Peter Ludlow and Mark Wallace, Second Life Herald:
The Virtual Tabloid that Witnessed the Dawn of the Metaverse

Review by Cassandra Jones

Second Life Herald: The Virtual Tabloid that Witnessed the Dawn of the Metaverse by Peter Ludlow and Mark Wallace. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007, c. 295p.

[1] The death of Urizenus, the Sims Online character for whom Peter Ludlow calls himself the typist, was no simple online disappearance. It was murder. The character had been deleted from the world of The Sims Online (TSO), the multiplayer online expansion of the popular Sims game, by the creators of the world, EA Games, for creating too much trouble by reporting the events of the online world to those in the "real" world. Yes, Urizenus's death was a political execution meant to quiet the reporters of the Alphaville Herald, a real life news blog reporting on the happenings in a "ficitional" world.

[2] This online death and the implications it has for lawmaking, policing, and free speech in digital worlds is the aim of the authors of The Second Life Herald: the Tabloid that Witnessed the Dawn of the Metaverse (Second Life Herald: TTWDM). Troubling the notions of "real" and "virtual," Ludlow and Wallace note that the "shadow economies" of MMOs are extensive and the virtual items for trade have real world value for the many users who inhabit these worlds. A weapon, a pet, or even a character in these games might be sold to another player for real world currency creating an economy that expands beyond the boundaries of the game. Where works such as the oft-cited Play Money by Julian Dibbell and Edward Castronova's Synthetic Worlds have taken up a discussion of these economies for those looking to get in on the action, Ludlow and Wallace examine the sordid substratum that these shadow economies create, looking to the in-game "mafias," grifters, and prostitution rings and how they negotiate and bend the rules of the world, while taking care to examine the ways in which the "real" and "play" worlds intersect.

[3] The story begins in the world of TSO, as Ludlow begins his journey towards creating the Alphaville Herald, the tabloid that would later become the Second Life Herald.

[4] Peter Ludlow's first foray into the virtual 3D universe, dubbed the metaverse, a term coined by Neal Stephenson in his sci-fi novel Snow Crash, was in early 2003 when Ludlow joined an online version of the popular Sims video game called The Sims Online (TSO). In what seems to be a gross misunderstanding of how the users played the original PC game, the MMO did not allow user-created content or any of the flexibilities of the PC game. This restriction in game play inspired a number of users to innovate, using the rules and oversights of the game's structure to create multiple ways of playing the game. As a result, mafias, "rarities" dealers, con artists, and cyber brothels sprang up across the game as players discovered opportunities to make Simoleons, TSO's in-world currency. Outside the game, the currency was being traded for real world currencies on sites like E-bay, merging the game's economy with real world economies, with corruption following not far behind. The Second Life Herald: TTWDM acts as a history of this corruption as they appeared in both TSO and Second Life as well as the means by which EA Games and later Linden Lab in Second Life did, and more importantly, did not deal effectively with gamers' complaints of swindling and corruption.

[5] Co-written by Ludlow and Wallace, an academic and a journalist, the book is a sometimes disorienting blend of academic analysis of emerging governmental systems in the metaverse and a journalistic sense of amazement at the possibilities of the digital landscape. The two vacillate somewhat uncomfortably between simply reporting the events and academically analyzing the implications of what they have witnessed shifting rapidly from outrage to awe and back again. As a result, the book gestures at a number of fascinating topics that should be taken up for further study, leaving the deeper excavation of the metaverse on the back burner. One such notion is the ways in which Ludlow's experiences in TSO and both writers' experiences in Second Life are useful for thinking about how law might be constructed in digital spaces. Examining the mafias, the corrupt Alphaville government, and an organization that calls itself The Sims Shadow Government (TSSG), Ludlow examines how these play structures allow us to examine and critique our assumptions concerning law and government in the real world. Ludlow and Wallace suggest that the corporations overseeing these worlds need to consider that they are not simply "games," but rather synthetic worlds who need governmental infrastructures to make these worlds operate efficiently. To recognize this would alter the relationship both EA Games and Linden Labs have to their respective worlds of TSO and Second Life in meaningful ways.

[6] Interestingly, one of the book's troublesome points is that at times EA Games and its subsidiary Maxis does, in fact, operate according to the logic of government; simply not the type of government Ludlow and Wallace find to be ideal. Indeed, Ludlow and Wallace note,

Ludlow was outraged that the omnipotent entity that was EA (omnipotent as far as TSO was concerned, at least) would move against a newspaper like the Herald...It was almost as if EA were playing the role of an overzealous government agency, shuttering a newspaper after less than two months of publication (14).

EA Games is operating as an oppressive regime that does not allow citizens a voice in its inner-workings and certainly does not it allow them recourse once a decision has been handed down from on high. This becomes clear in Ludlow's above response to the deletion of his avatar Uri and EA's closure of the Alphaville Herald "for the good of the game and its community" (14). It would seem that by overlooking their own use of the word "government" to signify democratic governmental organizations in their discussion of the users transgressive game play, Ludlow and Wallace are neglecting that these worlds, according to their own argument, are "synthetic societies that develop synthetic cultures, economies, and governance structures" (42). TSO, when read as a synthetic world, exists outside the borders of fixed countries and therefore, despite the laws which govern EA Games and its headquarters' location within the United States, one might claim there is no such corollary for any worlds EA Games itself creates. EA Games and others who create digital worlds find themselves in complete control and can neglect as much or as little or be as attentive and micro-managing as they see fit. Because of this, it seems uncertain to invite corporations to play a larger role in the digital worlds they create without specifying for which type of governmental structure they are asking. Alas, this is one of the many debates that Ludlow and Wallace open for future scholars.

[7] The book functions most effectively when it remains in the realm of TSO detailing the fascinating stories concerning the inner workings of cyber brothels and TSSG. As the Alphaville Herald, the in-game newspaper begun by Ludlow, makes its way from TSO to Second Life, becoming the Second Life Herald in the process, the book loses much of its momentum as well as its eye towards examining how theft, prostitution, as well as the players who form the TSSG to counteract gamers' corruption constitute a contained and simulated wild west. As Ludlow resurrects his avatar Urizenus in Second Life and is joined by Wallace's avatar, Walker, he finds that players who have shifted with him from TSO to Second Life are no longer up to their old tricks. In the case of "Celestie, the 'abusive granny'," they found that the ability to move and "play" more freely in Second Life's environment (unlike TSO, Second Life allows for user-created content) "turned Celestie and other former scammers around" (197). From this point on, the work shifts from the manner in which players play "around" the rules, resisting the rules of game play as intended by EA Games, to celebrating the potentially utopian possibilities of the participatory culture of digital spaces.

[8] The Second Life Herald: TTWDM is a source for those beginning to dabble in the study of online worlds, particularly Second Life and the universe of Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs). Despite its appeal to the easy claims of online spaces as utopian, claims that have been with us and been debated since the early days of the internet, the work demonstrates, albeit indirectly, how the well-worn discussion continues to be an important one. These debates reappear at each new interface and with the creation of new digital spaces arises anew the utopian discourse of freedom from restraints, be they bodily or otherwise. Indeed, Ludlow and Wallace touch upon the ways in which users of these worlds expand embodied and legal possibilities, but often neglect the means by which the users as well as Linden Labs and EA Games recreate hegemonic discourses. Scholars interested in dispelling the notion of a raceless, classless, and genderless internet more thoroughly might turn to Lisa Nakamura, but even she has just recently begun to explore the workings of these discourses in MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft. For those looking for a more scholarly approach to how users make meaning in Second Life, Tom Boellstroff's 2008 entry, Coming of Age in Second Life takes an anthropological approach to human (and posthuman) existence in virtual worlds. This book functions as an opening foray into the processes of lawmaking, policing, and personal freedoms much in the way Dibbell's and Castronova's functioned as an investigative entry into the intersection of real and play world economics. For those just beginning to take in an interest, however, in the mysterious sphere of online gaming, perhaps those wondering what in these spaces has captured their wives, husbands, partners, friends, children, or co-workers, or even those who would like to take the research further, The Second Life Herald: TTWDM offers an interesting, if not wholly innovative, approach to the study of MMOs and their real-life implications while also offering an intriguing look into the seedy underbelly of play worlds. Those who have had more experience in these worlds might enjoy reading about the tawdry dealings of the now-defunct TSO's mafia rings and even might experience outrage at reading about the inability of EA Games to manage the world it has created, but should not look to this book for a rigorous interrogation of Second Life or even TSO as site at which we reproduce or challenge racial, gender, or other cultural norms.