1. Introduction and problem identification
2. approach of this term paper
3. Welt am Draht and its derivates
4. Stephen Lisbergers „Tron“
5. Peter Weirs „The Truman Show“
6. Early cyberspaces and their spatiality
7. Entering cyberspaces by avatars
8. Structures in cyberspaces – non-places or simulacra
9. Power in imaginary spaces
10. Second Life et alie: my personal Dystopia?
1. Introduction and problem identification
After an relatively noiseless online-launch in 2003, the computer Game Second Life has seen an incredible increase in users within the last few months and therefore has attracted the attention of international media. The game provides for an online-world in which numerous activities –chatting, flirting, shopping etc. are being made possible to the users. The players take part in the form of avatars, pixel-figures that can be created and designed according to the wishes of the members. While in October 2006 the one millionth avatar has seen the light of the virtual world, by now (early April 2007) more than 5 million users roam the places and spaces of the alternative realm of Second Life. The idea behind the game is by no means new and merely marks the latest step in a development that can be traced back to early primitive computer games like flight and sports simulators.
Whereas in most simulation games however only parts of „reality“ where isolated and converted into programs that were mostly played alone, in the late 1990s and the early years of the first decade after 2000 a whole new generation of games flooded the shelves of the games retailers which came as a result of spreading fast broadband internet connections and the possibility of real-time chatting. In Massive Multiplayer Online (Role-Playing) Games (MMO(RP)Gs) like World of Warcraft (WOW), in some aspects a predecessor to Second Life, a confined fantasy realm which is permanently online waits for the young players to be liberated of evil or good forces – depending on the side one aligns with. Here it becomes real what many authors tend to call „the end of geography“ and „the triumph of technology over space“ (Mosco 38). Heros from all countries in these games are thanks to the internet able to team up in Guilds and Clans and share „valuable“ items like swords and armours that can be found throughout these worlds and thereby improve their avatars. They are of course able to choose their identity – inter alia dwarves, humans, night elves and other races and classes can be deployed in the online-battles that are waged in the game twenty four hours a day.
Second Life is not informed by a fantasy story like WOW – it however addressed itself to the task to deliver its users a complete living space with a broad variety of possible actions and, what is even more important, social interactions designed to attract more and more users. Both games – Second Life will be dealt with in detail later in this term paper - are just the most successful top of the iceberg; online gaming has become a standard feature of most games that are put on the market. As a result, online communities and new „social relations“ - the phrase is put in quotation marks with a clear intent here - are established on a permanent basis in these realms with after-effects that seem to be barely controllable by the societies. The people who participate in such games, mostly boys and men between 13 and 25, are confronted with a completely new type of social pressure – online obligations. They are grouped in online „guilds“ that meet and play at certain times of the day, there are special events in which they are expected to join, and if they are not investing a certain span of time daily into their online-characters – which need to be advanced – they are outdone by other guilds or members of their own groups. Indeed they are spending days of their lives in these realms, which allows for the statement that these places have become anthropospheres, spaces that are filled with human life and everything it entails. The potential to lose contact with real life (rl as it is called among players) is massive; China has due the rising amount of highly addicted young players reduced the runtime of the servers, there have been even reports about deaths in front of the screen due to dehydration and lack of nutrition (Wikipedia, the free Encyclopaedia). If actually true, online worlds are not only places to live, but also to die.
Early the culture industry has been fascinated with living in alternative or simulated realities and its „perpetual oscillation between utopia and dystopia“ (Durham 5). Many visions, as I shall point out in this term paper, presage today's developments to an astonishing degree – sure enough the ones I deal with are rather dystopian. Notably, the most prominent in recent years has been the 1999 film „Matrix“ by the Wachowski brothers, which has been extended to a trilogy. Also science has come up with certain models that can be employed to conceptualize these spaces – I will outline some of these and try to put them in the context that serves my problem. It is, in my view, necessary to view today's colonisation of and living in these spaces that I have outlined above and will further detail in the course of this paper, in front of a background of media production of the period since WWII. The idea that informs this undertaking is, that there have been numerous accounts who predict what is being made accessible to computer users at the moment – Cyberspace is no longer a room that can be inhabited in the future, but it is right now open to everyone; the Cyborg has come into existence. As mentioned, the films – and not only the films I elaborated on – tend to emphasize the dangers of these worlds rather than the chances, and still so many people enter these realms.
2. approach of this term paper
I will recurr in this term paper on three films that show how such places can be designed and what special characteristics the film makers chose to give them. My choice was for Fassbinder's „World on Wire“ of 1973, Steven Lisberger's 1982 Disney production „ Tron “ and Peter Weirs „ The Truman Show “ of 1998 – the latter film at first glance breaks the ranks, but fits in when further scrutinizing it. The films have in common that they assume the existence of a real life or a reality, and an alternative space that is to some degree simulated however provides for living space for the figures of the films. I am then drawing parallels between the visions and today's living in online worlds such as Second Life – I am treating the world in this game as well as the whole internet as cyberspaces. I have chosen to not include „The Matrix“, as the picture assumes that what we perceive as reality is computer-simulated and the film is due to its duration hard to work on. Though Fassbinders „ World on Wire“ makes the same statement as Matrix I could not ignore this movie as it is the de facto archetype of films in that tradition. There are others who followed Fassbinders movie, for example Cronenbergs „eXistenZ“ of 1999, however the small scope of a term paper demanded me to make a choice.
I will try to conceptualize these places by recurring on scientific models such as the Baudrillardian simulacrum and Marc Augés non-place and by means of those, characterize these spaces and the systems they embody. It is It is of course necessary to give synopsises of the movies at first. As mentioned, the outlook these movies cast on future developments is to some extent rather bleak, and I will in my account try to do without fearmongering, but I will show in how far theses movies accomplish almost prophetic work in respect to modern computer games like Second Life. Indeed, there are dangers – isolation, paranoia, problems that arise from the concealment of and the playing with ones identity, not to mention corporate interests in spaces that have no power or judicial structure and, as mentioned above, addiction. Some are outlined in the films, some I will supplement in the course of the paper.
3. Welt am Draht and its derivates
Welt am Draht (World on Wires) is a two-part science fiction picture by Rainer Werner Fassbinder which was originally aired only on German television in 1973. The topic of simulated realities has probably never dealt with as complex (partly even hard to follow) and in-depth as in this film – I think it is therefore necessary to outline this movie more detailed than the others. Its story is based on the 1964 novel „Simulacron Three“, also published under the title „Counterfeit World“, by the American author Daniel Francis Galouye. The story of „ ]Welt am Draht “ appears to play in the presence of the 1970s or in the near future. Scientists at the „Institut für Kybernetik und Zukunftsforschung (IKZ)“ have created a program of gigantic scope that is capable of reproducing a complete world plus about 9 700 inhabitants. The citizens of this realm – called „identity units“ - have their own conscience but are unaware that they are reproductions of „real“ persons from the world beyond. Scientists constantly monitor the simulated world – the gigantic simulation processes of Simulacron enable the scientists to also forecast future tendencies in the real world. To maintain the control of the Simulacron and to manipulate the developments in the simulation the scientists are able to enter the program via contact connections; in such a contact connection the scientist in question is enabled to gain control of the conscience of an identity unit to fulfil this. There are only few units, like „Einstein“ (Gottfried John), who are aware of their identity.
The head of the institute, Professor Vollmer (Adrian Hoven), dies under mysterious circumstances before he is able to tell one of his colleagues, Günther Lause (Ivan Desny), about a discovery that he described would end the living of the known world. He is after his death replaced by his assistant Dr. Fred Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch), the main actor in the film. At a party at the house of the director of the institute, Herbert Siskins (Karl-Heinz Vosgerau), Günther Lause tries to tell Stiller something, but suddenly disappears. Fred Stiller is reporting the event to the police but within a short time is confronted with the situation that nobody knows who Günther Lause is – even in the personal registry of the company he is not listed. It is getting more mysterious when the police again wants to talk to Stiller in the case of the death of the former head of the institute, Professor Vollmer. The police-officer acts as if he has never met Stiller before and also has not heard about Günther Lause; nevertheless it gets clear that the police is suspecting Stiller of the possible murder – he has spent the very day of the death in his house in the mountains alone and there is nobody who could confirm this.
Parallel to these developments the representative of a major steal supplier has entered into negotiations with Herbert Siskins. He is asking Siskins to take data concerning the future developments of traffic out of Simulacron and place it at the disposal of the company. Fred Stiller, who has been called to join the conversation, wholeheartedly rejects the request, saying that this step would throw back the work at the program. Afterwards Stiller is investigating the murder on his own – he is contacting the identity unit „Einstein“ to find out about the reported suicide attempt of an identity unity called „Christopher Nobody“, who was programmed by Vollmer himself and whose initials deliver CENO – an allusion to a the last drawing by Vollmer found after his death (the drawing showed Achill and the tortoise – ZENOS paradox). As Christopher Nobody was deleted by a colleague of Stiller, Fritz Walfang (Günther Lamprecht), Stiller is entering into a contact connection with Einstein, who tells him that he would like to leave the simulated world. During the contact connection he sees Günther Lause, who had disappeared on the party. Later Einstein succeeds – he leaves the simulation by entering the body of Fritz Walfang. He tells Stiller that also this world is only a simulation from another world above.