Second Life — Amazing, beautiful, compelling… and not for me

people and relationships, society, technology

What if you could build a better world, from the ground up?  What if you could even start “yourself” over… You.v2 or even New You; a different hairstyle, thinner, maybe even a different race or gender?  What if you could escape the hellish aspects of our world whenever and for however long you liked?  Glamorous, confident, rich, powerful, whimsical, witty YOU.  What if you could, indeed, have yourself a Second Life?

You can.  Via the amazingly powerful and immersive Second Life world online, you can build or even just experience your own 3D world… with thousands of other people from around the world in real time.  Music, art, religion, geekery (of course!), and (duh!) sex.  It’s all there, and discovering—even participating in it—is practically as easy as pointing and clicking.  When I first tried out Second Life (“SL”) years ago after meeting one of the founders of Linden Labs (Second Life’s creator), I was floored by the fluidity of the experience, just how easy it was to join, get around, meet people, and actually have interesting and entertaining conversations.

But after exploring SL for about ten hours over a long weekend, I grew wary… and have infrequently returned.  I’ve thought quite a bit about SL since then, and have been reluctant to voice my thoughts; as a geek who has indeed made some true friends (and, yes, even met stunningly brilliant and beautiful members of the opposite sex) via online interactions even back in the 80s, I worried that I’d seem hypocritical discussing my dismissal of SL.  However, an essay today by Ted—“Second Life? How ‘bout getting a First Life”—has prompted me to blather on a bit about my thoughts on virtual reality.

Ted does a fine job describing what SL is, beginning with this:

Second Life isn’t a game, a chat room, an eBay knock-off, a social networking site, a Starbucks, or a media service—it’s ALL OF THEM COMBINED. Second Life is, in a nutshell, a reality simulation (oxymoron?) that attempts to synthesize, using a 3D audiovisual user environment:[…]

In the end, Ted admits this:

Is it fun? You bet your butt it is. Did it foster human interaction when I tried it? Sure. Did it foster artistic appreciation? Sure. Did I want to go back to 2L as soon as I logged off? Yup. In fact, I was so compelled about it, I was thinking about it when I woke up this morning. And I don’t know if that’s healthy.  I think that’s the reason why I won’t be logging back on to 2L for a while. I can see it ruining peoples First Lives. One of the players I talked to on Second Life said he had been on twelve hours a day since September 6. OUCH.  I went ahead and deleted it from my Macbook.


But I might be reinstalling it.

In between his expressions of admiration and his cautionary note, he touches upon the concern highlighted in his post’s title; basically, with such a rich Second Life, what can happen to one’s First Life?

Now, mind you, I’m the first to roll my eyes at all the scary-stories-of-the-day from clueless journalists and nincompoop congresscritters and all who talk about banning various games because “of the harm to the children!” What a load of crap. And indeed, I concede that Ted’s final paragraph is edging a bit uncomfortably close to the alarmist for my taste.

Personally, I worry less about virtual reality games being a danger to society… and more about the tradeoffs they pose to me. It’s all about personal responsibility, and I know that, hell, I barely have enough time to deepen, much less expand the number of my own friendships… barely enough time to keep my friggin’ apartment clean… barely enough time to call my Grandpa, compose new music, meditate in the beautiful parks nearby, finally take up yoga, lose those 17 pounds that are weighting me down, and become conversant in Spanish and/or French. In my FIRST LIFE!

In a nutshell, then, time that I spend in Second Life is time taken away from my first life. And — again, speaking for myself at least — I need fewer distractions, not more.

Sure, you could argue “Look, ya dumb luddite, what about those hours you spend watching TV? Playing video games? Reading blogs? Writing your own useless blatherings? How is that crap any different than blowing off some steam or having some harmless fun in an imaginary world?” For starters, I don’t watch TV (except for the occasional Simpsons episode or the satellite TV on JetBlue), nor do I play video games. So that saves a huge chunk of time ;-). But even those passtimes are fundamentally different than virtual reality participation.

You see, when you’re in SL, for instance, unless you’re a total hermit crocheting in the corner, you’re interacting with other people. Other HUMANS. And, I’d guess, you’re likely to form attachments or at least become part of the social fabric for others. As a once a month visitor, it’s a non-issue, but if you drop by weekly or even daily, I envision it becomes like a bar: people know your name, they’re happy you came, yadda yadda. The more time you spend, the more you become a part of this world and the people in it, and the more they become a part of your personal life.

Think this is nuts? Have you not read the studies which show how we humans not only identify with fictional characters on TV, but actually become emotionally attached to them? Feel that they are an integral part of our lives… feel sorrow at their losses, joys at their accomplishments? Have you been living in a cave whilst millions of people became enthralled with OJ and JonBenet and countless other folks who are no more real (as in, someone you have met, have talked with, have interacted with in ANY way) than avatars representing real people online?

* * *

So, by participating in SL, it’s not only easy, but perhaps unavoidable to find acceptance, friendship, and attachment within the new world… such that it becomes perhaps almost required to sustain or even deepen those relationships. You miss playing your video games for a week, no sweat. You miss a TV show here and there, and you can always bittorrent it or have a friend fill you in on what happened. But virtual reality is different, no?

* * *

I firmly believe that all of us have limits of emotional inclusion. While some can cultivate and sustain more relationships, I don’t think anyone’s ability in this context is infinite. At some point, people you relate to, care about, and regularly interact with by necessity substitute either for others you have or have had a relationship with, or — perhaps more critically — others you COULD relate with or get to know better.

And here’s where I am most likely to potentially create a firestorm of controversy: I believe, with all my heart, that online relationships in the aggregate are worth less than in-person relationships. Mind you, I happily and meaningful maintain a number of friendships with folks online and I value them (both the friendships and the people behind them). But — again, on the whole — there’s undeniably too much missing. While I’m often wary of statistics in this context, I do believe what I learned in Communications Studies in college: more than 90% of communications are non-verbal. The way one positions his arms… how someone looks or doesn’t look you in the eye… a person’s posture… how they touch you, how they shake your hand. Logically, so little of this makes sense, but emotionally and spiritually, it is near-everything.

It is for this reason that — as I have grown up — I have made the personal decision to leverage online communications as a means to an end: specifically, in the personal (non-work) context, interactions are typically intended to sustain, enhance, clarify, or even create relationships in the flesh. Life — okay, my First Life — is too fleeting to think and plan otherwise.

* * *

And so we return — quite circuitously, I admit — to my personal objections to Second Life. It’s not that it’s not real enough… it’s that it’s just real enough to serve as a quasi-substitute for life-in-person. And furthermore, it’s designed not to reflect, much less improve or enhance, one’s existing relationships (a la the ideal of Facebook, IMHO), but rather to create an alternate albeit real reality that necessitates tending to.

* * *

There’s a place for SL. First and foremost, I don’t wish to be judgmental towards those who find value (or friendship or love or financial profits or whatnot) in SL. The service itself has clearly been designed with passion, with care… and it’s something I greatly admire and respect. And I can absolutely see the worth of SL for many folks and in many contexts: artists wishing to create, to share. People who, for reasons of geography or physical handicaps or family obligations or anything else, find the social aspects of SL more compelling and available than what they have in their FL. Or folks who are entirely comfortable developing, to quote Fight Club, single serving friends. Or researchers, hackers, shy people… the list goes on.

Second Life is a fascinating world, a truly amazing accomplishment in virtual reality, an engaging experiment in every respect. It’s just not for me.

14 comments… add one
  • Ashley Oct 7, 2006

    I remember seeing this game in a Google video post awhile ago, and not that I dislike the concept but to me it is alot like the Sims game in the fact that what ever your building in this vurtual world you could probably work in the real world just as long to actually own it.The graphics have a long way to go and the user interface really is not all that user friendly.Sorry to be so negative on my first comment to your blog but atleast its honest.

  • Sierra Apr 30, 2007

    Dear Adam, I liked what you had to say about SL and can tell you?ve definitely given it some thought. I?m still in the thought stage right now and think I?m probably not going to become a SL regular mainly because I just am too busy here in my first life. Right this moment, I?m writing up a general article about SL for a new English-language publication here in Mexico. Would you mind if I quoted some of what you wrote? Drop me an e-mail and I?ll send you the parts I was thinking about using.

  • Adam Apr 30, 2007

    Sierra, thank you very much for your note, and in particular, for asking for my thoughts about you noting my blog entry here in your article.

    I’d be pleased to have my thoughts shared, and I’d be especially tickled if you mentioned or even linked to my blog entry here so more people could discuss this issue in depth.

  • SL Aug 30, 2007

    Hey Adam,
    I agree with what you have said, I just had a personal experience with SL for 4 weeks, and it can become very intense.  It was fun at first, but as you interact socially, you do get the bar mentality happening.  What really becomes disturbing, and unfortunately I am living proof of this now, is that you can easily fall into the trap of not having boundaries between real life and second life.  I met a female that was amazing on line, we would date and go places and even have sex, but it hit a point that it moved more into our real lives.  The problem with that is that we have an ocean between us so we can’t fulfill that extra human interaction, such as expressions and mannerisms to see and really know each other and because of this has caused much anguish between us.  But, this is insane, 4 weeks being our versions of our perfect selves and going to such an extreme seems so dangerous.  I have gotten to the point where I have taken it off my computer and told her goodbye, I was thinking about SL and her all day every day, that obviously can’t be healthy.

  • Natalie Sep 8, 2007

    Hi, my boyfriend joined SL 3 months ago. He has met someone on there and hey spend numerous hours on the phone and in SL at the same time. He now is leaving me to go live with her in Canada. He thinks his life will be better up there. He is 23 she is 30. I am devastated and I HATE SECOND LIFE!!!

  • Tom Oct 26, 2007

    While I think SL has some entertainment value, I concluded much the same as you did.  I didn’t even try the game, but only researched it.

    I think SL has the potential to be an addictive drug for some folks, leading to their use of SL to effectively escape their FL duties, failures, anxieties, restrictions, and general dissatisfaction. 

    We would all be well-advised to invest time to achieve our dreams in our FIRST LIFE.  If we are doing (or have already done) that, then playing around a little with SL is just a puerile diversion.

  • Al Nov 30, 2007

    Hello Adam,

    I agree with a lot of the points that you have made. One point that has been left out is the fact that there can be financial consequences linked to Second Life. Both Positive and Negative. Things cost real money in SL, even if you are paying in Virtual Currency. It is pretty easy to rack up a little debt before you even realize it. As a musician, I am interested and can appreciate the benefits of this virtual world. You reach an international audience “Live” and can build a loyal following and even make a few real dollars doing it.
    Personal relationships are another matter. Even though I have only been on SL for a short time, I have already experienced several relationships that could easily begin to affect my RL if allowed to continue unabated. It is very important to step back every so often and evaluate what your are doing. I know from experience how chat rooms can create and grow a relationship that becomes “Real”. Several of my friends met their real life spouses on the internet. Strong bonds can be created through communication even without “seeing” who you are typing or talking to. SL takes the chatroom to a new level, especially involving virtual sex which can be somewhat graphically realistic. More than ever, it is important to realize that there are real people with real feeling behiond those perfect little digital bodies.

  • Kath Feb 7, 2008

    Hi!  Love your open opinion on SL.  Here’s mine:

    From the moment I entered into Orientation Island, I was THERE. I experienced myself and the SL world   as REAL. Not the same reality as my physical life, of course. I knew my body and the environment were virtual.  Yet I had and continue to have the experience of being a real live being in a genuine place, a world. This has never altered or diminished, even a little. 

    I have never had to pretend anything. I simply go about my business. I feel, think, and act in SL just as I do in RL: I look for like-minded others, I avoid the bar scene or anything that is just not me, I explore my world.  This is not to say I had no confusions; I did. But experiencing myself as genuine, and all that I feel and think to be authentic, has allowed me the confidence to continue on, to enjoy what is a tremendously satisfying and fulfilling “life” in SL.

    The so-called “addicting” nature of any VR is a question best left to each in their own experience. I spend the amount of time in SL that I desire, my RL is still real and compelling, and I am just plan happy as a clam to have not one, but TWO wonderful lives! 

    As an addendum, I will say that I know there are those in SL who experience it just as I do (my SL lover is one) and those who do not. I feel blessed to be able to feel it as I do, and understand that not everyone has the same experience.  But there’s room for us all in SL!  It’s a big place, one that could be accurately described using the words of Carlos Castaneda: a seperate reality.

  • Kath Feb 7, 2008

    Hi again- 
    One more thing, if I may. While any VR has intrinsic limitations when compared to the physical world, there is a component in SL that I find completely compelling; it is what allows me to “live” there so fully.  This is the energetic connection.  Lots of energy frequencies pass between those in SL, despite how odd or even impossible that may sound.  Those of us who experience these emotions, feelings, etc. know them to be authentic, and this is all we require as validation of our experience. 

    The ability to sense feelings, even sensations, in SL may not be a given, as it relies heavily on an individual’s ability to open, feel, and accept. And just as VR is invisible, intangible, and not visible on the “outside”, so are the feelings, sensations and thoughts generated both in SL and RL.  I believe it is the quantum reality of both VR and RL energies that causes them to be intertwined and dynamically linked. So, once more: a seperate reality.

  • Adam Feb 11, 2008

    Wow, I’m quite impressed by and grateful for the thoughtful and respectful followup comments on this one.  Much thanks for the heartfelt replies!  And yeah, I do need to checkout SL again one of these days 😀

  • Jose Mar 25, 2008

    What truly becomes disturbing, and unfortunately I am living validation of this now, is that you can well slip into the bunker of not having boundaries between genuine living and second living. I met a female that was astonishing on cable, we would see and get places and still get sexuality, but it strike a level that it moved more into our genuine lives. The trouble with that is that we have a sea between us so we can?t fulfill that additional human interaction, such as expressions and mannerisms to view and truly recognize each new and because of this has caused more torment between us.

  • Maya Jul 5, 2008

    I really liked reading your review of SL and i’ll have to agree with you. I think it’s, in many ways, a quite amazing game and i totally understand why people would love to be part of this world. But, on the other hand, i don’t think i could ever be part of this community, i really have a hard time trusting people when i can’t look in their eyes 🙂

  • tenaja Jul 18, 2008

    Hi
    I find it very interesting to read others experiences with SL. I have my own too. I logged on the first time just curious of what I would find there. I was up to that minute a person who didn’t like using time in front of the computer.
    I very quickly met a lot of people, chatting,flirting and having a good time.
    The shaking part was that I met this guy that turned me so on, and me him. It was like the boundaries between the RL and SL was ripped away and we found ourselves totally wrapped into a relationship with each other that was probably just as real as in the real world.
    We both have our relationships with others in the real world and we found in the first part of our time together that we were not trespassing our rl boarders.
    This went on for several months, We met as often we could, often having to log off fast to avoid our lovers in rl to come over our sl relationship. We had virtual sex everytime we met and through dialog, and through the screen showing our avatars deeply involved in sexual encounter, we had our orgasems in rl too. We knew after these months that our SL relationship was messing up our RL. We dreamed about eachother and just wanted to be with each other all the time,…and we never told eachother our RL names or anything about our RL. WE like builded up a relationship totaly on our personal virtual encounter.,
    We knew in the end that it had gone too far. We finally decided to end our love affair and left SL for good.
    I still think of him. I still feel a wanting to see him, but I dont-. I see that it took over my life for a long time and I cant go back to that.

    But I loved the time there and probably got addicted to it. Scary

  • Jeff W Sep 17, 2009

    I have always been amazed by second life. The world is just huge, you can create basically everything you want.. it can really be a 2nd life! This new world is great food for though, i really wonder how huge and important these virtual realities will become in the future. Very good article btw!

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