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Print-Screen: "Second Lives: A Journey Through Virtual Worlds"

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Good game writing is not very different from good travel writing. Somehow you must communicate the incommunicable, translating your experience in a foreign world to someone who has not yet and may never see the things that you have seen. This parallel becomes obvious once you get into writing about virtual worlds and MMOs. It's one thing to talk about Azeroth or Norrath to someone with a level 60 foozle killer, but entirely another to write for a popular audience.

Perhaps this is a job best left to tourists, and Tim Guest's "Second Lives" is one of the best travelogues through virtual living spaces that you'll find. Guest takes his time describing what a virtual world is, who the players are, and how getting immersed in this digital reality can alter how you see the real world.

As the title suggests, the bulk of Guest's work is spent describing his experiences in Second Life, the virtual world from Linden Labs that has been the object of great attention from the mainstream media and almost as great derision from the hardcore gaming audience. Guest encounters an avatar controlled in sequence by a group of severely disabled adults, an overly theatrical wannabe mob boss and one of the infamous Something Awful griefers who invaded the game and provoked calls to the FBI.

Guest does spend time with other games. The space piracy of Eve Online and the Korean phenomenon Lineage 2 get significant mention. The 800-pound gorilla World of Warcraft is conspicuous in its near absence, relegated to passing mentions. As bizarre as that sounds, it makes perfect sense the way the book is structured, because Guest is not interested in success or popularity as much as he is in the transformative powers of virtual worlds. So the fact that Eve has seen epic criminal heists is more important than truck ads that use WoW avatars.

This also explains his obsession with Second Life, a game run by a company whose insistence on good vibes and loyalty reminds the author of the commune on which he lived as a child. It is a world that promises almost everything to the user who wants to escape his "first life." Familiar to most gamers as a haven for sexual fetishes and politicians or corporations that want to look hip, Guest finds a community fiercely protective of the island they inhabit, an island of wish fulfillment where the lame walk, where the escort becomes a real estate millionaire, and where everyone is hotter than in real life.

Like a good travelogue, this is participant observer journalism and Guest is soon sucked into Second Life as it consumes more and more of his attention. He wants to try everything. He sets up an office. He solicits an online prostitute. He gets hired out as a virtual hit man, assigned to trick a troublesome player into admitting that he has violated the Terms of Service. Throughout the early going, Guest seems thrilled by Second Life's potential.

Not that there aren't culture clashes. He interviews a Second Life "griefer" who can't understand why people don't appreciate his performance art pranks; it's a game, isn't it? Who would take this seriously? Fear of corporate intrusion into Second Life leads to small-scale protests, even though it is apparent from both Guest's anecdotes and subsequent events that most corporations have no idea how to use the virtual world to leverage their brands. He also notes a huge difference in how Koreans and gamers in the West treat their virtual worlds; for many Koreans, the virtual self is an extension of the real self, not something to be resurrected after death or remade over and over again.

Eventually, Guest seems to come away from his experiences disillusioned with much of the virtual world evangelism. Without dismissing or invalidating how many positive experiences are out there, he knows that the real world is still out there, and that addiction is, for many others, a very real thing.

For gamers, many of the stories he tells are well-known. Anshe Chung is probably the most famous avatar in the world. The great heist capers of Eve Online have been told and retold. The basics of duping items in EverQuest are not unfamiliar.

There is a lot of value in seeing the experiences translated through the eyes of someone discovering many of these worlds for the first time. Just as we never appreciate local tourist attractions unless we have out-of-town guests, the foreignness of playing pretend escort takes on new humanity through Guest's observations.

The best example of this is when he travels to Korea to get bombarded by NCSoft's business reps. Then, in the midst of this PR management exercise, he gets to meet the king of kings of Lineage 2, the owner of a failing restaurant who would clearly be better off leaving his online life behind him, but he can't. An entire kingdom depends on him. He has friends there. He's somebody. The poignancy of the encounter forces you to reexamine every other meeting he has had and maybe meetings you have experienced yourself.

"Second Lives" demonstrates why Second Life is such a rich topic for discussion. No, it's not as popular as raving mainstream media reports suggests, nor is it as intuitive. (Guest's attempt to make an object is amusing in its brevity: He tries, he fails, and then he stops trying.) Anshe Chung's predictions of dozens of Second Life millionaires are as distant now as they ever were. But Second Life works for an examination of the powers of online worlds for a number of reasons.

First, it isn't a foreign world where the writer needs to explain what is going on. No need to describe quests or PvP or leveling up. It's a world where you can, theoretically, be whatever low-resolution thing you want to be. It's the ultimate "let's pretend," except so many people choose to pretend to be idealized versions of themselves.

Second, the lack of real "game" structure means that the user interactions are not mediated through an artificial determination of friend and foe. Relations with other people are based on more than a utilitarian focus on completing the next mission.

Third, every story is unique. Since there is so much user customization and there are no dungeons to run, Second Life remains an intensely personal experience for those who play it regularly. There are no ideal specs or identical paths, so no two users will have the same encounters on any given day.

These facts make Second Life easy for non-gamers to understand and appreciate, and, conversely, they make it impenetrably pointless to gamers. Just as the dollhouse appeal of The Sims escapes the hardcore shooter, MMO gamers are likely to turn up their nose at a virtual world that is entirely what you and others make of it. Guest tries, and fails, to get his WoW-playing father interested, a story that probably has thousands parallels in the online universe.

Guest is open about how his real life intersected with his online experiences, how one life would be an escape from the other. He's also keenly aware of how his own childhood makes him suspicious of utopian promises and how slavery is sometimes sold through promises of freedom. Even if you don't "get" Second Life, Guest's book is more than worthwhile because he's not sure he "gets" it either, though he desperately wants to.

In Other Words

Second Life is the most written-about virtual world. Journalist and Second Life apologist Wagner James Au has just completed a book about his experiences in the virtual world, titled "The Making of Second Life" (Collins).

One of the more interesting recent books is "I, Avatar" (New Riders) by Mark Stephen Meadows. It takes an almost postmodern look at what is, probably, a very postmodern phenomenon. Like Guest, he doesn't limit himself to Second Life, but sees that world as the one rife with theoretical meaning and blurring the lines between selves.

"Second Lives: A Journey through Virtual Worlds" is published by Random House. This review is based on a copy purchased by the writer.

Want more of Troy S. Goodfellow's Print-Screen column? Check out his reviews of the film "In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale" and the novel "Mass Effect: Revelations."