Dr. Geek and Virtual World Television: Giant Snails and a Talk Show

Did you know that you could create your own television studio, find people interested in being your crew, and produce television shows just like they do in New York City or Hollywood?  And you could do all of this without leaving your house, sitting in your pajamas, at any time of day?

This doesn’t mean using Xtranormal or TVML.  I’m not talking about using Livestream or UStream.  And no, I don’t mean creating something out in the world and then distributing it via YouTube or Vimeo.  I mean having a digital space (like Xtranormal) where you can produce everything in that space (unlike YouTube, Livestream) with others inhabiting that same space (unlike Xtranormal), and then distribute and exhibit it within that same space or elsewhere online (like YouTube).

I’m talking about virtual worlds.  These massive multiplayer digital environments where people meet up via their avatars to engage in all types of activities.  Worlds like World of Warcraft or Skyrim are designed to be primarily places to play a game, either alone or with others.  There are also worlds like Second Life or Habbo Hotel,both of which are designed to be primarily places to socialize with others.  However, just because a virtual world is designed in a certain way doesn’t mean it is only used for that purpose.  We’ve had years and years of evidence now that shows how much people will modify the world and interact with it in seemingly subversive ways to do all sorts of things, such as this classic example:

 One of those things people are doing is to record some activities inworld and release it as informational and/or entertaining videos.  These are the fanvids, the machinima, and even the television shows that virtual world users are producing, for themselves, for their world’s community, and for the larger online audience.  What I’m interested in is the latter: in those virtual world television shows where people manage to produce content that is analogous to what we’ve seen from traditional television for decades.

Along with producer Pooky Amsterdam of PookyMedia, I’ve been engaged with a research project to study the amateurs and semi-professionals who have used virtual worlds to produce television programming.  We are interested in virtual world television to understand the nature and potential of these productions, as well as how they compare to traditional practices and relationships in television production, distribution, and exhibition.

Across virtual worlds, people have been creating various types of productions.  To be considered television programming, these productions have to be multi-part fictional or non-fictional productions that are not intended to be a feature film (which is what separates them from machinima, in our opinion, and those we’ve interviewed tend to agree).  The production can be either serial or episodic, and such productions represent a range of genres.  There are productions that are recorded as avatars interact with one another and then are edited in post-production for streaming.  These productions are analogous to filmed drama and comedy television series.  Then there are productions that live stream the avatars’ interactions as they occur, while also recording them for later streaming.  These productions are analogous to the variety of live shows on television, from news to sports to special events.

Thus far, we have identified 68 productions that met these criteria; within Linden Lab’s virtual world Second Life, at least 54 television series have been produced in the past decade and distributed by television networks analogs, such as Treet TVMetaverse TV, and Metamix TV.

Many of these productions appear to follow a pattern of activities seen earlier in research on television production in collaborative virtual environments.  In the United Kingdom, researchers experimented with how to use a 3-D virtual environment to produce “Inhabited Television.”

A snapshot from the Inhabited Television experiments.

The audience was invited into the virtual environment to participate in the content production, which was recorded and broadcast.  In their virtual worlds television, the television producer defined a framework within which the audience interacted and participated to generate content: the interaction between performers and the audience was recorded to broadcast to television viewers.  This production paradigm replicates a similar paradigm found across Web 2.0 technologies  The idea of “build it, and let them create” is a foundational paradigm for providing  the structures in which people can more actively participate in the production and distribution of content.

Three television series illustrate how Second Life’s structure of user-generated design let Second Life users become television producers.  The television series, Metanomics, was produced, distributed and exhibited in the world as well as streamed to their website since the first show on September 17, 2007.  A talk show, the producers actively invited audience members to participate in asking the guests questions during the live streaming of the show.  A television studio was built to resemble those found in the physical world, as seen in Figure 1.  Unfortunately, this show is no longer being produced regularly.

A second example is an ongoing series that differs from Metanomics in that the audience does not participate and it is not recorded in a television studio format.  The series, Giant Snail Races, produced by RacerX Gulwing, is part race, part obstacle course.  In this show, contestants decorate snail avatars to match an episode’s specific theme and then control the avatars around a race track / obstacle course as RacerX and his co-hosts narrate their progress.  The design of this series, as seen in figure 2, bears similarities to a specific subgenre of Japanese game shows.

The final example is an ongoing series.  Produced by Pooky Amsterdam, The 1st Question is a quiz show designed to test knowledge of current events, science and technology.  Three contestants compete in a series of rounds, answering questions and creating neologisms, all with the assistance of the studio audience, who can text their answers to the questions and who vote for the best neologism.  The program is produced at the StudioDome on the SpinDrift island in Second Life and is broadcast via Treet TV, with archives of the show available at the show’s website.

But those are all Second Life examples.  We see television being produced in worlds that are intended to be places of gaming, of playing — instead of playing the game as designing, they are gaming the design to play at being television producers.  Among the more famous of these is the series Red vs Blue from RoosterTeeth using Halo as the virtual world and game engine to film their comedy series.  Other examples would be the short-lived series Star Trek: The Quasi Machinima from InfinityxShark that utilized the Star Trek Online gaming world.

Professionals have even utilized these digital environments.  Such as British Channel 4 production from producers Somethin’ Else of The SuperMes, which utilized the virtual world The Sims 3.  Or the time (for over two years) that NPR’s Science Friday went into Second Life to involve inhabitants in their radio shows.  Or the time Big City Pictures produced “machinisodes” inside Second Life for The CW series Gossip Girl. 

Gossip Girl: Tales from the Upper East Side

There has not been a lot of such productions in virtual worlds — especially outside of Second Life due to issues of intellectual property rights — and these examples seem to have coincided with the media hype about Second Life and virtual worlds in general.  But the users, the fans, and the audiences of these virtual worlds continue to press forward with their experimentation and innovation in an attempt to wrestle from the virtual worlds some expression of their creativity.  In this case, that creativity is expressed using standard tropes for television programming — but the fact that they can produce series that reach hundreds and even thousands of people means that they are no longer just users, fans, and audiences.  In a physical world where tradition has meant that television is only produced by the handful, they are showing a way for television to be produced by more and more people — as long as you have the passion to make it happen.

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