September 5, 2006 4:00 AM PDT

My avatar's so-called life

Getting dressed up usually means adding a scarf to my casual ensemble. So why do I suddenly feel so self-conscious in jeans and a tank top?

Maybe it's because the other avatars in the room look so dazzlingly fabulous in heels, feathers and flouncy skirts that I want to slink out of the place and go buy myself an evening gown. This uncharacteristic fashion-consciousness surprises me, especially given that it's not me, but a virtual facsimile of me that's underdressed for the occasion.

Inside Second Life

Sure, I am fully aware that a computer screen--and plenty of geographical distance--separates me from the people behind the other avatars. Nonetheless, as a newbie to the world of "Second Life"--Linden Lab's open-ended, 3D, digital universe built and owned by its residents--I find I am trying to prove myself to a bunch of digital strangers. As they attempt to teach me to open a box of virtual clothes using my mouse and a series of clicks, I fail to catch on and end up with the box on my digital head (not the best look, even in cyberspace). They LOL, and I want to bolt from the Awesome Designs boutique in embarrassment. Can an avatar blush?

And so goes my second day as a resident of this vast digital continent, home to upward of 500,000 inhabitants from around the globe and to many more opportunities for entertainment, education and creative expression in virtual dance clubs, casinos, art galleries, lecture halls and venues catering to what could roundly be dubbed alternative lifestyles. I've never read Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash," created an avatar or even played an online game, so I knew I was in for a culture shock.

I've had years to figure out how to work the room at a book signing or holiday party, but how do I converse with a combustible avatar wielding a sword?

Indeed, the realm I find is far more elaborate than the online cartoon I had envisioned. It's an artfully rendered digital landscape of mountains, beaches, jungles and galactic surfaces dotted with gazebos, fortresses, lighthouses and open-air malls.

Avatars in elaborate costumes walk (and fly) through dreamlike spaces, exploring the many sites and communicating via instant messages and public chats that are visible to all. I like my first life well enough, but this second life I've discovered is mesmerizing: garbage-free, fantastical and brimming with possibility--a moving canvas.

Still, as much as the richly saturated scenery entrances me during my first week in-world, I'm struck even more by the evolution of my avatar, whom I've named Amelia. She is, of course, purely an extension of my imagination, born of the "Second Life" avatar-creation tool. Given the options for toying with her height, nose, eyes, cheeks, chin, skin tone, makeup and more, she could look like Charlize Theron or Halle Berry. Instead, she's turning out to be a decidedly recognizable iteration of her flesh-and blood alter ego.

And I don't just mean her choice of jeans, tunics and sensible shoes over the many bold, flashy and sometimes interplanetary-looking garments available for purchase with the "Second Life" currency known as Linden dollars. I mean the way she spends her in-world time, mostly flying solo above the lush topography of the island Sala and sitting on benches in parks as verdant as anything here in the San Francisco Bay Area. She doesn't just look like me (in an impossibly perfect-skin, cartooney kind of way); she shares similar interests.

Mastering the metaverse
Maybe my in-world leanings shouldn't come as a surprise. If I'm introspective and a bit shy in real life, more apt to work in the garden, meditate or read a book than hit a bar or nightclub, why wouldn't the same hold true in my second life? I don't like to shop, so what makes me think Amelia would want to teleport around the whole of "Second Life" in search of the perfect little black dress? Put an avatar in a goth gown and wings, after all, and that doesn't mean she'll automatically tune in to death rock and watch "The Crow."

In the metaverse, it's possible to try on all sorts of identities, but in the end, don't you bring yourself across the digital borders? I did.

This could, of course, be related to my unfamiliarity with metaverse protocol. In my first life, I know what to expect--at work, with friends, walking down the streets of my neighborhood. But new to the world of avatar-to-avatar communication, I question my social skills. I've had years to figure out how to work the room at a book signing or holiday party, but how do I converse with a combustible avatar wielding a sword?

My co-worker Daniel Terdiman, a veteran of "Second Life" who has written extensively about virtual worlds, tells me that just like people in the real world, avatars often need time to warm up. He tells me that he, too, took time to adjust to life in the metaverse and spends much of his time there engaging in activities that mirror his first-life pursuits. Amelia breathes a sigh of relief. "Second Life" is fanciful, but maybe she doesn't have to morph into a fire-breathing, tabletop-dancing torch singer after all.

It is, of course, conceivable that I'll become increasingly comfortable in this brave new universe and that my virtual inhibitions will crumble, turning my avatar into a 7-foot-tall anti-Leslie who's entirely comfortable swinging from chandeliers and belting out karaoke to a packed house.

It's also possible that the novelty of "Second Life" will wear off and Sala and Serenity Woods will become a distant cybermemory. I kind of hope not, though. I'm not ready to give up flying just yet.

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18 comments

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why the cnet love for this game?
Seriously...an article or two would be understandable...but is CNET getting paid for this? Come on...full disclosure people!

In all fairness, the game is nothing more than a virtual mall...the concept of which could be cool, but with graphics and interactions so sterile and unappealing....well...at least it's free...
Posted by kuguy3000 (21 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Probably their first MMO
Most of them, it sounds like this is their first encounter with a MMO type game. It is sort of a system shock the first time you play one, reguardless of what it is, and Second Life deals with subjects just familiar enough that people who turn up their noses at DnD type games can be talked into trying it, and that said same familiarity tends to highlight just how different an MMO is from other types of games.

Basically, they aren't writing so much about Second Life in particular, rather they're writing about the paradigm shift of playing a massively multiplayer game for the first time. This one just happens to be the one they're cutting their teeth on.

Harry Voyager
Posted by H Voyager (38 comments )
Link Flag
Beats me
I've played my share of MMOs over the years, but few have appealed to me less than Second Life. Except maybe Underlight.

I don't know anyone, respectable gamer or otherwise, who plays Second Life.

Actually, I take that back, I do have an old friend from high school who plays. He tries to talk me into the game, but I routinely talk myself out of it when I discover the thriving "furry" community and the rather bustling economy based solely on highly modified/stylized animal genitalia. Free or not, I see no reasons to subject myself to digital yiffing.

The only furries you would have to worry about in WoW are druids (and the occasional shaman), but those are, fortunately enough, remarkably tame.
Posted by Christopher Hall (1205 comments )
Link Flag
Indeed
I have been wondering exactly the same thing.
Posted by Andrew J Glina (1673 comments )
Link Flag
why the cnet love for this game?
Seriously...an article or two would be understandable...but are they getting paid for this? Come on...full disclosure people!

In all fairness, the game is nothing more than a virtual mall...the concept of which could be cool, but with graphics and interactions so sterile and unappealing....well...at least it's free...
Posted by kuguy3000 (21 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Really, why all this hype about this nothing 3d avatar chat
I agree with other poster: why does CNet keep writing about this 3D avatar chat!

I mean this concept of 3D chat has been done many times before. And each time a typical person after
using it the 1st time will not again because
a 2D chat is just fine, after all people just want
to chat and not have to 1st download a 20 MB file
before they can chat. They want to instantly
go into the chat room & chat.

On that note: if you want a great Web based chat check out netdive's sitesticky chat, it has 2D Avatars, which move around, it is instant to access, nothing to download & install and it is free, you just pay for support. Here:
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.netdive.com/indexss.htm" target="_newWindow">http://www.netdive.com/indexss.htm</a>

We use it at our site (<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.russianny.com/" target="_newWindow">http://www.russianny.com/</a>), we have found it to be the best &#38; coolest chat, and that is no hype.
Posted by caudio_roma (57 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Tringo!
Tringo...
Posted by jeolmeun (49 comments )
Link Flag
Blind men describing an elephant
It's funny how often people say Second Life is "Just a... Just a... Just a..." and proceed to name one of half a dozen caricatures that even taken together wouldn't graze the surface.
Posted by Vudu Guru (2 comments )
Link Flag
More like real life than I'm comfortable with...
Yup. Everywhere you go, EVERYWHERE, there's someone trying to sell you something. The advertising is even worse in Second Life than in your first life. It's distracting to the point of disgusting. I've stopped playing Second Life due to that fact alone. I'll fire up The Sims, thanks.
Posted by aabcdefghij987654321 (1721 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Live the Hype!- Starbase C3 Invades Second Life!
Live the Hype!- Starbase C3 Invades Second Life!

Hey, can't beat 'em - invade 'em! Ive run a 3d web world since 1996.. Today WE INVADE SECOND LIFE AND REAL LIFE.

A Second Life Invasion fleet of starships has landed for SL outposts to host AND one can even order a realife 3d printed model/figure of the Starships for the top of their computer...

go to <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.starbasec3.com" target="_newWindow">http://www.starbasec3.com</a> to log on.

cube3
Posted by cube3 (190 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Don't Be Hatin'
2nd Life is cool as air conditioning, baby. I admit it probably true that these articles reflect a lack of experience with other MMRPGs, but so what? It's still immersive as hell, and you're surrounded by good-lookin' people, and the only object to the game is to find one. That's very refreshing.
I'm not thrilled with the furries either, but more power to 'em.
Posted by piker62 (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
More power to 'em?
No, man. Just no. No power to the furries.
Posted by Christopher Hall (1205 comments )
Link Flag
Please tell me why cnet wastes headlines on this marginal chat
This game gets increadible coverage considering it's less popular than star wars galaxy... heck, maybe even various flavors of ultima online.

something this marginal HAS NO IMPACT.
Posted by lordxar (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Funny story
I am pretty new to SL too so I can relate. It takes some adjusting
for sure, but once you get the hang of it, it's great, although a
big time suck!
Posted by MiaStrong (18 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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