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?
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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?
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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.
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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.
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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.