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Imagine a world with no sickness, hunger, or death, where physics is relative and biology unnecessary. Imagine a world where the grass is always green and the sun is always shining, a world where you could do anything, be anyone. Imagine you could go there, today. Would you? No, I’m not talking about heaven; I’m talking about online virtual realities such as Second Life. These “metaverses” offer entire worlds to explore, freed from many of the constraints of our physical existence. In Second Life, you can fly anywhere, build anything, be anyone; you’ll never go hungry, never fall ill, never get injured, and never die. With such freedom to offer, it’s no wonder these digital worlds now boast subscriptions numbering in the millions and are growing rapidly. Welcome to the future, or perhaps we should call it the Matrix.
Can You Take Me Higher?
For thousands of years, humans have dreamed of escaping the pains of this world. As the band Linkin Park put it: “I wanna heal; I wanna feel like I’m close to something real. I wanna find something I’ve wanted all along, somewhere I belong.” Yet the attempt to accomplish this goal virtually is a relatively new phenomenon. Though children have always played “make believe,” modern role-playing games (RPGs) only go back to the sixties and seventies. Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), published as three rule books in 1974, set the tone for much of the genre and remains the best-known “pen and paper” RPG to date. For most of us, the mention of D&D conjures images of geeky teens rolling twenty-sided die, but it was really a social experiment in cooperative storytelling. The rule books and dice rolling were intended to provide a framework—a world—but what happened within it was left to the creativity of the participants. This social component was mostly lost in the early console video games, which first appeared in the 1980s. RPGs like Final Fantasy maintained an emphasis on freedom of choice and character development, but they were usually single-player affairs with predetermined storylines. Such was not the case with many computer-based RPGs.
Thanks to the internet, multi-player text-based RPGs also appeared in the 1980s, and rudimentary graphical versions were not far behind. It was not until the late 1990s, however, that true three-dimensional (3D) virtual worlds became convincing enough to draw significant followings, and the first “Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games” were born (or, for those who like gaudy acronyms, MMORPGs, or simply MMOs). Ultima, EverQuest, and (especially in Korea) Lineage were early successes, drawing between several hundred thousand and a few million paid subscribers each. Of course, these were all dwarfed by World of Warcraft, released in 2004, which currently boasts over eight and a half million paid subscribers. These games, and dozens like them, all follow similar patterns: a player designs a character (called an avatar) and uses it to explore a virtual reality (often vaguely medieval in appearance). Within this world, players have the freedom to complete various quests, kill monsters, or fight other players. These activities provide rewards and “experience” that make the character stronger and more efficient at, well, completing quests, killing monsters, and fighting other players.
Over the years, I’ve played many of these games (perhaps more than I’d like to admit), but even as a long-time gamer, I found Second Life unique. Released in 2002, though only recently becoming popular, this virtual world also lets you design an avatar to explore a 3D world, but that’s about where the similarities end. Stripped of quests and rewards—even of death, a rather central theme in most RPGs—this is not so much a game as an alternative society. Drawing inspiration from the annual Burning Man festival and Neal Stephenson’s book Snow Crash, Second Life’s creator, Philip Rosedale, seeks to foster a whole new social order, founded on creativity and togetherness, freed from the constraints of our world (both physical and moral). Other RPGs give you freedom to explore, but Second Life leaves almost everything to the ingenuity of its residents, providing little more than digital real estate and some tools to build on it. Everything you see in this world—from cities to clothes to weather—is made and sold by other players. As such, Second Life houses a thriving economy with its own currency, the Linden Dollar, which can be bought and sold for real-world money (the current rate hovers around $270 L to $1 US).
It’s hard to deny the success of the idea. Second Life now maintains over 7.5 million accounts, and more than $1.5 million US changes hands daily within its confines. What can you buy with all that money? Just about anything you can imagine. From a new hairdo or outfit for your avatar to a swimming pool for your digital home to an airship to defend said home—name it, and you can probably buy it, though not always cheaply. Recently, the digital version of Amsterdam, capital city of the Netherlands, sold for $50,000 US, a landmark for Second Life commerce and a hefty sum for a place that only exists in cyberspace.
Mainstream corporations are taking note, and several, like IBM, now have virtual offices. Reuters has established an in-world headquarters and devoted a bureau chief to Second Life; Wired magazine and Reporters Without Borders have followed suit. Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards has a campaign headquarters here, and Harvard has conducted classes in-world. The Swiss even have an embassy in Second Life. In here, you’ll find everything from malls to museums to mega-churches—all the makings of a truly alternative reality.
Perhaps the most attractive feature of these metaverses, however, is their potential for social interaction. Second Life has the ability to simulate real-time face-to-face conversations between any two (or more) people living on earth, removing many social and geographical barriers to discussion. The person standing next to you might live down the street in real life, or he might be in Denmark or Brazil. Indeed, a recent study found that 60 percent of Second Life’s residents are European. The dialogue this can allow, in principle at least, does not just transcend borders; it can actively break them down. That possibility alone makes the rise of Second Life intriguing.
Freedom for What?
Yet, none of this community building is guaranteed, and these virtual worlds can be less satisfying than what the hype suggests. In addition to endless technical problems—even high-end computers can freeze up when running this cobbled-together reality—Second Life is filled with the same disappointments and vices as any other world, with a few more besides. You can fly in Second Life, but you won’t feel the wind. You can eat, but you won’t taste the food. You can even teleport, but all that changes is the scenery, which is sometimes beautiful but no place you’d really like to live. For in spite of the abundant opportunities for social connection, this alternative reality is surprisingly under-populated. Of the 7.5 million unique accounts, only 30,000 to 40,000 people are ever online at once. As Reuters columnist Warren Ellis notes, this might sound like a lot, until you consider that these avatars are spread over an area the size of eight Manhattans. Far from paradise, exploring these cities—whose scattered residents always have the same fixed expressions on their faces—can instead feel like walking into a bad zombie flick.
The truth is that, more often than not, I find Second Life depressing. Perhaps it’s just my introverted personality (if only I could change that with a click of the mouse; I must have missed that section of the character creation page), but most of the people I meet here are wandering aimlessly, shopping, or sitting quietly in one of the many casinos that pay you to occupy their chairs. Regardless of when I log on, the world map always looks the same: a mostly abandoned landscape, speckled with pockets of a dozen people or so. Teleporting to one of these gatherings, I usually find everyone “dancing” to pre-programmed moves—another activity for which you can earn a small fee—not saying a word to each other. The picture of a meaningless existence? Well-to-do adults pole dancing in an empty bar for 25 cents an hour. In our culture, we tend to think freedom is the highest good, but the empty cities of Second Life suggest otherwise. It’s not freedom we crave, but rather purpose. More even than the absence of physical sensation, Second Life proves surprisingly dull because there’s no goal—nothing needs to be done, so the freedom offered is meaningless. Game-focused MMOs, such as World of Warcraft, are better populated, in part because they have more constraints. Completing quests and winning battles provide a semblance of accomplishment. Compared to our world of dead-end jobs and unending housework, the possibility of being a hero, even if only in some artificial reality, can be enchanting. Sure, it may just be the illusion of meaning—the world is no better off afterwards than it was when you started; indeed, the very same quests await the next player—but it can be surprisingly addictive.
These games are so addictive, in fact, that some have died playing them. In Korea, where video games are literally a professional sport, at least a dozen people have become so focused on playing—for up to 80 hours at a single sitting—that they died of exhaustion in the real world. Perhaps that’s why Steven Johnson’s book Everything Bad Is Good for You likened these games to “crack cocaine.” By constantly providing challenges just beyond the player’s present ability, they maintain interest and, with only a little effort, a feeling of success. Johnson argues that this develops such valuable traits as perseverance and problem-solving, but is that worth the time commitment required? My first college roommate nearly flunked out of school from playing too much EverQuest, and he is hardly alone. According to research conducted by Nick Yee’s Daedalus Project, which has surveyed more than 40,000 MMO players, nearly 45 percent identify themselves as “addicted,” and 70 percent have played for at least ten hours straight.
I’m sorry to say that I, too, fall into the latter group, if not the former. There have been many times when I sat down to play one of these games for a few minutes, only to find that hours had passed unnoticed. When this happened the very week my daughter was born, I quit playing for nearly a year. And the funny thing is that most of this time is wasted on mindless and repetitive activities—such as running errands or killing the same monsters again and again—what we would call busy work in the real world. Gamers call it “grinding,” and it can eat up an amazing amount of time in an open-ended world like this. That it can distract from so much more important (and enjoyable!) pursuits is the dirty little secret of gaming.
This is a problem even for those who play for fun, but for those seeking an escape from real life, these games hold a greater danger of addiction. Quoted in The Washington Post, Yee argues that escapism is the best predictor of unhealthy usage, noting that “people feel like they lack control in real life, and the game gives them a social status and value that they are less and less able to achieve in the real world. . . . As a result, the real world gets worse and the virtual world gets better in comparison.” This is confirmed by the recent appearance of dozens of support groups for online addiction. For example, Online Gamers Anonymous (olganon.org) opened in 2002 and has since received more than 125 million hits and registered more than 3,000 members. Its founder was Wisconsin native Liz Woolley, whose son Shawn Woolley struggled with depression before discovering EverQuest. The game provided an attractive alternative to the real world, and he quickly became obsessed. Quitting his job and moving back in with his parents, he devoted ever more time to this virtual world. But it didn’t satisfy. On Thanksgiving morning in 2001, he committed suicide in front of his computer, the game still running on the screen. He was 21 years old.
Second Life lacks the most addictive of these game-play elements, but other problems loom larger here, especially illicit sex. This was evident from the moment I first logged on, having been greeted immediately by two naked women. That particular case was unintentional—a relic of the way Second Life renders clothing last (what were they thinking?)—but in time I would stumble into far more deliberate nudity. Though Second Life is divided into PG and Mature areas, nearly every mall and casino sells (with full-color ads) new and more detailed skins for your avatar. Walk into many clubs and you’re liable to find people wearing little more than these. Even Second Life churches have had intentional nudists walk through their doors; stray into the wrong neighborhood and you’re liable to find much worse than that.
For even if Second Life’s appeal is the escape from physical limitations, it is nevertheless dominated by an assumption that physical consequences are the only ones that matter. Since you can’t get an STD from virtual sex, many think it’s therefore “safe” and morally neutral entertainment, no matter how kinky it gets. They ignore the deep connection between our sexual and relational selves: Our sexual lives (and fantasies) reflect our attitudes toward other people, and it is other people with whom we must deal, in this or any world.
This is apparently lost on those who join Second Life to gratify sexual desires that would be taboo or impossible in real life. As one man wrote to Dan Savage’s online sex advice column, “I’ve always fantasized about being transformed into a beautiful woman and having sex with other beautiful women. SL [Second Life] allows me an opportunity to explore this fantasy of being a lesbian, and also lets me engage in types of fantasy sex-play I would not normally do in real life (RL), such as BDSM [violent sex], multiple partners, and anonymous sex.” The married 42-year-old asks whether this should be considered adultery; Savage oh so comfortingly insists that it’s not but encourages him to hide it from his wife anyway. Yet why hide unless you recognize the damage such practices can cause to your real relationships? Betrayal is still betrayal in any world, and the very fact that we call this “sex,” when it involves no physical touching, implies that physical consequences are not the only kind that matter to us, for good or ill.
Yet this is hardly an isolated example. In another article for Reuters, Warren Ellis describes his own unsolicited encounters with Second Life’s sex trade: After purchasing digital land, he signed on one Sunday and found two strangers using his newly finished basement as a sex dungeon, none too pleased (nor much embarrassed) by his intrusion. This was at least better than his previous residence: Nearby was what appeared to be an empty lot, but it actually contained an airborne house designed for simulated pedophilia. Upon discovering this, Ellis promptly purchased and demolished the place, but then a sex playground appeared nearby; the region became so overcrowded that his computer nearly ground to a halt. When he put his property on the market, it sold within 24 hours to a pair of self-described escorts planning a sex club.
Similarly, while the recent sale of Second Life’s Amsterdam was widely reported by the media, less well known is that its creator was “Stroker Serpentine” (Kevin Alderman in real life), the porn kingpin of Second Life, who designed it specifically for erotica: “[Amsterdam] was a favored hangout of the majority of Second Life escorts and developed a reputation as being salacious and erotic—and we developed it with that purpose in mind,” said Alderman. He wasn’t kidding. There were only a few people around on my one visit to the city, but I soon met a pair of women joking about how revealing one of their shirts was (it had no front at all).
“Well, it is the internet,” one quipped with a laugh.
“And you never have to wear a jacket,” the other returned.
Moving on, I was approached by a woman in a pink bikini.
“Looking for some fun?” she asked.
“Not really, no,” I replied.
“You sure? Because my friend and I are really . . . bored.”
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
For an alternative society, this metaverse is surprisingly reminiscent of our own over-sexed Western world.
The Future in a Sandbox
Of course, escapism and illicit sex are not the only reasons people join these virtual worlds. Our motives are as varied as we are, both good and bad. In the negative column are the bullies who enjoy harassing others. In World of Warcraft, they repeatedly kill weaker players to get them to log off. In Second Life, they deface people’s property—usually with sexually explicit material—as happened to John Edwards’s campaign headquarters in February. More positively, some enjoy the challenge and competition, exploring new places, or simply connecting with friends. Personally, I’ve played for many reasons but especially the last: Gaming is one of the few things I can do with my brother who lives 400 miles away.
For all of these reasons, such worlds are here to stay. In fact, many think that within a decade, something very like Second Life will have replaced webpages as our primary means of accessing the internet. At the very least, we can expect these worlds to continue growing more popular as high-speed web connections become more common and the remaining technological hurdles are overcome. Certainly, many businesses are betting on this. Besides dozens of game-oriented MMOs, Second Life has spawned a number of other social-oriented worlds, from there.com to the kid-focused Club Penguin. Even Sony has gotten in on the act, recently announcing Home, a virtual world for PlayStation 3 and PSP (PlayStation Portable). These worlds will be part of our future, so it’s worth asking what effect they might have on society as a whole. I see two possibilities, but which comes true is up to us.
On the one hand, these virtual realities hold the potential to fundamentally alter the way we view ourselves. In the real world, your name and appearance are largely determined for you at birth—a constant reminder that some aspects of a person cannot be changed (at least not easily). At the same time, we also know that some experiences can change a person forever, for good or ill. MMOs tend to obscure these distinctions, however. Not only can you choose your own name and look (customizing even the tiniest details), but if you ever change your mind—or earn too poor a reputation—you can always start over as someone else. If we aren’t careful, then, this freedom will breed a delusion that identity is entirely and eternally flexible, blinding us to our actions’ inevitable consequences on our characters.
The most dangerous result of such a delusion will be the tendency, already evident, to approach these worlds as a means of satisfying our darker urges, in the end convincing ourselves that these desires were “natural” all along. In the short run, this might alleviate some real-world evil, as pedophiles and the like find it easier to release steam in a loosely controlled virtual world than in the tightly policed real one. In the long run, however, all this will do is further normalize such practices in both worlds, especially as technology advances and the line between virtual and real grows ever more elusive. After all, which identity is your “real” one when most of your life is spent in a virtual world?
There is a better possibility, however. We can choose to treat these virtual realities not as an escape from the real reality, but as a training ground for it. Second Life has a feature called the “sandbox,” which allows you to test newly created objects without risk to the wider virtual world. This is necessary, thanks to the incredible design freedom the program gives you: It would be very easy to create an object—like a simple block told to copy itself a hundred times a second—that would quickly overwhelm the region and crash the computer servers on which it runs. Perhaps, then, we ought to treat Second Life itself as a kind of “sandbox,” a place to test out ideas that might make the world better but are too impractical, or dangerous, to try out anywhere else. As such, these digital realities could become powerful tools for learning and communication, and we just might get a glimpse of a higher, better world in the process. For in the end, who we are in these worlds impacts who we are outside them, and that simple fact might well be the most dangerous and exciting feature that any metaverse has to offer. •
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