The Virtual Exodus

By Sonya Rehman

After a brief registration, the ‘Second Life’ website asks me to choose from a bunch of avatars – or in lay man’s terms, a character that I’d like to look like.
From male to female and peculiar animal characters, I pick the least bizarre: a female in a red top and pants, with her hair done up in two large buns that sit on either side of her ears. I call her ‘Axin Bade’.

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And after downloading and installing the ‘Second Life’ client software, I brace myself – you see, CNN had carried a report on SL (short for Second Life) and its features, and from what I’d remembered, it had appeared to be as ‘out there’ as ‘out there’ can get. But being a newbie, I was lucky; a friend of mine – an avid user of the program – had opted to give me a virtual tour of what my second life was to look like. Oh joy. And as the applet opened, there my character was…stark naked.

Axin Bade: Yaar yeh kya bakwaas hay?!
AlRoberto (my friend): Err, go to your inventory and dress yourself!

So I dress myself. Phew. And then I look around. The landscape is barren with large, grey and empty buildings.

Axin Bade: Dude this is one ghost town, where is everyone?
AlRoberto: This is just an orientation island, acclimatize yourself a bit and then I’ll teleport you elsewhere.
Axin Bade: ‘Teleport’, you’re serious right? Trippy!

So I walk around a bit (using the arrow keys on my keyboard) and I fly (yes you can ‘fly’ in SL) and feeling thoroughly retarded all the while. I feel like I’m playing ‘Quake’, but the only difference is, I feel no rush of adrenaline and I’m not blowing anyone’s brains out. No, I’m just flying around in virtual 3D – in a poofter’s version of ‘Quake’ – looking pretty. And then my friend teleports me to ‘Caribbean Island’. Virtual surf’s up, I can hardly wait. Not.
Two women dressed as drag-queen-fairies and a bizarre grim reaper character with a mane of white hair stand a little further ahead. I can read their chat dialogues, as in public conversations (not private ones) on SL, everyone can see which character’s saying what (the text appears on the left-hand side of one’s screen). I half-fly half-run up to them. This is how the conversation ensues:

Axin Bade: Hey everyone!
Lily Francis: Hi Axin welcome to SL.
Axin Bade: Okay so I don’t get it, why do people use this thing? What’s so great about hanging out in virtual clubs, shopping malls etc when any of you can go out in the real world and do those things?
Mayley Anatine: Well…it’s intended as a second life isn’t it….to escape the real world…
Mayley Anatine: But if you spend every Friday and Saturday night on it then maybe you have an issue and should go out in the real world…sure.
Idead Jun: I guess going to places in the real world requires a visa, but here you don’t need any visa!
Axin Bade: But this is virtual 3D – and the graphics suck by the way…
Lily Francis: You can even buy land here and restrict entry from outsiders
Axin Bade: Buy land?!
Mayley Anatine: Yes, people purchase land on SL from real money using their credit cards. Here, let me transfer some money over to you – but the Linden dollar isn’t real mind you. You can use it to buy yourself some outfits.
Axin Bade: Oh what fun.
Lily Francis: Guys want to fly around a bit?

I stare at the screen as the characters I was just speaking with whoosh upwards and fly off…perhaps to another island, mall, club or whatever.
And after spending another half hour exploring locations and changing my appearance (users can make their hair longer/shorter, hips wider/narrower, change their eye colour, play around with their features and almost every other part of the human anatomy), I switch SL off and uninstall the program.
It has aided in giving me a jolly good headache and a terrible sense of isolation. But thousands of users spanning the world over would think otherwise.
On July 20th, 2007, Second Life is being used by a staggering 8,204,980 players.
Released in 2003 by a software company (based in San Francisco), this internet-based virtual world has only recently gained extensive global attention.

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Besides chatting up and interacting with cat-women, transformer bunnies or drag queens, SL users (who have the technical know-how of computer coding) can also create landscapes, cars and houses (apart from other things), upload ‘live music’ which is streamed out to other ‘residents’ of a particular location, and create virtual paintings that may be displayed at the ‘Second Life Louvre’ (a virtual illustration of the actual Louvre Museum). What a riot.
But wait, it gets even more bizarre. As stated on Wikipedia: “In early 2007 the Swedish Institute stated it was about to set up an Embassy in Second Life. In May 2007, CNN confirmed that Sweden had become the first country to open an embassy in Second Life. The Embassy serves to promote Sweden’s image and culture, rather than providing any real or virtual services.”

Also, international brand names such as Adidas-Reebok and IBM, seemed to have mounted the SL bandwagon as well (to generate brand awareness) – by way of constructing virtual shops!
But the interesting aspect of SL is that an abundance of colleges/universities such as Harvard, Stanford, New York University and many others, have begun to host virtual classrooms and ‘distance-learning’ classes for students online.
That being stated, SL leaves one with a very strange sense of alienation – a creeping melancholy that is hard to shake off. But are virtual world programs such as Second Life, the future?
With scores of users around the world wasting away hours online, what separates corporeal reality from a bunch of pixel animations and online, empty dialogue?

My cell phone beeps. ‘SMS received’ the mini-screen flashes.
It’s the same friend who was showing me around SL a while earlier. ‘Got bored so quickly’, the message reads.
‘It’s not a question of boredom, but honestly? I think I need to live out my real life to the max first…before I venture out into a second, virtual existence’, I punch in and ‘send’.

He doesn’t reply.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. reemzaman says:

    Well I think , in a way you are right.. This virtual exodus is not an escape from real life but an extension of it…. showing you the wider version of your real life and in the end one feels safe back in what is given to us naturally.
    source: A year of living in SL

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