Saturday, March 19, 2005
[This is a (mostly complete) transcript of Wagner James Au, Peter Ludlow, Tony Walsh, and Jane Pinckard†talking about writing about online worlds. Official details about the panel here.]
Pinckard: [Introductions]. Ludlow got kicked off the Sims Online by EA and now runs the largest webzine about SecondLife. Walsh staged a virtual protest of McDonald’s.
Au: Pinckard writes GameGirlAdvance.com and is a stafff writer for GamePro magazine. And an excellent musician.
Au: I work on SecondLife, an online world. All of the objects in the world are created by “residents.” [Shows an image.] That’s why they brought me in as an embedded journalism a few years ago. I was writing for Salon at the time, and they said “why not write for us?” I have a few avatars, including a Hunter S. Thompson look-a-like. I think my avatar is a better reporter than I am. I see two categories of online journalism: as a catalyst for real-world journalism or as a microcosm of real-world issues.
Au: Your avatar is you and also not you at the same time. Especially in SecondLife, which bars talking about real-life identities. I interviewed in SecondLife a guy who had just come back from serving in Fallujah, Iraq. He was taking some r’n’r in SecondLife. He wasn’t able to share these experiences with his sister until after he got into SecondLife. Another example, Anjay Chung, is one of the most powerful businesspeople in SecondLife. She makes quite a bit of real-life money as a virtual real-estate speculator. You can go to third-party sites and buy and trade “linden dollars,” the SecondLife currency.
Question: How much does she make?
Au: Her SecondLife net worth was over $30,000. Here’s a picture of her at Briar Beach, an artist community in SL. She bought the island, changed the name, and kicked everyone out. Turned it into a vacation settlement for the French. She’s based in Germany and she decided the SL community wasn’t catering to the EU community enough. So she created this area for French-speakers. And she made an area right next to it for German-speakers. Brings up all these issues of globalization, capitalism vs. community, etc. And I find stories like that exciting. […] I am a contractor with Linden Labs, so I have a vested interest. And I see myself as an ombudsman with the community. We’re a small world right now with about 25,000 users, but I have a backlog of stories, amazing stories of people happening in the real-world and in SL. There’s a great opportunity for bloggers to come inot SL and find some really amazing stuff. We have about forty SL bloggers right now, all linked to from my site. I’d love to provide more links out to SL bloggers.
Pinckard: Now on to Tony Walsh.
Walsh: I’ve been a gamer for about 25 years. I’ve got a considerable amount of experience in gaming. Even live-action role-playing, the lowest rung on the gamer totem pole. I’d like to talk about some of the larger issues about reporting on virtual worlds. In SL there are a couple of in-world-only magazines that you have to log in to look at. But what we do is about the events that occur. [Shows pic of his avatar — looks like him.] [Starts his Keynote presentation.] […] Online worlds are having more of an impact as they become more popular. WoW has over 1 million users. Populations are increasing dramatically and it looks like that will continue. Now we also have bloggers who are covering their own spheres in these worlds. We’re at a time when online worlds are more of a topic of “normal” conversation. Especially in Asia with Lineage — they have millions of users. Super-popular. Why are they worthy of coverage? They can foster a dynamic culture. You get interesting social and political situations. And you have interesting opportunities to compare online life to real-life. Do they represent the future of entertainment? A future lifestyle? They’re definitely a force to contend with and, as such, imminently worthy of coverage.
Walsh: Mainstream media tends to go for the most sensational or weird. “Is it making people rich?” “Are they getting dumped by their wives?” “Are they getting kicked out of school?” Total immersion makes for better stories. And online communities are as sensitive as real-life communities. I was speaking with some users who were quoted out of context and annoyed at bad behavior by a journalist. Ethics and standards: Journalistic stardards still apply. Naming sources. How to handle certain subject matter. Etc. I always ask before I use someone’s real name or share information like that with users. Then there’s the on-the-record/off-the-record sort fo thing. I’m supposed to have a press badge, but I don’t. So when does the reporter hat come on and off? It’s all about expectation management, really. What the people you speak with expect their words to be used for. And fact checking isn’t easy. It can be very difficult.
Walsh: Actual vs. virtual freedom. Online, freedom isn’t guaranteed. They’re run by companies, so whatever the good intentions, they must work to popularize and maintain their product with rules of etiquette and such. There’s no constitution for online world. In reeality, you have no rights. And that goes for the press, too. Peter got entangled with the Sims 2, for example, when they disagreed with what he was saying. It amounts to a customer “firing” customers. But is it in the best interest of game companies to emulate real-life freedoms? We can talk about all of this in the discussion.
Walsh: Which are most suitable to cover? Those with complexity. In SL you can make your own objects. In Star Wars you can make you own organizations. Those that offer more user freedom. The more powerful the users can be, the more interesting things to users will do. And those that show promise in particular areas, technically and otherwise. We, for example, raised over $10k for tsunami relief.
Walsh: Angles and audience. Macrocoverage: pop-culture, mainstream news, industry-focus, etc. Microcoverage: MMOG players, game developers, bloggers, game studies. In-between: Official: Corporate blogs, PR, developer plans, operations. And also in-between: General coverage: Closest to mainstream news journalism.
Walsh: Conclusion. Online worlds are increating in popularity and opportunities for online journalism.
Ludlow: I kind of disagree with the other guys. I don’t call myself a journalist. I role-play a journalist and, in my case, as a tabloid journalist. We report bugs, wedding announcements, game reviews. Some are just silly. We also cover mafia wars in the game. And we have “post 6” girls, virtual girls that appear on the blog sometimes. We usually try to stay with stories (we still cover EA because we hate them)… We also cover stories like this one: An individual from Germany had been suspended seven times from SL for making some kind of Nazi death training camp thing. And here’s a post about the virtual Central Park Gates. [He’s going down through his weblog posts.] Another picture of the Nazi girl.
Au: We have regulations against hate speech.
Pinckard: What about hate design?
Au: Well, it’s a gray-area.
Ludlow: More images. This group had a huge swastika on their building. They said it was a hopi symbol of peace. Probably not… Here’s another person with an avatar based on Sasami, an anime character. This avatar was selling themselves as an escort and slave and selling hentai porn. Here are somee of my favorite stories… At one point we had an area populated by active-duty service people, mostly from the south. [Shows image with a Confederate flag and “Heritage Not Hate.”] An developer was going to set up a mega-mall nearby. Here are some chatlogs behind the land barons, trying to strong-arm people. The WWIIers build a huge wall, first. Then some grafitti: “Fuck you WWIIOLERS.” More barriers. A metal, armed, flying moose. So the confrontation. Just words are exchanged at first. So the megamall plan fell apart, sadly for the developer. So he torched the WWIIOLERS HQ, a model of the Reichstag, and put his flag over it. He made a thermonuclear weapon that could take servers offline. So the WWIIers shot up his club. Then someone called me — they had taken off an entire server… Don’t know why… So one of them makes another club, Club X-Tacy. A couple days later, Club X-Tasy was vaporized. And I can’t say why because I must protect my sources.
Pinckard: So let’s talk about that. It’s fascinating, but what does it mean.
Ludlow: Why does it have to mean anything? These other guys tend to over-intellectualize everything.
Walsh: From a philosophy prof…
Ludlow: Hey. I’m just saying that there doesn’t need to be a reason it’s important. Why does it have to be?
Au: We had an experience with grafitti about the Iraq war turning into in-game shootings and such.
[It’s hard to transcribe this fast-paced chat.]
[Ludlow’s kind of crotchety in comparison to the others, like a guy not totally buying into the hype and not worried about saying that. Which I like about him. The other panelists seem to have more of a direct interest in SL — working for the company. L doesn’t.]
Question: So this has been going on since 1997, Ultima Online. The debate often occurs in the message boards. Why is reporting better than what goes on in there?
Walsh: It’s filtering out the noise, bringing to the fore-front what the reporter wants the public to understand. You make it as unbaised as you can, but I normally have an opinion. The difference is that I can write, I can communicate these ideas better than users in the message boards. It reads better.
Ludlow: The messageboards are censored. Heavily. You won’t get a story about suspensions, for example.
Au: I’ve reported on stories that are very ambiguous. Like a branding agency bough the first island we offered for sale. Big discussion. Some personal attacks in the message boards. The larger narritive was about capitalism coming into the world for the first time. So I tried to pain thte bigger picture about what was going on here.
Walsh: If you like messageboards, go for it, but many people rely on a more condensed version of that. And these communities are gated in that you have to buy the game to join in. So for non-players we have to make sense, as well.
Question: Why does SL allow people to take down a server?
Au: Yeah, that’s a violation. They’re breaking the terms-of-service. They do it for publicity, so I don’t report on it (though it’s sometimes very creative what they do.)
Ludlow: I did. I do what I can. I think it’s a myth to say they do it for publicity.
Question: L’s story sounded more like a draft for a William Gibson story rather than normal journalism.
Au: It is role-playing. The in-world stuff. So it does become a type of fiction, paradoxically. Peter’s story is really cool on its own.
Ludlow: A sci-fi writer recently joined our team to write on a meta-level.
Walsh: When Peter posts, SL players will come and post on the story in character. Don’t know if they see it as collaborative fiction, but they are contributing to it.
Pinckard: And it is entertainment that the users pay for.
Au: Linden Labs lets you own anything you create in SL. A guy made a game in SL and he sold it out in the real-world. It’s all his.
Walsh: In future versions we might include some Creative Commons-type licences.
Question: Is there a place for an open-source alternative here?
Walsh: There is the Croquet project that’s open source. Linden Labs has said they might let people run their own servers in the future, but it’s hard.
Question: Is the corporate big-brother thing necessary?
Ludlow: Given the restrictive nature of the Linden Labs temrs-of-service, why wouldn’t users go to an open project? There are a few, but they’re not really getting popular.
Walsh: But a player wants a guaranteed customer experience. And a company can provide that.
Au: LL asked whether the users wanted to police themselves. And there are a few with their own bylaws and constitutions.
Pinckard: Voting’s hard!
Au: It’d be fascinating to see happen. There’s always an appeal…
Pinckard: ToonTown, another MMOG, is for kids, so it’s got a tight control.
Pinckard:It’s 11am, now. Thanks, everyone!
[Note: I might alter this transcript in the coming days to remove typos and clarify the content. I post it now just to make it available as soon as possible.]
I'm Josh Knowles, a technology developer/consultant on a variety of mobile, social media, and gaming projects. I founded and lead Frescher-Southern, Ltd. I grew up in Austin, Texas and currently live in New York City.
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