Plastic Duck, the idea, presentation at SLCC

Gosh, i been neglecting my blog lately, but everything is happening so fast. Between conferences and article drafts, i feel a bit swamped. Last week, as most media noticed, we had the SLCC. My god, it was a blast. I had such fun hanging out with people in RL that I hang out everyday online. Super cool, made new friends, got in touch with old ones, partied too much, and was exhausted by the time I made it back to Bloomington. My presentation went really well, I had people telling me how interesting it was. So I decided to post the proceedings on my blog for those who were unable to make it.

Collaborative Story-telling: Performing the Narrative of the Griefer

In a blog entry in Clickable Culture dated April 2004, Tony Walsh inquires whether there is narrative in Second Life or not. His first response is that there isn’t any. Nonetheless, he is quick to note that Second Life complicates the notion of narrative in a bizarre way, because “Like the Web, Second Life’s story is told in endless threads, some woven together into a cohesive fabric, and some intersecting at various angles. Most of Second Life’s pockets of narrative take place between users. Like the proverbial tree in the forest, if nobody is around to witness it, it’s like it never happened. Other pockets are found attached to in-world objects—lasting testimony of a story, either deliberately constructed as such, or evidence that *something* is going on.”

Walsh’s assessment is indeed perceptive and true for most media these days, but specifically applicable to virtual worlds. His post evokes the now defunct debate between the ludologist and narrativists regarding the existence of narrative in electronic media and videogames. While the former, claiming that interactivity undermines the notion of narrative as defined by authorial intention, linearity, and plot development, refuses its existence, the latter argues that the former group embraces a narrow model of narrative and that we should instead focus on the narrativity of the work, which is exactly what Walsh’s blog entry suggests. In exploring the mechanics of narrativity in Second Life, I propose the model of multi-platform narratives suitable to the complex ways in which communication functions in the era of media convergence. Multi-platform narratives, I argue, display variegated textualities spread across diverse media connected through the Internet and are produced exclusively by its users. This presentation will investigate how the narrative of the griefer is constructed across platforms by way of textual poaching.

As the World Wide Web transforms into Web 2.0 in the era of media convergence and becomes a full-fleshed computing platform serving Web applications to end users, it goes without saying that the traditional concept of the narrative born out of the print culture becomes inadequate, if not useless. Refusing to limit convergence to the technological process of bringing together multiple media functions within the same devices, Henry Jenkins contends that this concept “represents a cultural shift as consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media”(3). Not surprisingly, such a platform elicits hybrid forms of story-telling that offer immersive and interactive environments in which users are expected to perform certain activities. The text is inevitably extended across multiple platforms, thus resulting in alternative textualities that complicate the notion of textual space. Ultimately, meaning-making becomes a collaborative process.

For a study of narrative across media, one that focuses on the message and the technological mode of transmission of narrative, Ryan contends that a distinction between being a narrative and possessing narrativity is particularly useful. According to Ryan, while “being” a narrative can be predicated on any semiotic object produced with the intent of evoking a narrative script in the mind of the audience, “having narrativity” means being able to evoke such a script. In addition to life itself, pictures, music, or dance can have narrativity without being narratives in a literal sense (9). In other words, a work does not have to embody a narrative script per se to evoke stories in the mind of the audience. For a narratologist, Ryan contends, capturing a fictional world that evolves in time under the action of intelligent agents is all it takes for a semiotic artifact to fulfill semantic conditions of narrativity (200). Accordingly, Henry Jenkins argues that story-telling has become the art of world building as artists create compelling environments that cannot be fully explored or exhausted within a single work. The world, being larger than the story, can support multiple characters and stories across various media. The world-building operations, then, becomes important in the creation of stories. With its open-source approach to content creation that allows its residents to build the world by facilitating the construction of environments that stretch in space and exist in time, Second Life allows for the appropriation or even the poaching of its textual space to create a habitat for a population of animate agents. In other words, when residents are in world creating content, they are indeed performing acts that mobilize the tools of Second Life which ultimately result in various narrative scripts, linguistic or otherwise.

The environments that residents create through their appropriation of sims in Second Life allow them to construct spatial literacies that elicit stories. Malcolm McCullough’s understanding of spatial literacy is particularly relevant to the production of stories in Second Life because his view expands the understanding of narratives to the texts that include non-linguistic cues by emphasizing environments as a factor contributing to the construction of stories. Viewing story-telling as a cultural disposition, McCullough argues in Digital Underground that as cultures dwell, they build stories and literacies around their environments (40). Spatial literacy, according to McCullough, is not confined to literal signage that declares space, but rather “a literate denizen reads a space from its events and its symbols like animal scat on the trail, and does not enjoy being told where to turn, what exactly occurs in each place along the road” (38).

The textual space of Second Life, however, extends far beyond the boundaries of the metaverse due to Second Life’s ability to seamlessly integrate various external platforms such as Firefox, IRC channels, in-world blogging tools (BlogHUD), and image databases like Snapzilla and Flickr. Not to mention its residents communicate outside of the metaverse via tools like Skype, AIM, and Web 2.0 technologies like Twitter and Facebook and publish the machinima and spoof stories they produce on sites like YouTube and Second Life Safari. Many residents also have their personal blogs where they discuss in-world events, comment on each other’s posts, and open forum threads in Second Life Citizen Forums. The integration of these tools into Second Life indicates that any performative activities that take place in-world elicit narrative scripts on external platforms.

The model of transmedial narratology as proposed by David Herman and Henry Jenkins in their works provides an effective starting point for analyzing how stories unfold in the unusually amorphous textuality of Second Life. However, Jenkins’s model, which is primarily designed with franchises in mind, such as The Matrix, proves to be somewhat inadequate in explaining the ad-hoc nature of the narratives of Second Life. To capture their inherently fragmented nature that emerges from being collectively produced randomly by the residents, I will call these stories multi-platform narratives. Multi-platform narratives are inherently fragmented because they are created randomly without any sort of centralized coordination of the narrative scripts into a larger whole that eliminates their contradictions and redundancies; and as such, they present a looser narrative structure that is composed of incomplete fragmented units. As the stories are spread across many media forms, residents participate in forums and other platforms and rely on the collective intelligence of other residents when constructing a meaningful whole out of the narrative pieces that they encounter. Unlike the creators of transmedial stories, multi-platform narratives of Second Life are mostly created by those in a position of weakness who lack immediate access to the resources or the skills needed to produce these stories in a professional manner.

These narratives, by nature, blur the boundaries between the activities of production and consumption by merging them into a single performative act, thereby presenting a suitable model for the era of media convergence. Stories are not just actively sought out and consumed on various media channels, but are also produced by the very same people who consume them. Moreover, any resident who reads these stories may decide to develop the story in unexpected ways. In other words, any act of consumption can transform into an act of production on the spur of the moment. As such, these acts of production rely heavily on poaching where residents poach the stories created by other residents who, in turn, had poached other stories or even the textual space in different ways.

The spatial literacy created by goons in Baku elicits counter-cultural narratives, one akin to that of the digital underground due to the electronic nature of the medium of Second Life. Goons make social commentaries through their pranks and offensive builds, exposing how meaningless and hypocritical some of the assumptions held by the society are. Their overall attitude is to undermine anything held sacred by the society in which we live today in the most offensive and shocking manner by appropriating and distorting culturally innocuous images. By doing so, they construct the narrative of the griefer in the persona of Plastic Duck, a renowned griefer of the metaverse. In an interview with Tateru Nino, conducted in November 10th 2006 and published in Second Life Insider, Plastic notes that his persona no longer designates a person, but an idea, a group of people striving to achieve something. Aside from a few close friends he keeps in contact with, most goons do not know who Plastic Duck is on the forums and he has mostly lost contact with those who do a long time ago.

Plastic’s statement about his real identity as Plastic Duck being unknown to many residents and that of Plastic Duck’s being an idea, and not a particular avatar, is seen in the Daffy Duck avatar shapes which are widely distributed among W-Hat goons. This avatar shape was initially designed by Tangerine Freckles who has long since banned due to some kind of copyright infringement. According to Tangerine, Plastic, as the most renowned griefer in Second Life, has a certain stigma about him which makes him attractive to the members of W-Hat who, to attract negative attention, pretend to worship him and identify with his persona. Noting that Plastic’s real avatar lookedlike a robot rather than the Disney-like character that residents see in media these days, Tangerine says that he himself created Plastic’s cartoonish image.

Original Avatar of Plastic Duck

Original Avatar of Plastic Duck

Recreated Avatar of Plastic Duck

Recreated Avatar of Plastic Duck

He contends that by disneyfying Plastic, he could make him less of a threat, and more of an absurdity that people would understand as a joke. Later on, this image was appropriated by another goon, Decomposing Monstre, who continued to make plastic-themed paraphernalia because, according to him, “the idea of this evil malevolent duck that foils the Lindens at every turn is hilarious to me. It’s not even about the person who was Plastic Duck anymore, it’s the fact that he has come [sic] this iconic figure that everyone knows about, and we [goons] like to perpetuate this image and keep it absurd.”

The pervasiveness of Daffy Duck’s image in all its variations indicates that the W-Hat goons adopt this look to represent the counter-culture they enact in Second Life. These Duck look-alikes either have a physical defect, like being cross-eyed and disproportionately blown up, or display some kind of culturally undermining characteristic, such as alts that keep falling down drunk, or those that have a military outfit that resembles the monuments of Stalin or Hitler. By appropriating Daffy’s image extensively, goons establish this image as the defining characteristic of the griefer.

Plastic in the image of a call girl

Plastic in the image of a call girl

Accordingly, the Wikipedia entry for this term shows a goon in Tangerine’s Daffy Duck avatar standing next to a crashed sim which is, in all likelihood, Baku itself (The image has been edited out by other users). The extensive appropriation of the Daffy image that gives birth to a number of look-alikes, along with the widespread use of Duck-related name tags such as “I am Plastic Duck,” proves that Plastic is, in deed, no longer a single avatar to be detected and banned, but becomes an idea perpetuated by a group of people and is impossible to crush. More importantly, by creating alts that physically resemble the Disney-like image of Plastic, building and distributing objects with Plastic themes, and even modifying the land to look like Plastic, goons do not just edify the idea of Plastic Duck, but rather, perpetuate the narrative of the griefer in its absurdist form, that of the rubber duck, which ultimately renders the reaction it ignites absurd.

Decomposing Monstre also wrote and directed a machinima entitled “Griefzilla” which won second place in the Fox Atomic contest in February 2006. In this movie, which presents a blend of Godzilla and King Kong, a giant Plastic Duck destroys the city, knocking over its buildings and crushing its tiny residents.

Screenshot from Griefzilla

Screenshot from Griefzilla

Although the original set is located in Alt Zoom, a sim where most machinima movie makers shoot their movies, a parallel build was constructed in Baku, with tiny cars and buildings complete with pose balls that allow residents to enact the role of a giant gorilla on top of the buildings. The creation of this movie, like other goon productions, is a collaborative process. While Deco wrote the script and shot most of the movie, Sammy Grigges played the characters who were crushed by the giant Duck, Donald Kaiser built the particle system that showed people jumping out of the tall buildings, and Charismo Abismo created Prokofy Neva’s apartment, who is allegedly Plastic’s arch enemy. This machinima was later appropriated and turned into a story by the editor of Second Life Safari by Petey on March 17th. The Second Life Safari story includes not only pictures of certain scenes and the movie itself, but also the story as written by Petey, who relates the early childhood of Plastic, who apparently had a problematic family life, with a mother who stripped at a local joint to support her drinking habits and a father who had close ties with the furry community. After a long list of bad things he did growing up, Plastic, as a non-recyclable artifact that is destined to cause much evil, finally relinquishes to becoming a noted griefer.

As the performative narratives of the griefer demonstrate, stories are no longer simply consumed in the age of media convergence, but rather, users take active responsibility for their production. More importantly, media convergence complicates the notion of textual space, extending the space of Second Life onto external platforms in which readers are forced to actively seek out all the narrative fragments in order to piece the story into a whole. The fragmented nature of these stories reflects their ad-hoc production and the absence of the authorial power that unifies these pieces into a coherent whole.

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