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Losing Our First Lives 

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If you have not heard the words "Second Life" yet, get ready. If you have reached the advanced age of, say, 35, you may recall the very moment when you first heard the words "Web browser." For me, it was 1993, and when I saw a satellite image of the weather on Netscape's predecessor, Mosaic, I felt the earth shift under my feet. Stupid me for not buying stock in Netscape or in a company out of Redmond, Wash., called Microsoft when it created Explorer.

The earth is about to shift again as we approach the magic number 30: the number of years that historians of technology claim it takes for successful technologies like networked computers to become so ubiquitous that they radically transform the ways we live. One as-yet-esoteric part of networked computing, virtual worlds, is about to become a lot more common, thanks to Linden Labs' game Second Life. And as with the Web, Second Life's seismic movement could make our real lives richer, or it could further impoverish the already surreal world we inhabit on this side of the screen.

As an early adopter of Second Life, I'm worried, especially given my studies of earlier technologies.

Even as I'm having fun, I'm worried.

Second Life may, like Netscape in the early '90s, be a "killer app" that will make virtual reality available to the nongaming masses and spawn an array of competitors. This free program gives Windows, Mac and Linux users an interface where they can enter a virtual landscape designed by Linden Labs and, in a revolutionary break with the past, by players. It's replete with cities, islands, parks, playgrounds and stores — stores where one can spend real money to buy virtual merchandise: new clothing, personal items, cars, even the big pink flying saucer I saw one player using to transport his "avatar," the custom-designed 3D figure who stands in for the human at the keyboard.

When I last logged on, I checked the program's statistics: More than 20,000 users were simultaneously connected from around the world, more than a million users in the past month and over $1,000,000 in real money exchanged between players in the prior 24 hours.

Second Life is already a $1-million-a-day business.

Entering Second Life is simple: Download and install the free program on a high-speed connection, then create an avatar who can walk, fly or teleport around the cybernetic landscape. It is a game, rather like the popular Sims line, but in Second Life you are a Sim of your own design. The game is not a combat simulator, beyond areas specially designated for those who would like to be Conan the Barbarian or Sgt. Rock. Instead, Second Life is about social interaction, and unlike earlier, clumsy virtual worlds, Second Life players collaborate to expand it by building and transforming the landscape, modifying their avatars, and even attending special events like concerts and screenings of videos. Artists hang their digital works on the walls of digital galleries. Even Kurt Vonnegut has an avatar. So does Suzanne Vega, and she played a virtual guitar when she gave a concert in Second Life.

Linden Labs, wisely heading off a potential objection to its game, has barred those under 18 from playing but has made a teen version available with restrictions on activities like virtual sex and profanity, that are permitted in the adult grid. If they don't already exist, I soon expect to hear about business-only virtual worlds for the art of the deal.

None of this sounds too dangerous at first glance, but as my avatar, the ever-observant Ignatius Onomatopoeia, has found, there are some social norms in Second Life that might give even a cyberenthusiast pause. In Ignatius' journeys across the virtual terrain, he has found very few unattractive avatars, beyond those who are obviously modeled on green-skinned aliens or furry animals. The typical avatar is a paragon of beauty from fashion magazines.

Usually the women are too skinny and too undressed, the men big-shouldered and wasp-waisted. One wonders, then, about the appearance of those holding the mouse that makes the avatar dance.

Lots of wish fulfillment gets enacted in Second Life.

Ignatius has flown away from parts of "Orientation Island" when he stumbled upon avatars doing some heavy flirting, apparently ready to start undressing, despite a billboard discouraging virtual nudity. Ignatius has yet to get a virtual proposition; good for me because if I had Ignatius act on one of those, my real-life wife would make me move to the toolshed, if not under it. Recently I thought trouble was about to happen when "Shoo," in a bikini top and capri pants, strolled up to Ignatius. No such luck or embarrassment for Iggy. I was relieved when Shoo, despite her standoffish name, only wanted to talk; her player is a Muscovite who logs on to practice English. After chatting about why we like Second Life and how it is different from other games, Shoo agreed to visit a virtual classroom when my writing students explore Linden's virtual world. They will be considering the ways new forms of communication — from multifunction cellular phones to social networking sites — shape a writer's style, even identity.

Leave it to a writing teacher to create an avatar who ends up simulating real life in a virtual world. Soon, however, I'll leave Orientation Island for the mainland, where the real action happens. There's a good virtual library there, I understand, and Ignatius badly needs a virtual muscle car.

But should we all be concerned as more and more social interaction moves online? I'd say yes, for a nation where too many unhealthy citizens' engagement with the natural world consists of walking a few paces from one climate-controlled box to another, then plopping down before a screen. Maybe that's why Second Life will so easily become a part of our daily rounds. We have trashed our surroundings, turned our commercial areas into vast paved wastelands lined with cartoonish storefronts, wrecked our environment and climate, and hollowed out face-to-face social engagements so thoroughly that an avatar provides a potential too difficult to bother pursing in our first lives. S

Joe Essid teaches English at the University of Richmond. Leave his avatar messages in Second Life, and Ignatius may get back to you.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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