broke about a place in Star Trek Online where you can trade a warp coil for cyber sex with a Klingon (I’m invoking rule 34 here).
We could go on with examples of this kind of thing all day long, but the point is that SL is not as unique as you might think. The narratives we create in SL are no different than the narratives created in mainstream MMOs. The same archetypal stories are everywhere: love, money, avatar vs avatar in greifing wars or avatar vs environment in the case of gold farmers vs game publishers. One might even argue that mainstream MMO players who work outside the narrative they are given have to be more creative than we have to be in SL. The tools used in mainstream MMOs are different and harder to work with, but they get the job done.
Are You Original?
The next time you go to dismiss a mainstream MMO as being passive entertainment outlets for the banal, unwashed masses, take a minute to stop and think about what kind of narrative you are in when you log into SL. Are you really doing something original, or is it something you were given and you just accepted the narrative without questioning it?