Saturday, January 20, 2007

But Auntie What Does One DO in Second Life?

I keep in sporadic touch with my nephew, a freshman at Stanford, in Facebook. A few weeks ago I dropped a note that referenced my activities in Second Life and he asked “what does one do?” Good question, because once you get past Orientation and Help Islands, there’s no obvious path to follow. No one presents you with a quest to gain experience points or weapons of power. Once I had figured out my hair, I at least had a goal, to find out about libraries and education in SL. But many people come in just to check it out.

Besides other newbies, you are likely to meet first SL exotic dancers, escorts (hookers) or casino shills who haunt new user areas looking for customers or workers. Once outside of the new user areas, your first visits are likely to be to the Second Life casinos that attract customers by promising ‘free money’. Or, you may find yourself in a sandbox where new users are learning SL skills, or more likely, testing their new weapons on you.

So you will naturally conclude that SL is for sex, gambling, and assaulting other residents. If that’s what you want you may continue to return, but many never do. “How do you play this game? I don’t understand…” Is a question I’ve heard many times. It looks like a game, I have an avatar, a gun and great abs, so where are the damned rules?

It’s not a game, it’s a platform

That is, it’s there for you to use. Unlike most other online virtual worlds, like World of Warcraft, the content is created by the residents. It’s the creation of thousands of minds, and is therefore more varied, interesting and unpredictable then anything a single organization could create. And if it exists in real life (RL) someone has or is creating it in SL. Or if it’s something someone can dream of, but never do in RL, they’ll do it here.

“The ability to simulate our world on computers means that we can make it different in ways that empower us, allowing us to do things that in the physical world we can imagine but are incapable of.” (Phillip Linden. The Mission of Linden Lab)

This doesn’t mean you can’t find things to do if you are not interested in building a virtual geodesic dome or creating and selling virtual sex toys. So following is a list of what one could do.

One has conversations

As you take your first baby steps, you meet others. After you drive off the 3 newbies who want to have virtual sex (never mind that they haven’t even gotten a free virtual winky yet) you’ll meet someone who can converse. This is done with keyboard chat. Mostly through happenstance, I have made many friends; artists from Chicago and Australia, librarians and graduate students from Michigan, California, N. Carolina, Massachusetts, Iowa, and Spain, IT professionals from England, scientists from Scotland. I would never have met most of these people any other way. We all share a common interest in this tool called Second Life, but our differing skills and knowledge result in stimulating and sometimes surprising conversations and connections.

One fusses endlessly with ones appearance

Where else can a 51 year old broad acquire a knockout figure with no effort? Where else can you don different hair, gender, race or species everyday? The conformity of avatars is a bit depressing; there are a lot of Barbie dolls and GI Joe types. But there are many fantastical and creative avatars. I currently look human, wear purple hair and a very loud tie-dye tee-shirt with my jeans, but hope to become stranger as my skills in creating here improve.

One acquires objects, notes and landmarks

A newbie avatar is offered a variety of “freebies”, clothing, skin, hair, and other items. For instance, most avatars quickly acquire wings, a cigar and a beverage. Figuring out how to wear the objects is usually task number 3, after learning to walk and talk.

Notes are freely distributed to bother you with explanations and help. Most newbies are too disoriented to actually read them however. But eventually you’ll find your inventory full of 200 old notes. Landmarks help you teleport (TP) from one site to another. (One telltale sign of a newbie is that they fly or walk everywhere). You can make them, or receive them, or give them to someone else.

One listens to music and goes dancing

Beyond conversing, you can attend SL concerts, dance parties, or just sightsee. There are a growing number of musicians streaming live performances into SL, some of them even good. These performances are often held in some of the best SL places. In December I attended an electronic music performance at the Alpha Space Station. This celestial auditorium is suspended above a virtual Earth. Combining music, video, and special effects it was a concert you could only attend in the Metaverse.

Yes avatars can dance, with the help of dance animations. Whether at a club or a private island, avatars can groove independently, in couples (yes, you can tango), or all together. It is oddly fun. And the music is often quite good. If it is not live, then an SL DJ or radio station is providing the music, so you can become a DJ too.

One builds and appreciates other’s builds

A “build” refers to the environments and objects created by others. I’ve done a few of my own, including a cottage and a cloister. Some of my favorites created by others are a sky geodesic dome, a French cathedral, and an island devoted to sound sculptures. Last night I spent an hour with several friends playing with a huge virtual instrument (Cantata Park I). And we got to meet and chat with the artist.

One is educated and informed

There are many SL organizations conducting classes in how to build and script in the SL platform. There are many educational institutions that have their own private areas where classes meet, such as CyberOne: Law in the Court of Public Opinion, a class being offered at Harvard Law School. Last week I attended a presentation sponsored by the Michigan Library Consortium. Over forty people attended from all over the country. InfoIsland II, part of the same island complex, has the Science Center with 3D exhibits that model everything from a fullerene to a paramecium. Nearby is Health Info Island which offers consumer health information and resources for research activities. University of California at Davis has created a virtual simulation environment called “Virtual Hallucinations” to demonstrate the kinds of hallucinations schizophrenics experience. I’ve started a group for library and information science graduate students. We meet regularly to talk and learn about libraries in Second Life.

One gossips

I’m hardly alone in blogging about SL. Many blogs and publications now grind out daily articles about almost every angle you can imagine; business, art, fashion, features about places and people. This includes several tabloid publications that focus obsessively on a small number of famous SL avatars, and endlessly critique and speculate about Linden Lab, its practices, plans, and future. So one can read about Second Life, and one can write about it too, and you may even find a readership (I have at least three, four if you are reading this).

One commits sex, gambling and violence

Oh, and you can buy virtual genitals and engage in cartoon porn. Every practice you don’t want to imagine happens here. But its great popularity makes me think it could actually benefit the planet; birth rates and STD’s might plummet if a large portion of the population finds their partner of choice in another avatar. So of course, there is also a lot of emotional drama, romance, and betrayal.

Casinos are a big draw in SL; not only do they let you waste your patrimony; they usually feature pole dancers and escorts. And you can get weapons and use them. There are a number of SL places for gamers to go where use of weapons is allowed and expected; residents have built gaming environments. However, many SL residents find it more entertaining to commit mayhem in the peaceful population, and are known as “griefers”. The most common assault is to try to cage another avatar and send them flying into the stratosphere, or push them into another sim. But they can also blow apart an area with a nuke, sick annoying objects onto another (the horrid “banana phone”), or try to make a few bucks by armed robbery.

One satirizes Second Life

People who prefer to see things from the cynical side abound in Second Life, as it is such fertile ground for satire. Because, face it, except for you and a select group of friends, most other people are pretty lame and SL lets them demonstrate it to the world. There is a whole subculture outing SL’s ridiculous or seamy side in blogs and YouTube, such as Machinima video “Second Life: The Virtual Utopia of the Future”, or Shiplog of the U.S.S. Prokofy Neva (Prokofy is an annoying SL personality famous for “blogorrhea”).

One builds skills and knowledge

3D virtual worlds are no longer just an entertainment tool. We will be using them. In just a few years, they will probably be as ubiquitous as wikis and blogs. Corporations will use them for distance meetings. Instructors will use them to conduct classes. Businesses will use them to help customers shop. Families and friends will use them to get together over long distances. So I am getting ready.


Aleister Kronos said...

Great summary, Auntie!

I don't suppose I could persuade you to plug some of this into the SL wiki could I?


Betsy Stoll said...

Yeah, you could. I'm easy...

Miriam said...

This was a fantastic summary, Betsy! As always, good work. :-)

Masha Brendel said...

As always, great work! This is a wonderful summary that I will defiantely point people toward when they continually ask about SL as a game or look perplexed. :-)