Songs from Second Life: Report from a Virtual Reality

By Verena v. Stackelberg

second-life-punk-cinema.jpgSecond Life

Earlier this year, Reuters reported that Le Pen was voted out of a virtual world called Second Life, an online ‘world’ where over six million people meet, buy property, make ‘friends’ and shop for clothes for their virtual characters (called ‘avatars’). There is a currency called Linden Dollar, which can be bought online with real money, and people have made ‘real’ millions in property and sales markets. It is however not necessary to spend money as each avatar comes with a free inventory containing clothes and other items, and a lot of spaces are free to enter.

When I read about the residents’ victory in expelling Le Pen from their community, I decided to make a visit. The fact that Reuters have a building there and employ journalists to report from their base further encouraged me to download the free 64MB software needed to visit Second Life (also referred to as SL). Upon entering, one has to choose from a number of ‘standard’ avatars, which can be modified into pretty much any human shape or form. It’s even possible to have animal heads or tails.

After an induction process where one learns to talk, walk, fly and move from place to place, a map helps you to teleport yourself anywhere you like. SL is made up of different islands, surrounded by water and filled with casinos, private villas, shopping malls and other entertainment locations. The initial idea for my avatar was that it should not be a vain creation of the ‘ultra’ male or female (as most people there do). There aren’t many people who create less popular forms of the human species. However, after having spent far too much time trying to create an anti-stereotype, I settled on a very neutral looking, albeit purple, female. I soon met others who gave me tools to chain smoke, invited me to join them in clubs and who constantly giggled and made ‘mwua’ noises (for kissing). Conversations (via a small chat box) tend to be basic and superficial, and are either about where people are from or technical questions (as it’s quite complex to learn how to sit, move and find your way around, you depend on the expertise of older avatars). In many ways it is as much a superficial world as the one we can encounter in real life.

second-life-dj.jpgSecond Life

Because it is possible to screen films and take photographs, I entertained the idea of setting up a virtual cinema. SL, like MySpace, is used by many media groups to extend their platform. In my search for already existing cinemas I encountered a place called LolilOops Punk Wear Shop and Cinema. It has a screening room filled with posters (featuring Godard, Blow Up, La Jetée and Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle) where I watched a film featuring a naked woman filmed in the Andy Warhol style.

I then dived down a tunnel where Giles Peters showed photographs in an underwater cave, and sat on a swing high up in a tree that featured a human face. There was also a hut with a bar inside, where I could DJ a bit and sit on a bar stool, with a beer can in front of me (but I didn’t know how to drink from it). I then teleported myself to a few other cinemas, including the Loonie Ewing Cinema, a much more traditional space, where the films were boring music videos featuring Second Life citizens.

In SL you can fly anywhere, you can stay underwater as long as you like and walk through walls. I was killed by a bodyguard once because I was trespassing on private property (not on purpose), but all that happened was that my avatar let out a cry and I was teleported back to where it came from. Wherever you go, you’ll see other people doing things that are unexpected and unforeseeable – on one occasion I saw a tiny woman create a cow, complete with moo-ing sounds.

second-life-punk-exhibition.jpgSecond Life

Unlike chat rooms or regular online communities, avatars float on the screen as our alter-egos, meet other people who can invite you to teleport yourself to one of their favourite islands – one can have a 360 degree view from the top of a hill, the sun sets and rises at USA adjusted times and of course it never rains. One of the confusing, or perhaps also dangerous aspects about SL is that, because one has ‘real’ experiences and ‘real’ unforeseen interactions with others, it appears to offer another reality. For example, I met avatars/people who helped me in one way or another and it is tempting to think that the favour should be returned some day. One can easily contemplate meeting up with that person again like one does with people in the ‘first’ life. The virtual world ticks on and things happen there right now as you read this. I remember places and faces from my visits.

There are people who have full time jobs in SL, and a Swedish virtual world, Entropia Universe has announced a merger with a Beijing company that plans to generate 10,000 jobs in China. The argument is that it is much more environmentally friendly to have people working in a virtual world as there is no travel involved. Clearly this is not a solution to the planet’s environmental problems, and the psychological effects of mass immigration to a planet built in the internet can’t be measured yet. It would be a terrifying utopia come true, if indeed millions of people in over-polluted areas sat at home night and day and stared at a screen displaying sunshine, palm trees and the sea, none of which can be touched, smelt or experienced with their own body. The sex trade, paedophilia, gaming and violence already dominate many of the virtual worlds: the argument that it’s ‘just another computer game’ has long been defied.

The question is whether SL and similar virtual spaces are a serious threat. Would it therefore be necessary to create artistic venues with exhibitions and screenings of work with inherent value to counteract the take-over of the mind-numbing adverts and mainstream propaganda? Quite honestly, and despite the fun I had flying around and looking at virtual cows, my real life is far too precious for me to dedicate another hour to a world whose evolution is nothing but depressing, and the idea of looking at a computer screen displaying an avatar that watches a film is perhaps too absurd to be finally ‘successful’. However, artists and filmmakers should consider this as a possible showcase and a close eye should be kept on the developments of this new reality.

Visit, or not.

Verena v. Stackelberg is Head of Public Events at Curzon Cinemas, London. She is also a film curator