9/1/06

An Analytical Discussion of the Industry, Culture, Progress and Nature of Video Games.

September 1st, 2006

Living In Second Life #2: On Loneliness and Sex

To update a figure I used in a previous post, out of the 600,000 and more people registered as residents of Second Life, never have I seen more than 10,000 online at any one time. Under 10,000 people, most of whom are just trolling for porn and sex. (Sorry Lindens, they are.) Add this to the fact that land in SL is vast, and growing more so as new servers are added to accommodate more sims, and what you get is a great deal of unoccupied space. The emotional sum of this equation, at least in my observation, is loneliness. There are places in SL that open far and wide without an avatar to be seen even on the distant horizon, which means that this game, with one of its primary purposes being a device of social interaction, is often a game of extreme solitude. A resident could, if he wanted to do it electronically, come to Second Life to be alone. And let's not even get into trying to talk to people in this place.

No, wait, let's: Communication in SL is by a built-in instant messaging system which, unfortunately, carries with it the idiosyncrasies and idiocies anyone who has talked via computer is probably familiar with. (So get on your LOLlerskates people.) I often feel snobbish just for my insistence on punctuation and capitalization. And, aside from some users' sly employment of SKYPE, (the purposes of which I won't explore for decency's sake) this is the lone method of communication. And like any technologically assisted from of communication, there is a loss with it's use. It is a loss of what we get from normal face to face conversation, the things that add a level of ambiguity to any assisted form of communication. To give an example: When on the telephone, you can recognize a voice, but their faces and bodies could be expressing just the opposite sentiment of what they're saying. Cell phones, god knows where that person is talking from. IMing? You could, technically, be chatting with anybody. And with writing a letter, all you have is the person's words in one big bunch (There's no "instant" about it, so maybe letters should now just be called "M-ing".) This loss creates a kind of extra-communicatory (no, that isn't a real word) distance between the people talking, but in SL it is inherently doubled. Which makes it kind of amazing when human connection actually does occur.

When someone express an emotion here or, by some typed bon mot (oooh la la!) cracks a witty joke, despite the fact that the responses are typed and the laughs animated and that there's no guarantee that anyone is actually laughing, there can be briefly a mutual understanding and connection. You know, what we all probably joined SL for in the first place. This link may evaporate as fast as morning fog on a sunny day by your very next log-in, but this is just a speedier example of how human connections inevitably weaken over time. If you've ever run into an old high school classmate or ex and survived the painfully awkward catch-up conversation that comes with it, you'll understand.

Now, to get to the heart (or other parts) of the matter: Sex in Second Life is, from what I can gather, very odd. Now, to leech out the erotic and make it boring: I posit that the figurative distance in the virtual world between your avatar and the one it is shtupping is an electronically collapsed version of the literal distance between those hunched and heavily breathing figures who are actually controlling the avatars, like some kind of erotic wormhole (and I immediately apologize for that simile). Nevertheless, a certain distance is still there; as deeply as a resident may identify with their avatar, or think of themselves as their avatar, it remains the manipulation of erotic objects, like reading a romance novel, or screwing one of those blow-up dolls. Now, at no point am I suggesting you can't get off on all this. Considering that, I'm conservatively estimating, more than half of SL is devoted in some way to, let's just say, the aphrodisiac aspect, one can only assume that people get off on it all the time.

Nevertheless, I'm still having a hard time meeting people. I've made some friends, or at least added some people to my friends list, but it still takes ten introductions to "meet" someone. Being a terminally private person, and only slightly less so in a world without consequences, doesn't help. As said, there is a double distance in communication here. The literal distance (I'm in Poughkeepsie and you're in a correctional facility in California) and its problems are fairly obvious, from the anonymity to the . . . well the anonymity is the big one. But the figurative distance is what interests me, because it is a matter of interpretation. In SL there are no real facial expressions to interpret, no vocal tone, few residents bother to type in complete grammatical, multiple clause sentences. Personally, I'm upset by the fact that I can't italicize anything I type. There is distance in the fact that there are no intangibles in the conversations here. It's plain text (typically used only for the blunt exchange of information or sexual action, or, you know, LOLlers) or the gross movement of your awkward avatar. It isn't real. Duh. You can appreciate it for what it is (SL qua SL), but as a true palliative for loneliness, well, if I was lonely, I can only imagine this as a partial cure.

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