[MUD-Dev] Article: Furniture Whores and Debit Card Toilets

J C Lawrence claw at kanga.nu
Sun Jun 2 13:07:43 New Zealand Standard Time 2002


From: 

  http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/alabaster/A680014

Note that I've munged the footnotes to (#) format.

--<cut>--
Furniture Whores and Debit Card Toilets

The Lowlights of Avatar Chat and Selected Virtual Societies.

When did you first visit a chat room? If you've been using computers a
while, you probably remember your first exciting experiences with
newsgroups or bulletin board systems . Passing messages back and forth,
arguing, making friends you had never seen from lands you had never set
foot on. Memory and processing speeds of personal computers advanced
further and became cheaper, more widely available, until you could
exchange messages in real time through chat rooms . Words on a computer
screen became almost like a place where you could represent yourself (or
misrepresent yourself) any way you wanted. Some people used chat rooms
to act out sword and sorcery settings, intergalactic pubs. Some used it
to find friends, make enemies, make love. A lot of possibilities, but
text is somehow one-dimensional. You could describe a spaceport vividly,
but it was only words.

As memory and processing speeds progressed further, the clarity of
computer images became better and better, until people started
displaying photos of their grandchildren on their computer screens at
work, instead of real framed pictures on top of their desks. The instant
interaction of chat rooms blossomed into two dimensions. The first place
I saw chat which used avatars (little pictures to represent the people
chatting) was on a site called...

The Palace (1)

The Palace seemed like a big deal in 1999. No more plain text chat. At
The Palace, you choose an avatar (2) to represent you, hundreds of human or
animal or household appliance images to illustrate who you wish you
were. Mostly cartoonish, idealized teens, boys with muscles and guns,
girls with big eyes and fashionable eating habits. Some used photos of
their favorite Babylon 5 characters, Mulder or Scully, or hip actresses
who Knew What You Did Last Summer . You could create or edit images,
experiment with clothes and props, add butterfly wings to make your girl
a fairy, or demonic wings and flaming eyesockets like a Marvel
superhero. UPS uniforms were all the rage for a while, piles of packages
around your young, scowling delivery boy, his arms folded, trying to
look like something out of a rap video. Angry clown faces like the
Detroit rap duo ICP (Insane Clown Posse), bottles of Faygo cola (3) stacked
on the ground around your insane clown avatar.

You pick a "room" with a background image that suits your fantasy, a
castle or a space ship or romantic meadows or a veranda on a Georgia
mansion. Position your static avatar somewhere on the background image
and the words you type will pop up in word balloons above your avatar's
head. Not much movement, except that you can build up a huge stockpile
of avatars, and switch from moment to moment, reflecting your moods. One
moment a giant smiley-face, then a kitten, a gunslinger, Schwarzeneggar,
a chameleon, or a sign that reads "BRB AFK 2PP." (4)

At the time, I recognized the Palace as a step forward toward virtual
reality. Remember Lawnmower Man ? I know, you tried to blot it from your
memory, but it's the perfect illustration. Everyone has been waiting for
the kind of fully immersive virtual reality where you can fly like a god
through starry tunnels and pulsing grids of energy, preferably bluish
backgrounds snipped out of Tron and recycled into Wild Palms, Johnny
Mnemonic, The Matrix. Or maybe we just want to try those sex scenes from
Lawnmower Man where you swirl and melt into a knot with your lover.

Still a long way from full immersion virtual reality, a body suit that
transmits touch, heat, cold, all your senses fooled into believing
you're inside that avatar. But at least you have a picture representing
yourself, and you can interact with other people from around the world
in a 2-D fantasy setting.

The Palace is probably more interesting these days, maybe more movement,
but I'm not willing to download their software again today to do more
research. As these things progress, they will become faster, cheaper,
more complex, cooler. And you won't have to mess with downloading
anything. For example...

Dubit

A COmpany virtually located in the UK , Dubit provides a wacky, sci-fi
atmosphere, staffed by ghosts, aliens, thugs and heros. Male and female
variations of each brainiac alien you might want to for your avatar,
hulking male werewolves and hulking werewolves with ribbons in hair to
match. My favorite is the little, creeping, sickly nosferatu with his
claws arched in front of his chest. Dubit's system gives you a free
"apartment" where you can spend hours on interior decorating (okay,
maybe only minutes), entertain your virtual friends, and you don't have
to pay real money for your virtual furniture.

There's a city to explore full of clubs and offices, stores, apartment
buildings and dark alleys where they sell drugs. Drugs?! Yes, but don't
get rattled just yet. Sinister cartoon characters try to push booze and
pot and cocaine on you. One junky sits in the gutter with needles
protruding all up and down his arms. If you click on any of these
people, your screen flashes to an article describing the names of
various drugs, slang terms, chemical names, and the effects of using
those drugs. Theoretically, the system is kept from being a total
"Reefer Madness" propaganda trip by the fact that users are encouraged
to comment on the articles, and these comments are displayed for other
users. Nancy Reagan was never as interesting as an interactive
propaganda cartoon.

The advantages of Dubit are that it's cute and cartoony yet sleekly
futuristic (think 1983's Space Ace ), gives you a lot of free options to
play with, some simple games, and there's nothing new to download if you
already have Flash. The down side is that you can't enter a virtual
bathroom without first applying for a debit card. Actually, it's a
"dubit" card, and I'm not sure whether you have to pay real money for
anything on Dubit, but that tidbit annoyed me enough to stop
exploring. Also cumbersome are real life brand names like Diesel
clothing that are advertised on billboards throughout Dubit's cityscape,
as well as your room. You can tell they haven't won many advertisers
yet, since half the billboards show "Diesel" and half say, "Your Ad
Here."

The major problem is that letters throughout the world of Dubit are
microscopic, on all the pages to register and sign up, all the signs,
all the chat dialog word balloons when you're trying to chat up other
werewolves and alien blobs and Men In Black. On my 13" monitor set to
800 by 600 pixels, the average fonts in Dubit appear to range from 5 to
7 point type. It's frustrating when you're trying to carry on a
conversation, especially when the rest of the graphics are so clear and
crisp, the movements so smooth. Also, some of the fonts are jaunty and
angular and futuristic, which makes them doubly illegible. Maybe I need
to set my monitor to more or less pixels, but when I tried to change
settings, the image seemed to adapt to my new setting, and looked
exactly the same as before.

If you have fresh, young eyes, not yet damaged by years of staring at a
Commodore 64, give Dubit a try. Or if you have one of those full-screen
magnifying lenses, as seen in the offices throughout the movie Brazil,
then this is the site for you. Meanwhile, I'll stick with...

Habbo!

The graphics on Habbo are simple line-drawings of kids or maybe teens,
set in a familiar isometric system of rooms. It's not cutting edge
animation, but what do you want for nothing? It's adequate. Now forget
about the graphics. What you need to pay attention to is the culture.

You come home from your sixtieth hour of data entry this week, kick off
your shoes and try to escape the meaningless drudgery of the real
world. Select the hair, shoes and skin colo(u)r of your favorite
Japanese cartoon character and spend your time in a fantasy world
searching for those most holy material possessions, furniture.

Maybe "furni" is common UK slang, but my first encounter with the word
was on habbo, where virtual furniture is the only possible currency
between characters. Your avatar and clothes are free, and there are no
fees for creating rooms to decorate or gather your friends in. But the
decorations, the bath tubs, chairs, loos, colo(u)rs of walls or floors
all cost real money, in pounds sterling please. Just use your credit
card, or bill it all to your celly phone account. It's a cute idea, but
who would have thought that hundreds of teens or adults would enjoy
spending hour after hour, day after day hustling for virtual furniture? 
Work a virtual job for furniture. Scam your fellow habbos for
furniture. Beg for furniture. Spend several relaxing hours trying to
trade your crappy gray plasto table for a pink armchair. The trading
rooms fill with people shouting what they want to trade, drowning out
what others try to say, because only 5 lines can be viewed at a time,
usually

  WHO WANTS A GREEN WOOL RUG? HIT 666
  WHO WANTS A GREEN WOOL RUG? HIT 666
  WHO WANTS A GREEN WOOL RUG? HIT 666
  WHO WANTS A GREEN WOOL RUG? HIT 666
  WHO WANTS A GREEN WOOL RUG? HIT 666

You have to repeat yourself in order to be "heard." That is, in order
for your line to be noticed among the quick scroll of lines from
competing messages. They shout for you to hit numbers because those are
easier to spot in a room full of word balloons than a series of people
shouting "yes! YES! y y y no thnx Yes. RIGHT!" Is that a "yes" to my
green wool rug, or "yes" to her lodge table? "HIT 333 IF U WANT TO GIVE
ME FREE FURNI PLZ IM A POOR HABBO"

Watch as the scams unfold in front of you.

"No, u give me ur tv first & then I give u the bed. It only works if u
hand the tv to me first."

"I'll leave a bunch of extra furni in your room if you give me the
password for your character."

The second most important term to remember on Habbo is "bobba," a
nonsense word that automatically replaces any objectionable terms. You'd
expect s**t, a*s or b***h to be censored on a site meant for UK teens,
but Habbo also censors words like "pimp," "lick," "bloody," and correct
anatomical designations "vagina" or "penis."

When you hear a female (5) habbo say, "I WILL BOBBA FOR FURNI," then
you've met your first virtual furniture whore. This behavio(u)r is quite
against the rules of Habbo, but it would not take much to find a quiet
room somewhere, or create your own room, then get your groove on with
the furni whore. It's not like the little cartoons are programmed to
fornicate, or even touch each other, but she'll offer to reply in
character to your one-handed typing of what you want to do to her. She
may not be acting out the words, but it's enough for some people to
imagine that this female knows what you're doing with one hand under
your keyboard. It must be a very compelling situation for a lonely
person, if you can ignore the possibility that the female avatar named
"Cumilla" may be operated by a 67 year old man.

You don't have to be as ancient as 14 to see the work arounds to their
simplistic automated censorship. It hasn't yet been programmed with all
the variant spellings or numeric puns like B1+CH or P3N!S, so there's
not much to prevent people from cybering if they really want to. This is
the other phrase to beware, if you're as unfamiliar with chat slang as I
was. "Do you want to cyber?" translates into disco French as
"Voulez-vous coucher avec moi virtually?" The proper response on Habbo
is "EEK!" or at best, "NO."

Another thing that disgusts me on Habbo, but is surely not unique to
this setting, is the treatment of "friendship" as a status that is
assigned instantaneously, decisively, yet disposably. I realize it's
just a way to allow private messages and prevent abuse of emails or
other info by strangers. But the way to add other habbo inhabitants to
your contact list is to send them a "friend request." Do you accept this
person as your friend? Click yes or no. Just like the notes we used to
pass back and forth in grade school. Then if they annoy you, simply
highlight their name on your friends list and click "remove." How
convenient! Unfortunately, this attitude manifests in most conversations
with people who have assimilated the culture of disposable virtual
friendship.

Someone walks up to you in a lobby of the Habbo Hotel and says, "Hi,
what's your asl (6) ?" When you tell them that your age is 29, sex is
male, and location is Michigan, they may walk away. Small talk is so
Twentieth Century, isn't it? If you're lucky, the person might take time
to reply, "Sorry, u r 2 old." Or they might be exceptionally polite and
say, "cool. it was nice meeting you. i have to go now" -- before walking
across the room to start a conversation with someone else.

What Does It All Mean?

I wanted to lay out a grand statement here about how these little
virtual societies show what's in store for us. But these places are old
news. I've been dabbling with a few free sites, nothing pushing the
envelope. There's another download site called "Cybertown" with much
more impressive graphics, characters equivalent to Tomb Raider, instead
of the tiny cartoons of Habbo. If you're willing to put money into it,
there's Everquest , advertised as the World's Number One Massively
Multiplayer Online Game. It's been out at least a year or so. You have
to buy the software plus pay a subscription, but the people who do it
are not just playing. Some of them marry other characters within the
game, or spend all their free time there like it was a second job. There
must be thousands of people around the globe right now who avoid their
real corner pub in order to hang out after work in a virtual pub where
dwarves serve grog and a barbarian troll might start a fight. Then
there's Anarchy Online, a sci-fi version of the same stuff. Or there's
The Sims , where you can design and unleash your skinny automatons into
a virtual society, watching over them like a guardian angel or an odd
god. I imagine they let you micromanage the actions of your Sim
character, to the point that you might use it like an avatar.

Who knows what they'll come out with next year. Yes, I'm sure there will
be elves in it, and users who speak tlhIngan Hol(7), and there will
still be people who call themselves "hotchik69" and "QTpa2T" and
"homer1147", but beyond that?

The lessons of The Palace and Dubit and Habbo demonstrate a misty
picture of what the future of virtual society will be like. When you
strap into that first fully immersive VR system with the gloves and the
body suit, LCD screens in a set of goggles, microphone strapped to your
mouth and SurroundSound piped into your ears, it's going to look great,
sound terrific, maybe they'll even have smells worked into the system by
then. Leave Kalamazoo behind and let yourself live this moment in the
manufactured utopia of virtual reality. In this illusory world, you're
going to walk up to some fine young stud or babe on a sunny beach, or
sitting at a baccarat table, or curled up in an igloo. Gritty reality of
gnats buzzing, or noisy Blackjack players, or ice water dripping into
urine pail will be available for you to turn on or off, depending on how
gritty your prefer your reality. Facial expressions, body language,
shadows will be perfect. The moment will be magickal.

Just don't be too shocked when this first marvelous inhabitant of utopia
asks you, "Can I have a piece of furniture? Plz?"

  1 Note : I refuse to wrestle with h2g2's rules about offsite links, so
  you'll have to search for the sites if interested. They should be
  available if you try common URL endings, or if you look up the title
  on a major search engine.

  2 "A digital image, sometimes but not always humanoid in form, used to
  represent your virtual self as you move within an on-line virtual
  environment." -- great definition of "avatar" by Spaceman Spiff (MP) .

  3 Insane Clown Posse likes to express loyalty to Motown by showering
  audiences with Faygo, a brand of soda made in Michigan. Not only does
  Faygo produce an array of flavo(u)rs and colo(u)rs which works well
  with ICP's floor show, but the stuff is priced to compete with the
  cheapest store brand sodas. I suspect that the reason fans of ICP call
  themselves "Juggalos" has something to do with 2 Liter jugs of soda
  sprayed and tossed around at concerts, but I'm not sufficiently "down
  with that" to confirm this.

  4 Abbreviation for "[I'll] Be Right Back, Away From Keyboard To
  Peepee."

  5 It's not sexist to point out that the whores on habbo use female
  avatars. They're the only ones in demand. Males don't advertise as
  furni whores because there's no market for it. It goes without saying
  that a male wants to BOBBA, usually for free. Supply of free boytoys
  exceeds demand. Laws of Economics, baby. Just ask "Alan_Greenspank77".

  6 ASL stands for age/sex/location.

  7 "tlhIngan Hol" is the proper way to spell "Klingon Language" in the
  Klingon Language.
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--
J C Lawrence                
---------(*)                Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas. 
claw at kanga.nu               He lived as a devil, eh?		  
http://www.kanga.nu/~claw/  Evil is a name of a foeman, as I live.
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