Saturday, May 29, 2010

May the best humanity win: visiting the Linden Prize finalists

You've undoubtedly seen the messages that are showing up lately about the finalists for the "Linden prize." Tonight I got an IM from my friend Ernst Osterham asking me if I had looked over the list. I said I had, but that nothing about the list had particularly struck me as terribly intriguing. He replied that he too thought that overall it was sort of "blah." And I thought, "well, maybe Ernst is right and that's why nothing about it struck me. But I figured I probably should go and actually look at some of the nominated places and programs before I got all judgmental.

Not that I'm ever judgmental. Nooooo...of course not.

So I pulled up their list and started teleporting...and I got through most of them before I just gave up. Does that mean they were dreadful choices for the prize? No...not really. They're just....not really as blindingly unique or stunningly creative as you would expect a project to be get a big ol' 10K prize from Lindens.

Here's how they explain the prize initiative:

"The Linden Prize will award one Second Life Resident or team with $10,000 USD for an innovative inworld project that improves the way people work, learn and communicate in their daily lives outside of the virtual world. This annual award is intended to align with Linden Lab’s company mission, which is to connect all people to an online world that advances the human condition. Many projects inside of Second Life have already enhanced and changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world, and the company wants to recognize the users’ accomplishments...."

And here is what they say about what they are looking for:

"We rely on several core principles when choosing the finalists and winner.

* Work in Second Life that also achieves tangible, compelling results outside of Second Life.

Distinctive, original work using Second Life that clearly demonstrates high quality, execution, function, aesthetics and technical sophistication.

* Work that has the capacity for inspiring and influencing future development, knowledge, creativity, and collaboration both inside and outside of Second Life

Mind you, I'm not going to go so far as to say that I thought that the finalists for the prize didn't meet the above criteria. But I will say that here is what I found when I went to visit the nominees' builds in-world:

* Sims that were almost entirely empty. When I went to Non Profit Commons, there were a couple of greeters there--really nice friendly people, ready to help with answering any questions. But few or no visitors.

* The usual sort of visual communication techniques and design choices that make most SL exhibits and museums so terribly ineffective--panels and text on walls, objects to click on to get notecards, etc.

* Environments that did little more than replicate real life educational spaces and exhibits.

Chatting with one of the friendly greeters at Non Profit Commons.

Am I being too harsh? Probably. The argument can be made that I really didn't give the time or attention to each build that they deserved. But that's the thing--I suspect that a great many of the standard garden variety SL visitors are going to react to these builds in ways that are similar to my reaction. If we're not engaged quickly and in a lively, unpredictable fashion, then we wander off to look at the next shiny thing that catches our attention.

So I'm not saying that any of these prize nominees had anything wrong with their content, or that they lacked content--they just weren't presenting it in an engaging way, or in a way that connected well. Non Profit Commons, for example, had a lot of content--important content. In fact, it probably had TOO MUCH content: the dense multiplicity of narratives and messages overwhelmed me: I just glazed over in a matter of minutes, and moved on to the next build.

When so many of the finalists for the Linden Prize are like this-- unimaginative builds dealing with oh-so-serious topics and Education with a capital "E"--it can be discouraging. It seems to reinforce the sense that so many of us have that the Lindens want to foster an image for SL that is serious and perhaps even more than a little pretentious. It seems like the version of SL that LL hopes to promote is largely unrelated to the reality that is experienced by the majority of us users, who are basically in this for shits and giggles and maybe a bit of highly unstructured self-directed learning. Many of us have long suspected that the Lindens not only don't understand what we do and why we do it, they are downright embarrassed by us. And at first glance, it would seem that the list of Linden prize finalists reinforces that suspicion...except...

...and this is a big exception... of the finalists is the team that brought the "Sion chicken" concept to SL. I have no idea how it got to the finals. but gawd bless those folks for applying for the prize, and gawd bless whoever said, "yeah, that's worth recognizing." The chickens are of course, silly. And pretty much pointless...other than the fact that a lot of people seem to have fun with them.

It gives me some hope that maybe there are Lindens who do "get it"--that life on the grid has to have an element of fun. The fact that the platform can still attract creative, pleasantly silly people and offers stuff that is silly or creative--or silly AND creative--is what gives it real appeal. It's not Education with a big "E," or business meetings, or serious non-profits sharing serious messages...although those are all important in their limited, limping ways. But they are not what makes SL unique.

Now, I will admit, that there is another way of looking at the inclusion of the Sion Chicken business in the finalists for the Linden Prize. This concept is somewhat suggestive of certain growing stuff/task-based game-ish elements that are such a popular facet of certain facebooky things. When the Lindens included Sion Chickens among the prize finalists, is that reflective of some deep-seated Linden desire to make the SL platform more like those massively-adopted social media products? If so, then yeah, that's a little scary.

But being the optimist that I am, I prefer to look on it as evidence of the possibility that they do simply comprehend that fun is important too.

Of course, I think we can make a pretty good argument that what is really most important in SL is how it brings people together. This was the thing that struck me more than anything else when I visited the locations associated with the Linden prize finalists. I generally couldn't tell to what extent these projects and builds fostered the development of micro-communities or encouraged and facilitated interaction between people who otherwise would never have had the opportunity to talk with each other.

This was brought home to me during my explorations tonight, when--after I grew tired of visiting prize finalists--I started going to places that had some association with Memorial Day--places like the Vietnam Memorial build. I finally wound up at "Patriot Island," home of the Wounded Warriors programming and the site of a decent recreation of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Watching the sentry walk his post at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Patriot Island.

It was a pretty nice build; it had some very good content--including useful information for rl veterans about where they could go for help regarding various issues and problems--but most importantly it had people. There were more people on Patriot Island at 11:30 PM than on all the Linden Prize finalist sims combined. They were talking about nothing earthshaking--mostly they were just being silly and having fun (although there was one volunteer in dress blues doing sentry duty in very dignified fashion at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier). A couple of the people IM'ed me, welcoming me and answering some questions. I also talked to one of their admins to get information about who to contact for an interview. At some point before long, I think I'll write a longer piece about the build and related projects.

But yeah, what made the build appealing and encouraged me to stay there longer than I did at any other place I went tonight, was the human element.

Whoever gets the prize, I really hope that it is whoever does the best job of incorporating the human element into what they do--although giving points for silliness and fun would be appropriate as well.


Monday, May 17, 2010

Looking for signs of ancient life in SL, pt. 1

An ancient build--I forget which one, now--pretty but empty.

Ever since I visited the Amarna build in Heritage Key, I have been wondering about what kinds of ancient historically-themed rp sims I might be able to find back in Second Life. I know there are Roman sims, and at some point I'll certainly go check those out. But I wanted to look at other civilizations and see what I could find.

Here's a quick sampling: totally unscientific, completely incomplete, and undoubtedly lacking in analysis, because goddammit, I'm tired and my brain hurts these days. But at least I'm telling you that up front so you know to pay no attention to this nonsense I'm spewing.

I started this process by simply putting "history" in the "places" search and started looking at what came up. Some of it looked promising. For example, I found a listing for a build that recreated the ancient City of Thebes. And I thought, "cool, an ancient Egyptian sim, and it looks like they got a shopping mall AND rp."

So I put on my extremely modest Egyptian outfit and tp'ed in. I found myself in a decent if slightly empty shopping mall with various outfits, hair, and useful artifacts from the long ago land of the Nile. And then looked for the transporter to go down to the rp area...and I looked...and I looked...and I finally was going in circles and clicking on random things with no result.

I could see green arrows indicating someone was down below me, so I rezzed a cube, sat on it and slid myself out through the wall of the sky box the mall was located in...and then I de-rezzed the cube and "dropped in" for a visit.

No city of Thebes. Just a lush landscape with some very nice folks in Na'vi avatars who were working on the plantings. Turns out these people--who were extremely nice and looked damn good in their blue "Avatar" avatars--were the owners and they told me they were redoing the sim as Pandora because the ancient Egypt business had been pretty slow. While we were standing there chatting, a "Royal slave" popped in looking for Thebes, and the poor thing seemed to be even more confused than I was.

Talking with a Na'vi sim owner and a confused royal slave girl.

So the first stop was clearly a bust, at least as far as finding ancient civilization and roleplay.

So I went on to a couple of other places: the city of Knossos, capital of the Minoan people on the island of Crete; ancient Carthage, the home city of Hannibal, implacable enemy of the Roman Republic. They were ok, the builds themselves were acceptable. Nobody much around. And old Crete was a bit off-putting, as their guidelines strongly suggested that ladies should go topless--for religious reasons, apparently. Yes, I know that Minoan women's formal dresses left the breasts exposed, and that the bull-jumping athlete girls just wore cute little kilty things and not much else. But the only other people in the sim--two females of some sort--they had their shirts on. So I wasn't going to take mine off. It sort of reminded me of the old joke with the punchline, "what kind of a Cretan do you think I am?"

Finally I tried out another Egyptian build--one representing Amarna, called Terra Egypta. And it was actually kind of interesting. They made an effort to recreate a working harbor, a full-scale sphinx, pyramids, and a walled city.

On the paw of the Sphinx, in Egypta Terra

But one there. This seems to be a recurring theme: there are many ancient sims in sl, but there seem to be few people playing in them. Am I just coming at the wrong times? Are there too many of them, thereby spreading the ancient rp population too thin?

So where should I look next? Rome? Greece? New Jersey?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

thinking about Native American stories in SL

Studying the Cherokee alphabet developed by Sequoyah

Hi guys.

Sorry I haven't been posting for a while. I started a new job and it has pretty much sucked up all my energy for the last few weeks. The good news is, it's a decent job, and I'm mostly working with great people (only a couple of feckless goobers in the lot).

But that doesn't mean the intellectual well has run dry. In fact I have been thinking a great deal about SL, particularly the ways that Native American culture and history are represented in-world.

I got to pondering this topic a few months ago, when Ernst Osterham sent me a screenshot of of a vendor in one of the various "old west" sims that was emblazoned with an image of a voluptuous "Indian" woman wearing a skimpy sort of deer hide bikini. At least I assume it was supposed to be deer hide. Anyway, it was furry and left little to the imagination. And of course, it looked nothing like any actual 19th century Plains Indian female clothing I had ever seen...and in fact, it looked pretty frakkin' preposterous. But hey, it's SL and one of the principles we all embrace here is our Linden-given right to make goddam fools of ourselves, right?

Not that long after that, I happened to go with September Blaisdale to visit an "historical" western sim that initially seemed all right. When checking out an Old West sim for the first time, I always start by going into the saloon--if there is (a.) a stage with stripper pole, (b.) modern line dance pose balls, and/or (c.) stools at the bar, I just go ahead and say "fuckit," and leave. Yeah, I know, it's SL and people can do whatever the smeg they want to...but I also have the right to my opinion that there is a minimum level of authenticity I ask for if I am going to spend any time in an Old West sim, and the presence of a stripper pole is always a good indication that I'm just going to get irritated. Then it's probably best if I simply accept that reality and move on.

Anyhow, like I say, this one didn't seem too bad--it was about your average pre-fab generic old westy environment, and actually there was a smattering of really cool bits that showed some promise. But then we got to the "Cherokee" village.

And of course there were tipis.

If I may, I would now like to direct your attention to the FAQ page of the website of "the Museum of the Cherokee Indian" which unequivocally states in its second paragraph that "The Cherokee never lived in tipis." This revelation is in the very first return you get when you google "Cherokees and tipis." In short, how fucking hard is it is check something like that? The answer is, "not very, unless you just utterly determined to be a bonehead about the subject matter."

Ok, so the tipis were bad enough, but then there was also stuff like a circle of "war dance" pose balls that allowed you to do some animated choreography that looked suspiciously like an Elves' circle dance I had seen long ago; plus there were these huge-ass drums that looked like the things that Bill "Bo Jangles" Robinson danced on in "Stormy Weather." Best of all, there were some kind of fucked-up looking totem pole thingies that had various bondage poses built into them so you could tie "captives" up and presumably dance around them in uncivilized glee.


Now mind you, as far as I know, I do not have any Native American heritage in my background. But holy Moses in his woolly bathrobe, I was pretty sure that if I was of Indian descent--particularly if I happened to be Cherokee--I would have been even more irritated than I actually was. Which, in point of fact, was pretty goddam irritated.

Consequently, I was not surprised when I came across this recent blog post by Barnabe Geisweiller regarding this very topic: Native Americans Object to Portrayal in Second Life

The author of the piece is evidently a graduate student in Journalism at Columbia, and is not specifically an SL blogger, so I thought it was interesting that he picked up on this. Among the people he spoke with for the post was the typist of Nany Kayo, an individual many people regard as a crank and a troll because of her strident (and at times vitriolic) objections to not just the inaccurate representations of Native American history and culture in SL, but to any portrayal of Indians by non-Indians. In fact, she argues that it is inappropriate for anyone who is not an officially enrolled member of a federally-recognized tribe to play in SL using a "Native American" avatar. Furthermore, she contends that the portrayal of Native Americans in sims like Tombstone is so offensive that it violates the LL TOS and those places should be shut down.

While I understand the whole thing about being pissed off over the egregiously inauthentic fantasy "Indian" stuff in SL, I think the lady goes a bit too far. I have friends who may not be card-carrying members of any federally recognized tribe, but they do some really intelligent, respectful and thoughtful representations of historical Native Americans in roleplay. For example, I have a couple of pards who have created roleplay characters that represent Crow and Arikara army scouts of the 1870s. In all honesty, I am not sure of their heritage--they may in fact actually be Indians--but more importantly, they are very careful about how they look (they based their appearance on actual historic photographs), and they are very careful both in how they speak and act. They demonstrate a familiarity with aspects of the history and culture of those people, and strike me as being very respectful in how they explore both Native American and US Army history.

And as for the idea of closing down sims...well shit...that just seems like a big ol' serving of "Worms, Canned, Size-large, 1 (one) each."

It makes more sense to me to provide authentic alternatives. If you want people to get hep to the real skinny on something, you need to go ahead and put it out there, right?

Well, as a matter of fact, Nany Kayo has done just that--she is associated with a group of "educational" sims called the "Virtual Native Lands." So I went there the other night, and you know what? By golly it's got some of the most authentic-looking representations of different traditional Native American living quarters you have ever seen in SL, plus they are situated in some reasonably well-done natural environments.

17th century Eastern Woodland dwellings in the Virtual Native Lands

It's also screamingly dull, with standard museum-style two-dimensional interpretive panels (the usual text, maps and pictures approach) that are supposed to help you understand the historical and cultural context of the three-dimensional builds.

The size of the panels however, is such that I couldn't read most of them even if I wanted to...which I really didn't. You have to keep in mind that I am a terrible museum-goer. I seldom read text panels and labels, and I never move in the direction that the exhibit designers intend for me to go in. But that's just me.

Very conventional--and hard to read--signage in the Virtual Native Lands sims.

The sims were empty except for one other person. Which wasn't surprising as they clearly suffered from the same issues that plague many "educational" and/or "virtual museum builds: they were sterile, lifeless, and lacking a clear interpretive purpose. So it's unlikely that the Virtual Native Lands will accomplish much in terms of counterbalancing the gawd-awful, idiotic fantasy "Indian " stuff you generally find in-world.

And I'll bet right now you're thinking, "holy porkbellies, Batman, ol' Dio sure is in negatory mode tonight! Doesn't she usually try to find something positive to write about to balance out her crankyrantyness?"

Goddam , Hon, I am glad you asked that question.

Because after all, I really do prefer to write about things that are good and positive, rather than writing about the not-so-good side of things. Matter o' fact, after my disappointing trip to Virtual Native Lands, I decided to go on a little quest and see what I could find in the way of Native American builds that were authentic and interesting.

And what I found was a sim called "Sallisaw, Indian Territory." at Maresias 117, 138, 23. Here is how it is described:

"Re-creation of Oklahoma in 1890. A quiet historical Cherokee town in the old west. No roleplay, just good international folks."

The sim was apparently the brainchild of Tsali Kamachi, who is also one of the owners. It consists of a little 1890s town and railroad station and some simple farmsteads. The build itself is nice. It's perhaps not as polished and refined as some of the other historical builds that are out there these days, but you know what? It has a charm and quiet dignity...and authenticity. It shows aspects of life in Oklahoma--the "Indian Territory"--as it really was at the very end of the 19th century. And not a tipi in sight.

A Cherokee family farmstead, circa 1890

Adjoining the Sallisaw build are some recreated structures that are associated with important stories from Cherokee history. And I had the pleasure of meeting their builder, Lee Lovenkraft, who happened to be present when I made my visit.

I thoroughly enjoyed talking with Lee, who was extremely proud of her work on these two recreations: the home of Chief John Ross--the principle leader of the Cherokee in the middle 19th century; and the cabin of Sequoyah, the brilliant creator of the Cherokee alphabet.

Inside the home of Chief John Ross--that is a portrait of the Chief over the fireplace.

Again, while Miss Lovenkaft's work may lack a bit of the refinement that is demonstrated by some other historical builders, her creations are very faithful in their representation of the actual historical structures (which in the case of Chief Ross's home was based on the evidence provided by a single photograph of the facade, as the actual real life building was burned down during the Civil War by Cherokee confederate cavalry).

The home of Chief John Ross

I really like Miss Lovenkraft's work. She obviously deeply cared about the stories that are connected with these structures. I don't think I am projecting when I say that I believe they have a certain feel to them that is extremely appealing.

Sequoyah's cabin

I particularly loved Sequoyah's cabin (the home he built in the 1820s in what would later become Oklahoma). Miss Lovenkraft had also made furnishings for the cabin, based upon the items that can be seen in the actual cabin today, which still stands, not far from the real life town of Sallisaw.

Builder Lee Lovenkraft demonstrates the animated spinning wheel she made for Sequoyah's cabin.

Due to prim limits, these were not in the cabin when I saw it. But Lee rezzed them specially for me to see them and I was very impressed to note that on the table lay a copy of Sequoyah's alphabet.

Sequoyah was one of my heroes when I was a kid, even though I have no connection to the Cherokee. It's just a great story, and he was simply a cool and inspiring dude. I am thrilled that there is something representing his story in SL. And that's the bottom line here: there is Native American-related material in SL that is authentic, respectful and pretty well thought out. Yeah it's not always as well presented as it could be, but there is some good, fun stuff out there. It's not all furry bikinis, badly-made tipis and Gorean "Red Savages."

I would be curious to know if any of you all have any examples of Native American builds that work well, or of people who portray Indian characters in ways that are respectful and well thought-out.