Au, Wagner James. The Making of Second Life: Notes from the New World. New York: Collins, 2008 (Kindle edition).
Guest, Tim. Second Lives: A Journey Through Virtual Worlds. New York: Random House, 2008 (Kindle edition).
By STOLVANO BARBOSA (Steven R. Harris in real life)
If it bleeds, it leads. That's the old adage about television news. Second Life has had its own share of sensationalistic journalism: marital infidelity, real estate fraud, trademark infringement dominate the headlines about the virtual world in the popular press. The two authors under review here are members of that press corps, and, although not as prone to sensationalism as some, are not above trying to make SL interesting by making it seem sleazy. While both books present some interesting stories, they also suffer from a shallowness and lack of organization that is typical of shorter pieces written for different kinds of publications being brought together in an uncomfortable arrangement as a book.
Au's book has the narrower focus, being ostensibly about the creation and development of Second Life. He presents some engaging back story about how Phillip Rosedale came to start Linden Lab, although the narrative dwells a bit excessively on Rosedale's psyche and skips lightly over other foundational issues of interest such as code writing, financing, business models, and marketing. Since SL is largely created by its inhabitants, we can forgive Au if he goes off point now and then to tell amusing anecdotes about the residents. The story of Rosedale and Linden Lab, however, is not effectively woven with the story of how users make their way in the world.
Guest's book has a wider focus on virtual worlds, generally, and how users behave in them. From a psychological perspective, it is a more intriguing book, but for the fact that Guest has little facility for psychological investigation. He opts to discuss alternately counterfeiters, thugs, and frauds, or a homeless woman who leads a cooperative of developers and Wilde Cunningham, a group of handicapped individuals who share an avatar. Alternately annoying, disgusting, and inspirational. If you are not a gamer, you will learn something about the variety of gaming worlds available, from EverQuest, to World of Warcraft, and even about the dozens of worlds on the market in Asia. One of the most interesting characters is a Korean man who owns a failing hamburger stand in real life, but he plays Lineage II obsessively because he has been voted king of a region and cannot bear to let his subjects down. The crown weighs heavy. But Guest always wants something a bit more outrageous. When he interviews the makers of Lineage II and they want to talk finances, typically, he tries to "steer the conversation to something salacious..." Parts of Guest's own dysfunctional life are included in the salaciousness of the book, which serves only to make us think poorly of the author.
There is a fair amount of overlap in the content of these books. Guest describes, rather amusingly, how he and Au cross paths on several occasions as they work on their material, but Au writes more directly and effectively about Second Life itself. While these books may serve as good "first looks," they do not begin to address the allure of Second Life and virtual worlds. Second Life inhabitants will not see much here that reflects their personal experiences or what fascinates so many of us about virtual life. We are still waiting for a narrative written by one of the natives, who can describe the unusual rituals, the personal triumphs, and the life-changing achievements that have been experienced online.