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Get a (Second) Life

A nonbeliever ventures into the realm of virtual worlds

by Mac McClelland

Published in the March/April 2010 issue of Orion magazine

I WOULDN’T NORMALLY KILL TIME conversing with a talking porpoise from Brazil. Nor would I join a guerrilla army that bombs Reebok stores, or purchase the services of a prostitute. Not in real life, anyway. But from what I’d read, little was impossible in Second Life, a 3-D web world whose users had created their very own unique and involved culture.

The day I created my Second Life, I was, I’ll admit, a little lonely. My roommates had gone out. Tired from work, I didn’t want to read, and we didn’t have cable, so I dragged a laptop onto the couch with me and opened up an internet browser.

Second Life’s online registration page greeted me with a banner: Your life. Your imagination. Indulging a sixth-grade obsession, I named myself after the Egyptian goddess of something I couldn’t remember. There were forty last names to pick from, all of which sounded like they’d be read in roll call by a German schoolmarm, or a wizard in a fantasy novel: Scmergel, Weizenberg, Liebster, Eizenstark. The next page started with salutations.

Welcome, Isis Aszkenaze! I had a choice of several default avatars that could represent me in the 3-D web realm. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to be almost anyone you want should you change your mind later, the instructions promised me. Avatars can dye their hair. They can change clothes and body types—or species—and one of my roommates had told me that “some of them even have rocket launchers coming out of their butts.” I briefly considered the figure of a long, tall cybergoth and, even less briefly, a giant raccoon with boobs and high heels, before becoming “Girl Next Door.” In just a moment, I joined the 47,758 other users logged on at 8:31 on a Thursday night.

I spent my first night in Second Life on Orientation Island, where I arrow-keyed my way down a grassy path lined with tutorial stations teaching me how to walk and talk (read: type messages), as well as find things and change my appearance. My surroundings looked like—and, granted, were—a painstakingly rendered computer animation. On my screen, I watched my avatar from behind, her brown-haired head bobbing up and down as she wandered. Realistic-looking palm trees rustled in the breeze, which I could hear, and ocean waves lapped the shore in the distance while I tried to get my bearings. It was kind of like a video-game version of a Corona commercial.

ECONOMIST EDWARD CASTRONOVA, author of Exodus to the Virtual World, estimated that as of December 2004, the population of people in subscription-based synthetic worlds likely exceeded 10 million. By 2007, it was double that. Every month, a million unique users log in to Second Life, where they buy clothes and property and houses for their avatars with Linden dollars—named after the company where Second Life was created, which is named after the San Francisco street on which it sat—which cost real dollars to buy. Since its launch in 2003, SL, as users call it, has been the topic of countless articles and has appeared in books, novels, and TV shows; its users spend 50 million actual dollars monthly on virtual goods. What is going on in this virtual world that so many people are spending so much of the time and resources of their RL, as many users call real life, there? 

Frankly, throughout all the early hype, I’d never cared to know—I was one of those people still using a landline in late 2005. I didn’t believe Linden’s founder, Philip Rosedale, when he said that when meetings in actual buildings and meetings in Second Life eventually “come into serious competition, there’s only going to be one in the long term.” But I didn’t believe Stacy Morabito’s dad in high school, either, when he said everyone was going to have e-mail someday. Then, zero percent of my communicating happened over the internet. Now, probably 90 percent does. And the maintenance of my current professional and personal life is utterly dependent on my cell phone, given the amount of accessibility and text messaging necessary for keeping in contact with other people who are constantly accessible and text messaging.

In April 2008, Congress held a hearing, “Online Virtual Worlds: Applications and Avatars.” Avatars could watch the proceedings via live video feed to screens in a Second Life incarnation of the Rayburn House Office Building, while TVs in the actual House aired the goings-on in the virtual room. The agenda was to “explore safety issues and the use of real currency in virtual online worlds, as well as the growing presence of educational institutions, nonprofits and other real-world organizations in online virtual worlds.” Congress is hardly a fast-acting, ahead-of-the-trends game-setter, and even its eye was on the SL ball. Maybe I was eventually going to be forced to move some of my RL interactions to SL, too. I found the idea decidedly unappealing, and I suspected it wasn’t just because I was an uppity liberal arts major who sucked at video games and read alarmist articles about modern isolationism in The New Yorker. Even given all the supposed possibilities of virtual worlds—or perhaps because of them—it seemed like there had to be a trade-off.

ON MY SECOND VISIT to Second Life, I logged in on a lazy Sunday morning and started looking for where the action was. When I pulled up the search box of the current ten most popular places “in-world,” PandaMart appeared at the top of the list. I had two ways to get to my destination. I could, with a press of the arrow keys, take to the sky and fly there. Instead, I clicked “Teleport.”

I materialized on a gray tile floor a few seconds later, next to row after row of wooden benches packed with seated avatars, surrounded by kiosks where I could buy hairstyles, art, a virtual party business. Many of the avatars were incredibly muscular bipedal horses. All of them were too cool to talk to me, or, more likely, not actively manned by humans, who had probably parked them there and taken their attentions elsewhere. In a scheme to rack up traffic and make their “land” more attractive to advertisers or renters, the owners of the benches paid these loiterers thirty-one cents a minute for a limited period of time.

Boring. I teleported to FREE SEX EMPIRE, another most-popular destination. I’d read that sex was popular in SL, though I’d had difficulty imagining the details. From the sound of this hot spot, I didn’t even have to pay the four to twelve dollars for a prostitute in order to figure things out. Sure enough, within moments after I took shape on an ornate dark carpet with gold inlays, a naked man with a caricatured erection approached me.

“Do you want to have sex?” appeared on the screen, where anyone within the frame could see it. I couldn’t get VD, and nothing brings total strangers together like theoretically mutual masturbation. My avatar’s arms started the typing pantomime they did when I used my actual keyboard; I spelled out “yes please.” The man turned around, and I followed him over to two floating balls, one blue and one pink. He grabbed the blue one, which immediately threw his avatar into a thrusting animation next to, but not facing, me. I’d learned to manipulate objects in an exercise on Orientation Island, and though I picked up my arm and reached out and made little magic stars shoot from my fingers, I couldn’t touch the pink ball. I clucked my tongue in real life, frustrated, and my roommate looked over my shoulder at the computer.

“What are you doing?” she asked, seeing the man’s driving pelvis. “Your avatar is retarded. You’re avatarded.” Even the non-avatarded couples on the floor around us, though they were jerking about very near each other, didn’t seem to be connecting in any sensible way. Maybe the real show was going down in their private chats. But I didn’t know how to do that, and however I tried, I couldn’t figure out how to get on the receiving side of my partner, standing helplessly by as he plowed mechanically and fruitlessly at the wall.

In a month of Second Life, no matter what time I went in-world, the most popular spots were sex clubs, dance clubs, and earning benches. But entrepreneur Anshe Chung made a million dollars in RL with her SL businesses. Ben Folds Five gave a concert and Sweden opened an embassy and Kurt Vonnegut conducted a lecture and Arianna Huffington and Nancy Pelosi had avatars. In August 2009, Second Life users logged more than 40 million hours. Clearly, I was going to the wrong places. 

I called Mario Gerosa, the owner of Synthtravels, a virtual travel agency that gave tours of online worlds. Given what I’d seen so far, I’d figured he was a sleaze whose “red light” tours of SL were his most popular. He was, instead, the Milanese editor of Architectural Digest Italy who has written three books on virtual worlds and organized and curated an RL Florence exhibition of art generated in SL. The bulk of his clients, surprisingly, were companies considering opening a Second Life presence. Nearly every business now tries to connect with consumers and enhance brand awareness on websites and Facebook. Why not reach out on SL, where marketers can take advantage of the ultimate interactive technology?

“Second Life is going to be the big thing,” Gerosa said. “It is going to be more and more professional, more serious. Art, education, business”—already, hundreds of RL schools, bands, nonprofits, politicians, corporations, television shows, magazines, car companies, and governments have an SL presence—“we will have more and more of these things. Maybe the newspapers will talk less about them, but they will be more concentrated in Second Life. Until last year, we were just talking about how Second Life is for sex, things the newspapers and magazines like to talk about.”

Guilty. But Forbes had suggested in 2007, just six months after an article about Second Life’s extraordinary growth, that the virtual world wasn’t a viable place to do business after all, and American Apparel, the first RL retailer with an in-world presence, ultimately closed its SL doors. Still, Gerosa suggested that SL offered the potential for businesses to move from RL to SL entirely—once the world was ready for the transition. 

“We’re on the threshold of the next technological revolution,” Merrill Johnson, associate dean of the liberal arts college at the University of New Orleans, assured me. In mid-2008, he orchestrated the building of SL campuses for UNO—my graduate alma mater—as well as Tulane, Southeastern Louisiana University, and Southern University at New Orleans with a grant he’d gotten from the Louisiana Board of Regents. “Right now we’re at about the same place with 3-D web as we were with the internet in about 1994. Back then [the internet] was still a little bit of an iffy proposition for most people, who were a little bit unsure about what this new medium offered, and a little bit unsure about whether it was worth spending your time on, and whether it was safe.” He was the first—though hardly the last—to point out to me Gartner Research’s report that by 2011, 80 percent of regular internet users will have a second life (though not necessarily in Second Life—there are dozens of virtual worlds). 

“Seriously?” I asked Johnson. “Are you saying that some people are dragging their feet, but eventually everyone will have to be on it?”

“Yes,” he said emphatically. “Yes. We will get to this equilibrium, this middle ground, whereby 3-D web will become a normal part of our existence. We’ll all have our avatars running around out there.” Which could preclude our bodies running around out here. Johnson laid out a scenario in which my avatar could have my exact measurements and go to a store to try on a sweater with the manufacturer’s exact measurements. He was right that if that technology existed, the SL shopping experience would be far superior to the current 2-D web one; I could see exactly how the sweater would fit me in RL. In that future, I probably would stop going to stores entirely. I would have already were online clothes shopping as reliable as online book shopping, which I do all the time. SL would be faster! Easier! Involving less chitchat with salespeople!

“Second Life is just going to further the already extreme trend toward isolationism,” my friend Dan complained when I described the possible new order to him over the phone. He lives twenty-five hundred miles away, and we communicate far more often than would have been possible at any other time in history, by a long shot. “Physical isolation,” he clarified. No one ever argues that we’re not more in touch than ever. The concern among people like him, people like me, people who neither enjoy nor excel at utilizing the latest technological advances, people who have always had a strong need for tactile interaction, is that we’re doing less actual touching—of our conversation partners, of the sand on the shore that real waves lap against.

Since fall 2008, Dentyne has been running a “Make Face Time” campaign—selling gum by advertising physical interaction with other people. Even ten years ago, when I was in college, the evolution of instant messaging kept us in front of our dorm-room computers and out of the commons. Ditto, often, for Google’s chat application and my office conference room today. Or, as Castronova has put it, somewhat more terrifyingly, “My guess is that the impact on the real world really is going to involve folks disappearing from reality in a lot of places where we see them.” Though it sounds extreme, it’s already, to some extent, what’s happening. Advertising face time sounds absurd, but most of us would be liars if we didn’t admit that Dentyne’s message was aimed, at least a little—and justifiably—at us.

I ASKED LISA REIN to meet me in a coffee shop with her laptop to better show me where we were all going to disappear to. “People just don’t get it yet,” she said. She’s a tech consultant, teacher, and believer. As I watched, she teleported to her SL land, for which she pays twenty-eight real-life dollars a month: a green, waterfront knoll with some chairs and video screens on it. (When I cooed, “You have waterfront property,” she responded, “It’s all waterfront property. Everybody wants waterfront property. Because it’s a virtual world, everybody can get waterfront property!”) She’d decided not to build a house. (Her neighbor, whose property we could see when she turned her avatar’s head with the arrow key, lived in a giant pirate ship.)

Rein loaded a video she’d taken of a concert. An artist had set up a stage show involving his avatar in front of elaborate lights and big speakers while he streamed in the real-time sound of his playing. I tried to grasp why I’d want to have been virtually present at this when I could just watch a video of a live concert later.

“So the difference is that I could be listening to him while he’s playing and see this avatar at the same time?” I asked.

“Yeah, and your friends, and you’re all—it’s a social setting at that point, with everybody hearing it at once.”

She talked about the importance of a sense of presence, something avatars could provide that online chats couldn’t. Though that presence was often something like a big raccoon with boobs, it seemed to be a major selling point; UNO’s Johnson had mentioned it to me four times.

“For a university, Second Life offers a sense of presence in the classroom that you can’t get with regular internet courses,” he’d said. Indeed, when my UNO graduate program had been interrupted by Hurricane Katrina, I’d had to take all my courses online, like most students there, and they had been cold, impersonal affairs. “In a chat room, you sort of know where the other people are who are talking to you, but in a classroom with avatars you just turn your head and there he or she is. That gives it a greater sense of community.”

Rein showed me another video, a lecturer giving a talk. People had gathered on her lawn to watch him speak live. They sat next to each other, like at a movie in the park, watching the event stream live on a big screen. They could type messages to each other to discuss what was going on, and could also type messages to the lecturer, who would answer them in real life in real time, in front of both his virtual and physical audiences, the latter of which was also watching video of the attending avatars. Thus a lecture for a few dozen in Palo Alto had the potential to become a massive international salon. In 3-D web, as opposed to 2-D, as Johnson explained it, “The friction of distance is largely collapsed. It’s the ability to bring people—at least representations of people—together in space that makes this technology so appealing.” That is, 3-D web will supplant 2-D web because it restores a representation of what is usually missing when people interact online: a shared space. And the possibility of easy representation of presence is what could lead to 3-D web also supplanting some arenas of 3-D RL. 

That presence can be powerful. Though novice Isis Aszkenaze can barely walk, avatars can, for example, smile, converse, blush, exercise, and make eye contact. You can make your representation reflect your true emotions, or take on faker, more manipulative or more socially appropriate ones—just like in RL. “In an online world like Second Life,” writes Wagner James Au in his book The Making of Second Life, “the emotional intimacy is . . . enhanced by a visual representation that becomes your mental picture of the person somewhere out there on another computer. . . . The interaction is so realistic, so powerful, it can inspire the full gamut of human emotions, including desire, rage, and jealousy.” Who among us hasn’t experienced some, if not all, of these emotions over e-mail? Whether we realize it or not, aren’t we looking for a human connection every time we check our inboxes? Researchers at Stanford have shown that by using visual and behavioral mimicry, avatars can more easily persuade the humans behind other avatars. Many a real-life couple has demonstrated that virtual interactions can lead to (or undo) love. In fall 2008, a British woman sued her husband for divorce after discovering he was having an affair in Second Life.

“It’s not even a question anymore of replacing something in [real] life with something that’s just as good,” Rein said. “It’s gonna be doing things in virtual worlds that you can’t do in real life anyway.” Like meet a fellow vegan while sitting in your rural-Alaska basement.

Harvard Law School has held classes in Second Life. You can conduct transcontinental—or transatlantic—interviews there. People are staging protests and celebrating Earth Day and going to yoga classes, working together from more than one hundred countries. You can open a bank account, take your students on a field trip, conduct virtual visitation sessions in long-distance custody cases.

“The people who use virtual worlds connect with way more people every day than I do, I’m sure,” Dan had told me on the phone. “But I still don’t like it.” I didn’t, either, and not just because my inaugural SL excursions had been so solitary and bumbling. Even if, once you got the hang of it, virtual worlds did it better—especially if they did it better—they did indeed further the trend of bringing people together while keeping them apart. Every moment spent cultivating the “sense of community” in your online world, of course, requires spending less time in your actual one.

Ah, there was the trade-off. Like e-mail, this new source of interaction could never be the only source of interaction, whatever SL creator Rosedale said, not for a species whose entire social and genetic structure is rooted in tribes. My long-distance ex-girlfriend exchanged about eight hundred text messages a month, including many with me, but she still called me almost every night, and still flew a thousand miles to see me as often as she could manage. Second Life is to real life as talking on the phone to your girlfriend is to having her in your arms. Nothing mimics the powerful subtleties and complete and encompassing sensory experience of physical interaction with another person, or of a palm-rustling breeze, obviously. But like e-mail and texting, 3-D web is another virtual presence that makes demands on our actual presence. We already spend so little time with our girlfriends in our arms that Dentyne knows it’s reasonable to remind us to put it on our schedule.

I’d forgotten, before my conversation with Rein about “presence,” that in college, my best friend and I had gotten into a wicked fight when my frustration about her answering her cell phone when we were together culminated in my raising my voice at her in the middle of a mall. Since the instant-interaction-technology boom, we’ve all sat down for dinner or drinks across a table from someone who, despite available instant-interaction technology, just wanted to talk to us in person—and then pulled out his BlackBerry to check his e-mail eight times during the conversation. Or we’ve shaken our heads at an iPhone-wielding hiker. The more sophisticated our online presence becomes, the more compromised our real-life presence; the more present we are there, the less present we can be here, as we sacrifice being truly in touch for being constantly, relentlessly, everywhere all over the place in touch. If 3-D web was going to be such a draw, it could also further the trend of our being isolated from even the people right in front of us.

“This is very much like the Wild West of the internet,” Rein said. She teleported to Wishfest, a music and arts festival she was helping to coordinate. Her friend Somatika Xiao, one of its programmers, met us there—a buff, blue-haired avatar. We fell down a rabbit hole into an art installation. “Nobody understands it, they’re scared by it, but it turns out there’s certainly nothing to be afraid of. Just like the internet, people didn’t do it until they had to, and then something changed.” The two avatars stood in the middle of a vortex of slowly circling glass shards. When Rein’s avatar touched one, the floor turned into a swirling display of fractal art.

That was neat and all, but I couldn’t accept that she was right, that I was overreacting—that it was useless, or beside the point, to hate on how distracting virtual communication is from real-life communication. Because that would mean I needed to stop trying to fight off 3-D life. Because, logically, if everyone’s going to be doing it, and it makes actually present people less present, one sure way to not be distracted by virtual communication is to stake your presence there, completely embrace it, become part of it, live and interact right inside of it. And the idea of accepting that unsettled me right there in my real-life chair.

“Oh look!” Rein said suddenly, her eye caught by her computer screen.

A giant “HELLO” had appeared between the blue-haired avatar and Rein’s. “Aw, he’s saying hello to you.” She laughed.

I watched the screen, where the HELLO started flashing different colors. “Anyway, it has a lot of implications,” she went on. The HELLO replicated, then started spinning, the culmination of a series of complex original computer codes. From somewhere in California, Somatika Xiao had channeled a lot of energy into making an animation—this total stranger, for me. His buff, blue-haired avatar stood squarely in the center of the floor, waiting patiently amid his colorful greeting, looking at me dead-on through the screen. As Rein continued talking, I looked back at the avatar and intuitively, automatically, before I could hesitate, smiled warmly.

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Mac McClelland is a writer and editor at Mother Jones. Her book For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question: A Story from Burma's Never-Ending War was published in spring, 2009. She lives in San Francisco.

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