Virtually Speaking

Second Life along with the First.

The River

The shadow of her spirit moves serenely down to the river. Her dark velvet robe rustles over the damp grass of the riverbank in hushed whispers. She casts a casual glance my way, not appearing to see, bemused at this turn of events; calm as if in a dream, unmoved by the void in her wake.

The water is black and glassy as an onyx mirror, stretching away, disappearing into the distant mist. The air is so still and leaden that breathing is an effort. A boat awaits at the water’s edge, the faceless hooded steersman emotionless, his oar buried in the quiet water as he waits for her.

I call to her, my voice both questioning and laden with a plea. “Where do you go? Why now? No farewells have been said! We were not done knowing you! It’s too soon! Come back!”

She stops and turns, her face beatific now, only a flicker of sorrow passing in her eyes. “I must go. I choose to go. Perhaps I will be loved at last where this journey ends.”

With that, she turns again, holding the hem of her robes high to step into the boat. My voice chokes with emotion. “But we loved you! Did you not feel it? Could we have loved you more? Please stay!”

As she sits regally in the dark gondola and the steersman begins to move, she turns back toward me a final time. “It was not you – your love was returned many fold. It was his love that I needed more than any and could not have. What purpose can there be without his love? And what life can there be without purpose?”

The black water ripples and parts as the gondola floats silently away. The passengers are silent now, dark forms against the pale mist that reaches for them.

I stand alone on the bank, tears gathering in my eyes and clogging my throat. How cruel of Love to deny itself to one so loving. How cruel of Life to deny us one such as she.

I stand on the quiet bank until the mists swirl around her and swallow her. The hollow place in me will not soon heal, but it is trivial when set beside the pain of not having the one she loved. After all, what purpose can there be without love?

I stand until the sullen mists have finished their work and hidden her passing. Only a memory remains, tinged now with the ache of loss and the sorrow of another’s love unreturned.

And so went my dream last week.  It was a dream brought forth by real events – namely, the unexpected death of one of my dearest SL friends – Montserrat Snakeankle, aka Sparrowhawk Perhaps, Montserrat Tovar, aka Carmen Hermosillo, aka humdog, close friend to Peter Ludlow/Urizenius of the SL Herald, Yadni Monde, Pighead Stonecutter and hundreds of other unique and creative people online. I’m honored to count myself among their number too, a friend and confidante of the wondrous Carmen. Carmen passed away on August 8 of heart failure. It was sudden and it was devastating to those of us who knew her. Second Life has lost one of its most brilliant, irrepressible beacons. And not until her passing did I discover that she had been a force of nature on the internet, going back to the original WELL, through Fringeware, the development of Oracle and Sims Online until finally she landed in Second Life.

And so my life this past week has been a journey through grief, offering my shoulder to her other friends, seeking comfort from those who knew her. I’ve gone from acceptance back to anger, to tears and back to acceptance repeatedly as I try to assimilate the loss and not dwell too much on the fact that she will never IM me again, never drop another of her poems on a notecard to me. And I fight against the guilt I feel for not having sought out her company more often, of basking in her glow while she was here.

Her story is a tragic one in more ways than simply her early death (she was 58). It’s also a tragic story of a love that never could seem to break through obstacles and fulfill its promise. I’m trying very hard not to sit in judgment on anyone – everyone has their reasons for the decisions they make in their lives. And other’s perspectives will invariably differ. In Carmen’s case, she was willing to sacrifice everything she had – her time, her heart, even her dignity – if it meant attaining the affections of the man she adored. For whatever reasons, she never got it. For whatever reason, most of her last communications with me dealt with her broken heart as she was chastised, belittled and pushed away.

There will be those who point to that broken heart as a contributing factor in her death. It may be, but I prefer not to engage in that much recrimination. To what end? It won’t bring her back and it won’t thaw frozen hearts. As a friend of hers told me last Saturday night at her memorial service in the Shivar temple (which Yadni had built for her), “Montie made her own choices right to the last”. He was referring to her refusal to take medication the doctor had prescribed to her when she reported feeling ill on August 5. It only took three days for her health to finally fail her, and perhaps a grim wish was granted to pass away rather than to live without the love she wanted. We cannot know for certain. He was also referring to her refusal to give up on the love she so desperately wanted.

One of the ways I deal with grief is by writing. And that brings me back to the trigger for this sudden spurt of creative energy on my long-abandoned blog.   Montie’s sad passing must find some meaning or it would be completely pointless.  And one way for me to find meaning is to use it as motivation – to create more, to tell my loved ones I love them more, to make sure my friends know how important they are to me.  If I do that, perhaps a little good can come out of something so sad and meaningless. For what is Life without meaning?

August 18, 2008 Posted by | First Life, Internet, Second Life | , , | 3 Comments

The Long Goodbye

In case some of you missed it (or in case anyone still ever reads this place), I’ve been posting occasionally over on The Grid Grind.  It’s diluted what little time and energy I had for blogging to the point that I just haven’t been up to keeping up here in the old homestead.

That’s the way it happens, though, any time you diffuse your energy.  I’ve done it with games I’ve played, getting so far along in the plot or high in the levels only to see some other new shiny that grabs my attention.  I most recently did it with Lord of the Rings Online, a Tolkien-based MMRPG which I had been playing since the middle of beta.  I had done most of the quests and character classes so much that, by the time I was advanced in the release version I just lost interest.  Burned out.  I think I’ve played LOTRO all of about 30 minutes in the last month.  Lifetime memberships for the win — Turbine’s strategy to create a membership that could never leave, just like Hotel California, is paying off.

I sometimes joke about suffering from ADHD – though it’s not a very funny joke.  My son has suffered from it for most of his life, and it’s taken some serious changes in diet and medication to get him to some semblance of normalcy.   It’s not a joking matter.  So when I flippantly say that I think I suffer from it, it’s not without some basis.

I have a very hard time staying focused on one thing for very long.  In terms of online worlds, my limit seems to be somewhere between one and two years.  Historically, I will leave a game for a while, take a deep breath, and return with a vengeance or a new character after I’ve recharged my interest.  Sometimes, like with Anarchy Online and City of Heroes, I’ve done that several times.  I think I’m on my fourth COH account now because Cryptic/NCSoft makes it so damned hard to reactivate old accounts.

The forces that divert my interest do not always involve boredom, though.  With Second Life, boredom isn’t the whole story.  I was making good progress mastering the creation tools of SL – in-world building, Photoshop, Poser, writing scripts.  I even got a free copy of Maya 2008 to start playing with sculpted prims.  But my enthusiasm has flagged.  What’s going on here?

For one, I think the year-long saga and emotional shipwreck that was Archan ultimately sapped me of the last spark of enthusiasm I had for Second Life.  Of the hundreds of people I considered to be friends from my Archan experience, I think I can still count 4 of them that have stuck by me and proven themselves to be unselfish, caring, and considerate.  The others either drifted away or got caught up in the post-apocalypse paranoia and hard feelings.  As I fully expected, some blamed the whole thing on me.  I don’t care.

I suppose adversity is the true test of friendship.  I understand that, and I understand that the nature of Second Life is such that new friendships are only an IM away.    In SL more than in real life, everything is transitory.  That includes friendships, for the most part.  It’s just like me to keep people on my friends list who haven’t been in world for 2 years, just on the outside chance they may come back and say ‘hi’.  But maybe I’m an unrepentant idealist, who knows.

The most glaring difference between SL and all those other games I’ve tired of is that, in SL it’s not the loot and the levels.  It’s the friends.  The friends are what keeps me around and makes me come back.  The possibility of future friends keeps my hopes up as old friends fall by the wayside or decide I’ve inflicted some imaginary hurt on them.   And that’s what this is all about, this ADHD/boredom/wandering loner syndrome I’m in.  It’s about hope and the possibility that things will be better tomorrow than they are today or they were yesterday.  We all need hope.

Still,  going on my third year in Second Life, if I weighed all the formed and budding relationships I’ve had against those that ended gradually or abruptly, it feels to me like one long goodbye.  Most of the time, a virtual friend just isn’t going to have the shape and substance you find in a real-life friend, and like spring tulips you hardly say hello before you’re saying goodbye.

November 26, 2007 Posted by | Second Life | , , , , | 2 Comments

When bloggers get bored

I don’t subscribe to my local newspaper any more.  Haven’t for a number of years, in fact.  It’s a small town paper.  Their version of “news” is when an elderly couple’s cat gets lost.  Crime creeps into the headlines once in a while but this is one of those places whose crime rate would make Detroit or Washington, D.C. cry with envy.   It’s that stereotypical “Middle America” you read about but don’t believe exists.   It does.

I’ve found that I can get more important information from internet news – the NY Times Online, Dallas Morning Herald, Chicago Trib, and so forth.  I even read the Jerusalem Post and London Times.  Who needs the local yokels with their trivial personality feuds when there are bigger yokels who actually have (or are trying to get) nuclear weapons?

So it’s no surprise when I picked up my local paper in the office this morning – the company pays for the subscription, not me – and see that they’ve dug up an old Michael Duff blog entry from August 30.

Mid-Life Crisis Online

It’s a well-worn tale by now.  Oblivious, non-techie journalist hears that Second Life is the “hot” thing on the internet now thanks to Philip’s PR, German pervs  and Mark Bragg in the news.   It’s free to try, he needs blog material, he’s bored, so why not?

Is the result hard to predict? 

Second Life held no attraction for me because there is no “game” here. They might as well change the name to Mid-life Crisis. Call me shallow, but if I’m not killing Orcs within 10 minutes of character creation, your design concept is fundamentally flawed.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but spending real money on fake things sounds ludicrous to me — like going out for dinner so you can buy pictures of steak.

I actually get that part – killing Orcs can be fun.  I’ve been personally responsible for more than one virtual Orc extinction myself over the years. 

But this is what we call “missing the entire point”, boys and girls.  How many newbies do you know who have NO design skills, no programming skills, don’t engage in cybersex and yet have become immersed in the world so completely their real-life relationships suffer? 

Why does that happen? 

I think it’s twofold.  First, I think some of us – the creative types, even if we don’t have creative skills – have much richer imaginations.  Those imaginations draw us to places like Second Life.  And TSO, IMVue, or insert-your-favorite-VW-here.  The very appeal of SL is to those of us who feel most comfortable in a virtuality because we can visualize ourselves as being there, becoming our avatar, interacting as virtual people. 

Second, I think the social interaction in SL is very powerful.  People enjoy engaging other people.  It gives us the feedback, support, and benchmarking we need as individuals to feel worthy and not alone.

Duff apparently only gave it a few days before hitting his blog deadline and peeling off a tongue-in-cheek denouncement.  That’s hardly a fair review, even if fairness wasn’t his intention.  I think it took me two weeks of frequenting the same clubs and stores, figuring out all the nuances of interface and the hidden tricks of the debug menu to even get to the point where I felt there was a social pull in Second Life for me.  Two months later I was much more comfortably immersed.  Two years later, SL is as much a part of my life as my real family and friends.  My SL friends are real – disguised in some way perhaps and hundreds or thousands of miles away, but nevertheless real.

A word of advice to Mr. Duff:  Stick to killing orcs.  Let me know how immersed you are after two years of killing the same ugly orcs 4,000 times.  After you max out your level in WoW, I’ll still be discovering new things in Second Life.

October 1, 2007 Posted by | First Life, Second Life | , , , , | Leave a comment

Second Life, Second Gender

One of the things I’ve always been intrigued about in Second Life was the issue of gender.  In an anonymous environment like SL, honesty can sometimes become a victim to one’s subconscious desires.   I say that not as a moral judgment, but as an observation of fact — a surprising number of Second Life residents are probably not anything like they portray themselves.   For many, the anonymity allows them to explore facets of their personality that are repressed by social inhibition.

One of the common ways some SL residents explore is to roleplay as the opposite gender. How important is gender-honesty in a virtual world?  If mechanisms were put in place to force gender honesty, would it destroy the fantasy element of SL?  Would it make it harder for people to explore their own sexuality in ways that are not permissible in real life?

I know quite a few residents who have female avatars but who openly admit they are male – some of them transsexual or transgendered individuals who find a wonderful method of release in SL.  Others feel that they have feminine characteristics they want to explore.

In my opinion, the degree to which this is simply roleplay as opposed to deception  depends on the nature of their relationships — how much do their friends and virtual lovers risk by trusting them?  If the truth comes out, will anyone be hurt by knowing of the deception?  It’s the difference between a casual acquaintance dancing at your favorite club versus that hot blonde you fell madly in love with and proposed marriage to, only to discover they have a tab instead of a slot between their legs.

I submit that this issue is far more widespread in Second Life than most of us believe.  Though I like to think I’m worldly-wise and a bit cynical, I think the real breadth and depth of gender deception would startle most residents if the truth were known.  It would probably even startle me.

So what motivates someone to pretend to be the opposite sex?  What is their Second Life like?  I went to someone who would know.   This individual worked at a club with me right after I joined SL.  I was a manager at the time and they were one of the dancers.  The club had “VIP” rooms where girls could take clients for escort work if they so chose, with the club getting a small percentage of the fee. In a moment of candor, this girl confessed to me that she was really a he.  (For the record, she wasn’t the only one – and we added screening questions to the hiring process to try to prevent a recurrence, hoping they would be honest).  I had to encourage him/her to resign or be fired in view of the damage to the club’s reputation if it slipped to a client that we employed gender benders as escorts. 

It wasn’t personal.  I kept him on my friends list.  He was always an intelligent, sensitive person with a great deal of wisdom to impart — intelligent enough to slip past most people’s “guy-dar”.  His fundamental deception aside, at heart he was still an interesting person with feelings and motivations of his own.

I believe that every human being has varying degrees of male and female in their makeup — I believe that gender is not a black-and-white, male OR female phenomenon.  I think of it as a spectrum.  All of us are somewhere along the spectrum between all-female and all-male.  None of us are completely 100% one or the other.

I’ll call my friend “Doug”.  I won’t reveal his SL identity here or his real name, as I promised him total anonymity in order to do this interview.  I’m posting this heavily edited for the sake of clarity and to give you some insight into a mindset.  I don’t think his case is unusual.

Cindy:  “Doug, how long have you been playing a female in SL?”
Doug: “About three years.  Maybe longer.”
Cindy: “Do you tell people you’re really a guy?”
Doug: “Most of the time no.  It just never comes up. “
Cindy: “Has anyone ever guessed without being told?”
Doug: “Not yet. “
Cindy: “Why do you think that is?”
Doug: “I’m not sure.  At first I was sure people would spot it.  I have usual male hobbies like sports and beer.  But I also think I have a female side in me that’s been dormant most of my life.  SL gave me the chance to explore that female side.”
Cindy: “Explore it how?”
Doug: “Sexuality, mostly.  For lots of men, there’s a layer of homophobic attitude that has been programmed into them.  It prevents them from even wondering what it’s like to be a woman, to have periods, to be penetrated, to be pregnant.  It takes some major social deprogramming to ponder those things.  Exploring them has been a major life experience for me.”
Cindy: “And SL has helped you move across that barrier…”
Doug: “In ways I never imagined.  And it’s true what they say about women being placed on a pedestal on the one hand, treated like royalty, protected … yet on the other hand not having their opinions valued and being viewed as the “weaker sex”.
Cindy: “What’s your biggest challenge in trying to keep your ‘secret’?
Doug: “Hmm.  Probably guys who think they’re in love with me.  I like doing cyber – I’ve worked as an escort and it can be exciting.  But when they stalk you it can be scary.   I was a little concerned about ID verification but they haven’t done anything with it.  Now it’s voice.  I don’t voice for obvious reasons but I’ve heard there is software you can use to modify your voice to sound female.  I have to decide how far I want to take this.”
Cindy: “Do you ever have qualms about deceiving people you know?”
Doug: “I try to avoid that if possible.  In the end I try to remember that this is just a fantasy.  If someone falls in love with my cartoon pixels, that’s their problem.”
Cindy: “I’ll assume that you don’t do anything to encourage that?”
Doug: “I try not to.  But when you work as an escort or a stripper, part of the job is appealling to male vanity.  Flirting, making yourself attractive.  I don’t have any talent as a builder so this is how I make money in SL.  I kind of remove myself from my avatar, mentally.  When I’m cybering with a guy I feel more like I’m making my avatar do things and I’m watching her just like the guy is.”
Cindy: “Do you think being male gives you some insight into what men like, more so than a genuine woman?”
Doug: “I think so.  I don’t talk sports.  That would be a giveaway.  But I dress my avatar the way I, as a man, think is sexy.  I gave her a hot body and blonde hair.  Guys dig the Pam Anderson look.”
Cindy: “What will you do if and when the day comes that we have ID verification and you’re forced to prove your gender?”
Doug: “I’ll either leave SL or start over, I guess.  It would ruin most of the fun I’m having right now, making money and exploring what it’s like to be a virtual girl.”
Cindy: “You and I talked about this when I had to let you go from the escort club.  You told me at that time that you were ready to move on anyway and knew what would happen before you confessed your real gender to me.  I had suspicions at the time but wasn’t sure enough to ask if you hadn’t told me.  Have you had similar experiences with other clubs?
Doug: “No.  Every experience like that only teaches me lessons that I apply later.  I haven’t been found out since then by clients or managers, but I keep my mouth shut. “
Cindy: “What about guilt?”
Doug: “None. *smile*  I’m not out to hurt anybody.  This avatar is my alter ego.  She’s my inner woman.  Sometimes I wish I could really be her but a sex change operation isn’t in the cards for me.  I hate knives *smile*.  So I guess you could say she really is me – a part of the real me.  That part is real and genuine.”
Cindy: “So what advice would you give to guys out there about figuring out the real gender of that hot Barbie blonde they are chasing?”
Doug: “I won’t give away all my secrets *grin* but for one thing, if they’re a Barbie blonde with huge hooters, they’re probably a guy.  If the relationship is really getting serious I would just urge them to make real contact outside of SL.  Phone calls, face-to-face, that sort of thing.  Even if they turn out to be a real woman you don’t know what their physical reality is until you experience it.  And you can’t do that in a virtual world.”
Cindy: “And if it’s not serious?”
Doug: “Then I don’t think it matters.  It’s just a fantasy, after all.”

September 20, 2007 Posted by | Second Life | 10 Comments

The Next Life

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged here.  Most of my posts have been over on the Grid Grind, where several writers have been keeping the discussion flowing and reporting on the latest Second Life developments.

Lately, the hot topic has been ID Verification. Within the next few weeks, SL residents will have the option of going through third-party firm Integrity  to confirm personal details such as name, address, and gender.  I understand that you will have the option of enabling some of these details on your profile.   Other residents will be able to see that you are “verified”, but you can also reveal your RL gender, location, and age if you so choose.

Linden Lab continues to stress that this move is meant to “build trust” in the community.  In one way, that’s true.  No longer will those who engage in adult activities in SL or who sell adult merchandise, have to worry about the legal age of their partners or customers.  Or so the theory goes.

But is that necessarily so?

I’m still waiting to hear how it’s harder for little Johnny to steal his Dad’s Social Security Number than it is to steal his credit card.  The main thing Integrity will give Linden Lab is some legal protection.  From their website: “merchants using Integrity, are indemnified for violations of laws relating to underage access“.

Naturally, that doesn’t indemnify landowners directly (indirectly? I’m not a lawyer, I’m open to input).  And that’s the real issue once this system goes into place. 

Says the Linden blog:

“If Residents and businesses choose not to do this, we expect that such behavior will be reported by the community itself. As has always been the case, Residents are morally, socially and legally responsible for their actions and content in Second Life.”

Translation: not only are landowners going to be held responsible for flagging their land as “adult” if it contains anything regarded as remotely questionable, but the Lab is issuing a blanket invitation to everyone else on the grid to go around looking for things they consider questionable.  An errant nipple?  Abuse Report.  One of George Carlin’s 7 Words you can’t say on TV?  Abuse Report.  Pink and blue poseballs?  Abuse report, youbetcha.  It almost sounds like a good idea to pre-emptively flag your land as adult even if you don’t have anything “broadly offensive”.  Lord knows if you own a combat sim, you’d better put your shields up.

I remember after the June of 2006 removal of verification requirements on signup, there were official comments about how the AR traffic wasn’t as bad as people made it out to be.  The problem was, that blog entry was based on one short week of data.  In the ensuing months, entire resident groups were banned and returned to be banned again.  Club owners reported such a rise in griefer traffic that the BanLink system came into being so that they could have some control over repeated griefing and share information.

Now, Linden Lab is about to do it again.  However many Lindens are working their enforcement desk,  they need to double the staff.  Of course, they won’t.  Perhaps the only thing that might save us as freedom-loving residents is that the AR load will skyrocket so badly that LL can’t check each and every one.

There is another ramification to this new feature.  One that some residents are applauding, but in my opinion will have a far more negative affect on the grid than they realize.  That is, the sex clubs and free sex areas are about to take a major traffic hit as are the combat and dueling sims (“adult content is that which is overtly, graphically, or explicitly sexual in nature or intensely violent.”).  We may not see every one of them closing the way gambling casinos had to shut down, but there will definitely be a reduction in their numbers.

No, I’m not saying that’s going to be a bad thing necessarily.  It won’t be the doom of SL.  But consider that for every 10 newbies who join to try out the sex clubs, more than one of them eventually get tired of the cybersex and come to realize that there are other things to do.  Some of them build.  Some of them start endeavors of their own — I remember one person who I met through Archan, who joined to see what the sex was about and ended up buying a sim where he offered help and cheap rent for residents under 90 days old.  Another one went on to develop his own line of aircraft for sale.  Another developed a very clever chat tool that has been sold widely.  Just because someone is curious about the sex doesn’t mean they have nothing else to offer.

So what happens when these people stop joining SL?  We’ll likely not see much of a decline in population.  In fact we may not really miss them, because we won’t know what we lost.  But it will be a loss.

How many of you honestly believe that the poseball business — the art of posing and animation that gives us non-sexual cuddles, lounging, and AO animations — would have ever been as lucrative and driven without a market in the sex biz?

The grid has been a marriage of the PG-rated and non-sexual with the deviant, the sexual, and the fetish communities for a long time.  Most members who belong to the latter also have strong ties and business interests in the former.  They are inextricably entangled.

I am one who will not miss the crowds of naked, prim-penis wearing newbies at some clubs.  But at the same time, I have to wonder how many of those could have developed into productive, creative Second Life residents.

We may never know.

September 6, 2007 Posted by | Second Life | Leave a comment

The Blame Game

Last month, the AMA backed away from a recommendation by its Council on Science and Public Health that videogame addiction be included as a formal diagnostic disorder.   Had they approved the recommendation, it would have allowed patients suffering from the disorder to seek insurance coverage for treatment and also allowed them to utilize Americans with Disabilities Act provisions for such things as job accomodation.

You heard it right – videogame addicts could seek legal redress of grievances through ADA and file for therapy coverage with their insurance carriers.  The implications of that should be pretty plain if you’ve heard about the number of lawsuits filed against companies who sell fast food, cigarettes, alcohol, prescription drugs and other abusable products.

I’ll get to the issue of addiction in a moment – I’m not dismissing the phenomenon at all.  But I do believe that sometimes we encourage a culture of victimhood when we set out to help those who need it.   The best intentions sometimes end up providing only convenient excuses for those who can’t seem to take responsibility for their own lives – or have parents who don’t teach it.

Am I being harsh?  Perhaps – but let’s take a couple of common scenarios and ask some tough questions.  Both of these cases are composites of people I actually know:

Exhibit A: Johnny is 15 years old.  His parents have been divorced for several years and his Mom works 50 or 60 hours a week trying to make ends meet.   Dad isn’t a deadbeat – he pays his child support and helps when he can – but he sometimes spoils the kid out of guilt or misguided parenting notions.  So Dad bought Johnny an Xbox 360 and a few games for his birthday. 

Mom’s not around much.  Neither is Dad.  Johnny discovered Xbox Live and now spends most of his free time chatting and playing with his buddies online.  Sounds better than joining a gang and getting arrested, doesn’t it?  That’s how his parents feel.

Except that Johnny never exercises.  He’s becoming obese.  His wrists and hands take constant abuse on the Xbox controller.  He plays so much he begins to see the real world in game terms – a world where violence is acceptable, the goal is to achieve selfish ends (winning) and if you screw up you can always hit “restart”.   Worst of all, Johnny no longer finds homework and real friends interesting.  His grades crash, he stops playing baseball or soccer, he isolates in his basement in front of the Xbox.  Without even realizing what happened, Johnny has met the conditions of addiction.

Exhibit B: Bob is 32 years old.  He has a decent job, but he’s never related that well to others.  The few girlfriends he’s had all ended up rejecting him at some point, and Bob has retreated into the fantasy world of online games where he is in control.  Others can only know as much about him as he chooses to reveal, and what’s more he can parlay his obsession with games into a form of respect from other gamers.  Bob is always the first one to hit level 50, the first one to get the best equipment.  He never misses a raid, although he misses plenty of work trying to power up all his characters in his quest to be the best player on his server.

It’s worse than not having a life — Bob’s life is a mess.  It’s too easy to substitute the shallow, meaningless Skinner Box of online games for more fulfilling human relationships and healthy activity.

Bob doesn’t think he has a problem.  Even though, at heart, he is an unhappy person whose life has decreasing fulfillment.  Even though he finds himself overly upset when events in his games spiral out of his control.  Even though, as much as he secretly wishes he had friends or a girl he just can’t stop logging on every day and getting that next level.  Ironically, his desire for control doesn’t apply to his own life.  He’s lost control over the most important aspect – his ability to make healthy choices.

Those two examples aren’t typical of the majority of online gamers, by any means, but they are also not uncommon.  And both point to the same thing: addiction.

According to Nick Yee, a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford who has studied online gaming for the past seven years, about half of the 35,000 players he’s interviewed considered themselves addicted.

The controversy among psychologists over the definition of “addiction” has been raging for a while.  We all know about drug, alcohol and nicotine addiction.  Some substances trigger addictive responses in the human brain and body that are easy to fall prey to and very tough to overcome.  There’s another school of thought that widens the definition to include a whole set of behaviors which are also destructive, but involve things we don’t normally think of as addictive — food, shopping, sex, porn, risk, gambling and … videogames.

These addictions – I’m going to call them “behavioral disorders” – have many of the same characteristics of drug or alcohol addiction.  They start with an individual who may have a compulsive personality, someone who is more prone to becoming an addict than the average Joe or Jane on the street due to biology, nurture, or life experiences – or all three.

There is usually a trigger, such as Johnny’s or Bob’s feelings of emotional abandonment in my examples.  Emotional pain, even that which is subtle and unacknowledged, is often (not always) at the root of these behavioral disorders.  The addiction serves as the brain’s subconscious means of medicating that pain, of suppressing it or substituting instant gratification patterns that allow the individual to mask the real issues.   The particular behavior chosen provides a “rush” – a brain chemistry change that is pleasurable, something the sufferer wants more of.  And more of. And more.

Typical symptoms of addiction all apply to these behavioral categories -

- Reclusive behavior, self-imposed isolation.
– Lying, stealing or cheating in order to engage in the behavior.
– Deteriorating or non-existent real world relationships.
– Decrease in job or school performance.
– Loss of sleep, possible health issues resulting from the behavior.
– Defensiveness and anger when confronted, refusal to entertain the idea that the individual has a problem.  If cornered, more lying and bargaining in order to continue the activity.
– Bouts of depression when prevented from engaging in the behavior.
– Overspending on things that enable the behavior (if you’re a gaming addict, this would include the latest computer, fastest broadband connection, more $50 games and so forth).
– Most of all, the inability to stop.

From my own life experience, from family and friends and loved ones I’ve known, I can attest to you that all these are real problems and real descriptions of the phenomenon.  Addiction in whatever form can be very destructive to a life and the lives of those around the addict.

But does it warrant its own line in the DSM IV?  Are compulsive gamers entitled to the same considerations given to paraplegics and epileptics or meth addicts?  Should everyone’s insurance rates go up because we have a few million people in this country who can’t get control of their videogame habit?

I’m not advocating the abandonment of people with problems.  Frankly I don’t think someone suffering from any behavioral disorder has much hope of changing things unless and until they experience the ultimate devastation that inevitably comes along — the AA Twelve Steps calls it “hitting your bottom”.  Until you hit that bottom, it’s too easy to rationalize and postpone and negotiate with the problem.

But once you’ve hit that bottom, there are avenues through which you can seek help.  Most insurance carriers provide for limited coverage of psychological therapy without asking for too much detail (a “behavioral disorder” already qualifies without throwing in the videogame qualifier).  There are self-help groups in almost every town in America – and if you can’t find one for videogame addicts, you might be surprised at how closely the parameters of gambling or shopping addiction meet your own profile. 

There is also  Online Gamers Anonymous, begun by Liz Woolley whose son Shawn committed suicide as a result of his compulsive involvement in World of Warcraft.  Sometimes, there is no more powerful medicine than sharing your problems and solutions with other people who understand.

If you’re a parent, I make this final appeal to you:  your child draws his or her self-esteem from you.  Nobody else.  You are the emotional nurturer, the role model who sets the example they will follow the rest of their lives.  Ask yourself how much you actually listen to them, ask after their problems and concerns, involve yourself with their lives?  Do you see their increasing isolation (up in their room playing games) as a reprieve for your own sanity?  If so, then you have probably taken the first step toward enabling your child to become a videogame addict.   They’ll never know what other choices there are unless you show them.

If you choose to ignore the warning signs, be prepared for the next game you will play:  it’s called the “Blame Game”, and you’re it.

July 18, 2007 Posted by | First Life, Internet, Second Life | 1 Comment

Letting Go

A close friend of mine recently had to have her favorite pet put to sleep. She agonized over the decision for weeks – the dog had been part of her family for almost 10 years but had developed leukemia and her life was slowly becoming a living hell. In the end, the only thing left to do was to perform an act of mercy no matter how emotional the decision was. No matter how much she would always miss her best 4-legged friend after she was gone.

My own trials of late have not involved the life or death of anyone close to me, but I empathize with the struggle we all sometimes have when we wonder whether it’s time to let go of something we love. It is never easy. It is never clear. We can only weigh the options and make the best decision for us.

In my case, I’m referring to the Archan Community. I’ve been a part of this community for over a year and Head Manager (no puns please) for most of that time. I’ve watched it go through so many changes I can’t list them here — the most dramatic being the decision to move toward a Members-Only policy to combat the high level of griefing and stress on the management of the place.

At the time it seemed like the best course of action. If membership was restricted to those who demonstrated a willingness to put forth effort into their appearance and agree to standards of conduct, wouldn’t it be more fun? Wouldn’t the quality of people improve? All of our reasons looked good on paper. Except for one small detail:

Membership restrictions don’t work in Second Life.

It isn’t the first group I’ve belonged to in SL that was restricted to members-only. And without exception, I can’t think of a single one of them that has survived for long. Perhaps part of that is simply the temporary nature of groups in SL. But a large part of it goes directly to the fact that, in Second Life, you are always competing with other groups for ease of access and instant gratification. Why join a group like Archan for friendship when you can find friends almost anywhere by frequenting the same places enough? Why join a group like Archan to get pixel sex when you can go to any of a dozen other places with traffic in the 50,000 and up range without any restrictions at all? Does it really matter to you that most of those 50,000 or 150,000 other members are still in their default Linden jammies? Apparently not for many residents.

I believed that the remedy to those normal SL dynamics was no more complicated than creating a business model. I do it in my RL job all the time. I’m good at it. Why wouldn’t it also apply to a Second Life business?

I proposed that Archan come to grips with the fact that the Members-Only policy had severely restricted traffic — building a couple of small ugly buildings that were open to the public wasn’t the answer. A few poseballs weren’t the answer. The sense of a community was rapidly slipping away because the owner was not prepared to invest the additional effort required to make Archan into a social magnet. Some of the better managers drifted away. Those who were left were either frustrated with the way things were or didn’t understand what it meant to be friendly, engaging, and customer-centric. It was headed downhill already and I wanted to reverse the trend.

I should note here that the owner is a good guy. I have nothing against him personally. When the former owner, Milosz, offered to give me the land and I couldn’t afford the tier, the new owner accepted the responsibility on the condition that he not sell the land for profit out from under us. He’s kept his word — but he’s also limited his role at Archan to paying the tier and logging in every month or so to send me event funds. He’s resisted attempts at restructuring the staff. He resisted suggestions to charge rent for the group mall land, which would have provided funds to hire full time event hosts – the business plan which would have salvaged Archan’s traffic. He did pay for the new clubhouse we built, but otherwise he has operated with a very radical “hands-off” approach. Basically, it meant that I and a select few active managers were left to run things on our own…

- Without the power to make important decisions.

- Without the power to remove absentee managers, or those whose behavior ran counter to what we needed.

- Without the power to set community policy.

Is it any wonder that things began to unravel?

I’ve been accused of being responsible for allowing Archan to languish. I won’t shirk my part of the responsibility, but I wonder what else can really be done when the only person taking an active role as a leader is met with resistance and has no visible backing from the ownership?

In my own defense, nothing I did was done without some measure of concensus from the rest of the active staff. Staff members had a major hand in designing the new clubhouse. Staff members helped to build the outdoor park and contribute their own items and furniture. We almost had our own website built, complete with events calendar and a members forum but personal conflicts interfered. I even purchased my own webhost service to try to do it but ended up hitting a wall I like to call “don’t know shit about php”. I made the unilateral decision to remove the members-only restrictions, but too late.

I cannot hold their frustration against them — my own level of frustration matched theirs but I didn’t feel I had the freedom to just walk away. They had that freedom and some eventually used it. I miss them tremendously, and Archan is much poorer without them.

If you’ve read this far you probably see where I’m going. If you’re not an Archan member, you may not really care much. That’s ok. Maybe this is useful experience that other SL club managers can learn from.

If you’re an Archan member, though, I want you to know the truth: Nobody in that community could possibly love it more than I do. Nobody in that community could possibly be as saddened as I am to watch it fall apart and feel powerless to change it. I’ll not claim I made all the right decisions, but I made the decisions I thought were best at the time. Things didn’t work for reasons that were ultimately beyond my control.

Like my friend who lost her dog, maybe it’s time for me to admit that I cannot control the situation any longer. I am tired of feeling emotionally drained whenever another decision has to be made or when I drop by the clubhouse and find it empty. I’m tired of the most basic business principles being rejected out of hand and then watching something I love languish into a coma.

This hurts me deeply. But I don’t think I can go on like this. It may be time to make that tough decision and just let go.

To the core group of you who stuck with me until the last: I love you. To those Archan members who, like me, love our unique little community: it’s your turn to speak up and let someone know what you want. It’s too big of a job for one person to attempt alone. It’s too big for two or three people. It takes the whole community. It takes love, a plan and an active owner.

I’ve given all I had to give
And now it’s time for me to live
And I won’t look back
And I won’t regret
Though it hurts like hell
Someday I will forget

– Sozzi

June 30, 2007 Posted by | Second Life | 5 Comments

In the Not-News

I have a brand new hero – and apparently I’m not alone.

In this video of a recent MSNBC broadcast, news anchor Mika Brzezski angrily refuses to lead her news segment with another meaningless schlock piece on Paris Hilton.  She even tries to light the script on fire, then shreds it.

If there was any thought to her getting fired, think again — do a quick Google on Mika Brzezski and you’ll find out that (a) She’s the daughter of Zbigniew Brzezinski and, (b) she’s getting a standing ovation around the blogosphere for saying what we’ve all been thinking for years now:  Paris Hilton is not news.

I’ll go one further.  Paris is a spoiled, brainless, no-talent twit (SBNTT) whose only claim to fame is a rich daddy and a sex tape.  It takes so much talent to have sex on tape, you know. 

So why is our media saturated with this SBNTT?  It’s more than just slow news days.   There’s a war going on.  There are other no-talent twits making news (we call them politicians).  She was arrested 4 days before the 6th anniversary of 9/11. 

But all of that was relegated to second page when the blonde heiress rushed out for a midnight snack and got nabbed for being drunk at the wheel.   Then again when the judge – also a hero of mine – insisted that she spend 45 days in the slammer.  And yet again when the sheriff let her go home, leaving her new girlfriends holding the toilet brush back in the slammer.

Real justice would have been to let her go home to house arrest, but require her to bring the other inmates with her.  Let them suffer in the luxury of the Hilton mansion for the remainder of their sentences, too.  They could have made one great reality show out of that.  It’d be more interesting than watching the anorexic Nicole (“I’m not a role model“) Richie try to milk a cow.

What is it with us?  Are we so afraid of having our brains challenged and being made to think that we’ll settle for any old silly, vapid dreck?   Are sitcoms the limit of our public thirst for knowledge?  Understanding this, why are we surprised when so many people actually swallow, hook line and sinker,  Intelligent Design “theory” and seek to have the cornerstone of modern biology – Darwin – excluded or diluted in our schools?

We are mentally lazy.  I’m convinced of that.  I get that way, myself.  My secret vices are detective fiction and online games – while Richard Dawkins or Alan Clark sit unopened next to my reading chair.   I rationalize it as my entertainment – everybody needs some entertainment.  But too often, I find myself thinking “one more quest” instead of learning something new in Photoshop or finishing Clark’s epic masterpiece on Barbarossa.

I’m also convinced that whoever said that Man thrives on adversity was correct.  Without adversity, it’s human nature to lapse into complacency.  Wars, as terrible and evil as they may be, focus mankind’s creative talents in marvelous and remarkable ways.  Poverty and prejudice have undoubtedly produced more artists and comedians and writers than luxurious leisure. 

That explains something else.  How can you expect someone like Paris, coddled in the lap of obscene wealth and fame without having earned it, to discover whatever creative soul may lie within herself?  Maybe, instead of sending the inmates to live with her, they should have sent Paris to live in a ghetto somewhere for a few months.  Not for the sake of Paris, but to demonstrate that justice is blind to privelege and perhaps even wake up one wealthy heiress to how much real need there is in the world. 

But enough about her.  I have some books to read.

June 29, 2007 Posted by | First Life | Leave a comment

Blood Feuds and Fear Politics

Any veteran of internet discussion boards knows what I’m talking about — show me a discussion forum and I’ll show you a commonality of interest that binds the posters together, but I’ll also show you cliques, herd mentalities, “common wisdom” and prevalent attitudes that do not permit dissent. A large percentage of this Common Wisdom is based on subjective opinion and the Scourge of our Modern Era: The Internet Meme.

When Gutenberg invented movable type it changed the course of history – with cheap books came knowledge.  With knowledge came power.  The old pecking order, starting with the Church, was upset and a new one arose.

Knowledge is power today, more than ever before.

The Internet’s impact on society may outdo Gutenberg. No longer is news and communication the sole province of TV networks, phone companies or the Postal Service. The impact of the Internet goes much deeper and wider than the printing press – instantaneous and cheap communications have created new horizons for community creation and new interpersonal dynamics. Knowledge is now distributed to anyone with a computer, whether they have a PhD or a GED. One man can create a website, call himself “The National Association of Truth” and give himself the appearance of authority out of all proportion to his true credentials.

The wave of information we enjoy today has a much lower signal-to-noise ratio than ever before. For every truth being passed around in email or on web discussion boards, there are likely to be ten bogus rumors and outright lies. Fact checking has become a business in itself that only existed in the sanctum of print and television newsrooms until now.

In recent history, we’re all aware of the role blogs played in exposing the CBS News gaffe over forgeries of Bush’s National Guard papers. The vox populi first speculated on the forgery but then was able to confirm the truth — with a very loud, resounding thud from Dan Rather’s career.

That’s one for the blogosphere. But does it mean that blogs and web boards are replacing the news networks?

They may do so in terms of folk wisdom and widely accepted truism, but truisms are not truth. For us to arrive at the truth, we should demand accountability, credible sources and independent verification. All too often, the mob opinion on your favorite web board has none of these assets. Mostly we see wishful thinking, paranoia, and gossip being passed off as fact (buttressed by copious links, links to links, and “my link is better than your link” link wars).

Our definition of “Fact” may be the first casualty of the Blog Era.

American Politics may be the second casualty.

The election of George Bush II in 2000 did more to polarize the American political landscape than anyone since Abraham Lincoln. The political discussions I’ve witnessed and participated in since 2000 have broken friendships, set fire to web communities and – far from convincing anyone to change their minds – only radicalized opinions and made everyone, on all sides, more sure than ever that they are 100% right and the other guy is 100% wrong. In reality, none of us – not a single one of us – knows the whole truth.

My unscientific opinion is that the Left currently dominates the blogosphere (with some notable exceptions on the Right), while the Right has taken to Talk Radio. One of these information sources is no better or worse than the other for accurate and reliable information. Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh are 90% hyperbole (I know, I’ve checked their facts) on one end of the spectrum, and the Left Wing truthout.org and commondreams.org are the same on the other end.

Fox News, the whipping boy of the Left, uses many of the same wire services as CNN and yet, because they also feature independent opinion pieces which can be mistaken for “objective news”, they’re accused of being in bed with the neo-cons. (Conveniently forgotten in their rush to marginalize is the CNN staffer who spent many nights at the Clinton White House as a guest.)

It’s as if our political landscape is no longer about real issues. It’s about mud-slinging, lies, and disinformation. It’s about whether you are Blue or Red. There can be no middle. No purple or lavender, no shades of moderation. Pick a side, you’re either with us or against us. In this brave new electronic world, your political choices say more about your personal character than all of your charity work and well-raised children. You’re either a “loony liberal” (a favorite Talk Radio term) or a “neo-con” (spat rather than spoken). Some have even suggested that if you’re in the middle, you’re a wimp for not having an opinion!

Our major political parties understand this and do everything they can to foment the suspicion and paranoia — making voters afraid will garner more votes than making them think.

Here’s an experiment. Don’t try this at home:

Take a moderate position on the web discussion board of your choice. Avoid insulting anyone or denigrating their opinions. Point out that extreme opinions tend to usually be wrong, and that Conspiracy Theories normally arise from a potent combination of fear and lack of facts. I’m betting you will be mischaracterized, ridiculous strawmen will be erected in your honor (the more reasonable you are, the stronger the pull of strawmen arguments – they gotta find somewhere to gain traction) and you will be personally insulted and belittled by the extremists on both sides, sometimes with the most odious and offensive epithets. You can’t win.

Either you’re for ‘em or you’re agin’ em.

Such is the diary of my participation in internet political and religious discussions over the years. I’ve tried different tactics to avoid that final meltdown. But ultimately and sadly, sometimes there are only two choices: either avoid talking politics and religion altogether or distance myself from the idiocy.

People aren’t going to change on my account and I wouldn’t expect that. But I can change myself. I can preserve my own sanity and simply avoid the vexation of coping with mob mentalities. It’s not “running away” – I have never run away from expressing my opinion. But I do practice self defense. In my real world there are far more important things to worry about than arguing with anonymous fear-mongers on my computer.

Civility appears to be a thing of the past. The rise of Fear Politics and the veil of anonymity have turned much of the internet into a blood feud with no winners. Only losers.

June 15, 2007 Posted by | Internet | Leave a comment

Reality Collides

The last few days have been very trying for me in my First Life.  It hasn’t been as hard for me as it is for the victims of this tragedy, of course, but the ripples of events inevitably spread across a community and impact all of us.  Even those of us, like myself, who are only indirectly connected.

I posted in this thread on Second Citizen in response to a discussion on the kidnapping and murder of Kelsey Smith, the 18 year old girl in Kansas whose body was discovered on Tuesday.  Kelsey was a schoolmate of my daughter’s and, while they weren’t friends they were acquaintances at the same school.  They were the same age, involved in many of the same activities.  They even had similar personalities – sweet, outgoing, smart, goal-oriented. The emotional shock to my daughter is profound.  Her safe little world of boys, summer jobs and going away to college has been upended in the cruelest way imaginable.

I realized that I need some catharsis for all this.  Long late-night talks with my daughter help, but I can’t tell her everything I’m thinking.  I want her to be aware and realistic about the risk of abduction.  I want her to be prepared.  I don’t have to tell her what I think should happen to the suspect they’ve apprehended.  Mostly I want her to feel safe again and understand that if you exercise reasonable diligence and use your head, the risk of this happening to anyone is very small.

The truth is that nobody is ever really safe.  Especially teenage girls.  The statistics are horrifying – according to the FBI, the incidence of missing children has increased 444% since 1982.  And 74% of abducted children are girls.

The sad truth is that there probably was nothing Kelsey could have done to see her own fate coming.  FBI profilers will tell you that, chances are, this perpetrator has intense feelings of inadequacy and anger stemming from a failing marriage, sexual inadequacy, perhaps a failed career or all of the above.  The seeds of his own sociopathy were already there and this was the trigger.   Very often, the killer has unrealistic fantasies about his prey loving and forgiving him, of a sick kind of secret love affair.  When the reality hits him that the girl is terrified and wants nothing to do with him, his reaction can be one of surprise, rage — and murder.

In view of the fact that the actual abduction was so sloppily executed – in broad daylight under surveillance cameras – it was most likely a case of his own frustration reaching the boiling point combined with the availability of a target.  In this case the target was an attractive, friendly young girl.  Maybe she smiled at him in the store because she smiled at strangers all the time.  Maybe he found her clothing seductive (she was wearing dark shorts in the surveillance videos, but nothing provocative).  In his darkest, most perverse fantasies such a cocktail would be difficult to resist. 

We can protect our children but only to a point.  The old adage about information being the most powerful prevention is very apt here — some police departments and schools make safety training classes available where experts tell you how to be vigilant and what situations to avoid.   You can buy your kid a can of mace, but the reality is that if they’re in a situation where they have to use it, they’ve already failed to see the warning signs.

There are no words to describe my contempt for people who kill children.  I admit I want them to be inflicted with horrible suffering and never free to prey on another child again.  But the truth is that there is always another one to take their place.  Our society has a bad habit of producing sociopathic killers regularly, and we have no methods in place for identifying them or preventing them from killing. 

Widespread child abuse is one source of the problem, but so is the trend we see of emotionally detached, unavailable parents.  Children are raising themselves all the time without the love and mentoring that a parent is supposed to provide – most manage to live productive lives anyway but the few who fall victim to the resulting emptiness and psychological scars probably provide the majority of our modern criminals and fill our prisons with lives that can never be ‘normal’ no matter what we do.  Good parenting is the answer to our crime rate, but it is also the hardest thing to achieve.

Here is where I make all sorts of high-minded pronouncements on the evils of modern society and how we’ve betrayed the trust of our children.  But it would do no good.  It won’t bring Kelsey Smith back, or any of the thousands of other children who have died at a predator’s hand.  It won’t change the pace and emotional distance that seems to be hard-wired into modern life. 

The only thing I have control over is my approach to my own children – daily assurances of love, of really and truly listening to them describe their experiences and feelings.  Asking more questions than providing answers.  Truly being there for them when they need answers.  I can do no more than that.  In the end, no matter how much I try to prepare and protect my children against the wolves who walk among us, it is up to the child to remember what to do.  It is up to them to recognize a situation as it is developing and know how to avoid it.  By the time they’re being shoved into a car, chances are it’s already too late.

June 7, 2007 Posted by | First Life | Leave a comment

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