I’d heard the worrying stories about South African girls trading sex for mobile phone airtime. On South African mobile chatroom, 2Go (a similar low-cost messaging service to the mobile instant messaging service, mXit), a similar kind of exchange is taking place. Every message on 2Go costs a small amount of credits (less than one South African cent). The 2Go website explains that you can send your friends the credits used for chatting, “so that they can be connected with you all the time”. It seems that, among the SA teens who congregate on 2Go in order to chat to strangers and friends via their cellphones, a “bikini pic” might be traded for 300 chat credits, although, in the following case, the offer was rejected:
SlimstaBlont: Suk imand n bikini pic [Anyone want a bikini pic]
Perepiel: Nee vok nimand like terte ni domblond [No f**k no one likes tarts dumb blonde]
SlimstaBlont: Nee ek wil 300 credits he inruil vi dit [No I want 300 credits in exchange for it]
Biets: Slimsta jy’s seka kak lelik? [Slimsta you’re probably extremely ugly]
SlimstaBlont: Hukom sal ek n pic wil stu as ek lelik is? [Why would I want to send a pic if I’m ugly?]
Beerq: Slimsta jou slet [Slimsta you slut]
Biets: Want jy’s n dom blond [Because you’re a dumb blonde]
SlimstaBlont: has left the room
It is certainly entertaining to log in to 2Go and be a chat voyeur, every time I got stuck writing my last PhD chapter I logged in and would always be mildly amused but was often somewhat shocked as well.
On the positive side, there is so much linguistic creativity in the textspeak used. In the example above, I changed all the names to protect the anonymity of the chatters, but they are nonetheless typical of what I saw. Unfortunately it’s really hard to translate the humour of the names into English. (For example, Perepiel (horse d**k) is both far more vulgar and less vulgar than its English equivalent – possibly because of the farming associations and “call a spade a spade” matter-of-factness that are still associated with certain kinds of vocabulary in Afrikaans.) I also love it that so many of the names are made up of a multimodal alphabet, the names themselves are all festooned with visual icons such as smileys, devil’s horns, halos, etc.
I also love the creative Afrikaans spelling, as seen in this parodic example:
Beerq: Is dar enige kak lelike girls waarmee ek kan chat wnt x ni n oil painting, danq, danq [Are there any s**t ugly girls who I can chat to cause I’m no oil painting, thank you, thank you]
Despite wearing the brave new lipgloss of “mobile social networks” hype, there’s nothing new here to anyone who’s ever logged into a chatroom. While ASL (Age Sex Location) is the global standard greeting when strangers meet up in synchronous chats around the world, it’s disturbing that the South African version is ASLR (“Age Sex Location Race”). Here’s how it goes:
A A rough history of the web industry in South Africa by Jarred Cinman This article made me remember: Sitting in a dark office as a grad student late at night, staring at green text on a black screen, amazed at the generosity of the anonymous guides who helped lead the way through the labyrinths of Archie and Veronica. Surviving a move to Bloem with telnet and the UOFS VAX. Distracting myself from bathfulls of bad student essays by following the hilarious flame-wars scorching through alt.politics.feminism. The strangely consoling sound of a dialup modem connecting during the dusty build-up to a Free State storm. Writing my first HTML pages in Notepad, twisting a UOFS sys admin friend’s arm to let me publish it. Begging for permission to use the web in teaching at UCT. Excited discussions about how the web would change everything in higher education …. The first email I got from my Dad (one sweet sentence written telegraph style ♥) The humiliation when Stacey Stent said my first Photoshop nav bar design looked like a gravestone. (It did.)
Oh, and the shocks and general recriminations when those Telkom phone bills arrived …
Some more academic histories of the industry: Robert B. Horwitz and Willie Currie Another instance where privatization trumped liberalization: The politics of telecommunications reform in South Africa—A ten-year retrospective Telecommunications Policy Volume 31, Issues 8-9, September-October 2007, Pages 445-462 Charley Lewis. South AfricaGlobal Information Society Watch Available online at http://www.globaliswatch.org/files/pdf/GISW_SouthAfrica.pdf Charley Lewis. 2005. “Negotiating the Net: The Internet in South Africa (1990–2003) Information Technologies and International Development Spring 2005, Vol. 2, No. 3, Pages 1-28 Richard Collins 2005. From Monopolies, Virtual Monopolies and Oligopolies to … What? Media Policy and Convergence in South Africa and the United Kingdom. Available online at http://link.wits.ac.za/journal/j05-collins-convergence.pdf
Afrigator is an African social media aggregator. The site also gives an idea of the current distribution of bloggers in the continent:
* South Africa 1055 blogs
* Kenya 124 blogs
* Africa General 108 blogs
* Nigeria 93 blogs
The beep could be a callback request, a relational “stroke” to tell a loved one you’re thinking about them, or an instrumental nudge – “it’s time to fetch me”. Just remember that the poorer one “beeps” the richer one and the hopeful suitor never “beeps” the beloved.
This is a great academic paper about the meaning and etiquette of giving someone a “missed call”, also known as “beeping”, “flashing”, “missed calling” or “pranking”. It’s a very familiar practice here in South Africa, and it seems it’s also a global phenomenon, to be found all around the world, wherever airtime is a scarce resource.
I hate shopping. For example, if I find a t-shirt that I like, I usually buy three or four, just in case I don’t go shopping again next year. So it’s pretty hilarious that I’ve indulged in a quiet binge of virtual consumerism over the last few weeks.
Andrew Burn and Diane Carr from the Institute of Education in London asked me to present a graduate seminar for their students in the virtual world, Second Life, as part of their research project, Learning from Online Worlds. In the process of getting ready for this class, I bought an animated set of vampire fangs, got patronised for having a black “skin”, hung out with an Admiral, and started smoking. As if that wasn’t enough to feel embarassed about, I could have fed my family for a week with the amount of bandwidth I splurged while “preparing”. In South Africa we pay through the nose for every MB of data, and Second Life is the proverbial bandwidth hog.
The experience of teaching in Second Life has given me a new perspective on my job as a lecturer. Once you’ve taught in a medium which requires you to construct your physical appearance entirely from pixels and code, and where so many aspects of your identity are customisable, down to the very last freckle and eyelash, you learn to be grateful for the simple user interface of the skin in which you were born (however imperfect and wrinkly it may be). And the overhead it takes to function in this collaboratively illustrated carnivalesque chatroom means that you look back at chalk and talk with a certain nostalgia.
That said, it’s been a fascinating experience. For one thing, I’ve learnt quite a bit about how Second Life character artwork or “skins” are put together and I thought I’d write it down before I forget.
Skinning the self
The image above is a texture map, a graphic which is mapped onto the low resolution three dimensional pollygonal “mesh” and used to create the artwork seen in most computer games and virtual worlds. In game jargon, these texture maps are referred to as “skins”. In Second Life, you can either make your own skin, buy one made by another resident, or make do with the defaults issued when you start playing.
When I first drifted into Second Life back in 2005, I made do with the default “newbie” skin, a free skin which all residents get on arrival in the world. You can then edit your appearance, by changing the default shape, adding more shine to your lipgloss, changing the colour of your eyeshadow, adding freckles, etc. I spent some time doing this, and I remember being totally horrified at the unbelievably ugly result. I’m pretty sure that this was one of the reasons I ran away to World of Warcraft.
This time round, I seriously considered showing up for the seminar wearing the outfit above, one of the default male skins. But, before I’d even finished the training level tutorials, I realised that this butt-ugly default skin was going to drive me insane. And then, later, when I encountered the seasoned residents touting their perfect skins on Help Island I got a very severe attack of pixel envy. (The default skins given to newbies are a lot lower in resolution than the considerably more detailed skins produced and sold by Second Life residents.)
I teach animation and 3D graphics and have an ongoing quest to investigate better ways of teaching 3D concepts. I was really intrigued to know how Second Life had implemented a 3D modelling and animation system for novices, and how easily the characters could be customised. I’d read a bit about Second Life, and understood that if you wanted to move beyond the defaults, you needed to use real money to buy the in-game currency, Linden dollars.
So, I took a deep breath, pulled out my credit card and bought a stash of Lindens (A thousand Lindens trades for about $4). After all, Second Life is where ugly people go to be beautiful, or if that seems too trashy, to be tastefully ugly at high resolutions. Why should I be the only one to be left out?
We usually think of consumerism as being about people buying things, but that’s only part of the picture. In Second Life, people spend real money to buy representations of islands, clothing, cars, and so on, primarily so that they can interact with other people. (Um, ok, money is also virtual I guess, but you know what I mean.) What better evidence for the argument that consumerism has very little to do with buying functional objects. Instead, it is a theatre for us to enact our fantasies about ourselves, in relationship to others. In Second Life, as elsewhere, consumerism is also about being able to flaunt the cultural capital which tells the world who we are, says that we are worthy, that we belong somewhere, or (unfortunately) that we are better than someone else.
Cyberpunk author, Neal Stephenson, created a kind of prototype for Second Life when he wrote his novel Snow Crash. This novel explores a vision of how class differences would come to be expressed in a virtual world which Stephenson called the Metaverse. By spreading a science fiction meme among geeks, some of whom went on to design the software that could turn the vision into code, the novel became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Stephenson’s version of a three-dimensional cyberspace, the Metaverse, certainly inspired Linden’s design for Second Life. It’s just a pity that the designers don’t seem to have gotten the critique implicit in Stephenson’s depiction of the US as a fractured, corporate-ridden society with a huge gulf between rich and poor. Here’s the voice of his narrator, Hiro Protagonist.
This is America. People do whatever the fuck they feel like doing, you got a problem with that? Because they have a right to. And because they have guns and no one can fucking stop them. As a result, this country has one of the worst economies in the world.
In Stephenson’s vision of cyberspace as the Metaverse, the cruel social differentiation of US society continues in the virtual world, where it is signified by thousands of subtle cues, differences of taste, and differential levels of access to customisable high res, realistic avatars.
The couples coming off the monorail can’t afford to have custom avatars made and don’t know how to write their own. They have to buy off-the-shelf avatars. One of the girls has a pretty nice one. It would be considered quite the fashion statement among the K-Tel set. Looks like she has bought the Avatar Construction Set(tm) and put together her own, customized model out of miscellaneous parts. It might even look something like its owner. Her date doesn’t look half bad himself.
The other girl is a Brandy. Her date is a Clint. Brandy and Clint are both popular, off-the-shelf models. When white-trash high school girls are going on a date in the Metaverse, they invariably run down to the computer-games section of the local Wal-Mart and buy a copy of Brandy. The user can select three breast sizes: improbable, impossible, and ludicrous. Brandy has a limited repertoire of facial expressions: cute and pouty; cute and sultry; perky and interested; smiling and receptive; cute and spacy. Her eyelashes are half an inch long, and the software is so cheap that they are rendered as solid ebony chips. When a Brandy flutters her eyelashes, you can almost feel the breeze.
Clint is just the male counterpart of Brandy. He is craggy and handsome and has an extremely limited range of facial expressions.
Hiro wonders, idly, how these two couples got together. They are clearly from disparate social classes. Perhaps older and younger siblings. But then they come down the escalator and disappear into the crowd and become part of the Street, where there are enough Clints and Brandys to found a new ethnic group.
In the novel, the understated classiness of Hiro’s realistic avatar is set against the garishness of “white trash” avatars – the Clints, Brandys and other outlandish personas:
Hiro’s avatar just looks like Hiro, with the difference that no matter what Hiro is wearing in Reality, his avatar always wears a black leather kimono. Most hacker types don’t go in for garish avatars, because they know that it takes a lot more sophistication to render a realistic human face than a talking penis. Kind of the way people who really know clothing can appreciate the fine details that separate a cheap gray wool suit from an expensive hand-tailored gray wool suit.
Skin for sale
Philosophical dilemmas aside, then, when skin is for sale, what does one buy? To buy a new, non-newbish skin in Second Life, you go to one of many large warehouses, which all display rows and rows of huge naked avatars, in all shades, colours, sizes, and (I kid you not) degrees of oiliness. And looking around these warehouses, it appears that, indeed, Stephenson’s ethnic group of Clints and Brandys has gone forth and multiplied. The second life skins may be higher res than Stephenson imagined, but the majority are specialised for the skin-flick genre, exactly as he predicted.
Thinking about nipples as you’re preparing for a class just seems wrong to me on so many levels. Especially when you’re the teacher. So, after my first visit to a skin shop, dazed and a bit nauseated, I fled from the warehouse, popped into a Star Wars sim, and grabbed a nice asexual, genderless, raceless Master Yoda. He came with skin, shape, shoes, hair and accessories, including light-saber, and at first I thought he was a very good solution to my lack of time and general squeamishness about being a Clint or a Brandy. He also seemed to offer a shortcut past a whole lot of interesting identity dilemmas.
While Yoda was just great for zooming around and had a brilliant falling animation, once I started finding more coherent environments where flying was banned, I began to notice his limitations. Firstly, his other animations were very lame. Secondly, I started to feel like those interesting but very strange people on the Trekkies movie who show up at work in their Star Trek uniforms. I needed to mod Master Yoda.
I managed to mod the Yoda skin so that he looked like a really ugly little old man (see picture below). The name I’d chosen to use in Second Life was “Ossie Pienaar”. I’ve worked on game textures before, and figured that with a bit of Photoshopping, I could probably do a “quick and dirty” skin for Ossie and upload it to Second Life. It took me about 30 minutes to create the new skin. It was a bit of a pain because of having to test the artwork in-game, though it is very easy to upload the skin and you can test it on a model face before you have to pay $L10 to upload the artwork. After paying for the upload, it’s a pretty simple matter to apply the texture to the skin’s head (Look in the Skin tab of Edit> Appearance – Second Life calls it a “tattoo”. Then drag the uploaded texture from the Textures folder in your Inventory window onto the “tattoo”).
I later discovered that the skin I used was low res compared to most Second Life skins and so the new Ossie looked a bit out of focus, like someone had smeared makeup all over his face. And of course the home-made skin didn’t help improve his horrid animations. The best I could say of this virtual embodiment of myself was that he was unobtrusive and non-threatening. On the other hand he was a little creepy.
I used the home-made Ossie skin to attend one of Diane and Andrew’s classes in Second Life (see Diane’s screenshot of the Alt-Zoom theatre below). As the class got going, I had to lol. My avatar, Ossie, and Andrew’s avatar, Juniper, inadvertently sat down in the same seat at the same time. When I’d gotten over that embarassment of being the creepy little old man who sat down on other people’s laps, I could relax and enjoy the fascinating discussions of making machinima in Second Life. You can read about it here in Diane’s write-up.
At some stage, I decided that I wanted to experiment with a female identity too and made another login. To be frank, the female avatars in Second Life are a lot better than the male ones, although I preferred to combine the female skins with more modest designs of the “male” clothes. I created a new character with the name “Marigold”. Marigold seemed a good name for a spoilt doll, which is what most of the SL females look like.
Only problem was that, after splurging on Master Yoda, I’d burnt through all my Lindens. Oh and then there was that unfortunately rather expensive newbish misclick on a Wookie. So my next skin would have to be another home-made one. I had no intention of making an avatar that looked anything like myself. This is a fantasy world, after all. I didn’t much care to look like a pretty pink spangled Barbie with flowing yellow candy-floss hair, or like her big sister Brandy, (who is really just Porno Barbie, anatomically correct and prepetually horny). The default shapes are all cousins of these two feminine archetypes of our age, and so, from the available options, I chose a lanky Goth chick, who seemed to be a good starting point for the character I had in mind.
I had realised during the Ossie misadventure that if you adapt your shape too much your animations look odd (I haven’t figured out if there’s any way of re-rigging the 3D puppet). Also you don’t fit into some of the clothing on sale (particularly the skirts and cloaks, which have their own geometry) and you have to resize everything you buy. So I resigned myself to the sad fate of having a supermodel build with gravity-defying boobs and skinny legs. (I could get so used to this.) As a minor sop to the nagging feminist who follows me around everywhere, I did flatten the boobs and fatten up the tummy and butt a bit. Just a bit.
Homage au Molly
Marigold with a portrait of Molly that I used in my SL seminar
I had decided to model Marigold on Molly from William Gibson’s cyberpunk classic, Neuromancer. In the novel,Molly is a hired assassin with the surgically implanted mirrored glasses over her eyes, and ten retractable blades set beneath the nails in her hands. (After a bit of shopping in cyberpunk sims I found a suitable set of blades, but am still looking for the mirrored eye implants.)
It was really a double tribute, as one of my favourite player characters in World of Warcraft is an undead rogue assassin also inspired by Molly. Molly’s player and I were guildmates in WoW, and a couple of months back, I’d interviewed him via IM, and used the interview in a chapter from my PhD. Andrew and Diane had asked me to present this chapter at the seminar. I figured it would be great to have this player there so that the students could ask him questions directly. He muttered a bit about how Second Life sucked compared to World of Warcraft, but eventually he kindly obliged and made a SL login. I’ll call him T.
I was very happy that T had agreed to come along. In tribute to his Molly, I decided to use the WoW undead appearance as a starting point for Marigold and see what emerged. I’ve used programs like MPQ Editor and Xnview to rip textures from World of Warcraft, in the past. I wanted to see how Blizzard puts together the artwork. WoW texture maps are amazingly economical and elegantly designed. They are very economical with filesize and use the maximum amount of mirroring, very different from the SL textures, which don’t seem to use mirroring at all. Of course this means that SL avatars can be more realistic, as too much symmetry is disturbing, and it is probably also easier for novice users to create content if they use a simpler system of UV mapping.
When I started painting Marigold’s skin I took a careful look at an undead female texture from the WoW mpq archive, which was only about an eighth of the resolution of the Second Life skins. I used the same colour scheme as the greenish undead skin and some Photoshop templates and a tutorial from Chip Midnight, when I painted a new skin for the face. Marigold ended up having one of those unnaturally pallid goth complexions which makes whiteness look like some form of skin disease.
With the template as guide, it was a pretty easy job, the only part which went beyond colour by numbers was using alpha transparency to do eyelashes. You can use GiMP, the free open source image editor to open a layered Photoshop (.psd) file if you don’t have a copy of Photoshop. Subsequently, I found better Photoshop CS2 templates If I ever need to do the full skin I’ll use this in-game UV suit to help with the tricky seam-matching. Apparently it can be found in Second Life in Benten (17,105). Oh, and here’s a blow-by-blow illustrated guide to making your very own Corpse Bride.
three such images – one for the head, one for the torso, and one for the legs (and those are downloaded again every time they change outfits). (In the case of your own avatar, it’s a lot more. When you log in or change clothing, you download all the textures for each piece of clothing individually. Once downloaded, these are composited or “baked” into the head, torso, and leg textures. (For example, you might have a tattoo, a shirt and a jacket composited over your torso skin) Head, torso, and leg files are then uploaded to the server for other players to access. They don’t see you properly before they have downloaded these files. Apparently at this stage, you then have to download your own baked textures yet again! Objects such as houses and furniture also have their own textures, although they are not as complex as those on the avatars.
All this downloading takes its toll. All South African ISPs all buy their bandwidth from local Telco giant, Telkom, and so all local ADSL contracts are subject to a 3GB bandwidth cap. In contrast, Second Life was designed around the unlimited bandwidth contracts that most US web users enjoy. Users from many countries outside the US have capped or metered bandwidth contracts, but those in the UK and Australia are likely to be more generous than the South African ones. Nonetheless, I’ve found a couple of desperate posts from such users who complain that Second Life is a “bandwidth hog” and that they burnt through all their bandwidth in a week, or in another case, in a day. Here’s a complaint from a distressed user:
The day after I had explored the world of second life, I logged onto my ISP’s main site to check my bandwidth useage, and I was shocked that out of my 10G that I have for monthly usegage (yes I have high speed), I had used nearly 3Gigs already! And this is just after roughly 8 or so hours online! I had to stop, because if I went any further, my ISP would end up charging me 3$ for every additional Gig that I downloaded over 10!
I called up the Second Life support and they weren’t very helpful. When I asked roughly how much bandwidth useage I should have for second life, he reccomended an “unlimited amount” http://www.sluniverse.com/php/vb/archive/index.php?t-378.html
Given the South African system of metered and “capped” bandwidth, an average ADSL user would only be able to spend a couple of hours in Second LIfe before the ISP would cut off their internet access. Gasping for oxygen, sorry, bandwidth, they’d need to swipe the old credit card again before they could even send an email. Whereas the distressed user above had to pay $3 for every additional Gig, South Africans are more likely to pay about US$12 per Gig when they exceed their cap, which can be as low as 1 or 2 Gigs.
Second Life’s 1MB targa files seem outrageous for an online medium. To put it in perspective, when I assess my students’ web design projects I insist that they should be no more than 40-50KB per page, including all images. Flash and rich media projects obviously need to be bigger, but most of the 30 second Flash animations my students submit are smaller than 1MB (1024KB).
Obviously, the more environments you explore in SL, the more of a hog it will be. So you can reduce your bandwidth use by not going anywhere much. Hrm. There are also settings on SL that can limit the downloading, such as the Edit>Preferences>Graphics>Draw Distance setting, which won’t download distant objects, and you can also skip all the audio and video under Edit>Preferences>Audio&Video>Streaming Preferences . If you change the Edit>Preferences>Disk Cache Size, cache to 1GB, to store the images on your hard drive, it should also save on downloads. After a week or so of ignorance, I figured out how to set Second Life to use a 1GB cache (the maximum), but, infuriatingly, it still seems to need to download environment textures all over again every time I teleport backto certain sims, even when I’ve visited there just a few minutes before, and the textures should all be in the cache. So clearly the textures in the better environments must be pretty high resolution as well.
The Second Life support staff’s ignorance about global bandwidth issues is reflected in the design of the software. Apart from the few options above, there is very little attempt to give users control of their bandwidth use, features which web users have come to take for granted. Although there has been talk about Second Life charging more Lindens for large uploads, nothing seems to have come of it. For example, I accidentally uploaded a couple of 1024*1024 versions of Marigold’s skin, (which weigh in at 4MB each) when I forgot to shrink it down before uploading. It uploaded fine, and there was no warning message or any extra charge. It would be interesting to know how many content creators use such large sizes, and if there is an upper limit on texture resolutions.
Technical issues aside, in Second Life, clothes and skin are gear. In games, gear is a form of social capital, and it signifies the player’s knowledge, status and experience. And, there’s the girl thing of always fussing about what to wear. I imagine this is because, for girls, clothes are gear in the game of real life. (Nerf girls.)
I met a friendly vampire in a roleplaying sim, who helped me accumulate some additional goth credibility by giving me a set of landmarks for interesting places to go shopping and buy myself a better outfit. This is when I purchased the hilarious vampire fangs, and discovered Nomine, which is now officially my favourite mall, since it’s themed like a Gothic cathedral. I bought the outfits designed for male goths, as the female versions looked a bit chilly and definitely NSFW.
At this stage my character design drifted from homage to pastiche. I couldn’t resist adding a Horde tattoo to some shoulders I bought, and then I stole a cloak off the back of an old WoW enemy. (I de-encrypted the .blp texture for Prince Kael’thas’s cloak from the WoW mpq archive, converted it to a jpeg, shuffled it about a bit so that it didn’t use mirroring. Then I saved it as a targa, uploaded it, and applied it to my cloak.) This was really just for fun, and to compare the UV mapping systems.
Before you report me to the IP police at Blizzard, this little experiment was in the interests of science. I wouldn’t sell or share my fannish creations, unlike the horrid WoW sims I found where Second Life residents are selling ripped Blizzard artwork – at the moment there are sims where, alongside the usual infinitely looping porn clips, there are “Ork”(sic) or elf “houses” for sale. The vendors also promise to provide Blood Elf avatars sometime in the future. Predictably, in a world where skin is property and a status symbol, Second Life texture theft is a growing problem – you can read about it here if you don’t mind looking at naked Clints and Brandys.
The last step was to choose the hair – and I settled on a set of long dreads for the African mlungu (honkie). Aint it funny that Mattell never brought out a Dreadlock Barbie?
Choosing clothes was really the fun part. I may have been avoiding the Barbie look, but I suspect that’s really just been an elaborate form of denial. I’m well aware that choosing and trying on all these new outfits harks back to the not-so-innocent childhood pleasures of doing unspeakable things to my long-suffering Barbie and Ken dolls. (I’m absolutely sure that’s why Second Life has so many female residents.)
Anyhow, whatever. I was talking about how much I enjoyed going shopping. These were some of the cool things I found on my travels:
Arch demon pixie wings in bright red, by Material Squirrel.
Unisex thigh scar, by Auntie Entity
Cossack boots – guerilla style, by Ambush
Viscount jacket and pants by AVid
Eye-patch from the Groll Inn pirate hideout
EBT tribal accents tattoo undershirt
Mask, scarf and bandana for upper left and right arms for Female Ninja Scout
Flexi Dreads, by JH Dreads
The Russet Bindhi
As a South African, I’m sensitive about skin colour. In fact, I’m hyperallergenic on that topic. In the skin shop, I looked up at an expanse of skins, saw the whole rainbow nation was on sale, and laughed at the oddity of it all. Quite an amazing feeling – the freedom of being able to choose whether my avatar should be white or black, with a whole lot of additional options, including green and pink. In true Imelda Marcos style, I couldn’t choose and simply started a collection.
That said, I really hate the fact that the default colour on the Second Life avatars is white, and that you just never see dark-skinned avatars in these online environments. Most people in the real world are dark-skinned, dammit. There are probably a couple of reasons for this. For one thing, global economic and geographic inequities mean that you don’t find many Africans playing online games. For another thing, a version of the doll test might be coming into play here.
And of course, it doesn’t help that even the simulated lighting in Second Life makes darker avatars look, well, bleh. There are a couple of tricks to photographing darker-skinned people, and photographers I’ve spoken to say that they need to use different techniques than when they photograph whiteys. You bring in specular highlights from both sides to bring out the detail in the faces, and I can imagine that this applies to a 3D world as well.
I bought “Russet Punk Bindhi” by Nomine, a dark skin with green patterns around the eyes, named after the Hindi forehead decoration for married women. When I wore that skin I got lots of patronising comments from residents who found it worth commenting that a black person (they thought) was playing Second Life. When Andy Carvin observed last year how few African avatars there are in Second Life, he decided to create an avatar based on a former child soldier from Somalia. Apparently he was consistently ignored by other players: “people tended to just act as if I just weren’t even there”.
I didn’t have that experience, which suggests that people’s lack of interest in Carvin’s avatar may have had more to do with some factor (gender? lacking in the “Clint” department?) other than the colour of its skin. Still, it was interesting (and yet very uncomfortable) that so many players assumed that only someone who was black in real life would want to choose a black skin. I enjoyed making people take notice of a black avatar, but often I felt like I was masquerading, pretending to be something that I wasn’t. An interesting response, because I’m a seasoned roleplayer. I’m not a skinny goth chick, or an ugly old man, but it really didn’t bother me to assume either of those roles, although the persona vs character distinction is not well established among second life users. I suppose it also felt worse because identity tourism and sex tourism are never too far apart in Second Life.
In the Russet Bindhi skin, other residents applauded me for even being in Second Life, and several offered me free things when they heard I was from South Africa. I did see a couple of other avatars with dark skins. None were very dark, and (surprise) most were criminal and thug types in a Mafia sim. I found one or two sims that sold African-styled clothing, and I visited one “African village” where visitors could rent (oddly geometric) grass huts, or dazzle with their African dance animations on the psychedelic dancefloor. Oh, and then there was the seemingly obligatory bubbling hot tub. Simply a must for any self-respecting African village.
In another sim, one very chivalrous chap in a top hat, who claimed to be an Admiral, offered Marigold free lodging in his dirigible. It didn’t seem to put him off that I had dressed her in a horribly blood-soaked wedding dress. I might be wrong, but this attitude seemed to be a variant of the way male players often patronise female players in online games – whereas females are all assumed to be incompetent, dark skinned avatars are assumed to be indigent. (And no, I didn’t take up the Admiral’s offer of accommodation.)
In Snowcrash, the Metaverse had a complex pecking order for avatars, from the custom-made avatars of movie and rock stars down to the low res, “black-and-white-people” right at the bottom of the avatar food chain. These are the avatars of people who access the Metaverse through cheap public terminals, and they are rendered without embellishment in grainy black and white, like an animated fax or photocopy.
In the novel, the character Juanita is Hiro’s former flame, and a revered hacker (programmer) who designed the system of communicating realistic facial expressions through avatars. She now rejects the inauthenticity of her own creation, and in an ascetic move, appears in a “black and white” avatar. Stephenson suggests that the player can bring life and beauty to even such an unworthy vehicle.
Hiro turns around. Juanita is right behind him, standing out in her black-and-white avatar, looking good anyway. “How are you?” she asks.
“Fine. How are you?”
“Great. I hope you don’t mind talking to me in this ugly fax-of-life avatar.”
“Juanita, I would rather look at a fax of you than most other women in the flesh.”
I can’t say I experienced this kind of transcendence with anyone I met in SL yet, but I can relate to Hiro’s sentiment. When it came to the day of the seminar, I stopped thinking about skins. I honestly couldn’t tell you what everyone’s avatars looked like during the class. My attention was focused almost entirely on the chat window, to the extent that I totally forgot to take any screenshots.
The seminar focused on the roleplaying subcultures in World of Warcraft. I’ll always remember the amazing experience of meeting Andrew and Diane’s interesting students. Tand I talked about our experiences, and then the students asked some very thoughtful questions. For example, we discussed the meaning of roleplaying, and they contrasted the fantasy genres of play with the documentary impulse in some Second Life projects which create virtual equivalents for real-world places.They also tried to make the connections between our accounts of in-game roleplaying, and their understanding of roles in games generally, and with children’s fantasy play. I also loved meeting Diane and Andrew’s online personas – they were very warm, funny and engaging, great facilitators of the discussion, and they came across as very much in tune with their students.
The screenshot below gives an idea of what the class looked like. T and I are the pale sickly looking ones in black, (I’d taken him shopping with me in the Nomine cathedral, and so he also assumed a pale vampirish persona.) Andrew has the downcast bald head, and Diane is the shortie in front. The white, blue, and black-haired avatars in the foreground are students. (Thanks to Diane for the screenshot!) For most of the session everyone just stood in the same place on the top of a building in the steampunk city of New Babbage. Retrospectively, I feel bad about not providing more seating (I only had time to make one crate before the class, and so everyone except T had to stand around for the whole session). .
I’m not altogether sure what the Second Life environment added to the educational experience, and I would love to hear what the students have to say.I did think that running the classes in Second Life was a brilliant way of allowing students to experience the staggering creativity and interesting conventions of fan subcultures. To be honest, I was worried about how to run a graduate seminar in such a garrulous, distracting medium (which is why I chose the rooftop setting for the class), and I found myself resorting to the rather traditional teacherly device of presenting a sequence of images on an over-sized screen. That said, there was not much about the class that couldn’t have worked equally well in a chatroom.
Looking at the whole thing a bit more cynically, education is not separate from our consumer society, and the choices we make in education are also used to project our identities. I know that “Innovative technologies” is a signifier used by universities like my own to claim higher quality education and to differentiate us from the herd on the street. For this reason, in the field of educational technology, technologies like chatrooms that would have been cutting-edge ten ago are now passe, deserted by researchers and the proselytising e-Learning pundits who turn their attention to newer and shinier technologies.
Less cynically perhaps, the immersion in the Second Life setting did make a difference. In a strange kind of way, during the class I did feel we were all together in one space, a cohesive group. I was always aware of all the students who were there, even when they weren’t participating in the conversation, and that’s not always the case in a chatroom, where the lurkers tend to disappear from everyone’s awareness. Seeing me dressed up in my vampire cloak and assassin garb was probably a good introduction to my general attitude in online environments, and that might help the students to read my research paper in a more contextual way (or encourage them to dismiss it out of hand!).
Teaching South African students in Second Life
My skinning experiments suggested that Second Life could be a great way to introduce 3D animationconcepts to beginners, if you made sure to introduce them to the correct vocabulary while showing them how to use the interface. (e.g. talk to them about texture maps, UVs and scaling rather than “tattoos” and “stretching”). Although I really didn’t have time to explore modelling and building in Second Life, I’m sure that the plethora of player-created objects could be used to learn about construction techniques, and I imagine that students would be hugely motivated by the presence of a built-in audience (and potential customers) for their creations.
Africa is more than just a setting for Westerners’ sexual fantasies, but if you do a search for “Africa” in Second Life, I challenge you to come up with anything else. I can imagine some great projects that would help to expand the representation of Africa in Second Life.That said, it is probably a waste of energy to put a lot of work into something that few from this continent will be able to afford to access. There’s the issue of needing to buy Linden dollars in US currency, and added to that the cost of bandwidth here at the toe-end of Africa. (Stephenson’s novel didn’t predict how the cost of bandwidth is such a significant barrier to online participation for many people around the world.)
Sadly, neither my university nor my individual students would have access to the kind of bandwidth needed to make such projects feasible for a large number of students. I’d probably need to arrange some kind of special permission for small production classes. This is not really ideal, because they’d be “speaking to the other” or addressing themselves to audiences in the developed world, without a sense of a significant local audience, unless I made it a machinima project.
Possibly the bandwidth issues can be circumvented in the future. For one thing, increased competition is slowly bringing down the cost of broadband, and 2006 saw a sudden leap in the number of broadband users in SA. I’ve also read that certain Australian ISPs provide unmetered access to certain Second Life IP addresses.(Although this is probably a pipe dream right now for South Africa, I can imagine that in a more competitive telecommunications environment, it could be in the ISP’s interests to offer this kind of deal. I suppose Second Life users are likely to go online more often, and create more revenue for the ISPs via the metered video and audio they download from other users.)
Alternatively Second LIfe could change, and try to cater for a more global audience. I could imagine a minimalist design movement in Second Life, sims which are the equivalent of Stephenson’s “black-and-whites” which make accessibility a virtue, thus encouraging broader access. Or else a sim which promoted the exploration of the aesthetic potential of a stripped-down modernist aesthetic and made imaginative efficient use of available bandwidth and textures. There are strong precedents for both these approaches to design on the Web, and it would really be interesting to see how they transfer to 3D
At the moment though, in Second Life, there are no “black-and-white people” to remind residents that not everyone enjoys equal access to the networks of power. I’m not such a technophile as to think that it will be too much of a disadvantage to my students for them not to have access to a Second Life. That said, it will be to the detriment of Second Life and our society as a whole not to have them and others from this continent representing themselves as a part of the virtual world.
It’s been both a hilarious and rather thought-provoking experience. Next time I have a moment, I’ll write more about the fun I had while scouting for locations in Second Life fan subcultures.