All / Originally Posted on Skirt / Technology & Society

Life, Wired and Wireless

Managed to pry my eyes away from the glowing screen today to go out with my mom.  We went to see a movie (also a screen, but much further away from my face and less likely to damage my eyesight in the long run).  There was a Fire Incident as we were trying to buy our tickets – I’m not sure if there was an actual fire or just a fire scare, but either way it clearly wasn’t a very big deal because the firemen milled around with their equipment (axes, grappling hooks, compressed oxygen) for a bit and then left.  Lots of people got refunds on their tickets, but the best thing was this one guy trying to get a refund on concession food that he’d already eaten.  He was trying to claim that he’d eaten it under duress and therefore deserved his money back.  The ladies at the booth couldn’t even keep from laughing.    

Post-movie we went to check out the folk festival in Straub Park.  After loading up with the fried foods of many nations we repaired to the music tent.  As we entered I could hear a guy with a part-Scottish, part-Kentucky accent telling the story of his arriving in America for the first time.   He then proceeded to sing a song, accompanied by motions that he forced the entire audience to copy, about a big mean Glaswegian cat who liked to wring the necks of rats and the occasional dog.  The next song was a lively number about Irish and Scottish people hiding from the tax assessor by running into caves in hillsides.  And then he pulled out a banjo.  I started to wonder if the whole act was a private joke on the Americans in the audience.

I was glad to get away from the computer because I’ve been spending far too much time on it lately.  This is partly to do with some new research I’m conducting. 

You might have heard of the online game Second Life.  If not, it’s a large virtual world where you can run around and interact with things and people.  You make an avatar – a digital representation of yourself, though of course it can look like whatever you want – and then let the fun begin. 

Though role-playing games are nothing new, both live-action and virtual ones, there are a couple interesting features of Second Life that make it a truly novel concept. 

Unlike World of Warcraft, also an online RPG, it’s free.  However, it is possible to convert real money into currency valid in the game, which you could view as being sort of like a subscription service. 

Also, it’s not really a game in the sense that there’s no formal objective.  In a video game like Zelda, there’s an overall series of tasks that the player must complete in order to win the game.  In World of Warcraft, though I’m no expert, my understanding is that players have to go around in the game and find a task or series of tasks in order to become more powerful and rich.  Unlike Zelda, there’s no one set path; each person in the game “wins” in a different way. 

In Second Life, there are no objectives or goals (though you can earn money and buy “land”, which appears to be a common goal).  You could view Second Life as the ultimate existential experiment: everyone playing has to decide for herself why she is there. 

My existential purpose in Second Life is to research the the belly dance community. 

I first heard about this from one of the people I interviewed a while back.  I already had a Second Life account, though I hadn’t used it much because my University blocks it on campus (which is going to make life interesting when I get back there: “Nooo!  I need it for RESEARCH!  Cross my heart and hope to die!!”) and I couldn’t get a fast enough internet connection in Cairo. 

My informant told me that there were animations you could buy or make that would cause your avatar to belly dance, and that she personally had bought, using real money, costumes for her avatar.  A little more research turned up films of people (avatars) doing this on YouTube (punch in “second life belly dance”, that should show you what I’m talking about.)  But of course, I had to see for myself.  

The thing about experiencing a virtual world for the first time is, it’s a lot like being in a foreign country after all your limbs have been injected with Novocaine.  You have no idea how to move around, talk to people, dress yourself, interact with objects, or what the etiquette of the game is.  There’s a whole set of slang and jargon unique to each game that you won’t have a clue about, and even navigating the computer program itself is a challenge at first.  So, much like “real” fieldwork, or shall we say fieldwork in a non-virtual setting, it’s taken me a while to get up to speed where I can actually do some research! 

I have discovered a couple of important things so far, though: first, in the course of trying to get some free clothing (you can design your own, but unless you’re actually a programmer, it’s going to look like you’re wearing a sack), I stumbled upon two boxes of free Egyptian stuff.  One was a box of “texures” – things you could use to build something, like a virtual house with fancy tilework. 

Another was full of free belly dancing animations!  Jackpot.  Now I only have to track down the creators, force them to be online friends with me, and then interview them.  As a blue person.  (I figured if I was going to be virtual, I might as well go all the way.) 

I also found out that, much like the Moroccan Pavilion at Disney World, there is a virtual Morocco (hereafter: Faux-rocco) on Second Life.  I haven’t gone there yet.  I wanted to get a little more adept at walking around first.  Plus I keep getting distracted by other things.  Let me explain.

When I was an undergraduate I wrote a term paper for a computer science class (actually it was a term website, because that’s the way we rolled at Sarah Lawrence) about the way people interact with computers, and with each other through computers.  Most of it was based on books by a researcher named Sherry Turkle.She theorized that there were several different reasons people enjoyed playing with computers, including developing a sense of expertise or mastery, exploring an alternative world, finding social interaction more comfortable when you don’t have to see the other people / when you’re part of a special subculture, and some other stuff I can’t remember right now. 

I appear to be of the “explorer” mentality.  My favorite video game to play when I was younger was Zelda because you could go almost anywhere in the world of the game, which seemed to have little hidden nooks just made for you to discover, and you could interact with most of the objects.  For example, there were these rocks you could hit with a sword and they would make a “BONNGGG!!” noise.  I had no idea why they did this, which of course made me obsessively do it to all the rocks just to see what would happen. 

The makers of the game obviously anticipated that people like me would come along and want to TOUCH EVERYTHING IN THE WHOLE WORLD, so they played upon this.  There were these little chickens that would wander around at random, and naturally, at some point I got the urge to kick one.  Just to see what would happen.  Well, be warned: if you kick a Zelda chicken, it will send out a signal to all the other chickens in the area to come attack you in a bloody horror show of chicken rage, and you will die.  I found this so funny and unexpected that I kept committing chicken hari-kari.  Just because I could.

Anyway, my point is, Second Life is like Zelda without the whole quest business.  I don’t have to learn any silly songs or wield a sword at anyone (though I quite like doing that, in real life as well as virtually), or try to kill any giant spiders.  I can just wander around poking things to see what will happen.  Though at some point I’ll have to stop playing around, buckle down and start “experimenting” with my belly dancing animations instead.  After all, my research is serious business.