Finding Your New Self

In the online world of Second Life, let your avatar lead the way

March 04, 2007|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Reporter

In real life, she is bound to her home by ill health. But in the digital world of Second Life, the woman known as Circe Broom has parlayed her gifts as a land speculator into a career as an acclaimed music impresario.

A lavishly built avatar with an auburn mane and a heart of gold, Broom presides over several Second Life stages, where jazz, country and classical musicians from around the world perform live through streaming software.

Other avatars, draped in glittering jewels and cyber finery, flock to Broom's productions at the Luxor stage, Hummingbird Cafe and Club Egret. They know that she is a tireless promoter who insists that everything -- the stage, the mood, the music -- be faultless. "You cannot use my stream unless you're really good," Broom says.

Second Life is considered a "massively multi-player online game" along with EverQuest and World of Warcraft, games in which players from around the globe simultaneously compete against one another.

With its open-ended possibilities for content and social networking capabilities, Second Life is a digital mashup with creative freedom not found in other computer games. Its denizens say it's not a game at all.

"Mainly, what Second Life is to me is a second life," Broom's creator, Rose Ragan, says in a phone interview. Within the game -- what participants call "inworld" -- "I'm up and dancing and flying and having just endless energy." In real life, she says, "I'm sitting here in a wheelchair with oxygen 24/7."

According to Linden Lab, the company that runs Second Life, 4 million members have tumbled through its 3D looking glass since it was launched in 2003. Each member arrives as a virtual babe in the woods who acquires a name, physique and wardrobe. With patience, members also develop the gaming skills to build, script and texture a fulfilling life as an avatar.

In Second Life, it's possible to buy islands, erect skyscrapers, open art galleries and clothing boutiques, take classes, sail, fish, bow toward Mecca, feed the birds, get a tattoo, toggle your gender, join a breast cancer support group, leave flowers at the virtual Anna Nicole Smith memorial, make oodles of money, strip, zoom around in a go-kart, engage in live chat with a dragon.

You can watch movies (and make them) in Second Life, or attend a news conference on the situation in Darfur broadcast live from a cyberspace studio. You may protest the war in Iraq or denounce the arrival in Second Life of corporations such as Reebok, American Apparel and Toyota. Kids can go to summer camp in Second Life. English literature students can comb virtual London for Victorian artifacts.

Second Life residents may teleport to Svarga, an enchanting "sim," or simulator, of a self-sustaining eco-system. On Berkman Island, they may listen to a lecture streamed live from the Berkman Center for the Internet & Society at the Harvard Law School.

Daring avatars can visit the Gorean sims, based on John Norman's novels where men are masters and women are chattel. (You can go there with a visitor's pass, if you don't want to join in the fun.)

Have pressing business in Sweden? Stop by the country's embassy in Second Life for visa information. If you have a scoop about the latest sensation in your SL neighborhood, you may contact Adam Pasick. He's a real-life Reuters journalist who reports from Second Life as avatar Adam Reuters.

Second Life is not the only virtual community in cyberspace, but it's certainly one of the best known.

Based on the architecture of electronic gaming, Linden Lab founder Philip Rosedale created a universe that resembles everyday life, replete with most, if not all, of its power struggles and emotional turmoil. Plus, you can fly.

Second Life "has all of the affordances of text-based online communities and much more. You can move around. There's a physics to the world and you can make things," says Thomas Malaby, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, who specializes in gaming. "In all of these ways, there's a much wider scope for falling flat on your face or doing something with great elan."

The "power of Second Life is not in the graphics, performance, or usability (which all have a long way to go), but in the social connections people make," says Rodica Buzescu, project manager for Millions of Us, a company that brings real-life businesses into virtual worlds such as Second Life.

Those "who stay and enjoy their experience are inadvertently those who belong to a group where they feel engaged, active, or where they simply have a chance to explore one of their interests in more depth," says Buzescu, whose avatar, Ansible Berkman, has also worked to integrate real-life activities into Berkman Island.

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