Games In The World

Though Second Life is itself not a game, there are many games played in Second Life1. Many of these games have been created in, and are specific to, Second Life. For example the extremely popular game of Primtionary. This is a variation on Pictionary, though instead of drawing the word in question one must build it out of prims, the basic geometric shapes from which everything in the world is built. Shooting games of various types are also extremely popular. Scoring is usually effected through some kind of software meter that is not part of the software client but is a thing that the players wear which is paired with specially designed weapons. The meter keeps track of damage by recording the number of times an opponent’s weapon hits the player. When a player has been hit a certain number of times the meter will declare them dead. The player then will either be immobilized for a set period of time or logged out of the game, thus incurring a penalty of the time it takes to log in again. There is capacity built into Second Life for an avatar to take damage2. However this only records damage taken by falling or colliding with physical objects and is optional, it must be discretely turned on in each sim. Most sim owners do not turn it on as it is very easy for a falling avatar to die and thus get evicted from the sim by accident and it allows some forms of griefing (the deliberate destruction or disruption of other’s builds or activities) where player’s avatars can be pushed around.

By far the most popular type of game in Second Life is role playing3. Lortz4 explains that a role playing game is a game which allows a number of players to assume the roles of imaginary characters and operate with some degree of freedom in an imaginary environment. The obvious deficiency of this definition is that it overlooks games where people are role playing non imaginal characters, such as historical ones or the case of role playing one’s self. Some may argue that role playing one’s self is not really role playing. Goffman5 would disagree. Likewise this definition does not include non imaginal worlds or single player games.

There are many types of role play games in Second Life6 including; Bloodlines – a vampire RPG7, City of Lost Angels8 – also a dark themed role play game with vampires, angels and demons which is probably the most durable role playing game in the world, Toxian City9 – a dark urban RPG featuring vampires, werewolves, cybernetics and felines and Lutherson10 which bills itself as “your interracial wonderland in Second Life” and which has a BDSM feel though it claims not to be such. Role playing games are so popular that there are systems for creating and effecting role play games in the world, for example Role Play System (RPS)11.

Boellstorff’s Coming of Age in Second Life12 is the most comprehensive ethnographic study of Second Life to date, but it only briefly touches on role play. When Boellstorff began his research in 2004 Second Life was just one year old13. It was a very different world then to the one in which I would begin my research in early 2008. Similar kinds of role play communities to the ones I write about here were present when Boellstorff was doing his research, but, for his own reasons, he did not research them in depth14. My study seeks to fill this gap.

Boellstorff reports community concern about role playing, with some characterising it as “…exhibiting an inauthentic self in a virtual context that expects authenticity”15. I find it odd that people would presume that on entering a virtual world, where one can present as anything one wishes, one would choose a representation that exactly matches one’s meatspace self. Or that one might consider that a persona exhibited in a virtual world might be inauthentic. Such a persona might not be an exact duplicate of the person’s meatspace persona, but it’s an authentic something. T. L. Taylor describes virtual worlds as boundary spaces and describes the resident’s relationship to ‘real’ as a shifting back and forth between fiction and reality16. Role play may well be a fiction, but so are many meatspace personas.

Authenticity will feature heavily in this thesis, though mostly in a very different way to that expressed by Boellstorff’s research subjects. In the role play communities I studied the quest for authenticity meant the desire to recreate as accurately as possible a representation of the culture they were attempting to inhabit. The communities would have meetings, that often went on for hours, that vociferously discussed what an authentic ancient Egyptian community would be like and how that might be implemented. This quest for authenticity really drove these communities. However just as everyone’s conception of the meatspace reality we presently inhabit is different, every member of the community had a differing conception of life in ancient Egypt. Trying to bring a group of twenty first century Westerners to a consensus about the realities of life in ancient Egypt is a fabulously interesting, but not always fully successful thing.

There was also an interesting tension regarding authentic representations of self. It was my experience that everyone I encountered was absolutely aware that the avatar was not the person. That the gender, age, race etc. of the avatar was absolutely not guaranteed in any way to be the same as that of the human driving it. The tension was driven by the fact that we are still humans, heavily visual creatures, conditioned to relate to others based on their appearance, their movements, their shape. Despite being aware of this, as evidenced by frequent conversations about this topic, residents constantly found themselves relating to avatars as if they were the people they appeared to be and being delighted, disappointed, bewildered, shocked, amused, or, occasionally, angry, when a disparity was revealed.

The importance of researching role play communities is best expressed by Gary Alan Fine17 who explains that, while all groups create culture of some kind, role players set out to develop a distinct cultural system and thus they are the group best suited to interactionist analysis. Following in the tradition of symbolic interactionists like Becker18 and symbolic anthropologists like Edith Turner19 Boellstorff’s method was to study the world “in its own terms”20, making no attempt to meet his subjects in meatspace, nor to make any determination if they were who they presented as in Second Life.

“For the research upon which this book is based I conducted my research entirely ‘within’ Second Life, as the avatar Tom Bukowski. I made no attempt to visit the offices of Linden Lab, the San Francisco-based company that owns and manages Second Life, or to meet Linden Lab staff, though I would sometimes interact with them at conferences, or within Second Life. I also made no attempt to meet Second Life residents in the actual world or learn their actual-world identities, though both happened on occasion. I took their activities and words as legitimate data about culture in a virtual world. For instance, if during my research I was talking to a woman, I was not concerned to determine if she was ‘really’ a man in the actual world, or even if two different people were taking turns controlling ‘her’. Most Second Life residents meeting this woman would not know the answers to such questions, so for my ethnographic purposes it was important that I not know either.”21

This is exactly the approach I have used. I have not sought out staff from Linden Lab for input into my research. Indeed my experience is that even if one wants to contact them, one is unlikely to receive any reply, even when you pay them. I once received a reply to a support request two years after I submitted it. It was not my intention to study how or why people are different in virtual worlds than there are in meatspace. Nor was it my intention to establish a heirachy of realities, with some more real than others. Neither did I enquire if people were really the gender they presented as. I don’t do this when I meet people in meatspace and it seemed just as rude in Second Life. Sometimes I did get to know the gender and age of an avatar’s meatspace self, but still in a technologically mediated manner; internet, phone, other online spaces. I have met none of the people I met in Second Life in meatspace. My aim is to examine the authenticity of digital selves in and of themselves. This quest for an authentic report of what I found in these communities is also the reason I did not base my research on interviews. Rather, I rely for my data on the logs of the actual events as they happened. My aim here is to avoid the problem which Fine22 expresses as the question, “Do psychoanalysts study dreams or reports of dreams?”, to avoid the inevitable filtering and self censoring that occurs with interviews, especially if some time has elapsed between the events and the interview.

We all hide things from others, both in meatspace and cyberspace. We hide from our friends and families, from our lovers, and even from ourselves. It is the things that we hide that define our selves. They are the things no one else but us knows, the things that will be extinguished with us when we die. We even hide things from our avatars, but less so than we do from other humans. Avatars have their own secrets. Things they do that our meatspace self would never do, could never do. Avatars are embodiments of what Jung23 calls our shadow self, the self we think we can’t or shouldn’t be.

Though there have been some issues about internet protocol (IP) address discoverability24 25 26, it is, for all practical purposes, impossible to reliably establish the meatspace identity of another resident. Even if an IP address can be traced, an IP address is not a person27 28. There is therefore a high level of perceived anonymity in Second Life. That is to say that residents believe and behave as if it were not possible for any other resident to discover their meatspace identity. Indeed nearly half of all internet users believe it is possible to be completely anonymous anywhere on the internet29. In Second Life there is a strong social taboo that if a resident has not posted any information in the section of their profile set aside for information about their meatspace identity then it is just not done to ask them about it, and one should expect a brusque rebuff if one does so. People want to be anonymous in Second Life. In the same way that Anderson, in his classic study of 1920s Hobos, finds that hobos value, as he puts it “…the freedom and security that only the crowded city offers”30 the denizens of Second Life treasure their anonymity. They want to be secret deviants31, to engage in rule breaking behavior and yet to not be perceived as deviant. They are rejecting rules imposed on them by the moral entrepreneurs of their meatspace communities. They are Pagans who live in the bible belt of the US. They are Iranians who want to meet Jews as people. They are parents who want to be children and ‘liberated’ women who want to be slaves.

  1. Second Life Destination Guide, Games,, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
  2. Second Life Wiki, Damage,, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
  3. Leigh, M., Elwell, M., Cook, S., “Recreating Ancient Egyptian Culture in Second Life”, Proceedings of 2010 IEEE International Conference on Digital Game and Intelligent Toy Enhanced Learning, pp. 114-118. ↩︎
  4. Lortz, S. L., (1979), “The Way of the Gamer: Dramatic Structure of RPGs”, Different Worlds, Albany, Issue 2, pp. 32-35. ↩︎
  5. Goffman, E., (1959), The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, Anchor Books, New York. ↩︎
  6. Second Life Destination Guide, Role-playing Communities,, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
  7. Liquid Designs, Bloodlines,, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
  8. Gamma Wave Games, City of Lost Angels,, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
  9. Toxian City, Toxian City Dark Urban Roleplay,, Accessed 31/01/2014 ↩︎
  10. City of Lutherson, Lutherson,, No longer online. ↩︎
  11. AeonVox, RPS,, No longer online. ↩︎
  12. Boellstorff, T., (2008), Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human, Princeton University Press, Princeton. ↩︎
  13. Boellstorff, T., (2008), Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human, Princeton University Press, Princeton, p. 52. ↩︎
  14. Boellstorff, T., (2008), Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human, Princeton University Press, Princeton, p. 162. ↩︎
  15. Boellstorff, T., (2008), Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human, Princeton University Press, Princeton, p. 184. ↩︎
  16. Taylor, T. L., (2009), Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture, The MIT Press, Cambridge, pp. 9-11. ↩︎
  17. Fine, G. A., (2002), Shared Fantasy: Role Playing Games as Social Worlds, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p. 229. ↩︎
  18. Becker, H. S., (1963) Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, Free Press, New York. ↩︎
  19. Goulet, J. (ed), Young, D. E. (ed), (1994), Being Changed By Cross-Cultural Encounters: The Anthropology of Extraordinary Experience, University of Toronto Press, Toronto. ↩︎
  20. Boellstorff, T., (2008), Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human, Princeton University Press, Princeton, p. 61. ↩︎
  21. Boellstorff, T., (2008), Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human, Princeton University Press, Princeton, p. 61. ↩︎
  22. Fine, G. A., (2002), Shared Fantasy: Role Playing Games as Social Worlds, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p. 230. ↩︎
  23. Abrams, J. (ed), Zweig, C. (ed), (1991), “Introduction” in Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature, Tarcher, New York. ↩︎
  24. Second Life JIRA (ARVD-38), RedZone Security violates TOS, exposes private information and is being misused,, Accessed 26/01/2014. ↩︎
  25. Second Life JIRA (VWR-17044), Add options to selectively limit media sources to limit IP discoverability,, Accessed 26/01/2014. ↩︎
  26. Second Life JIRA (VWR-17812), Prompt before contacting non-Linden server, including shared media, streaming media, and streaming music,, Accessed 26/01/2014. ↩︎
  27. Raul, (2013), California Judge Moskowitz finds that an IP address, alone, is insufficient evidence to support a copyright infringement complaint,, Accessed 02/04/2014. ↩︎
  28. Cushing, T., (2013), Yet Another Court Says IP Addresses Are Not Enough To Positively Identify Infringers,, Accessed 02/04/2014. ↩︎
  29. Rainie, L., Kiesler, S., Kang, R., Madden, M., (2013), Anonymity, Privacy, and Security Online, Pew Research Center,, Accessed 23/02/2014. ↩︎
  30. Anderson, N., (1923), Hobo, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p. 5. ↩︎
  31. Becker, H. S., (1963) Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, Free Press, New York, p. 20. ↩︎

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