Utopia Sucks


15 Sunday 15th August 2010


A woman and man stroll along hand in hand. The woman steps forward, arms outstretched. Nothing happens. “How can you not let me fly?” She says, outraged. “This was supposed to be utopia. It sucks.” Welcome to the bizarre world of Second Life.  
Launched in 2003 by Linden Lab, Second Life (SL) is a virtual world with over 18 million registered users. 'Residents' of SL log on through an avatar, whose appearance and behaviour they can customise as they see fit. Second Life is an online community rather than a video game as it has no defined goal. Like in real life (RL), you can make friends, work or go shopping but in SL, built-in software allows you to generate your own content thereby co-creating the virtual environment. Linden Lab simply provides a platform; the true authors of SL are its residents.
Life 2.0, the first feature from director Jason Spingarn-Koff's, takes a sensitive look at the lives of four people who have been profoundly changed by their involvement with Second Life. Rather than dissecting the phenomenon from a distance, Life 2.0 engineers empathy with the SL residents in question by blending live action with footage from SL. The four people are referred to throughout by their avatar names: Amie Goode and Bluntly Berlinger, a couple who have been committing “emotional adultery” on SL, are now embarking on a real life relationship; Asri Falcone spends 15-20 hours a day on SL running a successful fashion and interior design business; Ayye Aabye is an 11-year-old girl in SL and an emotionally damaged man in RL.
There has been much hype and speculation about what motivates people to go on Second Life. The easy answer is escapism. Crude graphics notwithstanding, the virtual world provides an idealised space in which users can enact their wildest fantasies. Take Asri Falcone. In the real world she's an obese, pyjama-clad chain smoker who still lives at home with her folks. In Second Life she's a foxy business woman with an implausibly hourglass figure. In SL you can reinvent yourself as pretty much anything: as a pirate, elf, gangster or, like Ayye does, as a child.
But Second Life doesn’t exist in a bubble. SL affects RL and vice versa. Coca Cola, IBM, Harvard Business School clearly think so otherwise they wouldn’t be spending time and money developing their SL presence. Businesses use SL in a plethora of ways: to hold virtual meetings, test out new products or promote their brand. The SL economy is not imagined: 250 Linden Dollars can be converted online for one US dollar via Lindex, the official SL currency exchange. Pixels pay! Asri Falcone is more than a role play figure; she’s a bonafide SL entrepreneur. While Asri’s brother works 12 hour shifts every day to make ends meet, her line in virtual luxury housing earns her a tidy six figure salary. In all-American litigious style, when she discovers cheap knock offs of her items in car boot sales, Asri calls in an attorney and becomes the first avatar to successfully sue another avatar in a real court for infringement of copyright.
In Life 2.0, Linden Lab CEO Philip Rosedale says that, because people can only inflict emotional rather than physical damage in SL, it takes us one step closer to “being all we can be”. Yet the dividing line between what is emotional and physical, or virtual and real, is anything but clear, as several high profile legal controversies involving SL have shown. There was the FBI investigation into virtual casinos which led Linden Lab to ban gambling, causing a financial crisis in the SL economy; the Sky News expose about sexual ‘age play' - adults acting out paedophilic fantasies using child avatars – which forced a change of policy in SL whereby any such behaviour must be reported to the appropriate authorities; and the virtual Jihadis supposedly recruiting terrorists through Second Life. The list could go on.

So where next for Second Life? A recent poll of SL users found that the majority choose to develop an avatar that closely resembles them in appearance, suggesting that they view the virtual world more as an enhancement of the real world than an escape from it. As SL becomes more prevalent, real life regulation of it will no doubt increase. Bit by bit Philip Rosedale’s utopian vision of SL as an ungoverned realm where an emerging society learns to resolve its problems without recourse to violence will fade. In its place will be a shopping mall.


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