The past decade has seen phenomenal growth in the development
and use of virtual worlds. In one of the most notable, Second Life,
millions of people have created online avatars in order to play
games, take classes, socialize, and conduct business transactions.
Second Life offers a gathering point and the tools for people to
create a new world online.
Too often neglected in popular and scholarly accounts of such
groundbreaking new environments is the simple truth that, of
necessity, such virtual worlds emerge from physical workplaces
marked by negotiation, creation, and constant change. Thomas Malaby
spent a year at Linden Lab, the real-world home of Second Life,
observing those who develop and profit from the sprawling,
self-generating system they have created.
Some of the challenges created by Second Life for its developers
were of a very traditional nature, such as how to cope with a
business that is growing more quickly than existing staff can
handle. Others are seemingly new: How, for instance, does one
regulate something that is supposed to run on its own? Is it
possible simply to create a space for people to use and then not
govern its use? Can one apply these same free-range/free-market
principles to the office environment in which the game is produced?
"Lindens"-as the Linden Lab employees call themselves-found that
their efforts to prompt user behavior of one sort or another were
fraught with complexities, as a number of ongoing processes
collided with their own interventions.
In Making Virtual Worlds, Malaby thoughtfully describes
the world of Linden Lab and the challenges faced while he was
conducting his in-depth ethnographic research there. He shows how
the workers of a very young but quickly growing company were
themselves caught up in ideas about technology, games, and
organizations, and struggled to manage not only their virtual world
but also themselves in a nonhierarchical fashion. In exploring the
practices the Lindens employed, he questions what was at stake in
their virtual world, what a game really is (and how people
participate), and the role of the unexpected in a product like
Second Life and an organization like Linden Lab.
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