Second Life’s Great Religious Awakening

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Due to the great response our earlier article generated, we've decided to put our Second Life religious work side-by-side for your reading pleasure.

After reading the transcript of a recent PBS segment on faith in Second Life, I'm not only convinced that the generational gap maintains, but that even PBS can be caught in a bit of subconscious stereotyping.

The offending segment gave a general overview of Second Life for the uninitiated, and probed questions of religious expression in the Metaverse's dominant social world.

Continue reading Second Life’s Great Religious Awakening

Designer Sells Wal-Mart Clothing Line Exclusively in the Metaverse

American Apparel made waves when it promoted its clothing through a virtual store in Second Life. Then it failed miserably . By and large, Real-world corporations found the Metaverse unwelcoming to their attempts at bridging the real-virtual gap. Now designer Norma Kamali is reversing the trend by selling her new clothing line exclusively in the Metaverse.

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      American Apparel even chained the virtual doors.

Kamali will sell her "Norma Kamali for Wal-Mart" clothing in the fashion-obsessed virtual world Roiworld, famous for bringing fashion snobbery to an entirely new virtual level.

For their part, Roiworld was so happy to have Kamali sign on that they gave her an entire section of the world as a modern day conquest prize.

An interesting point made in an article from PaidContent, the journal of soulless virtual branding and marketing:

What makes this interesting is that Kamali isn’t selling virtual goods in Roiworld.com—which is what brands like K-Swiss and Rocawear have done in the past—the designer is using the game as a platform to sell real clothes.

As anyone who has spent time in virtual worlds can attest, the vast majority of avatars are testaments to self-idealization. Heaving busts, tall, thin, tan, most bear little resemblance to the millions of people on the other side of the computer screen. Consumers purchase clothing based on how they'd like to look, and nothing enables that more than a customizable avatar.

It'll be interesting to see if Kamali's unique take on virtual marketing works out any better than American Apparel or the sea of corporate husks floating lifelessly through Second Life. If nothing else, she's gained invaluable publicity from the unprecedented move.

South Dakota State University Adopts Second Life

Continuing on in our Education Week, The SDSU Collegian reports that South Dakota State University is tilling the ground in preparation for using Second Life as a classroom enhancement tool. The administration at SDSU is taking a deep look at the myriad uses for Second Life's adaptability and interactivity:

"Examples of simulations that would be used are medical simulations in which students can take the position in a virtual world as a medical professional…They would do things like checking on patients and routine things like the avatar always washing their hands before seeing a patient."

Other examples of possible simulation include mental health simulation in which students would practice doing counseling consultations. [Vice President for IT Mike] Adelaine said Second Life provides various systems unavailable in a classroom.

SDSU would join over 500 institutes of higher education and a pitifully small percentage of America's public schools that have adopted Second Life as either a tool to augment classroom teaching or as a vehicle for completely replacing the physical classroom.

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He suffers from dead pixels

It appears to me – and I could be wrong – that the greater leeway provided to higher education practitioners is a huge incentive for the addition of virtual worlds to the curriculum.

As we reported yesterday, the tighter bureaucratic restrictions on public schools may act as a damper on innovations that jeopardize local political careers.

The Collegian notes previous problems with adapting Second Life to the SDSU campus atmosphere:

Previously, SDSU tried a pilot program of Second Life in one of the nursing courses, but they came across a few problems.

"The class was completely wireless, and it really needs hard wire in order to work fast enough…When you have all those students trying to use it with wireless, it just doesn't work properly."

If the only problems are connectivity issues easily solved through in-dorm wired connections, the forward-thinking scholars at SDSU have a relatively small hurdle to leap in order to get expansive virtual education up and running.

What I find especially interesting about the rise of Second Life and virtual worlds in higher education is where these innovations tend to take place. Take a peek at our reporting earlier in the week about Minnesota's Saint Paul College and its new certificate program in Second Life studies. Look at SDSU. These aren't Ivy League institutions, and that may be the reason for their innovation.

A school like Saint Paul College faces less national scrutiny for adopting a forward-thinking program, and stands to gain much more if the program succeeds. With more high school students graduating than ever before, colleges are in the position of providing courses that give students an edge in the job market as well as teaching novel and emerging skills.

If Princeton Review ever makes a listing of the Top Virtual Campuses, SDSU will certainly make an appearance. That could make all the difference.

British Psychologists Analyze Sex and Morality in Second Life

When you're at home and hungry for pizza, do you order online? Do you feel an intimate attachment to your Second Life avatar? Do you find yourself seeking inspiration in the real-world for your next virtual product? A group of British psychologists hopes to understand why virtual worlds are such a large part of our lives at a recently-announced conference.

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The Online Therapy Institute (click to enlarge)

Anyone spending any amount of time in Second Life takes notice of its fantasy elements. Perfectly staid and buttoned-down people turn into sexual deviants in oversized animal outfits in the relative freedom and anonymity of the Metaverse.

Now Garry Young of Nottingham University asks why we act how we do in the virtual world.

From the article:

Young will question whether it is possible for people to consider computer games and online virtual worlds as taboo free zones where human morals need not be adhered to.

They will also propose that there could be a psychological cost for people who choose to play computer and online games where they can behave in potentially morally and legally unacceptable ways, while having to act within normal moral boundaries offline.

Ten years ago virtual worlds were a niche industry undeserving of serious scientific study. Now psychologists and researchers from around the world will assemble to discern what it is that draws millions of people to devote hours every week to virtual life.

The British psychologists are late to the game. The Online Therapy Institute has been active in Second Life for some time, providing consulting and other Metaverse services through a list of well-credentialed health care professionals.

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Virtual Prostitution (click to enlarge)

They do, however, raise a good series of questions. Why do we act the way we do in Second Life, where the dominance of sex shops and sexuality in general appears generally accepted?

As we mentioned in an article earlier today, one of the wealthiest players in Second Life is a virtual content pornographer who translated virtual success into real-world millionairedom.

If we feel liberated to be ourselves behind the anonymity of avatars, how will psychologists explain the evolving cultural norms of Second Life society? There certainly are plenty: Try using a push gun on someone who isn't in on the joke.

The conference is ongoing through tomorrow, and attendance requires a membership in The British Psychological Society. No dice on whether joining their Second Life group counts. We'll be sure to report on whatever findings these sagely scholars uncover.

Second Life Designers Sue Linden Lab Over Digital Fashion Counterfeiting

You may recall we reported yesterday that popular browser world Evony is suing long-time blogger and gaming industry veteran Bruce Everiss over what Evony claims are fraudulent statements concerning alleged links to Chinese companies.

Now veteran Second Life journalist Hamlet Au reports that Linden Lab is the target of litigation as some of Second Life's most prominent virtual designers join forces in a class action lawsuit against Philip Rosedale's virtual world.

From the article:

Munchflower Zaius and Stroker Serpentine filed a class-action lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Linden Lab, for allegedly allowing and enabling content theft of their material by other Residents.

Linden Lab, unlike games like World of Warcraft, provides the user with rights to all content they create in the virtual world. This makes the situation hairy. If copying a music track from a CD and selling the bits and bytes constitutes copyright infringement under current case law – and it does – it seems plain that bits and bytes representing a digital coat are subject to the same protection.

Hamlet asks a question that I feel is the real consideration in this case: will a decision in favor of the plaintiffs promote or limit content creation? Au has a point that lawsuits hurt small businesses. Just ask Edwin Howard Armstrong, the RCA employee who in the 1930s improved on AM Radio by producing FM frequency. RCA litigated him into submission and, unable to compete, blocked superior FM technology for years.

Virtual worlds will impact the legal world in a profound and negative way if Second Life is forced to limit its liability by extending greater protections over virtual products. Small content producers will simply not have the ability to compete with a company that, as Au notes, sold over $1 million last year.

The Alphaville Herald has a great report on the newly-launched case complete with a link to the class-action lawsuit. What's telling is that both plaintiffs acknowledge they don't seek monetary damages from the lawsuit. Their goal is more restrictive regulations on who can create what, and ultimately tighter control over the virtual market for those already in a commanding position.

A telling line from the lawsuit:

Linden Lab directly and secondarily infringes the trademark of Plaintiff Eros by using Eros’s mark to sell infringing virtual goods within Second Life and by providing the tools to other infringing Second Life users.

This is chilling not because it holds Second Life accountable for the independent actions of its users, but because it argues that providing content creation tools in the first place constitutes enabling intellectual property theft. No doubt it would be effective from a business standpoint to sharply limit content creation now that the plaintiff companies have strong market positions.

The virtual economic boom in Second Life is a product of free creation and healthy competition. Restricting competition and encouraging the concentration of products in a few large fashion houses has more in common with the real world that Second Life's libertarian principles sought to upend. Not only does this lawsuit open up small creators to punishment for innovation, it stymies their incentive to create at all.

Beta Testing the Beautiful and Troubled “Blue Mars”

You may recall we
knocked Blue Mars
in the past for cozying up to corporations by restricting
content creation rights to big business. It was surprising, then, that our
number came up for an opportunity to beta test Avatar’s well-promoted baby.

Never one to waste a good opportunity, we jumped into Blue
Mars with a palpable excitement.

The character
creation screen is necessarily slim.
I don’t hold this against Avatar,
since the important point was to get players out into the world. For its slim
selection of faces and hair, though, Blue Mars provides an impressive rendering
of the human form. The level of customizability – a slim eyebrow here, pouting
lips there – provides depth while not feeling overwhelming.

This is a major point in Blue Mars’s corner, as Second Life
has perhaps the most user-unfriendly interface for a player new to online
gaming.

You’ll find an
endless ocean in the “Landing Zone.”
This vast expanse of nothingness is a
simple way of introducing the player to the movement and interaction modules. A
dutifully assigned Avatar intern greets you upon arrival, and you’re likely to
see five or ten other avatars milling about, learning the controls, exploring
nothing in particular.

Desiree

             
Click to enlarge

This was where the beauty of Blue Mars’s characters really
stands out. I met an avatar named Desiree Bisiani, pictured at right, and she
was, without a doubt, pretty. The avatar is leagues ahead of anything available
on a free-to-play MMORPG, no doubt thanks to the all-consuming CryEngine2 and its graphics
pumping ability.

You encounter a major
gameplay hurdle
at this point. While Blue Mars is certainly beautiful, it’s
demanding on an older computer. Even my GeForce 8600 GT struggled to run the
game at anything near the default high-graphics setting to which it’s locked.
Blue Mars staffers in the Landing Zone readily admit it that running the game
without debilitating graphics stutter requires a GeForce 8800.

That’s a big investment for a casual player, and cutting out
a wide swath of your potential user base at the outset is hardly a wise idea. Avatar
insists it is running Blue Mars at high settings for testing, but will soon
allow the player to downscale the graphics. But in a world built so wholly on
beauty, this kills one of the game’s major selling points.

There is also a shocking lack of direct-chat and instant
messaging features
, and this was a complaint many players came back to in the
Landing Zone. Aside from complaints over graphical demands, a lack of utility
for the friends list was the most common one I heard.

Staggered graphics
aside, it feels empty in Blue Mars
, and not because there are only a few
people there. Sure, you can sail a ship along a photorealistic ocean; you can
golf and take in idyllic views; you can explore New Venice, pictured to the
left, and go on an orb-hunting adventure. But these games won’t hold players
for long. This leads to one of Blue Mars’s major let-downs:

 
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Click to enlarge.

Content creation is a
no-go unless you’re corporate.
Unlike Second Life, players can’t produce
content and expand the game beyond its original parameters.

That right belongs
to large landholders, mostly corporations, which found themselves shut out of
Second Life due to their inability to compete with the native content
producers. It really is a shame, because content creation would put Blue Mars
in a league of its own.

Blue Mars will
succeed in its own right regardless of content creation, because Blue Mars
caters to a different kind of gamer. There are countless players to whom
learning content creation and scripting skills reminds them of homework. I’ve
yet to create anything in Second
Life. For those players, Blue Mars will succeed so long as it continues producing
engaging, immersive activities and fascinating landscapes like the one pictured
at right.

Blue Mars may not be
a Second Life killer, but it won’t matter.
These two games, it is clear,
are not competing for the same fan base. With increasing numbers of online
gamers logging on for the first time every week, there is an expanding and
heterogeneous group of new recruits from which to choose. Blue Mars simply
pulls from a different group.

Venice 2p

                            
Click to enlarge

Its graphical benchmark aside, Blue Mars has potential. It
will be interesting to see how the corporate-friendly model works, and it would
be wrong to condemn it too harshly.

The Metaverse is a place of infinite
experimentation, where worlds like Blue Mars and Second Life can exist
side-by-side, trying out opposed market ideas and viewing the results of their
experiment in real-time.

Now if only Blue Mars let you fly.

Breaking: Evony Sues Blogger Bruce Everiss for Defamation

We just received a shocking message from a friend at Evony, formerly Civony, the online browser world apparently plagued by player criticism and now a major lawsuit. Evony has launched legal proceedings against veteran blogger Bruce Everiss of Bruce on Games after what they claim were failed attempts to get Everiss to remove his criticisms of the game.

From Evony's pending press release:

The developer for the popular online video game Evony has filed suit against blogger Bruce Everiss for posting defamatory and false statements online about the company and the game. The lawsuit follows multiple rebuffed attempts to reconcile the matter out of court.

Evony’s Australia based legal counsel has proceeded on multiple fronts internationally against the libelous assaults that Bruce Everiss has leveled against Evony, LLC (http://www.evony.net), its game “Evony: Age I”, and its corporate leadership on his weblog and in publications worldwide in recent weeks.

Everiss caught the ire of Evony's higher-ups after several allegations against the game, the most striking of which accuses Evony of violating the U.S. law against internet gambling. Everiss claims that, since "Evony Cents" can be purchased with U.S. Dollars and then used on an "Amulet Wheel" to gain items, this constitutes a violation of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006.

Among other claims made by Everiss against Evony: That its graphics, previous name (Civony), and game title font were blatant copies of Sid Meier's Civilization series. Evony also challenges Everiss's claim that it is a Chinese-based company by stating that it is registered as a United States corporation.

This accusation lacks substance, as much as it may appear sensible on the surface. The items won on Evony's "Amulet Wheel" are non-transferrable to other characters, meaning the items themselves have no cash value. This parallels the rise of Z Dollars designed to circumvent Second Life's much more realistic gambling capabilities.

Nevertheless, this is a bold move by Evony, and Everiss shows no signs of backing down. The press release is featured on his blog, and Everiss has struck a defiant tone in days past as the lawsuit became more and more of a certainty. 

More on this story as it develops.

Minnesota College Offers a Degree in Second Life

Little Saint Paul College in frosty Minnesota is about to go global. The liberal arts school in Minnesota recently launched a program to teach the essential Metaverse programming and scripting skills to students via virtual classrooms. A just-released article in Finance and Commerce sheds light on Saint Paul's plan to immerse its students in the skills of the future.

The college is offering two new two-year degree programs. The Metaverse Application Design program provides training in graphic design, animation and art for the 3-D realm. The other program, Metaverse Application Development, is based on the college’s computer science curriculum and features courses in 3–D computer graphics and Java programming, among others.


Because the technology renders geographical distance irrelevant, the college has been able to form virtual learning collaborations with universities in Germany, Switzerland, England and Australia, along with the University of Oregon.

Talk about a cheap way to expand your college into something groundbreaking. Now, for the cost of a few dedicated computers, Saint Paul College can connect with universities across the country and across the planet in educating young Metaverse consultants-to-be on the ins and outs of the business.

This isn't SPU's first venture into the virtual world. They already offer a course in Second Life fundamentals, and SPU recently funded a program to create a virtual library that serves as a hub for virtual worlds and technology discussion.

I know I belabor the term by using it so often, but this really is nothing short of shrewd business. As Metaverse entrepreneur like Aimee Weber shows in her recent partnership with big-time automaker Peugeot, there is big money in virtual worlds for those who can create quality content. A college that provides a formal education in scripting and content creation will produce graduates with a competitive advantage over humble liberal arts grads like myself.

Visiting and writing about a world like Second Life is one thing. Having content creation skills is another, greater thing, as it allows the avatar (and the player) to physically alter the universe around them. Content creation is an entirely new level of immersion, a level to which unskilled visitors like myself are not privvy.

Will these graduates be the ones responsible for a boom in virtual worlds? Could Saint Paul serve as the Mountain View or Silicon Valley of the content creation world? One can hope.

Accolades Continue for Our Piece on Iranian Protesters

Our article on the Iranian opposition using Second Life has seen a lot of press and publicity since it was posted on Pixels and Policy. It's received mentions on dozens of major websites, including
the excellent policy and politics website Truthout, Canadian newspaper Alternatives, and Iranian newspaper Iran-va-Jahan. Now it's getting one more.

This is a great way to end the week. Just got word from an eagle-eyed reader that our to continue their pro-democracy rallies, which was originally featured on the Institute for Policy Studies' Foreign Policy in Focus think tank, has been promoted once more!Untitled

An FPIF staff writer got in touch with me a few days ago about my edits and thoughts on making a summary version of the original Iran article as part of FPIF's "60 Second Expert" series. These articles are intensely summarized pieces that explain arguments and facts of an article in a way that is easily digestible to a busy reader.

Well, I just found out that the 60 Second Expert piece based on my original story (this blog's inaugural piece) was posted! Here's hoping that even more people get an opportunity to see the amazing ways virtual worlds are changing foreign relations

All In The Family: Zynga Sues Playdom for ‘Mafia Wars’ Rip-Off

Just a day after our coverage of how social networking games like Zynga's Mafia Wars are raking in tens of millions of dollars in revenue every year, news broke that Zynga was headed to court. The unlucky defendant? Playdom, author of the eerily familiar-looking Mobsters. Looks like there's some *ahem* bad blood between the families.

From VentureBeat

Zynga filed another suit claiming
that Playdom had hired away four Zynga employees who had helped the
company steal Zynga’s secrets, including a crucial document called the
Zynga Playbook

The Zynga Playbook is literally the recipe book that contains Zynga’s
“secret sauce,” and its contents would be invaluable to a competitor
like Playdom.

The Zynga Playbook constitutes a collection in one
document of many of the most material non-public commercially valuable
concepts, techniques, know-how and best practices for developing
successful and distinctive social games.

So Zynga argues Playdom allegedly pilfered their "secret sauce" by hiring away employees and pumping them for info. As we mentioned yesterday, Zynga has a lot to fight for – its playbook brought in $50 million in revenue at last count, and a recent expansion of their Texas Hold'em app to the iPhone costs anywhere from nothing (for the lite version) to $34.99.

That said, 'Mobsters' does play like 'Mafia Wars,' but I struggle to find a social networking game that doesn't play similarly to every other social networking game. The real trouble here is the litigation. If big developers like Zynga can sue for a game that resembles its own in theme or mechanics, despite the fact that small producers have only limited mechanics to work with, this could create a chilling effect on small game production.

We've repeatedly seen through iPhone Apps and do-it-yourself Facebook coding that small developers can create products that resonate. The appetite for both graphics and non-graphical virtual worlds is growing, especially for worlds like Mafia Wars that can be played without demanding graphics capabilities. These are the virtual worlds for casual gamers, and casual gaming is a lucrative market, willing to drop hundreds through microtransactions and customization features.

It would be a disservice to the emerging social networking game genre if litigious power players scared small developers away from the platform. There's definitely growth potential there.