Second Life – Friend or Foe?

It was September 2006, it was fairly early in the morning and I was watching the BBC breakfast show, as I did most mornings then, and infact do most mornings now (a creature of habit!), up popped a short piece about an online computer game called Second Life, which was apparently sweeping across the US and the rest of the world garnering new players in its wake! I remember being initially scathing watching the piece, there was talk about creating your own avatar and spending real money customising it! What grown adult I thought would be stupid enough to spend money on a cartoon character. 

The difference with Second Life, and other online games the BBC proclaimed was that it was the residents (the players) who themselves created and designed the game, being able to build and create within the frame work of the Second Life.

I was at that time working fairly successfully in my own business, and I didn't give Second Life much more of a thought, but it was there at the back of my mind, and a few days later, I found myself in front of a computer with not much to do in the way of work, so I downloaded the Second Life client, created an account and an avatar and started to play – it was at this point that my life changed for the next five years, and not for the better. The addiction that then ensued nearly ruined my life and my world to the point I lost not only friends, almost my marriage and the fairly successful business, but also at times a sense of myself and reality!

Backtracking a little from what finally became such a negative impact on my life and my person, for those of you not aware of SecondLife, it is a MMORPG without the structure of, say, World of Warcraft, I have revisited the Second Life website in an attempt to not put forward an entirely negative view (all opinions stated in this article are my very own) – Secondlife's website says:

Second Life is a 3D world where everyone you see is a real person and every place you visit is built by people just like you.

Enter a world with infinite possibilities and live a life without boundaries, guided only by your imagination.

Travel with friends to thousands of beautiful and exciting places — all created by the Second Life community.

Millions of people have already joined Second Life. Chat for free using voice or text with folks from around the world who share your passions and interests.

Dress up and design a new 3D you. There are thousands of designer items to explore in our Marketplace where the selection is as endless as your imagination.

Every day there are thousands of new experiences and events created by the Second Life community. Visit the Destination Guide to get a peek at some of the action.

Discover your artistic talents and share them instantly with friends. Take beautiful snapshots, create machinima videos or build something from scratch inside Second Life.”

All of the above are true, Second Life can be visually beautiful and give you the chance to be extremely creative. However, as I will try, without too much bitterness, to explain, I think it can also be extremely destructive and damaging.

At the time when I first found my way “inworld” Second Life was going through its heyday, large businesses and corporations were buying up virtual land and sims to have a presence on the grid, Second Life was very often in the news in one guise or another, and the amount of users was growing daily. It therefore felt like you were in at the ground floor on what was going to become something great.

The user experience in the early days was a huge learning curve, and the statistics for those who never made it past the first few logins was very high. This has changed considerably and those wishing to try Second Life for size now will find a far more easy and streamlined product! But once you had claimed the victory of actually working out the game, how to interact and most crucially for many people “pimping” your avatar – what to actually do! From the get go, it is apparent Second Life is mainly about relationships and friendships rather than the usual we expect from a MMORPG (perhaps this is why the amount of women playing far far exceeds the men). For myself, after some exploring I rather too quickly was recruited into a roleplaying sim, I spent the next few years almost exclusively playing in these sims, the themes were often sexual, very misogynistic, very often brutal and violent, but the people who played within these “sims” (if you wish to know more about the terminology, best to have a read up on Second Life to garner information about how the game is set-up and played, as if I include such information, this article will be 100 pages long!), played with such conviction and apparent welcomeness, you soon forget “this isn’t really normal”.

During the the time I played Second Life (from 2006 to 2011), it changed considerably – going from a place of hope, discovery and fun – feeling like we were almost the pioneers of a fabulous new online future, to being, in my opinion, a massive hook-up joint where people go to behave in ways they cannot in real life, do things they cannot in real life, with little or no regard for anyone's feelings or needs. Most, if not all of those large companies who initially jumped on board have long gone, and there are now swathes of adult sims catering to pretty much any persuasion or perversion existing!

To name but a few – during my Second Life career I came across – forced sex sims, animal sex sims, nappy and nurse sex sims, medical and hospital sex sims, as well as a vast plethora of plain old sex and BDSM sims, where escorts (some of whom can be paid in linden dollars to then perform “in real” on webcams) ply their trade. It is common whilst playing to be bombarded with offers of sex, and hook-ups in private messages. I think the strangest I ever received was from a chap offering to eat me!

But none of this explains my addiction, or the many others who also end up allowing Second Life to rule their first life. Close relationships are very quickly formed, it is often said in Second Life a day is a week, a week is a month and a few months are a year! As soon as you find a “base” and a home you start to develop relationships and friendships, and as many people play more than one avatar (at the peak I had about 15 avatars – not all played at the same time or active, but there for when needed) they are doing this a few times over and over continually. Within Second Life as everything is so fast moving, you start to feel if you don't log on, you are missing out, you must be missing events and meeting people, so you log on more, you start to make sure you log on every day to ensure you don't miss anything, what starts as an hour in the evening can rapidly become 6, 7, 8, 9 plus hours online playing without a break, not talking to anyone around you, and becoming increasingly annoyed and angry with those who would break into your inworld time, making demands on that precious time. I started to almost count the hours before I could log on again, and when absolutely forced to do something in real life, I would work out how quickly I could achieve what was needed in real life, before logging back on.

I spent money I didn’t really have, I bought a sim for hundreds of pounds and spent money every month maintaining it, I learned to build and design, and kidded myself this was all ok because I was being creative.

I rather quickly lost my business (within the first year of playing), and had to go out to work again (in hindsight a good thing! – made me leave the house), I lost real life friends, I slept far too little, I was unfit and I know I was grumpy and horrible to be around. When I stop and think about Second Life, and try and work out why, why did I, and so many people I came across become so utterly dependant upon Second Life? I think one of the main factors for many people is that they start playing the game at a time when there is a drama or crisis in their own lives, they are unhappy or in crisis and Second Life presents an escape which for a short time means you can forget whatever it is that is troubling your real life. This is true of me, and for so so many people I became friends with, there was always, once you started to speak beyond the varnish of Second Life a story as to why they were there.

But that doesn’t explain everything, and I don’t think I can entirely explain why I become so deeply involved in that world, I know I believed these people were really important, and were necessary to my happiness. It is very simply an addiction!

So why is it so destructive? Its just a game after all! I believe there is a lack of humanity, a departure from the social confines and norms we all adhere to, which means that when people have an avatar they can hide behind, there are no longer the constraints that are placed upon us in the real world, and this means for some behaving badly, selfishly and without thought or concern for others. There is a vulnerability to many people playing Second Life, there is the lonely, the alone, the sick, the socially inept and the frail, and they are prayed upon by people who in their real lives are constrained by society. In Second Life these rules don’t exist, and a licence is granted to be utterly selfish, and it really doesn’t matter what you do, because if the worst comes to the worst you can simply pack away the badly behaved avatar and bring out another and start again!

There are of course those who play successfully, enjoying the game simply for the game, but those are the ones who have no gaps in their real lives, are not seeking to fill a empty life. There are people who can log on for an hour or two now and again and play Second Life as it should be played – as a pointless game to while away a few hours!

How did I leave? Rather undramatically in the end, a course of events made me see finally that no one was really and truly my friend, that all I had worked for and strived for within the game was pointless, all I had built and provided for others to use was not appreciated, and I was absolutely expendable, I realised if I wasn’t there, if I wasn’t playing no one would care or notice beyond a few days. It was so utterly pointless and transient, that in an instant I lost interest, it suddenly repulsed me, and I was able to leave and never go back!

And yes, since I logged off and uninstalled my life has got better, my personal life is real and based on reality, I go to sleep at sensible times, and my friends are people who I have really met! I look back now with a sense of horror at those wasted years, feel an immense and incredible sense of guilt at the waste of it. And from all of those friendships I made over all of that time – just one remains!

Second Life appeared with a promise of so much, but I allowed it to take so much from me!