Interview of W. James Au AKA Hamlet Au

6ghbnbn.jpg If you thought that writing a blog makes a hip, voguish and captivating guy/gal of you, wake up! That coveted role belongs to embedded journalists. W. James Au AKA Hamlet Au (the in-world journalist formerly known as “Hamlet Linden”) is one of them. Actually he’s THE one. He travels the Second Life world as an avatar wearing a pristine white suit and interviewing residents about their everyday life, business, passions inside the game.

From April 2003 to February 2006, he was hired by Linden Lab, creators of SL, to cover the game as an embedded journalist in an emerging society– its controversies, its personalities, its innovations and ambitions, along with larger themes of identity, social norms and organization, and cultural expression important to online worlds in general.

That contractual relationship has ended, but the story continues in the new New World Notes.

He is also a contract consultant and copywriter for SL projects and advertising, and a seasoned game designer, screenwriter, and freelance journalist for Salon, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, Lingua Franca, Game Developer, Gamespot, Gameslice, etc.

Amazed by the fact that i keep bumping into his posts each time i’m looking for information about marketing and games, sex/romance and games, capitalism and games, race and games… i decided it was time to interview him.

Do you think that virtual reporting will become a new category of journalism? Are there many people doing the same job as you? What does it take to be a successful virtual reporter?

I do think virtual reporting will become an integral part of real world reporting in the next decade; I even wrote an extended First Monday essay making the case for that. In short, I argue it’s a matter of inevitablity, since each new mass medium and communication channel becomes a tool for documenting the human condition– in the early 90s, it would have seemed unthinkable that blogs, search engines, e-mail, and Instant Messaging would become important journalistic resources, and now, they’re essential. The unique advantage to reporting from virtual worlds, however, is a high degree of anonymity, with a citizenry made up of people from around the world, and a roleplaying aspect that enables us to see essential or archetypal conflicts involving themes of, for example, identity, economic resources, and sociopolitical conflict, which play out in a purer form. (Thinks of it as news reporting from a world of Platonic allegories.) Because of the international nature of Internet-based worlds, it also works as a more direct reporting tool, allowing me, for example, to interview several Israeli citizens amid the heat of their country’s war with Hezbollah.

I can’t think of anyone doing this as a regular gig, though Mark Wallace of and Dan Terdiman of CNET spring to mind as guys who cover similar themes on a fairly regular basis. Of course, Julian Dibbell is the guy who started it all with “A Rape in Cyberspace” back in the early 90s for the Village Voice. In a nice twist, next week Julian will appear in avatar form to promote his latest book in Second Life — and I’ll be his host.

A successful virtual reporter, in my opinion, combines a willingness to roleplay and whimsically suspend disbelief with the open curiosity needed to find the deeper story behind what, on the surface at least, looks like a casual chat game involving nightclub babes, robots, and humanoid squirrels.

00wlns.jpg0journwenss.jpgFully-functioning ecosystem and a Journey to Wellness

The press likes to report that some residents can set up activities inside Second Life and even make a lot of profit. I suspect making money in the virtual world is not that easy… or is it?

It’s easy to make *some* income in Second Life, but the challenge of actually making a living is pretty daunting– an estimated 3000 SL residents make $20,000+ a year from their in-world businesses, so right now about 1% of the population reach that level. To do that, it’s a matter of really running a business, not just providing a cool commodity or service (game, nightclub, freelance architecture, whatever) but treating your efforts as a fully integrated company, with advertising and marketing, maybe a website, multiple communication channels, part-time staff, and so on. Below that level, however, a substantial number of active SL residents make *some* meaningful income from their in-world activity. When I conducted a reader survey last year, 35% of respondents said they made anywhere from under $1000 to $20,000 yearly.

I have something to confess. i’m really fascinated by the game culture but last time i played, i was 8 year old, wearing a mustard skirt, eating dots and was chased in a maze by ghosts. Never played any online game ever since. Do you think i’m missing something? Give me at least three reasons why i should start playing too.

Because if you do, you can explore an artificial ecosystem, experience a first-person simulation of schizophrenia, and participate in a virtual Burning Man where you don’t need to pay several hundred dollars or endure long waits at the Porta Potty. What an online world like Second Life makes possible is a convergence between gaming and everything else that makes life worthwhile– politics, science, ideas, art, spirituality, love, desire, community. In SL, you can create a place for these essential elements of the human experience in what superficially resembles a video game, and *play* with them on a tactile, immersive level. Ms. Pac Man still dodges her ghosts– but now she can also meet one of the world’s most influential political analysts, experience an interactive art installation memorializing the bombing of Hiroshima, or get a hands-on demonstration of evolution in action.

1hiroshi.jpg2nemo.jpgHiroshima Garden and artificial Darwinism

You’ve recently reported on an avatar-based panel about avatar-based marketing. Could you sum up what are the challenges of this new breed of marketing? Do you see any pitfall to it?

The biggest challenge is to create an interactive, sustainable marketing experience that has an actual value to virtual world players. Otherwise, they’ll just ignore it. We’re fast approaching the end of this kind of marketing’s novelty value, so it’s not enough for big companies to slap together an online world presence and expect users and the mainstream media to take notice. The greatest pitfall is really not too different from that experienced by corporations in the mid-90s during the first Internet boom, when billions were spent developing front-loaded, content-free, irrelevant websites which attracted little sustained traffic and even less value. It’d be a shame if that same failure were repeated in 3D.

How much can people cheat, pretend and lie to others in virtual life? is there any limit? When does it get back to you?

There’s quite a bit of that, especially for those looking for love or at least a night of sexual gameplay, and much of it is not necessarily unethical, part of the roleplaying experience. (Is it lying if your avatar is a gorgeous babe in her 20s, when you’re really a heavy-set dude in his 40s? What’s the standard for truthfulness when the world is *defined* as a second life?) What’s interesting is that people in Second Life, unlike traditional MMOs, are generally attached to their avatars as an extension of their real life selves, so there’s a tendency to self-regulate. Of course, you could always burn people and create an alternate persona afterward, but then, you lose any reputation value that comes with having a long-term presence in the world. “Griefing”, for this reason, is usually a one-shot phenomenon.

What do you think of the very controversial farmer gaming industry? Do you see it more as a way for poor people to make money or as a violation of the rules? What are MMORPG developers doing to counter that trend?

0goldfar.jpgSome MMORPG developers are trying to integrate real world economy elements into their worlds, such as Sony Online’s Ebay-style auction system (a limited experiment, at least). On the whole, however, most traditional game developers are very retrograde and hypocritical about the matter, designing their fantasy worlds with an internal economy– i.e., a system for handling supply and demand of scarce resources– then getting offended when many of their players treat it as such. As the staffer of one “gold farming” company put it to a group of developers, “Don’t blame *us* for *your* poor design decisions!” (Especially when, as you say, developing nations like China have millions of young people for whom playing World of Warcraft for a few dollars a day would be a dream job.)

Game designers may get smart enough to take a clue from Second Life, creating an economy where genuine production of value is rewarded with real money, but really, I doubt it. The hyper-competitive game industry is always tottering on the brink of disaster, and to expect any kind of deep innovation from the giant media/software corporations that own most of the big online game publishers is pretty far-fetched. I’d love to be surprised, of course.

I quote you: “I’ve conducted interviews from the observation deck of a space station; from the virtual campaign headquarters for Senator John F. Kerry; on the soundstage of a film studio lot; sitting on a giant leaf at the edge of an Elven village; in a Wild West saloon; at a telecom control station; from a battleground draped on either side with Confederate flags and anti–Bush posters” etc. Don’t you find real life boring?

I don’t find real life *per se* boring at all, though I do demand more from it. I now know what people are capable of, when they let their imaginations free.

Thanks James!

Sources for images: New World Notes and 1up.