Friday, November 14, 2008

XIII: Life in Technicolor

How am I not myself?

Imagine a world where you can look any way you want to. You can change everything... from the shape of your fingers to the space between your eyes - all without spending thousands of dollars on plastic surgery. You can fly, you can teleport, you can visit any place in the world - and you can even create a piece of space on your own. You can never get physically hurt, you can meet as many people in a day as you wish, or not interact with anybody at all. And the best part about it? When you get sick of life itself, you can just turn it all off... without having to actually commit suicide.

Meet Daphne. She is me. I am her. But because of her, I got to visit Venice Beach earlier without ever having to leave my bedroom in London... and I even took a picture:

No, I haven't suddenly become a gamer. This isn't The Sims, though it might look like it. Daphne is me in my second life. Unfortunately, Daphne is still homeless and rather lonely, but I hope to find her a home and some friends quite soon. Right now, she's probably going to spend the night on a beachmat in Venice.

Okay... I swear I'm not crazy. Let me explain.

Second Life is a network-based virtual world that anybody can become a member of. Some people will call it a game, but in the academic world, that's becoming highly debatable. In my opinion, it's a very sophisticated networking site that, because of how it is structured, can easily replace the "real" lives of the people who use it.

It goes WAY beyond The Sims, in that it has its own working economy (with a fluctuating exchange rate), allows for the purchase (with real money) of land and other property (including brand-name goods). It has museums, theme parks, churches and LAWS. It's like real life... except it's not. Or is it?

Either way, I think my discovery of Second Life (which was made possible by one of my professors), has sparked a serious consideration for it as a dissertation topic. Here are a few of my observations of it thus far:

1. Everyone in Second Life is YOUNG. But I doubt that the real people at their computers are ALL 20-somethings... which then raises an interesting question about the value our culture places on youth.

2. People on Second Life start REAL relationships. Take this couple, for example, who according to BBC, got married after meeting on Second life (but not until after the man was divorced by his REAL wife for cheating on her in the cyber world).

These two are obviously not what you would consider "beauties," which is another interesting element in itself.

3. You can't just walk around naked and NOT get in trouble. But you do have the free will to do so... which is not something you'd find in a regular game. Daphne walked into this clothing store earlier and found this sign (she would have gotten banned for disobeying it):

4. Real companies like NIKE have extended their product line to sell goods in Second Life. These particular shoes were being sold at the SL Nike Store for $299 Linden dollars (no, you do not get a REAL pair sent to you AND yes, you do have to exchange your real money for Linden dollars):

Daphne's broke so she didn't get to purchase a pair. In fact, she hasn't purchased anything, particularly because I REFUSE to waste my real money buying pixels for my doppelganger to wear in her world.

Okay, so that's just a few observations...

When I first joined this thing, I was greeted in the welcome plaza by a girl dressed like a fairy named "Talatha." She was nice enough to give me some clothes - instead of the lame default ones that came with my avatar when I chose her. Talatha then showed me around a few places and told me to visit some of her favorite spots - like Prim Hearts theme park. I also went to a Buddhist temple where I had to "wash my hands" and "take off my shoes" before going inside.

It reminds me of how, in real life, Helen has taken me to some of her favorite spots in London... but in the virtual world, this is just insane.

So this is what I'm proposing: it's not a nerd-fest project because personally, I think Second Life is freakishly scary and that it has the potential of being REALLY detrimental to society.

However, I respect that it's created a place for people to come together in a new way. I've even heard of a professor at Columbia University holding his "media studies" classes in Second Life.

I think it's an incredible indicator of culture within the context of new media, especially in the increasing phenomenon of globalization. And it would be extremely interesting to look at it in terms of how we represent ourselves online - to go as far as comparing it with facebook and myspace. Those of us who have made the decision to participate in online networking are forced to develop a new kind of identity... But what EXACTLY is Second Life doing? Maybe re-defining the meaning of life in technicolor?

What do you guys think?

EDIT 10:19 p.m. 11/26/08

I just had to add this clip. (Thanks for finding it, Ari!)


Justin Cowles said...

I totally agree with your views. The biggest thing I have against any kind of simulated life, game or not, is that it was created to be as life like as possible, yet it isn't. Like you said, you can turn it off and come back later but that isn't how real life works. I just played a first-person shooter and died a lot, but I am still alive.
Another point is that people are spending time on this and trying to be something they're not when they could use the same time to change what they can, i.e. if you're too fat, go work-put instead of being in front of the computer.
I just believe that computers should help our lives, not become them.

Justin Cowles said...

I meant work-out instead of work-put, although that could be a good name for a new kind of work-out routine for people who can't move.