Deep Down: I’m a Coal Miner’s Avatar

November 18, 2010 by Brooke Shelby Biggs in

Next week on Independent Lens, we’re airing Deep Down, a film about the impact of mountaintop removal coal mining on a Kentucky community. (Check local listings.) To help viewers better understand the challenges of balancing the environment, quality of life, and economic interests, the filmmakers created a virtual coal mine in Second Life. Our own Jonathan Archer virtually attended the unveiling of the mine and filed this report.
virtual_mine.jpgIn my regular life as programming coordinator at Independent Television Service, I’m Jonathan Archer. But for an hour on the evening of Wednesday, November 10, I was Strasberg Adamcyk.
That’s the name of my avatar in Second Life, the world’s leading online virtual world. I was visiting a virtual Appalachia to participate in the launch event of The Virtual Mine, an innovative, immersive educational experience from the filmmakers of the documentary Deep Down (premiering on Independent Lens Tuesday, November 23 – check your local listings). The film is about mountaintop removal mining and its effects on the residents of Maytown, Kentucky.

I should say up front that I’m hardly what you’d call a hardcore Second Life user. Which is why I spent the first 10 minutes floating around the lush green Appalachian landscape as something resembling a glowing smoke monster. And someone kept trying to give me a hard hat, (very important, even in a virtual mining area) but I wasn’t sure where a non-corporeal entity could put a hard hat.
vm.jpgOnce I figured out how to put some clothes on (note: check your inventory) and got my hard hat in place, I was ready to blow stuff up. That was the first activity in the Virtual Mine experience. I, and a few fellow miners, ventured to the top of a mountain, laying mines at a dozen flags. We retreated to the safety of a nearby hill as the game’s organizers counted to zero. BOOM! As the coal dust settled, we could see that the top of the mountain had been obliterated. It’s not a pretty sight, even when it’s not real.
One of the great features of the Virtual Mine is a billboard measuring the effects of each stage of the game. Unsurprisingly, the “Health & Happiness” meter dropped significantly after the explosion. But that’s not the only factor — the board also measured other things, like “Demand” for the electricity that must be matched by “Power” generated from coal mined in the region. Depending on your perspective, you may not agree with this way of generating energy, but you like it when your lights come on, right? That’s really the promise of allowing participants to perform actions that have consequences; it forces you to think about both sides of the story. After all, nothing’s quite so simple when it comes to energy policy.
So after driving a coal truck between the mine site and the power plant (it’s a job issue, too, and someone’s got to do it), we headed into town, where we were directed to turn off as many electricity-consuming appliances as we could find, before cutting loose with a good ol’ Appalachian hoedown (I’ll have you know that Strasberg Adamcyk has some sweet moves).

See more Independent Lens.

The night closed as the avatars of Deep Down filmmakers Sally Rubin and Jen Gilomen, BAVC‘s Wendy Levy (who played a key role developing this project through the Producer’s Institute) and the stellar Second Life developers from Sand Castle Studios sat down for a virtual panel discussion about what we all had just experienced.
At which point I had to leave. Strasberg Adamcyk may be an exceedingly handsome, swaggering singleton, but Jonathan Archer had to get back to his real life, and pick up his two-year-old from day care.
Deep Down‘s 3D Virtual Mine is open for anyone to enter. Just grab your hardhat and head on in.
New to Second Life? Get instructions and tips on how to play. A teachers’ guide for classroom use is also available.
NOTE: The Virtual Mine will be hosting a special screening inside Second Life (space limited) on December 1. For details, visit the filmmakers’ website.

Brooke Shelby Biggs