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Most of my posts are for people who use Second Life (the usual term is “residents” or “resis”), but this post is for people who *don’t* use Second Life, who might find it a little weird or incomprehensible or boring or trivial or creepy. If someone you care about is using Second Life a lot and that makes no sense to you or worries you, this post might help you understand that person better, if you’re interested in doing that.

I’m a resi myself, so when you hear “Second Life” and I hear “Second Life”, we probably think of very different things. You might think of computer games, online scams, infidelity, pornography, general geekiness…I think of friends, good conversation, music, learning, personal growth, exploring, creativity, opportunity, and even love.

Wait, did you shudder just there, when I said “love”? I think you shuddered, but that might have just been my imagination. The idea of love of any kind – a truly close friendship, a romance – through a computer might be seem completely delusional to you. Don’t worry: I’m not going to try to sell you on the joys of virtual sex (although even that can be a much more positive thing than it probably seems at first blush. I have a post about it here, if it’s something you want to understand better.) Instead, I’d really like to give you an idea of why something that may seem weird or maladjusted from the outside turns out to be potentially very human and healthy and positive once you get to know it better.

Seeing Second Life, it’s easy to think that it’s a computer game. It really isn’t: it doesn’t have a score, winning, goals, obstacles, enemies or anything else that a game usually has – at least, it doesn’t have those things any more than regular daily life does. And of course some people use Second Life as though it were a game, but that’s exactly true of regular life too, isn’t it?

So the reason Second Life looks like a game and that a lot of people call it a game is that you’re moving around a representation of yourself (an avatar) through a virtual environment, just as you would in a 3-D computer game. The difference is in what is *in* that virtual environment and how we interact with it. There are lots of neat things you can simulate in that environment, like cars and manufacuring processes and gardens and art museums and classrooms, but the main thing that’s there is other people. Lots of other people.

Of course, they don’t *look* like other people. They look like slightly unrealistic, people-like computer game characters. Maybe they’re kind of disturbing to you, because their range of expression is so limited, and they look a little unreal and even sometimes plasticky. Some of them look like animals or robots or mythical creatures. Some of them have tails, or wings, or halos, or horns. Way too many of them seem to have tattoos. This can be offputting, so let’s take a moment to do the hand puppet exercise. You can definitely do this! Come try it with me.

OK, let’s pretend that you have a hand puppet that looks like a regular person and I have a hand puppet that looks like a cat. Now let’s pretend that we sit on opposite sides of a low wall and both lift our hand puppets up, so that we can each see both puppets, but neither of us can see each other, and that we’re interacting only through our puppets. And let’s pretend for a minute we find this really, really entertaining (maybe we’re just unwinding from a demanding day at work), so that we do it for a long time.

At first we’ll probably just say silly things. You might point the way to the Castle of Zinfandel. I might rub my puppet’s head against the wall and ask for milk.

After a while that would get boring, so we might start having a conversation of some kind. At some point, maybe you start talking about something that’s important to you, say a friend or a project you’re working on or something you’re proud of, but all of this through your hand puppet, in your hand puppet’s voice. Now that we’ve been doing it for a while, you’ve got your hand puppet’s attitude down right, and it’s an attitude that might not be exactly like the everyday you, but that you’ve chosen because of your personality. It might even be influenced by what kind of hand puppet you’re using, whether it’s a clown or a regular-looking person or a king or a character from Sex and the City or something else.

Now let’s say my puppet hears something your puppet says and has some insight, says something to your puppet about you. You weren’t even trying to be understood – you were just playing puppets! – and suddenly you’re talking to someone who understands *you*, who’s willing to think about who you are and treat you like a person who matters. Of course, in this game, we could just put down the hand puppets and walk around to the other side. In Second Life, we’re lucky to even have hand puppets, and walking around to the other side is sometimes a matter of invading someone’s privacy or flying to New Zealand or something, so generally not practical.

As our hand puppet-selves are having this conversation, any regular problems you have – not having enough money, worrying about your weight or your appearance, feeling self-conscious about family members, nervous habits…those are mostly not there. Your hand puppet might have problems that you give it, but you’re in control of that. For once, how people see you is free of how you are in daily life. Of course that means that no one can see how attractive, coordinated, and well-organized you are, or that you’ve done well for yourself financially or are a snappy dresser. But we’re just playing puppets. Not having all that on your puppet is no problem, because you still have it in your regular daily life.

There is a person behind each of those hand puppets, and both of those people can communicate through their puppets, and if two people communicate long enough, there’s a chance that they’ll actually get something out of it. It might even become a friendship. Could you become friends with someone when all you’ve ever seen of that person is their hand in a puppet, and all they’ve ever seen of you is your hand in a puppet? Well, why not? What’s friendship based on, anyway? Is it words and interaction, or is it being able to see the other person’s shoes and steal their french fries?

Let’s take that a step farther, then, and say that now, either one of us can choose any hand puppet we want. An incredible beautiful puppet, a brainy-looking puppet, old puppet, young puppet, dragon puppet, angel puppet, experienced arc welder puppet…anything. Now when we have our conversations, we’re talking in two ways: with our words and with our choices of puppets.

And then imagine stage sets, elaborate ones where your hand puppet can be in any setting, whether it’s pretending to relax on a beach by the ocean, hiking through mountains, in the middle of a modern city, in a recreation of ancient Athens, anywhere.

“Now wait a minute!” you might say. “I can see how in theory that might be a way that people could communicate with each other and have some fun, but I don’t want to play around like that!”

Maybe not. But your loved one *does*. It’s just fun plus people. Almost everybody loves fun. Almost everybody loves people. That’s what Second Life has to offer, fun and people, that plus education and business and personal growth and a lot of other positive things (many of which I describe here).

But even if there can be meaningful human relationships through Second Life, a point which I know you’re not necessarily granting but maybe are willing to entertain as a possibility, and even if it’s not a game, that doesn’t mean it isn’t trivial, right?

Except maybe it does, because now you’ve got a situation where someone has invested time and effort and creativity (the hand puppets, the sets, and very especially the friendships), and they’re getting something they want or need out of it. Very often that’s a chance to relax, take some time for yourself, and spend a while with friends. These are pretty normal things to want and need, and sometimes they’re hard to get in First Life, especially for people who have children, constrained schedules, who aren’t extroverts, who live in sparsely populated areas, or who just don’t like to go out of the house all the time.

So we have relationships – especially friendships! – and we have fun things to do and interesting or relaxing places to be, we have opportunities that don’t exist in First Life, and then on top of that we have the chance to be something. In Second Life, your life can have a significance that makes it more meaningful to you. You can design or build things – clothes, flowers, translation devices that really work, fireworks, antique cars, practically anything – and sell them in a store. Or you can start a venue, create a space for people to come together and be with friends and meet others and have fun. Or you can blog and reach out to an audience, becoming a communicator who helps people learn about new things or just shares your experiences. You can be a model, an explorer, a teacher, a student, a builder, a businessperson…you have opportunities for exploring parts of yourself and your capabilities and personality facets, opportunities that you don’t have in First Life. And it may seem as though it’s all in a simulation, but if you’re a designer, you *really are* designing things, and if you’re a businessperson you *really are* making money, and if you’re a blogger you *really are* writing for an audience.

You might have objections to Second Life too, that it’s a place where people get into extramarital affairs (just like First Life workplaces and other First Life environments), or where people pretend to be something they’re not (which they don’t in First Life? And too, people should be allowed to use their imagination on themselves from time to time!), or where time can be wasted endlessly (unlike television, video games, browsing the Internet?). But even if I don’t want you to be too hasty in your condemnations, I do agree that there are bad things in some places – a minority, from my experience! – in Second Life: spam, lies, infidelity, theft…and some of them are easier to get away with in Second Life than in the physical world. But those things aren’t what’s keeping the person you know in Second Life: they’re being drawn by some need, or some dozen needs, that they’re getting met in there. They might be exploring who they are or getting a much-needed chance to talk things through with friends or any number of other things. Even if Second Life isn’t your thing, even if you’d tried it and found it to have no attraction for you, I hope you can see some of the good things in that person you know that they have room to bring out in Second Life. Because for a simulated world, it certainly does have a lot of authentic happiness in it.

I hope I’m not being too defensive. It’s just that it’s disappointing and disheartening for a lot of us when friends and family members in the physical world see something we’re doing that to us is important or meaningful or fulfilling but to them looks like we’re wasting our time or being foolish. I hope that even if I’ve done a bad job of describing what’s meaningful to many of us in Second Life that you’ll be able to find ways to reach out and understand whomever it is you know who uses Second Life. I know it would mean a lot to many of us.

^^^\ Kate /^^^

PS – If you’ve read through all this and don’t feel I’ve understood your objections to Second Life (if any), I’d be grateful to hear about them in comments, even anonymously. I promise to be considerate and friendly in responding, even if I quibble! πŸ™‚