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A Virtual Scoop

A reporter finds himself embedded in a parallel world.

August 08, 2004|Wagner James Au | Wagner James Au has written for Wired and Salon. His blog, New World Notes, can be found at

OAKLAND — Most times, I do my reporting in a crisp white suit, in tribute to Tom Wolfe. In the war zones, I'll look more like Hunter S. Thompson, with aviator sunglasses and a Colt .45. In those guises, I've reported on an anti-tax protest replete with tea crates and dancing rats; I've pushed past the placards of an anti-capitalist demonstration on an island owned by a British ad agency; I've interviewed sex workers and Catholic priests, socialist utopians and midget warmongers. And even though none of us really exist -- except as data bits on a few servers in San Francisco -- it's still the best reporting gig I've ever had. And unless I miss my guess, I've stumbled on the scoop of the decade.

Last June, the creators of Second Life, a massively multi-user online world (or MMO), offered me the oddest assignment in my eight years as a freelance writer. They wanted me to join their virtual community, not as a fellow resident but as an embedded journalist. The closest thing we have to the computer-created universe depicted in the movie "The Matrix," MMOs are persistent, self-contained Internet worlds that people across the globe simultaneously inhabit, via alter egos called avatars (from the Sanskrit for "incarnation"). The fantasy games Everquest and Star Wars Galaxies are two of the biggest in North America, with nearly 700,000 users between them.

If you've ever played the Tomb Raider video games, with their third-person, "over-the-shoulder" view of the action, you get the visual style of the typical MMO. Using mouse and keyboard, players (or "residents," in the Second Life lingo) maneuver their avatars through a lush 3-D landscape, typing chat messages to other users. Unlike most MMOs, Second Life encourages its subscribers to literally help build the world with the construction and programming tools provided for them. A vast, untamed continent of mountains, meadows and lakes has been rapidly transformed into cities, suburbs and fantasy resorts. The effect is so vivid users say they are "in-world," not simply online.

For many users, the ability to look over the shoulder of your virtual self unlocks a realm where anything seems possible. They're happy just to treat this world as a risk-free platform for lucid dreaming. Together, they are crafting a collectively experienced, collectively told narrative of conflict and adventure. But that's the central tension of Second Life: While some residents yearn for escape, others look for ways to bring the real world with them.

At the start, I assumed my role would be more or less "advertorial," an indirect means of promoting Second Life. (And, in full disclosure, it is that, in the broadest sense.) I figured I would mostly interview game geeks and flirtatious socializers -- the typical denizens of the virtual world -- and write innocuous profiles of residents whose avatars "married" each other.

But I began my beat just as major combat operations in Iraq were winding down, and the real-world conflict spurred a brutal culture war among the residents. At the time, the regions where player-versus-player combat is allowed were separated from the rest of the continent by an imposing, Berlin-style wall. On one side were the residents who enjoyed combat-oriented mayhem, and they tended to support the war in Iraq (many were veterans or active-duty military); on the wall's opposite side were a loose contingent of antiwar advocates, many of them artists and dreamers who use Second Life as a creative palette. In the weeks after George W. Bush's ill-timed aircraft carrier victory speech, that wall, where the war gamers had erected a sign enjoining everyone to "Support President Bush and the Troops," was now papered over with posters depicting Bush as a turtle. Even more politically divisive posters followed. And then the shooting started.

As in most MMOs, people can "die" in combat zones, though here it's no more than a momentary disorientation while you await virtual resurrection. The effect is a bit like having a house guest switch off the radio or TV in the middle of your favorite program. So when the in-game gunplay erupted over Iraq, it seemed like each side was trying to jostle the other out of its worldview -- cutting off the opposition's NPR broadcast, as it were, while the other side tried to kill the Fox News feed.

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