There

In which our hero visits There, a virtual world where it's still sunny at 3am but you never seem to get a tan.

[Original 20031111; updated 20031113 after feedback. Thanks, AkAUk!]

A couple of weeks back I had a long conversation with some friends about social software and virtual worlds, and gave my observation that people of my generation (I've been using e-mail since the late 70s) often have a hard time "getting" these things while "youngsters" see them as much more natural, perhaps because of a lack of preconceptions. The obvious example, to me, is mobile phone text messaging: my friends felt that someone "texting" in the middle of a conversation was rude; I suggested that it was possible that others might look on the same act as including in the conversation someone who didn't happen to be physically present, and therefore as a social act rather than an antisocial one. Similarly, I went on, people using social software aren't necessarily doing it because they can't find friends in the real world: instead, its possible that they just don't see physical locality as a relevant consideration.

Most of my own experience with 3D virtual environments has been in the form of video games of the "first person shooter" variety, where conversation is much less of an issue than watching your six. I tend to avoid the more "social", on-line variants of these environments because... well, to be honest because my trigger finger isn't as quick as it used to be.

In recent years, the on-line environments have moved up in scale from simple multi-player versions of the single-player computer games (Half Life and the like) to so-called massively multi-player systems like Everquest Online and Star Wars Galaxies. These newer systems have persistent worlds, significant internal economies and contexts in which skills other than close personal combat are valued, but they are still basically built around the "smack some bad guys and sell their stuff" model.

Enter There, a new virtual world in which the nastiest weapon available is a paintball gun, and you can opt out of being a target for those with a simple preferences setting. If you wait in line for a while, a 14-day free trial is currently on offer: today, I got to the head of the queue and went for a little exploration.

In the Matrix, as we all know, everyone's "residual self-image" involves black leather and black sunglasses. My own residual self-image tends more towards the Gordon Freeman except that his beard is a little tidier than mine. In There, my avatar started out with the default physique (that of an anonymous beardless youth in perfect physical condition) and default clothing (white "newbie" T-shirt, cargo pants, "classic loafers"). My on-line mentor tells me that I can make my avatar fatter if it would make me feel better...

My first encounter with the other inhabitants came when a helpful mentor turned up to explain the basics of the system: he had someone else with him at the time, who kindly gave me a much nicer T-shirt to wear; I later sold my original T-shirt back to the store for 159T. This simple interaction says a lot about There, if you look closely: most obviously, that There has a concept of possessions and an internal currency running at around 1700 There dollars to the US dollar. You can buy, sell, trade, lend and so on: and of course you can buy more There dollars with real ones if you run out.

The less obvious aspect of the conversation was that each of the people I spoke to did something that affected them in terms of the world's skill system. My mentor's friend increased her Newbie Helper Skill by giving me something decent to wear, and when I added my mentor to my list of friends so that I could call on him in times of need, his Socializer skill increased. Higher levels in the twelve different skills give you increased abilities, access to new parts of the world, and so on. For example, a Socializer can create clubs for people to join. The social skills therefore work a little bit like a simplified, partitioned, non-transitive version of Cory Doctorow's Whuffie. This is not to say that people in There do things for their skills benefit in the way that Doctorow's characters obsessively chase Whuffie: the effects are too small for that and There also has its "real" currency; however, I'm sure it doesn't hurt the social structure to let people feel that being nice is a good thing.

As well as social skills, There has a number of activity-related skills: vehicle driving of various kinds, paintball sharpshooting, Dog Handler: yes, There has dogs. I haven't met any yet, but from the on-line information they seem to be playful Labradors and Dachshunds rather than ferocious attack dogs, and can be taught to do tricks. It may or may not be significant that there are as yet no cats in There.

Author skill is an odd case; an Author can drop publications in the world for people to read (and for which the Author can charge a fee). A more famous Author can have more publications in the world at any given time, and they last longer before disappearing due to There's automatic anti-littering system. Some of the less obvious kind of publication are instructions for games, treaure hunt clues and the like; this gives There the ability to support a sort of collaborative Myst-like kind of fun as an alternative to the dune buggy and paintball variety.

I only met three people in my first visit to There, and thanks to its current Brigadoon-like opening hours it will be a while before I can return. However, in an initial run-through I was quite impressed by the feeling of "presence" of other avatars: this is improved by a gesture system which lets you punctuate your conversation with actions. I was pretty impressed the first time I saw someone literally "roll on the floor laughing".

Graphically, the world is a bit rough; if you want a broad comparison you should think in terms of original Tomb Raider level of detail rather than Halo. It would be a pity not to have a higher resolution option for people with client machines that can take the strain, but so far I haven't found one. It also seems to be possible to do things like drive vehicles through rocks, walk on the sea and so on. This is less than perfect in terms of sustaining a "real world" feel but is probably intended to keep the client bandwidth requirements down. Or it may be a current glitch, like the stack of treasure chests I found floating serenely 50ft above the water a little way out from shore...

As well as the walking around, chatting and exploring aspect to the world there is also a "developer" system, so that people can invent new objects or customize old ones. I doubt we are talking about a Merovingian dessert level of access here, but the place could do with some cats at least.

In conclusion (for now at least), There is a well-implemented shared interactive space without the usual emphasis on rocket launchers and "Elven Sword +1"s. If you take There's own demonstration movies at face value, their current target demographic is interested in endless variations on clothing and hair styles, flirting with hunky boy-avatars and skateboarding. However, I think the promotional movies do There a disservice; the system itself seems flexible enough to support a much richer set of activities. Many of the people I've interacted with in There claim to be thirty-something or even forty-something in what we laughingly refer to as "the real world", so there is probably a wider spread of interests represented than the movies make it look.

In any case, I look forward to exploring a bit more later in the week.