While pursuing a master's degree from California College of the Arts from 2007 to 2009 I immersed myself in a variety of online communities, talking to people about how and why they spend time on the internet. My work at the time centered around the belief, held by many, that there was a better life to live online. For my thesis, I chose to focus on one virtual community that functioned purely as a life simulation with no official objectives or goals to achieve, Second Life. I designed my study to focus on this community that did not require any specific behavior from its residents, so that I could see what kind of culture developed, what norms fell into place, and what people did when they literally did not have to do anything.
For a year I researched the community of Second Life with my avatar, EllenMarie Waffle. I was able to gain trust from extreme and often highly introverted users, discuss wildly sensitive subjects, and learn from nonverbal cues (who knew that was even possible with avatars?) I was invited into virtual homes, toured kitchens, backyards, and bedrooms. I was taught how one goes about preparing their avatar for virtual sex, how to fly, and how I could spend real money on in-world items like enhanced body parts, plots of land, and dance moves. I also distributed anonymous surveys and read discussion boards with the captivation of a thriller novel to uncover the difference between what people say they are looking for, and how their actions often tell an entirely different story.
What follows are excerpts and photos from my 2008/2009 thesis research. I believe the motivations I discovered six years ago about how and why people are spending time in immersive virtual communities are still relevant today. When you strip away the novelties–which I learned tend to wear off fast–what you are left with is a few core desires that drive people to virtual space, where they hope to find that the things they struggle with in the real world are just a little easier to control and look a little better.
Nope, This Isn't Utopia Either.
2008 was a dark year. People lost homes, jobs and hope during the financial crisis that has since been dubbed, “The Great Recession”. Additionally, natural disasters and acts of terror plagued much of the world, making planet earth feel a bit doomed. A sentiment reinforced by a sharp spike in the number of suicides seen globally that year. Seemingly driven by feelings of powerlessness and anxiety, people fled in droves to the internet to find escape. For many, the allure of immersive virtual worlds like Second Life were just the what they were looking for.
Second Life users logged over 400 million hours in 2008, growing 61% over 2007. As the real life housing market crashed, land owned by residents of Second Life rose 82% over 2007. Linden Labs, the company that created and manages the online community, reported that despite one of the worst recessions in recent memory, "....2008 was an outstanding year for the company from a profitability and cash flow perspective. We are in a strong position to weather the economic downturn while continuing to invest in the Second Life platform."
Currently, Facebook is the most populated virtual community on the planet. Through carefully selected pictures and curated bits of information, one can easily put together a more perfect version of their life. For many that includes an improved identity, a community founded on shared interests, and endless opportunity for exploration that just might make one forget about the office, classroom, or dorm room where they currently sit.
Although Facebook is not considered an “immersive environment”, its community members share the same motivation as those who consider themselves residents of virtual worlds. The top three most common answers for what drives people to spend time on a life simulation site were: to meet new people and be part of a community, dwell in a more entertaining environment, or achieve an enhanced identity. In short, they are seeking out what their everyday lives may lack and hoping to find a kind of Utopia. So far though–no one is calling these places Utopia.
By interviewing virtual homeowners in their homes and photographing the views from their windows I realized that for most people, their time in Second Life isn’t an exercise in creative escapism, but instead truly represents a desire to dwell in a slightly more perfect version of where they live their real life. Similarly, an exploration into bedrooms uncovered that visiting niche sex clubs is a novelty that wears off quickly. Most users are looking for more meaningful sexual interaction with a single partner.
As our livelihood, work, and social circles continue to migrate online, it makes sense that we would seek escape, solitude, and fantasy within that space as well. More often than not, the fantasies described to me in Second Life were as common as owning a home or finding a long-term partner.
While about 65% of the residents I spoke to said that elements like fantastical environments and wild sex experimentation were a huge draw of immersive virtual communities, I found that trips to their virtual homes showed something very different. The majority of them practice the same somewhat mundane tasks and rituals they do in the real world; listening to the radio, sunbathing, brushing hair, etc...
Then there is sex. In order to have sex in Second Life, one must click a spherical icon that will animate their avatar. Usually, the animation icon will have a short description of what you will be doing. There are a plethora of experimental sex clubs and even entire sex islands you can visit to get kinky with strangers. However, residents seemed to lose interest in these types of interactions quickly and opt for more emotional bonds. A resident who wished to remain anonymous told me, “First people seem to go sexually nuts! Then suddenly you kinda fall in love…(t)hen it fucks up! Then you cannot BELIEVE how real it is! Or it does not fuck up...and you cannot BELIEVE how real it is! *HaHaHa*."
Although the abundance of sex animations available for purchase could satisfy even the most specific, obscure desires, by far the majority of the sex animations I saw in homes simply said, “love”. In fact, in bedrooms, close to 90% of animations I viewed were titled “love”. I believe this stems from the fact that most of the people I interviewed really do see Second Life as an extension of their real life. To most, it is not a game. The friends, relationships, and actions they make online are emotional and real. They want the sex animations in their home to be tender, loving, and respectful because, as in real life (most of the time), the people they bring into their bedroom are at least a little special. This notion is supported by several survey responses and comments in online forums. One resident writes: ”It might start off as a friendship but if you feel like taking it further then your gonna have to be REALLY special to make me say yes.” Another member, Danika Messerchmitt’s, profile reads, “...and guys, I’ll chat and flirt, and banter with you, but please don’t expect anything more. I need to know you a heck of a lot better first.”
While a bedroom in second life can include literally anything you can imagine–waterfalls, mirrored ceilings, and rotating beds are all easily within reach–most are incredibly simple, serene and look exactly like you would expect a bedroom to look. This indicates that many virtual homeowners really do use these bedrooms as places of solace, escape, and solitude. Many do not even include sex animations, but animations that say, “relax” or “Chill”.
My theory that many who flock to Second Life are seeking a slightly improved version of their real life, as opposed to a far-fetched fantasyland, is reinforced by the majority interiors of views from balconies and windows I observed . While a few views I saw looked out over impossible landscapes of shooting stars and rainbows, the majority are obstructed by trees, a portion of a neighbor's home, or even a wall...something easily related to in real life. To most, the simple fantasy of home-ownership and controlled personal environment are more exhilarating than the possibility of a swimming pool full of dolphins.
Meeting New People and Building a Better Community
86% of people surveyed said that meeting new people and being part of a community was the number one reason they spent time in an immersive virtual world. Many reported feeling social anxiety when approaching new people, similar to that which they feel in real word scenarios. There was an overwhelming wish for help in overcoming shyness and a desire for more “ice-breakers” or structured opportunities to meet other residents in a platonic, non-sexual context. This was especially important for new users. The current model of destinations reserved for newcomers to mingle are often riddled with long-time residents who are sometimes looking to swindle or mock them. These areas are neither effective nor trusted by users.
In Second Life, message boards abound with users looking for friends, many feel the need to specify that this is all they are looking for. One person writes, “i am new to second life and trying to figure this out and make friends... only looking for friends”. Another posts, “I am 47 yrs old and looking to make friends on here….I love country, musicals, oldies and just having clean fun. If you want someone you can trust, please add me... LOL I AM NOT LOOKING FOR ANYTHING EXCEPT FRIENDS.”
As much as virtual community residents claim that making friends and meeting new people is a top priority, many of them are still plagued by the same real life anxieties and self-consciousness that make it hard to meet new people in the physical world. About 50% of survey respondents admit feeling social anxiety, and fear of rejection while “in-world” and many take to online forums to try to seek out friends.
One resident said, “I'm kinda shy in RL (real life) and not sure how to get past that in SL. I'm just looking for ordinary, nice people to share a few laughs, maybe explore some interesting places.”
BloodyKitty230 wrote about her experiences in-world, “I'm sort of thinking the reason why I feel lonely is because I'm always too shy to approach one person or a few people and say hi, or that I feel like they wouldn't like me right off the bat (which usually people don't like someone RIGHT away). But I've always felt lonely despite trying to do things that I enjoy.”
There are endless activities to do with a partner in Second Life from dancing, to horseback riding, to surfing a rainbow. Participating in an activity is similar to how you have sex–through animation buttons. These activity animation buttons are often paired and geared towards couples with a blue color indicating the male role, and pink indicating female. One popular tactic for meeting people was to participate in half of an activity and wait for a more outgoing resident to engage in the available role and thus make the first move. I saw many people dancing alone, with an unused animation begging to be clicked, as below.
Residents also complained of encountering paid promoters looking to advertise and market to them, and of course many were tired of being approached for sex. An anonymous survey respondent lamented about how hard it was to meet nice, normal people since, “It seems most people in [Second Life] are just looking for sex or money.” Another resident warned newcomers on a public message board of areas set aside for new players, “[sic] Some times you find griefers in them as some people think it’s funny to trick new people. So be a bit conscious about who you friend.” Another resident writes, “My avatar is 1 year old but I only been on SL like 6 times only because everytime been on bad experiences keep happening to me I always get hit on by old pervs or people wanting to have random orgies with me or cyber sex lol so yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah. Anyways I just wanna make friends or possible find a cool group that fits my interest and just not get on and be a loner :/”
A Better Identity
Despite the fact that Second Life residents can choose an identity of the fantastical variety, most model their avatars after themselves and add a variety of “improvements” to their physical form. Many hoped virtual communities would break down prejudices and create a more balanced, tolerant society than what we experience in the real world. However, with visual representations of the self comes the same discrimination that we face in the real world.
Any virtual community, even Facebook and Twitter, allow participants to construct their ideal identity through the careful curation of photos and information. However, immersive virtual communities allow residents to take identity perfection a step further by creating avatars. Avatars are a virtual symbol or embodiment of the physical self. They are usually based on how a person looks in real life–but with significant improvements added. Creating an avatar is an opportunity to reinvent oneself. It is a chance to regain youth, relive glory days, or improve an aspect of one's identity that they have never been happy with. To enter a virtual world as this new person is a fresh start, while retaining all hindsight, one can easily shave years off of their life.
One Second Life resident I spoke to, pictured below, told me that he does indeed feel a connection to his avatar, “Yeah, it’s me about 25 years ago. Why would anyone want an avatar that looks like a fat, old, fart?”
Others choose to pay homage to someone they admire. One resident who wished to remain anonymous said he developed his avatar to look like Steve Jobs because, “He’s cool. And he’s really sick right now. I thought it would be nice.”
75% of the people I spoke to said they feel a deep connection with their avatars, as though they are an extension of themselves. Almost as high a percentage say they base their avatar on their real-life characteristics, and a surprising amount say they identify more with their avatar than they do with their physical body.
Relatively few residents of second life explore forms other than human despite the unique opportunity to be something they could never be outside of a virtual realm, a superhero, an animal, or a mythical creature. The number one variable people experiment with is gender. In fact, it’s estimated that about 35% of users choose an avatar of a different gender. This seems to be driven by curiosity for most, but others see it as a way to escape a human body with which they do not identify.
Variables like race and weight rarely move away from that of the majority (which is white or Asian and slim and fit). I often experimented with making my avatar overweight in an attempt to see if I was treated any differently. The comments I received ranged from "I’m sorry, I just don't really want to look at you," to “Why would you choose to be that way here?" While using an overweight avatar I had a much harder time getting people to answer my questions, and when I asked if I could conduct an interview in residents’ virtual homes, only one person said yes. Using a thinner avatar, 95% percent of the people I met invited me into their virtuals homes.
People using avatars of color were nearly impossible to come by in Second Life. I met one resident, who wished not to be named. In addition to using an Avatar of color, she discloses that she is a Black American in her profile. When asked if she has experienced racism in the virtual realm she responds, "Well of course, my Avatar has been called the n-word plenty of times. I respond to it how I would in real life usually...but some racist comments don't deserve a response." When asked why she thinks racism has bled through into this proposed Utopian world she says she thinks that "...it is reflective of an oppressive society, Second Life being an American Company. And it is particularly reflective of westernized or eurocentric ideals. Second Life is primarily used by non-blacks...that would also be reflective of our society and access to technology by black Americans." Well said.
She also mentioned the fact that in the virtual world she has the option of dealing with racism by filing "Abuse reports" which will ban a member from the community for a few days or indefinitely depending on the offense. An option most us wish we had when dealing with offensive individuals in the real world.
Although residents of virtual communities have limitless options as to how they could spend their time, the overwhelming majority seem to be seeking an only a slightly more elevated version of what they hope to find in their real lives–more friends, a nicer home, better sex, and a more attractive appearance.
Second Life is teeming with do-gooders who want to show you new things, help you fit in, and avoid bad experiences that might come with being a beginner. Message boards overflow with tips and hints for “newbies” and it isn’t unusual for members to approach you in-world and offer help if they see you having a hard time. People not only want to seem like better versions of themselves through superficial indicators like appearance and large homes, but they actually appear to want to act like better versions of themselves too–wiser, more helpful, more compassionate versions. People want to be better people in their Second Life.
I started to wonder if any of this “people wanting to be better people” bled over into real life. Could spending time in a virtual community give you more confidence and zest for your life offline? The answer was a resounding no. Many residents spoke of how immersive virtual communities and the internet in general acted like a vacuum, sucking energy and time from those who dwell there. One resident I spoke with that ran a virtual support group for transgender teens told me that her involvement in this group cut into her activism in the real world.
Some even told me that their virtual life is not a liberation at all, but an addiction, one no less destructive than substance abuse. Errol Vollmer, member of the second life community since June 24th, 2007 has been virtually married, divorced and remarried during that time. He says, "Some people say that playing SL is about 'having fun'. That is totally wrong. In fact it's a matter of life and death, an addiction and a constant pain. This so called game makes me eat at the wrong time, sleep too little and sometimes stay home from my work. People with a rich real life you don't find here. They are in Real Life. If they try SL they stop after a week or two. So please respect the fact that RL is only a place between the logoff and the login. SL always will come first for some".
Above all else, no matter what brought people to this virtual world, or how they chose to spend their time, 95% of the people I spoke with said that their relationships, friends, and actions that occurred in-world were very real. This world may not be perfect, but to its residents, it is mostly a step in the right direction.