The Lowlights of Avatar Chat and Selected Virtual Societies.
When did you first visit a chat room? If you've been using computers a while, you probably remember your first exciting experiences with newsgroups or bulletin board systems. Passing messages back and forth, arguing, making friends you had never seen from lands you had never set foot on. Memory and processing speeds of personal computers advanced further and became cheaper, more widely available, until you could exchange messages in real time through chat rooms. Words on a computer screen became almost like a place where you could represent yourself (or misrepresent yourself) any way you wanted. Some people used chat rooms to act out sword and sorcery settings, intergalactic pubs. Some used it to find friends, make enemies, make love. A lot of possibilities, but text is somehow one-dimensional. You could describe a spaceport vividly, but it was only words.
As memory and processing speeds progressed further, the clarity of computer images became better and better, until people started displaying photos of their grandchildren on their computer screens at work, instead of real framed pictures on top of their desks. The instant interaction of chat rooms blossomed into two dimensions. The first place I saw chat which used avatars (little pictures to represent the people chatting) was on a site called...
The Palace seemed like a big deal in 1999. No more plain text chat. At The Palace, you choose an avatar2 to represent you, hundreds of human or animal or household appliance images to illustrate who you wish you were. Mostly cartoonish, idealized teens, boys with muscles and guns, girls with big eyes and fashionable eating habits. Some used photos of their favorite Babylon 5 characters, Mulder or Scully, or hip actresses who Knew What You Did Last Summer. You could create or edit images, experiment with clothes and props, add butterfly wings to make your girl a fairy, or demonic wings and flaming eyesockets like a Marvel superhero. UPS uniforms were all the rage for a while, piles of packages around your young, scowling delivery boy, his arms folded, trying to look like something out of a rap video. Angry clown faces like the Detroit rap duo ICP (Insane Clown Posse), bottles of Faygo cola3 stacked on the ground around your insane clown avatar.
You pick a "room" with a background image that suits your fantasy, a castle or a space ship or romantic meadows or a veranda on a Georgia mansion. Position your static avatar somewhere on the background image and the words you type will pop up in word balloons above your avatar's head. Not much movement, except that you can build up a huge stockpile of avatars, and switch from moment to moment, reflecting your moods. One moment a giant smiley-face, then a kitten, a gunslinger, Schwarzeneggar, a chameleon, or a sign that reads "BRB AFK 2PP."4
At the time, I recognized the Palace as a step forward toward virtual reality. Remember Lawnmower Man? I know, you tried to blot it from your memory, but it's the perfect illustration. Everyone has been waiting for the kind of fully immersive virtual reality where you can fly like a god through starry tunnels and pulsing grids of energy, preferably bluish backgrounds snipped out of Tron and recycled into Wild Palms, Johnny Mnemonic, The Matrix. Or maybe we just want to try those sex scenes from Lawnmower Man where you swirl and melt into a knot with your lover.
Still a long way from full immersion virtual reality, a body suit that transmits touch, heat, cold, all your senses fooled into believing you're inside that avatar. But at least you have a picture representing yourself, and you can interact with other people from around the world in a 2-D fantasy setting.
The Palace is probably more interesting these days, maybe more movement, but I'm not willing to download their software again today to do more research. As these things progress, they will become faster, cheaper, more complex, cooler. And you won't have to mess with downloading anything. For example...
A COmpany virtually located in the UK, Dubit provides a wacky, sci-fi atmosphere, staffed by ghosts, aliens, thugs and heros. Male and female variations of each brainiac alien you might want to for your avatar, hulking male werewolves and hulking werewolves with ribbons in hair to match. My favorite is the little, creeping, sickly nosferatu with his claws arched in front of his chest. Dubit's system gives you a free "apartment" where you can spend hours on interior decorating (okay, maybe only minutes), entertain your virtual friends, and you don't have to pay real money for your virtual furniture.
There's a city to explore full of clubs and offices, stores, apartment buildings and dark alleys where they sell drugs. Drugs?! Yes, but don't get rattled just yet. Sinister cartoon characters try to push booze and pot and cocaine on you. One junky sits in the gutter with needles protruding all up and down his arms. If you click on any of these people, your screen flashes to an article describing the names of various drugs, slang terms, chemical names, and the effects of using those drugs. Theoretically, the system is kept from being a total "Reefer Madness" propaganda trip by the fact that users are encouraged to comment on the articles, and these comments are displayed for other users. Nancy Reagan was never as interesting as an interactive propaganda cartoon.
The advantages of Dubit are that it's cute and cartoony yet sleekly futuristic (think 1983's Space Ace), gives you a lot of free options to play with, some simple games, and there's nothing new to download if you already have Flash. The down side is that you can't enter a virtual bathroom without first applying for a debit card. Actually, it's a "dubit" card, and I'm not sure whether you have to pay real money for anything on Dubit, but that tidbit annoyed me enough to stop exploring. Also cumbersome are real life brand names like Diesel clothing that are advertised on billboards throughout Dubit's cityscape, as well as your room. You can tell they haven't won many advertisers yet, since half the billboards show "Diesel" and half say, "Your Ad Here."
The major problem is that letters throughout the world of Dubit are microscopic, on all the pages to register and sign up, all the signs, all the chat dialog word balloons when you're trying to chat up other werewolves and alien blobs and Men In Black. On my 13" monitor set to 800 by 600 pixels, the average fonts in Dubit appear to range from 5 to 7 point type. It's frustrating when you're trying to carry on a conversation, especially when the rest of the graphics are so clear and crisp, the movements so smooth. Also, some of the fonts are jaunty and angular and futuristic, which makes them doubly illegible. Maybe I need to set my monitor to more or less pixels, but when I tried to change settings, the image seemed to adapt to my new setting, and looked exactly the same as before.
If you have fresh, young eyes, not yet damaged by years of staring at a Commodore 64, give Dubit a try. Or if you have one of those full-screen magnifying lenses, as seen in the offices throughout the movie Brazil, then this is the site for you. Meanwhile, I'll stick with...
The graphics on Habbo are simple line-drawings of kids or maybe teens, set in a familiar isometric system of rooms. It's not cutting edge animation, but what do you want for nothing? It's adequate. Now forget about the graphics. What you need to pay attention to is the culture.
You come home from your sixtieth hour of data entry this week, kick off your shoes and try to escape the meaningless drudgery of the real world. Select the hair, shoes and skin colo(u)r of your favorite Japanese cartoon character and spend your time in a fantasy world searching for those most holy material possessions, furniture.
Maybe "furni" is common UK slang, but my first encounter with the word was on habbo, where virtual furniture is the only possible currency between characters. Your avatar and clothes are free, and there are no fees for creating rooms to decorate or gather your friends in. But the decorations, the bath tubs, chairs, loos, colo(u)rs of walls or floors all cost real money, in pounds sterling please. Just use your credit card, or bill it all to your celly phone account. It's a cute idea, but who would have thought that hundreds of teens or adults would enjoy spending hour after hour, day after day hustling for virtual furniture? Work a virtual job for furniture. Scam your fellow habbos for furniture. Beg for furniture. Spend several relaxing hours trying to trade your crappy gray plasto table for a pink armchair. The trading rooms fill with people shouting what they want to trade, drowning out what others try to say, because only 5 lines can be viewed at a time, usually
WHO WANTS A GREEN WOOL RUG? HIT 666
WHO WANTS A GREEN WOOL RUG? HIT 666
WHO WANTS A GREEN WOOL RUG? HIT 666
WHO WANTS A GREEN WOOL RUG? HIT 666
WHO WANTS A GREEN WOOL RUG? HIT 666
You have to repeat yourself in order to be "heard." That is, in order for your line to be noticed among the quick scroll of lines from competing messages. They shout for you to hit numbers because those are easier to spot in a room full of word balloons than a series of people shouting "yes! YES! y y y no thnx Yes. RIGHT!" Is that a "yes" to my green wool rug, or "yes" to her lodge table? "HIT 333 IF U WANT TO GIVE ME FREE FURNI PLZ IM A POOR HABBO"
Watch as the scams unfold in front of you.
"No, u give me ur tv first & then I give u the bed. It only works if u hand the tv to me first."
"I'll leave a bunch of extra furni in your room if you give me the password for your character."
The second most important term to remember on Habbo is "bobba," a nonsense word that automatically replaces any objectionable terms. If someone says, "Bobba you!" they're not trying to be cute or smurfy. They said something so bad that it was automatically censored. "Your character looks like bobba" is probably not a compliment.
When you hear a female5 habbo say, "I WILL BOBBA FOR FURNI," then you've met your first virtual furniture strumpet. This behavio(u)r is quite against the rules of Habbo, but enterprising users have found workarounds. It's not like the little cartoons are programmed to visually simulate anything naughty, or even touch each other, but you don't have to be as ancient as fourteen to see that there are at least 1337 work arounds to their simplistic auto-censor software. So there's not much to prevent people from cybering if they really want to. This is the other phrase to beware, if you're as unfamiliar with chat slang as I was. "Do you want to cyber?" translates into disco French as "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi virtually?" The proper response on Habbo is "EEK!" or at best, "NO."
Another thing that disgusts me on Habbo, but is surely not unique to this setting, is the treatment of "friendship" as a status that is assigned instantaneously, decisively, yet disposably. I realize it's just a way to allow private messages and prevent abuse of emails or other info by strangers. But the way to add other habbo inhabitants to your contact list is to send them a "friend request." Do you accept this person as your friend? Click yes or no. Just like the notes we used to pass back and forth in grade school. Then if they annoy you, simply highlight their name on your friends list and click "remove." How convenient! Unfortunately, this attitude manifests in most conversations with people who have assimilated the culture of disposable virtual friendship.
Someone walks up to you in a lobby of the Habbo Hotel and says, "Hi, what's your asl6?" When you tell them that your age is 29, sex is male, and location is Michigan, they may walk away. Small talk is so Twentieth Century, isn't it? If you're lucky, the person might take time to reply, "Sorry, u r 2 old." Or they might be exceptionally polite and say, "cool. it was nice meeting you. i have to go now" -- before walking across the room to start a conversation with someone else.
What Does It All Mean?
I wanted to lay out a grand statement here about how these little virtual societies show what's in store for us. But these places are old news. I've been dabbling with a few free sites, nothing pushing the envelope. There's another download site called "Cybertown" with much more impressive graphics, characters equivalent to Tomb Raider, instead of the tiny cartoons of Habbo. If you're willing to put money into it, there's Everquest, advertised as the World's Number One Massively Multiplayer Online Game. It's been out at least a year or so. You have to buy the software plus pay a subscription, but the people who do it are not just playing. Some of them marry other characters within the game, or spend all their free time there like it was a second job. There must be thousands of people around the globe right now who avoid their real corner pub in order to hang out after work in a virtual pub where dwarves serve grog and a barbarian troll might start a fight. Then there's Anarchy Online, a sci-fi version of the same stuff. Or there's The Sims, where you can design and unleash your skinny automatons into a virtual society, watching over them like a guardian angel or an odd god. I imagine they let you micromanage the actions of your Sim character, to the point that you might use it like an avatar.
Who knows what they'll come out with next year. Yes, I'm sure there will be elves in it, and users who speak tlhIngan Hol7, and there will still be people who call themselves "hotchik69" and "QTpa2T" and "homer1147", but beyond that?
The lessons of The Palace and Dubit and Habbo demonstrate a misty picture of what the future of virtual society will be like. When you strap into that first fully immersive VR system with the gloves and the body suit, LCD screens in a set of goggles, microphone strapped to your mouth and SurroundSound piped into your ears, it's going to look great, sound terrific, maybe they'll even have smells worked into the system by then. Leave Kalamazoo behind and let yourself live this moment in the manufactured utopia of virtual reality. In this illusory world, you're going to walk up to some fine young stud or babe on a sunny beach, or sitting at a baccarat table, or curled up in an igloo. Gritty reality of gnats buzzing, or noisy Blackjack players, or ice water dripping into urine pail will be available for you to turn on or off, depending on how gritty you prefer your reality. Facial expressions, body language, shadows will be perfect. The moment will be magickal.
Just don't be too shocked when this first marvelous inhabitant of utopia asks you, "Can I have a piece of furniture? Plz?"