Blame It on the Boogie

Exciting news from Scandinavia this week, where Swedish developers MindArk (the team behind Entropia Universe) have teamed up with the Michael Jackson estate to produce Planet Michael, “an innovative interactive gaming and social experience that celebrates Michael Jackson’s life as an artist and humanitarian”.

I could use this as a cue for a whole host of bad-taste jokes, but we’re much too classy for that here at SLS, so instead I’ll note that MindArk, along with other virtual world firms like (NSFW) Utherverse Digital Inc., seem to be following the sort of business plan that we’ve been advocating for Second Life for a while; don’t chase the mass market, go for the niche customers who are willing to pay a premium for the particular virtual experience they are interested in.

Thoughts on the Pitt Meadows case

A disturbing story came out of Canada last week; a 16 year old girl was reportedly drugged and gang-raped at an illegal rave in Pitt Meadows, near Vancouver. That’s horrifying enough of course, but what followed made things worse; pictures of the alleged incident were posted on Facebook, and while they were taken down by the site soon after, the images had already gone viral and spread world-wide.

It’s hard to imagine what the people who downloaded and distributed these images were thinking, but I suspect that few of them would see themselves as publishers of violent child pornography, which is what their actions amount to. It seems to be another example of the distancing effect of virtual communication, something we’ve commented on before. The medium can detach people from the emotional content of the information it carries, so that everything is reduced to affectless sensation, and a brutal sexual assault becomes just another transient distraction.

It’s only a tiny minority of internet users who are as morally blunted as this of course, as the outraged reaction to this story shows. I would guess that in most cases the people who passed on the pictures were acting thoughtlessly rather than malevolently, and felt guilty once they had considered it for more than the few seconds it takes to click “Fw:”.

It’s open to debate whether modern social media have created this type of behaviour or merely facilitated it. I would say it is a mixture of the two; the likes of Facebook and Twitter may not be responsible for what people think, but they do lower the barrier between thoughts and actions, allowing impulses that would previously have gone unexpressed to find their way to the surface.

There will be those who point to the Pitt Meadows case as an another example of how our society is going to the dogs, as traditional bonds of family and community are displaced by empathy-free Facebook “friendship”. The counter-argument, which I tend to favour, is that, far from weakening our ability to relate to our fellow humans, the new channels of communication opened up by social media, untrammelled as they are by limits of culture or geography, actually provide us with a greater opportunity to experience our shared humanity. Sometimes this process will highlight the darker side of our collective character, but mostly it has the potential to be a force for good.

The rest is silence

Back in the days of my youth there existed a publication called Soviet Weekly, which one could buy from old tankies on demonstrations, or pick up from big piles that were left in the foyers of certain union offices. It carried uplifting stories about grain surpluses in the Ukraine, or record tractor production in Minsk, along with pictures of heroic cosmonauts, and smiling orphans enjoying free holidays on the Black Sea, all painting a picture of the workers’ paradise that was the Soviet Union. It was always detached from reality of course, and by the late 1980’s it had become completely surreal. Not long before the USSR finally fell apart Soviet Weekly disappeared, and even a few weeks later it was hard to imagine that it had ever existed at all. (It has vanished so completely there is hardly a trace of it on the internet; all I could find were a couple of scans and some old copies for sale on eBay).

I always imagined that the end came for Soviet Weekly when the strain of reconciling what was actually happening with the Party line plunged the editors into some sort of existential crisis, but actually it seems unlikely that anyone took an active decision to kill it off, such was the ossification of the Soviet bureaucracy by that time. The final blow was probably struck by something mundane, like the embassy running out of money to pay the printers, or the old Telex machine breaking down.

Anyway, I was thinking of this when I read that Hamlet Au was throwing in the towel at New World Notes and decamping to perennial next-big-thing Blue Mars.

I don’t want to suggest that Hamlet’s essentially harmless SL-boosting was ever the equivalent of glossing over the legacy of Stalinism, but I do wonder if, like the editors of Soviet Weekly, he eventually found the continuous demand to find positive things to write about a world that was crumbling around him just to difficult to sustain.

Brainy Dead

We haven’t had a zombie story for a while, so here’s a good one; Baltimore University is offering a course in Zombie Studies, which gives students the chance to “get … ready for a zombie apocalypse.”

“[Students] think they’re taking this wacko zombie course,” says Jonathan Shorr, chairman of the university’s school of communications design, “But on the way, they learn how literature and mass media work, and how they come to reflect our times.”

This is the kind of thing that makes me wish I was a student again; it sounds considerably more interesting than any course in my undergraduate curriculum, and, if the worst happens, it may turn out more practical too.

(For more academic commentary on the living dead see this post from our crypt).

Running Away

I rather belatedly got around to reading the latest issue of the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research this week, and, among a number of interesting articles, one in particular caught my eye. Who am I – and if so, where? A Study on Personality in Virtual Realities, by Benjamin Gregor Aas, Katharina Meyerbröker and Paul M. G. Emmelkamp, reports on a Dutch study looking at the question “How stable are personality traits when entering a virtual reality?” (This was an issue I identified as worth investigating back in the early days of this blog, though of course I never did anything about it).

The authors recruited 57 psychology undergraduates at the University of Amsterdam, and got them to sign up to Second Life (interestingly, only two of them already had accounts). They then had them complete an in-world version of a standard personality inventory, and compared the outcomes with the results generated when the same students took the test on paper, 7 months previously, during their induction.

The headline result was that the test results were stable over the two settings; the personality traits of the participants did not vary between the real world and the virtual world. This was true over all of the five dimensions measured by the test – extraversion, friendliness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and development.

This result is at once encouraging and depressing. Encouraging because, as the authors note, it suggests that “virtual realities could function as new reliable platforms to assess participants for psychological research”, and depressing because it implies that, however much we dream of liberating a new personality in the virtual world, our old selves will always catch us up.

Twilight of the Gods

A couple of posts ago I was pondering the question of why I completely lack any sort of religious sensibility; it turns out that it’s because I am perfectly in tune with the Universe.

It would be nice to think that, now reason has banished God from both biology and physics, the proponents of organised religion would accept that the game was up, and fade away without a fuss, but, as I touched on in that post, I expect that won’t be happening any time soon.