What are WoW & SL?

I recognize that for some, the places bandied about on this blog might be unfamiliar. Or, maybe you just want to see what I come up with in answering this actually rather difficult question. My attempts at a basic overview of Second Life and World of Warcraft are here. You can also take a peek at my basic WoW glossary for a bit on the terms used.

World of Warcraft, a.k.a. WoWA Massively Multiplayer Online Game created in 2004 by Blizzard. Currently has about 12 million players all over the world.

WoW is, at its core, an online version of Dungeons & Dragons, that old paper-and-pencil adventuring game some of us played in the 1970s and 80s (and some still do). In the paper version, you use dice and sheets of paper to create a character in a fantasy genre like an elf or a dwarf (or even a human). You select a “class” which determines if your elf/dwarf/etc. is going to be a warrior (think Conan the Barbarian), a cleric (usually the healer of the group), or a magic user (think Harry Potter all grown up). With a group of players, you talk through various adventures killing monsters and gaining experience under the guidance of the “Dungeon Master” who describes the challenges and regulates the process.

Stormwind, a WoW region.

WoW (and the many other games that use this approach including EverQuest and Ultima Online) is essentially a computer-run, graphically rendered version of D&D. It similarly lets you select a character race and class – my troll is a shaman, who is a kind of fighter/magic-user – and then enter a persistent virtual world. This 3D environment is drawn with incredible landscapes and populated by NPCs (non-player characters) who instruct you to pursue various quests to kill monsters or collect valuable items. Through questing, you gain experience, power, and “gear” – magic swords, helmets, rings etc. that boost your abilities. It takes literally months to quest your way to the top level of 85, even playing many hours a week (although experienced “power levelers” can do it much faster).

WoW requires considerable social coordination to kill larger creatures because one player can not be strong enough to triumph alone. People form groups and guilds to complete the more challenging activities, making WoW is an extremely social game by design: you can not “win” or even perform relatively well without help from other players.

Oh, and there isn’t really any “winning” the game:  unlike single-player games, WoW doesn’t really have an “end” that you reach and are “done”. Getting the most powerful gear for your character requires running through the same raids and instances over and over, and chances are that when you do, Blizzard will come out with a new raid with even better gear. A lot of people have been playing WoW pretty consistently since it began.

I’ve been playing WoW, mostly as my troll shaman Lantanayew, since April of 2008 (now level 85). Since then, I’ve joined and left four different guilds, made and lost friends, leveled a few ‘alt’ characters until I stalled at around level 45, and became a thorough convert.

Second Life, a.k.a. SLAn online persistent virtual world without any built-in “game” structure. Created by Linden Labs in 2003. Currently has about 18 million accounts, but no clear indication of either number of unique users or long-term consistent usage.

The town we've created in Second Life.

A town area on our island, Adamourne on Wells, created for our research in Second Life.

Second Life is basically an open, landscaped terrain where avatars can roam around and make stuff. That’s certainly not an academic nor official description, but it’s important to recognize that SL is a largely free-form development space that has only a few developer-created standards: its fundamental physics, governing  basic movement (e.g. walking and flying), object property options (e.g., solid vs. phantom), and its interface (which buttons or commands you use to do things).

Everything else that is Second Life, beyond some Linden Labs-developed areas, is created by its residents. SL denizens build homes from Tudor mansions to space stations, make apparel from ball gowns to bat wings, program avatar animations from a disco dance to a strip show, and develop terrain from towering mountains to underwater gardens. Through your avatar, you execute simple and complex commands to pull in images or art you create elsewhere and slap it on the surface of cubes and spheres and the like to build anything you can imagine. A proprietary programming language lets you imbue your creations with advanced interactive or animation properties, allowing the creation of things like a dancing skeleton or a toy soldier who explodes when you click him.

Who can resist looking like Xena?

Because of this open structure, Second Life is dramatically different for different people in different communities. Like any city, like the internet itself, SL has a wide range of spaces where people work, play, learn, have sex, or get bored. There are scores of universities with SL islands where they hold classes; government agencies like NASA create educational displays and “museums”; corporations like Toyota advertise their wares; news agencies like Reuters report on current events; role-playing and combat “sims” let residents tackle monsters or pretend to be magical beings. There are art exhibits, live music, and even international embassies. You can buy and sell pretty much anything, from land to loungewear, and the economy of SL is amazingly active.

In short, with considerable time and know-how, your Second Life can be almost anything you are capable of making it. Utopia or slave world, paradise or post-apocolyptic hell-hole, it’s in your hands.

That said, SL feels oddly empty, hard to navigate, and, just as it would be to land with no knowledge or contacts in LA, is really overwhelming at first. And it’s on the outs, as far as I can see. The SL “gold rush” was over by the end of 2007, and the thriving communities I’ve heard of there seem to be waning – but what do I know, I can’t seem to find any of them. SL is enormous, with about 1.85 billion square meters of land purchased and developed by residents, and US$567 million in User-to-User transactions in 2009 (see stats). Linden Labs folks report that things are only growing, though, So something must be going on.

A group of friends and I in Second Life.

I’ve been spending time in SL since October of 2009 working on research-related projects. We’ve purchased a private island and we developed a mystery quest as part of our study of online games. I’ve become quite the developer and programmer, actually, having a great time with the scripting language and purchasing buildings and objects to create a coherent little world. My avatar, Belladonna Kamala, spends most of her time on our island, but I’m planning to get roaming any time now. Until then, I’ll keep in touch with more shopping for cool clothes.


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