Business in Virtual Worlds, Collaboration, Second Life

Sharing and Support in Virtual Worlds

One area that is quietly expanding in Second Life, albeit with its share of controversy, is support groups.

Anonymity is the primary driver behind the rise in support groups, a few of which are run by organizations like the American Cancer Society but most being peer-run. Invisibility enables users - ‘hiding’ behind avatars - to pour our their hearts and share their experiences in a way not possible - or maybe just avoided - in real life.

Both the SF Gate and CNN published recent reports exploring this trend, and the two articles offer interesting conclusions about both.

The writer of the SF Gate article, Cherilyn Parsons, was able to peer behind the avatars and speak to the RL folks attending the support groups, while at the same time answering claims that online support groups are nowhere near as useful as the real thing:

A year ago, before I had explored Second Life, I would have laughed at the idea of virtual shoulders. How can a person possibly be “real” via an avatar anyway - much less have a meaningful conversation with a puppy dog, barmaid, elf, or wilder avatar appearance such as a blob or a tree? It’s hard enough to trust someone in real life, much less “second life.” Then again, what better place to connect our yearning selves with other yearning selves than in a space of mutual creation - a place where those very selves can be one’s unconscious made manifest? Indeed, avatar, in its original Sanskrit, refers to the descent of the soul in human form.

Click, clack: When I rose from my hourlong anxiety group meeting, I felt seen and heard in the deepest part of me - more so, in fact, than in some “real life” interactions, where we often put up fronts.

You’re not alone, the group told me.

Nor are you.

Parsons then interviews a mother with depression and fibromyalgia, who thrives in the anonymic environs of SL: “I don’t have to worry about what I say in the group coming back to bite me in my home town.” She interviews a DJ (while she is DJing in SL, it should be noted), who says that “this is my only outlet, really,” adding,

I personally like to be in groups that are survivors, sufferers, and caretakers and loved ones, supporting one another. The best help and advice I have ever gotten are from people who have experienced firsthand.

She also writes about the activities of people with autism and Aspberger’s and about groups like the Health Support Coalition, Support for Healing Island, and Brigadoon. She then finished by outlining some efforts by professionals in the field who are trying to establish pay-by-the-hour virtual practices, but ends with a very nice summation of the enterprise:

Empathy: There’s that word again, an odd one to associate with impersonal bytes and modems, but the right one. Second Life is a hot, humming thing of wire and light, a “server” - spiritual teachers would like the metaphor - that can carry community and genuine human sympathy.

CNN’s Digital Biz section runs a similar piece exploring the world of virtual alcohol rehab. The report outlines how Second Life is helping clients of a rehab center in Atlanta with post-rehab follow-up visits.

The SL island used for the visits is made to look like the RL center in Atlanta. Also, when a client connects with the virtual center, the therapist appears as an avatar and the therapist’s real voice comes through the computer.

But the rehab center is not about technology — it’s about helping clients overcome alcohol addiction. (The center was started about three years ago; the Second Life option came last year.)

Some clients decide against Second Life. They’re not comfortable with computers, perhaps, or they don’t like being represented by an avatar.

But for many, the virtual world works. They have a sense of having “been somewhere,” notes David E. Stone, a licensed psychologist at the center and its chief technology officer.

And they feel “more comfortable meeting in a replica of the therapy room that they used in real life.” Many also tend to reveal more, or be more direct, in the virtual world — a phenomenon called “online disinhibition.”

The article also delves into the unique advantages of avatar-based therapy:

Avatar-based therapy raises some intriguing questions. For instance: Do clients identify with their avatars?

“Clients may possibly objectify or distance themselves from their avatar, which in some cases might attenuate the effects of the therapy,” notes John Suler, a psychology professor at Rider University in New Jersey who has studied the topic.

But in some cases an avatar might help, he notes. For instance developing an “observing ego” — the ability to look at oneself objectively and rationally — is critical to many kinds of psychotherapy.

“It’s possible that interacting through an avatar might stimulate that observing ego,” he says.

The piece then goes on to outline other VW uses in therapy: with returing Iraq War veterans, with clients interested in overcoming fears, noting that “the list goes on, with variations seen around the developed world.”

In the case of both articles, though, it is clear that support and therapy - in whatever guise, whether virtually or face-to-face - is an ongoing need, and people are using SL to fill in therapeutic needs in new ways.

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