There are always challenges and there are shortcomings. Sometimes you just want to bang your head against the wall. But then you realise it’s really a world without limitations, and puts no restrictions on your imagination … Before Second Life, how could you have done what you can do now?
These words, spoken by Dante Spectre in episode 11 of The Drax Files sum-up the technical dichotomy that is Second Life. On the one hand, it is a platform that offers people the freedom to create anything they want, participate in almost any activity be it social, educational, creative, game-oriented, health-related, research-focused and so on; and to be almost anyone or anything, enjoying a freedom of expression which may not so easily be found in real life. Then on the other, it can be a real PITA when things go wrong or new capabilities hiccup as they are introduced, and so on.
Very often, for those of us involved in SL, it’s all too easy to focus on the latter, the challenges and shortcomings, than it is to remain focused on the former. Which is why this episode of The Drax Files serves as a useful reminder that – as Dante says, if not for SL, how could we do what we do in-world?
In exploring the world of Dwarfins, created by Dante and his wife (and project manager!) Judy Chestnut, together with their “adopted daughter”, Jaimy Hancroft, this episode reminds us of the incredible power Second Life puts at our fingertips, whether in the ability to create something as technically advanced as the Dwarfins themselves, or to create fantasy environments we can enjoy with friends and others, which can be populated by NPCs like the Dwarfins.
This is also a piece that reaches out to those beyond the walls of the Second Life garden and really tries to frame the reasons why many of us involved in SL are so involved. Where other segments have been framed more around the human aspects of people’s lives and their time with SL, this show unashamedly dives into more of the inner workings of the platform, more directly picking-up the threads laid in earlier shows and weaving them together to create a picture of how Second Life is a user-created world and how it allows people to be creative and, if they so wish, enjoy something of a financial return on their work.
In many ways the Dwarfins team are an ideal showcase for this; as they demonstrate the fact that virtual environments allow people to develop a shared interest which helps to creatively enrich their real lives, and which forms bounds of friendship, family and even entrepreneurial endeavour around the globe.
“In real life I would never have met Jaimy, or anyone like Jaimy,” Judy tells us. “First of all she’s in Belgium; she’s about twenty years younger than me, almost. I very much feel a mother / daughter relationship with her … except she doesn’t really listen to me, either. So it really is a mother / daughter relationship!”
In expressing this, Judy opens the door on the ability of virtual worlds to provide whole avenues of very human interaction between people, regardless of age, background, geographical location and to develop genuine friendships and relationships with one others which simply would not otherwise happen. This is again something so often missed by those outside of Second Life; indeed it’s fair to see it’s an element of the platform almost completely overlooked when promoting Second Life – not that it is particularly easy to portray.
Similarly, Judy and Dante have enriched their own relationship through this joint endeavour of creativity and invention, just as another couple may well share and enjoy an evening of putting up photos on Facebook or whatever.
In episode 11, Drax once again provides a fascinating insight into how people relate to Second Life and what it is such a captivating and immersive world. More than this, however, is that he also shines more of a light on why people become involved in SL and how it can present opportunities and freedoms unmatched by other digital mediums. And he does so in a way that encourages a greater curiosity about the platform which might just lead some to take another look.
A Conversation with Drax 6: Overcoming Preconceptions
The Drax Files have taken Second Life by storm. Each segment is a rich piece of video journalism reaching into the heart of the platform, its appeal and its potential; so much so that they invite discussion and feedback. And who better to do that with than the man behind the series: Draxtor Despres.
Inara Pey (IP): There’s a very subtle shift in emphasis with this segment of The Drax Files. As I’ve mentioned in the review, Judy and Dante delve a little deeper into the “business” aspects of being involved in SL. Was this part of the development of the series, or was it in part born out of any concern that because each segment can only cover so much in five minutes, the series runs the risk of becoming formulaic?
Draxtor Despres (DD): The fear of being formulaic has been with me for a very long time. In radio I had to do a weekly show and sometimes a daily interview show, and I was always concerned and would scrutinise myself so as not to fall prey to the formula while keeping a format which allowed the recurrence of certain things. But with The Drax Files, I am in no way, shape or form concerned that it is going to be formulaic, because the activities in SL are so incredibly diverse, I haven’t even scratched the surface.
DD: If I were to criticise myself right now, it would be that there is a lack of quote / unquote “serious aspects” of engagement which would have to do with health related matters, with self-help centres if you will, or support groups or stuff like that. I haven’t really touched on that in-depth, so there is a whole slew of stuff that is out there. Yeah, the visual aspects and some of the visual tools will be similar, and people will sit in front of a computer and they will interact with whatever is on the other side of the of the machine. But the stories – and this is my goal – are going to be very personal and very diverse. There will be recurring statements, such as “SL is a place for creative people”, and that kind-of stuff, and I’m already paying attention so as not to put in too much of that kind of thing.
IP: The risk of the oft-repeated becoming clichéd.
DD: Yes, even when they are uttered sincerely. So I guess there is a danger there. But in the types of engagement and the diversity of what people do with this platform; it’s as diverse as real life. I could do a show on any city or town that could run for decades, because the citizens of a town are likely to be engaged in extremely diverse activities that can be profiled, with every story personal.
IP: It is the personal element which is perhaps the most compelling here, and not just for those of us already engaged in SL and who perhaps make-up the “first pass” audience of the show. Which again is a perfectly natural thing; we’re all a part of the human condition, so it’s only natural we should all respond to it.
DD: Yes, and for the future, I feel I need to get even deeper into personal stories that are different to the ones we’ve seen; so in the little time I have, the five minutes, the balance does need to be shifted towards the personal story. Not versus the activity, per se, but what sets it apart from the other stories, rather than repeating what’s in the other stories. It lies in the nature of my goal as well as what people say naturally, without me prompting them, because it seems what is foremost on their minds is the stereotype we are faced with. so sometimes, the subject I’m interviewing is responding in a defensive way, but also sometimes just pushing back, which I really love.
IP: By stereotype, you mean the way in which those outside of SL tend to look upon SL users as if we all need to go get a life, I take it?
DD: Yes, like the story you told me about your friend who came over unannounced…
IP: Which I should perhaps repeat here with as much brevity as possible to give context for our readers.
IP: While I rarely discuss SL with friends, recently I did end-up talking about it with a good friend (and Facebook user), and she didn’t get it, at all. To her the social / interactive elements and the creative potential didn’t register, period. To her it was all cartoon escapism, and she expressed surprise at my interest in it because I – to quote her – “have a life”. Even after further discussion, and comparing my involvement in SL with her involvement in Facebook, she still couldn’t get beyond SL perhaps being – and I quote – “for people with disabilities or poor social skills”.
DD: I feel I have that kind of conversation ten times a day, and it is just mind-boggling and annoying, and sometimes I want to hit my head against a wall or slap the other person or chain them to a computer until they understand.
DD: There is a socially acceptable engagement with technology that we have today – the Facebook type interaction with the computer. Just like you were saying with your friend, “But it’s real, I’m chatting with my daughter overseas, blah, blah, blah…” So it’s “real”. So it’s two things.
DD: Number one: The misunderstanding about avatars; not understanding that they are the proxies, the digital extensions of ourselves. So that’s not communicated well by Linden Lab or the rest of us.
DD: This actually leads me back to why I’m not afraid of being formulaic. Because this point needs to be told from different angles, how this is an extension of our physical selves. So I have tonnes of material until people get the message! (laughs).
DD: So number one is that people don’t understand that avatars are an extension of real people. But what is more specific about the lack of understanding about SL is that it is somehow not socially acceptable. And the weird thing is, people who are constantly on Facebook look down on SL folks as being weird because SL is “not real” and what they do is “real”.
IP: And yet SL perhaps offers a far broader canvas upon which to establish friendships and relationships with people from around the globe through the rich diversity of opportunities it presents to users. How many people, for example, spend time and effort on FB, but only reach out through it to family and the friends they already have?
DD: But here’s the other thing. Gamers who play call of duty for hours a day and through the weekend; they also look at Second Life folks as being weird.
DD: So how do we get past this? I’m confident that the 5-minutes format I can move to the deeper subjects. I just have to lay the ground work first. Then I can go to these deeper issues with the social scientists I have lined-up. Some are not active in SL any more, but they have done their groundwork. So I’ll do some episodes which are more from this angle, probing what is really at the core of what this social stigma is from both sides, if you will. So I will get to that.
IP: One of the most curious aspects of the stigma which surrounds SL is that many of those who point the finger and critique any involvement in SL – and indeed, platforms like it, is that they actually see themselves as forward-thinking, open-minded and understanding.
DD: This is exactly what happens to me all the time. People wear those three terms as a badge of pride, but then dismiss Second Life as being fine for “people who can’t walk.”
IP: Which is a doubly blinkered point of view when you consider the huge amount of power and good virtual environments place into the lives of those who are in any way disabled or have suffered through illness.
DD: It is unbelievable how these self-proclaimed forward-thinking, open-minded, understanding people can, in a single sentence, exhibit such a narrow-minded, hypocritical view, and really discriminate against a huge cross-section of society. It’s mind-boggling. What gives them the right to do that?
IP: Let’s touch upon something else here. It’s fair to say that SL represents a very broad cross-section of society. In the last three segments alone you’ve covered Elie Spot, who is in her 20s, Robin Sojourner, who is what the UK media call a “silver surfer”, and now sitting between the two, Judy and Dante. Yet looking at the way the Lab has been promoting Second Life through their videos, the abortive push towards Steam, the arrival on Desura – and as welcome as it is to see LL trying to being new blood to SL through these avenues – it does seem as if the Lab is solely focused on one age group demographic.
DD: It is an incredibly broad spread. It’s fascinating. This is a couple in their mid-to-late forties who live in Honolulu, they’re self-taught, although Dante has a programming background. What’s more, they collaborate with Jaimy, who is half Judy’s age and in Belgium, who does the artwork.
DD: So it’s not just an age thing; this is also an international micro-corporation. It’s globalisation for us small folks, where we can form a collaborative relationship which is completely divorced from geographical location, and use all of these tools provided by the platform, and I find that really amazing.
DD: But I don’t know what Linden Lab is thinking. I hope that Rod Humble and others in the organisation do understand – as Dante says in this piece – that SL is not for people with short attention spans. We don’t know what LL is after. The advertising and promotion leads us to think they are after the 20-somethings, given the website and everything and the Facebook Pic of the Day and that kind of stuff. But they have data, and they’re profit-driven, so if the data suggests that’s what they have…
IP: On a broader level, and by this I mean not just SL, so much is more readily pushed towards younger generations that there is something of a risk of people becoming somewhat disenfranchised with technology and its role within daily lives, the likes of Facebook, Second Life and so on notwithstanding.
DD: Again, I feel this is where we can do a public service with this series; to address people who are marginalised and disenfranchised and who are potential stakeholders in worlds like SL. And this is very much a goal with this series.
DD: It’s another reason why in this segment I really wanted to push the fact that SL is almost entirely user-created. I wanted to lay-out in detail what is going on: that everything is user-created, nothing is done by the company, that you can monetise your content with Linden Dollars. These are important aspects for this particular episode. User-created: touching all aspects of what Second Life is offering; scripting, animating, artwork and so on. So if you were to share this episode with a real-life friend of any age, you could share it under this aspect and capture their interest. You can design and create things like NPCs and you can script them and animate them and sell them and monetise them.
DD: Getting the message out is a tough nut to crack in one go, but over time, I’m convinced I can crack that nut.
IP: And on the strength of what has been produced to date in this series, I doubt few would disagree with you! And that’s probably a good point at which to leave things for this time. There are still many more episodes of The Drax Files to come, and I’ve little doubt we’ll be returning to these themes as well as discussing much else in the future!