Monday, March 8, 2021

Interview With Draxtor Despres

 By Bixyl Shuftan

Among the personalities in Second Life, among those whom seldom needs an introduction is Draxtor Despres. He was first well known about ten years ago when his "Flufee" videos promoting mess proved a hit. Although he eventually stopped them, he went on to more successes such as the Drax Radio Hour, "The Drax Files" videos, the 2018 documentary movie "Our Digital Selves," and lately has been doing "Second Life Destinations" videos for Linden Lab, as well as being the host of the Second Life Book Club. Not long ago, I met up with him for an interview. 

Bixyl Shuftan: "To begin with, what were you doing before you came to Second Life, and how did you find out about it?"

Draxtor Despres: "I was working on a teenage comedy film, and I was writing the score for this movie. And my friend who was mixing the music, who I was touring with and I was 23 maybe, and he was also in his mid-30s and we were saying 'Ah, it was so much fun when we were on tour,' and he said 'Ah, we could do a virtual band.' And I go, 'What do you mean a virtual band?' That was in 2007. And he said, 'Ah, this thing called Second Life, there's musicians in there.' And I go, 'Second Life, that sounds interesting. And I looked it up, signed up an avatar, and logged in. And then I called him on the phone, on the landline, and said 'Where are you in Second Life? I'm in there. It's awesome!' And he said, 'I'm not in there, I just read about it somewhere or my son told me about it.' So that's how I got in. But it immediately resonated because it tapped into something that I think I was looking for since I was twelve, which is a space that is inclusive and has all sorts of people and you can access it and you are not bound to your physical location."

Bixyl Shuftan: "How did your first few days go?"

Draxtor Despres: "Yeah, I was going to New Citizens Incorporated. I said this many, many times. It really bears repeating. People echo this. I don't know what would have happened if I would have met people who took me in and were spending time with me and helping me out. And I think Linden Lab knows this. Everybody I talk to at Linden Lab, I always say 'You guys gotta have greeters, you gotta hire greeters. I know there's Gateway Programs, but there is no way this onboarding process in something like Second Life can be automated. There has to be handholding and real people. And so yeah, I went to New Citizens Incorporated and I think a week in or so, I was just completely fascinated and I knew I wanted to tell stories. I was just coming off radio. I quit my radio job when my son was born. ... 2004. So I was three years out of radio, and went back to music. And when I was in Second Life, I realized I can tell stories, I need to find out what people do, and I need to do that with my, radio documentary-type style. I didn't know what machinima was. But I was aware you could capture the screen. And so I did that, and the stuff looked pretty awful. But that's the beauty of Second Life, you learn by doing, (chuckle). And then you upload it to Youtube, and then it becomes a permanent record of how bad you were! Which is good! Because then people can see a growth. I think that's actually great. It's also a type of encouragement for people who want to get into stuff. They go, 'Hey, this guy that I admire started somewhere.'

"I think the first machinima I did was 'Playing Democracy in a Virtual World.' I uploaded it in May, but I know I finished it in April or before then. I'm not saying this to brag, but it was very clear to me what I wanted to do, which was to document what other people were doing, exploring, and then documenting it. So within the first two months, I did the first story, and then it was basically two videos per month for a while. I was completely absorbed. And it worked out well. What was interesting is I was working on this film still. And I actually played a little role in the film. It was for Disney actually. It's a Disney romantic comedy, but for the German Disney division. And I had to go on the set a few times. And I was constantly talking to people in Second Life through offline IMs with my little T-Mobile Sidekick. I don't know if you remember T-Mobile Sidekick. It was a really kind of cool early, smartphone if you will. The T-Mobile Sidekick 2. Look it up. I still have it here, of course it doesn't work any more. But I was able to do text and access the Internet and everything. So I was constantly, while I was on the set of this film, I was constantly texting people offline. And then I remember the director was like 'You gotta be in the here and now man!' And I go, 'I am. I need to do field inquiries in the other world in the here and now."

Bixyl Shuftan: "What led to Pooky Amsterdam and the 'Flufffe' videos?"

Draxtor Despres:"Well, that was, 2011. A that time I was four years, almost five years doing ... I don't know. Before Flufee (video one link), I did at least a hundred different mini-documentaries and news reportages about various aspects of Second Life. And I'm not counting (that) I also worked on three interactive projects for big documentaries through the Bay Area Video Collition, BAVC. And I wanted to just go into unscripted comedy. And Pooky (Amsterdam) is a friend of mine, and she was game. And at the time, mesh came along and so the avatars that were put out were, had a different feel and look, and people had a lot of anxiety about mesh. And that was the basic story line, that Flufee was not afraid of mesh, he wanted to leave 'Primland.' And that was the basic story that we from then on developed further. 

"But it was actually quite controversial. As you know people are, I don't want to paint with a broad brush, but there is a small group of very vocal people who oppose improvements. Same thing was when Voice happened. I did a peice about Voice. People were really upset. And people were upset about mesh. And so we got a fair ammount of very negative feedback, like we were making fun of people with anxiety. And we never intended to make fun of anxiety around economic issues like how it would impact people with existing businesses. Those are all completely legitimate concerns. If someone comes in and says 'Okay, and now we're going to open the market to professional stages, upload their stuff they have elsewhere, of course that's, it's a huge thing that will change everything. And it did change everyting. And it created economic hardship for a lot of people who had comfortable prim-based businesses. Those are things that I do not naively support like, it's very nuanced.

"What we did with Flufee was just try to have some fun with different sterotypes within SL. And just comment on them, just like any good comedy or satire does. Believe me, I'm not a fan of making everything into an IKEA, which at the time was the main charge, like 'SL's going to turn into IKEA. It's just people mass-producing stuff. And the prim carpenter is going to be out of a job.' And those things, those thoughts, fears have total validity, because it's parallel to what's happening in the physical world. Matter of fact, I know three carpenters whom are extremely gifted, but who are out of a job because of cheaper stuff that you can buy in big chain stores. In a world where you have stagnating wages, that is what happens."

Bixyl Shuftan: "I guess it was a surprise that it was the hit it was."

Draxtor Despres: "Yeah, it was a surprise that it was the hit. But you know, I don't want to downplay Flufee. I think it was total fun. But, if someone would have asked me what was the craziest thing that happened in my 'Second Life career,' the craziest thing was hanging out with former President Jimmy Carter, Richard Branson, and Peter Gabriel in Paris France when I was nominated for a 'Every Human Has Rights Media Award,' and have in my office here a signed document by Desmond Tutu because of a Second Life video that I made. So I'm not downplaying what we did with Flufee. It was a lot of fun. But in terms of impact and changing my entire life, the fact that I was able to do something that resonated with the entire world and people whom I admire in the realm of social activism like Desmond Tutu or Nelson Mandela, that's another level you see. Comedy's fun, but the other stuff to me matters much more. But that's just me. It's not trying to devalue other stuff. But I'm a social activist and to be able to show people on this gigantic scale being in Vanity Fair and again being on stage with Jimmy Carter, talking about the validity of virtual worlds. To make real change in the physical world, that is, it's at another scale of impact and importance. Again, I'm not saying comedy's not important. Comedy is very important.

"And it was a fun challenge to write these things, the Flufee things. That kind of disciplined writing. You get a little feel for how tough it is to write for a sitcom, or something like that."

Bixyl Shuftan: "Did you expect to do as many Flufee videos as you did?"

Draxtor Despres: "Well, I actually wanted to do much more. But, it's just not feasible. You know, you call it a success. And thank you. But the reality is, I never intended it to be a commercial success, or I'd never had a plan to make money off it or sell it, or whatever. I didn't even own Flufee. Flufee was owned by these bike gang guys. We just asked them 'Can we use Flufee?' And they were from the Czech Republic. So I never had a plan to sell this somehow, or make money off of it, or whatever the business model would be, sell t-shirts, or I don't even know. If you were to ask me now how I would advise someone how to monetize this, I wouldn't know where to begin with. Maybe a Patreon campaign these days. But fact of the matter is, it's very labor intensive. I just could not keep this up. It was not fesible to do that as a hobby basically, with a time commitment.

"And then the added aspect was that, I wouldn't call it a dispute, but there was a little bit disagreement with where we wanted to go with Flufee. Because ... they registered, the bike gang folks. And, again we just started this for fun. But then they wanted to commercialize it and do other things with it. Primarily, the wanted to do an iPhone app where, have Flufee (break wind) and do all sorts of things. And actually, Pooky wrote a joke about this in one of the episodes, I don't remember which one. And then I realized, or Pooky and I realized, that we were basically taking something we did not create, Flufee, the character, the image, as far as I'm concerned, we created him because we gave him a voice and we gave him a whole world. But it was not our creation. We didn't create, we didn't draw him. We didn't create the character. So, and that's totally normal, the bike gang was able to do with him what they wanted to, which was to sell an app. And then the conflict then that I saw is like 'Okay, we can continue this, and it's a lot of fun. But it kind of makes no sense for us to create, it's basically fan fiction. Which is fine. But fan fiction with an incredible amount of work, that kind of leads nowhere.

"So what would make sense is to create your own character and do something like that, because over the years of course what was cool was learn how to efficiently produce these things, which was very valuable. We stopped it, and I started on a project called 'Caleo's Room.' Which was, we used some music by Egochavinsky, very very weird concept. And that was in 2013, it never saw the light of day. Why? Because I was reminded by Chris Leeman of Botanical, that he missed my news reportage. And I saud 'Ah, maybe I should go back to doing that.' And he said, 'Yeah, you should. Nobody's doing it.' I mean, Bixyl, you're doing it in print. But he was saying in terms of video. And I said, 'Okay, I'm going to do personal profiles. I'm going ot start with you Chris.' That's how the Drax Files then started, in 2013.

"So basically, we ended Flufee because of this realization that we're putting a lot of work and a lot of time making free content with characters that we don't own. Then I started to draw up the 'Caleo's Room' idea which was basically a mystery scripted sort of like a, I was obsessed with the TV show 'Lost,' and I wanted it to be something like 'Lost' that little bit, but made with machinima. And I'm really glad that we didn't do it, because, it's, narrative machinima is really great. And there's some amazing practitioners here in Second Life and in other worlds. But I realized that I have a unique thing to offer. And that's where I'm coming from. I was news director at an NPR station for quite some time. I started actually at KPFK in North Hollywood in 1999, very important left-leaning progressive radio station, still around. Been around for sixty years.  And so I thought, 'You know, what Chris is saying makes a lot of sense. This is my unique offering to this world. And I gotta continue doing that."

Bixyl Shuftan: "Yes, there was the Drax Radio Hour and the Drax Files that you moved on to."

Draxtor Despres: "Yeah, you can say that I moved on to that. I would say that I moved back to where I came from, which is documentary. I mean, in 2007 I registered virtual worlds public radio dot-org. I think I still own it. We announced it at the 2007 Second Life Community Convention. In 2008, I won the 'Every Human Has Rights' Award. In 2009, we were nominated for an Emmy for interactive news reporting. In 2010, I did the Kansas to Cairo documentary with the US Department of State under the Obama Administration. That's when Obama started following me on Twitter. So this stuff is in my blood. And then I did a little detour with Flufee. That's how I would, if I would be my own biographer. And again, it's not to devalue this. I think I'm a funny person. I'm not arrogant (chuckle). You know, I know that I can be funny, because people enjoy the funny side of me when I'm offering it in a variety of context. But, the fact of the matter is, that what is needed in this ecosystem is, this reportage stuff, with this documenting and profiling people. And that's what I realized.

"And the same with the Book Club now, for example. The Book Club is also something. Again there's people here who do book talks. I know that there's the Seanchi Library. Those are all really awesome things in that ecosystem. But nobody has done consistently inviting of real life authors into Second Life. There was sporadic stuff. William Gibbson was here 2008. Kurt Vonegut was here in 2006 shortly before he passed away. But nobody has done a consistent weekly offering as we're doing it now. So this is what I'm obsessed with. And this also again, this comes very naturally because this fits my personal interests."

Draxtor commented about someone else being delayed and her having to reschedule, "It's really crazy because we're in Germany right now. I don't even know where you are, Bixyl. I'm always interested. I like the feel of the global village that we are here." So I mentioned I was from Virginia, to which he responded, "Ah, I've never been to Virginia. I've only been to nine states. ... " When I mentioned the history of the state, he continued, "Yes, absolutely. I find this, I mean, I'm reading a lot on American history. I'm learning a lot through reading. I'm learning a lot through my wife and in-laws. She's from Hawaii. The whole history of the Imperial side. There was a fantastic book about the various, acquisitions shall we say. Starting with Hawaii, which was the first big one, 'Because it's better if you own the sugar producing plantations rather than renting it, am I right?'

"Let's continue the questions. ... I really need to go to the East Coast and the original colonies. That's definately something when we can travel again, when I can afford it ..."

Bixyl Shuftan: "I remember the Book club episode in which you interviewed Larry Niven , Philip Rosedale was there in the audience."

Draxtor Despres: "Yeah, we've had over sixty authors. Onboarded over a hundred authors now. We've done the book club since April 2020. We had, amazing guests. Larry Niven is a favorite. It's amazing. Larry Niven is 82 years old. And it was amazing to help him onboard in Second Life. He had huge problems downloading Second Life and installing it under Windows. And once he was in SL, it was completely natural to him. It was actually quite amazing. I'm going to keep this story fresh in my mind to dispel this myth that Second Life is so difficult. For Larry Niven, being in a 3-D environment was so much more intuitive than being on a flat desktop, in Windows 10 (chuckle). So it was very cool. And a lot of others. 

"What is exciting to me about the Book Club is to bring in people, some of whom are very skeptical. We get high viewer numbers. Three thousand viewers on average on the stream. Not inworld of course, but on the bigger shows there's three thousand people watching this. Can you imagine? I'm not saying all of them are hardcore book lovers. When this streams on the Second Life Facebook page, it's probably likely that a lot of people get notification that 'liked' the Second Life page, 'Okay, there's a livestream.' Then they go there and then they  watch a little bit and then they disappear again. So I'm not to delusional to believe that we have three thousand hardcore book club lovers whom are completely engaged with what we're putting forward. But, it's still pretty cool, and I can leverage these numbers to get authors in who may not even talk with me otherwise. So I'm using this strategically. And what is very satisfying is when an author goes like, 'Yeah, you've got good numbers. I've got to come on the show." And then I tell them to sign up for a Second Life account, and then they go like, 'Uh,, what a weird page. All weird. Avatars? I'm not into gaming.' And then I go, 'Trust me, trust me,' I say, 'Come on in.' And then they do it, and then they're inworld. And then I can show them the art, amazing stuff that's happening. And then their eyes open to new possibilities. And that's enormously satisfying.

"As you know, these stereotypical notions about Second Life, they unfortunately are very sticky. They still persist. We all need to work against them. And we're all doing our part. And unfortunately it's ... I'm going back to the original thing. Second Life is something where you need to experience it and you have to do this with handholding, right? So the biggest challenge in what I do is with the videos. The biggest challenge is to translate into a 2D medium the visual, the linear movie, the amazingness of SL. And over the years, I've realized certain things work better than others. For example, mixing real ife with Second Life so people go, 'Ah, these.' Because the first thing that people say is, 'Oh yeah, these are NPCs. Why are you playing with NPCs or whatever?' And I'm like, 'Oh no. These are representatives of actual people. And sometimes I can drive that point home with a juxtaposition of real life and Second Life. And sometimes I still don't succeed."

Draxtor then briefly changed the subject, "You know Bixyl, I just noticed you look a lot like Greg Pallast (chuckle). Was that intentional with the hat, are you a Greg Palast fan?" My response was to smile, and comment I felt my clothing was the classical reporter's outfit, to which Draxtor spoke, "I saw an interview with Greg Palast. If you don't know who he is, hold on, let me get you a link . Greg Palast is one of the last and most amazing independent investigative reporters of America. And I saw an interview with him, here' his website (, where they ask him about the hat, and he just had the hat, yeah. That's true, it is true. But people don't wear it any more. And Greg Palast is the only one who wears it in real life. And you're the one holding the tradition in Second Life. That's so cool."

Bixyl Shuftan: "And about you, where did you get the idea for your appearance, the goggles, the Pac-Man t-shirt, the shorts?"

Draxtor Despres: "Bixyl, you gotta do your due diligence and look up my evolution. Look in the early videos of the 2007 era, especially the Kansas to Ciaro project. And you see how I evolved. I was in a suit and tie for a long time. And then in 2012 I changed. I think in the early Flufee era I still had that outfit. And then Loki made me that t-shirt, the Pac-Man shirt. I also have a 'Drax Files' shirt, but I like the Pac-Man shirt more. And that's when I got the goggles. But before from 2007 to 2012, I was the reporter guy. And I have a federal trademark on that outfit, on that visual representation based on the 2007 avatar. I never changed. I can actually send you a video from a German news reportage. And there's a lot. There's one from PBS. I was on the cover of 'Frontline' actually, 'Frontline World,' ... from 'Eyewitness.' (video link) ... Gotta do your research (smile)."

Bixyl Shuftan: "Where did the pants come from?"

"Loki Elliot made those pants. Those were custom pants. And he did a whole bunch of cell-shaded stuff. I have some more cell-shaded. He was experimenting with cell-shading at the time."

Draxtor was telling me time was running out, so I then asked, "What are your future plans in SL, and any other projects?"

"I'm working on a feature documentary about virtual cultures and pandemic times to follow up on 'Our Digital Selves.' Our Digital Selves came out in 2018, has won one hundred and fifty plus awards, was shown all over the world. In many film festivals I still - , actually the Infographic Film Festival in Paris was postponed because of Covid. I was accepted into that as well. And now I'm doing a similar ninety minute documentary. But it's Second Life *and* Animal Crossing. It's just a kind of comparison of two worlds, one old, one new, if you will. And how the situation of lockdown, how do virtual environments help us, how do they change our behavior, for a long time to come. So that's what I'm working on.

"And then of course as a Linden Lab contractor, which is almost a full-time job because we're producing so much content with a tiny, tiny team. It's really just Strawberry and me. And, I shouldn't say that. There's Marianne McCann, ... helping with the Book Club. And I have access to some volunteers that help me out with props and stuff. But it's basically Strawberry and I, and Bret from Linden Lab driving most of the video content. And it's, yeah kids, it's a different skill that creatives sometimes don't enjoy, which is to have to produce all the time on deadline, and not just when inspiration hits you. Which leads me to say that truism and something that people should be aware of is that inspiration is a learned skill. You have to learn how to tap what inspiration is in your particular profession or line of work. Be a friend of the blank page, or not be afraid of it. And just fill it with meaning."

Draxtor explained he had time for one more question. So I just asked, "Anything else you want to add?"

"What I would like to add is that, as you know, I dabbled with VR. And I have nothing against VR. But VR is not a world. VR is basically a specific piece of hardware. What matters is the society, the community, the world. And worlds can be built and can be enjoyed with or without 4K resolution (chuckle). That an industry that sells headsets needs to sell you on visual fidelity that's completely understandable. I have nothing against visual fidelity. But if the continued success of Second Life teaches us one thing, it teaches us that really the only thing that matters is human connections and worlds building. The fact that we can build our place and connect with people, and do that in a fairly inclusive way, yes you still need a high speed Internet connection, yes you need a computer that runs it. These days, Second Life runs on a wide variety of machines. Linden Lab has really invested in that. And VR runs on expensive headsets with expensive machines. So what I hope, Linden Lab did an amazing job with Sansar. Sansar was an amazing piece of technology. And it's sad that it didn't gain traction. And I was doing both for a couple years, three years almost. I'm really glad to be in Second Life full time, because it's really like, it's total home. It is absolutely home. And it's not going anywhere. I mean, look at it, you know. People come and go, (chuckle) it's funny.

"I was at a VR conference in 2014, at the Computer Museum in San Jose. And a mutual friend of mine introduced me to some young guys from USC. They were working on something, I forgot what it was. And she said, 'This is Draxtor. He does a lot of stuff in Second Life.' And they were literally saying, and they didn't mean it in an offensive way I don't think, and they were saying like, 'Oh Second Life. That's where older people like to go dancing and chat.' And, (sigh) sometimes this stuff is offensive to me. And I get upset when people say this. But I felt like, 'Okay, these guys probably didn't mean it, and I don't want to escalate this.' And I think I said something in fact like, 'Yeah, some people may be older than you guys or me. And they may dance or chat.' And I left it at that, you know. My goto thing on this is, often, and it's a little bit self-destructive in a way, or self-defeating, when I get really preachy. But I think when you're passionate about something, you tend to get preachy, right. And that can put people off. And frankly, I don't care. But I also realize it's a waste of time, sometimes. But I get upset over people when people have this notion. I was at another conference, Augmented World Expo, 2017. I was introduced to a guy who also said something, typically, 'Second Life's still around.' And you know, I mean I can say ... I throw out the 500 million US annual transaction volume. I'm not a numbers guy. But if they want numbers, you can tell them. These are people who are like it's all about dollars for them. Okay, so you throw some dollars in their face. And you know, and that is enjoyable when people are like 'Second Life's still around, hur-hur-hur! I have this really cool start up, and you're telling me,' and 'It's doing very well.' And that is funny to see, kinda see their jaw drop basically. Some of these like dismissive guys.

"And Ebbe Linden was really good at that too. I met Ebbe several times in these conference settings when he was giving talks and when he was on the convention floor talking to people. And I observed him a few times when he was talking with other tech types, or even just regular people or start up people. And he was just incredibly cool and confident, and not phased at all when people were like 'Oh yeah, Second Life. I remember how there was this scandal ... oh you guys got this, ha ha ha, that's funny!' And he was just really cool. And I was like, 'Hey, this is going to be my role model,' because normally, I would get upset, 'You guys, mother effers, you don't know what's what.' Let me tell you."

It was this point Draxtor told me he had to go, "Okay, I gotta go. Strawberry is pinging me."  He thanked me for the interview, and the Newser crew for it's coverage of Second Life, "Thank you for what you do. It's really awesome what you do. And thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about this. It's really all about the world and what people do. This is frankly my life. It's just evolved that way. I want to create media that will last and will showcase how the world can be made a better place if people engage in creative pursuits. And creative pursuits can be anything. It can be cooking, pottery, whatever. But this is the digital version of it. So, just absolutely amazing."

It was then that we parted ways. Anyone wanting to meet Draxtor can do so at the weekly Book Club events, and his videos about Second Life will continue for a long time to come.

Bixyl Shuftan

1 comment:

  1. Great Interview!!!! He would have talked for ages if Strawberry did not call!!