The streets are empty. The air is still. The morning sun starts sliding over the rooftops. The sound of a single pair of boots marching over cobblestones punctuates the utter emptiness. Major Roberts comes to attention in front of his commanding officer, who is sitting outside a café. “General,” he reports, “we’ve just had word that the Oculus Rift has gone on sale for pre-order.”
“Thank you, Major,” the General replies. He takes one last sip of espresso and his mouth sets in a firm, grim line. “And so it begins,” he remarks.”
I’ve lived now through several ‘eras’ in technology: when I say ‘lived’ I don’t just mean existed whilst they were taking place; I mean I took part in them. The first era of note for me – one which will always have the fondest of places in my heart – was that of eight bit computing. I owned a ZX Spectrum, a computer with over 150,000 times less memory than the one I’m writing on now. The Spectrum was launched in 1982 and commercial software was still being written for it over a decade later. Ten years is a long life-span for any piece of technology and when something lasts that long it becomes difficult to imagine life without it. Even so, we Spectrum users back then dreamed of more powerful computing, just as Second Life users for over a decade have been dreaming of ever more detailed and immersive virtual world environments. And we jumped into our next era eagerly, whether it was into the era of home PCs (the route that I took) or the era of games consoles. No doubt, we will jump into the new era of virtual reality also.
And yet now, looking back on the simplicity of the eight bit era, I and many others miss that period. Through the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia, it seems to have a number of qualities which feel absent in today’s gaming scene. For example:
- It was ours. Gamers in those days might have been more socially outcast than they are today, but there was a sense of belonging in that minority interest world, much as we bickered amongst ourselves over whose computer was the best or which magazine was the best to follow. We understood what memory was and what pixels were and they did not. When PCs started taking over the world in the 90s, suddenly everyone was talking about hardware and software and floppy disks, and there was nothing special about understanding any of that any more. Our skills and knowledge became obsolete.
- It was easy to follow. The limited number of architectures and users meant that the development of new approaches and technologies took place at an easily absorbed pace. You only needed to subscribe to one monthly magazine to have a good idea about what was going on across the entire scene. When Incentive released ‘Freescape,’ for example, one of the world’s first ever 3D environment engines, everyone who was paying attention to the scene knew about it.
- It was easy to get under the hood. Most computers in those days booted straight into the BASIC programming language when you turned them on; there was no fancy operating system that did stuff for you. Even if you became a dedicated gamer rather than a programmer, you still had to learn to command the computer to load a new game, plus cheats like infinite lives had to be POKEd into a specific area of computer memory. You learned stuff. And if you did want to get involved, anyone could learn to program. The ‘bedroom programmer’ was born.
And so on. As we teeter on the edge today of another new era, I wonder how we’ll look back on SL emotionally in years to come, that era that lasted for over a decade, and which we thought would never come to an end.
- It was ours. SL Residents in those days might have been more socially outcast than VR gamers are today, but there was a sense of belonging in that minority interest world, much as we bickered amongst ourselves over which world was the best or what terms and conditions were acceptable. We understood what avatar appearance was and what prims were and they did not. When VR started taking over the world in the 10s, suddenly everyone was talking about virtual clothing and housing, and there was nothing special about understanding any of that any more. Our skills and knowledge became obsolete.
- It was easy to follow. The limited number of worlds and residents meant that the development of new approaches and technologies took place at an easily absorbed pace. You only needed to subscribe to one or two well-informed blogs to get a good idea about about what was going on across the metaverse. When Linden released ‘Windlight,’ for example, everyone who was paying attention to the scene knew about it.
- It was easy to get under the hood. You had to learn a lot about how things worked in those days; VR was far more work back then than it is now. Even if you became a dedicated fashionista rather than a content creator, you still had to learn to unpack boxes and resize outfits, plus mesh outfits required all manner of fucking about with alpha layers to make them work on the old-style avatar base. You learned stuff. And if you did want to get involved, anyone could learn to build. The ‘hobbyist content creator’ was born.
And so on.
For now, SL is peaceful as ever, empty of the approaching masses; quiet as a sunny Sunday morning. I can walk the streets all by myself. I can listen to the silence. I can spin in circles on the spot. There is no-one around.
I can sit and think about the last ten years, and how I never thought that era would end, and how soon the final chapter will be beginning.
Good luck everyone.
Photos taken at Tether’s End.