Who would you be, if you could be anyone?
Recently, I attended a convention that took place entirely in the virtual reality world of Second Life due to the pandemic. It sucked me in, and I find as time goes on I’m spending more of my scant free time there as opposed to endlessly scrolling Facebook so I can begin and end each day angry.
If you’re not aware, Second Life is a long-running virtual world co-created by its own inhabitants. It has its own monetary system, an endless variety of lands (known as sims) “owned” by the residents and designed according to their specifications, and its own culture and traditions. If you want to explore an ancient pyramid or fly a dragon over the forest or sit in a Parisian cafe or dance at a nightclub, you can do all of that. (You can also visit the spicier sections — what, it’s the internet!)
The convention had re-created the hotel in which it usually takes place down to the recalcitrant front doors and the layout of the lobby, to the extent that I actually felt like I was there. It was a delightful time, even if I was having difficulty learning the interface. Look, the last computer game I dove into was Zork. I’m old and set in my ways, so outta my way, whippersnapper. But this isn’t a computer game, and in fact longtime residents will be offended if you call it a game. It’s a world, truly a second life.
In Second Life, you create an avatar that is endlessly customizable and walk, run, and even fly about the virtual worlds. You can change your hair in the time it takes to click, move your eyes a little closer together, bulk up your muscles… In Second Life, you can be a different gender, race, even species. You can be the walking dead, a winged fairy, a vampire, a werewolf, a stripper with a tail made of fire, a dancing candy cane.
In fact, there was a giant sentient shark sitting behind me at a live coffeehouse interview with famed editor Ellen Datlow, speaking about her career as a speculative fiction editor and anthologist. Ellen chose to appear on stage in Second Life with the body of a supermodel and the head of a black sphinx-like cat.
It is the avatars that draw my attention the most, beyond the fascinating worlds that people create. To a certain extent, there is media theory behind this idea that we become closer to people that we meet through online avatars than we do in real life. It’s the hyperpersonal model of the online disinhibition effect. Like most media theory, that’s a pile of…