Second Life: The kind of world people create when they could create anything

Virtual reality - Second Life - one of my own ...

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Second Life, as a game/networking online-thing isn’t really all that popular these days compared with a few years ago, but it nonetheless serves a very good example of how the virtual world might reflect the world offline (since I’ve started this project I’m uncomfortable with using the term ‘the real world’, as if life online and all the relationships that might entail is any less valid than life offline. It’s still very much real and still can be incredibly meaningful).

For those who don’t know, Second Life is web-based. You pick out an avatar, perhaps one that looks like you, perhaps not (people do tend to play with age, gender, race, etc. – something I’ll get to later), you go around to different ‘places’ that are represented through images and you can have typed conversations with other people. Second Life can be used for roleplaying, or merely just socialising.

Most second-life users are either European or North American.

There are a few aspects of Second Life that I want to focus on today. I’ve never actually played it myself, but I know more or less how it works, and in researching this post I’ve read a fair bit about it. The two main things I want to talk about are: how offline inequalities are replicated online in Second Life and secondly, I would like to look at people’s sense of ownership in what is essentially ‘virtual’ space and the Second Life economy that seems to replicate that of many user’s first life.

Society

This section relates to an earlier post I wrote about how often certain inequalities or types of discrimination that are found offline can also be recreated online. You can take a look at my original post here. Second Life is an extremely potent example of this. This may be because race and gender is such an obvious thing when people manifest themselves in their avatar form, when you’re merely reading someone’s words (as is quite common with the internet) you may have no idea of their demographics.

Stanford University has done a host of studies in how the way people see and treat you and the way you behave in Second Life can be affected by what your avatar looks like. Yee and Bailenson write a really interesting article on The Effect of Transformed Self-Representation on Behaviour in relation to Second Life. It showed that people who had attractive avatars were more likely to act more confident online than if they had unattractive avatars. Additionally, people are more likely to be nice to someone with an attractive avatar. But beyond this, and into the realm of something resembling relevance, the inequalities offline are often played out as well in Second Life.

This article by Eve Shapiro deals with this issue exactly:

Many early utopian theories of computer-mediated communication asserted that as people “moved online” they would cast off gender, race, class, and body limitations to exist as undifferentiated equals.

Just like in offline life, certain structural inequalities exist and are recognised. There are relatively few people on Second Life who aren’t tall, thin and pale. Additionally, those of certain races may be treated badly by others. It shows that those inequalities that exist under neoliberalism additionally exist on Second Life (not to say that inequalities are only in the domain of neoliberalism, but as Margaret Thatcher so puts it, neoliberalism directly protects people’s ability to not be equals). Interestingly, fat avatars are also looked down upon. In a Foucauldian  sense, fat bodies are bad for neoliberalism because they are less economically productive than thin, fit bodies. Presumably though, whether or not someone’s avatar is fat or thin has no bearing on their productivity in Second Life. Regardless, the users of Second Life have reproduced offline inequalities online.

Economy

Second Life users buy land which they can use to build houses or businesses. As Tom Boellstorff writes in his book, Coming of Age in Second Life, people can gain a real sense of ownership over the property they bought (often indirectly with real money). He tells a story of how one woman built a dance club in a part of the Second Life world. It had become quite popular and she had clearly put a lot of time and effort into making it so. Later, another individual came in and built a store. The store was reportedly really ugly and one of the firends of the dance club owner told the store owner off, quite angrily “shouting” (insofar as anyone can shout on the internet, with ALL CAPS and a gratuitous use of exclamation points!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!). He was concerned that the ugliness of the store may not just detract visitors from coming to the club but it was also an insult on the eyes that was genuinely unpleasant.

Become time, effort and money go into creating property in Second Life, ownership is understood in a neoliberal sense. While Boellstorff notes that there is a real gift economy, ownership and boundaries are also quite obvious and sacred by virtue of the fact that it is not okay to encroach on other individual’s territory. This clear vision of ownership, even though what is at stake here is virtual space, rather than physical space (again, I’m deliberately not using the word ‘real’, because it is clearly significant to users), certainly reflects neoliberal values of property. Your stuff is yours – it doesn’t belong to the state and it ought not be shared.

The game is additionally useful for commercial gain. It is possible to make money on Second Life, as this article explains. If you have a particular talent or skill, you can sell your wares (in this case, fashion) to others. When you make money on Second Life it is in a specific currency called Linden Dollars. Linden Dollars can be exchanged into any local currency (US dollars, Australian dollars, Japanese yen, the Euro, etc.). Et voila! Your skills are valued on the basis of a dollar figure and having skills that are highly valued can be worth a lot of money. One Second Life user even became a millionaire! This is a typical neoliberal money-making framework. But for the fact that it’s online.

There are some really interesting articles on Second Life, unfortunately I couldn’t really talk about them because they were largely unrelated to my project, but I definitely recommend taking a look at these.

One Response

  1. […] My exploration of Second Life, I feel, really epitomises how, when people go online, they can pretty much work to recreate the offline world. Neopets is similar, and so is facebook insofar as the information available on facebook is similarly limited as the information available to you in terms of markets. Even wikipedia, a website based on the idea of many contributors making unbiased ‘knowledge’ available to everyone reflects some neoliberal ideologies.  I’m sure this doesn’t always hold, and indeed, people may use the internet to get away from the discrimination and what have you that happens online by doing things like creating blogs and posting discussions, or even by hiding the fact that they are a member of oppressed group when they go online. Nonetheless, what happens online is a function of the status quo. Whether your challenging it or agreeing with it, you still have to deal with it. The internet does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, it is another aspect of our ‘real life’. […]

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