(Edited: Scroll down to see pictures!)
I had meant to address Alex’s comments concerning the urban sensing article, but as last night was my first experience in Second Life, I think I should reflect on that first, since it is still fresh in my mind.
My initial impression was very much in keeping with Mark Tollefson’s view that, from a strictly graphical standpoint,the SL world can seem rather underwhelming, even outdated, in a world where first-person gaming has achieved a much higher standard of visual realism. Some might say this misses the point, but I think that if a sense of embodiment in the virtual space is important (and it is), the space should be equipped with a more nuanced and responsive sense of gravity, light, texture — even several years ago, when I last played a first-person shooter, I had come to expect the sound of different surfaces crunching under your feet, the veritable sense of strain/fatigue when climbing up a steep hillside, etc.
However, despite this first impression, after a few moments in the Second Life world, I found myself increasingly mesmerized. First, by the simple recognition that all the other figures taking their awkward first steps around Orientation Island, were, like me, real people being born at that exact moment into their virtual lives: a Second Birth, complete with feelings of awe, trepidation, and a restless desire to grow. OK, maybe this is an exaggeration, but it was pretty neat.
Then came the task of desgining my avatar’s appearance; this is decidedly unlike being born into the real world, in that you can choose how you look. But while my initial instincts were either to 1) fashion my avatar into an idealized version of myself, as in a Dürer self-portrait, or 2) create a freakish monster, emphasizing for comic effect everything I hate about my appearance, I chose a third possibility, which was to become a woman. I mean, why not? I also thought people would be nicer to me in-world if I were female, which turned out to be only partially true.
The appearance-designing engine in SL is quite extraordinary: I was able to make my avatar into a near-identical twin of my girlfriend from First Life — I did this partially to avoid feeling like a eugenicist toiling in some fascist dystopia to create an Übermensch (actually, in this case, an Überfrau, but let’s not split hairs).
Then it was off to explore the world. And a what an immense, diverse world it is. I journeyed to a detailed reconstruction of the Alhambra in Granada, where it was politely requested that I don a veil; I visited the in-world headquarters of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton (where I got to ride a shark!), not to mention the creepy, wood-panneled inner sanctum of the Republican Party; but mostly, I found a lot of places that looked like Club Med filled with Jimmy Buffett look-alikes. Oh well.
The one thing that I found discouraging was that everybody is trying to make money, and some (if not all) in-world ventures carry the whiff of scams. People are constantly trying to sell you junk, and you make the same laboured small-talk in SL boutiques that you make in real life when meeting with high-pressure time-share sales agents. (I mean, L$250 for Van Gogh’s Night Café might seem like a bargain, but it’s the size of a postage stamp and heavily pixilated. Oh, and it’s not real. It’s not as though there’s an in-world version of Antiques Roadshow that can somehow verify its virtual provenance). Others, like in the real world, are reduced to begging. So basically, if you are poor in real life, and cannot (or have the good sense not to) convert real dollars into Linden Dollars (a currency with an Orwellian ring to it), you get to be poor in Second Life, standing in the cold looking through windows at the sumptuously appointed tables of the rich, like a virtual Tiny Tim. Except that you’ll never starve. Maybe that’s how SL works as a new kind of documentary experiment, revealing for all the workings of the real world’s economic disparities by inscribing them into a virtual one.
Or maybe I am completely wrong: I am new to this online world, and excited to learn and explore how it works.