Once in a while, a truly terrible idea comes along. Not just a bad idea - like Coca-Cola Blak or any movie starring the Wayans brothers - but a shockingly flawed concept that manifests itself in ridiculous, awful, nauseating products made for mass consumption. What makes things worse is that their idiocy was calculated for, aimed toward and embraced by the section of the country that collectively drags the quality of American culture even lower than it already is.
The newest "Bad Idea People Will Love" is "Virtual Laguna Beach." Rolled out last week, VLB is a first-person video game styled after MTV's faux-reality show about SoCal teens. Players design their own on-screen avatars, who can then shop at the same boutiques, eat at the same bistros and go VIP at the same nightspots as the teens in the show.
I can deal with "The Sims." Even though the concept of a video game imitating mundane daily life struck me as weird, it seemed pretty harmless. But "Virtual Laguna Beach" is different. It's a video game that imitates a TV show that imitates reality. This idea takes the cake for postmodernism, and is potentially the stupidest thing I've ever seen.
I didn't want to judge the Laguna Beach world by its splash page. Maybe, I thought, I was missing something. There was only one way to find out: one afternoon, I entered the belly of the beast. I signed up for the game.
I logged on to VLB and immediately faced some choices. Should I make my avatar an honest representation of myself? I assume that's what most people do, perhaps with the exception of a few sketchy retirees in Boise, Idaho.
Ultimately, I succumbed to temptation and exaggerated a little, making some minor cosmetic adjustments to my virtual self, but nothing egregious. I picked a blue and black outfit a little slicker than anything I own, and a skin color a little tanner than Kevin Roose in reality. Thus, "BigDaddyKev" was born.
I entered the virtual world on a sandy beach and saw a buxom blonde avatar sitting on a beached log, idly flipping her hair. The box suspended above her weirdly pixilated face read "CheerleaderHolli". Maybe the real Kevin would have been too timid to go over and say hi, but BigDaddyKev was decidedly not.
BIGDADDYKEV: Hey, how's it going?
CHEERLEADERHOLLI: good, u?
Right then, a beefy male avatar walked up to our log.
ROXER: I AM SADAM HUSSEIN. DEATH TO INFIDELS.
BIGDADDYKEV: Whoa buddy, easy there.
CHEERLEADERHOLLI: rofl! (Rolling on floor laughing, for the teenage cognoscenti. If Holli was really a 56-year-old man, he did his research.)
"Roxer" then walked away, probably to go impersonate dictators somewhere else. As he was leaving, another guy in a white tracksuit ambled over to our log and sat down beside CheerleaderHolli, obviously trying to move in on my game. He started talking to me.
MAGIX42: Hi. I am a slightly thinner version of you. And I have a car.
BIGDADDYKEV: Wow, that's depressing.
MAGIX42: I tried to buy two new outfits, but the system wouldn't let me.
Feeling my chances with CheerleaderHolli slipping away, I made a desperation play with a lame joke.
BIGDADDYKEV: White after Labor Day? Buddy, you need to beg the system for another chance.
"Magix42" got up and walked away, leaving me alone with HOLLI on the log. I turned to her and began the serious questioning.
KEV: So, is this whole virtual world thing fun?
HOLLI: yah. except when i see my little brother's av making out with like 11 girls a day. rofl!
KEV: So wait, what happens when you make out with someone on here? Is there a virtual bedpost somewhere with little .jpeg notches on it?
HOLLI: hmm dunno. u wanna try?
The ending I'll save for another column, but suffice it to say, the 10 minutes I spent playing Virtual Laguna Beach were the most surreal minutes of my life. And yes, people will love it, even though it's utterly pointless. Maybe Eskimo preteens from the Yukon can use it to see what mainstream life is like, but for a lot of us, it's not far off the mark. It's an archetypal suburban teenage life with all the repercussions removed.
And maybe that's what people need. Our AP-tested, Kaplan-tutored generation has been taught to fear that every decision we make has dire consequences. Not going to class, we're told, could mean getting a B, which could mean losing that Fulbright Scholarship, which could end in catastrophe. We've been made afraid to tinker with our lives, to take chances and step off The Path. As every AARP member would tell it, college is supposed to be the most carefree time of our lives, and we're supposed to have a little room for experimentation without consequence.
"Virtual Laguna Beach" certainly lets its users act like idiots, but I'm beginning to think that, sadly, that might be its strongest suit. So go ahead, log on, enjoy. But just watch out for Stalin dressed in board shorts.
Kevin Roose '09 wishes someone would invent a "hyphy" emoticon.