Augmentation vs Immersion

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Immersion vs. Augmentation

On of many fascinating realizations I had during the course of my work was the extent that what SL is and should be is still very much being decided. The residents and Linden Lab are in an ongoing, often loud, but never boring discussion of the matter. Also internally in the two camps is the nature and direction of this social experiment something that is being constantly debated and not necessarily agreed upon.

All the different things that go on in SL speaks to a somewhat generic platform that residents mould to their own needs. On the other hand there is no such thing as a generic resident. People come to SL with vastly different skills sets and ambitions plus they often end up doing something completely different than originally anticipated.

I think a good analogy is the Wild West. Residents come to live a second life beyond the settled frontier. Naturally there is tension as the brave new world is (or isn’t) being civilized. What I will try to describe in this section is some different views on how this should happen.

In a later section about the new resident experience I will try to explain how it feels to come to SL. I remember my own experience well. The residents of SL are very active denizens in this place where they invest a lot of their time. I didn’t feel like an easy place to understand.

I took me a while but I eventually begun to see the outline of two philosophies of Second Life. I told Kyle Machulis (Cube Linden) [FOOT NOTE http://www.nonpolynomial.com/] about this over a lunch and it turned out he had been thinking about the same thing. We dubbed the two views: Immersion and Augmentation. I view these two philosophies placed as extremes at opposite ends of a scale. Black and white if you will with plenty of grey scales in between.

Having put words to my hunch I started to understand how the two views could provide a framework for a clearer understanding of SL. It became clear to me that where you fall along this line profoundly impacts how you live your SL, your view of the past as well as the road ahead. In the following two sections I will explain the two views separately.

Immersion

The immersion view is that SL is its own thing and should not be contaminated by anything from the outside. Many people in SL will bring up the metaverse. This term and a notion self contained internet worlds were introduced in Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash. [Stephenson, 2002] Since the early these sci-fi worlds has been repeatedly mentioned as the inspiration for SL. Residents that subscribe to this belief often feel that SL should evolve at its own pace as we continue to gain a deeper understanding of how our metaverse should and could look.

I think the notion of SL as a self contained space started in the early days. LL was faced with selling people this Second Life thing that no one really understood what was. If you looked at it you noticed the resemblance with a computer game and that is how it was marketed. Prominent members of staff such as CTO Cory Ondrejka also came out of the game industry, so there was a game culture within the company.

In games the notion of the self contained space is very central (see later section Just another Magic circle?). This idea had a strong impact in the early days of SL. CEO Philip Rosedale would tell you that SL was about building a country — with its own society and economy [FOOT NOTE http://andrewkeen.typepad.com/aftertv/2006/07/interview_with_.html]. There was something romantically compelling about the notion of SL as being something new a completely different.

I have a hunch that both philosophies still exist both with residents as well Linden Lab employees. That immersion should exist inside the company I attribute to things like the absence of an official exporter for off the shelf 3D software such as 3D studio Max or Maya. This I think indicates a desire to protect the in world creation process where possible and only accept external applications such as Photoshop or Gimp for texture editing as a sort of a necessary evil.

These days immersion is mainly found among resident whose SL behaviors emphasizes strong roleplay. In SL each resident have a profile. On one of the pages in this you can tell others about some real life facts about yourself; even show a picture. People who tend towards immersion will rarely show any information there. When doing my interviews I used both Skype voice chat and SL’s typed chat. I did not manage to get anyone who was leaning strongly towards immersion to agree to a voice chat conversation.

Overall there is a sense that “What happens in SL stays in SL” as someone put it the SLCC 06 recently. Your SL and RL identity are two different sides of you that should not mix; indeed the name Second Life more than hints at this. This separation of the two gives you the freedom to live your second life in a way that you might not feel able to do in your first life.

With immersion also often comes the belief that LL should act as the police in order to protect the sanctity of the space. You pay your monthly subscription and one of the benefits is the protection from LL who acts as a benevolent dictator to ensure that the community is safe. In "Do Artifacts Have Politics?" [Winner 1986] Langdon Winner pointed out that technologies were a tool for exerting power. I feel in this case the political undertones of whether the state (LL) should intervene or leave the market forces (the residents) to work it out are staring us in the face.

Another belief is that the real SL is the mainland. This is where it started and all grew from. Living on the mainland has its challenges. But you don’t just flee to an island and leave the mainland in the hands of anarchy. Tension arose around the first private island about two years ago. Resident Fizik Baskerville bought this and wanted to use it for the RL marketing company he works for. A lot of residents very not very happy with this and staged protests in SL. If you think about the SL as the digital counterpart to Burning Man analogy then this makes sense. Imagine the reaction if Coca Cola or McDonalds suddenly showed up on the playa.

It would be wrong to say that the immersion view is against a market in SL. But even SL’s Rockefeller Anshe Chung who made the cover of Business Week [FOOT NOTE http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/06_18/b3982001.htm] with her virtual land and currency holdings at about $250,000 looks pretty small compared to some of the RL companies that are currently starting to take an interest in SL. So there is probably also a fear that it will be hard to compete with the big boys. The last shirt I bought in SL cost me about L$ 300 which is about one dollar. Teachers who teach class for an hour get paid L$ 500. [FOOT NOTE http://secondlife.com/community/volunteer.php states the L$ 500 as of August 31st 2006] If real world pay for services starts being the norm then the barrier of entry for many people might be raised. Essentially the fear is that as SL becomes increasingly open; it will become more and more like the real world that residents were escaping in the first place.

Augmentation

I think the augmentation view slowly developed (and is being developed) as the possibilities and limitations of SL became clear to more people. Mitch Kapor described in his keynote at the SLCC how watching Susanne Vega perform live in SL [See write-up of the Vega event at http://nwn.blogs.com/nwn/2006/08/nwntv_the_secon.html] had made him realize that we have to stop thinking about SL and RL as different spaces. Such realizations are at the core of this philosophy.

SL adds things like real-time spatial design tools & a stronger sense of presence through avatarization in 3D space to the existing social software on the 2D internet. In a sense you could metaphorically call SL Wiki 2.0. SL is also related to games but removes the artificial constraints on creativity that these impose. Games such as World of Warcraft cannot allow its players to create anything they could imagine because of the belief it would upset necessary balances and ruin the game.

Realizing the limitations was also important. In the early days there was a sense that the 3D space did not automatically made everything better. James Wagner Au, embedded reporter in SL over the past years, said at the recent SLCC “SL is a bad platform for sharing information.” If you want to spread the word about something to the wider SL public then the 2D web has better tools for the job; at least for the time being. I think that the rising number of SL related websites is a reflection of this.

An increasing number of residents are starting to make money with Second Life. Some even make enough money to sustain to a pretty handsome living. These people naturally want more people in Second Life so they have more potential customers. LL on the other hand has realized that their current model will not scale. For instance CEO Philip Rosedale said at SLCC 05 that if even if LL had Google’s entire server farm it would only support 1.7 million residents. [FOOT NOTE http://secondtense.blogspot.com/2006/08/making-jump-to-working-sl-full-time.html] LL wants to see SL grow huge as well and is going towards open standards to achieve this. Basically open standards will let more people carry the burden (or have a piece of the pie) as SL grows. Cory Ondrejka’s talk at this year’s SLCC was all about open APIs, which sends some clear signals about LL intentions.

People that lean towards augmentation will be happy to see SL’s continued orientation towards the 2D web. In this camp you’ll find production companies such as the Electric Sheep Company [FOOT NOTE http://www.electricsheepcompany.com/] that are currently busy successfully convincing existing businesses that they need to get onboard this exiting new platform. But also other smaller creators at the end of the tail are increasingly embracing this. Efforts such SLStats.com (http://slstats.com/), that among other things allows you to see how much time you spend in SL, are shooting up with ever increasing frequency.

Professional SL developer Hiro Pendragon told me how he considers his resident name a brand. When you hear the name you think of the products and services he offers. This leads to less shyness about letting your RL name out there. Something I clearly felt when doing the interviews as touched upon earlier. As the money get bigger there is also the notion of “Who am I dealing with here?” Or as Hiro told me: “I don’t do business with someone whose RL identity I don’t know.”

There is a strong sense in parts of the community that SL currently shows the strongest promise of a post browser internet. SL should evolve through leveraging existing tools and practices out these as well as continue to develop its uniqueness. The word platform keeps popping up with ever increasing frequency. LL has started to push SL as a decentralized platform much like the 2D web. LL’s job is to provide tools for residents to protect themselves and not to be the police. Private islands in SL are a step in this direction. With buying an island you get estate tools that let you be self governing to an increasing extent. Over past the few months the accumulated square mileage of island sailed past that of the mainland, which speaks to where things are going.

Both the Immersion and Augmentation sections have mentioned a number of examples in order to explain the concepts. I’m sure that there are a number of other things I could have included but hope to have gotten my points across.

Room for both?

I think the shift from Immersion towards Augmentation during SL’s relatively short life span has been the result of the ongoing conversation between LL and the residents. When talking immersion and augmentation with residents I often had a feeling that there is a lot of talking of right or wrong involved. The discussion is surely ongoing and it is going to be interesting to follow it as SL moves ahead. I believe that LL’s goal is to be as inclusive as possible, but this balance is often hard to strike. There have been issues in the past that have highlighted this.

An example was in 2005 when LL changed from telehubs to point to point (p2p) teleporting. At first glance the move from centralized hubs from where you had to fly to your destinion to being able to teleport right there might not seem that big of a deal. But as SL resident Gwyneth Llewellyn explained in a very interesting blog post [FOOT NOTE http://gwynethllewelyn.net/article53visual1layout1.html] this had a profound impact on what kind of place SL is.

Llewelyn argued that the new traffic patterns would lead to a SL that felt more like a collection of individual places rather than one big space. Her post ended by stating that “private islands will be the place to be. And the mainland... well, the mainland will become "wasteland".” I wouldn’t go so far as to call the mainland wasteland, but feel that it is fair to say that she was right about the move towards islands.

I am writing these words in August 2006 and find it a little hard to identify the dominant philosophy in SL at the moment. If you follow the extraordinary amount of press that SL is getting these days it is unsurprising if you would put your money on augmentation. Between LL management and the more financially resourceful residents there is certainly a lot of weight behind this, so the tendency towards augmentation looks set to continue.

I do have a hunch that if you consider the resident population as a whole the arrow might swing towards immersion. Imagine a long tail of creators in SL. The higher profile production companies make up the head and the many smaller creators the tail. This tail is oriented towards immersion but finds itself unable to wag the combination of LL and the head these days. I believe that some of the friction I have encountered in the community comes from this difference.

A number of residents had varying degrees of sympathy for both these views. I talked to residents that coupled with a strong business developer orientation with a furry avatar and no trace of RL identity. So it is important to understand that you might find yourself at different points between immersion and augmentation depending on the issue, which of cause further complicates this matter. Some resident would simply handle this duality by having a lower profile alt that let them feel less self conscious. I do believe that in the end there will be room for both immersion and augmentation views as SL moves forward. Residents are molding their space to their needs pretty well in tune with SL’s slogan “Your World, Your Imagination.” But the challenges that go with keeping SL inclusive to both views should remain a central part of the ongoing conversation.

The notion of the two views might have a familiar smell if you have stuck your nose in game studies. The work of Johan Huizinga suggests that a magic circle is like a membrane around games that players purposely enter to play. [Huizinga 1944] Two reasons have been mainly been raised for doing so:

  • Richard Bartle has suggested that things from the real world should not decide over game spaces because they are nonreal. [Bartle 2004]
  • Edward Castronova has argued that if we don’t protect the circle then we will destroy the Right to Play. [Castronova 2003]

Others researchers such as TL Taylor in her book Play Between Worlds has argued that such a circle always was an illusion in the first place anyway. It is important to understand that since SL is not a game this discussion is different. At the same time the notion of what is the right amount of contact with things outside your designated space is of a similar nature for those who are looking for precedent to the immersion vs. augmentation discussion.

Immersion vs. Augmentation by Henrik Bennetsen. Last Edited on December 7th 2006

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