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March 12, 2007

[iDC] Second Life wrap-up; thanks


On Gaming, Labor, and Education

[Image: Ulises Mejias speaking at Emerson College in Second Life, February 28, 2007 by John Craig Freeman] Johua Levy wrote:

Thanks all for a stimulating discussion about Second Life, gaming, labor, and education.

Who is manufacturing virtual worlds and MMOs? In response to Michel Bauwens question about this, Ana Valdes points out that the games market is almost 100 percent American, with these large companies having bought our smaller European companies over time. However, Julian Dibbell points to a chart that suggests that U.S. companies are in fact responsible for only 40-60% of worldwide games and the us market share is 61.3%. The question of market dominance vs. ideological dominance comes into play here. Ana argues that, even if the market share isn't 100%, most video games share an ideology with the U.S., though Michel says he witnesses in Thailand dominant themes from Korea and Japan.

And on to the big L, which inspired some of the best discussion on the cultural ramifications of virtual worlds, virtual labor, and virtual economies. Trebor opened the discussion by questioning the need to replicate the architecture of real-world sites within Second Life. "Why do we need a replication of our own campus? Why not rather build a Black Mountain College with a Bauhaus Annex? Why teach in this virtual environment? Will SecondLife become a 3D version of Wikipedia, a virtual knowledge bank that offers a playful and fun interface to participant-generated content? Will students simply demand such playful access to knowledge?" he asks. Eric Gordon offers a compelling argument for why he helped reproduce Emerson College's architecture in SL: "our decision to reproduce the architectural layout of campus and to recreate the Boston Common was deliberately made to correspond with our understanding of the platform's possibilities. We see Second Life as a way of creatively re-imagining the space. While, we're not able to screen student work in the physical Boston Common, it will be possible to do so in Second Life."

In addition to this recreation of material space, he finds that SL mirrors "first life capitalism" as well, that inequalities between labor and capital exist there as they do anywhere else in the world. Like historical relations between labor and capital, Trebor argues that users of sociable web media are not aware of their servitude towards the owners of those systems, though, like Michel, I take issue with his assertion that "many people in the US actually think that they are 'happy' and perceive this distributed labor of the sociable web as a fun leisure activity." We are not in a position to judge what many people in the U.S. think about their station in life, and to imply that the distributed labor of the sociable web simply provides gains for the owners of capital while pulling the wool over the eyes of the participants isn't fair towards either party.

Alan Clinton offers a refreshing take on the problem of virtual labor: "At the risk of revising Marcuse, couldn't we say that consciousness of servitude is not really the problem so much as providing strategies for political agency? People who are laboring know that they are laboring. People (and let's not dismiss the global south so quickly) who are suffering the violence of capitalism know they are suffering the violence of servitude. They may lack awareness of ways to name this violence or attack it, but they are not unaware of their suffering."

In response to the problem of proprietary systems like SL posing as open platforms, Andreas Schiffler suggests a radical, peer-to-peer system that involving shared servers and open source software that become a challenge to the "'Operating System + Deskop' metaphor sold by Microsoft and Apple." This setup could also provide an open source and peer-to-peer alternative to SL.

In response to Simon Biggs' provocation that "SL is a misnomer. It is not a second life but simply a kind of first life, as constructed by a dominant elite, represented in such a manner that it will function to further inculcate and embed its associated ideology on a global scale. It will sustain the fundamental ethic of consumerism...that we are all potential suckers or grifters (often both) and that nobody is responsible for what happens to anybody else. In short, it is another rip off culture," I would point him to a group that I'm involved with, RootsCampSL, progressive activists that use SL as a platform for their work. No one that I know there believes that their work stays in SL, but that it offers a unique space (in addition to other unique space) from whic to get the message out. I would agree that SL is not a second life but in fact an extension of first life, but I have failed to find a dominant ideology there and in fact find it a fertile training ground for almost any ideology at all -- kind of like first life. Of course, I could just be blind to my own exploitation...

And Charlie Gere helps us remember that terrorism, exploitation, or even rape in SL are not the same as their real-world counterparts. "Again imagine the reaction of someone who has been involved in attempting to build and sustain communities in, for example, Iraq or Palestine, listening to someone describe the problems of community building in SL. I think grasping and holding onto this distinction is incredibly important." We need to keep perspective when talking about these virtual worlds and to remember that, however they provide us with experiential or spiritual stimulation, they are still secondary to the actual life-or-death circumstances most global citizens face.

Looking forward to more discussion of this going forward; I trust that, in the face of so much media hype that inflates the economic and sensational aspects of SL, we can all provide an ongoing counter-commentary that provides a little more depth and context.

-Josh Levy

Trebor Scholz wrote:

You can now read Henry Jenkins' response to the iDC discussion about Second Life on his blog. To understand his comments in context go here (He invites you to leave comments).

Jenkins writes:

All of these examples work because Second Life does not perfectly mirror the reality of our First Lives, yet we could point to countless other more mundane and everyday ways that Second Life and other multiverses can and are being used to facilitate meetings in real world organizations, including those which result in all kinds of real world political effects.

That said, as Steven Shaviro notes on the iDC discussion list, there are some limits to the kinds of politics that can be conducted through Second Life at the present time:

Overall, Second Life is connected enough to "first life," and mirrors it closely enough in all sorts of ways, that we can pretty much do "there" the same sorts of things -- especially collaborative, social things -- that we do "here."... A protest against the Iraq war in Second Life is little more than an empty symbolic gesture; but one might cynically argue, especially given the tendency of the media to ignore them, that real-world protests against the war , however many people they draw, are at this point little more than empty symbolic gestures either.

On the other hand, I don't think that one could find any equivalent in Second Life of political organizing that takes place in "first life": if only because the people in Second Life are a fairly narrow, self-selected and affluent, group.

This goes back to the debate we've been having here about whether Second Life participants constitute a niche or an elite. Either way, the inhabitants of Second Life certainly are not a representative cross section of the society as a whole and there are many people who are excluded through technological or economic barriers to being able to participate in this world. These factors limit the political uses that can be made of SL: they make it hard for us to insure that a diversity of opinions are represented through the kinds of political deliberations that occur here; they makes it easy for participants to ignore some real world constraints on political participation, starting with the challenges of overcoming the digital divide and the participation gap; they make it hard to insure the visibility of online political actions within mainstream media.

That said, I don't think we can discount the political and personal impact that these online experiences may have on the residents of SL. We simply need a broader range of models for what a virtual politics might look like and need to understand what claims are being made when we debate the political impact of these virtual worlds.

Another list participant, Charlie Geer, goes a lot further in dismissing the value of Second Life. He takes issue with my claim that the participatory culture represented on SL is worth defending. Here's part of what he wrote:

It would seem to me obvious that trying to make some sense of and find ways of mitigating the violence and injustice in the complex world and culture we already necessarily inhabit, not least bodily, is far more pressing and considerably more worth defending than any supposed capacity to 'design and inhabit our own worlds and construct our own culture'. This seems to me to be at best a license for mass solipsism and at worse something like the kind of thinking that undergirds much totalitarianism, as well as an evasion of our responsibilities to the world as we find it. Such a fantasy seems to be at play in both the relentless construction and assertion of identity', a drive that militates against proper social solidarity, and thus plays into the hands of those sustaining the status quo, as well as the fantasy entertained by the Bush government that the Middle East can just be redesigned as if in some video game

Apart from anything culture is not something that can simply be constructed. It is something we are thrown into and which we can only at best try to negotiate our relationship with. Culture necessarily involves other people and prior existing structures. Has Jenkins considered what it would mean if everyone felt free to 'construct their own culture'. Even if such a thing were possible, it is certainly not desirable, especially if we have any hope to produce a properly participatory culture.

Frankly as far as I am concerned SL is really just a kind of cultural pornography, and is to the real business of culture what masturbating is to sex with another person. I like masturbation as much as the next man, or indeed woman, but I don't make the error of mistaking for something it isn't. Apart from anything else it lacks precisely the element that sex has, that of involving a proper, embodied, responsibility to someone else and to the potential consequences of the act itself.

There are lots of misperceptions embedded in these comments. To start with, I was not suggesting that we should be concerned with SL to the exclusion of concern with the real world. But I do see the struggle to preserve participatory culture as a fundamental political struggle in the same way that the right to privacy or the efforts to defend free speech are foundational to any other kind of political change. We are at an important crossroads as a society: on the one hand, we have new tools and social structures emerging that allow a broader segment of the population than ever before to participate in the core debates of our time. These tools have enormous potential to be used for creative and civic purposes. On the other hand, we are seeing all kinds of struggles to suppress our rights to deploy these new tools and social structures. Even as we are seeing a real promise of expanding free speech, we are seeing real threats to free speech from both corporate and governmental sources. We should be working to broaden access to the technologies and to the skills and education needed to become a full participant rather than having to defend the new communication infrastructure against various threats from government and business.

Gere understands what's going on in Second Life primarily in individualistic rather than collaborative terms. It would indeed be meaningless to describe a world where everyone constructs their own culture. Culture by definition is shared. But it is not absurd to imagine a world where everyone contributes to the construction of their culture. It is not absurd to imagine different projects in SL as representing alternative models for how our culture might work. Indeed, the virtual world allows us not only to propose models but to test them by inviting others inside and letting them consider what it might feel like to live in this other kind of social institutions. I think of what goes on there as a kind of embodied theory. And I think what is interesting is that these are intersubjective models that are indeed being taking up and tested by communities large and small.

In each of the examples I cited above, participants are learning how to work together with others through the creation of a shared virtual reality. We certainly need to spend more time exploring how we can connect what happens in these worlds back to our everyday lives but that doesn't mean that what occurs in a symbolic space is devoid of a real world social and political context.

Often, real world institutions and practices constrain our ability to act upon the world by impoverishing our ability to imagine viable alternatives. This is at the heart of much of the writing in cultural studies on ideology and hegemony. SL offers us a way to construct alternative models of the world and then step inside them and experience what it might feel like to live in a different social order. I think there are some very real possibilities there for political transformation.

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Posted by jo at March 12, 2007 05:52 PM