Harbinger of Change?
It seems to me that Phaylen Fairchild’s recent “Harbinger”, a 15-minute mixed-reality short film, is all set to break new ground and get people thinking differently about Second Life, other virtual worlds like InWorldz, and machinima in general.  I don’t really know enough about the machinima world to know if it has or will, but I can report that it has at least done so to my perspective of it.  If it does, it will not only be a huge success, but it will also live up to its name, as a harbinger of such new thought (and probably a few copycat videos).  Still, today I spotted this Twitter message, and it echoes the feeling I had after watching Harbinger:


Not that I don’t think @phaylens Harbinger isn’t the best thing ever, but you heard about bad pr and branding @secondlife ?
I have to admit that I was thinking exactly the same thing after watching Harbinger, but that message forced me to reconsider those initial thoughts. I had a certain uneasy feeling after watching the video; I didn’t exactly welcome the idea of people thinking differently about virtual worlds, or at least not in that way, or to the degree to which that film may push thoughts.  But I can’t in any way fault the film for this — isn’t that the whole point of it?  It’s a tremendous success if it does.  And if I understand things, it is specifically meant to scare the crap out of you.  And maybe even give you a few chills if you see anything that reminds you of the film next time you are online.  (Ooh, creepy.)

On the one hand, I want to encourage new, uninformed users to become active residents in virtual worlds.  On the other hand, this short film is exceptional in it’s “creepy online world” factor.  It could go viral, but if I was VP of Marketing at Linden Lab, would I want to put the movie trailer on the secondlife.com website?  Probably not.  That would be a bit like the using “Hostel” to promote the tourism industry.

The combination of the Life 2.0 movie as a mainstream film, and now the publication of Phaylen’s Harbinger film, may not be the best encouragement for attracting new fans to virtual worlds.  But two points here…

First, we don’t really know.  All the hip young target market kids (under 30 I mean, I’m old) who really “dig” this stuff (ok now I’m really old) might watch it and say “oh I need to go check that place out”.  I mean… do we really know that “Hostel” hasn’t helped European tourism?

And second, so what.  I saw “Jaws” in the theatre, when it first came out.  There was nothing really like that at all at the time, and I remember leaving the theatre physically shaking.  (I was young, and probably should not have seen it then, but was that my first taste of a virtual world entering my reality?)  It broke new ground, and was an amazing boost to a young Steven Spielberg’s career.  Did it help tourism at beaches?  Probably not.  Was it good creepy entertainment?  Hell yes. 

“Virtual is Virtual, Real is Real”

Where things really get interesting for me is when considering how to respond to the average uninformed person or novice virtual lifer who might watch “Harbinger”.  My first thought was easy: “Well, it’s just a movie.  It’s not real.”  But then again, isn’t that what they say about the virtual worlds?  Hmm.

For those who recognize it entirely as a fictional film, there is your answer.  And those are the folks who might actually be encouraged to connect online by these movies.

Others who might avoid virtual worlds (or log in and socialize with added care) after seeing these, might be guilty of making real, in their minds, a fictional story in a virtual world. 

There is no “real”.  There is no virtual.  There is only what we make of it.  And even there, I feel the need to reject “real” as some kind of boolean status that is either true or false, and accept it more as range of real values, like a number line where you could pick a spot anywhere along the line.  It is a spectrum of possible mixtures of real and virtual.  And then there’s the question of whether it would be a line… or a circle.  (I think it would be more accurate to describe it using well beyond two or three dimensions, but let’s not go there.)

A wise man once said that there is a fine line between clever and stupid, and in my work office we take that to mean that if you become so over-the-top clever, especially when it is not necessary, that cleverness could turn to stupidity of the worst kind.  In other words, the spectrum wraps, with one extreme meeting the opposite extreme.

“Virtual is Real, Real is Virtual

If you accept that real and virtual are not simple boolean states but rather a long line or spectrum where it is possible that the that status is blended between the two — and I think most veterans of virtual worlds accept that the boundaries are at least blurry — then a similar “fine line” may exist here.  I cannot help but wonder if the same kind of circle might exist for the line representing the real versus virtual spectrum, where if you go deep enough into a virtual world, emulating the physical world in the most intense detail possible, could it in fact become entirely real?  At least to you?  If you push a virtual world so hard that you model most of your real world within that virtual world, you may cross that line from virtual back into real without even realizing it.

Could, in fact, that intense virtual world become your real life (RL)?  Of if you bring as much of your real life into that virtual world as possible, do things change over time such that as you interact with that world, does it become real?  Are you in fact bringing the virtual world back out again in the second half a two-way transfer?  The BBC’s “Wonderland” show on romance in Second Life showed that some people cross into real life in a very positive way, and perhaps turn their virtual selves into their physical selves.  In the YouTube comments for that video, I spotted the following:

as long as you know that SL is SL and RL and RL, then i don’t see the problem. i’ve been playing for about a year. it’s a break from RL and you can virtually experience things you may not be able to do for real. also, the people behind the avatars are just that — people. i mostly make a small income from building and graphics, but i recently met someone i really care about. we chat on yahoo and talk on the phone as well. i don’t think how we met makes how we feel about each other any less real

After four years in Second Life (SL), this comment could not be any more typical to me.  It is neither accurate, nor completely wrong, even though it starts on one side of the debate and finishes on the other side.

There is no hard boundary between RL and SL (or other virtual worlds).  The more of RL that they emulate, the greater the mix available within that spectrum.  It is not as boolean as was represented by the first sentence in the quote above, but rather the key part of that sentence is the conditional nature of it.  Yes, if you choose to slot everything in a real or virtual category and never let them meet, then they are distinct.  It seems to me that this is only true because of the definition: if you keep them distinct, they will remain distinct.

It’s funny how that quote started with the whole “RL is RL” attitude, but the rest of the quote is about how the author’s virtual life is real.  It is real because the author chooses to consider it real.

There are those who fundamentally believe in the hard line between virtual and real lives.  Griefers who log in solely for the lulz, for example, see virtual worldz as a big game.  And there is nothing wrong with how they see it (at least if you separate their anti-social attitude from their concept of real and virtual): Yes, there are real people behind the others in the game, but they are still just other players in the game, so “none of it matters”.  Truth is, none of it matters to them.  But even for those griefers, if they hang around a little longer, meet some of those other “players”, they could unwittingly be drawn into allowing it to mean more to them than a just virtual gaming environment.  And that’s where the boolean status of being virtual begins to turn … um… real. (That was so far into pun territory that it actually fully occupies both meanings.  I actually meant “less defined”, “blurry”, as in real numbers as opposed to integers.)

Is it Crossing Over to Real Life, or Becoming Real?
The couple in the Wonderland clip above have more than crossed over into real life from Second Life.  I hear that expression from time to time, as if it is a great divide with a bridge you can walk across.  I intentionally used that expression above in the Wonderland comments, but especially in that case, I would argue that no crossing over has occurred.  I would argue that they have actually taken their virtual selves (which may have originally been based on their real selves) and overlaid their virtual lives onto their physical existence.  In fact, their lives at the end of the story are more like their virtual lives than their real lives at the start of their stories, which were troubled and grim.

Over the four years that I have been involved, my avatar has changed personalities dramatically.  Originally it was … me.  My physical self, even though it did not look like me (much).  However, as of my entry into InWorldz in 2010, my avatar personality and physical self are almost entirely the same person, again as it was when I started Second Life in 2006.  But a very different personality than in 2006.  Sure, my actual appearance is different than RL (and I don’t actually have a single tattoo in RL), but just as it was in 2006, my personalities in both worlds have fused together as one again.  I description of who I am in RL is pretty much the same as who Jim Tarber is… now.

But over the course of those four years, I have lived the lives of several different avatars, typically creating them for some specific purpose (e.g. role-play, store sales, escaping), then allowing that alternate person to explore a different direction than my previous avatar had taken.

I think the most important point here was that this let me explore many different possible directions, and not just in the virtual world.  It allowed me to “find myself”.  Not just my virtual self, but my inner being.  For the first time in my life, I have some idea of who I am, and I mean in the real world.  I have no idea in which direction I am going, but I finally know who I am at this time.  It has been a very painful journey.  But very much like a blind middle-aged man seeing everything for the first time, it is both wonderful and terrifying, emotional and overwhelming when you see where you have been, and who you thought you were for all those years when your arrows were missing their target and you just didn’t know.  Ignorance may be bliss, but the other side of that is that the awakening may be incredibly painful, especially if changes are needed.  But in the end, it feels like it was worth it, in the sense that things had to change.

My virtual life has become my real life, and I know who I am now, thanks to being able to test my real life in a virtual environment.  Now where are those Appearance belly sliders?