Picture 1: Symbol of Second Life. The eye that sees, the hand that makes.
Technological advances create new digital forms and things that challenge what we know about our reality. Video games, as they come to realistically simulate our real lives more and more, hold an essential position in this controversy. Here, I would like to look at one of the most fleshed out examples available, Second Life.
Second Life (henceforth SL) is an online content-creation platform that brings together users worldwide. It thrives in providing users with the opportunity to create a second life that surmounts some of the constraints of their first or real lives. SL expands and transforms with the actions of its makers (or users) and creators (employees of Linden Lab). It may or may not be considered a game per se. It has game-like features at first glance but it does not have ‘game objectives’. What makes it more of a game is its reliance on social objectives that define users’ success and failure (Mallaby (2009), 82-84, 98-106). SL has a community structure quite peculiar to its own, a fully-fledged user is also a fully-fledged member of this community. The not-game-like aspect of SL builds upon the tools it provides the users with to allow them to make whatever they want in their second lives. Users can design, make and use within the virtual world of SL houses, motorbikes, chairs, rocket backpacks; actions and gestures such as sitting (which added more sense to the making of chairs and then generated a custom to sit down while having a chat), dancing, or specific poses; and finally more prior to all these makings the design of the user’s avatar, which is the virtual face and the body through which the user acts in SL.
This second and more tool-like aspect of SL raises questions about what we call a tool, an object, an act of making, an infrastructure and a virtual world. After all, all the tools within the game and the ones that are used to make the game (which are mostly the same as noted by Malaby, 2009) are software-based. The virtual world of SL is made up of and manipulated by code. The actions and events that take place within SL are ultimately changes in the code structure. So when is a line of code a tool, an avatar, a world, an infrastructure? Our conventional definitions hardly suffice to prove explanatory. In their ethnography about the Worm Community System, which is a large-scale custom software effort for geneticists around the world to interact and share information, Star and Ruthleder argue that focusing on the relational aspects of infrastructures allows us to explain the newly-emergent digitalized infrastructures (Star and Ruthleder, 1996). They also note Yrgö Engestörm’s relational approach to tools which can be applied to digitalized tools, such as the ones included in SL. For him, a tool is a tool ‘in practice, for someone, when connected to some particular activity’ (Star and Ruthleder, 1996, 112). In this vein, an infrastructure ’emerges for people in practice, connected to activities and structures’ (ibid.). The main tools that allow content-creation are tools for building, scripting and texture mapping.
Picture 2: Build tools in SL.
I would like to note one of the relational aspects noted by Star and Ruthleder, ‘becoming visible upon breakdown’, in attempt to elaborate on her point a little more (1996: Star, 1999). Infrastructures are invisible to use but become visible upon breakdowns, such as server crashes, in cases of bugs or lags in the game, power outages and unavailability of the internet.
Picture 3: Infrastructure becoming visible upon breakdown. When the internet is slow.
I do not own or have any claims to any of the images above.
Eye-in-Hand logo® [Official logo of Second Life]. (n.d.). Retrieved March 22, 2017, from <https://pbs.twimg.com/profile_images/694287762027970560/2_W4c69V.png>
[Image showing build tools within SL]. (2017, February 22). Retrieved March 22, 2017, from <https://community.secondlife.com/image_extract/31685i4AC3E8BDD509C6CD.png>
[Digital image]. (n.d.). Retrieved March 22, 2017, from <http://s3.narvii.com/image/qzw5rxfadyqorgfuz75fhi32a777i2qe_hq.jpg>
Star, S. L. (1999). The Ethnography of Infrastructure. American Behavioral Scientist, 43(3), nov/dec 1999, 377-391.
Susan, S. L., & Karen, R. (1996). Steps Toward an Ecology of Infrastructure: Design and Access for Large Information Spaces. Information Systems Research, 7(1), march 1996.
Malaby, T. M. (2009). Making virtual worlds: Linden Lab and Second Life. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.