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For many of us Second Life residents, Second Life is an enormous and important part of our lives. But plenty of people who don’t use Second Life don’t understand what the attraction could possibly be, and may tend to think of it as a trivial entertainment or toy, akin to soap operas or Dungeons & Dragons. Here’s a piece to help someone like that understand why they might want to take Second Life at least a little seriously.

The first thing to realize is that Second Life isn’t a toy: it’s an environment. As David Kirkpatrick puts it (I’ll mention him again in a minute), “It’s not a game, it’s just a place you go to do whatever you want to do.”

Second Life can be much more than entertainment or a way to relax, although entertainment and relaxation are a big part of it. But unlike television or video games (for instance), Second Life is an active, social way to relax. We Second Life residents spend a lot of our time talking to other resis, sometimes just shooting the breeze but sometimes having serious conversations. We explore, learn, question, create, design, teach, and grow as people.

Here are some examples of the many, many, many things in Second Life that make it meaningful and important.

THE START OF SOMETHING BIG
Second Life is the first actually useful version of a worldwide virtual reality system. Some other system may eclipse it sooner or later, but eventually virtual reality *will* be part of everyone’s daily life in one way or another. Right now it’s hard to get used to and has a lot of limitations, but it won’t always be like that.

Don’t believe me? The senior editor of Fortune magazine, David Kirkpatrick, does. “We’re seeing something new and important,” he says. “If you want to stay abreast of what’s happening in tech, you need to get inside Second Life.” Microsoft believes that virtual environments are important too. So does Google. So does IBM.

EDUCATION
If you can simulate all kinds of environments and objects in Second Life, you can use it as a learning environment. That’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? Second Life has been used to train Canadian border guards, improving their test scores. Quite a number of companies, like Language Lab, use it to teach English as a Second Language to students all over the world. Just realizing that you can be in the same virtual room with a native speaker of almost any language there is gives an idea of what Second Life can do.

A lot of universities have decided that Second Life should be part of their educational experiences too, and not just as a class topic. Even back in January of 2007, already more than 70 universities had Second Life campuses.


Ohio University’s Second Life campus

BUSINESS
You’ve probably already heard that there are people who make their living from Second Life, and that’s interesting enough as it is. Of course businesses are trying to make use of Second Life too, and the ones that know what they’re doing, like IBM, can come up with some pretty good uses. I really think most companies probably don’t have the first idea how to use Second Life to their advantage, but why should that surprise us? When the World Wide Web first started to become big, companies didn’t know how to use that either, and they made the same mistake they’ve been making with Second Life: putting up some big, pretty thing that nobody needs and then expecting people to flock to it. Companies have gotten smarter with using the Web in ways that are actually useful to their customers, and they’ll get smarter about Second Life too, especially as it gets easier for people to use and more reliable.

HELPING ISOLATED PEOPLE CONNECT
If you’re a 73-year-old woman with a bad hip but a sharp mind, or if you have cerebral palsy, or if you’re in a long recovery from a serious illness, how do you go out and dance with your friends? You don’t unless you use Second Life. Second Life has spawned projects like The Heron Sanctuary, a build for and by disabled resis.

Second Life is also a lifesaver for people isolated by circumstances, like new, stay-at-home moms. Staying home alone with a child can be incredibly isolating, and a lot of parents yearn for grown-up time. Many get it through Second Life. And yes, some people use Second Life for infidelity, but the same is true of the Internet and Howard Johnson’s hotels.

ART
Artists can do things with Second Life that they can’t do any other way, for instance the machinima (a movie shot entirely in a virtual environment) by Robbie Dingo called Watch the World, which uses Vincent Van Gogh’s gorgeous painting “Starry Night” and Don McLean’s song “Vincent” to create something new and affecting.


From Robbie Dingo’s "Watch the World": he takes us inside Van Gogh’s painting

Painter Four Yip takes people’s self-realizations of themselves as Second Life avatars and creates beautiful and expressive portaits. Chinese artist Cao Fei (China Tracy in Second Life) created a build called RMB City in Second Life that brings together contradictory pieces of Chinese cities. RMB City had a showing in Miami and sold to a private collector for $100,000 US. In its article about the piece, the New York Times says this about art in Second Life: “It is more immersive, more social and often interactive, with avatars walking or flying about the space, talking with one another and sometimes moving about the artworks.”

SUPPORT AND PERSONAL GROWTH
Second Life can provide friends and peers to people who don’t have ways to find friends and peers locally. It can also help people gain confidence, as described in this Washington Post article, and help people with their social skills and even fitness habits, as a number of studies have shown.

LEARNING LUCRATIVE SKILLS
A lot of Second Life resis pick up technical skills, artistic skills and organizational skills from pursuing their interests in the virtual world: programming, Photoshop, 3-D modeling, running events, organizing groups, business marketing, customer relations, quality control, product life cycle … people learn things in Second Life that they use in their First Lives, sometimes to get jobs. For instance, take a look at this graph from Payscale.com, showing average salaries for people who are good with Photoshop:

INTERNATIONAL CONNECTIONS AND UNDERSTANDING
I already mentioned being able to find native speakers of different languages in Second Life, but Second Life makes it pretty easy to socialize with people from around the world: Brazil, China, Japan, France, Australia, the United States…like this Belgian who got in a conversation with a Cherokee woman about potlatch. Cherokees are usually pretty hard to find if you live in Belgium!

CHARITY WORK
I’ll wrap up this post by mentioning the goodwill a lot of Second Life residents have, not just toward each other, but to the rest of the world. I’m really astonished at the amount of charity activity that goes on in Second Life, but it’s a constant thing. The recent Hair Fair raised more than $10,000 for Locks of Love, a charity that helps cancer patients and cancer survivors, and any number of other charities have seen donations from Second Life events too, for instance in this campaign to help homeless people in Spain.

RESERVATIONS
Even with all of these positive things going on, I know you might have some reservations or worries about Second Life. I’ll try tackling those in another post, because there are plenty of them…but I hope that *this* post has helped put Second Life in perspective. I’d hate you to think I was wasting hours a day on a toy. For something that isn’t a toy, though, it can be a pretty surprising amount of fun. 🙂

^^^\ Kate /^^^

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