Rohit's Realm

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August 12, 2007

On Virtual Worlds and Second Lives

In the past year or so, as Linden Lab's Second Life® has gained accelerating coverage in first technology, and then, mainstream media, I have become increasingly interested in the notion of virtual worlds, as well as I might—they present an incredibly interesting environment for study of human behavior, technology, and economics, all topics near and dear to me. However, the article that really took the cake (so to speak) for me was one I read in this Friday's Journal, about one man's virtual marriage within Second Life and the toll it is having on his actual marriage (in real life). Now, even if we leave aside the (entirely legitimate) question of why one would seek an additional, virtual marriage, with no real (i.e., sexual or financial) benefits, when already encumbered with one in one's first life, we are still left with a number of questions about why someone might feel compelled to join, and more importantly, actively participate in such an environment in the first place.

First and foremost, the name Second Life is itself a gross misnomer, since it implies one is gaining an actual second life, as opposed to just reducing involvement in one's first life to participate in one's second. This reason, more so than any other, is why I have never checked out the game (or world): time wouldn't stop were I to log in, and there are hardly enough hours in the day for me to accomplish what I need to in my first life as it is; every minute spent traipsing in a virtual world (looking for hot-looking avatars to have digital non-sex with, of course) is one minute less I would have to finish tasks I am responsible for in the real world. (Ironically, my time in O.C. was spent in much the similar fashion traipsing through an equally surreal venue—the Irvine Spectrum—but at least the avatars were more real-looking.)

Now, I have read various articles in numerous publications that have argued that it is possible to formulate meaningful friendships and romances completely online, and while I cannot repudiate that notion fully, having never attempted it myself, it seems rather deluded nevertheless, considering the baseless combination of lust and complacence that passes for meaningful even in real life. Subtle, tangible aspects of human interaction, whether it be the expression in one's eyes, or the warmth of one's touch, are things that cannot—and perhaps, should not—be replicated digitally. These are the things that make people and relationships unique and which technology will likely never fully replace; why people might seek such decidedly inferior alternatives via digital means, simply because of the ease of acquisition and retention, is quite beyond me. I mean, are people actually that lonely (or horny)?

Fundamentally, considering we are not nearly at a point, technologically speaking, where hardware can replicate the tangible aspects of real life, Second Life remains, at best, a form of entertainment when one has the luxury, and at worst, a crippling addiction that threatens to bring down the pillars of society as we know it (maybe a little dramatic, but what can I say: I have a flair for drama). And given that characterization, one might understand why I view those who spend obscene amounts of hours on the game, compromising their very existence, with a mixture of incredulity and contempt: what the hell is wrong with these people? Is there nothing or no one in their first life worth sticking around for?

Is that judgmental? Of course. Is it sanctimonious? Probably. Should I not be knocking it until I try it? Perhaps. But then again, I don't need to do methamphetamine to know it will fuck me up; maybe similarly, I don't need to have digital non-sex with hot-looking avatar in a virtual world to know that in the end, it's just going to be me jerking off to a cartoon in a dark room illuminated only by the faint glow of an overpriced LCD monitor. And I'm not sure it gets any more lonely than that.


  1. I would be willing to bet the digital non-sex with the Orange County avatars was also a lot less digital and not so much non, but hey, what do I know?

  2. I think you are really succumbing to your own personal environment here, Rohit. Just because you personally have plenty of friends and myriad opportunities with women (for you to fuck up), doesn't mean everyone else is so lucky.

  3. From what I hear, you are no stranger to baseless combination[s] of lust and complacence passing for meaningful relationships, so you shouldn't be talking ;)

In middle school I dialed up to local BBS's to play games and chat with strangers. Later when the Internet got big I started doing message boards. I made a lot of online friends this way. Thinking about it now, I feel weird that I spent all that time online hanging out with people virtually. These BBS's and message boards are even worse than these virtual worlds... no avatar, only plain text and the occasional emoticon.

In my experience, yes it is possible to have a meaningful friendship online. All the subtle aspects of the physical are gone, but there are benefits. To quote one of those annoying New Yorker cartoons, 'on the Internet, no one knows you're a dog.' But barring any physical obstacles to having human relationships, I don't understand why anyone would join a virtual world.

Any online correspondence I have now is with people I met in real life first. The idea of a virtual world is appalling and scary to me. I know that if these technologies had been developed about 8 or 9 years ago, I would have been an addict. That makes me sad... first for knowing that I was such a loser as a teenager, and second for feeling old, without free time or an imagination.

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