After being intrigued by an article in the Globe and Mail (subscription-only but extensively excerpted here
), I began researching a virtual online community known as Second Life
(or "SL"). It's pretty much the next logical step in life online; upon joining (a basic account is free but requires a credit card number, a PayPal account or a SMS-equipped cellphone for personal verification) you become an "avatar", a completely customizable computerized entity which navigates around a virtual world comprised of hundreds of islands, each with a certain theme or focus.
I am just learning about this other world, but I'm enjoying it so far. Avatars range from human, to humanoid (many people are "furries", or bipedal animals), to cephalopod
(I met the nicest giant octopus this evening), to mechanical. (Today, for example, I saw a chap whose avatar was a Dalek
What do people do in-world? Well, ironically, much of the charm of Second Life is that it is refreshingly like Real Life - but with almost none of the limitations. There are libraries, art galleries, games and competitions; there are clubs, meetings, and lessons and lectures. There are protest marches and concerts. (Suzanne Vega just gave a concert there; U2 gave a free concert there just Saturday to promote the One campaign against poverty. In these cases, avatars closely resembling the artists are created in cooperation with the SL team, and they perform "in-world", as Second Lifers call the virtual worlds.)
A number of real college-level courses take place "in-world". Students log in at predetermined times and listen to lectures or take exams. There are hundreds
of interest groups. I've joined a feminist group and a group for deaf and deaf-interested SLers called "Flying Fingers". There are groups for Christians, for Buddhists, for gay and lesbian people, for people coping with depression. There are complex role-playing islands set in a particular time period or fictional world.
Money is little or no object; there is an in-world currency called the Linden dollar; $298L = $1USD. You get a pot of Linden dollars when you register, but I have spent a total of $3L so far in two weeks of exploration - and I currently have nearly 2,000 items in my personal inventory. There are ample free clothes, avatar modifications (hair, tattoos, etc.), objects, vehicles (I own a motorcycle, a jeep and a saucer-shaped UFO), animations, and even houses (you must have a paid membership to own land on which to put a home) given away by the community to keep an avatar entertained without ever spending $1L. Better yet, you can create your own objects in-world by following the simple instructions to learn to create and manipulate "prims" (primitive objects), or by learning to design SL clothing, jewelry and hair with software like Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro.
Finally, you can engage in commerce in-world; you can learn to create any of the items or animations that have value in-world, or create art or poetry or music, and offer it for sale. You can also get jobs in-world - wedding or party planner, dj, club dancer, bartender, shopkeeper. And finally, you can buy $Ls by converting real-world money to Linden dollars via a credit card - but with all the above options, I can't imagine why you'd need to.
There are downsides. Dark places. Bullies. Rowdy kids. Sticking to the better neighbourhoods and sticking to my own business, I've had no trouble at all. Pretty much just like real life.
What all this means is that SL is in effect very much like Real Life with no limitations. Money is no object. You are never tired, sick or hungry. You can choose to work - or just play. You pick where you go and when, and who you associate with. And here's the thing that really got me - there are few or no physical limitations.
Oh, physical limitations are part of the reality of SL; there are fundraising activities and donation kiosks all over the virtual world for Real World projects like the Relay for Life - in fact, here's an image of a statue commemorating 2005's in-world Relay for Life. With the connection to real-world currency, these activities and fundraisers generate real dollars for real causes.
But the freedom SL gives you to leave physical disability behind is startling. Nobody is deaf in SL: conversations appear in text on-screen. Nobody need be physically handicapped: you have total control over your avatar and its movements. You can fly
, for heaven's sake, and everybody does, all the time. Nobody need be visually impaired: everyone accesses SL through their home computer system, which can use audio cues and sophisticated technology to zoom in on, and view, the images onscreen.
One evening for fun I dyed my virtual hair blue and went to a rave. Because that's the kind of thing you can do in SL. I was warmly greeted, handed a package full of free rave goodies (dance routines, light bursts and glowsticks and cool effects), and invited to dance all by myself with about 50 people doing the same thing. And as my little avatar danced I thought, "Wow, the effect is remarkably engaging. I feel as if I really were dancing." And then I thought, "My god, how would this feel if I was physically handicapped in real life?" I mean, my avatar could be in a wheelchair. Or not. I was totally free to create the me I wanted to be, just for a few hours.
Of course, the danger would be to live one's life completely online. I can see how it would be dangerously seductive for a shy teenager with a handicap and few social skills. But the possibilities this technology offers us, the "different", is still really, really exciting to me. Consider the fact that a seriously handicapped person with computer skills could get a job in SL as a dancer, clothing or jewelry designer, artist, poet, planner, musician, retailer, club security guard or bartender -- and earn a salary which he or she can then convert into real world currency
to support him or herself. That's an amazing opportunity.
If you take the plunge and go into Second Life, email me at ronniecat at ronniecat dot com with your "avatar name", and I'll be your buddy and guide - as much as I can guide, given my own limited experience. But you'll have at least one guaranteed friend "in-world" to start out with!