Monday, March 29, 2010

2nd Assignment

Assignment #2, Question 2

Second Life is sold as a game that renders us the extent of freedom that real life cannot give us. Like every other video games, it allows users to indulge in the pleasurable experience of controling what happens in the virtual world. Second Life seemingly enables us to engage with the environment freely. In fact, we are engaging with the environment according to the design of the game. It enables us to “go anywhere”, but actually we are going nowhere: the places are set for us. We cannot go beyond the coding and technology. We are not set free, but rather imprisoned by the game. It’s the promise of freedom that imprisons us.

Second Life not only features its immersive experience, but most importantly, boasts its ability to allow users to design their own avatars, build their own buildings, choose their life style etc. with the extent of freedom that other video games do not allow. For example, Second Life objects are solids called prims. “Prims can assume any shape you want.” “And you can make prims look any wan you want by applying selected textures to their surfaces.” (Second life: the Official Guide, Michael Rymaszewski, Wagner James Au, MarkWallace, Catherine Winters)

However, we must notice that every single user manipulation is based on the frame of the interface that is designed by the architect of the virtual world. Indeed, the user is allowed to copy/paste, shift, zoom the window, drag the icon, but only to the extent that the system allows. It seems that the user is manipulating the system according to his will, but he is in fact only operating on top of the fixed coding that comes with the interface, and therefore, is subject to the control of technical guru. “The window into a fictional world of a cinematic narrative has become a window into a datascape.” (Manovich, 101) Everything can be reduced down to software and codes. Users are therefore necessarily subject to control of the designer/architect of the virtual world. SL creates a phenomenal world that engages us in interacting with it, so that we never wonder what the intrinsic mechanism is. The underlying coding process is hidden, and the user is shown with the surface.

Second Life has imposed a lot of its conventions and behavioral habituations on the user. It renders spatial constraint insignificant by allowing teleport between places. “And just like a mythological god, you’re able to fly, and teleport wherever you like in an instant.” As Monovich points out in the Language of New Media, each interface imposes its own logic on media, with a significant example of the “cut and paste” operation under GUI that blurs the traditional distinction between spatial and temporal media.

Technical control comes in the form of a culture. As Manovich points out, HCI also presents us and allows us to interact with cultural data, creating the concept of “cultural interface. (Manovich, 70) SL promotes user’s ability to control their life, “from your point of view, SL works as if you were a god in real life.” (Second life: the Official Guide) However the truth is, there are strict constraints and limits of the events that can happen in second life. Everything happens according to a certain type of routine. We are only choosing from types of activities to engage in. It seems that we are free because we have the options, but rather we are prisoners who are satisfied with the constrained situation.

In other words, the users of Second Life are freer only in the sense that they are provided more options. This is exactly the value that is promoted by SL: choosing, consuming, and owning. The achievement of technology constrains humans’ ability to fulfill their desires, and therefore define their desires. Technologies not only limit humans in pursuing their desires, but also create false desires that are socially constructed. SL imposes a certain value onto the user --- the commercialized life style of owning and consumption, of course with the commercial purpose of promoting the technological characteristics of the game. “Living a life means making choices, and you’ll be making plenty from the moment you log onto Second Life for the first time.” (Official Guide Chapter 2) The users are provided with a rich variety of objects, and their life in the game is about how much they own. Their life is reduced into their fake properties in the game. Even though Second Life is a virtual world, it’s still all about material. The interface of SL is able to affect our value system through this imposition.

We cannot separate interface from media, because interface “functions to filter, to screen out, to take over” (Manovich, 70) information as it presents the media. Since Second Life is based on this user interface technology, it incorporates its traditions and limitations as well. The user who attempts to dominate the world is trapped by the apparatus himself. This is the nature of this kind of games: it gives you the illusion of freedom by allowing choices; however, choices are not freedom. Giving slaves the freedom to choose their masters does not liberate them.

The user is incorporated into the system, becoming part of the game. We are not consuming the game; the game is consuming us. What’s more, when we are so committed in this “game”, Second Life will become our “first life”, and our only life. The Matrix may predict the ultimate stage of human-computer interface: a game so indulging that we are willing to live in it.

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