Monday, 13 January 2014

The Red Pill

Let's see how deep the rabbit hole goes
Because I'm as mad as a hatter, I logged onto Facebook, and then Tumblr, this morning and invited questions from non-SL users about Second Life. I thought I might get a little variety in the questions, maybe get asked how something worked, or if such-and-such was true, but the four - I know, I know, I need to sit down, it's so many - responses I received were all to the tune of one question: What is Second Life, and why would you ever 'go' there?

Deep breath. 'What is Second Life' has got to be up there with the great unexplainable mysteries of life. God, the Big Bang, dark matters, why washing machines make widows of socks, why toast always lands butter-side down: we may never know the answer to these, nor may we ever come up with a completely satisfactory answer to What Second Life Is, but - take another deep breath - I am going to try and answer it nonetheless. I am going to bravely go where a thousand pink-haired rabbits have probably gone before me (we are talking about the Internet, after all). 

We're going to take the red pill. Fasten your seatbelt, Dorothy.

What is Second Life?
Second Life is a virtual world that exists somewhere within the Internet. When you download SL, what you are really doing is downloading what we call a 'viewer' - software with which to open a portal to allow you to see into, and create an avatar within, Second Life. The language of this suggests the opening of a window - literally - to view something which is already in existence just, usually, beyond your line of sight. When you log out and the window closes, the world carries on without you.

The easiest thing to do is to liken SL to a game - preferably, an MMO like World of Warcraft, except with more possibilities when it comes to character creation and customisation. Whilst this analogy works to explain how SL exists in the first place, it doesn't take into account that SL has no predefined objectives, no scoring system, no health or experience bars. In WoW, you can create characters that all exist in the same world, from the same lore, and all learn and level-up based on the same markers for advancement. In SL, not only do you not 'level-up', but the people you are meeting and interacting with may be pulling ideas and information from entirely different worlds and lores from you. The basis for the creation of their characters might be wildly different from yours, and you cannot even rely on the idea that the person before you comes from the same society as you in the real world, because that person could be from a country on the other side of the world from you. 

It's impossible not to draw similarities between SL and The Matrix. A whole virtual simulated world, a replica of the real world, which you reach by plugging yourself into a computer. If you die in the Matrix, you die in the real world - not the case with SL, but then that's because you cannot really die in SL. If someone upsets you in the virtual world, however, it's not so easy to let that emotion go when you go back to the real world. Whether you like it or not, just as your mind travels into the Matrix, so your mind travels with you into SL. And as Morpheus says and as I have repeated here ad nauseam, 'the mind makes it real'.

It's not all nearly as scary as I have made it sound there. Most of the characters I have come across have been 'normal' humans, so to speak, and because of time differences, and because of the social circles I have fallen in with, most of the people I meet are British or American. Those contexts are not, exactly, worlds apart. The only people I have come close to offending with my foreign-lore-ways were the Tolkien elves, and they turned out to be more laid back than I had been warned they would be. Usually, if you say please and thank you, and know how to take turns in a conversation, you'll be just fine.

In fact, SL seems to thrive on a kind of honesty not found, at least in my social circles, in real life. Anonymity can be a great bolster to confidence, but people in SL are often very forthright and open about things as personal as mental health, and sex. Sometimes, they can be a little too forthright, and as such, a lot of 'drama' takes place. Drama is a major issue for SL, and it's something that has been known to drive people away from engaging with the virtual world. 

Because of the drama, and because there is no specific law (that I am aware of) for SL, SL is populated with vigilantes. On forums, personal blogs, and social media networks such as Plurk, vigilantes launch attacks, rightly or wrongly, against those they deem to be wrongdoers, accusing them of everything from copyright infringement to child pornography. Charity fundraisers that didn't give the money they raised to charity, people that think it's O.K. to sell clothes featuring swastikas or dressed inspired by the Columbine school shooting, insensitive remarks about rape - it's all happened in SL, and it's all been pointed out and dealt with by vigilantes. In terms of social and individual empowerment, it's fantastic; but, with any good vigilante film, there's always the fear that people see and accuse first, and ask questions later. Butchering one person doesn't change a general attitude.  

In terms of physicality, SL looks like...well...a whole lot of different things. There is no one aesthetic, and no rhyme or reason to how the virtual world is arranged. If you owned the land and the building skills, you could place Australia beside, say, Sweden, and have one foot in each replica-country, except SL is usually more diverse than that. Instead of building two countries next to each other, more often than not I find I could have one foot in a boxing ring a la Fight Club, and the other in a meadow which is home to a race of fairies with mermaid fins. 

Because there are so many individual creators and designers, the lands (sims) you can walk through can change as often and as quickly as the English weather. Since there is no are-you-any-good-at-this test, the quality of the builds can vary dramatically, too, and they will only exist as long as you keep paying for the land you are renting from Linden Labs. If you stop paying, you lose your right to build there. If you choose to rent land through a middle man, and someone offers you a better deal, you can move your building to another virtually-physical location. In that way, you can never wholly be sure that the place you are trying to visit is still going to be there. I tried to teleport (main method of transportation, after walking) to the World's End Garden earlier (see what that looks like here - here!), and instead ended up on a sim full of everyday-looking houses and great big palm trees.

Why Second Life? What is the point?
Second Life means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and what drives them to the virtual world in the first place is not necessarily what keeps them there. There's no way I can account for everyone's motives, but here are some thoughts.

SL is, potentially, a fantastic platform for design, creation, and money-making. Designing avatars and building houses in SL has the same appeal as designing avatars and building houses does on programmes such as the Sims. In SL, however, whilst you can get a limited about of clothes and items for free, things cost money, and land to build on costs money, and so many people turn to creating and selling their owns items or clothing in order to make SL pay for itself. For creatives, it's a great way to make a bit of pocket money, and also another forum for you to spread your artwork. I know of more than one real life artist who uses SL to sell artwork in various forms and to build up another fan-base. SL also offers access, thusly, to a wide range of other creatives with which you can bounce ideas and collaborate. That's exciting, no?

Some people with anxiety and/or depression also find solace in the virtual world. Being able to hide behind a different face can be a confidence booster, and it allows greater control over who you interact with, and when - especially since there are a thousand legitimate and familiar excuses you can employ to soften the I-don't-want-to-speak-to-you blow. There is one person I call friend who uses SL to get out and socialise because he is a full-time carer and cannot leave his house for personal time very often. 

It is also, alternatively, a place in which to hide - just as people hide from real life in books, games, and TV shows - , a place where the thing you are running from doesn't have to exist for a while. There's a danger there, in that a lot of expectation is made of what the virtual world is capable of, and sometimes it is all too easy to hide within its virtual boundaries and not to deal with the issues that originally drove us there. Alternatively, it offers a sanctuary in which to gather strength and support until you are ready to confront the real world. SL can't give you any answers that the real world can't, but perhaps the performance of life, the framing of it - and the performance and framing of yourself - can help lead you to the answers we can only get from ourselves.

Other people use SL as a place for self-experimentation, whether that be on a shall-I-dye-my-hair-purple level, or a am-I-into-BDSM-sex level. This ties (ha ha) into roleplay, but goes beyond just sexual roleplay - SL presents another medium in which to roleplay, listing itself beside the tabletop and forums. People in SL take RP very seriously, and the creation of collaborative stories like this is a wonderful thing in my opinion.

As I have written about here (- here!), there is no obligation to be the person you are in real life in your Second Life. If you want to log on and act like a chauvinist, off you go (it happens more than you might imagine). You can use your avatar to pretend to be confident, to pretend to be a rogue - to pretend to be whatever you like. As I've suggested, you don't even have to be human. You could be an animal, real or mythological, or a car, or an aeroplane, or a robot. The limits are the building skills of the virtual community.

The point, truly, is that Second Life has no point other than the point you give it, and many people stop engaging with Second Life when their original motive finds some real-life conclusion. If you get passed the difficult interface and utterly unintuitive avatar customisation, as well as the idiots that line up to flash their fake penises at newbies, there are some fantastic things to see in Second Life. Virtual coastlines, beautiful dream-worlds, spaceships, dragons, diners plucked straight out of the 1950s; if you can think of it, it probably exists, and if not, you can create it for yourself. 

Of course, there are an awful lot of fake penises kicking around, too.

Does that even begin to answer either question? There seems to be so much to say, but I think that is enough for now. I'm late for a very important date.


All questions, comments and feedback are welcome. Thank you.