A Paradise Happier Far: “Paradise Lost in Second Life” (Review)

Last Saturday, I was privileged to be invited to attend a preview performance of the Basilique Performing Arts Company‘s new dramatic adaptation of John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost in Second Life.

As what follows may seem tl;dr to some, I’ll begin by cutting to the chase, and providing up-front the essential and obligatory information expected of a reviewer of these sorts of things.

You should attend this event. The brainchild of Canary Beck and Harvey Crabsticks, and featuring a cast of, if not thousands, at least dozens, it is unquestionably the most interesting, engaging, and impressive performances I’ve ever attended in Second Life. It treats a fascinating text respectfully and intelligently, but more importantly, it seeks to push the envelope for live performances in virtual worlds through its experimental play with multimedia, 3D performance space, and audience engagement. It is the product of what must have been many hundreds of hours of planning, scripting, creation, and rehearsal, and the care that was taken to produce a really superb sensory experience clearly shows.

This is not, it needs to be noted, a poetry recital. It is a kinetic, dramatic adaptation of one of the most important poems in the English language, and a largely successful attempt to remediate the grandeur, power, and complexity of an epic poem into real-time virtual experience. Employing music (Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D minor), dance, visual imagery, and some spoken word, it achieves a kind of synthesis of these elements together in a show that is not merely entertaining, but also thought-provoking.

In other words, you need to go to this.

And now, the details.


Very unhappy brickmakers in Egypt.

Visually, the production was stunning. The avatars are all beautifully rendered, and the animations are  high quality. The most impressive visual elements, however, are undoubtedly the sets. What is more, the production uses theatrical space very cleverly: scenes to the left of the main stage area are employed to depict Eden, to the right, Hell, and in the centre, the postlapsarian world to which Adam and Eve are exiled, and which serves as the site of the condensed Biblical history to which we are treated through most of the last movement of the production. This imaginative use of the performance space foregrounds the very different nature of these places; the appearance of our fallen world in the middle is a nice visual representation of our own existence as lying between the divine realms, and those of the damned.

The Ascension

The Ascension of Christ. Events from the sublunary, postlapsarian world are depicted on the centre stage, midway between Paradise and Hell

Allowing the dramatic action to overflow the stage in this manner does much to draw us deeper into the action, a representation in theatrical space of the very themes being enacted in the play. After all, this is our story. Breaking the “fourth wall” that notionally separates us from the stage draws us into the action in a way that is ultimately thought-provoking and, on occasion, even a little threatening. (I will freely confess that I felt mildly nervous when, at one point, “Satan” drew very near to my dancing avatar!)

The audience transformed into devils

The audience, transformed into dancing devils.

That point is emphasized even more pointedly through a particularly clever trick employed in this production. All audience members are provided with “angel” avatars to wear during the production. At various points through the play, guests are animated into dances that accompany the action of the play. Even more significantly, their avatars are transformed into devils on occasion, a tactic that underlines our own complicity in the moral tale that is unfolding before us.

The drawing of the audience into the ethical action of the story has its counterpart, perhaps, in Milton’s poem; some decades ago, a very influential (and controversial) reading of the epic by literary critic Stanley Fish argued that Milton’s Satan was such an apparently attractive figure precisely because Milton wanted readers to “fall” for him, only to discover, as the poem unfolded, that they had too had been “seduced” and fooled by his rhetoric. The dramatic verson of the poem in this way follows its original source closely, not merely by replicating its narrative structure, but also by employing something like its rhetorical strategy.


Satan Enthroned

In other ways, however, Paradise Lost in Second Life is not afraid to stray from its source texts. The most substantial revision to the original sources (both Milton and Genesis) is in the depiction of Lucifer / Satan as a female. For the duration of much of the performance, this is a relatively unimportant detail: Satan, in the form that she assumes in Hell, is represented as buff no-necked demon in red, and there is little or no indication of gender in the avatar itself. It is when Satan gets to work “seducing” Eve in the Garden that the re-gendering begins to seem particularly significant.

Satan in the Garden assumes the shape of a lithe, very sexy, and very naked woman. The effect, of course, is to foreground the sexual subtext of the notion of the “seduction.” That subtext has always been present, even in Genesis, but it is somewhat underplayed by Milton. The fall of Milton’s Eve is very much a rhetorical seduction rather than a sexual one, a play of language, false rhetoric, and false logic that, arguably, mitigates Eve’s transgression a little. Eve, in Milton’s poem, is simply not equipped intellectually to deal with Satan; in the long run, then, it is Adam who is ultimately to blame, for not “protecting” Eve when he agreed to work apart from her.

The Seduction of Eve

Eve takes a turn around the garden with Satan. Everyone Falls for a great dancer.

Sexualizing the seduction – and it needs to be said that this sexualization in the production is relatively subtle — tends to place the blame more squarely on Eve’s shoulders (or other body parts). What is more, the fact that she is being seduced by another woman underlines the idea that sexuality is not merely the Achilles’ heel of the female of the species, but pretty much integral to her identity as a woman. Adam, it is true, has sex with Eve earlier in the play (and seems, from what I could see, to be enjoying it), but for none of the males in this story is sexuality depicted as this essential to the core of their nature.

Arguably, too, the re-imagining of Satan as a woman introduces a new gendered ethical binary into the understanding of the Fall. After all, Eve receives special “punishment” for her transgression: not only does she suffer exile from Paradise with Adam, but she will additionally experience the pangs of childbirth, a reminder of her “special” role in the Fall. The appearance of her seducer as a female as well suggests a pretty clear dichotomy: “male” (i.e., God, the Son, the Archangel Michael) represents lawful Power; “female” (i.e., Satan and Eve), by way of contrast, seems to signify transgressive and ethically challenged losers.

Adam and Eve after the Fall

Adam and Eve ashamed.

It would be misleading, perhaps, too make too much of the impact of this change. There is no reason to believe that a deliberately misogynist re-reading of the story was intended. Indeed, if anything, Satan’s formulation as a female may make her seem somewhat more sympathatic (a shift that is, in some ways, in line with Romantic readings that argued that Satan was the “real” hero of the poem). And it’s also true that sexuality is not treated in a heavy-handed or obtrusive fashion in this production. But you can’t make as big a change to the mythos as this production has without their being some potentially very important implications for its meaning. (Of course, Milton’s own text is misogynist enough in its own, somewhat different, way, in any case!)

There are number of other changes to Milton’s source text in this production, but perhaps the other one most worth noting is to the conclusion of the story. In Milton’s epic, the poem ends, after Adam has had revealed to him the future fate of humankind (rather nicely done, as noted, in an abbreviated form in this production), with Adam and Eve walking together out of Paradise:

The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way.

The expulsion of Adam and Eve.

Adam and Eve are cast out of Paradise by the Son. This is actually the conclusion of Milton’s poem.

There are a number of things happening in this passage, but perhaps the most important is the element of choice. Adam and Eve are free to “chooose / Thir place of rest,” a vitally important element of a poem that is, really, very much about the existence, nature, and validity of Free Will in a universe ruled by an omnipotent deity. It is through the “proper” deployment of choice, Adam is told, that he and his mate will ultimately achieve, even in their newly fallen state, “A Paradise within thee, happier farr.” 

Free Will, as a theme, gets somewhat short shrift in this production, but that’s possibly an inevitable side effect of a form that is mostly non-verbal. “Showing” choice is difficult. At the same time, however, the particular way in which this production ends arguably actually highlights the themes of Predestination and Fate: Adam and Eve are in old age, their two sons (Cain and Abel) in arms, as they walk together into the sun. Our First Parents, so depicted, are already “us”: the production ends with their essential choices already made, and the focus is upon, not the possibility of free will, the opportunity to “choose a place of rest,” but rather the inevitability of death. Hither are we all speeding ourselves: the emphasis upon determinism here, and upon the degree to which we ourselves are products of Adam and Eve’s choices, does shift the thematic emphasis in fairly important ways.

Adam and Eve Dance

Adam and Eve in happier times. The appearance of the snake in the foreground is subtle foreshadowing

None of what I’ve said above should be taken as a “criticism” of the production’s adaptation of Milton’s poem; Paradise Lost in Second Life is, indeed, an adaptation, rather than a simple or uncomplicated “staging” of the original. As such, changes in both narrative and theme to the source material are not merely inevitable: they are probably also absolutely necessary, and even desireable. Ultimately, these changes enrich the production, making it more interesting and suggestive, particularly when read in the context of the epic poem from which it is derived.

Paradise Lost in Second Life opens for the general public on 5 April, and will be playing most Saturdays and Sundays until 21 June (all showtimes are at 1300hrs SLT). Tickets can be purchased through the SL Marketplace site. Half of all proceeds from ticket sales will be going to the World Wildlife Foundation. Some performances are already sold out, so don’t wait too long!

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Striving with Paradise: A Look Ahead to “Paradise Lost in Second Life”

Poster for Paradise Lose in Second Life

Poster for Paradise Lost in Second Life, premiering 5 April, 2014.

 While it is undoubtedly true that there have been other poets in the language who are more revered or who have a higher profile in popular culture – Shakespeare, of course, is the obvious example – it is likely also true that there is no one single work of literature that is more “important” or has been more influential than John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost.


Satan, from an engraving in a 17th-century edition of Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost has permeated our culture in ways that are not always evident. Indeed, the very title of the poem has entered the language, to be articulated by people who may not even be aware that there is a poem of that name. In other ways, too, it has influenced art and literature, and even our thinking about the nature of sin, God, and redemption. Milton’s Satan, in particular, had an enormous impact on our own storytelling: this figure of “heroic evil,” the “rebel against God,” the ultimate “fallen angel” lies behind our modern conception of the “anti-hero.” Without Milton’s magnificent Satan, there could have been no Sauron, no Voldemort, and no The Golden Compass, to name but a few more obvious influences.

In addition to being influential, Paradise Lost has been adapted directly countless times, beginning as early as 1674 (the same year as the publication of the final version of the epic) in an operatic version entitled The State of Innocence penned by John Dryden. Sadly, the technical capacities of the Restoration stage were inadequate for a depiction of Heaven, Hell, Eden, and indeed the entire cosmos, and the opera was never peformed.

Now, however, that the digital turn, and technological platforms like Second Life have enabled us to create hitherto unimaginable visual environments and actions, we may at last be in a position to succeed where Dryden failed.

On 5 April, the Basilique Performing Arts Company will be premiering its own very ambitious adaptation of Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost in Second Life. Like Dryden’s adaptation, this will be a quasi-operatic production, set to the music of Mozart’s Requiem. Like Milton’s original poem, it will be staged upon a canvass of epic proportions. It is a ticketed event (tickets are available here on the SL Marketplace, or at the door at a slightly higher cost), and it is limited to 12 performances of 40 audience members each.

I will have a great deal more to say about this production, and the poem upon which it is based, in future posts. For now, however, I want to lay some groundwork with a brief and (I hope) useful introduction to Milton’s poem.

John Milton

John Milton

Paradise Lost was first published in 1667, and then again in an expanded version in 12 Books in 1674. It is, in many ways, a very personal and at the same time political poem: Milton had been a strong supporter of the theocratic Commonwealth that had displaced the English monarchy in 1649 after the Civil War; he served as Latin Secretary to the “Rule of the Saints” and seems to have genuinely believed, or hoped, that England could be transformed into a truly Godly kingdom.

The collapse of the Commonwealth regime in 1660 and the restoration of the most “ungodly” Stuart monarchy disappointed him, and guided his completion of a poem that sought to “justify the ways of God to man.” Why would God allow the Godly to be defeated? To some degree, Paradise Lost is an extended essay on this theme, and upon the workings of an unknowable but ultimately benevolent Providence.

Why do bad things happen in a world ruled over by a benevolent God? This is a big subject. But then, Paradise Lost is a Big Poem, in every sense. It is not merely long (12 “books” and over 10,000 pentameter lines in its final 1674 version), but its subject encompasses the entirety of creation and human history. As for the stature of its main characters – well, they don’t come any bigger than God and the Son. Paradise Lost is an encyclopedic attempt to address the really big questions about humanity and our relationship to the cosmos.

Paul Gustave Doré, Paradise Lost

1866 engraving by Paul Gustave Doré of Satan addressing the fallen angels

For this reason, and others, the poem is not a light read. In addition to its length, Paradise Lost features a sometimes torturous syntax (mostly resulting from an attempt to imitate the distinctive syntactic structures of Latin epic verse), a difficult vocabulary, and an enormously erudite battery of allusions to ancient and modern literature, science, history, philosophy, and theology.

And yet, as imposing as it is, Paradise Lost has become one of the central canonical texts of the Western literary tradition. Why? Well . . . its themes (Why does evil so often seem to prevail?) are eternal in their relevance, its narrative is built around a biblical tale that has a central place in our cultural consciousness, and it is, finally, quite simply a magnificent poem. Take for instance this central (and oft-quoted) excerpt highlighting Satan’s defiance, flung at a God who has just defeated him and cast him down into Hell:

                                            Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.
(Paradise Lost Book 1, ll. 250-63)

How will this kind of larger-than-life epic language translate in the Second Life production? We’ll see. At the least, we can agree with Milton’s Satan, perhaps, that it is better to perish in the attempt to than to fear to strive at all.

[Disclaimer: I have been selected as an “official” blogger for Paradise Lost in Second Life. I am delighted to be able to assist, in my own small way, with getting the word out about such a worthwhile undertaking. But while my acceptance of this “official” status does constitute a commitment to writing a certain number of blog posts about the production, it will not otherwise influence my discussion of this event.]

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Whose Voice? Whose Issue? The Problems with SL Activism and One Billion Rising

Like many hundreds of other people, I made my way yesterday to the Second Life event observing One Billion Rising. The theme of OBR – an end to global misogyny and sexual violence – is one that has always been vitally important to me, and I very much looked forward to seeing how the artists and activists involved in this year’s event would approach these issues.

One Billion Rising in SL

The layout and organization of One Billion Rising in Second Life were nothing if not impressive.

I was not disappointed: overall, this was an enormously impressive, and very deeply affecting, tribute to the need to find solutions for what remains one of the most important instances of social injustice in the world. One Billion Rising in SL was evidently very well planned and organized, and I applaud without reservation all of those involved in putting it together. The sims were beautifully laid-out and easy to navigate. The musicians seemed to be doing a good job of doing what they were supposed to do, entertaining, and the art that I saw was interesting, thought-provoking, and sometimes more than a little heart-wrenching. The event was extremely well-publicized, and must certainly have succeeded in raising the profile of global violence against women.

And yet . . .

My visit to One Billion Rising in SL underlined, for me, some of the more problematic issues that adhere to the identity politics of the event. OBR in “real life” has attracted more than its share of controversy even within the larger “progressive” and feminist community. It is not that anyone really questions the laudable goal of the event: we all want to see violence against women end, and I think we are all in agreement that raising the profile of this issue is an important part of an eventual solution. OBR has certainly achieved such a profile in RL, and the success of the event in SL parallels that.

Katz Jupiter's "A Woman's Safe Space"

Detail from Katz Jupiter’s large and interesting installation, “A Woman’s Safe Space.”

The controversy that has swirled around One Billion Rising has, however, little to do with its aims or its success in achieving them, and a great deal more to do with process, and with the issues of identity, voice, and appropriation. OBR was created in 2012 by the high-profile writer and feminist activist Eve Ensler. Ensler is best known for her The Vagina Monologues; she is unquestionably an extremely dynamic, intelligent, and passionate player within the larger feminist community.

Eve Ensler

Eve Ensler

As much as I admire all that Ensler has achieved on behalf of the movement, however, I will confess to a degree of unease about the flavour of her particular brand of activism. Ensler takes a kind of entrepreneurial approach to feminism and activism. It is almost as though she seizes control of particular issues, markets them, and then franchises them out to others. The enormous success of The Vagina Monologues is an instance of this, but so too is One Billion Rising. The problem is that in so doing Ensler, who despite being a survivor of gender violence herself is a white woman of privilege, too often seems to be appropriating or usurping the voices of those who are “authentic” witnesses to the injustices for which she positions herself as chief spokesperson. In essence, “speaking on behalf” of women of colour and women in developing nations too often sounds like “speaking for,” or even “speaking instead of” those who are living the violence and injustice she is combatting. Speaking on behalf of someone who already has a voice, and has articulated a perspective, is really another form of silencing.

Tyrehl Byk's Installation

Tyrehl Byk’s installation featured quotes from Muslim texts sanctioning the oppression of women. How problematic is this kind of representation of an entire culture?

So this is an issue, in many ways, of representation. Who “represents” those women suffering around the world from discrimination and violence? The enormously high-profile and successful woman who has created an “event” that has stolen headlines and mobilized millions? Or the women who are themselves actually living out that discrimination, and who have already found voices of their own to protest against it?

Nor is it merely a matter of “ownership” of the issue. Ensler is admittedly very good at articulating the issues and the urgency of the problems, but how well positioned is she to give them appropriate expression? Natalie Gyte, writing last year in The Guardian, asked some difficult questions about the form that OBR was actually taking:

In asking women to dance in order to overcome violence and rape, focus is displaced and root causes are overlooked, it completely diverts the world’s attention away from the real issue of gender based violence and rape with a pleasing-to-the-eye coordinated dance. It’s like saying to survivors ‘Ok, you’ve been raped, but you can overcome it if you come together and dance for 20 minutes on Valentine’s Day… Eve Ensler says so…’. It’s patronising and it denies not only the causes of violence, but also the devastating and long lasting effects.

Referencing Gyte’s piece, the author of the blog Prison Culture similarly notes that

It’s instructive that Ensler chose to be inspired by Congolese women’s dancing rather than their years of painstaking and dangerous community and political organizing against violence and for economic justice. Congolese women have been annexed to Ensler’s One Billion Rising campaign. One has to ask, how this happens? How does one become subsumed under the One Billion Rising campaign umbrella? If one Congolese woman dances, must all Congolese women dance too? Unsurprisingly not all women in the Congo are on board with Ensler’s campaign.

Dancing and Music at OBR in SL

Dancing away oppression at One Billion Rising in Second Life. Everyone was clearly having a very good time.

Visiting the OBR event in SL yesterday forcibly brought some of the issues raised by critiques like this to mind. The issues of representation and appropriation are, of course, even more complicated when we are addressing virtual worlds, where “authenticity,” in the sense of a simple essentialist correspondence between identity on the one hand, and real life biology and geography on the other, goes out the window. Who, in Second Life, is actually speaking for women globally? Whose voice was included? Who decides how we represent misogyny in, say, the Muslim world, or in India? Who is “we”?

A bit of disclosure at this point is necessary: some years ago I was very involved in SL feminist activism myself, and helped organize similar, but somewhat smaller, events. I know from personal experience how difficult these things are to put together, and, in particular, how ethical and ideological questions continually intrude in the process. I remember mentally facepalming on a number of occasions, for instance, when musicians we’d asked to perform for our events played songs that were wildly inappropriate in the context of the event. And I know how difficult discussions about these issues can be: there is in fact no rule book for dealing with issues as complex and potentially controversial as women’s rights, anti-violence, and cross-cultural activism.

So I am entirely sympathetic with the kinds of issues and problems that must have faced the organizers of One Billion Rising in SL, because I’ve faced them myself. And, in fact, my increasing discomfort with my own “answers” to these problems has much to do with why I have, to a very great degree, withdrawn from SL activism.

Installation by Betty Tureaud

For me, the most affecting and starkly dramatic installation was this one by Betty Tureaud, depicting a bruised and battered woman assuming classic “model” poses before an anonymous, featureless crowd.

It’s not that I don’t think that there are reasonable responses to some of these questions. For instance, I’m not really big on the idea of privileged white “guilt.” I feel guilty enough about things for which I have been personally responsible without feeling the need to shoulder the burden and blame for my entire culture. I am more than willing to acknowledge that the advantages I enjoy in life have been built upon the oppression, hardship, and exploitation of millions of others, and I want very much to help amend the continued social injustices that underwrite my existence, but I don’t feel “guilty” for having been born into privilege. This wasn’t a “choice” I was given. On the other hand, what I do now with my life is.

I also don’t believe that not being able to claim an authenticity of experience – i.e., I’m not a person of colour, I am not poor or living in a developing nation, I’ve never been sexually assaulted – is justification or reason for inaction. Social Justice and Feminism are not “perspectives,” nor are they identity-contingent: to believe in the equality of all gender and sexual identities, and to want to fight for a more economically and socially just world represent belief systems and values, and can (and indeed, should) be held by anyone, regardless of their own life experiences and identity. For that same reason, I see myself as somewhat more than an “ally” of those who do labour under these disadvantages and privations: I don’t check my critical faculties at the door because I myself have not had to live with violence and oppression.

Installation by Carmsie Melodie

An interesting and evocative installation by Carmsie Melodie

The question, then, is how to reconcile the fact that I am not speaking as a personal witness to these injustices, with my firm belief that I have worthwhile things to say about them, and am well-positioned, precisely because of my privileged position, to do something about them?

And alongside that question – indeed, contingent upon it – is the question of how I and others speak about the experience of others. Is a 24-hour music and dance marathon really an appropriate way to express our opposition to global injustice? Is Second Life itself, a virtual place where identity is endlessly slippery and “authenticity” by definition shadowy, an appropriate place to represent the real life horrors of women and children? Many of us will remember some of the controversy surrounding the creation in 2006 of a “virtual Darfur,” a well-intentioned but deeply flawed attempt to raise consciousness about another global tragedy. Does trying to capture the very tangible and real tragedies of the physical world within a virtual environment not ultimately trivialize them?

An Installation by Ktystali Robeni

Krystali Robeni’s installation highlighted the importance of women’s voices and self-representation.

I ask these questions not because I feel I have definitive answers for them, but because I think they need to be asked, and because I have not heard them asked of One Billion Rising in Second Life.

I know next to nothing about how this event was planned, what discussions were involved, or how decisions were made. I am delighted to note that among the nonprofits apparently involved in the venture are organizations like The Afghan Women’s Mission and Women Living under Muslim Laws. This says volumes about the conscientiousness of the organizers of the event, and it does much to reassure me that the authentic voices of women from a truly global range of experience were heard, and heeded.

So, again, I congratulate the organizers of One Billion Rising in SL on a wonderfully organized and worthwhile event. And I would argue that if even a few people were educated about global misogyny and violence against women, the event was worthwhile.

But, if we are to continue using Second Life as a means of opening a window into the real life experiences of the disenfranchised, I would also suggest that we need to start talking, openly, and as a community, about the nature of representation and activism in Second Life. And we need to make sure that the voices of those we represent are not merely heeded, but articulated loudly and publicly.

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The Singularity of Bryn Oh

[On Saturday, I was fortunate to be granted the opportunity, along with other bloggers in the Immersiva group, to attend a preview of Bryn Oh’s newest installation, The Singularity of Kumiko. The new exhibit opens to the public on 14 February, 2014. The SLURL can be found at the end of this post.]

An Accident

The Singularity of Kumiko begins with intimations of a tragedy. The victim is absent from the scene: “finding” her lies at the heart of this work

Bryn Oh, who is arguably Second Life’s best known and most admired artist, is notable for her employment of a dark and occasional grotesque visual style punctuated by moments of fleeting beauty.

Arguably, however, what she most excels at is storytelling. At their best, her stories are mythopoeic: they function as compelling moral fables built upon a sometimes surprisingly comprehensive vision of an alternate reality that mirrors and comments upon our own, and that underwrites what, on the surface, seem to be a simple narrative. Skimming across the surface of “story” in one of Oh’s installations is never sufficient: the visual and textual images force us to drill down deeper, reconstructing in the process the “backstory” that informs her narrative and themes.

The Singularity of Kumiko presents us with a story in this mode, a seemingly simple narrative that we construct through a series of “stations” that provide access to a correspondence between the tale’s protagonist, a young girl named Kumiko, and her shadowy and increasingly alarming correspondent Iktomi (the latter name alluding, perhaps, to the Lakota trickster spirit).

On the surface, this is a simple story of a lost soul and a friend who is trying to help her find her way back, but as we venture further into the narrative we are also compelled to burrow downward, a process that reveals that we are not where we think we are, and our protagonists not all that they seem. Gradually, we construct a vision of a dystopian future that exists both in a future elsewhere, and in the here and now.

The narrative skeleton upon which hangs these large themes and meanings unfolds, as narratives mostly frequently do, in a linear and time-bound fashion: the correspondence between Kumiko and Iktomi is numbered by the day of its receipt, from “Day 1” to “Day 14.” The to-and-fro exchange of letters seems to insist upon a linear reading, but the layout of the installation is open, and the individual pieces of correspondence that construct the story can be encountered, and read, in almost any order.

Interior in The Singularity of Kumiko

Small and scattered areas of light throughout the installation guide the visitor, but also emphasize the suffocating darkness around.

More than this, however, Oh’s Singularity does not merely enable a postmodernist readerly reconstruction of the narrative timeline: it compels it by constructing a virtual environment that makes it all but impossible to follow the story line in a straight-forward, linear way. The landing point for the installation provides instructions for a recalibration of Windlight settings that cast the visitor into almost complete darkness, alleviated only occasionally by small lit areas that mark each “station” in the narrative, and by a headlight attachment provided (for free) that illuminates only small patches of the landscape at a time.

As a result, we find ourselves from the very outset groping through the darkness for clues and for meaning in a fashion that parallels Kumiko’s own attempt to reconstruct her memories and forgotten self. “Where I am and what happened to me are mysteries,” Kumiko writes in her first letter to Ikomi. “I walk the island and it feels like a memory box fallen from the shelf, its contents strewn across the floor.”

The letters from Kumiko and Iktomi can be retrieved from message bottles scattered around the sim; in places, clicking on a microphone nearby will play an audio recording of Kumiko reading her letters, a nice touch that adds much to our growing emotional connection to, and identification with, the story’s protagonist. The enforced nonlinearity of our progressive acquaintance with her, and her story, means that, like Kumiko, we must reconstruct the story and her identity from fragments out of time and place. It also ensures that no one experience of the installation is ever quite the same as another: each of us experiences the story very differently, and arrives at our conclusions by very different routes. Every visit to The Singularity of Kumiko is, in fact, a singular one.

A shopping cart glimpsed through the darkness

Objects are obscured and can seldom be viewed whole and entire. The visual experience of the sim is one of reconstructing fragments of obscure clues.

The most immediate signification of the “Singularity” of the installation’s title is, in the context of the unfolding narrative, the notion of the “Technological Singularity,” that moment in the future when the artificial intelligence of our technology exceeds our own, and the nature of what it means to be “human” changes forever. The impact of new technologies upon the human is a recurring theme in Bryn Oh’s art, and this installation is no exception.

In a less specific sense, Oh’s work is also referencing what we have come to call the “Posthuman,” the notion that technology can extend, and at the same time destabilize, human nature and capabilities. Posthumanism has been explored over the last 20 years by a number of thinkers, of whom two of the most influential and brilliant have been Donna Haraway, in her 1991 paper  A Cyborg Manifesto, which deconstructs the distinctions between the organic and the technological from a feminist perspective, and Katherine N. Hayles in her How We Became Posthuman (1998). One telling articulation within the installation of Oh’s own ambivalence about this idea is “Mr. Zippers,” an organic/robotic hybrid dog programmed to “love,” and that in fact randomly attacks (and kills — damage is enabled in the sim) visitors.

Cyborg Giraffe

Oh’s installation enacts both the conflict between and blending of the organic and the technological

A seminal articulation of an early version of the posthuman of particular relevance to Oh’s piece, with its continual challenging of organic memory by the data archive (a USB memory stick, and digital memory encryption figure prominently), is Vannevar Bush’s 1945 article in The Atlantic, “How We May Think.” Bush imagined the future development of a mechanism he called the “memex,” which extended the human memory and functioned as an electronic library or archive. Man, Bush argued,

has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory. His excursions may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important. (Emphasis added.)

“Forgetting” is important here, for to integrate with the machine the human being must “forget” a great deal, including much that makes us human, makes us, as individuals, singular. As Kumiko insists,

If we converted a memory into digital 1’s and 0’s or some other form of language then it would only be a matter of time before we began to manipulate it. We would cut our sorrows and manufacture outcomes in order to create a shiny surface to our lives with nothing behind them.

A hospital and a computer

Don’t worry if you’ve forgotten. We have machines that will remember for you

The Singularity of Kumiko frames the visitor with its protagonist’s perception: our ignorance is her forgetting, and our growing understanding the analogue to her reconstruction of memory, self, and, ultimately, liberation. That liberation is not, cannot be, a simple repudiation of the technological: Bryn Oh is, after all, perhaps the most important artist working in the new digital fields of virtual art and machinima, and Kumiko’s own apotheosis into herself at the conclusion of the narrative parallels in suggestive ways the remediating power of technology that enables our own experience of the installation. The installation’s attitude to technology is complicated, shifting, and multi-faceted, and it leaves us, ultimately, with more questions than answers.

And it is this characteristic element of Oh’s work that is ultimately most interesting and worthwhile. Comparisons, they say, are invidious, and I likely won’t be thanked for this one, but they can also sometimes be illuminating. I was a great admirer of AM Radio’s installations when he was still active in Second Life, and spent, in particular, many hours happily writing while sitting lost in the grass of The Faraway. His art was evocative, and thought-provoking, but mostly I found its mixture of realism and nostalgia soothing and restful. AM Radio’s sims asked questions, but they were more often gently melancholic than disturbing.

Sitting in the Dark in The Singularity of Kumiko

The Singularity of Kumiko inhabits a world of utter darkness illuminated by sudden and startling flashes of insight.

Bryn Oh’s work, by contrast, is most often deeply disturbing or even upsetting. It insistently prods us with an interrogation that it simultaneously denies is answerable. In particular, Oh’s employment of strikingly immersive environments and stories seduces us into the electronic medium even as it alarms us with intimations of the peril that can ensue from digital illusions. Her characteristic aesthetic is both realistic and slightly grotesque in a manner that foregrounds the artifice of the digital medium even as it envelops and engages us in its immersive grasp.

And it is this central paradox — the tensions and interplay generated by her simultaneous exploitation and critique of technology — that perhaps most truly constitutes what we might call the Singularity of Bryn Oh.

Bryn Oh’s The Singularity of Kumiko opens, as noted above, on 14 February. Only a relatively small number of visitors will be permitted on the sim at any one time. You can reach the landing point for the installation here:


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“Why Is Your Avatar So Sexy?” Choice and the Two Cultures

“Why is your avatar so sexy?”

A number of years ago, I was a participant in a virtual presentation in and about Second Life that was projected upon a large screen to a group of academics in RL. I myself was only present virtually – I was in fact some 200 kilometers away – but another participant, a young female graduate student, was both “in-world” and in the same room as those viewing the presentation.

At the conclusion of the presentation, the graduate student (whom I will call “An”) was approached by a professor, a young woman whose very interesting work lies in the field marked by the intersection of feminist studies and First Nations studies. I know her (although not so well as I know the graduate student) personally: she has also always been strongly supportive of young scholars, and offers herself as a sort of mentor. It was in this capacity, I think, that she approached the graduate student following the presentation and asked her, privately, the question with which I have opened this post: “Why is your avatar so sexy?”

When I was first told of this afterwards by “An,” my initial response was irritation. It struck me at the time as a classic “Gotcha!” moment, a transparent attempt to call out someone whose feminist “credentials” were apparently wanting. In fact, it had not occurred to me that the avatar employed by “An” was particularly sexualized: she was curvy in a typically Second Life way, of course, but she was quite modestly dressed, and wore, moreover, a white “archangel” skin and eyes that (in theory, at least) might be seen to be subverting RL norms of feminine beauty.

I discussed this incident recently with “An,” who remains a good friend (and who has given me permission to quote her here). She confessed that her first reaction was surprise and defensiveness:

Conventionally sexual features are SO ubiquitous in SL that it surprised me that she brought it up. She was not familiar with the general look of most avatars. Anyone who lives in SL would look at me as if I were a noob (white, featureless skin?), yet from her perspective I must have looked as if I were simply recreating conventional hyperreal feminine stereotypes.

Although one interpretation offered by my friend was that her avatar didn’t look “professional” enough for an academic context, her comments above come, I think, nearer to the truth: there is a slippage in cultural expectations about appearance, sexuality, and behaviour between RL and SL. What is normative in one translates poorly, or as an often grotesque parody, into the other.

A great deal has been written about Second Life and gender expectations or body image, but what I think is often missed is that the cultural correspondences between SL and RL are remediated by what “An” calls “the hyperreal.” Real life culture and assumptions about sexuality suggest that large breasts and long legs are “sexy.” “Hyperreality” means that, in Second Life, these characteristics become manifested transcendentally: a female avatar that has been consciously marked as “sexy” doesn’t merely have “long legs,” she is mounted on fleshy stilts. Large breasts, in a Second Life context, are not merely DD cups; they are enormous nippled zeppelins tethered, if only barely, to the torso by revealing skin-tight tops.

Prim Breasts

The current vogue for prim breasts is making it much more difficult to find room on the dance floor. These ones for sale are . . . “Natural.”

It’s important to realize that “hyperreal” in this context doesn’t merely mean “larger” or “longer.” These avatar features (along with puffy pouting lips, giant mounds of hair, super-sized hips, over-sized eyes, etc.) signal “sexiness” in a way that their RL analogues don’t for the simple reason that they are the products of conscious choice. In real life, most women have relatively little control over their body shape (although surgical options are, of course, challenging that); a woman with large (natural) breasts is not making a “statement” about her sexuality merely by virtue of having large breasts.

The Second Life Noob

Congrats! You’re the proud parent of a sexy bouncing baby consumer!

In Second Life, of course, this is not true. A hypersexualized body type is, to a great degree, a conscious choice, and for that reason a public statement of a kind. So a “sexy” appearance is hyperreal not merely because it is an exaggerated version of real life sexual characteristics, but because it is a conscious and deliberate articulation of “sexiness.” It is a public communication about ourselves.

The issue of “choice” then is absolutely central to understanding the difference between the “two cultures,” the RL and the SL, something that “An” certainly understood as a component of her response to the accusation of being too sexy:

I guess I would have been defensive anyway, because SL is about “choice” right – I want her to look pretty, not dowdy. Because I have too many “dowdy” business outfits myself in real life. She doesn’t HAVE to dress like me.

Choice changes everything. The standard SL avatar shape for both males and females — the shapes that we don’t consciously choose, but that we are (as it were) “born with” in SL —  are strongly sexualized by RL standards, but, precisely because they do not involve choice, are not particularly “sexy” in Second Life. To have a “sexy” body type in this context involves work, and it may involve money.


Look Ma! No décolletage!

My own choices about the appearance of my avatar reflect many of these contradictions, and my ambivalence about self-representation and identity in a virtual context. My avatar dresses relatively conservatively: she doesn’t wear really short skirts, nor tops that are slit open to the navel, but there’s not much question that I clothe her in things that she looks good in. I’ve also tried to make her look somewhat older: I have no wish to relive my 20s in either virtual or real worlds.

But avoiding the hypersexualized characteristics of Second Life females is difficult. When I first fiddled with her shape, I consciously avoided the Amazonish look so prevalent among female avatars in SL. I gave her a “realistic” height for RL (about 5’8” or so), reduced her breast size, thickened her torso a little, and shortened her legs relative to her body.

This, however, immediately created problems. Most pose balls don’t work well with avatars that are drastically shorter than the SL norm. What is more, in social contexts, I found that she tended to look like (and was perhaps even being perceived as) a young teen, if not a child. That perception, as we all know, can create real problems in Second Life, and was certainly not one I wanted to encourage.

And finding clothing, especially mesh, that fit properly has been a problem. This has been most pronounced with regard to my avatar’s breasts, which are simply not large enough to fill out the capacious area allotted for the female chest in most mesh outfits.

So, I’ve found that I’ve had to compromise. I’ve increased my avatar’s height somewhat (although she is still very short by SL standards), and given her slightly larger breasts: it would no longer be possible to fit a thickish dictionary or telephone directory down her top.

Through all of this, however, I have not compromised my avatar’s general attractiveness. Although I suppose much might depend upon how one defined the term, I think I would agree that my avatar is “sexy,” or at least attractive enough that she could easily be perceived as an object of desire — in a real life context. But within the community of Second Life? Well, not so much. I don’t think my avatar “turns heads” when she walks into a virtual room.

Of course, my own approach to my avatar’s appearance highlights the importance of choice, but also its limitations. My choice is limited because I don’t determine what is read as “sexy” or “ugly” or attractive: the cultural context does that. If I wish to communicate “sexiness,” I’d have to conform, to a great degree, to the way that this is defined in Second Life. And my choice is also limited by the “material” and “physical” assumptions of the technology. (Interestingly, while I know that many anxiously await the introduction of fitted mesh so that they can better accommodate large prim breasts, I myself am looking forward to being able to reduce mine somewhat, so that my boobs are no longer swimming around inside of my mesh tops like killer whales in a petting tank.)

A key point, however, is that my modifications to my avatar are a conscious choice, a decision to conform less to Second Life than to real life conventions regarding attractiveness and sexuality. I am aware of this, and understand the problematic nature of that choice, but it remains what I want. I’m not sure I can even articulate a good reason for this choice, but I am reasonably sure that it is not “ideological”: I don’t think I am consciously protesting against the perpetuation, and exaggeration, of gendered stereotypes in Second Life. Nor am I an “augmentationist,” who wants Second Life to resemble as closely as possible RL.

Both of these appear to be the motivation behind a Second Life group that calls itself “Ugly Avatars”:

Ugly Avatars — this is a group for those guys who have chosen not to look like an 8 foot tall mountain of muscle, or for those women that don’t inflate their breasts to epic sizes.

You don’t necessarily have to be ugly to join this group, this is moreso a group for those people who have created an avatar for themselves that is unique, that doesn’t necessarily fit into any of the SL cliches.

Ugly Avatars

Being Ugly and Old is a Labour of Love for some. Source: Group Profile for “Ugly Avatars”

It would be interesting (although I have neither the time nor inclination) to determine the reasons why the individuals belonging to a group such as this might make the conscious choice to employ “ugly” avatars. Are they Augmentationist Extremists? Are they protesting against gendered sexual stereotypes? Do they find “ugly” avatars amusing? All that I can say for certain is that looking unattractive, by RL standards, in Second Life requires effort and work. Like those who labour at communicating “sexiness,” ugly and aged avatars must work hard at achieving Greatness in aesthetic failure. And I think it is probably also true that “ugliness” in Second Life is most often also “hyperreal”: it is more ugly, and more self-consciously self-referential, than RL ugliness, an effect that it achieves through something like parody, grotesqueness, and the wearing of really crappy SL merchandise.

And this brings us back to “An,” mildly chastised for being “too sexy.” To have been less sexy in a RL context would have necessitated her deliberately choosing to be “ugly” by the standards applied in Second Life. “An,” already well-acquainted with standards of beauty and sexuality in SL, was caught off-guard because the possibility of the deformation of meaning that would result from translation from one world to the other had not occurred to her.

What has become more and more apparent to me over time is that there is only an indirect and complicated correspondence between such meanings in Second Life, and those of real life. And this, I think, is where so many critiques — like that levelled against “An” — go wrong. Academic or ideologically-driven critiques are particularly prone to this error, because their focus is almost exclusively upon real life meanings, and Second Life expressions of identity are employed by them in a purely instrumental capacity. Most academics (and ideologues) who study Second Life don’t do it for its own sake, and don’t really read SL by the light of its own cultural assumptions: instead, they are looking for “applications” to real life, ways of translating what they find here directly, and without remediation, into insights about what is, in effect, a very different (if related) RL culture, one that possesses very different ways of signifying particular meanings.

Arguably, extreme Augmentationists make the same assumptions. An interesting example of this is SL artist Gracie Kendal, who is, in real life, multi-media artist Kristine Schomaker. For Schomaker, struggling with body image issues in her real life, her avatar Gracie became a means to express her “real” essential being, who she actually was, independent of the social assumptions derived from her physical appearance.

Gracie, then, is an articulation of Kristine’s notion of an idealized self:

“Personally, I was asking myself why I created my avatar, known as Gracie Kendal, as, you know, this thin gorgeous blonde. You know, what was going on within me, where I wanted to be this ideal version of myself.” (Kristine Schomaker/Gracie Kendal)

Gracie Kendal

Kendal at her SL exhibition, “1000 Avatars.” Source: Alphaville Herald

To be honest, Kristine Schomaker’s understanding of the relationship between the avatar and the “real” person seems to me rather facile and, perhaps, a bit self-serving; Schomaker tends to characterize identity in the singular (as though we don’t deploy a multitude of identities for an endless variety of contexts), and she imagines the avatar as a sort of liberated representation of our “true” selves. But maybe I’m just being jealous: I don’t think I possess a “true self.”

What’s more, I think she’s wrong about Gracie: I don’t think her avatar would be perceived within Second Life by most as “thin” and “gorgeous.” Actually (and I don’t mean to sound unkind), Gracie is a rather run-of-mill female avatar. But I don’t think that matters much to Schomaker (and of course it shouldn’t matter much to us either), because she is not really very interested in how Gracie is read and understood within the context of SL culture: my suspicion is that it is how she translates into RL meanings that matters. In Schomaker’s case, that distortion, the mistranslation, is precisely what she is aiming for: her rather uninteresting avatar is transmuted, by this means, into a real life “bombshell.”

My reservations about Schomaker’s understanding of the relationship between avatar and “operator” notwithstanding, however, I have in at least one regard come around to a position somewhat closer to her own. Explaining why an artist who wishes to critique socially-determined ideals of beauty should choose to conform to those same ideals in Second Life, Schomaker notes:

I wanted to see what it would feel like to be thinner and taller and this knock-out gorgeous blonde. I mean, when you’re online, and you can be anything you want, why not, right?

Well, why not indeed?

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Oculus Rift, High Fidelity, and the Limits of the Imagination

More than a few bloggers have been making much of a piece by Emma Green that appeared in The Atlantic on 27 December, 2013. The short article, “Making Virtual Reality Less Virtual” argues that both the new virtual reality headset Oculus Rift, and the focus of Second Life founder Philip Rosedale’s company High Fidelity upon “incorporating virtual reality seamlessly into everyday life,” may lead to a resurgence in interest in virtual reality in general and, for some (such as New World Notes’ Hamlet Au) in Second Life in particular. It will do this, as Green’s title intimates, by “making virtual reality less virtual” – by making it, in other words, more “real.”

At one time, the focus was upon bringing the “real” into Second Life. This approach reached its inglorious climax under the stewardship of Mark Kingdon, who focused Linden Lab’s business, on one hand, upon its “Enterprise” version that was supposed to make Second Life more functional for real life corporations, and, on the other, upon what some SL residents perceived as the “Facebookization” of Second Life. The former failed miserably in the end; the primary lasting legacy of the latter was the creation of Display Names, which permitted (in theory) residents to employ their real life names in-world.

For the most part, then, this attempt to bring the “real” world into the virtual one failed, and so there has seemingly been a change in direction. This is what Philip Rosedale has to say in Green’s piece about the the purpose of High Fidelity:

“Virtual reality is not any different than reality once you close the communication gap,” he said. “Most of the progress has to come in this face-to-face interaction.” To improve people’s perceptions of avatars, “the thing that’s going to be really demanding is your face and your eyes and the sound of your voice and the nuance of your body movement. When everybody says ‘real,’ oh, we’re going to lose the real—that’s what they mean.”

Where Second Life represented an attempt, in theory at least, to create a new space where “our imagination” might overrule the tyranny of the mundane and the “real,” High Fidelity, it seems, is about making the virtual “more real” (and hence, presumably, more acceptable to the corporate clients that Rosedale is clearly targeting). And Oculus Rift, or something like it, is what is going to help bring the virtual into the real world.

This is not a subtle shift in emphasis; it’s a radical re-envisioning of what is meant by “virtual reality,” at least as it was apparently first imagined by Rosedale and the engineers of Second Life at its inception. The man who once spoke of Second Life as “a platform on top of which people could develop whatever they wanted. A total blank canvas on top of which the only limitation was their imagination” seems now to worry that maybe we’ve been asking too much of the imagination. What he seems to think we want now is less of the capacious stuff of which dreams are made, and more of the “real.”

But then this has always been a contradiction inherent within Second Life, for even as it provided a “blank canvas” upon which to create anything, its engineers were busily at work making our experience of what we might create there as believable, as “real” as possible. The vast majority of improvements that have been made to the platform over the years – ranging from the introduction of flexiprims all the way to the more recent introduction of mesh – have been about making the experience more realistic. In some regards, they have been astonishingly successful: Second Life has never been more visually convincing than it has become in late years.

Which brings us, of course, to Oculus Rift, and the promise of a truly immersive and realistic visual experience of the virtual. The Oculus Rift is stereoscopic, functioning in “the same way your eyes perceive images in the real world, creating a much more natural and comfortable experience.” With a 110° field of view, our view of “the game” is “no longer boxed in on a screen and is only limited by what your eyes can see. The combination of the wide field of view with head-tracking and stereoscopic 3D creates an immersive virtual reality experience.” A world that is “no longer boxed in on a screen” is one that has escaped the artificial and seeped into the “real,” into the “more natural.” It is as though Botticelli’s Venus had stepped off her shell, and out of the frame that keeps her suspended upon the wall. Compare this to the experience of visiting Second Life’s Bamboo Grove sim, where one can walk into a three dimensional rendering of pen and ink drawings.

Bamboo Grove

Bamboo Grove: No Land for Corporate Executives

There is no question, I think, that Oculus Rift, should it prove feasible (and not leave too many residents heaving into their waste baskets), will make Second Life more engaging and visually exciting. It will undoubtedly make it more “immersive.” But at what cost?

When our virtual world is experienced in almost exactly the same way as the real world, is it really “virtual” anymore? This kind of seamless interpenetration of the real and the virtual is precisely what Rosedale’s High Fidelity is aiming for; consider the very name of the company. He may well achieve it, but if he does, he will, arguably, have succeeded at betraying the promise that Second Life once held out: a world that was open to an unbounded imagination precisely because it was not so realistic as to elbow out fantasy, and creativeness, and dream-like imaginings

On reflection, maybe Second Life has always demarcated the limits of our imagination. Given the opportunity to create something entirely different from the real, what has all of the ingenuity behind Second Life produced? An environment that looks convincingly, and more and more so with each passing year, exactly like the terrestrial world that we inhabit in physical space.

And I can’t really blame anyone for that, because I’m not sure that I can imagine a virtual world that doesn’t have ground, and sky, and gravity, and light and dark, and physically embodied avatars. What might a truly non-real virtual world look like? How would we interact and communicate? What would we do here, if we couldn’t build houses, and cars, and spaceports, or go shopping and dancing?

Can we imagine a world more virtual than real?

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Can Lab Rats Even Read? Second Life and Academic Publication

There are many vexations in Second Life. Bots, lag, avatars loaded with too many burdensome attachments, and griefers, to name just a few. Among such everyday annoyances, at least for some residents, are students and researchers.

It’s probably true that this particular vexation is no longer as prevalent as it was in SL’s “Golden Age,” from about 2008 to 2010, when the platform was at the height of its hype-cycle; the (temporary) loss of the nonprofit pricing for educational institutions, and the growing sense that Second Life was not going to become the new “3D Web,” as well as the growing attention paid to augmented reality technologies has meant that virtual worlds in general, and Second Life in particular, are not quite the hot research area that they once were.

That said, there’s still a fair amount of research occurring in-world, and on the SL Forums. The reception met by requests for surveys and interviews is generally quite positive — if there is some evidence that the researcher or student has engaged in some background work, is reasonably familiar with the platform, and has given serious thought to the questions asked. There remains among some, however, a great deal of resentment about such intrusions into the virtual sandbox, some of it no doubt the result of a simple anti-academic bias. An oft-quoted passage from Kimberly Rufer-Bach’s The Second Life grid explains the source of some of this resentment:

“Similarly, some of the first educators and researchers in SL were a bit clumsy in their approach. There were early incidents in which Residents felt — rightly — that they were being spied upon or treated like guinea pigs rather than human beings. Imagine how you would feel if an entire class of students set up right next to your vacation hideaway, left trash lying around, logged your conversations, and posted them on the Internet with criticism and mean-spirited comments. This is exactly what happened to some early Residents. Things have improved greatly in the years since then, but sometimes SL Residents are still subject to that kind of inconsiderate behavior. For example, a constant stream of researchers (often students) posts on the Second Life official forums requesting that Residents please take their surveys. Most of these surveys include the same questions that have been asked over and over. Often they aren’t spell-checked, or refer to SL as a game—a sure way to irritate a substantial number of Residents. Some Residents make a hobby of critiquing these surveys, pointing out how the questions and their wording make it clear that the researcher isn’t familiar with Second Life. Some post outright that they are sick of badly planned surveys and suggest that the researchers log in and do their own research.” (From Kimberly Rufer-Bach, The Second Life Grid: The Official Guide to Communication, Collaboration, and Community Engagement)

SL Rat

Will I still be able to find mesh clothing that will fit?

Well, indeed. Who does want to be treated like a lab rat?

I actually get this, but it can sometimes seem unreasonable. I was myself once banned from a sim merely because my profile mentioned that I was an academic. And there is an element of inconsistency in this resentment: after all, our data is being assiduously scooped up and analyzed or sold for a profit by every social media platform we use. How reasonable, given what we provide corporations for free, is it that we should be annoyed at a student or academic researcher who harvests a tiny proportion of that information, given voluntarily and abiding by research ethics guidelines that are vastly more comprehensive and respectful than anything to be found in a corporate-authored TOS?

Even as an academic myself, however, I will confess that there is one aspect of such research activities that does seriously irk me, and that is that the results of the research are so very rarely made available to those who are its subjects. One will sometimes see on the SL Forums an appeal to the individual researcher that she or he make available the results of the research in question; sometimes, but rarely, the researcher will actually oblige. The vast bulk of the fruits of research in Second Life remains unavailable to the lab rats themselves.

In cases where the research has been for a student project, I am generally forgiving. Students don’t have the investment in academic research that full-time academics do, and they may well (and sometimes understandably) be nervous about posting their own work in public view.

I do have some issue, however, with research by tenured academics that remains hidden behind pay walls where it is, in effect, accessible only to other academics. An instance of this that crossed my Twitter feed this morning, and that I am going to totally unfairly single out (see my comments below), is a new journal article appearing in the February issue of Computers in Human Behavior by Anna M. Lomanowskaa and Matthieu J. Guitton, entitled “My Avatar Is Pregnant! Representation of Pregnancy, Birth, and Maternity in a Virtual World.” It’s an interesting subject, as the abstract makes clear, by two academics who clearly do know their way around Second Life, have written about it before, and have worthwhile things to say about it:

Despite the potential for limitless creativity, many activities observed in the increasingly popular multi-user virtual worlds involve recreating real-life experiences. This is particularly evident in the social domain, as individuals reenact activities that reflect real human social needs, such as interpersonal intimacy. Surprisingly, one aspect of virtual experience tied to intimate relationships that has emerged in this context involves the reenactment of pregnancy, birth and maternity. The aim of this study was to examine how pregnancy, birth, and maternity are represented in a virtual world. Quantitative and qualitative data were collected over a 10 month period in the popular virtual world of Second Life to investigate the individual, social, and environmental aspects of these activities. Four different themes related to pregnancy, birth, and maternity were identified, including medical clinic services, family activities, sexual activities, and retail, with participation varying between female and male avatars. Analysis of related online media external to the virtual world provided further insight into the way that virtual pregnancy, birth, and maternity were constructed and experienced by the participating individuals. These insights are particularly valuable for understanding how intimate aspects of social interactions can be represented in immersive virtual applications for health care and related domains.

This is legitimate and worthwhile research; I look forward to reading it. I can quite see how it might be “particularly valuable” to academics. I can also see how it might be of interest to many residents of Second Life.

Sadly, few of them are likely ever to be able to read it: Computers in Human Behavior is owned by Elsevier, a company so notorious for its jealous protection of “its” copyright, and for its obscene pricing policies, that it has become the target of a major boycott by many academics. Particularly relevant in the immediate context is Elsevier’s recent takedown notices for academic articles posted by the authors themselves on Academia.edu and other open-access repositories. (It is important to understand that Elsevier does not reimburse authors for the articles it publishes: the labour of researching, writing, editing, and revising such articles is provided for free by academics and their institutions. Scholars, or their institutions, must in essence subscribe to these journals to read their own work once it is published.)

The Pay Wall

But really, what price knowledge? Apparently, $19.95

The current crisis in academic publishing, and the role of established publishers like Elsevier and “open access” publication (which makes research freely available) is a complex subject which would take too long to disentangle here even in part. There are certainly problems that need to be overcome with existing open access models of publication. (Guitton discusses some of them himself here; he makes some valid points.)

Suffice it to say, however, that anyone not affiliated with an institution that pays a subscription to Elsevier is going to have to pay $19.95 to  read this article. Clicking on the “Get Full Text Elsewhere” button will lead one back (surprise surprise!) to the pay wall.

So, most Second Life lab rats are not going to be able to read this.

I do want to make it absolutely clear that I am not trying to “slut shame” the authors of this particular piece. To begin with, I chose this example merely because it popped up in my Twitter feed; I might have chosen from hundreds of other examples. More importantly, both of these scholars (neither of whom I have met) have made some of their research on virtual worlds publicly available. Both Lomanowskaa and Guitton have, for instance, published research on Second Life in the open access Public Library of Science, here. Both have public blogs about their research, and Guitton’s in particular seems quite extensive. I applaud them both for this.

Ultimately, the fault for this situation lies less with individual scholars than it does with “the system.” There are lots of reasons, many of them good, why an academic would choose to publish in a journal that is not publicly accessible. This is particularly true of young academics who have not yet achieved a full-time position or tenure: while there are open access alternatives that are also peer-reviewed (an immediately relevant one is The Journal of Virtual Worlds Research), these, generally, do not have the prestige of established subscription journals, and won’t count as much towards things like tenure.

Still . . . speaking now in my capacity as a lab rat myself (I’ve responded to many student and researcher surveys), it annoys me that research about Second Life residents is not made available to Second Life residents. It implicitly reinforces the suggestion that we have been reified and commodified; that we are being peered at through the microscope, but aren’t important enough to be told why.

Are your ears burning, genericavatar345.resident?

They probably should be: you’re being discussed. Too bad you’ll never find out what they’re saying about you.

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