This week I got a second life, a least temporarily. I spent a significant amount of time (significant for a mother, full-time high school teacher, and part-time grad student) discovering Second Life, both by becoming a “visiting” resident for an afternoon and by reading an introductory chapter on Second Life ethnography from Tom Boellstorff’s book Coming of Age in Second Life. (My altered Goth girl avatar is pictured above visiting a dream selection world.)
Boellstorff spends a large portion of the introduction playing with semantics. Real world, actual, virtual world, game, escapism, techne, and a slew of other terms are dissected and mostly found wanting in accurately describing the culture of Second Life. As I am not a resident or fan of Second Life, I’m not about to enter into those debates (save for addressing my personal beliefs on several terms later). The points he makes are valid, yet dizzying.
The first passage from the book that got me thinking was this:
I show that Second Life culture is profoundly human. It is not only that virtual worlds borrow assumptions from real life; virtual worlds show us how, under our very noses, our “real” lives have been “virtual” all along. It is in being virtual that we are human: since it is human “nature” to experience life through the prism of culture, human being has always been virtual being. Culture is our “killer app”: we are virtually human.
That is something to think about. Don’t we populate our own “worlds” with the people, impressions, activities, interests, and “things” we want to be surrounded with? How different, really, is what we do “out here” different from what we would do “in there”? I think it is very similar while still being very different. (How’s that for a horrible response?) We can still behave like humans, create and live in a common culture with other humans, but in a growing simulated world. Acknowledging this, Boellstorff goes on to say:
…virtual worlds do have significant consequences for social life. … in virtual worlds we are not quite human—our humanity is thrown off balance, considered anew, and reconfigured through transformed possibilities for place-making, subjectivity, and community.
One connection that kept popping up in my mind was that of reading fiction. As an avid reader, I like to jump into the world of a book, much like video and computer gamers like to jump into the world of the game. I used to refer to it as escapism, but Boellstroff’s argument against calling Second Life escapism holds true with those mediums as well. He quotes another author who denies that reality is the physical world and computers are just distractions from it. Likewise, he said that SL cannot be called a game because it lacks a begging and an end, winners and losers. Yet I still feel that what compels me to read and read and read is the same compulsion that compels residents of Second Life to build and alter and explore. And yes, I think they are distractions from the physical world. I will gladly assume the moniker “naive realist” for saying so.
I think Boellstorff also acknowledges this point well when he refers to John Huizinga’s theory of play as an element of culture. Huizinga contends that there are three main characteristics of play: voluntary activity/freedom, a stepping out of real life into activity with its own personality, and limited time and place. I like the idea of gaming, SL, reading and other activities being called “play”, and I agree that it is necessary in our culture.
The question is whether you think that “play” is necessary in our culture today? Would you call Second Life play or are you a resident who thinks the term demeans or misrepresents what you do?