Why is there no Grand Theft Auto MMPORG?

An idle thought for a Sunday afternoon: virtual worlds such as Second Life, The Sims Online and World of Warcraft are hugely popular online games, in part because they manage to combine elements of the real world with fantasy and the unreal, and also because they allow for all kinds of behaviour (good, bad and in between) to find a harmless outlet. Such behaviour includes malicious acts known as “griefing” in Second Life, adults pretending to be children for sexual purposes, and even the rise of what amounts to a virtual Mafia in The Sims.

gta san andreas

The game Grand Theft Auto has also become hugely popular by allowing game players to engage in all kinds of nefarious behaviour, including theft, murder, assault and battery, prostitution, drug-dealing, and so on. So why isn’t there an online version of Grand Theft Auto, where people can form gangs and beat other players up, steal their virtual money, blackmail or extort other players, set up prostitution rings and so on? It seems like it would be a slam-dunk.

Obviously, there would be a risk of real-world violence being blamed on Grand Theft Auto, but that already happens. I’m only half-joking here. I think watching people’s behaviour inside such a game would be like an incredible real-world psychology laboratory in action.

Going to school in Second Life

Sure, Second Life has its weird side — what with spiky-haired avatars wielding swords in cellphone stores and whatnot — but it has a serious side too. There are conferences, for example, held by prestigious groups such as the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard. And increasingly, educators are using it as a tool to assist them in reaching new audiences and teaching in new ways (pdf link).

In a recent post, Rebecca McKinnon — a research fellow at the Berkman Center and former TV journalist who co-founded Global Voices Online — mentioned that she has gotten involved in Second Life in order to take part in an educational exercise set up by Charles Nesson, founder of the Berkman Center : a class called Law in the Court of Public Opinion. Rebecca has some interesting thoughts about how Second Life reflects some of the world’s existing prejudices, despite the fact that there are very few boundaries the way there are in RL (real life).


Henry Jenkins, the director of the comparative media program at MIT, has a (rather lengthy) excerpt from the thesis written by one of his students, Ilya Vedrashko, which is well worth reading. It’s about the evolution of the relationship between advertising and games, including Second Life. The complete thesis is available in PDF format from Mr. Vedrashko’s website here.

Second Life and Half-Life

Well, it was bound to happen. First it was retailers like American Apparel and Telus making their way into Second Life, the virtual world “game” from Linden Labs, then musicians like Duran Duran and Suzanne Vega, and now it’s politicians.

For whatever reason, former Virginia governor Mark Warner — who wants to become the “fallback” candidate should Senator Hilary Clinton get hit by a truck or decide not to accept the Democratic nomination — decided to make an appearance in Second Life, where he was interviewed by blogger Wagner James Au of New World Notes before an audience of about 30 avatars. Among other things, some handlers taught him how to wave and how to keep his feet on the ground (literally).

My favourite comment about Wagner’s appearance came from Rex Hammock, who said that campaigning on Second Life was “right up there with doing an interview with Steven Colbert. High risk, questionable reward and lots of accolades from people who rarely vote.” Touche.

And in other virtual world news, someone with an appreciation for architecture and a whole lot of time on his hands designed a map for the video game Half-Life 2 that is an exact replica of famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Kaufmann house, also known as Fallingwater. There’s a cool video walkthrough here.

Telus, plywood art and Second Life

One of the things I find fascinating about virtual worlds such as Second Life, The Sims Online and There is that in many ways they are very much like the real world — right up to the point where things start to get really weird. The fact that the laws of physics, morality and even life itself can effectively be re-written on the fly has a way of making things very interesting (and in many cases confusing) for non-players. I’ve written about this kind of thing before, and I recently came across another example — and one with a Canadian flavour, no less.

In a recent post on Second Life Herald, a writer named Pixeleen Mistral tells the story of what happened when she went to get a new cellphone for her avatar (yes, she felt her in-world character needed a hot new cellphone) at a new store set up by Telus, a Canadian wireless provider that has — like T-shirt maker American Apparel and several other retailers — opened a virtual version of one of its real-world stores. Unfortunately for Pixeleen, the store had been completely encased in plywood by a “griefer” artist trying for a Christof kind of look (griefers are like in-world hackers and troublemakers).

She came back a little while later to find the plywood removed, but then watched as another griefer (this one with a gun fetish, and an avatar whose clothes were covered in long spikes) first shot a customer (another journalist) and then waved around a sword to show off his script-writing skills. Sparkle Dale, who works at the Telus store, reportedly handed the whole affair with aplomb, and even managed to sell another customer a phone — all while the griefer was busy shooting another customer, a “trend consultant” from PSFK.com named Brighton Giugiaro, for standing between him and the door.

Juvenile? Perhaps. A waste of time? No doubt. But fascinating nonetheless.

Preview pile-up in Second Life

I confess that I’m no expert on Second Life. I’ve tried it out several times, for differing periods of time, and I’ve done a bunch of things including customizing my avatar (Mathew McFly) a bunch of different ways. I’ve learned how to fly and how to build rudimentary objects. I’ve danced at a party with a complete stranger — who ran a script that allowed us to dance completely in sync — and was given money by another complete stranger so I could tip the dancer. The other day I even paid some Linden dollars to hit a few virtual golf balls at a Second Life driving range.

So while I’m not an expert, I know a thing or two. I’ve even written about how companies like American Apparel are setting up virtual stores to sell their products to avatars, and how bands like Duran Duran are setting up shop in the virtual world as well. But then I came across the following passage about a “preview pile-up” in the game, and I realized there is a whole lot that I don’t have a clue about. Try to follow this:

“The preview grid took an avatar bashing this afternoon when Vektor and Brent Linden organised a mass pile-on to the preview grid. It was the first time I had participated in a formal pile-on as far as I remember, I have been to the preview grids, but not normally when the pile-ons occur. I was in early, building a waterfall and playing with Starax’s wand.”

“We were asked to join the official preview testing group, and the spam commenced. People worrying about their inventory, others telling them off, people complaining about the people complaining. I crashed. When I came back the sim seemed to have rolled back – from a fully finished waterfall with rocks etc, I had two prims left.”

There’s more. Just for fun, have a read through it and try to figure out what they’re talking about. It’s like reading one of William “Johnny Mnemonic” Gibson’s short stories where he makes up all this weird slang that you have to just immerse yourself in until it starts to make sense. Needless to say, I’m not quite there yet.