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The Super Secret world. Shhh!

It was the year 2050 and the City was under attack. We held out as long as we could, those of us who had chosen to stay behind. We kept our vigil in the dark, all the lights out, excepting only the dim illumination from our monitors, both for reasons of conservation and safety. At random periods, the missiles came in on trajectories we were barely able to track; those of us with the best reflexes and eyesight were on duty bringing those missiles down, before they were able to explode against our shields, or, worse, take down yet another part of the City.

In the end, the City fell, though I continued on.”

“Armed with the best in winter garb and a snowboard, I hurried swiftly to my destination. Even all the snow flying through the air and the powder obscuring the snowboard at my feet could not make me falter; I darted to and fro, left right left again, leaping over obstacles – fallen trees, wandering livestock – all the while pulling wicked stunts with the board. Flips backward, rolls to the front, high, higher into the air I leapt, twisting, turning, hot dog, man!

Time is running out …!”

“I levelled the dart at my target. \’Breathe,\’ I thought to myself, \’Breathe slow.\’ The goal is within reach, I\’ve traced the parabola that the dart will follow in my mind a thousand times already – I know this, I can do this. Through the steel walls, bounce off the back, down the chute and through to a glorious finish. \’Watch the bombs,\’ I told myself, \’Watch the bombs!\’

But the bombs weren\’t even the biggest problem here.”

“So upon my return from my missions, I checked the date, checked my spending account. Spendings – up 200%, a satisfactory result. But the date, oh, that mendacious date! I couldn\’t believe I still had five days to wait before my eleventh birthday, the day I would also get to choose a pet of my very own to care for! Oh, the sheer unfairness of it all!

\’Patience,\’ I counselled myself, \’Have patience.\’

Because getting older is cool when you\’re ten; losing your cool? Not so good at any age.”

\"Welcome

Welcome to Super Secret! A world for tweens (that age when getting older still actually seems like a good idea) where the overarching goal is to grow up and have cool new responsibilities, and get neat stuff to play with.

Entry to the world is easy – almost too easy. Though it is stated in the Terms of Use that users must either be over 18 or have parental permission, little information is required to get in. Fortunately, the creators of Super Secret have made it an especially safe place for kids to be. Interactions are limited by several mechanisms: “super chat”, essentially regular instant messaging, can only be engaged in with parental consent, and is monitored by humans and by computer; “simple chat”, in which the user selects a phrase from a list, is available to all; gift giving, in which an item is removed from the user\’s inventory and given to another user; and gag-gift giving, in which a practical joke of a specific nature is played on another user.

Additionally, Super Secret is free to join. However, you must pay a subscription to be able to advance beyond the age of 13. Users can continue to access the world for free regardless of age, but will not be able to unlock secrets or purchase some items available only to older characters. It should be noted that only USA credit cards are being honoured at this point, though the ability for users from other countries to subscribe is supposed to be in the works.

The main way to earn money (“Spenders”) and to gain age points (which advance the character\’s age) is to play the mini games available both through the user\’s card deck, and throughout the locations that can be visited in-world. There are over 20 games available when you begin, and many more can be found or purchased. Each game tests the reflexes and the ability to learn and adapt, and a knowledge of a little physics doesn\’t hurt for some of them, either. If the casual mini games in Free Realms aren\’t quite casual enough for you, then Super Secret\’s will likely fit the bill.

Aside from this, there is a world to explore, filled with objects of worth to find, quests to fulfill, and secrets aplenty.

As an adult, I found the world to be safe and engaging, and the mini-games to be compelling enough to inspire persistence. The only thing I found to be slightly odd, coming from adult virtual environments, was the lack of public communication between users. Were all the kids trying out the world too shy, too confused, or busy to speak up? Perhaps there were many adults testing out the world, embarrassed to be asked, ”What grade are you in?” – I do not know.

If I was 10 again, or around that age, I\’d be pleased to get into Super Secret as my first or second virtual world. If I was a parent, I\’d be keen for my child to access it. And as an adult, I think I will indulge in the guilty pleasure of popping in every so often just to play the mini-games.

Content ratings, age-verification and secret words

\"tan-linden-lab-secret-keywords\"Linden Lab is now in the final legs of adding a new content category to its virtual environment, Second Life. Being added to the existing PG and Mature categories is the new category, Adult, which permits some content which has hitherto not been permitted in Second Life. The new content category is anticipated to go fully live in July.

Of particular interest, though, are the keyword lists and also age verification. Linden Lab is going to be maintaining a secret list of keywords, the presence of any of which in any descriptive text will prevent that item from appearing as a search result to those who have not (a) undergone age verification, and (b) do not have Adult search results enabled. Accounts which have not undergone verification will not be able to access Adult regions at all, or to enable Adult search results.

That list is being kept a closely guarded secret. What that essentially means is that it\’s pretty trivial to determine which words are on it, and some users have already done so. The list may change, but it is a matter of only minutes (and a little database pummeling) to determine the exact contents of the keywords list.

Linden Lab have chosen to keep the list a secret, so that people will not be able to work around it. Unfortunately, by its very nature, it needs to be about the worst-kept secret around. It would be kinder to the database just to publish the list, so that people don\’t have to brute-force a solution — because they will. I fully expect to see a public and frequently updated list online that publicizes the Adult keywords list before long.

But hey, you\’ve got to age-verify for that, right?

That involves either going through the Identity-Verification system that Linden Lab has engaged Aristotle for (which has proven to be unworkable for many, or of otherwise dubious utility), or putting payment information on file on your Second Life account.

Yes, it\’s really that simple. So simple, a child could do it. Literally.

What payment methods, exactly constitute verification of age, exactly? According to a spokesperson for Linden Lab, \”Any payment method we currently take. PayPal accounts used on XStreet SL will need to be Verified PayPal accounts.\”

Last time we looked, credit card providers expressly prohibited the use of credit cards as an age verification mechanism in their merchant and payment-processor agreements. That makes this somewhat of a dubious stretch, contractually. However, Linden Lab outsources payment processing, so while their payment-processor might be at risk of reprisals from card-companies, there\’s probably no real barrier to the Lab using credit cards as an age verification mechanism.

Aside from the fact that possession of a credit card nowadays is independent of age, prepaid credit cards are available to all ages (some major card companies are issuing prepaid cards to infants), and regular credit cards are available to anyone old enough to hold a job flipping burgers or sweeping floors. In fact, there may be more minors with cards that are indistinguishable from traditional credit cards now than there are adults with them. But there\’s always your mum\’s purse if you\’re hell-bent on tradition.

Linden Lab, however, is out of the liability loop on all of this, so long as they do not make public statements warranting the effectiveness of their age-verification system, or statements that the users are in a legally safer position than they were before. Either could land the Lab with some expensive and embarrassing lawsuits the first time little Suzy gets caught out with Adult content.

Superstruct: initial results

\"superstruct-firstreport\" In October 2008 we covered Superstruct, a forecasting MMO with some very real-world aims: to determine the challenges facing humanity in 2019.

This week, the group behind Superstruct, The Institute for the Future (IFTF), released some initial research as part of its ongoing mission to use the MMO as a means of communicating key global challenges. The overview is:

For the past five months, IFTFs Ten-Year Forecast Team has been analyzing the collective body of Superstruct work, in light of other major perspective essays on new forms of governance, networked citizens, geoengineering, and superstructed realities. We have focused our Superstruct research on the following question: What is the next major evolutionary phase for human organization?

And today, we are pleased to share with you the first round of findings.

These Superstruct findings are the first in the IFTF Annual TYF Superstruct Series. With these we present to you the first 50-Year Scenario, \”The Long Crisis\” and the \”Superstruct Strategies\”, 7 actionable strategies that emerged during our game analysis. Over the next few months, we will be publishing additional Superstruct maps and perspectives online. You will be able to follow the series and download all of the research at our 10 Year Forecast RSS feed

You can download the 5.2 meg PDF of the research here.

The Watch – virtual worlds in the news

1. BBC (UK) – Virtual worlds and web \’merging\’. \”Second Life boss, Mark Kingdon, said identity is key in virtual worlds. \”You take one avatar and you cross multiple virtual worlds… that is going to be a really powerful and important part of the virtual world future,\” predicted Mark Kingdon, the boss of Second Life. This online fantasy space had 1.4m users over the past two months, out of its 17m registered users, who can access to products and places replicated from real life. The residents can spend their time visiting exact replicas of actual tourist hotspots, shops, or even bizarre fantasy lands. Videos on the site\’s homepage aim to help users find content that interests them within the vast 3D environment. Second Life may have been one of the first virtual worlds of its kind, but six years on, the competition is fierce.\”

2. USA Today (USA) – In virtual worlds, kids just want to grow up. \”While Peter Pan never wanted to grow up, it seems that today tweens (kids ages 8 to 12) are anxious to do so, at least in virtual worlds. Banking on kids\’ desire to play at \”growing up\” is a new online game called SuperSecret.
The site was created to give kids a place to go after they outgrow the mega-popular virtual worlds of Club Penguin and Webkinz but before they are ready for the more adult online games of World of Warcraft or the social networking sites Facebook and MySpace. SuperSecret entices kids with the wish fulfillment of living a virtual life that ages them a lot quicker than in real life. After playing the game for about 30 days, kids will age from the entry age of 10 years to age 15. With each birthday comes new privileges and things to do, as well as access to new parts of the virtual world.\”

3. CNET (USA) – Hacking online games a widespread problem. \”It will likely come as no surprise to anyone familiar with virtual worlds and online games that they can be hacked. But what might come as a shock is the sheer breadth of types of exploits that are possible. That was the broad message of a Thursday panel called, appropriately, \”Exploiting Online Games\” at the RSA 2009 security conference here. Moderated by Gary McGraw, CTO of software security consulting firm Cigital and an author of several books, the panel took the audience on a deep dive into the diverse ways that hackers and others have figured out to either skim real money or to gain game play advantages not available to normal players.\”

4. Touch Arcade (USA) – \’World of Warcraft\’ on an iPhone… For Real? \”Most of you have probably seen World of Warcraft-on-iPhone claims/videos/mock-ups before, but this time it looks like it might actually be true. Someone posted this YouTube video of World of Warcraft running on an iPhone.\”

5. Federal News Radio (USA) – Virtual Worlds: the next-generation of web 2.0. \”Imagine being a soldier in Saudi Arabia who steps into a holographic tent for the training he needs to pass the sergeant\’s exam. Or an emergency manager in a rural Oregon county who goes to a telepresence room where her avatar meets with the avatar of the state emergency management director to negotiate for badly needed relief supplies after a flood. That\’s the promise of \”virtual worlds\”, a term which describes such popular web destinations as Second Life and sites where users can meet and interact in graphical environments that exist only in a computer. Today, some of the best minds in government, private industry, and science are wrapping up the 2-day, 2nd annual Federal Consortium of Virtual Worlds conference. The meeting is being held in the analog space of the National Defense University, at historic Fort McNair in southwest D.C., but there are also virtual participants online watching through webcasts, and in a number of virtual communities, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.\”

6. The Guardian (UK) – A whole new world of studying. \”There\’s not a red pen in sight when Russell Stannard marks his master\’s students\’ essays – but it\’s not because the students never make mistakes. Stannard doesn\’t use a pen, or even paper, to give his students feedback. Instead – and in keeping with his role as principal lecturer in multimedia and ICT – he turns on his computer, records himself marking the work on-screen, then emails his students the video. When students open the video, they can hear Stannard\’s voice commentary as well as watch him going through the process of marking. The resulting feedback is more comprehensive than the more conventional notes scrawled in the margin, and Stannard, who works at the University of Westminster, now believes it has the potential to revolutionise distance learning.\”

7. Sydney Morning Herald (Australia) – Second Life to banish racy content. \”Second Life plans to clean up the streets of its virtual mainland by providing stricter control of adult content and sending racy material to a separate faux continent. The announcement comes as Second Life creator Linden Labs moves to enhance the virtual world\’s viability as a venue for education, conferences, and business.\”

8. Virtual Worlds News (USA) – Wiggles Release Pseudo-World For Preschoolers. \”I started my day off with some WiggleTime, the new pseudo-virtual world from the very energetic child\’s group The Wiggles. I call it a pseudo-virtual world becuase it\’s described as a virtual world and hews to that metaphor, but it\’s a single-user experience for now. \”

9. Sydney Morning Herald (Australia) – Second Life\’s second wind. \”Doomsayers rashly declared it \”dead and buried\” and the media lost interest, but virtual world Second Life continues to prosper as the real economy falters, a virtual world commentator says. After a few years of immense hype, reports late last year chronicled Second Life\’s apparent malaise, as companies faced having to ditch their virtual presence as users lost interest.\”

10. The Age (Australia) – Your Turn: eKidna World. \”You have to admire 40-year-old Brisbane mum Karen Orford. The response from most parents fearful of the impact of games and online worlds on their kids is to ban them from the household, but instead, Karen put her house and $300,000 on the line to build a kid-friendly virtual world. The result is eKidna World, a safe and fun online site designed for 8-12 year olds that is uniquely Australian, and includes games like surfing, fishing, kangaroo racing, snowball throwing and sheep herding. \”

Weekend Whimsy

1. New Babbage, A Second Life Steampunk Community. Photography by Eddi Haskell

2. Helm & Nimoe

3. SAvro Lancaster Second Life

Skoolaborate: Linden Prize finalist

Linden Lab have announced the finalists for their US $10000 Linden Prize, and amongst the handful of finalists is Skoolaborate,

By its nature, Skoolaborate is an international venture, but some Australian educators are key driving forces behind the project. Good luck to all the finalists – all illustrate some of the significant good coming out of virtual worlds.

The monetisation of Metaplace

\"metaplace_april2009\" The Alphaville Herald have an interesting post on the subscription options being considered for Metaplace.

In the month or so since I last spent some time in Metaplace, its further growth in users and related new worlds has become apparent. It\’s a platform that has real potential to earn dollars for its creators, particularly given the content creation options it provides. One key point I\’m encouraged on is Metaplace\’s commitment to free accounts. It\’s an approach that\’s served Second Life well, as it has other 2D worlds like Habbo.

The combination of the content creation and what will hopefully be attractive pricing plus free accounts should set Metaplace up nicely. Hell, when the Alphaville Herald is positive, Metaplace must be doing something different to the norm.