My own interest in Paganism led me to look for sims themed along these lines. It wasn’t long at all after I first ventured into Second Life that I met Seti. Seti is a publisher with an abiding interest in all things relating to ancient Egypt, having written several books on this topic1. The first religious building I encountered in Second Life was a Thelemic cathedral. Seti gave me the tour, and also the low down on an Egyptian role play community in which he was participating. This was Anachronistic Lands – Ptolemaic Egypt. I decided to check it out.
Seti teleported me to this Egypt and showed me around. There was a lot of sand. There was a rather diminutive Nile. There were huge statues of kings. This kind of cultural stereotyping is commonplace in Second Life. Firstly it is driven by the reality tunnels of the residents creating the world: secondly by the technical constraints of the environment. In the first case, the reality tunnel, because one can’t build something unless one can first imagine it. Only then can one begin to discover technical constraints. Apparently a vision of Egypt as depicted in the work of Disney permeates most of the reality tunnels I encountered. The physical environment is dominated by omnipresent sand, no fertile black soil here, no lush gardens, just sand and giant white stone statues.
In the second case, when one only has available a 256 x 256 metre piece of land, one has to make design decisions, the results of which are not always entirely able to represent physical reality at a 1:1 scale. When I built the Temple of Amun at Karnak in 2012 it was, even then, the only 1:1 build of an accurate Egyptian temple, and it took up an entire sim. The Ptolemaic Egypt community was expansive by Second Life standards with its six sims, while the second community I studied, Nubian Egypt, had only two sims. So one has to make decisions about what to represent. Is your Egyptian sim going to have a lot of boating? Yes? Then make the majority of your sim be water, with just a bit of wharf. No? Then have a small sliver of water to represent the mighty Nile and the rest mostly land.
On first entering Ptolemaic Egypt I promptly got lost in the never ending sand dunes. This was before I found out about the mini map. This is a small map that overlays, once one turns it on, a portion of the main screen of the Second Life client. This map moves as one’s avatar moves around and shows other avatars, one’s own prims and the general lay of the land. Initially the mini map is a bit confusing as, unlike most maps, North is not always up. Rather the mini map changes its orientation depending on which direction one’s avatar is facing. But once I had the mini map sorted life was much easier.
Soon I encountered other avatars dressed as ancient Egyptians. I immediately realised that I was inappropriately attired. Seti showed me where I could acquire freebie Egyptian clothing. I hadn’t yet discovered the world’s monetary system. Sims sometimes provide freebie clothing to entice visitors to get into the spirit and feel like they fit in, as well as to maintain the illusion for the role players. Some sims had rules that prevented even newcomers from entering unless appropriately attired. My next realization was that freebie clothing is invariably ugly as sin. I came to this realization after I discovered the ever popular Second Life sport of noob baiting. Seven foot tall Caucasians dressed in purple Roman armor would revile newcomers dressed in modern clothing for being inauthentically dressed for 18th dynasty Egypt. One quickly feels one’s avatar as a self extension2. I felt uncomfortable walking around in my dodgy noob avatar and freebie clothing. My first encounter with the Second Life economy was about to begin. Seti gave me a lead on where to source an outfit that he felt was much better than the freebie outfit but, he said, fabulously expensive. It was L$100 apparently. I didn’t have L$100. I didn’t know how to get Linden dollars at all.
Second Life is free to use. This means you can get an account, and an associated avatar, download the software client and enter the world for free, and wear freebie clothing. There are a number of places one can obtain clothes, avatar accoutrements etc. for free in Second Life. These are usually generic Western items of clothing, mostly of very ordinary quality. Better things could be bought, for Linden dollars. Linden dollars could be bought from Linden Lab and paid for by credit card. There were ways to get Linden Dollars without buying them, such as camping – a practice whereby sim owners paid avatars to sit around in their sim to affect the Linden Lab popularity ratings. The idea of camping was boring and ethically questionable so I decided to sign up for a Premium account, a paid account costing between USD 6.00 and 9.95 per month, depending on billing cycle. Premium membership also provided access to Linden Lab’s support offerings, though my experience demonstrates that this offers a very low level of service, with many users expressing dissatisfaction at both the time taken (sometimes six months!) to receive a reply and the quality of information provided. For these reasons premium membership is in serious decline. So much so that Linden Lab stopped publishing information on the growth of Premium memberships once the numbers started to go negative3.
At the time Linden Lab was advertising “Sign up for a Premium account and get L$1,000!”. Also, they assured me, with a Premium Account I would “get free land” and I would get a weekly stipend of L$300 (L$1,300 per month). Further, if I was referred by an existing resident they would get L$1,000 as well. The cost was USD 72 per year, USD 6 a month (L$1,500). So, after deducting the amount I would receive for my stipend from my monthly payment, my membership would effectively only cost me L$200 or USD 0.80 per month. After I received my L$1,000 it would be effectively free for five months. Also I would be able to buy more Linden Dollars at any time and, more importantly, sell those Linden Dollars back for US Dollars. This meant that I could potentially generate an income if I could sell things I had made inworld. So I signed up.
I soon found that “Sign up for a Premium account and get L$1,000!” didn’t mean – come into Second Life, check it out, decide one liked it, get a Premium Account, get L$1,000. It actually meant – if prior to the very first time one ever entered Second Life one signed up for a Premium Account, one would get L$1,000, after the account had been active for 45 days. This was either deceptive advertising or poor policy, and now Linden Lab’s policy has changed to pay the bonus to premium accounts that are upgrades of free accounts4. It was also very annoying, the reason being that during the process of creating an account one invariably had to have many attempts at selecting an avatar name before one was found that wasn’t already taken. Once one had been found, one was loathe to lose it, which would have been the case if one decided to start again to qualify for the signing bonus. Some did qualify for the L$1,000, but they were only those who had not yet created an account and given their meatspace name to Linden Lab. Once one had done that it was impossible to ever get the signing bonus. This was not specified before one signed up for a free account. It was only after upgrading to a premium account and on inquiring why one’s L$1,000 had not arrived that one was informed of this loophole.
It transpired that “get free land” had a loophole too. In the olden days of pioneering in Second Life residents did indeed get free land. A 512m2 plot was allocated to each resident. In time rent (known as tier) was charged on this land. When paid Premium Accounts were introduced free account holders could no longer own land. Premium account holders were at first able to obtain 512m2 blocks known as First Land5 for L$1 per 1m2. First Land had no tier due on it but it was discontinued in February 20, 20076. From then on to be eligible to buy land one had to have a Premium Account. One then had to buy land at market rates and the first 512m2 was tier free. So at the time I signed up for a Premium Account in 2008 “get free land” actually meant “pay for permission to be allowed to buy land and have the first 512m2 be tier free”. This change of policy was poorly explained on the Second Life website which led to much dissatisfaction among users who remained under the impression that they would get free land if they upgraded their account from a free account to a premium account. Linden Lab subsequently changed this policy and began offering Linden Homes (small parcels of land, already landscaped and with simple houses on them) to users with premium accounts7. These are subject to so many limitations that, as Jack Linden explains;
“…the house cannot be removed and the parcels cannot be sold, joined, terraformed or divided. Events and classifieds cannot be created for these parcels; only Premium Members can own them, and only one per account.”8
These houses were not well received and extend across the Second Life landscape as a vast, overcrowded, but underutilised suburban blight.
All these loopholes added up to an extremely underwhelming experience. With an unfulfilled promise of L$1,000, (USD 4.00) and some deceptive advertising Linden Lab had dampened my enthusiasm for them. Now, slightly less enamored of Second Life, I was financially equipped to find the robes Seti had suggested. I remembered his comment that the robes were fabulously expensive. But now I knew that L$100 was less than 50 US cents. Seeing someone had taken the time and effort to make these robes, it seemed odd that Seti had characterized L$100 as expensive. It turns out that Seti was representative of a particular set of Second Life residents who would do everything they could to not spend any money inworld. They oft expressed that it seemed strange to part with real money for virtual goods. Some remained like this for years while others eventually joined the ranks of Second Life shoppers. The robes Seti recommended didn’t look particularly Egyptian to me, but they were certainly better than what I was presently wearing. Having outlaid the fabulous sum of L$100 I was fitted out in my plain, three quarter length, white robe.
I visited Ptolemaic Egypt a few times, usually finding no one else there. Then one day I was up late and found many people in the sims. I went into a temple and that’s where I met Amon. Amon told me it was the temple of Osiris and that I could become a priest if I wanted to. He told me that in this community one selected a role from one of a number of groups. One could be in the army, a priest or a noble. It really depended on one’s interests. I said of those groups I was interested in being a priest and asked what the priests did. He said they did rituals and were the educators of the community. I said that I would join the priesthood. Amon said he would organise an initiation ritual for me and that he would show me around. Within five minutes Amon had me visiting his house and was asking me “So Thutmose, do you like cock?” Not quite knowing how to respond, I replied that I didn’t have one. Avatars in Second Life don’t come with genitals. It’s one of the ironies of Second Life that sex related activities are some of the most popular things to do, but the default avatars are genital free. On the one hand Linden Lab is profiting from the presence of sex related activities, they even created an entire adult rated continent, but they can’t bring themselves to give avatars genitals. But just like everything else an avatar might need in Second Life, genitals can be bought. Amon gave me some landmarks for places I could get genitals for my avatar and assured me they would be a worthwhile investment.
Having sidestepped the cock conversation I asked Amon why it was that I had hardly seen any people in the sims. The reason, he told me, is that most of the population of the sims was American or European. It seems that the times of day I was most likely to be in the world were the quietest, with most people being there in US afternoons and evenings. He assured me that many more people would be encountered if I was on at the right times. The busiest times for the sims turned out to be 7pm to 12am Second Life time9, with the weekends being the busiest times and Tuesday and Wednesday being quiet.
Amon gave me a copy of the sim rules and told me to apply to join the group for the sims. Anyone, actually any two avatars as you need a minimum of two members, can start a group. A group is a way of communicating with a number of people. Once one has a group one can send out notices to all the members of the group. This is the main way people are advised of when events will occur. Ptolemaic Egypt had a whole set of groups. There was the main group for the community, which everyone belonged to and separate groups for the priests, the warriors and the nobles. Amon advised me I had to fill in an application form to join the group. He gave me a notecard, which I include below, and asked me to fill it in and return it. All notecards included herein have not been edited, except to anonymise residents.
Notecard – Anachronistic Lands Ptolemaic Egypt Application
Thank you for being interested in applying for a role in Anachronistic Lands. This notecard should be sent to "Seshemetka" . In order to do so, click on "Search" button on the bottom bar of the screen, then go to "People" tab, type in "Seshemetka" and click on Search, then drop the notecard from your inventory on top the profile opened. IMPORTANT: Role play is the same as being an actor in a movie. Being on the Anachronistic Lands sims is like being on a movie set with the cameras rolling. We are in Role Play FULL TIME. We do not come out of our characters in Anachronistic Lands. Once you are here in character, you are to stay in character the entire time. We pay a lot of real US dollars for these sims and provide them, free of charge, for you to use. We expect you, in return, to contribute positively to our role play. If you are not prepared to contribute to the role play, please don't waste our time and yours submitting the application. Anachronistic Lands Role Play Application Name: SL date of birth: Where do you live in RL?: What role do you wish?: Please describe how you see this role and what your expectations are in RP: Any other information that you think is helpful (other friends you have, ideas you have etc.):
- The anonymity requirements of the ethics committee prevent me from identifying to you the works he has published. ↩︎
- Lim, S., Reeves, B., (2010), “Computer agents versus avatars: Responses to interactive game characters controlled by a computer or other player”, International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, Vol. 68, No. 1-2, pp 57-68. ↩︎
- Nino, T., (NDP), Monthly Premium Account Growth Feb 2005 to Nov 2008, http://taterunino.net/statcharts/premiumgrowth400.png, Accessed 01/02/2011. ↩︎
- Second Life Knowledge Base, (2011), Premium membership, http://community.secondlife.com/t5/tkb/articleprintpage/tkb-id/English_KB@tkb/article-id/203, Accessed 02/04/2014. ↩︎
- Second Life Wiki, First Land, http://wiki.secondlife.com/wiki/First_Land, Accessed 02/04/2014. ↩︎
- Linden, J., (2007), First Land program to end, http://community.secondlife.com/t5/Features/First-Land-program-to-end/ba-p/558239, Accessed 09/02/2014. ↩︎
- Second Life Knowledge Base, Linden Homes, http://community.secondlife.com/t5/English-Knowledge-Base/Linden-Homes/ta-p/700103, Accessed 08/02/2014. ↩︎
- Linden, J., (2009), Home is where you hang your avatar’s hat, http://community.secondlife.com/t5/Land-and-Sea-General/Home-is-where-you-hang-your-avatar-s-hat/ba-p/651083, Accessed 08/02/2014. ↩︎
- Second Life time is US west coast time. ↩︎