Since first joining Second Life nearly (gasp!) 8 years ago, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, and designing, virtual places. These places have ranged from the micro-level of a particular room within a building, to the meso-level consisting of multiple buildings and public spaces within a region. I’ve yet to venture into the macro-level (which I define to be multiple regions as part of an estate).
Designing anything, whether it’s a printed piece, a website, or a sim, is a process of making choices. I’ve found that making choices works best under the guidance of a model – meaning, a way of thinking about things that helps you when making decisions.
I began thinking about my model for designing virtual places when I read Kaya Angel’s comments on the outstanding video that New World Notes said “everyone was talking about”. As I commented on Inara Pey’s blog post on the subject, Kaya Angel has done a fantastic job of capturing what could be considered the best of Second Life. It really is great work, and I don’t only mean the video – which is excellent, but also in the build. If there were a Seven Wonders of Second Life (which there should be if there isn’t yet!), I’d easily nominate Angel Manor Estates as one. I have many fond memories from there, and hope to continue making many more!
If you watch the video (watch it at 1080p HD, go on, I’ll wait…) you might notice (as others have), that the surfaces in the video are shinier than you might be used to in your viewer. Using specular textures and viewing them on ultra-graphics creates the impression of this shininess, that some might consider is a tad unrealistic. It was Angel’s response to this criticism that intrigued me most, when he articulated something that’s been in my head for many years of designing virtual places, which I’ve written below Angel’s comment quoted here:
“I should add that the comment about specular being too much may not take into account the context of the theme. The intent is not to be totally realistic. I believe there is a balance that is important in SL. If you make something too real then people compare it to RL which breaks the illusion of SL. If you make something too surreal then the person can’t find anything to connect with and relate it to the real world. I always aim for a hyper-reality. It’s a balance where you still let buildings adhere to things like the laws of physics and make sure the building looks structurally sound but you don’t make is so real and to scale that its not practical for an avatar to move around. The key is to make it so you feel in a real space but your imagination is still free to let you be there in your mind.
“Angel Manor is not meant to be totally real it’s meant to be more like a Disney dream palace. There for the amount of shine added is done on purpose to make the place sparkle like a dream. So I think the new Normal and Specular map can really look real you just have to play around with them until you get the level you want.”
I’ve been thinking about the concept of fidelity in virtual worlds for some time now, and Angel’s comment above compelled me to articulate how I make design decisions, when it comes to virtual places – because I think that Angel and I see things somewhat similarly.
To seriously consider a model for designing virtual places, one needs to first acknowledge a virtual world is a simulation of the physical world, and the avatars, behaviours, objects, places, social norms and natural laws in it are digital representations of their real life originals. As with any copy, one can assess the authenticity of the copy. Like any representation (e.g. photograph, audio recording, video recording, digital simulation, etc…) of an original subject, one can measure (on a variety of qualitative and quantitative factors) how accurate the reproduction is to the original on which the reproduction is based. This quality might be referred to as “authenticity” or to use a term that we’re hearing a lot more about lately, “fidelity”. Thus, representations of real world things: avatars, behaviours, objects, places, social norms and natural laws, can either have low or high fidelity, in comparison to the real life originals. I’ll be exploring this concept at length in my book-in-progress, and in some blog posts to come, as I experiment with the ideas.
Thus, we have what I term as “The Continuum of Fidelity”
When Angel is saying that he is designing Angel Manor to “not to be totally realistic”, he is deliberately aiming to the right end of the Continuum of Fidelity, but by using specular textures to invoke a “Disney dream palace”, he is deliberately stopping short of high fidelity to avoid making something too real because “people compare it to RL which breaks the illusion of SL.”
I generally agree with Angel’s perspective, because it opens the door to more than what I refer to as the rather safe and sound field of artistic reproduction (e.g. like a realistic photograph), enabling an artist to interpret and bravely bring something new and potentially magical to the creative table (like a watercolour painting).
Parallels to this perspective live in all media. When I listen to a cover song, I much prefer to hear the artist ‘make the song their own’, instead of mimicking the original. Sometimes the cover artist honours the heritage of the original, and sometimes they do not.
One of the best examples of the re-invention of a song is Jimi Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”. The two are so different, that I was surprised to learn that Hendrix released his single only 6 months after Dylan released the original. Hendrix’s version became his first and only Top 40 single on the Billboard charts. Even Dylan himself approved:
“It overwhelmed me, really,” Dylan told the Florida Sun-Sentinel in 1995. “He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.” Source: CoverMe
No one with ears would consider Hendrix’s version of Dylan’s classic trying to mimic or karaoke the voice of a generation, and thank goodness for that! This was a song that firmly stands on its own feet, with Rolling Stone even placing Hendrix’s version on its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, whilst reserving the honour of first place for Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”.
I also admire film directors that adapt books into films and take creative risks by interpreting the books and re-imagining them into motion picture form. In my view, Peter Jackson did a phenomenal job of bringing the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (which J. R. R. Tolkien didn’t even intend as a trilogy).
Despite many fans and scholars of the book disagreeing with the many liberties Jackson took with characters, events and themes, out of the necessity of adapting 481,103 words into 9.3 hours of film (theatrical release), LoTR was an undeniable success on nearly every level.
The Lord of the Rings film series became the highest grossing film trilogy worldwide of all time (yes, even higher than the original Star Wars and Godfather trilogies). It also tied for the highest number of Academy Awards won for a single film, with the Return of the King receiving eleven Oscars.
So, yes, the philosophy of deliberately avoiding perfect fidelity to originals could be considered a good strategy for creative success. However, I think there is more to it than that.
To help me articulate what I mean, I’ll borrow liberally from the book “Authenticity” by Pine and Gilmore, where they offer a 2×2 matrix that defines the authentic aspects of an offering (e.g. a product, a business, or in example I’m using it for, a virtual place).
In this essay, I present the Real/Fake 2×2 Matrix below, and use it as a model to categorise some well-known and currently active virtual places in Second Life. It is important to note, that despite our typically negative associations with the word “fake” and our positive associations with the word “real”; in this model, no one quadrant is more valid than another – an example that fits into any of these squares can offer value.
Real-Fake IS what it says it is and IS NOT true to itself.
As a real world example, consider the current incarnation of the Starbuck’s Coffee chain. When founder Howard Schultz opened up his first Starbuck’s Coffee Shop outside of Seattle’s Pike Place Market in 1971, he figured that American’s might enjoy the experience of a real Italian coffee shop. He was partly right, and fought tooth and nail to keep Starbucks true to its ideological Italian heritage, as the brand rose in popularity to become the most dominant coffee shop on the planet. Along the way, however, Shultz readily admits he made many compromises to his original vision of an Italian café on Main Street, USA.
If you’ve been to Italy and visited the cafés there, you’d know that they are a different species to the likes of Starbucks (and its many knock-offs) you and I are familiar with today. Rome’s Tazza d’Oro (Golden Cup) located a stone’s throw from the Pantheon, offers an experience that is an entirely different ritual to the one we’ve become accustomed to in North American coffee culture.
At Tazza d’Oro, you first pay at the cashier, then you fight your way to the standing bar with which you must show the barrista before they make your coffee. Then, whilst standing, you’re expected to shoot your coffee down in seconds (typically espresso as most Italians only consume cappuccinos after lunch), leave a small tip (a few centessimi is fine), and then leave the café and go on about your day.
There’s no watching movies on your iPad as you sit in a reclined position on a plush velvet sofa! There’s no lounging about for hours milking your caramel mocha frappuccino whilst nibbling on a tuna and melted cheese sandwich! You’re in, you’re out, experience done!
Starbucks is what it says it is (a real coffee shop), yet Starbucks is not true to its heritage (Italian cafés). Therefore, according to this model, it is a real-fake.
A sim in Second Life that I’d categorise as a real-fake would be the Paris estate (see Ciaran Laval’s on his visit to Paris or my tongue in cheek post about What to Wear in Paris for more pictures). This virtual city has various reproductions of Parisian landmarks including the Moulin Rouge, Eiffel Tower, Maison Victor Hugo, Carousel 1900, Grand Roue Ferris Wheel, Moulin de la Galette windmill, Notre Dame Cathedral, The Champs Elysees, Arc De Triomphe, and The Louvre, arranged within close proximity to each other so as to fit within a four sims.
The landmarks of the Paris sim certainly remind one of Paris, however, having visited Paris at least half a dozen times, spending anywhere from a weekend to a week there on each occasion, walking its streets, sampling its many charms and becoming reasonably familiar with the layout -to me, it just doesn’t feel like Paris.
With that said, I mean no disrespect to the owners / builders of this estate. There is much to enjoy there, and I can certainly appreciate how challenging it is to build and keep up one sim (let alone four!) for so many years. Still, due to its unrealistic juxtaposition of well-known monuments, oddly chosen activities, and anachronistic playing with time periods, I just don’t feel it’s true to Paris, France, as much as a simulation could be. I’m sure that skydiving off the Eiffel Tower that is a stone’s throw away from the Arc de Triomphe (when it’s actually 2km away in real life) is lots of fun for some, but to me it says “unreal” – and not in a good way.
In this regard, I consider the Paris sim to be real-fake – it is what it says it is (a simulation of Paris), but is not true to itself (as a copy, it falls short in terms of authenticity). On a purely personal note, and many may violently disagree with me, I’d much rather experience a beautifully rendered and carefully composed arrondissement of Paris (i.e. Montmartre) than a compromised and overambitious adaptation of the whole of Paris in 1/30th of the space.
Compared to the most popular sim in Second Life (I’m being 100% serious); however, Paris beats London City in nearly every way you can measure authenticity. I live in London, and I assure you that London looks and feels nothing like this:
I’ve noticed that relatively few sims in Second Life that purport to be digital copies of real life counterparts are successfully executed as authentic representations. I’d suspect this is mainly due to the constraints inherent in a virtual world where making something look and feel real can sometimes be harder than making something look fantastical. These sims may be true to themselves in varying degrees (e.g. it’s considerably easier to make a replica of a real bar in real life, than it might be to make a replica of an entire real life city). However, there are some that have done it exceptionally well (e.g. City of Harrison is one example).
IS NOT what it says it is and IS NOT true to itself.
My favourite real life example of Fake-Fake is fake food. These gems of culinary creativity include herbal slimming tea that contains neither tea nor herbs, but rather glucose powder mixed with prescription obesity medication at 13 times the normal dose. In this category are also fruit juices that contain no fruit, but rather sugar, colouring, water and sometimes brominated vegetable oil. In England, we’ve seen beef that contains no cows, where the meat is actually sourced from horses. Similar to this is ham made from poultry that is coloured pink the production process. These are all examples of things that are not what they say they are, and might not even be considered food at all. (Source: The Independent).
Don’t let the example above suggest that I characterise fake-fake as invalid or unworthy, I don’t – and as I’ll explain, many people love this category. In Second Life, these sims are among the most popular sims on the grid.
Again, fake-fake sims are not what they say they are, and not true to themselves. Sims like this are harder to find because they tend to not be often photographed, or written about. I believe we tend to model most simulations on either originals we have experienced in the real world or build them in ways that are entirely impossible in the real world. Fake-fake sims, however, seem to be a haphazard mixture of the two.
Self-touted as Second Life’s Premier Dance Venue (to be fair they did win at least one Avi’s Choice award in their category), nearly everyone in Second Life is aware of Frank’s. According to Metaverse Business, Frank’s currently places as Second Life’s 2nd most popular sim – and its most popular General sim. The interesting thing about Frank’s (pictured below), is that it’s neither a “ballroom” (as it says in its description), nor does it really play jazz. What you actually get is a mall leading to a palatial open-air dance floor that bears little resemblance to any jazz music venue I’ve ever seen. It has a formal dress code where men dress in tails and the ladies dress in ball gowns (clothing which isn’t at all associated with most jazz clubs in real life) and instead of jazz, Frank’s mainly streams easy-listening music.
Escort Oasis is the 11th most popular sim in Second Life.This busy “strip club” serves an as easily accessible introduction to the world of freelance stripping in Second Life. The sim itself is a visual cacophony of styles and graphics, most desperately vying for attention among bright colours and neon pictured in the walls and walls of advertisements for cam girls and phone-sex workers. It could be argued that the Oasis in the name refers to the fact that girls can keep 100% of the tips they make there, but it bears little resemblance to any real world strip club I’ve ever seen (don’t smirk, I’ve seen a few), and seems mainly intended to serve the interests of offworld sex workers that use Second Life as an advertising vehicle for their services delivered in other media.
The third most popular sim in Second Life is also the most popular adult sim. SDI, for short, is neither an inn, nor a nude beach (although nudity is allowed). As you can see from the photo, it doesn’t really have much fidelity to its real life inspirations.
Fake-Fake sims make up some of the most popular sims in Second Life, but they’re often not the subject of blog posts or inworld photography (maybe because they are so busy it’s nearly impossible to take a photo of them!). They do however tend to get the most real world media attention, when lazy reporters lift outdated screen shots of sex-dens to show how depraved and weird Second Life can be. Still, they form an important part of the Second Life landscape, and are often a testament to what can be done in a world that primarily offers escapism as a benefit.
IS NOT what it says it is and IS true to itself.
For fake-real, I’ll use two examples closer to home – The London Dungeon which is self-touted as one of London’s Must-See Attractions (it really isn’t, but it remains insanely popular among tourists here).
The attraction is a fake dungeon (developed by the same company that runs Madame Tussauds Wax Museum) originally built under London Bridge Station and since moved nearer the London Eye across from the Palace of Westminster / Big Ben (a more central location). That move in itself, should show that the London Dungeon is not a dungeon at all, but an attraction made to be a scary attraction. The whole thing amounts to a £20pp ride, where they turn “1000 years of history into 90 minutes of laughs, scares, theatres, rides, special effects, characters, jokes, mazes and storytelling.”
Importantly, the company behind this venture never purports to be a historical preservation of a real dungeon from London’s past. In the same way the Wax Museum is not a real museum but a manufactured tourist attraction, the London Dungeon is a not an homage or representation of real dungeon, but it is true to itself in being a tourist attraction. Perhaps a more well-known American example of fake-real is Disney World, which is a fake fantasy world, but is true to the heritage of Disney.
One might visit my sim in Second Life, Basilique, and notice it that resembles the lakeside towns located around the large lakes in norther Italy. The town is not a replica of any particular town in Northern Italy (although it’s often mistaken as such), but it was inspired by the them. I hope that those (like me) who have visited those towns might feel familiarity with those experiences when they visit my sim. On that basis, one could measure the authenticity of my town, against the towns that inspired it. Does my town “feel” authentic, or not? I, and many how have visited it, believe that it does feel authentic. In the exact meaning of the term, it is not – because it isn’t even a copy of any town in real life. In this regard, Basilique is Fake-Real. It is not what it says it is (there is no real-life Basilique) but it is true to itself (in that it feels relatively true to the heritage of towns that inspired it).
I’d speculate that most sims in Second Life fit in this category, and I’d place the Angel Manor and 1920s Berlin (illustrated below) in it. Angel Manor, is not what it says it is (fake), but it is true to what a grand and opulent palatial estates in the real world might be, honouring the heritage of what grand and opulent palatial estates look and feel like (real). Having visited several real life versions of the type (The Palace of Versailles, Hampton Court Palace, too many castles in the UK to mention, and the Vatican), I know a grand and opulent palatial estate when I see one, and Angel Manor looks and feels authentic.
I’m not familiar with the real life Berlin, but as far as virtual cities go, The 1920s Berlin Project arguably does a better job at honouring the heritage of a real-life place frozen in time whilst avoiding real-life comparisons due to its historical situation. Since Berlin lay in ruins at the end of WW2, the Berlin of 1920s no longer exists but in historical records and very, very few memories. Therefore, despite being modelled on a real life location (like Paris), I’d put 1920s Berlin into the into the fake-real category: It is a faithful representation (fake) of Berlin in the 1920s (real). A significant part of this is Frau Yardley’s insistence on 1920s clothing and realistically sized avatars for all visitors. In this way, she ensures (as much as she can) as much authenticity as Second Life might allow.
The Berlin example shows how a visitors familiarity with a real life place may influence how authentic they perceive the virtual representation. I’ve never visited Berlin in real life (whereas I’m very familiar with the real life Paris), so for all I know, Frau Yardley may be taking much creative license in representing Berlin as she does – to me however, this is what I imagine 1920s Berlin might have looked and felt like. I take it at face value, but I’d welcome her to comment on the subject if I’m wrong.
Fake-real sims are not what they say they are, but they are true to themselves, in varying degrees. Due to the limitations of virtual places, it’s in some ways easier to make a place that is inspired by a real life location, than one that is a direct copy of it. Like in the case of Basilique and Angel Manor, the “originals” needn’t be real at all to fit this category, as long as they fit within the constructs of our collective imaginations or memories. Other good examples of fake-real include
- Caelestivm – “a recreation of a realistic medieval environment with a touch of fantasy combined with Celtic traditions and medieval living in a natural environment.”)
- Makeahla Jungle – four conjoined sims that recreate the look and feeling of a jungle infested with (albeit static) wildlife.
- Phoenix One Station – a space station that offers an environment that is meant to simulate an abandoned deep space research station, now acting as humankind’s last outpost after the Earth has been destroyed.
- Otium – an intimate island village set among five isolated islands
I am not saying in any way that fake-real sims are more valuable or better than real-fake sims – like so many things, one’s appreciation for virtual places comes down to a matter of taste. Personally, and probably unsurprisingly, I prefer fake-real over real-fake.
IS what it says it is and IS true to itself.
Real life examples of real-real are so abundant that this explanation might be even be superfluous, but for the sake of completion, I’ll go ahead. The Tower of London, for example, is a real palace and fortress where prisoners were incarcerated between 1100 to 1952 (not the same prisoners, that would be cruel…). The Tower is also a real tourist attraction. The London Dungeon, in contrast, is a fake prison that is a real tourist attraction.
The remaining category, real-real, is any place that is what it says it is, and is also true to itself. By this definition, one might claim that a simulation can’t be real-real, because it is a simulation – and not real. However, when a simulation represents itself as a simulation, and is true to that representation, it might be considered real-real.
I find that the Linden Endowment for the Arts attracts many artists that aim to create real-real simulations. Some current examples include
- LEA 29 – Mistero Hifeng – which is an exhibition of 3D versions of the digital images, suggestive of an illusive and dreamlike world
- LEA 10 – Nothing Endures Change by Whiskey Monday – an exhibition of her often surreal pop-up creations and photo settings.
Most well-known artists in Second Life tend to work within the real-real arena, including recent installations like Moya’s Memory, composed of three sims that are the artistic collections of three artists. Another one that comes to mind is Timeless Memories, designed by Elivira Kytori, which is a fantastical sparsely forested snowy landscape with several vignettes playfully placed around a snaking boardwalk.
Before I researched this post, I expected that most of the sims that become popular and loved in Second Life were either one or the other: fake-real or real-fake. However, I’m surprised to find that fake-fake seems to be by far the most popular type of sim.
What I like about this approach, is that it might serve to explain why some of us are attracted by certain types of virtual places, but are repelled by others. I’m interested to know what you think of this model, and how I might make it more clear, relevant and applicable. If you disagree with the value of my approach, I’d welcome hearing that also.
Thanks for reading!