Don’t miss the CSI:NY “Down the Rabbit Hole” featuring Second Life!

I admit — having no TV at home, it means that I only get to watch TV very occasionally, when together with friends on their own homes. CSI is usually popular with some of them, and I tend to watch it whenever I’ve got a chance, although over here in Portugal the episodes are usually all out of order, so… if I wish to just get one, I use the Net.

Jeska Linden suggested Joost, a popular TV net-streaming service with high quality, and CBS has a channel there, but they won’t deliver CSI outside of the US, so you’re out of luck if you live in the rest of the world.

Searching on Google for CSI:NY Series 4, Episode 5, however, will get you some nice BitTorrents for download. Yes, I know I shouldn’t be saying that, but they’re easily available, and surprisingly, they popped up before the show was displayed…

So, what can you expect from a mainstream TV episode featuring Second Life?

The first thing that will be noticed by all Second Life residents is that, well, SL is never as good and as easily used as shown on the movie (you hardly ever see the interface there; all shots are on “machinima mode”; except for the voice chat feature, which I guess they thought it looked nice). Then, of course, some things are so much nicer! All that will make people smile a lot, and we’ll cover each in a bit.

When you watch any of those entertaining shows on TV, you have to consider that it’ll be appealing to the masses and the mainstream viewer, not experts. In fact, if you’re either an expert, or close friends of one, you’ll always have a smile in your lips when viewing TV shows.

The CSI show features a lot of computers. If you’re an above-than-average computer user (you’ll be one if you’re reading this!), you’ll know that computers do not behave like they do on the series. All images on those computers are ultra-fast; database access is instantaneous; user interfaces are friendly, easily laid out, and never crash; computer imaging is state-of-the-art, Hollywood-style, because, well, they are movies.

None of these computers ever run Windows 🙂 In fact, Unix and Mac OS X are the usual options for operating systems on TV and the movies (one wonders why…). In most cases, however, the computer doesn’t even look like having an operating system at all, just an application that “works” and has a nice user interface.

After decades of getting those “fake computer experiences” every day, you’re used to how the silver screen depicts computers and human-computer interaction. You know it’s fake. It’s not important; it’s not relevant to the action that a detective just clicks on a button and gets “results” out of the computer (instead of spending hours Googling for information and searching boring database). There is a literary device called narrative imperative — things “just happen” to get the action going along.

Experts on other areas will smile at a lot of similar things, like putting a drop of blood on a scanning device and getting a printout of the DNA sample in seconds (in reality, it takes half an hour at least, and the same test might be done over and over several days to make sure you have a valid forensic result that can be shown in court). Real police officers will laugh at how the actors handle guns, or how clumsily they move inside buildings — not to mention the “fake” jargon. Telecom operators will smile at how easily the police can trace calls, or how all numbers in American movies have the false “555” area code (which was ‘created’ specifically for the movies not to show any real number). And the list goes on, going through all professions, jobs, skills, and knowledge areas.

While we might not be aware of how “fake” other knowledge areas are depicted on TV, we might have good clues. A plumber doesn’t fix a running tap in 15 seconds; they can do that on TV, though. But we all know that in advance, so it doesn’t shock us. It doesn’t matter for the narrative.

So, when watching SL-on-a-mainstream-TV-episode, I was actually expecting much less contact with reality, ie. that they would invent quite a lot.

Surprisingly, that’s not what happened!

The first reaction that many people had — in blogs and commentaries on blogs — was “wow, no lag — everything is super-smooth and works flawlessly, did the Sheep get a special grid just for themselves?”. In fact, the trained eye of the observer (possibly having taped the episode and going back and forwards) you’ll see that the Sheep’s computers did lag at some points! During the combat on the arena — never mind the discussion if the audience was “there” or not (it probably wasn’t) — you can see a drop in FPS to about 10-12 or so, while on the more static scenes you certainly have at least the required 25. Now, getting 10-12 FPS on an “intense”area with lots of avatars is not hard. It just requires some tweaking on the Preferences and a fast off-the-shelf computer. And running it on a window with 800×600 — enough for TV quality! Most people, however, never bother to adjust their Preferences, or they don’t know how. But, yes, a regular computer with the proper settings will give you peformance close enough to what you see on CSI:NY’s episode. It’s just that 99% of the users of SL will never manage to get the Preferences just right and most definitely not all the time.

The second reaction was less about technical issues, but more on the social environment. You’ll see exactly what you’d expect CSI to cover: an underworld run by freaks and borderline criminals. Not to spoil the show for you, if you haven’t seen it yet, so let’s just see the stereotypes: sex perverts, RL criminals hiding in SL, people with uncurable diseases and having fun in SL before dying — that’s the sort of people that “hang around” in SL. Oh, and the oddball police detective — it’s clear that one of the main characters hangs a lot around in SL 🙂 … although we still only know that he does that because: “it’s fun” (one of the memes that will remain for the mainstream to chew on).

Still, a lot of things are very cleverly depicted. Most of my friends and acquaintances, who shun the “underworld of SL”, will laugh at the stereotypes — the guy that sells information on where to find an avatar for L$6000. Or the “questions” asked for admittal to a private club. Or the “measuring of your worth” by defeating an opponent on an arena, to be “accepted” in the group.

I’ve read a lot of comments of people getting outrageous about all these stereotypes. “SL is nothing of the sort”, they cry, “this is just TV at its worst, and gratuitous images for effect and action without any resemblance to the truth!”

Is that? I’m one of the most PG people around in SL, as everybody knows 🙂 and I certainly never claimed to be an “expert” on SL’s subculture (I’m eagerly awaiting Tom Bukowski’s anthropology book to come out in 2008 to learn quite more about it!). Still, even if things are not exactly done like CSI:NY shows, there are a lot of similarities. My first “job” in SL, three years ago, was finding people, researching the market, see if something would be worthwhile to develop and sell in SL. And I got paid for that information. L$6000, if I rememeber correctly! Sure, I wasn’t helping the police to catch a criminal, but information in SL is, indeed, sold. Years later, people often wish to tip me for information, ideas, and contacts that I give them — I always refuse, but later on, they might send me gifts (clothes!!!) which I do not reject. All that for what? For leading people to get in touch with each other and find information? Sure, there is a valuable information market in SL. Just because you haven’t been in touch with it — SL is huge! — it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Then, the “secret societies” in SL, with strange rites, and weird “acceptance” rituals. Of course they exist! Even if you haven’t ever seen one of them, you have heard about Gorean sims, BDSM communities, hacker’s refuges, and, well, “underground” groups like the griefer clubs. What CSI:NY portrays, after all, is the SL subculture, not the mainstream (or at least we haven’t seen much of the “mainstream SL culture”, except when the main [SL] character goes to a shop for buying new shoes…). Although there are no references — and all scenarios were created and imagined, not based on specific groups — believe me, they’re not far from the “truth”. Just think of the most PG community in SL: Caledon and their Victorian manners and etiquette. Isn’t that a good example of “rites and rituals” in SL, that everybody adapts to, when they go over to chat with the friendly Caledonians?

We dismiss it as an “oddity” or “roleplaying” or “borderline behaviour”, saying that this has no relevance to the “greater SL”, which is, well, about live music, shopping, and perhaps cybersex. That’s all fine, but the CSI series do not talk about kids going to school, professors giving lectures, or middle-aged wives going to the supermarket for groceries — except, of course, if they’re part of a plot with a lot of action, violence, and murder.

So we have to understand that what “sells” SL inside the CSI:NY episode is not how people have fun in it in an “ordinary” and completely politically-correct way. That’s just plain boring! The fun of the CSI series is how it exploits subcultures and crime within them; and how it takes the police to “think like them” in order to understand what’s going on and solve the crime. Now I believe that this was one of the best episodes I saw using that concept (granted, I haven’t seen many of the CSI episodes, as said — but I happened to see one just yesterday, also related to a specific subculture, and it was much more boring, more prejudiced, more stereotyped, and, well, the plot didn’t work as well as the one for CSI:NY “Down the Rabbit Hole”). I don’t know how many episodes are planned to use SL as a major feature — I’ve read it should go on until February or so. I also did only expect SL to be a “side story” on the episode (like so many others, which usually have 2-3 stories running at the same time), and not the major story to the exclusion of all others on this episode. The plot is very complex (as usual) and has lots of ways to unfold. Still, a few interesting elements are familiar: one elements of the CSI team is very familiar with SL; there are a few guys that come from the underworld of SL which will certainly help out the police; there are people “high up” on the social pyramid that know all about SL and use it for their own means (I’m pretty sure they have a good understanding that this does, indeed, happen iRL too 🙂 ), while the CSI team is pretty much clueless, but willing to learn in order to catch the culprit more quickly. So this is all familiar territory.

What is pretty much interesting is the focus on social interaction in SL (we’ll see if the next episodes will continue that line). People go together on dates, to talk, to discuss, to dance together, to hold hands (if they have an attachment for that…), to have romance, and that romance continues (or not) iRL. All these are, indeed, key features of SL. Even the appeal to the “game crowd” (fighting on an arena) is not so different from what “real” SL has — playing games is part of the environment too, but not the key feature of SL. Zuiker also got that right (then again, he had the best advisors!).

The other fascinating thing is the sense of wonder. Well, we sit in front of our tiny screens iRL, worrying most of the time with 20 or 30 IMs, with a window cluttered with boxes and nasty user interface leftovers, silently cursing the lag, the slow downloads, our stressed Internet connection and overheating graphic cards, that we barely have time to sit back — and enjoy the lovely SL experience. SL is, in fact (at least in some places), a wonderful place, and Zuiker captures that sense of wonder very well! Some images are refreshing. Even for a long-time SL user you have no other thing to say but: “wow… so beautiful!”

Because that’s really what SL is… we just keep forgetting it.

Skeptics, of course, will always say: “yeah, but nobody will have those crystal-clear images with 30 FPS on their screens”. Well, as said, you can get them. In fact, although in some cases there is some obvious post-production (teleports look so much nicer in CSI:NY!), what fascinated me was that not much was faked. SL does really look that good — if you have your computer tuned properly!

Add to that a very fast-paced action, with plot twists at every end, murder-by-the-minute in front of the police’s eyes, dramatic camera movements (in RL and SL), and I guess that Zuiker turned his well-honed audience-rapturing magic to a success-making machine.

Then again, if you’re not a fan of the series,  you’ll never like it anyway 🙂

For me, I think that all the work put into CSI:NY was wasted on a TV episode (or even a series of episodes). It’s way too good for TV.

It should become a major motion picture 🙂

(“Steven, are you free for dinner tomorrow? Let’s discuss a script…” 😉 )

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