‘Pierre goes cross-eyed, trying to understand the implications of the slug’s cosmology’
In the discussion concerning science fiction, we saw how such stories can occasionally predict the future. However, like most forecasts they are rarely completely accurate. Jules Verne anticipated submarine warfare- but against wooden vessels rather than armoured battle fleets. The 1950s visions of space exploration missed out the role that digital computers would play in such scenarios, instead deffering the task of mapping out the details of missions to human navigators armed with slide rules. As for science fiction tales like ‘Neuromancer’ and ‘The Matrix’, our actual VR worlds fail to match up to these visions in a couple of ways. Firstly, you do not, generally speaking, connect to such worlds by plugging a cable into your brain or by wearing glasses that beams the world onto your retina. The latter technology is used to a very limited extent, but is certainly nowhere near as ubiquitous as it is in ‘Neuromancer’.
The second way in which contemporary online worlds differ from science fiction is this. We do not live in ‘the’ Matrix, a single, unified virtual environment. Instead, the Internet has lots of MMOGs and online worlds that are self-contained and to all intents and purposes isolated from one another. Your Second Life ® avatar cannot travel to Everquest, nor can the money you earn questing in Final Fantasy XI be used as currency in ‘There’. The author Steven Johnson wrote, ‘because the metaverse evolved largely out of videogames, it makes sense that it should be composed of fiefdoms- after all, you wouldn’t expect a Grand Theft Auto crack dealer to drop in for a barbeque with the Sims’.
That last comment illustrates how online worlds are often incompatible on more than a technical level. There may well be a cultural divide too, as behaviour that was acceptable and even encouraged in one MMOG may be a violation of the rules in another. Back when SL was still going through beta testing, a group of players from ‘World War 2 Online’ began logging in and using the content creation tools to plan new tactics. Once it was clear that SL was quite useful as a means for planning tactics for WW2O, the players invited friends along to join in. According to Cory Ondrejka, this caused ‘a substantial change in our demographic. Suddenly, we’re presented with a community of a few hundred players, a good percentage of whom are those WW2O players asking: “who do I shoot?” ‘.
The older residents of SL were not all that interested in running around shooting at each other, but they recognised a business opportunity when they saw one. Before long, stores sprang up around the WW2O players’ clubhouse. ‘Massive battles broke out’, Ondrejka remembered. ‘Eventually, it all settled down as we decided to give the WW2 Onliners this one simulator: a 16 acre square named Jessie’. This became the place to go in SL if you were looking for a spot of lethal combat. The sim was separated from its more peaceful neighbours by a high wall, memorably described by Hamlet Au as ‘a cross between the cold war’s Berlin Wall and a giant dam, to hold back the kind of trouble you come into Jessie to look for’. Along with that wall, just about every other divide manifested itself too, including cultural differences and mutually incompatible political outlooks. A complete history of Jessie is not necessary here. All we need to know is that there is (or was; I am not sure if it still exists) a place in SL that is cut off from its neighbouring sims.