As many of you may have heard by now, Makena Technologies has been working with MTV Networks along with several other partners and advisors on a “brand” new 3D social virtual world based on the television show Laguna Beach. Virtual Laguna Beach launched in beta yesterday.
While I have only been sporadically involved the production of Virtual Laguna Beach, my experience with the project here at Makena has gotten me thinking about the larger cultural implications of the VLB launch within the history of social virtual worlds. For one, it’s a fascinating example of the increasing convergence of television, fans, online communities and virtual worlds. And as Henry Jenkins notes, “It’s just layer upon layer of reality and fiction.”
I’m guessing most TN readers are not hardcore Laguna Beach fans. But if you’ve seen the show even for a few minutes, or maybe you’ve watched it with your kids, at some point in the process you must have noticed just how *virtual* Laguna Beach itself is. The highly polished filming style of Laguna Beach and its attractive California teen cast immediately creates fuzziness between “real” and “virtual” for its viewers. In fact, when I first came across the show during an evening channel surf session, my first thought was, “Is MTV showing a movie tonight?” When I realized it was a reality show, I took this as a sign that the reality TV genre had come full circle. Laguna Beach was literally the virtual “Real World”. So now in 2006, the show that already playfully blurs boundaries between real and virtual in its formal presentation has a complementary virtual world in which viewers are encouraged, “Don’t just watch Laguna Beach – Live it!”
Another interesting thing about the television show Laguna Beach is its emphasis on evoking a very tangible sense of “place.” The title of the show refers to a real-world California town and the show’s settings are meant to convey the essence of Laguna. Local landmarks such as a lifeguard tower, sweeping views of the beach, and the PCH visually punctuate the more intimate interior settings of posh rooms, cars, nail salons and restaurants. Much like the show itself, Virtual Laguna Beach is a carefully constructed group of settings that most successfully convey the “Laguna-ness” of Laguna. The lifeguard tower, Main Beach, select Forrest Avenue shops, and other real world locations are all represented true to form in a more or less realistic setting. Like a Cubist painting, each virtual element fits together in a way that is not quite geographically precise, but offers the viewer an abridged collection of recognizable Laguna landmarks. In my opinion, this is an extremely important element of VLB. For television fans, this level of detail and attention to the environment is a crucial marker of authenticity. The thrill of recognition that occurs when encountering key settings from both previous and current shows is a key part of the experience for the hardcore Laguna Beach fan – “Look, this is the surf shop where Stephen worked!” or “Hey, this is the restaurant where my favorite cast members had that fight in Episode 1!”
Another important fan-centric element of the VLB project is the way it will incorporate online episodic content that mirrors the show’s third season. Specifically this means that each week the content and settings shown in the television show will be represented in the virtual world, as a correlative series of events. For example, when the show’s cast members go to Winter Formal, a virtual Winter Formal will be held for fans in Virtual Laguna Beach. This is not just instant fan gratification - it’s a way to encourage a whole new level of empathy, identification, and interaction with third season episodes.
Not surprisingly, for a show that caters to a teenage and young adult audience, many of the key episodic events have to do with adolescent rites of passage such as formal dances, spring break and graduation. These events are symbolically tied to key events in the typical American teen’s life and allow fans to virtually share cultural moments in parallel with the show. Of course, they will bring their own points of view and experiences to the mix, and giving them the opportunity to do so will be a crucial part of the VLB experience.
VLB is the type of project that could probably only work in a social virtual world. While gaming-focused worlds like World of Warcraft, Everquest, or (perhaps a more accurate “entertainment brand” comparison) Star Wars Galaxies are more amenable to a personalized experience of an epic novel or cinematic hero’s journey, the open-endedness of a social world environment is more compatible with the more fragmented, closure-resistant format of episodic television. Indeed, as a themed virtual space for fans of Laguna Beach to both consume MTV-produced content and produce their own content, Virtual Laguna Beach is the direct result of a net-fueled accelerated evolution of television fandom. Fans have historically exhibited unparalleled mastery of the internet as a tool for cultural production. Now there’s a virtual world that succinctly represents the new relationship between media producers and consumers. The once-dreaded Mary Sue is no longer taboo. In fact, here’s an entire virtual world that blatantly encourages the fans to become the stars of their own personal online dramas.
I can’t wait to see what fans make of it.