After my first few hours inside Second Life, I realized that the confusion I was feeling was very similar to what I had experienced when I first arrived in India: I was suffering from a culture shock.
There were people all around me that looked like nothing I’d ever seen before. I had trouble communicating (I’d try to chat and I’d fly up in the air) and identifying what I saw in my surroundings. I didn’t know where to go. I read notes which mentioned places which ringed no bells. I just didn’t know what to do or where to start.
But what really rang the “culture shock” bells for me was that I was feeling anxious and afraid of the avatar-people around me. I feared somebody would pounce on me (well, my avatar, but by then the identification process had kicked in), or animate my avatar against my will, or start shouting obscene things at me. I felt pretty insecure and vulnerable amongst all these people with masks on their faces. I had no idea what to expect from them, just as I had no idea what to expect from people when I landed in India.
In India, I was afraid to go out by myself and explore. In Second Life, I get some of that feeling too. I’m afraid of ending up in “bad places”. Talk of griefers and guns makes me scared. So I tend to hang out in the New Citizens Plaza a lot. (Note: if you click on that URL, you’ll be shown where that place is on a map of Second Life. If you’re running Second Life, you can click on the “Teleport” button to go there. Doesn’t seem to work for me, though.) Then last night buridan showed me to Joi‘s island Kula (fun stuff there with merry-go-rounds and dancing floors).
The interesting point here is that I’m exploring Second Life space just as I do real physical geographical space. I find the same patterns in my behaviour. Same with activities that do not match anything in my life experience yet: flying, teleporting — I don’t tend to do these things much yet, just as it took me a while to start taking rickshaws on my own, queueing to get somebody else to photocopy (“Xerox”) documents for me, and fend off beggars efficiently.
Second Life is much more than “chat with graphics”. As I told my Grandma on the phone yesterday, when she asked me what on earth my last posts were about, it’s almost like an “internet inside the internet”. There are chatrooms in it, but they are informal and transient: put a few people in an open space, and if they gather and start talking, you have a chatroom-like atmosphere. But you can walk/fly/teleport away, do your hair or build/program stuff while the others talk. All that without leaving Second Life.
As a long-time IRC chatroom inhabitant, I see two major differences between what I’m used to and Second Life.
From the chatroom point of view, first of all, you cannot be in two places at once inside Second Life. On IRC, I sit in way more than one chatroom at a time, and it’s not uncommon for me to be conducting conversations in two or three chatrooms at once. In Second Life, you can send private messages in parallel to the “physical group conversation” you’re having, but you can’t have more than one group conversation.
Another “quality” of Second Life that strikes me is that it’s less “partial-attention-friendly” than text-only chat or instant messaging — or even web surfing. I find it very hard to do “something else” at the same time as I’m in Second Life. I think it has something to do with the graphical nature of Second Life, and how rich an environment it is. There’s enough material inside Second Life for partial attention as it is 🙂 — but also, the fact there is a graphical representation of the people you’re chatting with helps capture one’s attention. (Maybe I feel things this way because I’m new to Second Life, I might think differently later on.)
So, even though Second Life is an entirely on-the-computer thing, it clearly activates the pathways in our brains that we use to deal with physical space and beings. I’ve already said many times that the internet is broadly perceived as “space without space”, but it’s much more obvious in Second Life. Another element that shows us how “real” this virtual environment is to our brains is the presence of racism in Second Life. The topic came up when I was talking to a few “Furries” (ie, people with an animal-like avatar) who mentioned there were “furry areas” because Furries were often subject to discrimination from others. Even though we know the aspect of a Second Life citizen is a mask, it seems to have an impact on the way we relate to him/her.
This, to me, is related in some way to the fact that the learning experiences you make in interactive virtual worlds (think “video games”) affect your “non-game” life as well (think “flight simulators”). Which can bring us to question, for example, what effect it can have on one’s brain to spend a long number of hours “killing virtual people”. But that’s another chapter!