18 October, 2008

Living a Second Life

Everytime I read an article about something related to the world of Second Life, there's always a brief section that explains what Second Life is to people who aren't familiar with it, and I always brush over that section because it's incredibly boring to read pretty much the same tacky description over and over again about something that I'm already quite familiar with. And yet, I don't feel comfortable discussing Second Life here, without some kind of an explanatory preface. So I apologize for the following paragraph, but it must be written.

Second Life is a computer program. It's /like/ a game, but it's not really a game. Because there is no plot, and there is no goal. It's as undirected as actual life, and it means only as much as the meaning you put into it. For some people, it's a glorified three-dimensional version of irc, or a really neat social networking tool. Others see it as a commercial or intellectual prospect - a place to create things, and, perhaps, sell them. Still others like to focus on the adventure aspect, exploring the landscapes and attractions that others have built. And for many people, Second Life is just that - a chance to start a new life, and become either the person they've always wanted to be, or someone else entirely.

The very premise of Second Life brings up difficult philosophical and moral questions for those who are inclined to explore such matters. It's kind of like a "Pong version" of The Matrix, if you will - except that everyone who is "plugged in" is a knowing and willing participant. But how much importance should a person's Second Life have, when weighed against their first life? How authentic is their "second" identity, when and where it differs from their "first" identity? Just how much of an overlap is there between these lives, and what effect does that have on either?

So how did I start "playing" Second Life? The truth is, I was bored. I had heard about the program, was interested enough to check it out, and became intrigued when I found out that it's absolutely free to start. So I said to myself, "let's find out what Second Life is all about." I downloaded the program, created an initial avatar (my Second Life persona), and began to explore this new life.

I like Second Life because it lets me be somebody else. That somebody else is still entirely me, but it's a dormant part of me that isn't able to express itself in first life, for any number of reasons. When I'm this second self, I can momentarily forget about my first self, and all the things I hate about it. And so far, I like my second self so much better than my first self. Instead of being cynical and depressed, I am bright and cheery. And the happiness of my second life actually leaks into my first life. I'm not just acting happy, I'm *actually* /feeling/ happy.

As you can imagine, I don't enjoy talking about first life when I'm living my second life. It really spoils the mood. At first, I thought that would be a hard angle to explain to people, but then I realized that a lot of other second lifers feel the same way. Which reassured me, but even in this case, it's still hard for people to ignore first life entirely. Because you can never completely disconnect the two lives. Maybe I'm taking this "game" of second life too far, but I really want to be able to pretend that there is no such thing as first life when I play it. When people ask me questions about *me*, by default they're asking about first me - which /drives/ second me - and not about second me myself. And sometimes I have to actively wonder how many of my first life details are actually relevant to my second life, and how many of them are expendable. It's a confusing mess of affairs.

One area of Second Life that concerns me dearly is the realm of sex. For the uninitiated, yes, there are copious amounts of sex in Second Life. And given the nature of the environment - particularly the high level of fantasy versus reality - there is an opportunity for second lifers to explore modes of sexuality they may not otherwise consider in first life, for any number of reasons. From just being a little more sexually promiscuous than usual, to diving head first into a grab bag of perverse fetishes, a second lifer can experiment to his/her heart's content, with relatively little risk.

Well, I've made a little discovery. I'm not gonna pretend that it's any surprise that I was curious about sex in Second Life. Given all the parameters stated above, it was natural for me to want to explore the possibilities of being a little more... let's say "open for business", than I generally am in first life. And here's what I learned: when having sex in Second Life, the avatars (second lifers) may be the ones to engage physically, but it is still the first lifers who engage emotionally. And what I learned about myself? I may have a fully healthy appetite for sex, but that doesn't change the fact that I'm a pretty exclusive and deeply personal lover. (Which may not really be much of a revelation after all). Though I may feel the desire to get down and boogie at any time, the release just isn't worth picking any guy or girl off the street who happens to be horny.

A few notes on the carnal act itself. I guess when most people get off in Second Life, they're actually more interested in getting off in first life, and their avatar is just a means to that end. Maybe that's obvious. But maybe that's not the way I feel. The question that always bugs me is "r u horny irl?" It goes back to that whole spoiling the fun thing. You're not supposed to be having sex with first me, you're supposed to be having sex with second me. And once you ask that question, you've crossed that boundary into my discomfort zone. I ask again, am I taking this "game" of life too far? Or are there others like me, who want nothing to do with first life?

I have to admit I'm not a fan of cybersex. I guess it could be imaginative. If the people involved care enough, I suppose it could be like writing real-time interactive erotic fiction. And that doesn't sound so bad, right? Well, yeah, the real-time part. And that pressure to perform. It's like two authors working together on a choose-your-own-adventure story. When I make something up, I like to have total control over it, to be able to guide the long chain of action and reaction. Because that's what it takes for me to craft a compelling story. But the goal of cybersex isn't to tell a compelling story, it's to get off in real-time. And well, frankly, I don't like being put on the spot when it comes to words. Like having to make an impromptu speech or something. Put me in bed and I'm happy to explore, but just please don't make me write about it. It's like turning sex into a book report or something.

And here's the hook. Despite how happy I feel actually being an attractive personality (to completely ignore my appearance), I'm increasingly feeling the desire to be myself (my first self, that is) again. My own dull, unattractive first self. Then, I wouldn't have that pressure of having to continuously impress people and live up to their standards. But the question is, have I really learned anything? Or am I just telling myself that I don't have what it takes to be the kind of person I want to be - the kind of person who can be happy? Because that would be pretty depressing. And we're right where we started.

The psychosocial experiment continues on...

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