On Second Life “Ruin Porn”: Exploring Empty Spaces, and Being Interviewed on Marketplace Tech Report

University of Foreign Studies

Recently, I’ve been seeing a lot of examples of “ruin porn“, a new category of urban architectural photography that depicts the rapidly increasing decaying process of major urban centers like Detroit, Baltimore and Cincinnati. These images inspired a project in which I’ve been taking pictures of abandoned spaces in the virtual world Second Life, which led to me being interviewed on Marketplace on National Public Radio.

This Atlantic Cities piece, The Psychology of Ruin Porn, posits several interesting theories as to why they’re on the rise, including “an escape from [the] excessive order […] [of] the ordinary world”, a sense of ownership of the space in the cases of those who scale the walls to break in, a sense of presence in time contrasted with an environment rooted in the past.

As a person who spends a lot of time poking about historical ruins when traveling, I think there’s a bit of truth in all of the theories, but for me the most apt description of these empty spaces is that they are, as the article says, “an autopsy of the American dream”. I find the idea of cities decaying around us to be equal parts intriguing and frightening, both tangible and transcendent.

On the one hand, this type of photography forces us to confront the idea that all this concrete, glass and steel isn’t actually as solid, so to speak, as it feels – a bit unsettling, really, if you start to think of the many chains and systems that are constantly working to keep natural elements like spreading seed growth and the natural flow of water away from our carefully constructed environments.1

And on the other, this reminder of our own impermanence is actually comforting; by presenting unequivocal evidence that even the most seemingly permanent structures, no matter how grand or carefully designed, will decay and disappear, we can let go of our material attachment to them. In its way, the photos help us move toward accepting our own inevitable demise.

Real estate

At any rate, when I see images of decaying construction, my mind tends to wander to other types of environments that people spend time in, spaces that have felt the touch of the human hand; specifically, virtual worlds.

No matter how beautifully rendered or complicated its environment, when a Massively Multiplayer Online game (MMO) loses its subscriber base and can no longer support itself, its servers eventually get unplugged, and that entire world just disappears into the ether.2

However, that’s not the case with Second Life, the once-popular, open-format virtual world.

In Second Life, people are free to build whatever structures they can dream up, and create avatars that look however they choose – you’re limited only by your imagination, programming skills, and/or in-game income.

Between its launch in 2003 and its peak in 2008-09, when users logged over 28 million “in-world” hours, Second Life garnered a lot of press and media attention. That led to the construction of many extremely elaborate environments, each with its own streets and buildings, vehicles, furniture and other trappings.

There are, for example, islands created to look like decaying Victorian cobblestone streets, dusty Wild West ranches, peaceful sunset-painted beaches, sparkly-fairy-occupied fantasy gardens, full-size replicas of Roman ruins in Italy, and so on.3

In the years since the media furor, the user base of Second Life has dwindled significantly. At its peak, according to Wikipedia, about 38,000 users were logged in “at any particular moment”. Today, the user base hits about 15,000 in an entire month.

But the plug hasn’t been pulled on Second Life, the way it would be with an MMO in a similar situation, and things don’t crumble away into nothingness, like they would in real life. In Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the accumulating decay of a world left behind by humans migrating to other planets is called “tipple” – something that only exists in Second Life if someone’s put it there deliberately.4

Street construction

This strange phenomenon of permanent non-decay is what Marketplace Tech wanted to talk about. I ended up chatting with Adriene Hill, and my part of the segment starts at 3:00:

As I mention in my big NPR debut, the abandoned Second Life spaces that I find the most interesting are the ones where the creator was obviously hoping for a lot of activity, or a specific type of interaction; there’s a kind of promise inherent in a grand stage with plush red chairs and box seating, for example. Beautiful, and sad.

Check out the rest of my pictures here; I’ll be adding more periodically in the coming months.5

Live stream auditorium

 

  1. I’m currently reading The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, which outlines how much human effort is needed to not only keep cities running, but to keep natural forces at bay. It’s such a strange and beautiful thing about humanity that the world is constantly trying to reach an equilibrium, and we’re constantly trying to carve out our little niche within it. &nsbp;
  2. This is a fascinating phenomenon in itself. Patrick Elliot just wrote a great piece for Kill Screen Mag, The plight of Metal Gear Online and the limits of videogame preservation, which talks about shared virtual gameplay experiences that can’t be replicated: because they were broadcast at a single point in time, because the technology is too old to recreate, or because the gameplay itself is essential in the defining of the game.

    I should note that the primary reason I’m so interested in Alternate Reality Games (ARGs)/Interactive Fiction is for the element of community joining together for collaborative experiences that only exist in those moments and with those variables, never to be recreated or re-experienced…so this article was right up my alley, and seeing it right after my interview was a nice little moment of synchronicity.

  3. Strangely, even though users in Second Life can fly around and aren’t strictly bound by gravity or physics, many buildings still adhered to real-world structural norms like hallways and doors.
  4. The deliberate making of construction sites, or signals of work going on, including piles of dirt, pylons and barriers, and cranes, is one of the stranger phenomena I encountered while exploring Second Life, where actual construction is more closely related to opening a computer file. What is it about these outward indicators that work is going on, these promises that more is coming, that’s so important in a world where you’re not limited by physics or reality?
  5. An interesting side note – it’s actually quite difficult to capture these images, because it’s hard to make virtual spaces look sad, or empty, or isolated. You also have a limited range of movement and camera angle, and no way to zoom or change the focus of the camera.

    So sometimes, capturing the image is down to the lighting of the space, or the framing of the capture, or how an object appears when it’s seen through a door or other portal. It is also possible, sometimes, to achieve tricks of perspective, but I’ve only managed to capture a couple using that method with which I’ve been satisfied. And I’ve recently begun looking for other signs of abandonment, ilke empty advertising spaces or for sale signs. Something to keep exploring as I go along.

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One thought on “On Second Life “Ruin Porn”: Exploring Empty Spaces, and Being Interviewed on Marketplace Tech Report

  1. Matthew Perrin

    I heard about your work while listening to the Marketplace Tech Report podcast at work. Your philosophical and visual vantage points are both quite fascinating. I especially loved your reference to “tipple.” Thanks for sharing!

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