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January 28, 2008
Bob Hoose
A Second Chance at Life

A Second Chance at Life

"It's an Online Game Thing!" is a 5-part online series that explores the nooks and crannies of Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) and the rest of the Internet gaming world. This is Part 4.

I buy a new Elvis-style leather ensemble that handsomely complements my white bunny fur-covered skin and then jump into the air and fly off to explore this open-world neverland called Second Life. At first, the place appears deserted, but I soon spy a neon-haired woman in a miniskirt and bustier dancing by herself in a nightclub made of glass and crystal. I explain my newbie status and scribbler's inquisitiveness, asking her for an insider's view on this visually creative place. With a flip of her emerald locks, she cryptically replies, "wateva u think it is—ur wrong."

With time, I realize that in this topsy-turvy place, truer words were never mistyped.

An Online Get-Together ...
Created by the company Linden Lab as a social interaction site, Second Life has evolved into a unique landscape with the capability of becoming whatever its millions of registered inhabitants can dream it to be. This 3-D world—that the Seattle Times calls "MySpace meets The Matrix"—is populated by avatar representatives that can be personalized as anything from picture-perfect humans to bizarre anthropomorphic oddities.

Through these electronic alter egos, residents are free to do just about anything. You can go shopping with a new acquaintance from halfway around the world or wing it solo at a rock concert. You can hit the clubs and dance the night away or gather together some fellow fanboys and reenact a scene from your favorite Star Wars film. The choice is yours and the possibilities are vast.

... Without a Game to Play
The thing that seasoned gamers find most perplexing about this online game, though, is that it isn't a game. There are no set goals or rules in this world. Nothing to "play." Interact, sightsee, build, buy and sell, yes. But play, not really. Your avatar can create just about anything, from houses to clothes to pet butterflies. And then you can enjoy these creations yourself or sell them to people who would rather boogie than build.

So, in a way, instead of being a game, this is the perfect business model—making money from stuff that doesn't exist. And believe it or not, some have parlayed that opportunity into millions of actual U.S. dollars. One industrious virtual land baroness was so prosperous that she landed her avatar's picture on the cover of Newsweek. The magazine's article explained that "Linden dollars [the site's currency of choice] can be converted to real cash, as well as virtual shopping malls, store chains, and even virtual stock-market investments in Second Life businesses." Linden Lab estimates that just over $1.5 million dollars changes hands each day in its online universe.

It's no wonder then, that more than 45 multinational companies, including IBM, General Motors and Dell have eagerly dipped their toes in the online waters. Circuit City, for example, maintains a digital mart where avatars can walk store aisles and check out shelves full of the latest electronics. Buying items for your virtual or real self is but a button click away. And with your Second Life Visa (yep, real credit cards for your make-believe wallet) you can quickly pay the tab.

That's not to say that this ocean of cyber opportunity is only for big business fish. Talented artists, fashion designers, amateur moviemakers, political activists and everyone in between display their skills to the growing tide of curious passersby. Even schools and churches are inviting avatar students and parishioners to gather and hear the lessons of the day. The promise of entertainment, commerce and enlightened fellowship ring clear in the digital air.

Or Is It a Siren's Song?
Yet all is not well in this brave new world. The same "anything goes" attitude that gave birth to all this imaginative online give-and-take has also given rise to a seamier cyber-underbelly. Second Life started as a sex-free amusement, but over time its residents widened their definition of fun to include, literally, every X-rated activity you don't want to imagine—from voyeurism to paid prostitution to orgy-filled sex rooms.

For those who find the idea of sex between animated characters a difficult concept to wrap their brain around, Bonnie Ruberg of The Village Voice spells things out:

"Cybersex in Second Life can take a number of different forms. The first, simplest, and probably the most rare is 100 percent text-based. Envision two avatars standing around, just hanging out, but all the while talking dirty in Instant Messenger. More commonly, Second Life sex is a combination of the visual and the verbal. Players strip their avatars down to their cyber skin, use pose balls to animate them into various sex acts, and keep up with the whole thing in IM. There's even a third option: clickable body parts attached to the avatars. These [genitals] can be 'touched' just by clicking on them. Since the parts monitor the avatar's 'arousal,' avatars can even orgasm this way."

Pose balls, by the way, are floating orbs that are scattered everywhere (and kept in a personal inventory). These little balls are actually animating programs that can allow your avatar to perform any sort of gesture or motion, ranging from sitting and drinking coffee to, in the case of a sex ball, much more intimate movements.

But, as Ms. Ruberg wrote, it's the real live people behind the animated characters who are "doing" what's being done here. Private, steamy IMs between virtual sex partners—any combination of men, women and even characters meant to appear as children—are filled with lustful language that turns fantasy into a sensual abyss. And as pornographically twisted as this may sound, it's still only a sanitized hint at Second Life's full range of sexual ills.

Down the Rabbit Hole
Linden Lab has made an effort to insulate people from activities that they might find objectionable. Online instructions require that people designate their virtual lands as PG or M rated, thusly:

"Content, communication, or behavior which involves intense language or expletives, nudity or sexual content, the depiction of sex or violence, or anything else broadly offensive must be contained within private land in areas rated Mature (M)."

Ruberg points out, however, that even in PG areas, interaction with the provocatively clad creatures you come across can quickly head in the wrong direction. "While there are plenty of adult areas in the game, if you want it to, striking up a conversation with just about anyone will usually lead to sex," she writes.

It's not surprising, then, to learn that many have entered this simulated wonderland with good intentions but ended up slipping down a ribald rabbit hole. Some of them in perpetuity. A Wall Street Journal article by Alexandra Alter tells of a man who became so involved in his avatar's world that he would spend six hours a night and often 14 hours at a stretch on weekends wrapped in its virtual embrace. In his Second Life he owns a mall, a private beach club and a strip club. He also designs outfits for his virtual strippers—much to his real life wife's chagrin.

"It's sad; it's a waste of human life," says the man's wife. "Everybody has their hobbies, but when it's from six in the morning until two in the morning, that's not a hobby, that's your life."

Climbing Out of the Bunny Suit
Scripture tells us in Genesis 6 and Jeremiah 17 that, when left to our own unfettered choices, our hearts will lead us down some pretty dark trails. Mark 7 maps out some of those pathways and Proverbs 14 points out where they'll lead. In the end, there's always a price to be paid. And some Second Lifers are already starting to pay that price in the form of all-too-broken all-too-real marriages and families.

So, as my green-coifed acquaintance originally said, Second Life is indeed much more than I thought it was. It's an ever-changing mix of creative interactions and deeply disquieting pitfalls. Your time, your energy and your family relationships can be all but swallowed up in this digital petri dish which, in the end, is just a new freedom surrounded by an old trap.

In Part 5, we'll walk a mile in the digital shoes of those who've walked many more than that.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Opining on Online Gaming