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Snapping Photos in Virtual Worlds

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When I reached Rivendell, I could not resist taking a picture with two of my heroes: Gandalf and Elrond. Like a happy tourist I stood between them and clicked away. And these images are as important to me as real pictures. But obviously, there is something virtual going on here.

A "family shot" of my character in game with Gandalf and Elrond, in Rivendell.

If you search Google for the words "Second Life," "Flickr" and "Photography" you'll find a curious thing: there are groups there with pictures taken in Second Life, the virtual world that was a craze some years ago and still exists, although newspapers, television and magazines seem to have forgotten it.

Those groups will have names like Second Life Stock Images, Second Life Photo Assignments, Flickr: Second Life Pure Photography, or even SL Photo of the Day, suggesting that there can be interest in photography, even in a virtual space.

In Flickr, you'll find many groups with images taken in virtual worlds and games, and also personal pages that mix images from the real and virtual worlds.

In fact, searching in Google for "Flickr" and "Second Life" you'll get some 25,100,000 results in just 0.37 seconds. This means there is a lot of connections between Flickr and Second Life. Furthermore, if you try the words "Second Life" and "Photography" you will get 227,000,000 results. Amazing isn't it? I bet you probably never thought about this.

Let me say that the relation between Second Life and Photography is just part of the equation. In fact, people take "pictures" in all the games and virtual worlds they visit. I know this because being an avid video game player (I've written professionally about games since the 80s), I've amassed an immense collection of pictures of the places I visited in all these years.

Looking at my archives, I can trace my travels within virtual worlds/games as much as I can trace my travels in the real world. And this leads me to the core of this article: we're taking real photographs in virtual worlds.

Are These Real Photographs?

In December 2007, I took my first family picture with my real-life sons in Lord of the Rings Online. We're posing as a family of hobbits in the Middle Earth imaginary landscape.

Being curious about this fringe area between worlds, I've found that the photos published in many photo-sharing websites are taken in virtual worlds, and people cherish them as those taken in the real world. In fact, more and more people show, in places like Facebook, photos of their trips in the real world along with pictures taken in virtual worlds. They think of them as “real photographs” that also represent a memory of a place and people.

From Second Life to Entropia and all the different virtual words people visit nowadays, and also within the various games people play, mainly the new generation of MMOG (Massive Multiplayer Online Games), photographs are taken. If gamers already did “print screen” their heroes in regular solitary games, the online world, with its social aspect, made the idea of taking pictures of the group or of themselves even more appealing.

In April 2009, when the expansion with the Forest of Mirkwood was launched for Lord of the Rings Online, I met my two sons at the entrance to the Elves forest.

So it is not strange, when looking at social photo-sharing services, that one finds images taken in the real world mixed with images of imaginary worlds that only exist inside computers. Second Life was, for a long time, one of the most active places in terms of “virtual photography”. Regular inhabitants and casual visitors tend to take snapshots of the places visited, as any other tourist would do at a regular real world destination.

My Trip to Rivendell

A virtual representation of Dublin, Ireland. You can walk down the street and enter a pub where a virtual band will be playing traditional music live using streaming.

I know this well because I could not resist the temptation myself. Being a photographer in real life, I wanted to take that experience to the virtual places I visit. One of my most memorable photo experiences in virtual worlds took place in a fantasy game. I remember well my first visit to Rivendell, the Elves city in the game Lord of The Rings Online, bases in J.R.R. Tolkien books.

I played the game during the beta phase and in February 2007, one evening, having found a virtual companion eager to see Rivendell, we made a dangerous dash through Middle Earth, as we did not have the level to survive in the area, just to see Rivendell.

Arriving there I could not resist “taking pictures” of the palaces, houses, and elves. And entering Elrond's house I could not resist the usual "family photo," so I placed my in-game character at the time between Gandalf and Elrond, and snapped away. It was a sign that photographs, even in virtual worlds, also let us show what we always want to say with our images: either “I’ve been there” or “look how beautiful this is.” And today, living inside computers, most photographs are virtual, after all.

Flying over Australia in Flight Simulator can be a breathtaking experience thanks to the photo realism of the ground scenery and the atmospheric effects.

Landscapes in Rohan

Taking group pictures in virtual worlds is something common and the kind of photo everybody will cherish and use to remember their game companions.

Because Lord of The Rings Online is so vast and has such a fantastic imaginary landscape, I’ve been travelling the land and taking pictures everywhere, creating some fantastic imagery, even panoramas, that represent now close to six years of fun as a photographer in a virtual world.

It’s a way to show what I’ve done and where I’ve been. And when recently (Autumn 2012) a new expansion with the region of Rohan - the horserider's land from Tolkien's fiction - was launched, I could not resist a ride across the plains and hills, again looking for the best vantage points for some great photos.

From Paris to Barcelona

Travelling in Second Life you will come across some of the most fantastic scenery to photograph.

Living as a hobbit in Middle Earth, well, in the game Lord of the Rings Online for such a long time, I have a collection of thousands of images. And I have a collection of pictures of me and my two sons (we all have characters in the game) and they’re as important to us as the pictures we’ve from real life. They represent a moment in time that we gathered together somewhere within the vast game landscape, to take a “photograph.”

Flying my plane over the Hollywood sign near Los Angeles is something I only can do in Flight Simulator.

While those games or virtual worlds based in fiction provide you with imaginary landscapes, social experiences like Second Life offer, along with imaginary places, reproductions of some real world places, from Venice with pigeons and everything else, to a town square in Barcelona late afternoon or Paris as it was in 1900, an Irish pub in Dublin with a real group playing traditional music through streaming. Places visitors tend to “snapshoot” away as any tourist in holidays.

I have been playing LotRO with my sons for some years now. Taking pictures when we meet in the game is part of the common memories we have.

If by now you’re smiling, thinking that it’s kind of strange to have people “taking pictures” in virtual worlds, think twice. Because after all, photography is a way to capture virtually – or at least in a latent form, with film – an image. Only through a chemical process it is possible to see what is there. And with digital photography, it’s even less different: pressing the shutter or taking a screenshot is not much different. You still try to compose and use light the best way you can.

Theme Parks and Photographers

When the new area of Rohan was launched in LotRO I could not resist to visit it and take pictures. Visiting new landscapes is part of the fun of playing a game like LotRO.

Some people said, initially, it was a fad that would vanish with time, but they might be wrong. Since the very first virtual worlds and games that people tend to “take pictures” of themselves or their characters in those worlds/games.

In 2002 a specialist in tourism studies, John Urry, from the Dept. of Sociology at Lancaster University, wrote about the role of photography in touristic migration in the world and how it detached people from the reality as most of them just saw the world through their viewfinders. Somehow it’s the same experience you have in virtual worlds, where the visual experience is paramount.

John Urry mentioned also that theme parks, popular at the time, were a kind of hyper-realism much appreciated by photographers, something that the writer Umberto Eco mentioned also, in 1986, in his book Faith in Fakes: Travels in Hyperreality.

Virtual worlds are, after all, like theme parks – recreation of imaginary or real places, offering, like the Paris 1900 universe in Second Life, a travel in time option not easily available in real life. So they’re a new destination for people looking for something different.

To Boldly Go

My character in Second Life at the entrance to the Frank Lloyd Wright Virtual Museum. I was there to write an article about the place.

Since back in the eighties, I've written about computer games and virtual worlds, and technology in general. As a journalist I’ve been curious to explore various areas, from aviation to photography, from nature to high-tech gadgets, from real to virtual. And I’ve been playing games since the eighties, and taking pictures within these virtual worlds all the way.

I am not ashamed to show my virtual picture beside my real world pictures. They’re different, but they abide, to a certain extent, by the same rules of composition and, sometimes exposure (in many worlds you can define the time of day and cloud coverage) and they work as memories of moments in time.

Flying over Europe in the game Star Trek Online, a dream only possible in a virtual world created in a video game.

Either flying in Flight Simulator or at the helm of an Entreprise Class Starship in Star Trek Online, I tend to take pictures of the adventures lived. I’ve never been to Australia in the real world, but I’ve been flying there for fun in Flight Simulator. And although I’ve been to Los Angeles a few times, I never had the chance to fly close to the Hollywood sign. I had to take a picture of that moment.

Pictures of my visits in Second Life are also part of my collection. Like the one taken at the door to the Frank Lloyd Wright Virtual Museum, or the fantastic late afternoon seascape I experienced in one of my travels. I’ve had a character in Second Life for many years. I was the "embedded journalist" in SL for a Portuguese newspaper when everybody wanted to cover the news there, so my collection of pictures is huge.

So, as you see, pictures taken within virtual worlds do end being part of our memories in life. In my case, it's also part of the work I do. So it is not strange that taking pictures there follows the same rules as in the real world: using the rule of thirds, exploring light, searching for the best vantage point. There is, in fact, much more to it than just capturing the screen.

You can find some of my photos from Lord of the Rings Online and Star Trek Online published at the following links:

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