Residents of the communities I studied felt subject to deviant labeling, and not only if they were members of communities in the world which were seriously at deviance from meatspace norms. Spending time in virtual worlds at all still has a stigma attached to it. A game like The Sims, where one is compelled to repeatedly enact a limited number of options in order to vicariously live the life of a character in a very shallow world attracts only scant derision, and is in fact lauded as one the most popular games ever1, but abiding in Second Life, a rich, deep world where the user controls almost every aspect of the world and can be or do anything attracts constant streams of derision, usually along the lines of “get a real life”.
This stereotype has been milked and propagated by journalists who spend the minimum possible time in the world, sometimes none, to write a story, and who invariably write about disturbed relationships, porn and the perceived emptiness of Second Life2 3.
It has been well demonstrated that media usually sensationally portray subcultural spaces as deviant while promoting “…an ideologically dominant status quo”4. Commercial documentaries and mainstream media reports of Second Life invariably focus on the most maladjusted individuals they can find in the world and then portray them as exemplars of the greater community. Life 2.05 is a particularly egregious example, which contains stories about an adulterous relationship, a deeply troubled young man recovering from abuse, and a woman who makes her living in the world. Even the woman who makes her living as a successful builder is made to look as if she is somehow delusional because her avatar is a thinner version of her rather rotund meatspace self.
CBC’s Strangers in Paradise6 is the story of an adulterous man who has affairs with two women in the world and is purely sensationalist. The documentary “When Strangers Click”7 gives a glimmer of hope. This movie tells five stories of couples meeting in Second Life and provides a more nuanced view of the world. However it still only examines the topic of relationships and spends most of its time on a failed adulterous relationship which is portrayed in a very melodramatic manner.
The ABC’s Four Corners 2007 documentary “You Only Live Twice”8 is perhaps the best of the media reports on the world. Though it too discusses the same old topics; identity play, virtual sex, corporations, but nothing about community. The media’s fascination with lurid topics, usually virtual sex, is indicative of a lack of depth in their reporting. It takes a lot of time to get to know Second Life, mostly because the inworld search is so poor as to be almost completely useless, but also because of the nature of community there. Members of the media have simply not spent the time required to get to know the culture(s) of Second Life. This study will delve into the cultures of both Second Life as a whole, and of the first community I studied in particular, and seek to make them explicable to those of you who have not yet known the worlds of Second Life.
The most accurate portrayals of the world are made by those who live there. Virtual worlds are not a spectator sport. You had to be there. If time is a currency, as postulated by Harlan Ellison in his “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”9, residents of Second Life are big spenders. Many, many hours are required to grok the virtually real. In a society with a fast cut, shallow depth, lurid detail, mediascape the choice to go for long, slow experiences may at first seem an unlikely one. Probably it is a reaction against the pace of information insertion we experience today. Maybe it’s generational. The average age of a Second Life resident is 33 and nearly a third are over 3510 after all.
The most interesting of all the documentaries on the world is made by a resident. The series, made in and about the world, is entitled Molotov Alva and his Search for The Creator: A Second Life Odyssey11. In this ten part series of five minute movies shot entirely in the world12, Douglas Gayeton takes us on a journey to follow Molotov Alva on a journey of self discovery in Second Life, on a quest to seek the creator. Along the way Molotov philosophically compares virtual life with meatspace life. He explores the issues of identity creation, having less sensory input, simulations’ dependence on the things they simulate, the inauthenticity of modern life – fake leather, non dairy creamer – commenting on how many things in the meatspace world are made to resemble something else, and on the coming of the corporations to the world. He explains griefing as the cathartic release of those who discover themselves in a virtual world, where anything is possible, where one can have anything, be anything, and yet who still find themselves filled with a deep, gnawing emptiness. He considers how the geographical mobility of 21st century meatspace lives often creates friendships and families that rely on technology, phones and email especially, for their continuance. Molotov describes being in the world as an experiment in self actualization, noting how being there enables people to create themselves anew, to create the world as they wish it to be, and thus to live lives in times and places best suited to their natures, instead of cramming them into the shape of the consensus reality of twenty first century life. He eventually discovers that there is no one creator, that everyone can be a creator, can shape their virtual world, their virtual selves, as they wish. This observation is central to life in Second Life. People are there to take control of their lives, to be free, to be their own persons, to shape themselves as they wish, regardless of the physical circumstances, social conventions, moral ideals and laws they find themselves surrounded with in meatspace. They are shaping their meatspace lives by doing so. A virtual life is not something lost from one’s meatspace life, it is an addition to it. It is therefore ironic that being in the world is often decried as a waste of time, as not real, as deviant, as a problem when it is in fact a solution.
The charming and amusing Man vs. Second Life13 is another resident made film which incisively comments on being in the world. Made in the guise of a survival guide, Our Hero sets out to survive Second Life. In less than nine minutes the maker, Hugity, provides more insight into being in the world than any of the commercial films. With a delicious ironic touch Hugity mercilessly satirizes the world and its portrayers. What makes this piece more compelling is that it does what Molotov Alva did: It uses role play to convey its meaning. Hugity’s character plays the role of an insider commenting on newcomers, known as ‘noobs’. He dispenses advice on how to spot and avoid noobs while along the way revealing his own noobness. His subtlety is such that actual noobs, or those who have never ventured into the world at all, will most likely not discern the rich levels of cultural commentary in the film. In this thesis I shall endeavor to elucidate this culture so that it is deciphered for those who have not experienced it first hand.
The way I will try to do this is to convey to you what happened to me. To try to help you to understand this strange land in which you probably haven’t lived. To this end I will use what Clifford Geertz14 calls thick description. Through the course of this thesis I will try to take you on the same journey that I took, although your journey will be greatly compressed in time compared to mine, and thus necessarily greatly compressed in experience. But I will try to lead you through that journey, in a way that unpacks the reality for you, explains the jargon for you, lifts the veil that necessarily now lingers over your conceptualisation of what it is to be a resident of the virtual. For this reason the majority of this thesis will take the form of a chronologically ordered retelling of my experiences in the world.
I am telling you the story of how the world became real to me. When I first entered the world it was a strange and amazing place. I accordingly began as an outside observer. But this is a limited position. To understand a thing one must become the thing. Anything less is the uninformed opinion of an interested passer by. In order to commence becoming the thing one must take it seriously. One cannot maintain a position that one is “immune from unreason” as Evans-Pritchard put it in regards to his work with the Zande15. I have immersed myself in, and here reveal to you, the particular kind of madness that it is to be a resident of Second Life.
- Wikipedia, List of Best-Selling PC Games, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Best-Selling_PC_Video_Games, Accessed 26/01/2014. ↩︎
- Pirillo, C., (2010), Why Didn’t Second Life Become a Hit?, http://chris.pirillo.com/why-didnt-second-life-become-a-hit/, Accessed 26/01/2014. ↩︎
- Stein, J. (2006), My So-Called Second Life, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1570827,00.html, Accessed 26/01/2014. ↩︎
- Richardson, J. T., (1996), “Journalistic Bias Toward New Religious Movements in Australia”, Journal of Contemporary Religion, Vol. 11, No. 3, pp. 289-290. ↩︎
- Life 2 Film, Life 2.0: Virtual World, New Reality, http://life2movie.com/, Accessed 26/01/2014. ↩︎
- CBC, Strangers in Paradise, http://www.cbc.ca/fifth/2008-2009/strangers_in_paradise/video.html, No longer online. ↩︎
- HBO, When Strangers Click, http://www.hbo.com/documentaries/when-strangers-click#/, Accessed 26/01/2014. ↩︎
- ABC, You Only Live Twice, http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/special_eds/20070319/default_full.htm, Accessed 26/01/2014. ↩︎
- Ellison, H., (1966), “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”, Galaxy Bookshelf, Galaxy Publishing, New York, p. 163. ↩︎
- Reinhart, R., (2007), Making Sense of Second Life Demographics, http://www.hatesomethingchangesomething.com/making-sense-of-second-life-demographics/, Accessed 02/04/2014. ↩︎
- Gayeton, D., Molotov Alva and his Search for The Creator: A Second Life Odyssey, http://molotovalva.submarine.nl, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
- This type of movie, shot in virtual or game worlds, are collectively known as machinima. ↩︎
- Baumgaertner, H., Krueger, S., McGirr, J., Man vs. Second Life, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFS4l5B547s, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
- Geertz, C., (1973), “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture” in The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, Basic Books, New York, pp. 3-30. ↩︎
- Favret-Saada, J., (1980), Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 10. ↩︎