Academic journal article Afterimage

The Unexamined Second Life Isn't Worth Living: Virtual Worlds and Interactive Art

Academic journal article Afterimage

The Unexamined Second Life Isn't Worth Living: Virtual Worlds and Interactive Art

Article excerpt

Recent issues of the New York Times Magazine, GQ, Wired, Business Week, and even Southwest Airlines' in-flight publication have run feature stories on "Second Life," the increasingly popular multiuser virtual environment (MUVE) that joins other so-called Web 2.0 entities in mobilizing user-generated content--in this case toward the creation of a rich, immersive social world. Founded by the San Francisco-based company Linden Lab in 1999 and made available to users in 2003, Second Life as a concept is certainly not new: it is among a broad array of depictions of metaverses, or virtual worlds--imagine a virtual realm separate from the physical world we know. From Plato's cave in The Republic (c. 360BC) to Ray Bradbury's gripping "The Veldt" (1951) to Vernor Vinge's True Names (1980) to Neal Stephenson's 1992 Snow Crash (where the term "metaverse" was reputedly coined), textual articulations of virtual worlds are numerous and varied, frequently expressing the desire to be free of a troublesome physical body that hinders unfettered, bodiless intelligence.

Virtual worlds moved beyond fiction with the first multiuser dungeon (MUD) made in 1978 by Richard Bartle and Roy Trubshaw, who designed the space for playing Dungeons and Dragons. In 1985, Lucasfilm's Randy Farmer and Chip Morningstar created Habitat, a two-dimensional graphics-based world more similar to contemporary virtual environments with regard to the ways in which social organization and rule-building took place among inhabitants. Contemporary examples of MUVEs include There and Kaneva, which, like Second Life, offer users a three-dimensional graphics-based environment. Worlds designed for youths such as Habbo Hotel or Coke Studios, which are immersive branded environments, and adult MUVEs such as Naughty America and Red Light Center, enable users to enact role-playing and sexual fantasies through avatars.

One of Second Life's main assets is its economy. Users are able to create objects and own the copyright, allowing them to sell those objects to others. This ability is significantly aided by land ownership, which in turn requires a paid subscription membership. Landowners acquire the space needed to build and create, thereby establishing at least two tiers of Second Life participants: landowners, who are able to build, and the homeless, who do not pay to use Second Life and cannot build but remain free to explore most parts of the world.

While Second Life is hardly alone among MUVEs, it has managed to capture a large amount of attention due its stated promise of limitless potential: the marketing of Second Life includes the tagline, "Where anything is possible." This plays a significant role in sustaining a discursive division between "real" and "virtual," the solidly physical and the flimsy realm of appearance. To be sure, it is an old division; and the trepidation experienced by the worried parents watching their children frolic in the digital world conjured in their playroom in Bradbury's "The Veldt" is a common reality now. However, the parental angst in Bradbury's story has been far overshadowed by Second Life's ability to tap into the fantasy desires, not of children, but of adults, capturing a user demographic with a mean age of thirty.

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Surprisingly, though, the place where "anything is possible" bears a striking resemblance to the physical world where what is possible is determined by cultural, legal, temporal, and physical constraints, among others. Second Life visitors will find recognizable replicas of Yankee Stadium, Capitol Hill, and many college and university campuses, which often dutifully recreate classrooms and dorms, making virtual copies of their real-world counterparts. There are also virtual stores such as Sears, Circuit City, American Apparel, and Adidas.

While many of these entities are surprising in their stasis and inability to conceptualize interactive structures or spaces that move beyond replicating the physical world, there are instances where Second Life does mobilize the affordances of a virtual world toward useful ends: virtual conferences, for example, allow participants dispersed across the world to engage in discussion. …

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