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Sitting Around in Second Life

May 17, 2013

The following blog article is an expanded adaptation from the April edition of Forcing Change, which examines the transhuman movement – including a brief look at virtual reality.

Note: If you’re a member of Forcing Change and haven’t read the latest issue, “Transhumanism and Mormonism: Encounters in Salt Lake City,” then log-on and download your copy today. If you’re not a member/subscriber, then please consider partnering with us as we explore, document, and analyze our changing world. Your support is greatly appreciated.

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The virtual world of Second Life (SL) has been in operation since 2003. Here, you control an alternate of yourself – an “avatar” – in a 3D “physical” cyber environment, moving and interacting in real-time with other avatars in a myriad of landscapes called “regions.” Each region is a 16 acre parcel (yes, 16 “real acres” in size) where users build homes, shops and stores (SL has its own economy and currency), parks and forests, art galleries, dystopian cities, museums, castles, beach resorts… the list is endless, including “adult” and “cyber-sex” locations. Over 20,000 regions exist. And while some are populated and popular, like the virtual settings of London, New York, Moscow’s Red Square and 1920s Berlin, others are seldom visited – similar to the “real world.”

“Virtual world” entertainment opportunities are varied in SL; Dance clubs, fashion shows, movie theaters, treasure hunts, and live concerts. There’s even a “Miss Virtual World” pageant. And of course, you can build 3-dimensional objects. In fact, all of the towns, shops and houses – and practically everything else – is designed and built by users. This “you-engineer-it” component is certainly part of the interest in virtual spaces, as it allows for free-form creativity on a number of levels.

Today there are more than 20 million registered Second Life accounts, but it’s estimated that only 600,000 are active, with approximately 50,000 people participating at any given time.

For myself, I’ve been an active user since 2009 – partaking in discussion groups, sitting in live-streamed university lectures (there are over 150 universities and colleges with SL campuses), attending conferences, and exploring interesting places. In fact, the picture of the man reclining is myself as an avatar while attending a transhumanism conference at the Terasem SL theater. All the others you see around me are connected to a user behind a computer in another part of the world, interacting at the same time in the same “virtual” space.

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If this makes you feel like we’re living in “strange times,” you’re not alone. One Sunday morning when I was home from church with the flu, I attended a “church service” in Second Life. My son, who was fourteen at the time and had stayed back with me, just shook his head – “Dad, this is too weird.”

I couldn’t argue with him as I sat in my living room, watching “myself” sit on a virtual pew in a virtual church building, surrounded by other alternatives of individual people from around the world, all listening as the pastor – being streamed to the virtual pulpit – preached to us. Some avatars where more charismatic as they stood and lifted their hands during the worship songs; some where dressed in flowing gowns and their “Sunday” best; and others came as animals – avatars that looked like cats or dogs or a hybrid of different creatures. I listened as an avatar by the door greeted people entering the sanctuary, and it was obvious that many attendees knew each other as friends in this surreal setting.

Other “religious” locations exist in Second Life, including Islamic mosques, Buddhist and Hindu temples, an island dedicated to Mormonism, and a large number of New Age and mystically oriented places.

But Second Life isn’t the only virtual world platform; InWorldz, Kitely, and OS Grid (part of OpenSim) are other examples of such environments. Massive multi-player online games like World of Warcraft (WoW) also fits the description of a “virtual world,” however, WoW is a dedicated game with game-based objectives. Facebook’s “Farm Town” also counts as a game-based virtual world. Second Life and the other similar platforms listed above are not game-oriented, although gaming areas do exist within certain regions of those worlds.

Although media hype over SL was notable during its early years, especially with online tech-publications, it now appears that general interest in SL has waned – due in part to value differences between long-time users and the corporate owners of Second Life. Nevertheless, Second Life has proven itself as a working platform, “a seed,” if you will, for the ongoing development of virtual reality.

And where is it going? In the near future, virtual-world graphics are expected to become “movie quality,” and brain-computer interfacing – which is poised to move into the marketplace (the first NeuroGaming conference happened a few weeks ago in San Francisco) – will heighten the experience to a new and dizzying level, blurring the boundaries between what is “real” and “virtually real.”

Yes, it’s a strange new world.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 2, 2013 5:42 pm

    Maybe 200 dudes (and it was 99% young males) in a wide wide room with fancy lighting, playing various MMOs at Midnight in the middle of the week. It’s been a few years since the last major Chinese government crackdown on Internet gaming cafes I’m aware of, which is probably why I’m only seeing one now, but this one was wide open to the public, and you could even glimpse the gamers from the street, so I guess there’s not much concern another crackdown will come any time soon. In any case, it was a quick surface glance at a world where real life prisoners must reportedly mine for virtual gold , or play Second Life on company orders, so they can find a Linden Dollar bonanza .

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