Reoccurring Dreams

There was a lively debate amongst the commenters at Botgirl’s blog over the last week or so, concerning that perennial preoccupation of the SL intellectual elite, the question of identity in virtual environments.

I must have listened (and occasionally contributed) to this discussion dozens of times in the last three years, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever read anything that was a significant advance on what Sherry Turkle was writing about fifteen years ago.

The particular facet of the issue that we (for of course I couldn’t resist chipping in with my two cents’ worth) focussed on this time around was the significance of choosing to represent oneself in Second Life with an avatar that differs substantially from one’s corporeal incarnation, especially with regard to gender.

How dishonest is this? Moral relativist that I am, my answer to that question is “it depends”; upon a lot of things, but mainly the expectations of the parties to the interaction. In the discussion parallels were drawn with other media, such as written fiction or cinema, with the point being made that no one feels deceived when they discover that, say, Robert De Niro isn’t really a taxi driver. This is true to a degree; for books, plays and movies there are commonly accepted cultural norms that define when it’s OK to make stuff up and when it’s not, and people do feel cheated when the rules are broken.

There is much less consensus regarding online interaction though, and, crucially, in a space like Second Life there is no easy way to communicate the extent to which one is using the platform as a vehicle for personal reinvention, as opposed to expressing one’s everyday self (which of course opens up the question of where one’s “true” identity really lies, or if such a thing even exists).

I’ve noted before that the research evidence suggests that it’s harder than one might think to create a new personality in a virtual world (certainly my avatar is boringly similar to my mortal form, in appearance and character), so in theory it should be possible to get to “know” someone just by interacting with their SL alter-ego. I suspect that there are not many people who could be bothered to put in the work required for this though, and there is always the (mostly unconscious) drive to project one’s internal object-relations on to the virtual relationships, which further muddies the waters.

With all this going on it’s hardly surprising that miscommunication and unhappiness can occur from time to time. I don’t think that there’s much to be done about it; it’s the price we pay for access to the creative possibilities of the medium,  like Cézanne being poisoned by Emerald Green.

Like I said though, none of this is new, or particularly profound, except insofar as it sheds some light on that other topic that has launched a thousand SL blog posts; “Why blog about Second Life?” Why make the same points about the same issues over and over, when we could be turning our minds to something more productive? I can only answer for myself of course, but I think (as, unsurprisingly, I’ve said before) that SL blogging is essentially just another form of role-play, a chance to imagine oneself as a heavyweight intellectual commentator, without all the tiresome business of actually having to think too much about what one writes.

It keeps me amused anyhow. And I get to link to some cool music.

Reality is overrated

Well, my sojourn in the real world turned out to be pretty depressing, sending me scurrying back to the synthetic succour of Second Life, to the comforting predictability of the rampant paranoia and gripes about the Lindens.

I guess that the new political situation will be taking up more of my real-life attention in the immediate future, but I’m going to try to keep it out of this blog, in favour of more inconsequential musings on SL culture and the like. I need to preserve a little oasis of fantasy in a world that looks set to become increasingly unforgiving.

MMORPG mental health professional

In a bid to expand my knowledge of the metaverse beyond Second Life I’ve been reading a bit about EVE Online, which claims to be “the world’s largest game universe”, and sounds rather more action-packed than SL, if this BBC report is to be believed.

I was tempted to try out their 14-day free trial, especially when I saw that there was a linux client available (though it’s apparently going to be discontinued soon). I’m worried that I would end up hooked enough to start paying the €19.95 monthly fee though, not to mention the extra time I would waste online (the average weekly playtime is 17 hours apparently), which would be hard to justify. There do seem to be some interesting in-game dynamics – deception and subterfuge are an integral part of the experience – but I would struggle to convince myself that I was conducting some sort of serious psychological research rather than just playing a game.

When I was first thinking about setting up this blog I considered getting an account at Entropia, which at the time was getting more publicity than Second Life. Four things convinced me that SL was the way to go: Entropia seems more restricted in what there is to do, the creative possibilities provided by SL‘s building and scripting functions were interesting (though I have actually made very little use of them), SL supports linux, and finally, and most importantly, Entropia Shrink doesn’t really trip off the tongue.

Cargo cult consciousness

There was once a time when I was a regular reader of the Second Life Herald, but these days I look at it only rarely. Founded by noted metaverse pioneer Peter Ludlow, aka Urizenus Sklar, the Herald, with its mission statement “to record, observe and study the legal, social and economic implications of life in the virtual world” promises some serious commentary on Second Life culture, a window into what is going on in the minds of the grid’s most interesting residents.

In reality the Herald is a strange brew; part superficial yet impenetrable gossip, part breathless exposé . I have never been able to decide if one is meant to take it seriously, or if it is in fact some sort of elaborate joke, a parody of our shallow, celebrity-obsessed culture and insatiably sensationalist media.

The overall impression, for me anyhow, is rather exclusive; to extend William Gibson’s high-school simile, it’s like the class newspaper edited by the popular kids; the geeks, dweebs and other losers can look but only dream about joining in. Just like any non-virtual celebrity-gossip publication in fact, but with one crucial difference; while real-life celebs, at least on the A-list, are objectively attractive, and their lifestyles glamorous, their Second Life counterparts are generally not much more aesthetically pleasing than the average avatar, and the accounts of their activities are seldom other than dull. The element that gives an edge to our culture’s worship of its secular idols – aspirational envy – is missing, and in its absence there is nothing to hold the reader’s attention.

For me the Herald is a good example of cargo cult culture; the idea that, by reproducing the form of a real-life phenomenon in the virtual universe, one can appropriate its significance. This theme seems to underlie a lot of what goes on in Second Life, and its essential fallacy is why life on the grid so often seems unfulfilling.

I think that it is mistake to see the potential of the metaverse as lying in the ability to mould a more perfect version of the real world. What is created by such an effort is but a shadow of reality; instead of emerging into the sunlight we retreat further into the cave. The real promise is contained in the possibility of experiencing something that augments our perception of reality rather than trying to reproduce elements of it. I don’t know if that is going on somewhere on the grid, and I’m not sure that I would be able to recognise it if it was, let alone articulate its meaning.

The problem is that everyone who comes to SL, myself included, brings with them the baggage of conscious and unconscious expectation. I am self-aware enough to know that in visiting the grid, and especially in writing about it in this blog, I am chasing after something that is missing in my real life. Put like that it sounds a bit dysfunctional, but I think that for most people a little wish-fulfillment is a healthy thing, and reflecting on experience in Second Life can provide useful insight into what is going on in one’s life outside the metaverse. Perhaps if Freud were living now he would ditch the interpretation of dreams in favour of avatar analysis as a royal road to the unconscious. It is of course possible to overdo this, and use one’s virtual life as a way of hiding from, rather than illuminating, the problems of real life. This desire to evade harsh reality is certainly one of the factors underlying internet addiction, or indeed any sort of addiction, but even for the non-addicted majority of SL residents, in whose number I count myself, there is a downside to the escapism – by using SL as a way of relieving my frustration with the limitations of my current existence I am locking myself into a real-world paradigm, and thus missing out on the what the grid really has to offer. If I was perfectly happy with my life I could perhaps approach SL with an open mind and experience its full potential, but then if I was perfectly happy with my life I wouldn’t be wasting hours sitting in front of a computer screen.

It’s the Second Life paradox; the people who will visit regularly do so because they are, more or less consciously, trying to fill some gap in their lives; as a consequence of this they are the least likely to be able to make the most of the opportunities SL affords. Meanwhile the people whose lives are fully realised, the very ones who would be best suited to exploring the possibilities of this new virtual world, will never feel the need to come anywhere near it.

L$700 Billion Question

What effect will the financial crisis have on virtual worlds like Second Life? Given that the economic underpinnings of the Linden dollar are flimsy enough to make CDOs look like Krugerrands in comparison, I fear that the grid may not survive the looming depression.

Others are more optimistic, seeing spaces like SL as a escape from the harshness of the real world, where we will all be able to forget our worries in the perfect sunny landscapes of the grid, in the same way that our great-grandparents sought refuge from the bleakness of life in the 30’s by flocking to the cinema to lose themselves in dreams of Hollywood.

Time will tell I guess, but I wouldn’t be surprised to wake up one morning to find that Second Life has disappeared. I wonder if the bailout bill covers L$ deposits?