Spectacular Subcultures of Second Life

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I am posting the abstract that I submitted to SLCC, Tampa Florida, in case anyone would like to come to my talk…

Spectacular Subcultures of Second Life: Looking Beneath the Lulz

Julian Dibbell notes in his article in the Wired entitled “Mutilated Furries, Flying Phalluses: Put the Blame on Griefers, the Sociopaths of the Virtual World” published in February 2008, that although willfully antisocial behaviors in MMOs date back to the text-based virtual worlds such as LambdaMOO, griefing that take place in virtual worlds these days articulate a sense of purpose. Accordingly, he claims that griefing is “[n]o longer just an isolated pathology, [it] has developed into a full-fledged culture.” Explaining that the ultimate purpose of Goons and Channers is to undermine that the Internet is serious business, he quotes ^ban^, the leader of Patriotic Nigras, who reiterates the all-to-well-known reason why griefers do what they do: in particular, for the lulz (laughs)…and that because most of them are psychotic. While this is a good enough reason to explain away their activities on a superficial level, I argue, it falls considerably short in identifying the primary reason that mobilizes these groups into what they have ultimately become. Although these activities are grief play in essence, no doubt they have broader consequences that exceed the boundaries of what Johan Huizanga identifies as the magic circle in Homo Ludens, and, which ultimately affects the culture at large. As such, these groups have become legitimate subcultures of a symbolic order.

Adopting Dick Hebdige’s definition of subcultures, in Subculture: The Meaning of Style, I maintain that these groups display their objections and contradictions to hegemony in a spectacular fashion. In other words, as Hebdige explains “the challenge to hegemony which subcultures represent is not issued directly by them. Rather it is expressed obliquely, in style. The objections are lodged, the contradictions are displayed…at profoundly superficial level of appearances: that is, at the level of signs” (Hebdige 17). Accordingly, he contends that the struggle between different discourses, different definitions and meanings within ideology is always a struggle within signification, a struggle which extends to even the most mundane areas of everyday life. Subcultures, for Hebdige, represent “noise,” as opposed to sound, in that they are interferences in the orderly sequences. Thus the signifying power of the spectacular subculture is not just a metaphor for the potential anarchy out somewhere, but is rather an actual mechanism of semantic disorder, or what Hebdige refers to as “a kind of temporary blockage in the system of representation” (90). Our task, then, becomes to discern the hidden messages inscribed in code on the glossy surface of style, to trace them out as ‘maps of meaning’ which obscurely re-present the very contradictions they are designed to resolve or conceal.

My research in Second Life primarily aims to trace out these maps meanings beneath the cheeky activities, offensive builds, shocking machinimas, and grid crashes for which the griefing groups are notorious and reveal their connection to the culture at large. Although not all griefing groups engage in similar activities, I argue that these activities achieve what Hebdige refers to as “temporarily blockage in the system of representation” within Second Life. Despite Goons’ claim that they do not engage in any hardcore griefing in Second Life and their argument that they provide a much-needed criticism to Second Life culture and society at large, their activities, essentially, attack the content of the world and ruin other people’s experience of the world. Precisely because these attacks on the content undermine Linden Lab’s promise of providing a second life enjoyable to everyone, they are breaking the system, albeit on a symbolic level. Similar to the tactics used by spectacular subcultures, where objects borrowed from the most sordid of contexts found a place in the punk scene and the perverse and the abnormal were valued intrinsically, Goons use illicit iconography of sexual fetishism in their machinimas (such as paraphernalia of bondage and pornography) and adopt socially offensive discourse (i.e. cyberterrorism and communism symbols) to elicit a certain spectacular effect. In relation to the punks of the late 70s, Hebdige explains that “[t]he signifier (swastika) had been willfully detached from the concept (Nazism) it conventionally signified, and although it had been re-positioned … within an alternative subcultural context, its primary value and appeal derived precisely from its lack of meaning: from its potential for deceit” (117). According to him, the appropriation of this type of symbolism leads subcultures to represent “noise,” not “sound.” More importantly, Hebdige argues that mass media provide these groups with substantive images of their own lives contained and framed by the ideological discourses which surround and situate it (85). In a similar fashion, Goons adopt tropes that attempt to undermine significant cultural icons in order to construct an identity counter to what they perceive to be the assumed norm. They remove this offensive symbolism (AIDS, rape signs, BDSM scenes, and so on) from their real-life cultural context and use them to embrace the identity of the “cyberterrorist,” a label all-too-willingly bestowed upon them by some bloggers which represent the media.

The manner in which the activities of Patriotic Nigras (PN) and the recently emerged group DISSENTION, go beyond merely offending the silent majority and temporarily block the system of representation of Second Life in a much more substantial way. Their activities actually aim to break the system via poaching its medium and making it temporarily unusable. PNs, which, according to their slogan, have been “ruining your Second Life since 2006,” pride themselves in carrying on the work of the pioneering griefers such as Plastic Duck and aim to inspire a new generation of griefers dedicated to fight AIDs, racism, and the Furries who engage in alternative sexual lifestyles. They consider themselves as an invasion group of Second Life, dedicated to producing lulz out of Second Life residents as well as what they consider as their main target, furfags (a derogatory term they use for Furries). The warlike undertones of their stated declaration posted on their Web site make it amply clear that their goal is the invasion of Second Life exclusively for the lulz. Accordingly, in addition to simple trolling, entering an area to be annoying, starting arguments between other people, or using clever scripts to frame others for griefing for the purpose of getting them banned, PNs engage in sim-scale raiding that involves filling the region with loud, noisy and/or annoying prims, using the Second Life particle system that allows them to spam everyone’s screen with any sort of shocking image or offensive language, disrupting high profile events, or even launching good-old-fashion gray goo attacks in-world.

Although the act of griefing appears to be a destructive power within Second Life and other virtual worlds, I argue that, with its offensive symbolism and styles, the performative activities of griefer groups designate a vernacular creativity that establish the cultural capital necessary to constitute them as a legitimate subculture in which (as it had been in the punk culture) spectacle takes a prominent role. Accordingly, this presentation will investigate how grief play becomes an agent of the cultural production while maintaining its status as an effective tool in power struggle. Griefers, I contend, employ various acts of subversion clad in the rhetoric of play to systematically explore the boundaries of games and platforms.

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