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

A Eulogy

For the record, I hate change. The problem is, in the years I’ve been on this planet change has been the one single constant. Everything changes and online in our virtual communities, change comes even faster. Smaller changes can also cast wider ripples that spread faster and diminish more quickly. Just as our communication moves at light speed, so too do changes in virtual space.

Ancient pagan religions began the ritual of celebrating change, recognizing that the death of Nature in the winter would eventually give rise to new Life in the spring. Those traditions were adapted for modern religions as well, though we call them “Christmas” and “Easter” today. And that’s the important part to keep in mind – when one door closes, another opens. When something we enjoy goes away, usually something else springs up into its place to continue the cycle of death and renewal, change and progress. Without that cycle, Nature would stagnate. We humans and our societies would become dormant, unchallenged, bored without the adversity that change brings.

My second SL birthday is coming up on Wednesday and I’m not sure I’ve seen any changes in Second Life that were as dramatic as what we’ve seen happening this past month or so – not even the precursor event in June of 2006 when free registration was introduced. Some old doors are closing and at this writing we’re not sure what new doors are going to be opening or what will lie on the other side. But it’s the proper time to say goodbye to some things — a few we will miss, a few others not so much.

Say goodbye to massive naked newbie orgies. They’re easy to find – just search for “sex” like a lot of new residents do and teleport to one of the top 10 in traffic. Wear a movelock shield because the avatars are so anxious to get to the pixel-bumping that they’ll run everywhere and run over everyone regardless of who’s in their way. You’re liable to be poked by outsized prim genitalia and, if you’re female you will be asked to play in several languages and with varying degrees of lucidity or vulgarity. Goodbye to the images burned into our minds of dozens of unfinished, default Linden avatars crawling over each other giving vent to their cyberlust. Very soon, the obstacle of identity verification will reduce these clubs’ numbers drastically and make instant cyber gratification much harder to find.

Say goodbye to the innocent ageplay so many SL residents found liberating.  I’m not referring to sexual ageplay — I’m talking about those who had abused childhoods, or had to grow up too fast because of missing parents and have found the ability to pretend they’re a child in SL to be a liberating, wonderful self-exploration.  These are the people who did nothing wrong and yet will have to either abandon their chosen virtual lifestyle or else brave the slings and arrows of ARs and accusations of pedophilia.  Say goodbye to Dolltopia – Zoe Llewelyn’s PG-rated sim for child avatars, which she now plans to close for fear of being banned by Linden Lab in response to moronic Abuse Reporting and vague LL policy statements.

Say goodbye to the old caste system of “Payment Info Used” versus unverified. Ironically, the age of ID verification which is upon us will replace the old freebie-account prejudice with a new prejudice: “ID verified” versus anonymous. “ID verified” will loosely translate into “cyber pervert” since mostly those of us who either sell adult content or frequent clubs that contain adult content will need to bother verifying our identities. The rest of SL has no need to risk having their information stolen or sold and will likely not bother. Say hello to a new paranoia – if you’ve had your ID verified to use Second Life, will other data-collection agencies connect that with pornography and the pedophilia scandal? If you have a government security clearance, say goodbye to adult areas completely.

Say goodbye to some of the freedom we’ve taken for granted in the past. One of the priveleges of being an adult is that your view of the world doesn’t have to be filtered and diluted. You can decide for yourself if The Passion of Christ is too bloody and violent or if the art of Andres Serrano is objectionable. Once Second Life has been partitioned into “mature” and “perverts”, shop owners and artists will have to decide if they want to remain open to everyone by removing sexual or violent materials, or block a significant portion of their potential traffic by flagging their land ‘Adults only’. Those owners and artists who don’t flag their land will risk being abuse reported. Not even radio streams will be exempt from abuse reports.

Say goodbye also to anonymity. Once the tools are in place to verify your identity, the Lindens are saying that there will be ways for residents to reveal as little or as much of their personal lives to each other as we choose. This is what Philip Linden calls “building trust and making the grid safer”. In actuality, it will create yet another dichotomy, dividing the grid even more. If you’re a real female and choose not to verify your gender, you will risk being griefed as a gender bender. If you do verify gender, you risk being stalked. If you’re transgendered/transsexual, you will lose the wonderful ability to escape all that real world prejudice you endure daily by entering the grid. This isn’t building trust and making things safer – this is adding more ways to destroy privacy and move real world bigotry into Second Life. Say hello to a new phenomenon: identity politics.

I wanted to say “goodbye to fear” here, but on second thought I can’t. The whole purpose of ID verification is to keep children from accessing adult materials and activities. It won’t do that. Any suitably motivated and determined child can still steal their parents’ IDs and enter adult parcels. All this process will do is alleviate Linden Lab and club owners from legal liability should a child encounter some kind of psychic trauma when a busty blonde stripper admits she’s a 50-year old construction worker from Oklahoma named Luke. You will be able to randomly cyber now with a clearer conscience, if that’s worth anything to you.

Say goodbye to plywood cubes. Lost in all the messy press over German pedophiles, Linden Lab is beta testing new sculpted prims. These will allow us to map prim shapes using 3D textures, achieving remarkable results with very few prims — like this ONE PRIM object by Chip Midnight:

Lift a glass and toast the Second Life we used to know. We’re losing the newbie sex orgies but we’re also losing some of our freedoms and anonymity. A New Age of Second Life is about to begin and we don’t know what doors are going to open. Welcome to the new, ‘safer’ Second Life grid where paranoia and prejudice will be given new impetus and children still steal Mom’s driver’s license. Despite that, we will now be able to sculpt our prims.

May 13, 2007 Posted by | Second Life | Leave a comment

Welcome to Myspace 2: Goodbye Anonymity

As the current controversy rages over Linden Lab’s announcement that subscribers will be required to verify identities in order to access adult content in Second Life, a lot of unexpected fallout is also happening.

Yesterday I attended a question-and-answer session with Robin, Daniel and Philip Linden.  About a dozen or so residents were present to query them on details of the ID verification system they’re planning.

Much of their feedback was reassuring — concerns over the links between Integrity and their parent company, Aristotle International, Inc, were largely laid to rest by revealing that Integrity will be prohibited by contract from sharing any information with Aristotle.  So we don’t have to worry so much about spam from PACs or donation appeals from the Republican Party.

Near the close of the session however, the Reuter’s reporter asked a question that has begun to send some shock waves through the grid:

[10:43] Eric Reuters: will linden be offering gender verification as well now that is has the data?
[10:43] Daniel Linden: We could do that, as part of the system.

At first blush, you might ask “so what?”.  This would probably be a welcome tool for residents who are planning to SL-marry another avatar.  It would probably become a requirement for escort agencies who don’t want angry customers finding out that hot escort they paid $2,000L for was actually Fred the beer-gut truck driver in Mississippi.

And, after all, it will be an optional part of the tools available for residents, right? 

As I understand it, the new verification system will only be used by the Lindens to verify that you are who you say you are and that you are over the age of 18.  It will be a “yes or no” result passed back from Integrity.   But residents who verify will apparently have additional options available to them — if you choose to, you could have your RL name, address, gender, and other details about yourself available for other residents to view.

I immediately thought of Myspace,  that backwater of teenage angst where “privacy” is secondary to being validated and accepted by your peer group.  I’ve seen my daughter’s Myspace page, and I’ve been horrified by the real life information her friends reveal about themselves — and I’ve been told I am “prehistoric” for forbidding her from revealing certain things about herself, as well.

This dinosaur just isn’t ready to risk being stalked or having her real world life printed out on a public website for all to see.   I see a lot of residents in SL these days who have real pictures of themselves, even their Myspace address and AIM screen name showing, and I’m shocked and appalled at the lack of concern they show for privacy.

On one level, I understand their need to connect with peers in some way that is separate from school and family control.  But on another level, I see a generation which has done a one hundred and eighty degree turn from the days of my own youth, when computers were bad words and the general paranoia was all about turning people into numbers.  The Myspace generation, on the other hand, has embraced the thing.  They’re putting their faces on those numbers and charging ahead with no fear of their own safety — is that naivete or optimism?

So,  while the Lindens take steps to protect themselves from legal responsibility for all the age play and the minors on the grid, the unexpected consequence for many of us will be an unwanted loss of anonymity.

Some Second Life residents live out their SL lives as an extension of their real lives.  They have no need for the fantasy or anonymity elements which make the grid so appealing to thousands of others.  Until now, both approaches have been valid and co-existed in harmony.

But in my opinion, the new ID verification system — as badly as it’s been needed for the last year and as strongly as I support the general concept — is also going to rip away the veil of anonymity many of us prefer. 

Sure, revealing your location or gender is going to be optional.   Just like it is now, when the first thing out of so many guys’ keyboards is often “Where are you from?” or “Are you really a girl?”  or “How old are you?“.   Age/Sex/Location is a common and acceptable question in AOL chat rooms and instant messaging.  But it often rubs up against the anonymity of Second Life and creates cultural rifts as those AOLers meet people like me who don’t want you to know much about me unless I’ve grown to trust you.

With the new verification system, we are liable to find that the real world hierarchies of gender prejudice begin to manifest themselves.

Transgendered and Transsexual residents will be the first to feel the pinch.  Certainly a great many of them are honest about their status, but what about those who wish to explore the side of themselves that they’re not physically equipped to be without the ostracism and ridicule they experience in real life?

Women in general aren’t going to be immune – as one forum poster noted, women are liable to be griefed if they don’t confirm gender and stalked if they do.

As it stands, most residents realize and accept that a number of ‘women’ in SL are really males playing female avatars.  For most of them, it’s a non-issue.  It just hasn’t been that important in the culture that is Second Life.

Not any more.  Now that the tools are there to reveal your identity, I expect the social pressure to accompany it — use the tools or fall under suspicion for being a game player and a liar.

In the Q&A with the Lindens, Philip said that one of their goals was to make Second Life safer and to promote some trust among residents.  It will do that, to a point.  But ironically I think it will also create distrust and social conflict for those who choose not to fully utilize the verification tools we’re getting.

My friends and my family know me because I trust them enough to reveal myself.   My husband knows my gender because he’s seen everything.  As for everyone else on the grid who wants to get into my virtual pants because my avatar is hot, but think that because I’m reluctant to lose my cherished anonymity I’m a liar,  you can go to hell.  I don’t care what you think and it angers me that the methods chosen by the Lindens are being rushed into production with so little thought to the consequences that the results are liable to be the opposite of what they intended.

It’s exactly what they did a year ago.  Same poor planning, same disregard for social impact, and the same unforeseen results. 

My peers back in the 70s had it wrong:  the computer age isn’t turning us into numbers.  It’s worse.  Computers are destroying our privacy and limiting our freedoms in ways nobody expected.  

Welcome to Myspace 2.

May 9, 2007 Posted by | Second Life | 5 Comments

In a Smoke-Filled Back Room

“That was a great blog piece you wrote, Cory”, smiled Zero. “You really diverted a lot of the crap we were facing with that Open Letter thingie.”

“Thanks, but I think the Town Meeting yesterday kinda undid all that. Guys, we should seriously think about holding our next meeting right here in the Lab and just supply Quicktime feeds to people’s PCs instead of trying to do it in the middle of craptastic lag. That was embarrassing.”

Phil licked the last remnant of the Reese’s cup off his fingers and smiled benignly.

“They’re not going to go away, you know,” scowled Jeska. “This time they’re pissed.”

“With good reason,” nodded Cory.

“We need a diversion,” Torley piped up from the end of the table. His eyes were twitching around the room nervously. “Something big. Something ‘wowzerama‘!”

From a dark corner of the room came a disembodied voice, deep and booming, “Age verification.”

Every head in the room swivelled in unison toward the voice. They knew who he was. They never said his name, but they knew. The awe and respect he commanded was apparent by the way the heads turned.

“Make all of ’em cough up their real identities. One, it gets assholes like Jack Thompson off our trail and two,  it’ll lower resident concurrency back to maneagable levels for a while.  Three, it’ll divert their attention away from how badly the grid sucks. You might lose a few customers, but most of those will be people who aren’t paying anything anyway. And we have the subscription flow-through to absorb a few of the more visible losses. If things get dicey, just put Phil on Business Week cover again.”

That made Phillip giggle.

The Lindens looked at each other again, pondering the suggestion. It was brilliance. Evil, but brilliant.

“Zero, call your friend over at that website. Find out what they use to keep the D.A. off their ass,” growled Jeska.

Phillip grabbed another Reese’s cup and smiled.

May 5, 2007 Posted by | Second Life | Leave a comment