So recently I read a comment that another Second Lifer posted in which he called Second Life an escape. Because it’s obviously an escape, right? An attractive, fun world that’s different from the Real World is an escape, isn’t it?
(Can you feel the preachiness coming on? Sometimes I just let that part of me go, and this is one of those times, so you may want to get out while you still can and wait for me to post something on how to host an orgy or why flexi is sexi or something.)
Here’s why whether or not Second Life is an “escape” matters: escaping means running away, and running away is usually a bad idea. Usually, though: there are good escapes. Abused women leaving relationships are escaping, and that’s an entirely good thing. A person quitting a life-sucking job is also escaping, and that’s also probably a good thing too. And getting away from a poisonous snake is widely considered smart.
But those are all permanent escapes. You leave, you don’t come back. What about just leaving for a while? Those kinds of escapes-drug addictions, shirking responsibilities to play 47 straight hours of Doom, not calling someone you’ve argued with for a full month-are almost always bad. If they’re good, we call them a rest or a vacation or regeneration or getting some time to ourselves.
So if we really think of Second Life as an escape in this sense, then we have to seriously consider that it might be a very dysfunctional thing to do. But let’s use a more precise word (*Kate loves precise words*), because what people are really accusing Second Life of being isn’t as much escape (you can’t really get away from anything there-you can just pretend you are!) as avoidance. We’re all scared of or depressed about our Real Lives and are trying to forget we have them by immersing ourselves in a pretend environment. That’s the thing people are saying.
Is it true, this avoidance thing? Yes, sometimes it’s definitely true! Some people are definitely unhappy about some parts of their lives and use Second Life to get away from them. Is it true of Second Life in general?
Let’s think about this for a second. Let’s say that your life is like this: you have a good job, you have friends, and you enjoy your life, but at this stage there’s something missing. Maybe it’s sex, maybe it’s having people who understand a particular part of you, maybe it’s being able to express yourself artistically, and maybe it’s just having a fun way to fill the time. So you get interested in Second Life, and before you know it you’re there practically every day. But you still do well at your job, you still spend time with your friends, and you still enjoy your Real Life, but now there’s no hole. You’re getting what you need. Is this escape? Is this avoidance? No, we have another word for this: this is fulfillment.
And maybe you’re thinking “No, it only feels like fulfillment, but it’s really fake fake fake!” Well, it depends. If it’s an emotional need and you feel emotionally satisfied, then in a really meaningful way it doesn’t matter whether you’re satisfying it by journaling or getting involved in a local club or taking up with the boy from the mail room or hosting furry events in Second life. I have another blog entry where I talk about what I think is real and not real in Second Life. The upshot is that there are real people behind those avatars and the emotions of everyone involved are real. My house isn’t real, and my wardrobe isn’t real, but my relationships with my friends are. Those relationships are fulfilling to me, and they help me grow and to balance my Real Life.
Now, let’s take a different situation, where you’re unhappy with your Real Life in general, you feel stuck and upset a lot of the time, and the only time you feel happy is when you’re logged in to Second Life and ignoring the bills and the mess in your apartment and the blinking light on your answering machine. Is this avoidance? Is this the bad kind of escape? Yes!
But even here we want to be too careful about saying that Second Life itself is an escape. It’s more helpful to realize that in this case, you’re using Second Life to avoid your Real Life. If you weren’t in Second Life doing that, then what would you be doing? Watching TV? Playing video games? Sitting in a seedy bar and trying to drink enough to make the skinny guy with the disturbing glare look attractive? It’s not Second Life or even television that’s the escape, because you can use either one to learn French or experience Medieval France: it’s how we use those things.
So if that’s true of you, if your life sucks and practically the only good thing in it is Second Life, then it might be time to think of giving up Second Life by finding something healing you can embrace in Real Life. If you can’t do that, start by trying to find friends in Second Life who will help you talk through your Real Life problems (the easiest way to do this is to listen to their Real Life problems). Because when you’re doing that, it isn’t escape any more, even if you’re enjoying it: then it’s addressing the problem.
Our culture has a built-in prejudice about Virtual Reality, and it’s not because living in a technological environment is necessarily bad: it’s because we’re afraid. We don’t know what virtual reality is going to do to our lives, we don’t know how we’re going to fix the horrible damage we’re doing to our world, and we’re worried that we will run and hide in our virtual paradise while Rome burns or global warming turns our planet into a Crock Pot. These are good fears to have! Technology can be addictive and we really are ruining our world and causing enormous problems and strife. Fear is actually a good thing whenever it’s the only thing making us face our real problems. But it isn’t a good thing when it makes us set up false targets, or when we’re paralyzed into inaction by it. We can’t blame Second Life or television if there’s something we don’t like about our lives. We need to take responsibility for that ourselves and learn to fix it, Second Life or no Second Life.
(Later edit: Natalia points out that it’s also possible to use Second Life to avoid things here and there for a little while, even if that’s not your usual pattern. That’s an important third possibility. Thanks, Natalia!)