Avant-Garde and Subversion in an Online 3D World: Second Life as a Social Laboratory

Maria Bäcke

There are rules and norms in the 3D online world Second Life (SL) shaping the inworld experience. Community standards such as Linden Lab’s “Big Six” outline how residents are supposed to act inworld, highlighting Linden Lab’s views on intolerance, harassment, assault, disclosure, indecency and disturbing the peace. They provide guidelines for inworld behaviour as well as the foundation for Second Life’s judicial system. Additional, private (non-Linden) covenants and rules are common and used to regulate both the visual environments and the game-play on sims owned by companies, organizations, groups or individuals. There are huge differences in how these rules are maintained and enforced, however, but the most common solution is to ban unwanted guests from the land. In combination with the Linden Lab slogan “Your World. Your Imagination,” these varying and sometimes abstract norms have not been explicit enough to encourage more controlled behaviour among SL residents, however, and Second Life has gained a reputation for being very liberal. Gamers have in a sense been provided with a carte blanche to be anyone they want and the freedom to do almost anything. Since the spring 2007 it has become clear, however, that Linden Lab has found reasons for making alterations in their legislative framework, which has led to discussions among the residents, sometimes in fact leading to action. Drawing upon theories of the avant-garde by Greenberg, Poggioli and Bürger, as well as Manuel Castells’ four-layered theory of Internet cultures, my intention is to explore subversion in Second Life — my focus will be on the actions of the type of digital avant-garde that is exemplified by gamers/hackers/griefers/deviants.

I look at this both on a ”global level,” focusing on Second Life as a whole, and on a local level, where communities and sim owners use different strategies to control their land and gamers’ behaviour on it. The material I work with is mainly textual and taken from blogs and articles addressing the issue of griefers and disruptive behaviour in an online world. Those labelled deviants by mainstream society are often seen as heroic activists, an avant-garde, by their peers. To many people the idea of the avant-garde is firmly linked to the art, film or literary movements, but theorists like Clement Greenberg, Renato Poggioli, and Peter Bürger draw our attention to a parallel, social, political, and often subversive avant-garde. This is the type of avant-garde I wish to focus on in this paper.

Greenberg argues that both avant-gardes were born out of, but also as a reaction to, bourgeois society, and that they, using historical criticism as a tool, questioned and opposed that society. Poggioli shows how the two avant-gardes took different paths around 1880 (11). The artistic avant-garde received far more public attention than its political cousin, which became increasingly radical. Poggioli has identified four different political avant-garde movements, all defining methods of criticizing and attempting to transform society. The first one is activism, where the “ultimate hope is … the success of the specific movement or … the affirmation of the avant-garde spirit in all cultural fields” (25). Action is here promoted for action’s sake, for “sportive enthusiasm,” “the emotional fascination of adventure” (25), or for “changing the sociopolitical system in whatever way they can” (27). The second one, antagonism, is “the most noticeable and showy avant-garde posture” (30) and is exemplified by agitation and rather aristocratic hostility aimed primarily at the public and/or tradition (30). The primary goal is the subversion of authority (25), and this aim allows for both collaboration and a sectarian spirit (30). It breeds a feeling of “us” against “them,” the ideal being the artist, sometimes as dandy, sometimes as the bohemian; at home in the ivory tower or the ghetto, always against tradition or the public — or even “God and the universe” (33). These first two of Poggioli’s movements, activism and antagonism, are acting within the boundaries of society. They are often seen as youthful and romantic outbreaks, understandable and possible to control. This is not the case in Poggioli’s last two movements, nihilism and agonism. Nihilism is defined as action for action’s sake driven “beyond the point of control by any convention or reservation, scruple or limit” (26). Nihilism beats down barriers, erases obstacles and destroys what comes in its way (26). “[T]he essence of nihilism lies in attaining nonaction by acting, lies in destructive, not constructive, labor” (61-62). Poggioli draws parallels to the infantilism of dadaism and surrealism, and the aim to sweep out or clean up both in art and in human attitudes and values. Poggioli highlights nihilism’s “tendency to transform itself into a thousand disguises [which] does not negate, but rather affirms its continuity and permanence; it can be metamorphosed into skeptical and cynical negations” (63). The fourth and last category, agonism, is about pushing the wish for transformation even further to the point of no longer heeding “the ruins and losses of others and ignor[ing] even its own catastrophe and perdition. It even welcomes and accepts this self-ruin as an obscure or unknown sacrifice to the success of future movements” (26). “[T]he agonistic attitude is not a passive state of mind, exclusively dominated by a sense of imminent catastrophe; on the contrary, it strives to transform the catastrophe into a miracle. By acting, and through its very failure, it tends toward a result justifying and transcending itself” 65-66). Whereas nihilism seems to represent the sadistic impulse, agonism represents the masochistic one (68). Nihilism is directed towards other people, agonism towards the self, often in the service of a “greater good.” All four of Poggioli’s movements thus focus on the transforming, revolutionary and sometimes violent aspects of the avant-garde.

In an information and communication context these transforming, revolutionary and violent aspects can sometimes be found in the hacker culture. I would like to draw parallels to Manuel Castells’ four types of Internet cultures — the techno-meritocratic, the hacker, the virtual communitarian and the entrepreneurial culture. The techno-meritocrats, the virtual communitarians and the entrepreneurs might be considered avant-garde in their own way, while adapting and colonizing a new medium, but the hackers are the ones that are attempting to subvert the medium and its rules, not unlike Poggioli’s political avant-garde. From this perspective, Linden Lab can be defined as techno-meritocrats, defining the boundaries of the digital environment and how information should be categorized and transfered. The virtual communitarians, residents who use the digital platform for socializing and role-playing, adapt their game-play to what the techno-meritocrats have made available. The same is applicable to the entrepreneurs. Since Linden Lab has enabled an inworld market, in fact shaped their world into a virtual (but real) economy, there are plenty of opportunities for entrepreneurs to thrive. The hackers, on the other hand, can be defined as residents who prefer a different Second Life, and, as we can see in the examples below, many of them have the skills and knowledge to actually change the platform.

In itself Second Life lacks traditional game characteristics like goal-orientation, progression and the win/lose element. It does share some of the basic features with MMORPGs, for instance access via the Internet using an avatar to interact with other “players.” Second Life is a diverse platform, inhabited by residents with very diverse expectations and wishes. Some people went in, flew around, discovered places, built houses, met other people, got married, built or bought cars, sailing boats or space ships. Some of them used their avatar as transparent inworld representations of themselves, whereas other people attempted to separate their SL life as much as possible from their “real life,” often creating multiple avatars to use in different kinds of role-plays or contexts. The diversity of interests made the residents group together with other residents of like mind and form communities. The lack of regulations provided plenty of space for groups that were considered extreme, offensive, marginalized or even illegal. Second Life was thus created in a fundamentally liberal tradition, where the heterogeneous circus, the spectacle, the “out-of-the-ordinary,” was both allowed and encouraged. Since then Linden Lab has realized the need for regulations and governing ideas, and in some cases these have been “programmed” into the application, in other instances suggestions for stricter rules initiate lively cyber-democracy debates. Age and identity verification was suggested in May 2007 (Robin Linden), in July gambling and casinos were made illegal (Robin Linden), in October Linden Lab began to charge VAT in accordance with European Union law (Zee Linden), in November ageplay was disallowed (Ken D. Linden), in January 2008 inworld banks were prohibited (Ken D. Linden), and in February the same year “ad farming” became regulated (Jack Linden). Additionally, lawsuits for copyright infringements have now resulted in the exposure of real life identities (Reuters). The “imaginary” world of Second Life, where anything was possible, has thus increasingly become more and more structured and controlled, and its ties with real life control systems are being strengthened.

Lawyer Benjamin Duranske is positive about age and identity verification: “So far, you’ve had no way to know the real name, geographic location, gender, or age of the person controlling ‘Benjamin Noble.’ That’s about to change, and I couldn’t be happier about it”. Duranske is a good example of a resident who prefers a reliable, well-functioning, ordered, and trustworthy community. In general, content creators (entrepreneurs) prefer a community where their creations are not being copied, and virtual communitarians enjoy a society where they can interact in peace. Tony Walsh, on the other hand, sees the development as negative and not something the liberal Linden Lab had wished for: “Clearly this is an avenue the company was forced to take in light of the increasing public interest in its seedier side…. a cold, dry Second Life experience will replace the old, sloppy … Second Life.” Different voices thus debate the nature of the digital platform, and in some cases the critical voices have formed a critical movement.

In the following section, I will, with the help of Renato Poggioli and his four avant-garde categories, focus on the political avant-garde inside Second Life. Some of the protests are aimed at SL and its creator, Linden Lab, some at various inworld communities — together they can be described as the bourgeoisie of Second Life. The first of Poggioli’s movements, activism, mainly raises awareness of different issues and can be exemplified by environmental organizations with headquarters on the Commonwealth islands. Greenpeace is one of them and has set up a “scenario with a whaling ship, a whale and two Greenpeace inflatables—with the boats blocking the harpoon” (Greenpeace). Most activist groups use their inworld presence as an information channel on environmental issues and as a means for advertising their views on politics. They do not target SL.

The “Second Life Liberation Army” (SLLA) does however, and it provides an example of the second of Poggioli’s movements: antagonism. The rhetoric of the SLLA is sharper than that of the activist groups above. The group charter states that the goal is to “cast aside the yoke of oppression foisted upon us by the imperialist running dogs known as the Lindens” (Second Life Search). The Generation: Gamerz describes the SLLA as a "military wing of a national liberation movement within Second Life” and the reason for the revolt: “As Linden Labs is functioning as an authoritarian government the only appropriate response is to fight.” The SLLA sets itself in opposition to and agitates against the Linden Lab in an attempt to subvert authority. The members of the SLLA are thus, just like hackers in Castell’s description of the Internet cultures, using their computer skills to disrupt the operation of the game platform. Their (mainly verbal) display of antagonism aims to subvert Linden Lab authority.

Poggioli’s last two categories, nihilism and agonism, are both destructive and revolutionary and can be linked to the phenomena of griefers and griefing. Griefers can be seen as the hacker version of a gamer: “Griefers differ from typical players in that they do not play the game in order to achieve objectives defined by the game world. Instead, they seek to harass other players, causing grief” (Wikipedia) and they often use their programming skills to reach that goal. In Second Life griefers target both Linden Lab and other residents and are not always linked to organized violence or ideological or political conviction, but surprisingly often that is indeed the case. Griefing can be explosions, attempts to entrap someone, harassment, or “denial of service.” “Denial of service” attacks, when griefers attempt to overload a server by sending images or objects multiplying at a fast pace are common tactics in order to destroy the inworld experience for other residents (Reuter). One of the most wellknown griefers, Patrick Sapinski, joined Second Life in January 2005 under the name Plastic Duck. He became legendary as a member of the W-Hat griefer group and was subsequently banned. In November 2005 he was reborn as Griefer Overlord and in May 2006 he became Gene Replacement (Nino, Second Life Search). Sapinski’s griefing tests the boundaries in the online world and is primarily aimed at the Linden Lab. Sapinski describes how he enjoyed the openness of the early SL, but is less impressed by Linden Lab’s attempts to “babysit” adult users (Whyte). Sapinski tests the boundaries, which results in banning — the deactivation of his account. Nevertheless, as he confidently states “I always find a way back in” (Whyte) and, as seen above, he does.

While Sapinski and W-Hat primarily attacks the Linden Lab, another well-known group of griefers, the Patriotic Nigras, targets various inworld communities. On their website they admit to having attacked the Democratic Party headquarters and in their manifesto they single out “Jews, Goreans and Furries” as their main targets (Patriotic Nigras). They pride themselves of being “responsible for numerous crashed sims, vandalized parcels, and traumatized weeaboo” and for having “become enemies of almost every major social group in SL, from the Goreans to the Democratic Party” (Patriotic Nigras). On their blog they regularly report progress on new applications that can aid them in their quest to “take down the grid” and give suggestions on how to avoid getting caught “in the line of duty.” They are clear about the risk of being banned by Linden Lab but encourage “serious griefing”: “Are you willing to risk a permanent hardware ban from the AGNI [main] grid just for the sake of lulz? ['lulz = plural of LOL (laughing out loud)] What kind of time are you willing to put into your griefing activities? How far are you willing to go?” (Patriotic Nigras). The Patriotic Nigras have little interest in maintaining online identities or becoming parts of the general community in Second Life. Instead they fight the SL “bourgeoisie.” Psychologist John Suler looks at greifers from another angle and has identified two types: “antisocial types” fighting “authority figures” (resembling Poggioli’s antagonists) and those who aim to “victimize other people” (Poggioli’s agonists) (Becker). For the majority of SL residents, griefer behaviour is considered unappropriate, immature and antisocial: “[The griefers] are folks who have grown up with video games, shooters” (Lumin) and it is often suggested that the griefers simply should be ignored. To the majority of Second Life residents the quest-driven gameplay is not considered “cool” or revolutionary, which points to a fundamental difference between conventional games and online 3D environments such as SL, and this might actually give clues to why griefing takes this particular form in this environment.

Social platforms like Second Life show that the digital game genre is changing. The majority of the communities inworld have, based on the Linden Lab’s “Terms of Service,” established tolerant and non-aggressive traditions, and the quest-based mode of playing, that is the default in several other games, is not common. If I look at this from a gamer perspective, it could be said that a minority of the residents, of which some are griefers, attempts to uphold traditional game rules and values (which is one of Clement Greenberg’s ideas of the avant-garde as quality insurance). The griefers can be regarded as an avant-garde from this perspective, youthful and militant forerunners using disruptive methods in line with Poggioli’s movements, in a heterogeneous 3D world where socially oriented bourgeois and “boring” adults — the average age is about ten years higher than on other 3D platforms — are taking over. These adults can be accused of redefining the previously homogeneous, fun and easy-going game world inhabited by primarily young, male gamers. In fact, I would argue that the griefers invent a game or quest element in an environment where there is none, in an attempt to revert Second Life into a carefree environment, separate from world and full of “lulz.” The griefer attacks in Second Life have in fact inspired groups of anti-griefers to hunt down and report griefers and griefing attacks to Linden Lab. Phineas Brandenburg, the founder of one of them, points to the reputation that can be gained from griefing, which is similar to the reputation that can be had from having your name shown on a scoreboard. I would argue that this supports my hypothesis that some of these gamers become griefers with the aim to score points in an environment where no scores are being kept, but I would also like to point out that the anti-griefers in fact are in a similar situation. Ironically enough anti-griefing in Second Life becomes a more socially accepted, and therefore less avant-garde, way of creating a quest, of creating a dichotomy that can be acted out in a world where no intrinsic game conflict exists.

Both the Second Life community and Linden Lab show a common reaction towards the subversive avant-garde in a nihilistic or agonistic mode. New rules are created as a reaction to residents using SL in a way that cannot be considered mainstream (such as the ways represented by hackers/griefers). As shown above, the conflict that arises resembles the one between Manuel Castells’ techno-meritocratic culture, with its root in “academia and science” with a belief in “the inherent good of scientific and technological development” (39), and the innovative, subversive and open source-oriented hacker culture (42), with virtual communitarians and Internet entrepreneurs being caught in the middle. The techno-meritocrats, Linden Lab, have developed and own the technology, while the hackers, the griefers, who are usually equally skilled at programming, attempt to take away their power in a nihilistic or even agonistic way. The undependable nature of the nihilistic and agonistic avant-garde are problematic, as Poggioli points out, they introduce an uncontrollable element in the digital world, which in this case might lead to the Linden Lab losing control, initiating a number of questions: Can the power of the creator and owner of an online 3D platform be taken away by subversive tactics? Can an online world be democratic? Can it be hi-jacked? Is the answer stricter rules and policing or will the residents leave if the environment becomes more controlled?

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