Zhong Guan Village, Beijing – Last year, a mysterious YouTube video purported to demo a “Chinese Second Life” called HiPiHi (pronounced “high-pee-high”) stormed the virtual world blogosphere. But with little English language commentary to go on, metaverse experts like Raph Koster were left to wildly speculate.
Was it Asian vaporeware attempting to cash in on a Western fad? Or something bigger than that? And if it really was a user-created world like Second Life, how could it succeed in the land of The Great Firewall? To get those answers, I did the only sensible thing: I flew to Beijing to see it for myself.
Actually, it was a touch less dramatic than that. I’m already in China, in part, to speak about Second Life at the excellent multi-city Get It Louder arts festival. As it turned out, Xu Hui, HiPiHi’s founder and CEO, was on a follow-up panel. Afterward, he invited me to stop by the office, located in Beijing’s high-tech district (Microsoft’s campus is visible through the haze from the main office windows), for a look. We were joined by Zhang Anding, Hipihi’s young policy director. What follows are my notes from that meeting (with some details quite possibly lost or gained in the translation.)
Dare to Compare
For a Second Life user, the most striking thing about HiPiHi is how similar its interface is – reverse-engineered is probably the more accurate term. (This despite the fact that Second Life’s confusing user interface is easily its weakest selling point.) Xu said he conceived of the basic idea before even knowing about Second Life, but it’s abundantly clear he and his team have modeled a lot of HiPiHi on it. Like Second Life, content is streamed from the networked HiPiHi servers — which comprise the world — to users’ computers.
Residents can shape their environment with a library of prefab, customizable artifacts (furniture, homes, etc.), or for the more ambitious, in an atomistic creation system that very much resembles Second Life’s tool chest. (Albeit without a scripting system, though Xu’s team promised one will be available in October, when HiPiHi is slated to be launched) The 16,000 or so beta users/testers are drawn from the Chinese regions, but Xu said English and Japanese versions will launch later this year.
At the same time, some of the graphic elements in the demo I saw are already superior to Second Life, such as dynamic water reflection, and a considerably more lush and varied environment. The singular feature that distinguishes Second Life from all other MMOs so far is that subscribers retain the underlying IP rights to their creations — and here, too, HiPiHi will compete.
Xu told me he is working with Creative Commons China to create a CC-licensing system for user creations in time for HiPiHi’s commercial launch. (“Virtual world property is very suited to CC,” Zhang noted.) If delivered, this would be another advantage over Second Life, for while CC founder Lawrence Lessig was instrumental to Second Life’s evolution, Linden Lab’s promises to implement Creative Commons licensing in their tools remain unfulfilled.
Putting the Chinese in “Chinese Second Life”
Where HiPiHi differs from Second Life the most is that it reflects the Chinese culture. The name itself is in part a play on “pihi,” Chinese for “innocent child,” while the three i’s are meant to resemble the Chinese ideogram for society.
In HiPiHi’s orientation area, red banners drape the entrance — meant to half-humorously resemble Communist Party-style propaganda — newbies are urged to “Build a harmonious world,” and so on.
Xu’s team also intends HiPiHi to be a self-consistent world, with fixed time zones and an existing map. In Chinese culture, said Zhang, “People cannot do the same things God did.” In Second Life, meanwhile, individual landowners can set the local time to whatever they choose, and the world grows haphazardly as new swathes of land are added.
Xu told me he conceived the system in 2005 after founding a successful ecommerce site. He didn’t have any previous virtual world experience; he just wanted to change the Web from a 2D medium into an “experience center.” His ecommerce background will come in handy when introducing revenue models into HiPiHi. Buying virtual land (as with Second Life) will be one option; other possibilities include real-world advertising and an Adsense-style ad strip, running alongside in-world search queries.
Since it’s located in China, the most obvious concerns center on the government’s regulation of Internet content. Xu said cybersex in HiPiHi will be OK, as long as it’s done in private; political talk on the other hand, will be prohibited. To do this, Xu will run user chat through a keyword-filtering system derived from China’s Great Firewall. Zhang said the beta users are already voluntarily watching what they say.
“It’s self-censorship,” he offered. “They know what kind of words will be very dangerous.” But while you can’t type, for example, “Falun Gong” in chat, you’ll probably be able to game the filter by creatively misspelling the banned meditation sect. And the filter, the HiPiHi team acknowledged, won’t be able to block non-textual acts of dissent — say, protesters wearing user-made Falun Gong T-shirts.
In any case, Wu said these restrictions will only be a hurdle for Chinese users. Different parts of the HiPiHi world will be confined to the Chinese, while U.S. and Japanese users will have their worlds on local servers hosted within each respective country and generally restricted to their respective parts of the globe.
Second Life vs. HiPiHi
In the end, the competition between Second Life and HiPiHi may not be head-to-head. Xu said he’s already talking with Linden Lab about ways to create interoperability between their worlds, so users can move their identities and their content between both. Still, in terms of eyeballs and an Asian sector Linden Lab desperately wants to penetrate, the worlds will still likely clash for attention.
Can HiPiHi compete on those terms? As a platform it seems — other than some of the graphics — considerably less robust than Second Life, even during Second Life’s 2003 beta period, which already featured
was without a scripting and commerce system. And I’m very skeptical those features can be implemented in time for HiPiHi’s promised October lunch.
But here’s the thing: HiPiHi only has to partially succeed to eclipse Second Life. Millions of Chinese already play in online worlds (5 million in World of Warcraft alone), and it would take just a small percentage of this existing market to overshadow Second Life’s 500,000 currently active users. Zhang described a group of beta testers who are deeply committed to growing the community and supporting new users, which reminds me of Second Life in its own beta period.
Perhaps the greater danger with HiPiHi is doing too well — Chinese “gold farmers” created their own cottage industry of acquiring and selling precious virtual items in WoW, and a local MMO favorite will be hard for them to resist. (Xu seemed concerned about how the government will treat HiPiHi’s currency once it’s introduced. After “QQ dollars” became a Chinese phenomenon, the government stepped in.)
But even more than the HiPiHi tour, it’s a tour through China’s culturally dynamic cities that makes me see the system’s potential. While the country’s tech industry thrives, its arts and creative scene is also growing, with Shanghai’s 50 Moganshan Road and Beijing’s 798 teeming with studios showcasing ambitious and often cleverly subversive works. Before joining HiPiHi, Zhang composed the hypnotic soundtrack to “i.Mirror”, a gorgeous and moving machinima created in Second Life and recently featured at the prestigious Venice Biennale. It’s directed by Cao Fei, an internationally renowned member of China’s arts vanguard. Young Chinese like Fei are already exploring online worlds as a creative medium, and many are sure to try a local version that caters to them.
Then there’s the country itself. China’s city streets are a constant swarm of people moving beneath skylines of skyscrapers. The weather has been a staggeringly humid 90 degrees each day of my visit, and in Beijing’s canopy of sun-obscuring smog, there’s not a single patch of blue. In a place like this, an online world of open spaces, clear lakes, and leisurely community — largely accessible in air-conditioned Internet cafes — will probably seem less like casual entertainment than an irresistible value proposition.
Photos by Jennifer Schlegel