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?

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

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

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

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