It’s been around since 2003, but I learned of virtual world Second Life’s existence only in the last two weeks. One of Steph’s friends told her about it two or three years ago, and it pretty much remained in the back of her mind until one night when she was bored at the computer. She went to http://www.secondlife.com and began exploring. I watched enough of it over her shoulder and it whetted my interest, whereas Kingdoms of Camelot and Farmville made me wonder, “Just what is the fascination here?”
So, less than a week later, with Steph’s help, I logged on to Second Life and created my own avatar. (I am not going to disclose the names of either of our characters, because they’re on Second Life, and the whole point is that this is reality and they are citizens of Second Life, and never the twain shall meet.) The graphics and characters are a lot more realistic and solid than many I’ve seen. (What little I’ve seen of The Sims reminds me of an animated cartoon more than anything true to life.)
We’ve explored several areas, both separately and together, and I can understand the allure. I posted on my Facebook Wall that I was “venturing into the unknown… I’m trying Second Life for the first time.” One friend replied: “If you’re like most I know into Second Life, allow me to say it’s been nice knowin’ ya.” I dismissed this as silly when he first posted it, and then I looked back on this weekend. I haven’t posted in the blog, I haven’t written in the diary, and the only books I’ve read are audiobooks at work while I index or work on something other than dictation. (The last one, just for the record, was Ayn Rand and the World She Made, by Anne C. Heller.)
The tag line for the ’70s Marvel Comic Howard the Duck was “Trapped in a world he never made!!”, which describes many of us, if not all of us. No one can say that about Second Life. I’ve actually danced there, and I swam several laps in a pool last night, neither of which I can do in reality. Steph and I were on Second Life visiting a nightclub whose owner’s rippling chest protruded from a white shirt buttoned only at the navel, with long white flowing hair down to the middle of his back, his arms bulging with six-pack abs. As the owner of this sophisticated strip club, he was in charge of the pole dancers and strippers. Both of us are convinced that the avatar’s creator is a fat, balding guy in his late 50s with hair on his back, dressed in a stained T-shirt and torn carpet slippers, with take-out and fast-food trash surrounding his computer and cluttering the bedroom in the house he shares with his mother.
When Steph and I maneuvered our characters into the club, I went up to the bar and realized I didn’t have to be a teetotaler in Second Life. So I had a couple beers, and didn’t end up in the drunk tank, or making a complete ass of myself.
Dungeons and Dragons was first starting to be popular when I was in high school, and I gave it a fair trial. I was never as obsessed as some kids (universally male in my high school), who would go immediately to bed on Friday after school so they could stay up all weekend playing. I played one extended session at a friend’s house, and was glad to have had the experience, but never played again. Until I graduated, I saw guys in the cafeteria, or in the library, with Gary Gygax’ many D&D reference books piled around them, meticulously designing his next dungeon or campaign on graph paper with pencil and calculator.
(Not even I was immune to its reach. I had to give a how-to speech in a public-speaking class, so I demonstrated how to play backgammon. I laid out the components for the game–board, doubling cube, and “six-sided dice.” D&D was the only place, other than the geometry class I dozed through, where I ever heard the word dodecahedron used.)
Some parents were leery of D&D and its popularity. One reason was because it siphoned off energy formerly devoted to classwork. Also, the “steam tunnel incident” at Michigan State University generated very negative publicity for the game, almost none of it factually based. (A 16-year-old child prodigy, James Dallas Egbert III, had gone missing from the campus. He was a full-time student there, and had occasionally played Dungeons and Dragons. He had gone into the campus’ underground steam tunnels to commit suicide by ODing, and a private investigator hypothesized he had gone nuts or gotten disoriented while playing D&D in the steam tunnels. Long story short, he had drifted from friend’s house to friend’s house until he made his way to Louisiana, where the detective found him working as a laborer. He had a drug problem, he found it hard to make friends at college because he was so much younger, he was clashing with his parents about his sexuality, he was clinically depressed, and his parents were riding him about keeping up academically. D&D was a non-issue in his story. Tragically, he took his own life a year later.) Some parents may also have thought that Rona Jaffe’s idiotic novel Mazes and Monsters was non-fiction.
For years, I could always ridicule D&D players from my high school with a clear conscience. (At a party one night several years ago, someone asked me, “Did you play Dungeons and Dragons in high school?”, to which my smug reply was, “No, I had a life.”) Now, I can see the emotional satisfaction and release that it could bring. The nerd wedded to his multi-function calculator can command armies and slaughter sadistic deities while in the game, even though in the real world the jocks and bullies would give him wedgies or shove his head in the toilet and flush it whenever they got the chance.
Since there are virtual worlds out there, I’m wondering what bearing behavior there would have on reality. I was looking at this video on YouTube from The CBS Morning News: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ruMi3MAGkvc about sex there. There are women earning real money (as well as Linden dollars, the Second Life currency) as prostitutes, but since no real in-person sexual act is paid for, it’s totally legal. (I think that’s the same law that would apply to phone sex for money.) But does that mean that a sexual tryst, or even an ongoing affair, on Second Life by a married person wouldn’t be adulterous? I imagine Second Life chat logs have appeared in evidence in divorce courts. The chance to have multiple sexual partners in a universe where AIDS doesn’t exist must be quite a temptation.
Since the hysteria about role-playing games fizzled out in the ’80s, I don’t find it surprising that no one has sounded the alarm or mounted a campaign against The Sims and Second Life (or their many counterparts). These games and virtual worlds are pareve–neither meat nor dairy, neither evil nor good on their faces. They can be beneficial or they can be harmful. A scalpel in the hand of Jack the Ripper cut a path of gory death and misery through the Whitechapel section of London in 1888, whereas a scalpel in the hand of Dr. Bruce Lytle in Cleveland may have saved Steph’s life.