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

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

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