#47: Bernhard Drax on documenting creativity in Second Life, concerns about whether a Facebook-operated metaverse would limit agency over identity, & Linden Lab’s position in the VR resurgence

Bernhard Drax is a machinima filmmaker who has been documenting the art, education, and creative expression in Second Life for that past seven years. He’s got a web series called World Makers that connects virtual world avatars with the people behind them. He’s better know in Second Life as Draxtor Despres, and has quite a rich and well-produced repository of documentary footage from Second Life that is well-worth looking into.

Bernhard-DraxThere’s a lot of misconceptions and general negative media bias aimed towards Second Life since there was a lot of media hype and grand expectations of what Second Life would be able to provide. Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg told me that Second Life reached a PR peak in 2006-2008, and Drax sees that there’s still a lot of screenshots and misconceptions about the world’s biggest virtual world environment since that time.

Drax has taken it upon himself to try to counter this negative media narrative by documenting the creativity that inspires him from Second Life, as well as running a weekly Metaverse podcast called “the drax files radio hour [with Jo Yardly]”

He provides a number of insights into for people express their identity in Second Life and has a lot of concerns for what a Facebook metaverse would look like in terms of data mining or limiting people’s expressions of identity. Facebook has a lot of strict rules about connecting your online identity with your actual identity and if these practices carry over into virtual worlds, then Drax is afraid of unnecessary limitations on people’s agency over their identity and how they creatively express themselves through their avatar.

Finally, he talks about how he sees Linden Lab as being perfectly positioned to be a leader within the VR space since they have so much experience in running a virtual world, dealing with people, and maintaining a stable economy. This interview was conducted at SVVRCon before it was revealed that Linden Lab announced that they are indeed rebuilding Second Life from the ground up.

Reddit discussion here.


  • 0:00 – Documents art and education in Second Life in his World Makers machinima documentary series. Lots of misconceptions about Second Life. Second Life resident POV is that people have been waiting for VR. When you have a connection to culture and community, then you don’t need a VR HMD to feel immersed. Who are you in VR? You have power of identity and your own life. If you’re good at business, then you can make a living at it.
  • 2:03 – What is drawing you into the Second Life community? Friend wanted to start a virtual band in Second Life, and happened to read Snow Crash at the same time. Did first story about group of retired public servants replicating their lives in a virtual world. World Makers is a newer series to connect the people behind the avatar with what they’re doing in Second Life. Second Life has the democratization of tools, and the VR metaverse of the future needs to have that component. Has concerns about a Facebook dominated metaverse like data mining and limited expression of your identity. Want to see an open and creative metaverse
  • 4:20 – What does Second Life have to teach the VR community about identity? Person plays a 10-year old version of herself. Doing child play and teasing adults as a form of role playing. She can freely create her own avatar, which is a composite of her former self. Others in virtual world may see more richness than how they categorize us in real life. Has trouble with communicating in real life due to possible autism. Can have more confidence expressing herself in Second Life. If Facebook mandates forces us to look like we really look like and bans us, then that’d be a very limited range of expression. You need agency over identity in an open metaverse.
  • 6:52 – Having an anonymous identity in Second Life. Others have alts to test an experience, their business, or a game quest. Don’t have a connection to alt avatars, it’s like talking through a puppet. Have alts for filming. Stage and re-enact a scene for his series. Haven’t explored different genders. Have a character called Fluffy, and sometimes go in as Fluffy. Has a certain amount of celebrity fame in Second Life because people see him come online. Sometimes wish that he could be anonymous in Second Life, and can empathize with celebrities. Feels obsessively connected to his audience, and likes to say good bye to everyone.
  • 10:11 – How do you see VR crossing over with Second Life. Feels that Linden Lab is perfectly positioned for a VR resurgence because they have knowledge of running a huge world running on 40k servers and millions of dollars in transactions per day. They are able to deal with a diverse population. Linden Lab has a lot of expertise in running a virtual world. It is built on old code, and has lag. Who know’s what they’re making (this was before it was announced that Second Life is building a second virtual world from scratch). Wants to help counter balance the media narrative. VR might be a media backlash similar to what happened to Second Life in 2007.

Theme music: “Fatality” by Tigoolio

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast.

[00:00:11.898] Bernhard Drax: My name is Bernhard Drex, better known as Drexter Dupree in Second Life. I document what Second Life users, Second Life residents make in the world with the tools that are provided, so focusing probably more on art and education more than business, I would say. Although the business entrepreneur aspect comes in when I profile, for example, someone like Zach who is 21 and who makes his living making magical effects in Second Life. He scripts them and then he puts them out there and he sells it to the rest of the Second Life community. Second Life is a gigantic user-created virtual world that is interestingly somewhat, not ignored, but there is a lot of misconceptions about it, especially, interestingly enough, at this conference here where people dismiss it as, yeah, I know, you can kind of dance and chat in it. That's what I heard, that's a quote. To, well, I didn't know that it is still around. This is the convergence of now having these devices and having already the world is just actually amazing. So from a Second Life resident standpoint, I think folks have been waiting for interest in VR and these devices coming online so that we can be even more immersed. Having said that, when you have a connection to culture in the world, in your community, you don't necessarily need an Oculus Rift to feel immersed. It's an enhancement, no doubt, but I think that elevates us, and I'm sounding elitist as a Second Life resident, that elevates us above two hands floating in mid-air Yeah, sure, you can have a gun and shoot things, but who are you? So the whole identity thing is just the power over your identity and your life is really the killer thing. And then as an added bonus, if you're a good businessman, you can make money.

[00:02:02.618] Kent Bye: I see. And so what is it that is really drawing you into participating in the Second Life community then?

[00:02:09.523] Bernhard Drax: It's a complete coincidence. Back in 2007, a friend who played in a band with me, I'm a musician, and we were both in our mid-30s at the time, said, hey, we should go on tour. And I go, no, touring is, you know, we have kids, let's not tour. And then he says, well, we can have a virtual band. And this is really true. I read Snow Crash exactly at the time. and then he said virtual band and I go what do you mean he says well my son told me about this virtual thing and you can do this and that blah blah blah and then I looked it up and then I was in and boom that was it and I wasn't interested anymore in a virtual band I started documenting what other people do and the first story was about a group of retired public officials that's a true story a group of retired public officials playing virtual democracy in Second Life. It is somewhat wacky because you live a life of public service and then you retire and you don't golf or you don't write a novel. No, you go into a virtual world and replicate the life that you have led. So it's fascinating. And then I just started doing little reportages every other week and every month, time permitting. And now I have a newer series called The Draxfiles World Makers that connects the avatar behind the person And that's the missing link because, like I said earlier, Linden Lab has a bit of an image problem in the sense that people don't understand that everything is user-created. And that's exciting. Not to knock what people are doing here. There's developers here at the conference. They do amazing things. And some of the game content is interesting. I'm not a gamer, but I can completely appreciate how much work goes into some of these games. But what I find way more exciting is the marketization of tools. And that's what Second Life does. And VR and the metaverse in the future has to have that component. What I regret on my panel a little bit is to not press the issue of a Facebook-type metaverse, a Facebook-dominated metaverse, again, assuming that they would replicate the model that they have now on Facebook in a metaverse, which could mean all sorts of things, which could mean data mining and very limited expression of your identity and all this kind of stuff, and that stuff scares me. I want to see a creative metaverse. I want to see an open metaverse. Yeah.

[00:04:21.455] Kent Bye: So what can Second Life and its experience in virtual identities, what can that teach the virtual reality development community about how to treat identity?

[00:04:29.637] Bernhard Drax: So much stuff. Right now I'm working on a story that's going to come out in June 2nd about a 29-year-old designer from Italy. She's an illustrator and a designer and she started in Second Life three years ago and she's playing a child. She's playing a 10-year-old. She's playing a 10-year-old version of herself. Now, when I say this to people, they usually go like, oh yeah, that's all weird. No, it's not weird. She has a community of friends. They're all playing 10 to 15-year-olds, very innocent child play. They go around, they actually tease other adults, they goof off, you know, very harmless stuff, but just playful stuff. And that's their type of role play. So this is an adult, a 29-year-old woman that has this other identity that she can freely create. She creates the avatar pretty much from scratch with a combination of skin and clothing and tattoos and stuff like that. Sort of a composite of her former self that offers different types of identity. And that's how she goes into the world. So when she comes upon other people inside the world, they will look at her and see arguably way more richness than what they may see in real life. In real life, they look at her and they put her into a box right away. Ah, here's a 29-year-old woman with an Italian accent. She's shy. Okay, let's put her in the shy box, yeah? In Second Life, she bounces around, she jumps up and down, something she has trouble expressing in real life. There is an issue of, it's unclear, she's not diagnosed autistic, but she told me in an interview there is a high probability, there's a lot of traits, so this is twofold. She has the freedom to express herself in ways visually that are different, they're more colorful than in real life, but also in terms of behavior, she can have more confidence in expressing herself. And again, going back to the Facebook metaverse, again, I'm just assuming that if we don't know anything about this, but if Facebook were to recreate the Facebook model in the metaverse, and if we're all forced to look exactly the way we look in real life, and if, you know, let's just assume they would delete our accounts if we dare to play a woman or somebody else or whoever, because then we're not real, we're not the real person, that would be incredibly sad, because it's a very narrow form of expression. Yeah, and that's what Second Life provides. It's agency over identity, is what it is.

[00:06:53.016] Kent Bye: And so do you have an anonymous alt to go into Second Life to not connect to your other identities?

[00:06:58.298] Bernhard Drax: I do, and the weird thing is, and I talked to other people that I profile on the series, they also have alts, and some have alts for a very specific reason of testing an experience, going anonymous, seeing others, how they experience their store, let's say, if they're Second Life business people. or a friend of mine who is a game designer in Second Life has an avatar that then she sends on the quest to test out the games that the group designed. And she tells me, it's weird, I have no connection to that avatar. It feels really strange and it becomes a puppet. So it's the difference between if I were to talk to you with this puppet versus me really talking to you. I have several clones, they look exactly like my main avatar with different clothing. And I have several avatars for filming. So when I film and I have to stage an interaction, like let's say an interview subject would talk theoretically about this is what happens and this blah blah blah. Then sometimes I have to stage it, I have to reenact it with actors and it's just logistically easier if I do it myself with two computers or with my friend. at home and we'll just do it and we'll film it and it's done versus getting all people so that's the purpose why I have avatars but I have not explored genders or different well there's one exception we have a character that we created Fluffy he's kind of mischievous sort of fluffy animal and we created a web series around him and sometimes I and other people have access to that account as well and sometimes we go in as Fluffy and people know him from the web series and then sometimes he shows up And people talk to him and say, hey, can you cuddle with me? And so and then Fluffy would go into a store and say, hey, these boots look good and just say random things. So but all in good fun. But primarily I myself. And the very interesting thing is because I'm so well, I mean, others are well, I am well known. And I feel, honestly, sometimes a certain amount of stress when I log in, because I know that people see me as coming online. And then I get inundated with inquiries often. And sometimes I wish I would be anonymous. Sometimes I wish I could just ignore all this and just go on a quest and nobody would recognize me. And it's a weird feeling. And that's the same feeling that sort of a real life celebrity, I guess, might feel when they just want to go, let's say, with their kids to Disneyland or something like that. I'm not saying this because I feel so important, but this is a real thing. And I feel so obsessively connected to my audience. And that's a real life too, by the way. That's a slight obsessive thing that I've got to make mentally sure that I said goodbye to everyone. You know, some people, they can't just leave, right? They go like, okay, six o'clock, I got to go. I can't do that. I'm going to go track down the guy from Leap Motion who I have not officially said goodbye. I'm going to have to say, Philip Rosedale, goodbye, thank you. You know, this is crazy, kind of. And in Second Life, it's the same thing. So if I show up on a big thing with a lot of people, before I log off, I have to go through every IM. I have to go through the public chat and make sure that I addressed everyone's concern. I can't just, OK, quit. I got to go. But that's more like maybe I should talk to a psychologist about that. Yeah, so maybe I should create an alt. But again, then it's not me. You know, it feels fake in a way.

[00:10:11.405] Kent Bye: So because we're at the Silicon Valley virtual reality meetup, I'm curious about how you see virtual reality crossing over with Second Life and where you see that going.

[00:10:21.068] Bernhard Drax: I have a quote from Ebbe on one of the previous podcasts, I'm not sure, and Carl said something similar, and I'm just going to echo this. I think Linden Lab is perfectly positioned in this new ecosystem, in this new interest resurgence of virtual reality. They're perfectly positioned. Yes, people will say, well, they have a world that is built on old code. You know, frankly, I see stuff in there right now that is amazing and that is very valid. I don't know for how long maybe High Fidelity is doing the stuff that we wish we could do in Second Life in terms of less lag and all this kind of stuff. But right now, Linen Lab is perfectly positioned because they have knowledge in running a huge world that is simulated on 40,000 plus servers, a huge world that has millions of US dollars in microtransactions per day. So they have this financial, I interviewed the financial team a couple of weeks ago. They have expertise in a variety of ways. And especially above all this stuff, the financial system, the hosting system, they deal with people and they deal with a diverse population. You know, the Obama administration rolled on with the Merkel government in Germany. Name any number of real-life governments rolled into this one entity that has to deal with incredible diversity and friction and problems. And Linden Lab, for better or for worse, has gathered expertise in this. over the past 10 years of Second Life's existence. And I think the fact that Second Life was built on, as I always hear, on old code, on legacy code, that's an issue that nobody is ignoring. But who knows what they're making? Who knows what they've been working on under the hood? Second Life right now runs better than ever. Second Life is so different from when the tech press hyped it. And that's the sad part because the tech press can't get over how they portrayed Second Life in 2007. They're still using the same screenshots. Content-wise, interaction-wise, it's mind-boggling what people do. The creativity, it's magical. Bottom line, Second Life is a very good deck. They need to play their cards right. Right now. Right now. And I hope I can help them by donating my free time as a passionate documentarian to counterbalance the media narrative, which is negative. And I see, you know, this is going to have a backlash too. I think everybody is aware that this might very well happen. This new resurgence right now, there might be a backlash. You know, with Second Life, what happened was the platform wasn't stable at the time. So businesses came in and all sorts of riches were promised and it didn't pan out I'm wrapping it up. There's somebody talking over me. I'm wrapping it up. It's awesome And it's a new day and all I'm afraid of is the Facebook metaverse. That's all I'm afraid of we want creativity creativity not consumerism Boom, it's awesome. Thank you. I I gotta get him. Okay, thanks. I

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