Bored? Let’s put on a metaverse!

Second Life is a “metaverse,” which is short for metaphysical universe. In Second Life, everything you see — every scrap of clothing, every piece of scenery and every avatar (which is a player-operated character) — is “built” by the players themselves, either for their personal use or for sale to others. Someday, this world’s ability to empower and inspire its residents to build and share could challenge movie studios. In the meantime, Second Life is becoming the defacto movie studio (and dance studio, and design studio, and much more) for tens of thousands of people with a strong vision and a lot of spare time.

I only wish Second Life had come along 20 years ago, when my wife and I were two such restless auteurs.

This young couple — the Jeff and Julie of the mid-1980’s — are only a memory now, but a particularly vivid one this weekend. I’m writing from a cybercafe in my home town, during a holiday visit with my many family members who never left. Visits like this remind me of who I was back when I lived here too, and how my wife (who also grew up in this town) and I responded to this quirky way of life.

How do I describe my home town? Deep in the forests of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P.), it’s not as heartwarming as the place in the 90’s TV show Northern Exposure, but it was, and is, no less eccentric. For instance, I may be in a cybercafe, but it’s one that caters to people who proudly call themselves “Yoopers” (sound out the letters U.P. and you get the epithet’s origin).

So naturally, you can buy a piping hot pasty along with your WiFi access. What’s a pasty? It’s is a meat-and-potato pie that is the closest thing Yoopers have to soul food, which tells you as much about Yooper “soul” as it does about Yooper food. What I mean is, when I think of the U.P., I think of words like traditional, genuine and consistent. These are qualities that I’ve come to appreciate now — both in pasties and in people — but back then these small town virtues were easy targets for rebellion.

When my wife and I were first married, we lived near this town, and wanted to capture the area’s eccentricities before we moved on. We scripted a movie, called The Porchlights, about a fictitious nuclear family who loved each other and their Upper Peninsula lifestyle. It was to be a comedy.

We had little choice in what technology we would use for our proejct. If we were going to shoot this thing at all, it would on 16-millimeter film. The format wouldn’t make us candidates for commercial success, but that was far from the point. This film was for the exclusive entertainment of ourselves and our friends — most of whom were to be involved in its production.

None of these friends were actors, by the way, but we solved that problem as well. All of the characters in our little film would be pink, plastic lawn flamingos (clever, huh?), manipulated off-camera and synchronized later to sound studio voice-overs.

The project died a quiet death in pre-production, as they say, and much of the reason was the technology challenges. Film stock. Lights. Editing equipment. Producing even a humble Porchlights was so out of reach.

Not today. Right now, many thousands of people have similarly daft plans and dreams. But they are making them come to life, in quirky patches of virtual real estate.

They’re putting their stories on Second Life.

I mentioned that all the objects in Second Life are residents’ creations, including the avatars. Roughly a third of these objects are scripted, which means they can realistically interact with each other, at the whim of Second Life’s 230,000+ residents. Roll-playing games are common, as are amateur theatrics. These are sometimes “filmed” using special cameras that other residents have developed, for replaying and sharing.

You see why I wish Second Life had been around 20 years ago. To be clear, most residents find their fun in ad libbed interaction, not carefully plotted entertainments such as The Porchlights. But along with the typical night club and public park gathering places, Second Life includes such innovations as a “living” re-creation of a dying Native American culture. Built by a real-life Native American, this authentic village keeps alive his tribe’s heritage.

That’s just one example of how this metaverse is absolutely anything residents want it to be, even if their vision might include a U.P. ranch home populated by talking pink lawn flamingoes.

Philip Rosedale, CEO of Linden Labs, the software company behind Second Life, says his residents are far closer to the norm demographically than participants in most multi-player game environments. These residents are more likely to be middle-aged, and more likely to be female.

He says it’s hard to generalize in any way about these residents. Their stories and motivations are that diverse. Except for this fact. Rosedale says that Second Life resonates most with people who live in parts of the world with bad weather, limited entertainment options and good broadband connections.

In other words, right here.

Perhaps right now that woman I see at the next table, tapping away at her laptop, is creating her own Second Life send-up to this odd little corner of the world. If she is, I’m sure that she — like Julie and me before her — is having a great time of it.

Curious about Second Life? This link shows a video that will help fill you in.

3 thoughts on “Bored? Let’s put on a metaverse!”

  1. An intriguing new form of expression. Napster was the first sign that record labels were going to lose revenue to grass roots upstarts. It will be interesting to see how film studios respond to this.

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