Is Second Life a Narrative Game?
December 1st 2008 @ 3:17 pm Uncategorized

A while back, I spent some time on Second Life while researching various virtual worlds (most of my arguments can also be applied to Habbo, a much more limited virtual world designed for tweens and teens). Second Life is self described as a “vast digital continent, teeming with people, entertainment, experiences and opportunity.” Residents “retain intellectual property rights in their digital creations,” so can “buy, sell and trade with other residents.” These exchanges occur in the Marketplace, which “supports millions of US dollars in monthly transactions” handled in the inworld currency, the Linden dollar. (more about Second Life on their website)

Looking back now, I wonder if Second Life could really be categorized as narrative, or even as a game. Yes, your avatar can fly if you like, but much of Second Life is alarmingly real. The desires of the users behind the residents may only be acceptably explored on the web, but they are real desires. Real people interact in real ways inworld, exchanging real money for inworld services and property that has real word value. 

Jesper Juul presents a prominent argument used to justify examining games as narratives:

Since we use narratives to make sense of our lives, to process information, and since we can tell stories about a game we have played, no genre or form can be outside the narrative.

Second Life is aptly named. It is another life that people all over the world lead with great success. Like our real lives, our Second Lives are made sense of through narrative terms. Residents construct their own goals, which they reach or do not reach, with or without help from other residents. You are the protagonist of your own second life. But here’s where things get muddled for me. Each of the bit parts in your story are a protagonist in their own story, in which you are a bit player. This isn’t a case of multiple protagonists because the story is completely different for each participant (and their stories involve other residents with their own distinct stories and so on ad infinitum).

Does this matter? Perhaps. It certainly doesn’t fit with Bordwell or Chatman. In fact, it fits with none of the narrative theory we’ve read that I can think of. Even Ndalianis’s most complicated paradigm falls short of encompassing the complex interactions constantly occurring inworld. Unlike most games, each character is endowed with personhood and free will, complete with individual action and intent. There is no completion of second life, no high score or kill screen. There is not even an ideal to strive towards but never reach (like Tetris). Second life is a user-created, user-controlled environment with, quite literally, an infinite number of possible “game” paths and no way to replay them.

Narrative distance is another issue worth examining in Second Life. Juul explains,

In an “interactive story” game where the user watches video clips and occasionally makes choices, story time, narrative time, and reading/viewing time will move apart, but when the user can act, they must necessarily implode: it is impossible to influence something that has already happened. This means that you cannot have interactivity and narration at the same time. And this means in practice that games almost never perform basic narrative operations like flashback and flash forward.

Telling implies a past that isn’t present in Second Life. We don’t consider to our lives as narratives unless we are telling a story of past events. Second life is exactly the same. There are no flashforwards or flashbacks, only retellings, and only if you chose to recount a Second Life interaction inworld. Which would be rather redundant, if you were in the same company that experienced the story in real time. On the other hand, the backstory of Second Life is arguably much richer and deeper than most narrative media in existence. 

For me, it’s hopelessly complicated. Is Second Life a narrative game? I don’t have an answer, only more questions. Any other residents out there have some insight?

-Leslie Stonebraker
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