Friday, December 11, 2009

"Life is a (run-down, unromanticized) cabaret, old chum" -- The 1920's Berlin Project in SL

1920's Berlin--a crowded working-class neighborhood

Recently, I heard about a relatively new historical build that opened back in July 2009, but which is drawing a good bit of increased attention, so I decided to go see it for myself. "The 1920's Berlin Project" was definitely worth the trip--unequivocally, a great example of Something in SL That Does Not Suck.

A few nights ago, I went there when no one was around. I spent maybe an hour or so kitting myself out in period garb and hair and then sniffing about into all the corners and crevices of this complex build. I was so impressed, I made a point of coming back the next day for the 2 PM "Happy Hour" at the neighborhood bar when more of the residents, including the founder, Jo Yardley, would be around. It was an interesting and enjoyable experience, and I intend to make other excursions into this recreated representation of working-class Weimar Germany.

And as I said, I'm not the only one who is paying attention to Ms. Yardley's experiment. After I announced on Twitter that I planned to blog about my visit to 1920s Berlin, Rhianon Jameson tweeted back that she was planning on doing the same thing, and on the same day (and she in fact has done so with a very nice piece and images of some places I completely missed in my visits to the build). Great minds thinking alike and all that? Maybe. Mostly it's just that this is a very creative, and engaging build for people like us who want to see what can be done with historical immersion environments in SL, and I think this one may be gathering some momentum.

Standing just off the main square in the Berlin Build. That's me in a quick outfit I put together using Ingenue hair and the top part of an Ingenue outfit, with a skirt I made and basic pumps from Tesla. The scarf and jacket came from some other sources that escape me at the moment.

This build is the brainchild of Jo Yardley, who in real life is an historical consultant and living history enthusiast from the Netherlands. She tells me she hasn't been in SL all that long, but clearly she saw the potential that the platform has as a means to recreate environments from the past for recreational and didactic purposes.

The build itself is unique. The buildings and textures are her own, and look pretty much like nothing else you are going to find in-world. And that's not just because there isn't anyone else who has built a working class Berlin neighborhood of the 1920s, it's because Jo has drawn upon ideas and textures from images and materials in her own personal collection in order to pull this off.

And damn, it really freakin' works.

You wander around in this kind of grimy, gritty, verismo streetscape of small-to-medium size houses, shops, tenements and miscellaneous urban detritus and street furniture. There are faded and peeling signs and posters, street lamps and vehicles, and bot-avatars representing street characters such as beggars, an organ grinder, urchin and a drunk. Detail is spot on. I was agreeably pleased to notice that one beggar, representing a shell-shocked and possibly crippled ex-soldier from the war, is still wearing his M1910 "waffenrock" tunic.

The ex-soldier in his waffenrock

I am not going go into a whole lot of explanation about the background on the build, being as you can find that at a Wikipedia page regarding the project. But I will tell you that it has some stringent rules. You are expected to put on 1920s clothing and guys need to wear short hair (there is a very decent looking freebie period "haircut" along with some basic working-class outftis for both men and women available in the entry area). Weapons are prohibited and you are not allowed to come in as a Nazi Brownshirt or advocate Nazi principles--this is, of course, not only to prevent appearance of the inevitable wave of worthless, basement-dwelling, middle-class, white boy grieftards who take some kind of peculiar pseudo-sexual delight in being as "politically incorrect" as possible, it also heads off any conflict with the LL TOS. It is also completely and absolutely historically authentic for the context because, as they will tell you during happy hour at the cabaret, this neighborhood is way too "red" for any National Socialist crap to be tolerated. Wear a swastika, or open your mouth and spew any nutzi guff, or do the stupid salute, and you would have had the living shit beat out of you by the neighborhood labor unionists, communists, and anarchists.

A kiosk with various peeling posters including some that I am pretty sure indicate how "red" this neighborhood is.

The rules , however, are very relaxed in other ways. compared to what you will find in many rp sims. You do not have to stay in character all the time in open chat. The roleplaying I encountered in the cabaret was what is called in the parlance, "RP Lite." The sizable group of very friendly people who I met there had definite ideas about who their 1920s characters are, and what the lives and backstories of their characters are like. But they were also very comfortable with slipping back and forth between 1920s conversations and discussion of current SL conditions and troubles, commentary on LL, and sharing some really interesting information about the history of the period. It was in a lot of ways like the conversations you have at living history events. I found it engaging and fun, if a little bit disconcerting as I endeavored to stay in character as a Kriegswitwe (war widow) who was trying to convince bartender Jo to become an anarcho-syndicalist.

Mind you I don't mean to bring this up to be critical--I just want you to understand where they are coming from right now. The people I met were very welcoming, smart, and interesting to talk to--they simply have chosen to not do a hard-core style of rp here. In discussing things with Jo in IM while all this mixed series of conversations was going on, she told me that the project is very much an on-going experiment, not only in terms of the build being gradually refined and expanded, but also in terms of how its residents and regulars are deciding how they will interact with one another and visitors. This is important to understand: the project is very dynamic in an organic sort of way. It is still evolving.

At the cabaret "happy hour," 1920s Berlin founder Jo Yardley is tending bar. To my right was a very nice English expatriate, who knew a great deal about steam engines.

One of the astonishing things about this build is that it is not a complete sim. It is only a partial, but with all the twists and turns and the clever ways that the builder used her spaces, it feels a whole hell of a lot bigger. Yeah, it's like a fucking tardis. Jo reinforced this perception of a larger space by putting up photo murals of early 20th century German city street scenes (I presume Berlin) to close off the ends of the streetscapes with a trompe l'oeil effect.

The community that is starting to develop here is raising money to continue expanding the project. In fact if I have a criticism about the build itself, it is only that the immersion effect is slightly diminished here and there by the presence of the big donation "thermometers." But hey, you do what you gotta do, right? And I assume that at some point these things will go away or be restricted to the entry area.

All in all, this is one of the better things I have seen in SL in a long while. It's up there with the WWI poets sim--and in some ways superior to that project. For one thing, although there is a didactic element to the Berlin build (you can go in the school and see streamed video about the history of the era), but it is a far more realistic environment. And unlike builds such as the Frank Lloyd Wright Museum--which present three-D models of historic structures that are beautiful and highly accurate, but also empty, sterile, lifeless and without real human context--this Berlin build has a great deal of humanity to it, both in terms of the bot-avatars (which I think are far superior to the "Pepper's ghost" dummies and see-through flats of the WWI poets sim), and the friendly, talkative residents you can meet at happy hour and other events.

It also feels like a place people live, with litter on the streets, broken windows, useful stuff in the stores, diverse elements that include a laundry, a seedy tattoo parlor, a claustrophobic police station, a shabby tenement block, and a homey little restaurant. And FURTHERMORE, Jo went out of her way to build it to a realistic scale. Unlike most of SL, in 1920s Berlin the doorknobs are not at the height of your nipples; ceilings do not tower 20 feet over your head. I love that.

But you know what is really remarkable? This build came into being because of the efforts and vision of individuals--primarily Jo Yardley, but with the support and participation of other everyday SL residents and vendors. It didn't happen through the efforts of some organization or university with a professional project team and expensive gold solution provider-type builders, or with the cossetting and cuddling that LL applies to the projects it favors. Nope. Very much like projects such as the Deadwood sim, this is a real grass-roots kind of experiment. Remember that old "you world, your imagination" tag line that used to be splashed all over the SL web site? Well, goddamit, this is a great example of what our fellow residents' imaginations can produce, given the chance.

If you want to visit the 1920s Berlin build it can be found at

To learn more about the proejct, you can look at the previously mentioned Wikipedia entry or visit the 1920s Berlin Project forum.

In the tattoo parlor. Delightfully seedy, ja?


  1. Hiya mate - cracking post! Our show, The Show Must Go On performed there: and had a great time! I think Lucy from the show ( goes back and performs in the theatre's open mic sessions. Also, you can follow Jo on Twitter - her tweets are always fun, but my fave was about the time a gust of wind blew her skirt up so that everyone in the village now knows she wears vintage bloomers :-D

  2. Hey HB,

    Thanks...."cracking" is such a jolly sort of adjective, hehe. Glad you liked the post.

    Yes I recall you had mentioned you were playing The Show here not too long ago, and I bet it was an interesting venue in which to do it.

    The fact that you played here, and that Miss Jo did a marilyn-on-the-subway-grate kind of thing to show off her authentic period drawers (which are available for sale in stores at the sim btw), highlights another aspect of this sim I like.

    There is a definte place for humor here--it is not all grim faces and left-wing diatribes (though I did my best). Human nature being what it is, people make jokes, they rib each other without rancor (both IC and OOC), they dance, they enjoy silly stuf your show....

    In a way I find that very moving, and I think it's good reminder to us today, that even when life pretty much sucks, humans get through it best by going forward in the company of friends and still finding something to laugh about.

  3. Darn you, Dio, your post blew mine completely away. :)

    While it's true that the reds wouldn't have anything to do with those brown-shirted National Socialist retards, they seemed awfully cool about Uncle Joe and Friends' murderous rampages over in Mother Russia. I guess it's only a Workers' Paradise if you end up on top. :)

  4. hey Rhia,

    aw Hon, I liked your piece and have linked to it in the body of my post. I think they compliment each together, being as you found places in the build that I completely missed like the library and the hair stylist.

    I think you also have a good point about the lack of nutzis and other right-wingers, not to mention moderate groups such as the Social Democrats (liberal anti-communist socialists) Catholic centrists, or the monarchists... here's a nice blurb that kinda lays out some of the complexity of Weimar era politics:

    I think if the build grows to include areas representing other socio-economic population segments, they probably will need to find ways of working in presentation of these varying viewpoints in some fashion. After all the moderate socialists and democratic republicans tended to be mostly from the middle class, and monarchists, hell they could be all the over the map. I suspect if they want o deal with having a national Socialist voice as part of the debate, it will be like certain rp sims where to be one of the asshats, you have to fill out an assht application and it clear that you're not REALLY an asshat, you just play one in a virtual context.

    As for your point about Uncle Joe, don't forget, inthe 20s he was still just coming into power and arguably he really didn't have the workers' paradise by the balls until the 30s. Yeah it sucked if you were Trotsky, but the communist parties in other countries rather looked up to the USSR and even when there was evidence that things were getting kinda funky, the internationalists sort of looked the other way or didn't want to believe it was true.

    Nonetheless, that is one of the reasons why I have decided Dio is an anarcho-syndicalist, a movement which had a pretty sizable following in Germany in this era and which opposes the idea of top-down management such as predominated in the the thinking that was coming from Moscow. And yes, the international communist parties took their cues from Moscow. But for the most part they didn't really know about "murderous rampages" in the USSR until much later.

  5. Hello all, thanks for the blog and comments.
    Great to hear from the people of Deadwood, one of the few historical sims in SL I visited that was authentic.

    A few answers and comments;
    We need the rental barometers, I don't like em either but well as you said, this project leans on the shoulders and wallets of individuals and with just 1 meter at the entrance we didn't make the rent each month, with more meters we do.
    So until we make our rent each month and then some, we'll need the meters.
    Feel free to donate yourself silly ;)

    As for the nazis, we mainly made that rule after being swamped by silly people in ww2 (!) nazi uniforms running around shouting Sieg Heil.
    I personally would love to try something educational with the Nazi theme but its tricky.
    Also because I want to do it authentically and LL isn't keen on swastikas.
    And I only want to allow people to be 'nazi' if I trust them completely.
    The people I trust completely don't want to play nazi ;)

    Hello herr Antfarm!
    Thanks again for that opening show, it was great!
    Hope to see you in Berlin some more :)

  6. Hey Jo,

    I'm glad you liked this post about your build. I am enjoying visiting and playing in Berlin, and I think I will keep doing so on a regular basis, at least until you guys get fed up with my nonsense.

    And hell's britches Hon, I completely understand about having to clamp down on the whole National Socialist thing. And like I say, I have NO problem with how you handle it currently. I think it works from an historical perspective and in a very practical sense.

    I would find it amusing that the idiots who made the trouble came in wearing uniforms dating from ten to 15 years later than the sim represents, except that what those kind of guys do is only about trying to disrupt creative activity on the grid and seeking to upset people, rather than doing anything related to history, truth or intelligent discussion of important issues.

    I hope LL banned every single one of the miserable little unemployable cocksuckers--but of course, being as they are LL, I would be very much surprised if they did do the right thing. If they did in fact do so, I would love to hear about it. I try to be fair to them, really I do....sometimes.

    No, seriously, if they did take care of it properly. or at least try to help you with the situation, I would be pleased to give them proper credit for it.

  7. I don't know if I have the words of you experienced bloggers to apply here, but I'm grateful to Dio for bringing the build to our attention. As Dio says, the owner's passion for immersive history comes through in choice of buildings and textures. The sim really "feels" like a desperate community that still has fun. Love the layout that makes it seem huge.

    I do some RL re-enacting set in the pre-U.S. Civil War period which was also the time before a cataclysmic horror. These are times of transition, when something huge is going to happen and you don't know what. The forces of good and evil are in play and volleying back in forth in the air. These transitional times can be very, very interesting if they're done right. You can call on a lot of elements in the roleplay that are not yet decided by the horror, whether it's Hitler or Civil War. The Berlin build is clearly doing things right. What's great is that you can get a sense of where things might go; you don't need the Nazis there for that.

  8. hey Planty!

    Thansk for stopping by. Yeah, it's important to keep things in perspective, and not meta-game things with knowledge of what happens later.

    Putting things in the historical context, during the 20's, the biggest percentage of votes that the nazis ever got in a federal election was 6.5 percent and they had 32 seats in the Reichstag. Their numbers of votes actually go down by almost half in the next federal election, and in the 1928 election they do even worse, with only 2.6% of the votes, winning only 12 seats. The total number of party members at the end of the decade was about 130,000, but they were strongest in Bavaria, in rural Protestant areas, and some of the depressed industrial cities. Among the places they were weakest was in working class Berlin.

    Of course everything changes when the Depression comes along and nazis got better results, even though the most they ever got in a real election was 43%.

    And I think you can still talk about the nazis and speculate about things without having them there in person.

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