This week I received an e-mail announcing Second Life's Winterfest.
I could not help but ask myself the proverbial question, what is "winter" in a place that has no seasons?
In other contexts, I've commented that processing is the "limited natural resource" of cyberspace, and that "lag" and other artifacts related to this are the virtual-world equivalent of weather. Often, when I enter an MMOG or virtual world, one of the first comments I will hear from people is "It's laggy tonight." In my neighborhood in Second Life, my landlady recently "winterized" the sim to give it a Christmasy feel, adding an ice-skating polar bear, snow man and other acoutrements of the season. In There.com, decorating for Christmas (along with Halloween) is a cherished annual ritual. It's one of many ways that players have to express themselves. Even as far back as the mid-1990s, when gravity was added to the "proto" graphical virtual world platform Active Worlds (which, by the way, is STILL active), one of the first new worlds that was built was a winter ski resort.
One of the most notable qualities I've noticed about emergent behavior is that people generally start with shared cultural reference points that index "real world" practices. It is the rare case that emergent behavior is totally detached from any real-world cultural activity. As I describe in my book, play patterns in the original Uru game often "started" with familiar idioms, e.g., hide-and-seek and bowling. Players spontaneously used movable traffic cones, originally designed as barriers, as bowling pins, but with the innovation that they used their HEADS as bowling balls. In our recent study of the University of There, we found that instructors invariably used the traditional classroom teaching format of standing in front of a group of students, using that as a jumping off point for innovating wildly.
One way to look at this is that players have no imagination. But a much more productive way is to see it in anthropological terms, and to realize that play draws on collective imagination, rituals and practices in a variety of ways. We sometimes lament that cyberspace is not the wild, abstract mathematical, gravity-free landscape that Gibson envisioned when he first coined the term. Yet I believe that people need grounding, both literally and figuratively. The need a ground to stand on, an orienting horizon in the distance, something familiar to hold on to, even if "familiar" means imaginary creatures such as elves and orcs that have been absorbed into the collective imagination, or the physical and cultural properties of the "real world, such as gravity, weather, and Christmas!