A virtual worlds dilemma

Something like 18 months ago, a certain Mr Random Merryman and myself were happy residents of the virtual world Second Life where we spent a large part of our time as part of the the neo-Victorian roleplaying community of Caledon.

We made a good number of fine friends there, rented more than one parcel of land, developed a passion for building and for dressing up in the finest Steampunk fashions respectively, created a virtual headquarters for our real-world company, became a sponsor of an in-world radio station and spent hours of our time at social events.

Here you see Mr Random Merryman and Miss Astrofiammante Seminario dancing the Paso Doble in Caledon Cape Wrath, the sim in which we lived. I’d just like to point out that the skirt of that dress has peacock feathers – Strictly, eat your heart out:

Paso Doble?

It is possible, in fact, that we had become far more involved in Second Life than was good for us. The fact is that, for a while at least, it looked like a development big enough to send the Internet off in a new direction – browser-supported 3D interactions, avatars and inventory that travelled with the player/user rather than being confined to the servers of a particular company – it was really exciting.

Then, one day, the company behind Second Life did to us what it had done to many others. It pulled off such an outrageous and ridiculous and infuriating piece of behaviour in relation to our accounts that we looked at each other and said: “That’s it.” Against a background of increasing restrictions, intellectual property issues, plans to open the grid to under-18s, absurd technical problems and censorship threats we decided to pull the plug, and mandated that our accounts be closed since it had been made abundantly clear to us that Linden Labs did not value us or any of its other customers one jot.

In doing this we walked away from our Linden balances, the buildings we had created, our land holdings, our acquaintance, all the time and money that had been put into creating and kitting out avatars, uploading textures and developing skills like scripting or clothing design. Our landlord was left with several big holes in his sim where our properties had stood plus the loss of the regular rents. From a personal point of view, it was as sudden as a car crash. It was one of the most upsetting things that happened that year. We hung on for a while via various neo-Victorian enclaves on the Internet, and via individuals on Twitter, but frankly hearing about what was going on in-world was more upsetting than otherwise.

And then everyone was adjudged to be in love with the mobile Internet, operating on devices that don’t have a fraction of the power required to run a decent immersive environment. So that was that, it seemed. The biggest and most important lesson we turned out to have learned (apart from not to throw the kitchen sink at every new hobby that comes along, because they can’t all work out) was to discover a few activities that we were very interested in but too unsure of ourselves to try in real life (the clue is in the screengrab above). That led to a lot of good things happening when we actually got up the nerve to try some of them properly.

Blue Mars came along and attracted some interest from Caledonians. Mr Merryman took a look – and didn’t come away very satisfied. For myself, I found the terms and conditions unacceptable and didn’t sign up. Virtual worlds continued to look like a busted flush. And now? Inworldz is here.

Mr Merriman (the change in spelling is deliberate – in recognition of this fine fictional character) is back on the grid. Thing is, should I join him? Watching over his shoulder, I learn that in the absence of Caledon he has located Victoriana, found a couple of steampunk outfitters, got his avatar kitted out nicely. In appearance and skillsets you really would hardly know the difference from Second Life – although the extent of activity and uptake doesn’t appear to be anywhere close to it yet.

And, of course, it’s not Second Life. The Caledon sims are not there; neither is the fine community of intelligent adults that grew up around them. Conversely, Linden Labs isn’t there, and the benefits of that can’t be overstated. However, I looked at the sign-up screen today and couldn’t bring myself to go through with it. I loved virtual worlds and spent far more time on the grid than was really sensible – I loved the freedom to be, do or create anything you chose within laws of physics that had been surreptitiously tweaked. I dedicated hours at a time to creating fantastical buildings and all kinds of other mad structures. But I also found the lows to be incredibly draining and hard-hitting and the constant drama caused by Linden Labs to be like walking over shards of glass. I am sure, as ever with nostalgia, that I am remembering all the good points and none of the bad ones. I swore that I would never again put hours of effort into creating content that was housed on a server controlled by anyone but me.

I have no idea whether or not I’m going to go back.