Friday, March 27, 2009

Being a resident

The furore over the adult content in Second Life and a couple of meetings I have been to in order to discuss it, have highlighted for me what a gulf of difference there is between people who "live" in Second Life and those who simply use it as a tool for work or education.

I have always known that here was a qualitative difference in the psychology of those who arrive for their own purposes and those who are wearing a corporate or educational "hat" on arrival.

I worked as a mentor for four years, and dealt with many people in their first few hours in world. Many of those that came in as ordinary residents were overwhelmed with the possibilities, and particularly by the way in which they suddenly had the opportunity to meet and talk to people all over the world. Talking in text privately with a stranger does initially give one the impression of talking directly to another person's mind, and without the conventions that limit talking to strangers in the real world - and the possible physical or emotional danger - people open up in a way initially that isn't healthy for them, sometimes revealing much more than they ought to about their inner selves.

For those who come in with a company objective, the experience is somewhat different. As you are wearing your position in the company, and the higher standard of behaviour that this will normally demand from people, you're still at arm's length from the people that you meet. You do not invest your avatar with your personality in the same way, and you do not engage and immerse in the same way. No, no, you don't, really you don't, however much you may intend or wish to engage, the whole experience is changed radically from the personal experience that an "ordinary" resident will have.

In four years of mentoring I often had people spontaneously confide in me that they had always wanted to be a woman, had never felt comfortable in the real world, were looking for excitement that their real lives weren't offering, didn't get on with their wives/partner/mothers. People engage and communicate quickly and apparently deeply in virtual worlds, and lack the sort of psychological armour which we carry in the real world.

Those with a corporate or work hat on, never engage that deeply... in those four years I never had someone who came into SL for that reason, reveal inappropriate personal details or long-felt wants.

It's hard to explain to someone what the difference is, but it seems to me that it is very like the difference between going to live in a strange city and going there on business. In the latter case, it is possible to go to a foreign land, see only the airport, hotel and office, and leave without any true idea of what life is like for the people who live there or what the country is like.

In just the same way, living in SL and making a home there - making a circle of friends, and finding out what passions you have in the virtual world - is entirely different from looking at it like a tool, like a stapler or overhead projector.

Being a resident in SL means immersing in the world, learning who you are there and how it differs from the you which lives in the real world. Many people claim to be exactly the same in the virtual world as they are in the real world, but actually none of us are, however much we try to model our virtual self on our real self. One of the liberating things about being in the virtual world is the very fact that we can shed our real life concerns and take only those things we choose into the virtual world.

Are you fat in real life? You can choose to be exactly as you are in real life, or shed those unwanted pounds and years to become the person you would like to be. There is a whole psychology around appearance in the virtual world, where people may conclude from your appearance that you have certain desires or hangups which influence how you appear. And you do, no matter who you are, whether you spend hours on your appearance or no time at all, whether you are an exact replica of your real-life self or a younger, thinner version.

Everyone assumes a lot of roles and responsibilities in the course of their lives - as sons and daughters, wives, mothers, breadwinners, family clown or family depressives - all of these can be a choice in the virtual world. If you wish to lose your husband, family responsibility and spend your time in the virtual world as somebody free from those, you can.

Being in Second Life in this way - thinking about who you are and who or what you want to be - realising that you have choices and those may affect what happens to you in your virtual future - are all adventures for a resident in Second Life that may pass you by altogether if you are already wearing your corporate or academic responsibilities as part of your avatar on entry to the world. Of course, it is possible for people to set up a private avatar as well as a corporate one, but I do think that it is quite difficult for people to immerse in the same way once they have visited in a professional capacity.

Many ordinary residents arrive in Second Life due to some publicity which indicates it may be the path to riches, or that there is unlimited free sex available or for some other reason of their own. Finding the things that will hold their attention and make them want to stay centres around people - finding people that can help and guide them and finding people that they feel that they have something in common with.

In the past, with most communication being by text, it was easier to engender a fellow feeling, even in people who were geographically distant and who might have entirely different experiences of the real world. This is being eroded by voice chat and by the tendency of academic institutions to fence themelves off from the real residents. The biggest division that I see, however, is between the real residents and the ones who are just visiting for a specific purpose.

Being a resident in SL leads to a number of things which don't necessarily obtain if you are simply there for business. You make connections and friendships with a whole range of people, and learn to know which ones you feel at home with and which make you feel uncomfortable. You learn to work out your own attitude to men who play female avatars and vice versa. You begin to grapple with ideas around identity and appearance, etiquette for virtual worlds. Most of all I was staggered by how kind and generous and nice people in the virtual world are, in general.

Being a resident means living in a virtual place, not just visiting... making significant friendships and finding a significance in the things that one does there. People who have nevr visited - and even some who have - are often scathing of those who spend time in a virtual world, but I have had some of the funniest, most touching and interesting moments of my life in Second Life.

Second Life in its chaotic glory has been a place to find out about myself and others, in a way that I don't think I could have done in RL without significant risk of harm, and I find it all fascinating. It's been a tremendously educational experience. I have learned about BDSM, I discovered what Gor was about, learned that people really do dress up as furries in RL too, met people I would not have met otherwise, and shared a place out of time and space with people all over the world.

I've learned to build and create and have found an outlet for the creative capacity which was struggling to come out in a series of failed artistic projects in the real world. Somewhere, I have a half mosaiced penguin....

For those who arrive as a librarian or teacher and see it only as a tool, it may be inexplicable that someone might have a virtual sex bed or live life as a predatory wolf in the wilds of the furry sims, but for me each thing is an invitation to find out more about myself or others. Choosing not to be a slave, Star Wars role player or Goth is a choice too, for a resident. For those who just visit it is often not a possibility that crosses their mind.

Being a resident who also develops builds for commercial clients, I find myself suspended between the two versions of the virtual world: the full and nuanced world I find as a resident, and the clinically unsexy, worthy and useful world of the commercial or academic clients. Of the two, the one which has taught me the most is the former. I'd recommend it to anyone.


  1. Great comment on the essence of Second Life; however useful it may be as a set of tools for different purposes its the possibility of living twice that lies at the core of it.

  2. Soooooooooooooo true Caliandris.

    At various times, I have tried to persuade people to 'live a little' in Second Life and encountered a surprising degree of prejudice, even after they spend some time there.

    My conclusion is that people either expect SL to be a game (complete with Xbox 360 graphics) and/ or to be provided with a route map and objectives on arrival, so that they feel lost and are disappointed; hence a typical comment: “SL is for geeks and losers”. However, as virtual worlds grow in their influence and reach, this attitude will increasingly be a minority one.

    Moreover, spending time in SL doesn’t imply one is a ‘failure’ in RL; it is possible to have 2 (or more) worthwhile lives from which one gets different things.


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