Thursday, October 25, 2007

'CSI N.Y': Layers of Fantasy posing as Reality

Last night, First Life met Second Life in a television programme called 'CSI N.Y.'. As it aired on television in the 'real world', a virtual CSI N.Y. was created in Second Life. Residents were invited to 'join' the investigating team to solve a couple of murders.

It was a provocative and rather intriguing concept, but the execution of it left a lot to be desired. Ultimately, it was a marketing ploy to bring more new 'players' to Second Life as well as advertising the show to existing players.

Although I never was a fan of the show, I decided to watch it and to participate in the Second Life interactive experience. I therefore logged into Second Life with my avatar and went to the CSI Sim for my induction into the 'team'. Here I was given a toolbar, some basic instructions and finally a badge to wear. One essentially followed red arrows down a road, then clicked on a couple of pieces of evidence, took them to a laboratory for 'processing', watched virtual 'interviews' of a couple of suspects and finally chose a suspect in the case. This was the Second Life experience.

It was not that well-attended, given the number of 'residents' that were logged into Second Life at that point in time. It is a permanent Sim, however, with an ongoing series of investigations as well as a number of different games that one can play.

To be honest, though, it was a little disappointing. Given the amount of money that CBS has, they could have done far more. I have had far better experiences in Second Life at private Sims created by one creative individual!

At the same time as I was 'exploring' the world of CSI in Second Life, the episode about Second Life was airing on the television. It was designed obviously to introduce non-users to the world of Second Life, with basic tutorials about creating an avatar and moving about inworld. Having done that, the creators of the show then proceeded to inundate the viewer with every sensational aspect of 'virtual reality'. There were bloody 'gladiatorial games' in an SL arena. There was some sort of scene involving a mystical Himalayan-style Sim in which 'magic' and arcane knowledge apparently was intended to feature. Wings and furries abounded. The RL characters whose avatars were involved in the 'plot' were not ordinary individuals by any means. One was a congressman; one was a young man with MS and another was a professional assassin. The man with MS rather plaintively declared that he could not find love in RL but could have romances easily in SL, a cheap attempt to wring the heartstrings of the audience.

In fact, I think it is truly wrong to depict Second Life or any 'virtual reality' as a place where individuals who are 'unloved' in the real world will find love. Neither physical appearance nor physical ability are the foundation of love and to encourage a philosophy wherein disabled or otherwise 'less than perfect' individuals use a virtual reality to find what cannot be found in the real world is outrageous.

Every one would like to have a chance to be beautiful. Many would like to enjoy the experience of having wings or being animals. It is wrong, however, to claim that any emotional or real experience is denied to an individual in real life because he or she lacks some physical component. Cyrano de Bergerac made that clear centuries ago. It is a mistake to attempt to hide behind a perfect facade.

In the 'CSI: NY' episode, one individual actually underwent plastic surgery to look more like the avatar created before arranging to meet the target of the SL romance. This is sheer sensationalism. There are many Second Life romances that actually move into the First Life and they are based on REAL considerations, not on the superficial physical appearance of their avatars.

The plot in fact was extremely far-fetched and never made much sense to me. Of course, I was busy trying to disentangle the threads of two different 'virtual' cases at the same time. Even so, I found the entire exercise less than satisfying.
If the design was to encourage 'ordinary' individuals to explore Second Life, I believe it failed miserably. The level of violence and bizarre fantasy depicted in the episode only could appeal to the sort of individuals who understand the allure of games and have enough computer expertise to want to make the effort for the purpose of experiencing virtual romance/sex or combat. These are not the aspects of Second Life that would appeal to most 'ordinary' viewers of the show.

There was no mention of the many academic institutions in SL, nor of the art galleries, concerts and serious role-playing Sims. There was no exploration of building or creating, no exploration of scripting. The fantastic potential in SL to create anything that a human being could visualise was not explored. There were no avatars who simply met on the grounds of common interests and who thereby developed REAL relationships in either or both worlds.

What they DID explore was the self-replicating griefer tactic. What they DID explore was the ability to deceive in terms of identity, gender-bending and other sensational topics. The episode was designed to familiarise views with common SL terms, including 'calling cards' and 'Lindens'. I suppose it achieved THAT goal.

In fact, the creation of a virtual 'CSI: NY' Sim is an interesting addition to SL and allowing visitors to participate in a number of different games and contests could be intriguing. What I see, however, is the increasing commercialisation of a game that was designed to give its participants almost limitless ability to create their own dreams rather than being involved in marketing devices from the First World.

Of course, as a friend of mine often remarks, when Linden Labs set themselves up as gods in Second Life by taking responsibility for the content in SL, true freedom of action and expression was lost. The Lindens decide what will be allowed and what will not be allowed. It is not pornography that is most threatened by this control factor. One of the biggest casualties was gambling. Poliltical propaganda rears its ugly head as well in SL. For example, anything related to 'Nazi' has been outlawed in Second Life because 'Nazi' in contemporary society has been made tantamount to 'utterly evil, without any redeeming qualities.' To me, this smacks of double standards and moral hypocrisy.

Nazis are human beings and like all human beings, there were and are good Nazis and bad Nazis. This is NOT what our society has been brainwashed to believe, however. 'The only good Nazi is a dead Nazi' is the new philosophy and what is terrifying to me is that people swallow this principle whole, without any dispute. One should try to remember that, even in England and the States before the Second World War, many respected intellectuals and other individuals of great substance and merit actually admired Hitler and the Third Reich. In many cases, whatever they admired WAS real. There were less admirable qualities as well, but why is every one afraid to admit that good as well as evil was demonstrated there?

Honour is a good principle. Love of heritage is a good principle. Much of the philosophical basis of the Third Reich is to be found in the very foundation of Western civilisation, in all epic poetry and in every great novel or tale of heroism.
Why is that not recognised?

Some dreams are allowed in Second Life, but others are not. Gorean Sims abound, where women in general are considered slaves and led about dripping with chains but any one who sports a swastika will be slapped down immediately. Vampire Sims are not unusual, and fountains of blood are commonplace but if one were to reconstruct some of the great buildings of Nazi Germany and fly flags of the Third Reich above them, I'd wager that would last a day or two at best before being removed from the grid. The fact that the swastika is an ancient symbol of the sun or that the Nazi movement inspired some very great art as well as being a genuine part of history is disregarded completely. Of course, Second Life is merely following Hollywood's lead in this respect... but I would have hoped that it might have been better than that!

It is here that the old question is once again raised: does any one have the right to censor thoughts and fantasies? Second Life is a virtual reality, not reality itself. Ruthlessly denying any expression relating to the old Nazi movement only will make it more attractive as a symbol of social rebellion! Moreover, it is extremely dangerous to portray history in 'black and white' terms. People only can be expected truly to learn from the past if the past is studied and explored honestly rather than being perverted to achieve current political propagandist goals.

In this respect, the ongoing presence of CBS, one of the media behemoths, is simply one more factor that is bound to further the homogenisation of Second Life and ultimately strip it of its individualist and rather maverick nature. I wonder how many views of the episode last night now perceive Second Life as the rather cartoonish and completely superficial fantasy depicted on the programme. If I were Linden Labs, I quickly would enlist the aid of an independent film-maker to create a drama of some substance to actually show some of the beauty and mystery inherent in this virtual reality. If they believe that the addition of CSI:N.Y. to SL will have a positive effect, they may be sadly mistaken.

Furthermore, how long will it take for RL advertisers to persuade Linden Labs to allow pop-ups whenever residents log into the grid. The internet has become increasingly clogged with advertising rubbish. AOL once was a paid service that kept its domain fairly free of advertisements. Now, each time one writes or reads an email, a new advertisement appears on the side of it. These advertisements are not merely a word or two 'from our sponsors' but include streaming media and other technology that slows down the performance of any computer as well as representing an invasive entity in communication that should be private.

'Free' is one of the most seductive and pernicious concepts in marketing. We are not even given a choice in many situations. We have to accept the 'free' gift that is loaded with undesirable elements. How many 'cookies' are dumped onto our computers with a visit to any site for research purposes? How many advertisements pop up whenever we make a move in cyberspace?

In one of his novels, Philip Dick envisioned a future wherein humanity actually would be followed about by walking, talking advertisements, dogging our footsteps day and night. As usual, he was a true visionary. Let us hope that no one is able to convince Linden Labs to allow this sort of invasion in Second Life!

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