Friday, 4 April 2008

Get A Life! A Second Life?

This posting is looking at Second Life which is a social network system, launched in 2003, that allows users to interact with each other via avatars (i.e. animated three-dimensional representation of themselves) which can be as realistic or fantastical as they like. The space in which they opeate are 'islands' that people and companies and other organisations (the Chinese government famously has recently bought a very large island) and put in structures, buildings, shops and so on. By paying in real money, people have currency within the environment. See: Second Life now has 13 million members predominantly from the Western countries. There are other less popular ones appearing and so are more game orientated (most controversially the Miss Bimbo one recently launched which encourages young females (from aged 9 upwards) to have an avatar who becomes a model and buys expensive fashions and has cosmetic surgery, etc, in their own words in an effort to: 'Become the most famous and beautiful bimbo in the world..': It is currently being investigated by Ofcom the British communications watchdog see: ). Sorry, I have got on to the controversial aspects already before filling out the background. Second Life is not a game; its activities are created by the users moving around and interacting with each other and the devices and buildings there. Other rival worlds include: IMVU, There, Active Worlds, Kaneva and the explicitly sexually-orientated Red Light Center.

There seem now to be regular presentations how getting into Second Life is an essential part of marketing a company and you see regular reports that IBM and Gap and many others are setting up their own spaces in the system and effectively marketing is what the Chinese government is doing with its own island. People can walk their avatars into your store or whatever and see about your products, your company identity, etc. However, as someone at a presentation said 'why would you want to buy a Gap teeshirt when elsewhere in Second Life you can be a panda'. All over the internet are people creating outfits and bodies for avatars by the hundreds. Searching for real clothing you constantly hit websites promoting virtual clothing for avatars. For other similar, more game orientated sites such as World of Warcraft which I have mentioned before: people actually sell products that can be used in the game via the eBay online auctioning site as if they were real items not just some computer coding. So to some extent real world companies are having to compete with the more fantastical items that you can buy to use in this other world.

Right, well this is all well and good, part of our modern society and the step on from more mundane social interaction sites such as Facebook and MySpace. There of course are the usual hazards of online interaction in that 'online no-one knows you're a dog' to quote Peter Steiner from 1993. The avatars which do not even have to be human often do not reflect the individual operating them. This can be liberating as it allows people to play out very different roles, in a 'safe' environment, for example as different genders (or even species) and interact in that way. In Second Life you can be as beautiful and as trendy as you like and never age. Those playing against type might find out useful things about themselves online, notably if they are concerned about coming out as gay/lesbian they can use this as a first step to interact with others on this basis. In addition, it soon becomes clear in any search of the internet that there is a lot of cybersex of all kinds going on and whilst this is 'safe' compared to physical sex in terms of risk of sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) and pregnancy, etc., it can have psychological effects. One interesting blog on that aspect is by Abulia Savant whose avatar over a period became more and more a sexually submissive character ultimately a sexual slave to other avatars, something she initially enjoyed but which has left her very concerned and discomforted. Her blog: shows that what goes on 'virtually' is not totally divorced what who we are in this world. Online a writer called Xah Lee has a tour of some of the more exotic elements of Second Life: Note, some images are sexual, but most are anodyne. He shows also people whose avatars are dragons or humanoid animals, etc. which outlines how some people use it in the way similar to MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) are used, though lacking the quests and so on of those.

To some extent the use of virtual worlds has long been predicted in fiction going back to the 1980s, especially cyberpunk writing which regular readers will know I enjoy. We have not reached the stage that those authors like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson (interestingly I was once in a college library which had Stephenson's fiction works in its section on technology; he also created a steampunk/cyberpunk crossover in 'The Diamond Age' (1995)) envisaged, with us physically connecting to the computer and our whole consciousness fading into it, but there is nothing to say that will not come. We have virtual reality headsets and controllers that shudder to reflect action happening on screen. In addition people do become immersed, such as the 26-year old gamer known as Zhang (a Chinese surname) who died in a cybercafe in southern China in September 2007 after playing for three days solidly on Morrowind. Many of us having spent a long time at our computers will stand up to find we have a full bladder that we had not noticed because our minds were so taken away with what we were doing on screen, so maybe we do not need it even more immersive than it is. It does seem though we are moving gradually in the direction envisaged by the cyberpunk authors and possibly ultimately even further towards the

The other area of concern that I would bring up stems from this immersion and relates to my recent posting about my failed holiday and the 6-year old's withdrawal symptoms from being away from computer games just for a couple of days. This week I talked with three mothers one who has a 9-year old daughter and a 13-year old son, one with two sons: a 16-year old and an 18-year old and one mother with a 21-year old son. It was agreed that boys/men are much more likely to become seriously addicted to online facilities whether gaming or socialising; girls/women do participate but are more likely to mix it in with other activities. All the mothers said that online involvement had harmfully affected their sons' academic work. One was now moving to set up his access so it chucked him out after two hours. This was a lot easier in the days of dial-up connections (which I was surprised to find are still common in many parts of the USA even) than with the constant broadband flow. To some extent the 6-year old in my house is finding that no-one knows what he is talking about when he goes on and on about the games he has played at home, but I imagine that the reverse will be the case in 5-7 years time and as an adolescent if he lacks a virtual presence people will ignore his physical one. Schools need to work with pupils not only about the potential dangers of the people they meet online (and it does appear they have been quick to add this to the lessons on 'stranger danger' regarding people in parks, etc.) but also how to manage gaming/online socialising in the same way they address drugs and alcohol.

I deliberately used the title 'get a life!' because in the past that was what was shouted at geeks and nerds who were felt to be too obsessed with their hobbies and interests. Things may be beginning to be turned on their heads and people who are simply present in the physical world are going to be seen as the ones missing out. The online world is going to be 'better' because we can be who we want to be. I can be the 25-year old Goth lord with steampunk technology rather than the 40-year incompetent with an old PC, so which am I going to choose? On this point I read that this was the reason why the first movie in the the Matrix triology, i.e. 'The Matrix' (1999) was so much more preferred to 'The Matrix Reloaded' and 'The Matrix Revolutions' (also 2003) because in the first movie the characters much of the time striding around in cool, shiny costumes with big guns whereas in the latter two movies they spent more time in dreary, gloomy settings dressed in shabby clothes. In that context the bulk of us want to remain in the matrix rather than go outside and face the cold, hard real world. This is fine when we can physically load ourselves into a computer and become a stream of electrons. However, for now, we have to work on ways at how we and especially children of today and tomorrow balance the needs of our bodies, to have a job, to interact with physical humans in this boring, mundane, uncomfortable place and leave the other life for an occasional break not the dominant facet of our lives.

P.P. Well, following all of this discussion I decided to give it a go and I must say the results were disappointing. On Second Life I registered on the CyberGoth default as Rooksmoor Oberlander (you get a limited number of surnames and for UK citizens they all seem to be German or Polish surnames) and went in for orientation. It was like a basic point and click computer game. The key difficulty for me was that the graphics clearly clash with my computer as rather than the cool CyberGoth male all I got was what looked like rags hanging from a scarecrow and no feet. Other people either looked the same or as mis-shapen boxes. I talked to a few and then gave up as it is difficult to interact when you cannot see the people as people. I then tried Red Light Center, much more involved in downloading, but seemingly less developed when you get there and you cannot even do the most basic thing there without having to spend real world money. I suppose it is a commercial business and they seem more concerned to push contact websites so I found it difficult even to access the world, so I de-installed that one.

Clearly there are more challenges than I envisaged becoming virtual. No-one could explain my graphics problem on Second Life so it seems insoluble. My computer is only a couple of years old and capable of rendering the complex graphics of 'Medieval II Total War' with hundreds of people in it, far more detailed in image than on Second Life. Maybe my broadband is too slow to render the avatars properly.

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