Monday, April 21, 2008

Narrative of SL Experience

When I first entered the Second Life world, I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I tried to look to around and see what other people were doing, but for the most part it seemed like everyone was aimlessly wandering around just like me. So, for the first ten or fifteen minutes I people watched- one of my favorite activities even in real life- and checked out the various outfits and characters surrounding me.
As I observed other people, I started to collect ideas for my own appearance. The first few conversations I participated in were addressing this issue, because although I knew how to change my appearance, I saw several star wars characters, monsters, angels, and flying people that had much more paraphernalia than the default appearance section supplied. Apparently you could get free stuff from various places, none of which I had visited yet. So I put the places on my “to-do” list and continued working on my appearance.
As far as my physical feature options went, I couldn’t believe have specific and intricate the process could be. Neck Length? Ear Size? Cheekbone Height? My first thought was why in the world would anyone care so much about a virtual character to specifically altar such trivial features?! I couldn’t believe the makers of SL wasted their time to allow such silly specifics! I mean, in making these endless options, they were basically catering to the people who were bored enough and obsessed enough to actually want these privileges.
Sadly, moments later I found myself going slowly through each options and taking a considerable amount of time to think about each option, and test and re-test my options. How could I have gone from such a harsh critic to one of the obsessed individuals that I had been bashing merely two minutes earlier?! At one point I even swore at my computer because I couldn’t seem to change my hair color, and felt incredibly unoriginal because my Avatar still looked like the default one. Where did my objective view of this world go, and how was I so easily seduced by the persona I was creating online?
As I changed my hip width, leg length, and cleavage amount, I began to create an Avatar that was exactly like the America ideal. Tall, thin, curvy in only the right places, and pretty much a mirror image of the celebrities I see on TV. I began to wonder what the average body type created in the SL world was like. Did the most common dimensions reflect our cultures ideal, or maybe even go as far as being the unrealistic Barbie proportions? If people could create any body they wanted, would they choose to be their dream size, or would they stick with their real body type in order to represent themselves accurately in this world? I definitely chose the former, and hypothesized that the body types in Second Life would be far from diverse and far from accurately representing the real worlds population.
So as I began my exploration of Second Life, one thing became more and more obvious. The SL world seemed to be even more obsessed and interested in sex. When I went to the search engine to find different places, there were several key words I began with that were pretty basic and innocent. I chose Dance, Money, Jail (for my Machinima movie idea) Shopping. For all of these searches, at least 75% of the results were affiliated in some way with sexual activity. A few of the places that showed up were “The Wet Spot”, a place for sex orgies and games, “Free Sex Land” (which seemed pretty self-explanatory) and Neva Naughty, a place with sex groups and brothels. None of these I had the guts to visit on my first exploration, but I knew that more alike places would be easy to find in the future.
I was originally surprised by the vast amount of sexually explicit sites, but then I began to make the connection between real life obsessions reflected in the virtual world. We all know that people have a fascination with sex, but for the most part our culture has tried to suppress that fascination. As children, we are constantly hushed and scolded for discussing or referring to sex, and even as adults some forms of sexual activity is frowned upon. So what better place is there to openly obsess about sex than in a virtual world where individuals can be completely anonymous? It suddenly made perfect sense that people would use this fake world as an outlet for the sexual urges or entertainment. It could be almost viewed as an experimental environment… where one could throw out ideas or thoughts and see what reactions they get in return. I realized Second Life basically had the same elements and uses as the rest of the web, just with the added element of visual representation. However, I soon discovered that having a visual representation of the mind behind the computer, whether accurate or not, took away some of the Internet ambiguity that was present with other online modes, such as AIM or E-mail, and added new stepping stones for biases and prejudices. I haven’t experienced these issues myself in the SL world, but I’ve heard about their relevance and will make a point to discuss their presence when I do.
My first few visits to places in Second Life were rather uneventful. I went to Money Island, Skin Oasis, Dance Island and **CC** Design Sexy Costumes. This last place definitely fell into the sexually affiliated category discussed previously. There weren’t any people present in this large room, but the walls were covered in colorful and explicitly sexual advertisements for costumes, including police, maid, and Tarzan. Sadly none of these costumes were surprising or alarming, because they were exactly the same as those desired by high school and college students in the real world. They were all inappropriate and promiscuous, which are the main requirements for costumes in the real world. However, I did think it was rather unnecessary that the makers of this room placed nude posters of women above many of the advertisements. They seemed pointless, and only meant to work as an added attraction.
The most interesting occurrence was at Dance Island, where my Avatar entered into a black Orb and showed off some skilled dance moves. For the most part they were more robotic than not, but it was still entertaining to click on different boxes, like “Get Low”, and observe my Avatar dance better than I can in real life. The Money Island was next, and I thought it would be much more crowded than it was because it was put on the “most popular places” list. In general, every place I explored was less populated than I expected. I saw no more than ten people at a time in each place, and two places, the “SL Police Department in Japan” and “Red Light-District”, were completely deserted. What was the most disappointing was that despite the fact that I encountered at least forty Avatars throughout my whole investigation, none of them wanted to talk to me! Well, that’s not entirely true because one female Avatar tried to have a conversation with me, but she only spoke Spanish so we were unable to successfully converse. It was an unexpected encounter, and I was once again in awe of the connections that could be made at home on your computer across such a large expanse of land. The impressive expansion that SL has experienced since its birth has probably reached a global scale, and the history of the Internet age makes this no surprise.
The most disturbing place I visited came next. It was the “Skin Oasis”, where you could buy complete Avatars that had glowing and perfect complexions. I really didn’t understand this place, and the few people around would answer my questions so I quickly snapped a few pictures and left. It was rather unsettling to see half-naked Avatars displayed in glass cases and on sale. I wondered what anyone would purchase this supposedly flawless skin for, and who in the world would come up with the idea for this in the first place. Unfortunately since no one cared to answer my questions I am still speculating.
When I finally ended my exploration, it wasn’t because I was bored nor was it because I had something else to do. It was because I got a pounding headache, and I didn’t think I could navigate through the virtual world a second longer without my head splitting open. I couldn’t imagine actually enjoying staring into a computer screen for hours and hours on end, and the thought of continuing to do so was painful. Overall, my experience with Second Life was rather dull. I repeatedly got frustrated that no one wanted to talk to me, and aimlessly walked around various places until I once again became bored. I think the next time I go on I will make a point to stay on for as long as it takes me to engage in at least three substantial discussions, and hopefully that will happen before my head starts to throb.

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