Second Life

Lessons from Second Life: Imagination, Discovery and Negative Consequences

A long and thought-provoking post on the dangerous lessons of Second Life reminds me again of the “strange loop” and offers insight into how the issues of identity, emotion, trust, and immersion will shape issues in the years to come: years when more and more people will migrate to increasingly “real” synthetic worlds.

Dave Pollard summarizes the negatives of his immersion in Second Life with two observations:

On Appearance
In Second Life we can have both. Everyone in Second Life appears lovable, aesthetically and erotically. So from the safety of our lovely avatars we can afford, and have a platform, to put our hearts and minds out there, completely, nakedly, and be accepted for who ‘we’ truly ‘are’.

On Anonymity
We are attracted to those who offer mystery, passion, attention and appreciation, even when that is unhealthy, insincere, needy or manipulative.

We love who we imagine people to be, and that can create terrible problems when, as the relationship matures, they are revealed to be something very different from who we imagined.

It’s easy enough to dismiss these observations with the reply “and what makes this so different from real life?”

But Dave touches on points that are both the peril and the promise of synthetic worlds. Not to over-quote Castranova, but as he points out, people migrate to virtual worlds because they find some part of it better than ‘real life’, because the time spent there is more rewarding than the real world for at least part of the time. Castranova would argue that the question shouldn’t be whether there’s something about virtual worlds that’s addictive but that we should rather ask, what is it about the real world that is less attractive that we’d seek time in a synthetic place.

Migrations happen from country to country because of war, famine, poverty, or lack of opportunity. Migrations happen because there’s hope for a better life. Migrations to virtual worlds happen for similar reason – first, to be amused when real life isn’t amusing, we’re sick of television, or shooter games just aren’t enough anymore. Second, for economic opportunity, a better life including all the trappings of consumed goods, or even for a sense of belonging when we don’t find community in the world around us. The countries we live in can be harsh, cold, and yes, Dave, filled with ugly people. In Second Life you can find beauty both in environments and avatars – yes, everyone is beautiful, and we can probably find our ‘dream date’, letting our minds block out the idea that we might be talking to a man when we think we’re talking to a woman, or that their “magic” hides issues of dependence or emotional instability.

How to shuttle the lessons back and forth
I’ve posted previously on what I think are the therapeutic potentials of virtual worlds, and early explorers are using them to treat things like Aspergers, or to give the differently-abled a doorway into a world where they’re mobile. But the work is just beginning, and as the migration to virtual worlds increase I feel that a whole discipline of virtual/real synthesis of personal therapy will, or will need to, evolve. My fear is that therapy will focus on the dependence and addictive qualities of virtual worlds, rather than exploring the therapeutic potentials.

I often use SL for lucid dreaming. If you’re a builder, you’ll recognize the feeling of getting lost in a build. That feeling of flow can be translated into a therapeutic benefit – I’ll often start building with only a vague notion of something and then discover after that the build is symbolic of a life struggle or a sub-conscious state. For example, I’ve built environments where I’ve only realized after how symbolic placements were – I mean, how obvious is a castle on top of a mountain, symbolic of an ego state?

One of the things I’ve discovered, however, in talking to people in SL and through my own experience, is how much discussion there is around balance, and the “split” between RL/SL identities. I would love to see a resident survey that asks the questions:

- Have you ever struggled with separating your perceptions of identity and emotion between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’?
- Have you ever struggled with issues of balance related to time spent in virtual worlds? How would you describe these issues of balance?

Let’s say you fall in love with someone in a virtual world. This gives rise to many of the questions Dave points out – how much of the person you’ve fallen in love with is mystery, magic, entertainment, personal complement, and appearance? How much is illusion? Are you in love with an avatar or an illusion? Does the safety of SL make it too easy to “go along for the ride”? (We can always shut down, and retreats can be easier and less messy – an IM is safer than a scene in RL in a restaurant or a lot of long painful phone calls).

The social and avatar appearance tools of SL also makes it easier to find our complement. In ‘real life’ it might be very difficult to find a Gorean master or furry partner. And meeting them, there would be a long slow series of tentative compromises, discoveries, subtle forms of communication – things that are bypassed in SL. (I’m speaking here on the assumption that there is a veil on identity – however, I recognize that some people create complete transparency between their avatars and their RL selves, which may be a positive form of identity integration for some people).

In thinking about the strange loop and recursion, I’ve written before about the fact that there are both constructivist and deconstructivist pathways to recursion:

The other concept is that recursive patterns are mathematically constructivist or deconstructivist. They either build outwards from a single ‘mathematical point’ or they deconstruct from a filled field. Again, if we are experiencing “loop anxiety” then maybe we’re bound to find two different behaviour streams in virtual worlds – one where the self is slowly whittled away, pieces falling off until the recursive pattern and the strange loop brings us back to where we started, or the other where we build from a blank slate.

These issues of identity and discovery lead to a recursion back to the ‘real self’ and as Dave points out, this can feel negative. Using the analogy of recursion, I’d say that we discover one of two things: a) that there are parts of ourselves that we need to get rid of or b) that our lack of confidence or self of belonging can be enhanced by working on parts of our identities that are integrated and appropriate to our journeys.

In virtual worlds, we can be shocked at how shallow we are, or how easily amused. We likely discover this because we let one part of our personality “play” in Second Life. This is the deconstructivist approach – play with our identities until we realize either the strength or fallacy of those identities. OR, we can come with little identity because of a lack of confidence or sense of self and then build one up over time – the classic example, perhaps, being someone who is discovering issues around sexuality who finds, in SL, a way to construct a persona for themselves that they might feel comfortable taking into the “real world”. This is the constructivist side of recursion.

Balance and Virtual Worlds
Which leaves the question of balance, dependence, and addiction. I’ll leave the addiction debate for now, and simply say that from what I’ve seen anecdotally, these questions seem to revolve around the choices people make in migrating to virtual worlds in order to find something they can’t in the real world. And, having tapped out the current and admittedly finite potential of synthetic space, come to realize that they’ve traded off more of the “real” than they intended to.

I hate to use this way of describing things, but if we look at SL like a game, (I know, hit me), then it’s constructed in a way to create rewards and feedbacks to keep us “in the game”. Interesting research from the gaming field, for example, looks at virtual world environments, personality types, and game “objectives”. They find that in some virtual worlds, “points” are gained simply from reputation – very much like the Wiki and open source movements. They also find that gamers might play to be “performers” and that these game types need audiences. So…a social web made up of different personality types, each feeding off each other to give ‘rewards’ and feedback. Outside of some work environments, this positive feedback loop is rare in real life. No one gives us a virtual hug if we clean our apartments (well, some do, but you get the idea). But in a synthetic world, we can be appreciated for a free gesture, for building a new pool, or for creating art.

This positive feedback loop can keep us in virtual worlds, when what we’re gaining no longer exceeds what we’d gain from ‘real life’. We come to virtual worlds because they promise us something we can’t get from our real world. We stay because the positive feedback loop keeps us. When what we need to do, in some cases, is bring those lessons back into the world from which we came with all the positive and painful discoveries of who we are.

Personal Choice
In discovering our ability to both invent ourselves and to project our wants and desires onto other people, we discover a therapeutic and personal truth. We discover the masks we wear, and the masks that others wear. We discover the shadings and meanings that we project on objects, people, emotions, and situations. These discoveries can be both profound and unsettling. It’s what we choose to DO with those discoveries that’s important.

In discovering, say, that we gravitate to dependency relationships, or situations of control, do we perfect this, or do we recognize that it’s about persona and ego and learn to let it go? In discovering that other people can create a sense of illusion and magic using the veil of anonymity, do we also try to pick up those tools in order to seduce, entertain, and feel valued – or do we instead decide that there’s a role for projecting transparency, honesty and truth? And how do we bring these lessons into the real world? Do we choose to leave them in SL, or do we carry them with us?

This is where I see a deeper role for psychotherapy and analysis as part of the fabric of virtual worlds. Helping people through their questions and struggles with these issues can be a great benefit, and there’s currently very little by way of support, literature, study, or resources in this area. For someone who has discovered their sexuality in Second Life, for example….where’s THEIR version of an orientation island in the real world? Who can help them translate the lessons learned from virtual worlds into decisions and discoveries in the real?

Having said that, there’s a vibrant, thoughtful, creative and compassionate community in SL, just as in life. We don’t need a bunch of Jungians running around doing dream interpretation – often, help is in the ‘gorgeous’ avatar beside us who may, in real life, be someone who has experienced these issues and, through sharing stories and listening, can help through these struggles from the virtual to the real, and from the personal to the social.

The Deeper Meanings
But perhaps there’s also a deeper meaning to be derived from virtual worlds. The explorations of personal identity and truth bring us to a certain place, depending on what choices we make. In making those choices, we may end up taking on a certain role, we may ignore the lessons, or we may decide that the lessons are best explored in the real world and leave the synthetic behind entirely.

But once past the personal, then we might also shake our heads, look up, look around, and discover that the conceptual age is truly upon us. We can look around and discover a creative and conceptual flowering that might make us think about the deeper social, creative and spiritual meanings that arise as new tools are provided that help remind us that we are emotional, creative, collaborative human beings. That much of the world is hierarchal, logical, and industrial. But that synthetic worlds arise to remind us that our nature is to form communities, to share, to tell stories, to work together, and to use our imaginations to both survive and thrive.

Not to over quote myself but I summed up previously by saying:

The very imperfection of virtual worlds may be one of their strengths. Synthetic worlds are immersive enough, and tap into enough magic, that they give us new tools for creation – bringing us closer to understanding how imperfect our capacity for rendering our visions truly is. But their imperfections preserve the nested hierarchies of the strange loop. This imperfection, this recursiveness, may bring us to the age of the Turing machine – virtual worlds that are recursive unto themselves…the strange loop, the Godel paradox, alive in the shuttling back and forth, the strange loopiness within worlds and across them, and finally the traces left behind…our virtual selves living beyond us, feeding a new recursive pattern the meaning of which we can’t imagine, or which instead of imagining we choose to dread.

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