1. Introduction

I am writing this in the first person. It is an autoethnography, the story of what became of me in Second Life, how I entered that world and was changed by it. I have to tell this in the first person as the only thing I can be sure of is what happened to me. I know what others told me about themselves, but that is not the same as knowing what happened to them. Many other humans and avatars intersected my journey. We shared space and place and time. We told each other stuff and shared experiences, but, as is likewise the case in the physical world, in cyberspace one never really knows the other.

In Second Life one can not even know for sure the name of the human behind the avatar, even if they tell you. What they say may or may not be a complete fabrication. So I prefer to tell you about what happened to me, because I know that is real. I can speak to you about others, but not for them.

Even as others speak to me they are filtered through the lens of what Leary calls a reality tunnel1. We each live in our own perceptual universe, no two sensoria are exactly alike, but, because we all live in the same physical universe, we imagine it is a shared whole, its entirety common to us all. But our perceptual worlds are as unique as we each are, each unique perceptual world adding to the creation of the whole of reality. This thesis is my own contribution to the creation of that reality in the spirit of the Jain concept of Anekantavada2 – the multiplicity of viewpoints that make up truth and reality.

Each of these perceptual worlds, not just our sensoria, but the perceptions and understandings we develop as the result of the accumulation of our life’s experiences, comprise our own unique reality tunnel. We usually only notice the differences when our tunnels don’t intersect, when we suddenly discover that someone we think we know acts unexpectedly.

Because I am not living in the same reality tunnel as any of the inhabitants of the communities I studied, I choose not to speak for them. I will tell you what they told me, and use that as a basis to frame my understanding of what their motivations and plans might have been. But please bear in mind when I do this that it is my perceptions of such motivations and plans, which, it is entirely possible, and indeed highly likely, are distinctly different to those intended by the people I was engaging with. This work is about my perceptions and the understandings I came to as a result of them.

Even by the act of selecting which stories to tell you I am editing, re-framing, refocusing, and readjusting their words by removing them from the context in which they were spoken. It is not my intention to uncover The Truth, if such a thing even exists, about what went on in these communities. Rather I am here to tell you my story. The story of my lives in virtual worlds.

My theological framework is then an important part of my perspective. I was raised a Catholic in a very Catholic family and was always interested in and connected to religion in a very visceral way, from quite an early age. But Catholicism never sat well with me. I found monotheism restricting as a theological framework, and honestly quite worrying, as a monotheistic conceptual world is contingent on the creation of an other that is rejected and excluded. I wanted to embrace and include.

This, and my inability to conceive humans as non divine creations of a separate divine progenitor, but rather as divine beings who were a part of a panentheistic universe, soon led me to a theological understanding which is today generally labeled Pagan. Mine is a diverse Paganism. I do not belong to any particular tradition in the Pagan sphere, but see them all as expressions of the underlying panentheistic nature of being. An important difference between this study of Paganism and magic and some others is that the journey I was taking was of non resident of Second Life to resident, not from non Pagan to Pagan. Unlike Stoller and Olkes3 and Luhrmann4 I was already quite firmly a Pagan before I began this work.

Because of my panentheistic conceptions of being you will see me employ conceptions from diverse traditions in order to explain my understandings of being ‘in the world’, which is how residents of Second Life refer to being immersed in their virtual domain. Henceforth when I use this phrase it refers to the world inside Second Life. To refer to the physically manifest world we humans normally reside in I will use ‘meatspace’, a term with a long history in internet culture5 and which is used by some residents of Second Life6 to refer to the physical world in which our consciousnesses inhabit meat bodies. Most residents of Second Life use ‘RL’, for real life. My resentment of the implication that the ontological status of virtual worlds was somehow inferior to that of the physical world caused me to reject that term. I preferred ‘meatspace’. My experiences in the world ultimately revealed to me the relevance of meatspace as a descriptor. For virtual worlds disintermediate physical pain. The avatar has no meat, so it has no physical pain. The meatspace world is controlled by the application, or the fear of, pain. Both physical and emotional. Only one of these is possible in the virtual world. In virtual worlds we can be the people we could be if we never had to fear physical pain. We enter the world and create ourselves anew. This is not to say that avatars cannot be harmed. People are deeply affected when their avatars are perceived to have been harmed7.

Like the gods, of whose divine essence I understand myself to partake, I have a drive to create. In my theology the divine totality created matter from energy, being from non being. Now humans can create form without matter in virtual worlds. This completes an oscillation, maintaining balance. By means of this creation I can put a piece of my soul into my avatar.

Second Living is the Aaru of modern existence, the ideal world the ancient Egyptians spent their lives preparing for and expected to join in after mortal death. It is an idealized version of life. We are using virtual worlds to live, here on Earth, the perfected life Egyptians didn’t get until they were dead.

When I first entered the world and began my journey from non resident to resident, it was a strange and amazing place to me. Now, after years of immersion in it, I am different. I grok8 it. Actually it is more true to say that I grok the part of it I encountered, for Second Life is a rich and diverse set of places. It is thousands of worlds, tens of thousands; because not only are there as many worlds as sims9, but there are as many perceptual worlds as there are residents.

As I was sharing a particular ancient Egyptian flavoured corner of the virtual world with a variety of residents, none of whom I have met in meatspace, and who are from a wide variety of cultures, age groups, religions, educations and reality tunnels, the differences in our perceptions of the same virtual space are myriad. Some perceptions were shared in real and deep ways, and some weren’t. Some were withheld. Some things shared were a tissue of lies. Some were lost in translation, either on account of a language or cultural barrier, or because of the inability we have to truly know the other.

We are agnostic of the other’s reality tunnel in our subjective lives. It is the presence of this absence, the space that can only be filled by grokking the other, that causes rational knowledge alone to be lacking. I caution the reader that when I remark that a certain person’s actions indicate that they are thinking a certain thing or forming meanings in a certain way this is an expression of my reflection on my experience of being in the world with those people. It is my understanding of how they might be understanding the world. It is my reality not theirs. As such it is not necessarily exactly how they might characterise what they are doing. This is a necessary process if one is to explore the cloud of unknowing that characterises relationships with other humans via the mediated experience of cyberspace. I am relating the process of my gnosis in cyberspace. Trying to tell the stories of others involves such a great degree of uncertainty. I feel most honest when telling my own story. Yet part of my story is forming an understanding of how others understand the world. It is the difficulty of grokking the other that I seek to highlight.

I spent two and a half years as a participant researcher in order to gather data for this autoethnography. I usually spent about 60 hours a week in the world. During the course of this time I participated in two separate Second Life communities, Anachronistic Lands – Ptolemaic Egypt and Nubian Egypt, the latter being formed in January 2009 following the collapse of the former.

It is unusual in Second Life for a role-playing community to exist for longer than a year. Internet time10 certainly exists in Second Life. The logistical, interpersonal and financial skills necessary to manage and maintain a community are uncommon among Second Life residents. During the period of my research I saw a continuing stream of communities being founded and then failing, usually for the same reasons. These reasons are split between being caused by residents’ actions and Linden Lab’s (the company who produced Second Life) policy. But more on that later.

When we enter virtual worlds we take large pieces of our meatspace culture with us: virtual worlds are not tabulae rasae. They are, like the colonial world of my forebears, populated by dreamers, misfits and pioneers from the old world. The denizens of the virtual come from the old world, the physical world, meatspace. The place where the bounds and exigencies of the meat bind us, tie us, limit the possible. When we enter a virtual world we leave some of those bounds behind us, we can, for instance, fly as avatars in Second Life. But some bounds we must still abide by. Avatars don’t need to eat: the humans driving them still do. We enter a world which has its own new kinds of limits; no smells, no touch and its own demands; high end computers, fast internet access.

When entering a virtual world one does not imagine that one is leaving the one physical reality of which we are all aware and entering another world of the same type. At least no one I met does. Rather one imagines oneself entering another world in the same way that a god enters our world: as an avatar. When we enter a virtual world we are as beings who live in one world, where we have many abilities and capabilities, but who have chosen to enter another world as a phantasm, whereby our abilities are limited by the form we must take to enter it. Our meatspace self continues to exist in its native reality, but our avatar exists as the means by which we experience the new world.

The primary way that avatars express their being in these new worlds is by the stories they tell each other. Some of these stories are told visually, the avatar’s attire, for instance, indicating their role, the place in the community they inhabit. But most of the avatars’ stories in the communities I studied were conveyed by the creation that was their role play performance. This performance is communicated mostly in words. It is through these words that the avatars express their sociocultural, political and their personal lives. I chose autoethnography as it is the method which best enables me to communicate that world, as I experienced it, to you. But what really is an autoethnography?

In 2000 Ellis noted a trend towards authors who have made themselves and their personal experience a central feature of their research11. Ellis remarks that, in many cases, whether a social science work is called an autoethnography or an ethnography depends on the claims made by authors and those who write about it”12. Moreover Ellis goes on to say that nowadays things are labeled autoethnography which used to be called personal narratives, narratives of the self, personal experience narratives, self-stories, personal essays, ethnographic short stories, complete member research, opportunistic research, self-ethnography, critical autobiography, radical empiricism, ethnobiography, emotionalism, experiential texts, and many more terms besides13.

Looking back to the origins of the form, Ellis notes that Karl Heider used the term in 1975 to refer to the Dani’s own account of what people do, but gives Hayano as the person usually considered to be the originator of the term, he using it only in the case of “cultural level studies by anthropologists of their ‘own people’, in which the researcher is a full insider by virtue of being ‘native’, acquiring an intimate familiarity with the group, or achieving full membership in the group being studied14“. Hayano himself however states that “I first heard the term auto ethnography used in Sir Raymond Firth’s structuralism seminar in 1966 at the London School of Economics15. Hayano identifies two major types of autoethnography, the first being those written by insiders, here, for example, he cites Roy’s16 1975 study of Bengali women, noting that Roy is both a Bengali and a woman17. The second type being those written by “researchers who have acquired an intimate familiarity with certain subcultural, recreational, or occupational groups”18. Moreover he notes a subcategory of this second type which “occurs when individuals become formally and informally socialized, after indoctrination, into a specific group or role-type with some specialized knowledge or way of life”19.

It is interesting to note though that Hayano was only conceiving these two types as variants of studies by indigenous insiders of ethnic or subcultural groups. Indeed it was this conception of autoethnography which was its only meaning in the early years of the form. This conception was the cause of some rather insulting critiques, with argument centering on the question of whether native authors could be objective enough. Unsurprisingly some insiders, among them Chilungu20, took umbrage at arguments that insiders must necessarily be biased when compared to outside observers. However some authors early on were strong supports of the ideal of objectivity, notably Srinivas21, who argued that objective research procedures, detachment and uninvolvement were more important than intense personal familiarity.

Michael Jackson argues in “Paths Towards a Clearing”22 that objective detachment is a requirement of positivist social science, and he sees a problem in writing about people without distorting their thoughts and making them appear mechanical. His suggested solution is “radical empiricism” a process that includes the ethnographers’ experiences and interactions with other participants as vital parts of what is being studied. Hayano however criticises over objectivity, writing that even Malinowski “misunderstood, misinterpreted, or inaccurately described important features of native life and culture”23. Ellis sees the academic pursuit of objectivity as a shortcoming, arguing that the use of the third person passive voice removes personal accountability and thus gives more weight to abstract and categorical knowledge24.

Another of the criticisms of subjective research is that “cultural realities and interpretations of events among individuals in the same group are often highly variable, changing or contradictory”25 and that, as such, this kind of research only presents a single interpretation of events rather than a single, objective truth. I shall argue that this is in fact the value of this method. Taking a subjective approach forces one to admit that there are many truths.

Jones26 was an early advocate for a more subjective approach, arguing for the validity of an approach which seeks to present on behalf of and beneficial to one’s own group. Adler and Adler called this kind of research complete member research and defined it as referring to “researchers who are fully committed to and immersed in the groups they study”27. For myself I most identify with Megan and Wood’s expression of “becoming the phenomenon”28. It seems to me that anything less is like trying to explain what it is to be a fish by gazing into a fishbowl. In being troubled by this gaze I seem to be an incarnation of what Scheper-Hughes is describing when she says “Many younger anthropologists today, sensitized by the writing of Michel Foucault on power/knowledge, have come to think of anthropological fieldwork as a kind of invasive, disciplinary ‘panopticon’ and the anthropological interview as similar to the medieval inquisition confession though which church examiners extracted ‘truth’ from their native and ‘heretical’ peasant practitioners”29.

Scheper-Hughes wrestled with the ethical conundrum of being an allegedly detached observer, at first telling the objects of her enquiry that according to the dictates of anthropology, “I cannot be an anthropologist and a companheira at the same time”30 but later realising that “…there was little virtue to false neutrality in the face of the broad political and moral dramas of life and death, good and evil, that were being played out…”31.

For myself, I shall argue that objectivity is impossible in the human condition, that subjectivity is the only remaining option and that there is never a single truth. Once we can get past the Enlightenment conceit that there is a single, rational, true, way of knowing, and that European males are the only ones who can find it, true progress can be made.

If I had in fact not been a committed member of the communities I studied the members would not have wished me to do this research. This response has been noted before in studying internet communities. Hudson and Bruckman conducted research in IRC chatrooms and found that 63% of the chatrooms they entered ejected them as soon as they indicated they were researchers who wished to study the chat32.

In the present day discussions about autoethnography have broadened to consider not only the value of a subjective approach but also of a narrative one, with Ellis defining autoethnography as “…an autobiographical genre of writing and research that displays multiple levels of consciousness, connecting the personal to the cultural”33. Ellis argues for a personal, narrative approach on the basis that,

“Stories are the way humans make sense of their worlds. Stories are essential to human understanding and are not unique to autoethnography. Stories are the focus of Homeric literature, oral traditions, narrative analysis, and fairy tales. Given their importance I argue that stories should be both a subject and a method of social science research.”34

Critics of narrative approaches have argued that stories fictionalise life by giving life a structure it does not have35 or that they are in fact a “Romantic construction of the self”36 and thus cannot be considered to be genuine social science, rather, Atkinson claims, they are journeys of self discovery which cannot be the same thing as analysis. In reply to the first criticism I stand with Adrienne Rich, who argues that “The story of our lives becomes our lives”37, that is, reality is constituted for us not in what objectively happened, which we can never know, but in what we tell ourselves happened. To the latter criticism I reply that analysis is an important tool in self discovery, a life unreflected on is no life, as Heinlein puts it in the words of his perennial hero Lazarus Long, “A generation that ignores history has no past and no future”38. I say this because we are always living in the past, constructing reality in retrospect because of the way our perceptual system functions. Our perception continuously lags 80ms after events occur and our brain constructs our perceptual reality after the fact, even correcting for this lag by editing what we actually perceived39. In effect, we tell ourselves a story to frame our perceptions. And the story is, “I perceive that thing to be red and I perceive that thing to be hot. And I can also perceive that a thermometer indicates that that thing is 100 degrees of this perception I call hot.” First comes the trigger, then the perception. The 100 degrees, the science of the perception is tertiary. It’s fantastically useful, but it is tertiary to the trigger and secondary to one’s own perception of hot. Imagination is where we live. Everything is a remix and everything is a story. It is the performance of the story of the remix that constitutes what we know and are.

The aforementioned criticisms are ignoring this vital factor, our lives are not texts, they are performances. Blain, Ezzy et al. note that scholars have recently begun to embrace performance as a useful analytical category, especially in religious studies, sociology, anthropology, ritual studies and gender studies40. This study is of a performance of Ancient Egyptian Pagan worlds being recreated in Second Life. Paganism is an inherently experiential religion, as Lynne Hume puts it “doing is knowing”41. Paganism is low on dogma and high on experience. Tanya Luhrmann argued42 that people become Pagans as a result of experiencing the practice and building from that the conceptualisation of the Pagan universe. The doing creates the knowing.

In the virtual world of Second Life one’s doing is hampered, it is at one remove, filtered by the interface. Bonewits43 writes of the widely known necessity of stimulating as many senses as possible in order to create effective ritual, but in Second Life there is no smell or touch, and one’s other senses are limited. In my experience there is an awareness of the desirability of initiating a full range of sensory stimulation in order to produce efficacious rituals in present day Pagan communities. So knowing this, and yet continuing to participate in rituals in the virtual world practitioners of virtual rituals are knowingly accepting a limitation to their practice. However only some members of the Second Life communities revealed herein are Pagans in the meatspace world. Of those few who are some do realise the limitations the virtual space has in regards to ritual practice and work hard to find accommodations for virtual ritual. These are the residents most likely to participate in rituals in the virtual space. Those residents of these communities who are not Pagans still have an awareness of the limitations of the virtual world they choose to inhabit. They too strive to find ways to make their virtual experiences more rich. But they too live with acknowledged limitations.

Why would one choose to experience a limiting reality? For the same reason divine avatars choose to come into our world, because one is required to do so in order to enter it. It is my experience that accepting a limitation is usually born of one of two things. The first is that utter gnawing, unbeatable, indefatigable frustration that accompanies chronic irremediable situations such as chronic pain or war. The second is because there is a trade-off, some other circumstance that makes it worthwhile for one to accept a seemingly crucial limitation. Some benefit to be gained from this acceptance. While some individuals in the virtual world are indubitably dealing with chronic pain, or other disabilities that limit their access to the normal social intercourse that most take for granted, they are a minority. They are probably represented in the virtual world in the same proportions as they are in the meatspace world. This means that for the vast majority of the population of virtual worlds the desperation driven acceptance of limitation is not the reason for their participation. This leaves only the trade-off. This thesis then is the record of my quest to find what that thing is, or those things are, that virtual worlds offer that causes their residents to accept the crucial limitations inherent in the experience and still attempt to know by doing.

Humans enter virtual worlds because they are, in a variety of ways, different, better, more desirable, more engaging than meatspace. One can do things in them one cannot do in meatspace. Yes, they are lacking in some ways in comparison to meatspace, deficient in satiating our full range of senses, but the balance of their benefits must be substantial or so many of the humans who visit them wouldn’t prefer44 45 to spend time in virtual worlds rather than in meatspace, wouldn’t build lives, communities and religions there, wouldn’t game until they die46, wouldn’t stay immersed while their meatspace children die for lack of attention47 48.

Marc Prensky49 introduced the term ‘Digital Natives’ in 2001, explaining that, “Our students today are all ‘native speakers’ of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet”. This is, mostly, true of all the twenty first century born generations of the developed world. But this digital fluency alone does not make them natives of virtual worlds. Perhaps avatars are natives of the virtual, but in fact, these new worlds have no human natives50. No human has, yet, been born in, initially exclusively socialized in, and come into sentience in, a virtual world.

Virtual worlds have no natives that we are displacing, colonising, assimilating. We can make a new space of our own, that we aren’t stealing from someone else. A clean colonisation, and we embrace it, we misfits and explorers, seekers of new places, and spaces, and worlds of being anew. Not autonomous, obviously, but fresh. Worlds of our creation. Worlds of our ultimate creation. Ultimate creation because these are not only worlds we create in, like the meatspace one, they are worlds we first created, from scratch, macrocosm and microcosm. The macrocosm is the rendered virtual world we see on our screens, its microcosm, the code. It is this pioneering appeal that draws residents into them. On this planet there are few frontiers to run away to. To board one’s Mayflower in search of. Few frontiers to draw those who, like my austral forebears, sought a new life in the antipodes. Virtual worlds are the antipodes of meatspace.

  1. Leary, T. F., (2006), Neuropolitique, New Falcon Publications, Arizona, p. 93. ↩︎
  2. Charitrapragya, Samani, (2004), Mahavira, Anekantavada And The World Today, in Sethia, T. (ed), Ahimsa, Anekanta, and Jainism, Motilal Banarsidass Publications, Delhi, pp 80-84. ↩︎
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  8. This word was coined by Robert A. Heinlein in his book “Stranger in a Strange Land” and means to understand a thing so fully as to become one with it. ↩︎
  9. Short for simulation. A region of virtual land 256×256 metres that is supplied by Linden Lab. ↩︎
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  21. Srinivas, M. N., (1966) Social Change in Modern India, University of California Press, Berkeley. ↩︎
  22. Jackson, M., (1989), Paths toward a clearing: Radical empiricism and ethnographic inquiry, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, p. 20. ↩︎
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  40. Blain, J. (ed), Ezzy, D. (ed), Harvey, G. (ed), (2004), Researching Paganisms, AltaMira, Walnut Creek, p. 17. ↩︎
  41. Hume, L., (1997), Witchcraft and Paganism in Australia, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, pp. 1-15. ↩︎
  42. Luhrmann, T. M., (1989), Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England, Harvard University Press. ↩︎
  43. Bonewits, I., (2003), Rites of Worship: A Neopagan Approach, Earth Religions Press, pp. 181-209. ↩︎
  44. Castronova, E., Wagner, G. G., (2011), “Virtual Life Satisfaction”, Kyklos, Vol. 64, Issue 3, pp. 313-328. ↩︎
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  46. Parkin, S., (2012), Death by gaming: an investigation into the Taiwan café fatalities, http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2012-09-19-death-by-gaming-why-taiwans-cafe-culture-is-killing-gamers, Accessed 26/01/2014 ↩︎
  47. CBSNews, (2010), Gaming Addicts Guilty of Starving Baby to Death, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/gaming-addicts-guilty-of-starving-baby-to-death-28-05-2010/, Accessed 26/01/2014. ↩︎
  48. Farberov, S., (2013), Parents ‘were so immersed in fantasy video game world where their avatars married and had jobs they let real-life daughter, 2, nearly starve to death‘, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2455567/Parents-immersed-video-game-daughter-nearly-starved-death.html, Accessed 26/01/2014. ↩︎
  49. Prensky, M., (2001), “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants”, On the Horizon, Vol. 9, No. 5, pp. 1-6, http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf, Accessed 02/04/2014. ↩︎
  50. Boellstorff, T., (2008), Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human, Princeton University Press, Princeton, p. 85. ↩︎

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