Gods and Colonists: Putting the Earth in Multiuser Virtual Worlds

Clark, Joseph S.
Conference Session: 
Session I
Conference Panel: 
61: Communicative possibilities for contested spaces/places
Type of Presentation: 
Scholarly papers
Presentation Format: 
Live presentation
This paper describes interviews conducted with speakers and audiences in an emerging medium in order to investigate the reproduction of “Nature” ideologies and rhetorics in user-built, three-dimensional online simulations. Designers, builders, and “residents” of the multiuser virtual world Second Life (SL) were contacted to illuminate the role played by “prosumers” in an emerging medium that engages audiences in novel ways, and to explore how users might both reinscribe and resist dominant commodified readings of the natural world in such a medium. Analysis shows that the virtual world is influenced by the cultural and economic systems that surround it in complex ways. User-produced content in inserts more voices into the process of cultural production, but the appeal of user participation in content creation was an accidental discovery that was exploited for its marketing value and resulted in design changes that hobbled the world's ability to depict natural processes and features—which, ironically, seem to be the primary things that make the world feel virtually real to users. Multiuser virtual worlds, from SL to Minecraft to immersive computer games, are emerging public spheres where our embodied, physical experience of real environments is continually evoked, rhetorically, to engage us. These interviews expand our understanding of the way Nature ideologies operate in evolving new media, particularly with regard to colonization by and resistance against anthropocentric commercialism or spectacle. From an ecocritical perspective, they provide insight that can guide environmentally sound, prosocial uses of the medium and help expose environmental hazards—including ones that come from the medium itself.