As if I didn’t already have enough to do in my First Life, I logged on for a Second Life. Second Life (SL) is “a 3-D virtual world entirely created by its Residents.”
It’s an unusually calm winter evening when I log on for the first time. Husband traveling, kids mellow, pets content, no sports, no motorcars, not a single luxury, just the potential and thrill of entering SL. I am so hip.! So cutting edge! I only know two other adults who have created virtual selves, and I don’t even ask what their SL monikers are. I can be whoever I want to be, completely anonymous. The weird poet in the corner, meditating on the nature of the virtual human. The eccentric. The wildly successfully and sought-after guru. This is my chance to shed my skin, to probe the inner mysteries of SL, to be on the cutting edge of discussions about how this will change education, perhaps even culture, forever.
None of these things come to fruition.
Three things strike me as I enter SL.
First, I am ridiculously, embarrassingly inept at everything in SL, except for chatting.
Second, I am tethered to my physical body.
Third, I am butt-naked.
The nakedness doesn’t last long: all avatars drop onto a hilltop on Orientation Island naked, but fully adult, with appropriate parts based on the gender you select. I’ve chosen a fully human avatar, pretty nondescript, and I can only see myself from behind. I’m pretty buff, if I do say so myself, but, again, I’m naked. My 11 year-old finds this about as shocking as I do. I yell and cover the screen, then realize everyone else online can see me naked. What if I KNOW someone? I hit the menu, scan every conceivable button, and consider logging off immediately when my nondescript clothes suddenly materialize (what a perfect word to use in SL) on my body. The relief I feel is true, physical relief. I breathe again, and decide to explore.
Now I have both sons flanking me, itching to walk me and fly me around the island, because I am neither fast nor coordinated in SL. I fall off a cliff. I walk into hillsides. I weave across paths, zigzagging my way to the next signpost like an impossibly drunken avatar. After zigging and zagging, I finally arrive at a series of signs telling me how I can customize my avatar. I am joined by Pert Bert, a chatty fellow in blue shorts and a yellow polo. Hey, he says. Hey, I say back, intrigued that my virtual hands type at an invisible keyboard even as my real hands type on my laptop. I’m beginning to feel confident. I can out-type anyone, and I sure can out-type Pert Bert. I have time to carry on a decent conversation with him, and still customize my avatar. Someone offers me an outfit. Do I take it, or don’t I? I’m very hesitant but I accept it, click on a piece of clothing that is now in my inventory, and, voila! I’m standing in my underwear, right in front of Pert Bert. I scream some more and cover up the screen again. My boys are verbluefft. I randomly click everything in my inventory, and get dressed again and finally give in to the boys, who want a try.
The boys are dismayed because there are no grenades, so they fly (Fly! You can fly?! I’m really regretting that I didn’t keep up with computer games after I graduated from college) back up to the birthing hilltop and watch people walk off the cliff, and howl with laughter. The boys teach me to fly, which I can do with some semblance of grace, until I want to stop flying. After multiple visits to SL, I still cannot descend without a flailing of arms and legs and a decidedly spastic landing.
As I am customizing my avatar, I look down at my own body and don’t even think to create a body that is anything different than the one I currently inhabit. I work from the nondescript Lands End model I have chosen to be born as, and take advantage of SLs gravity feature, give her some realistic curves and lumps, find some khakis in the men’s folder, a loose fitting navy top in the women’s folder, and splurge on my hair (short, wavy screaming, neon purple). And I pop back to Orientation Island, where I realize that I am by far the shortest and heaviest person there. And I’m still reasonably thin. I walk around for, oh, about five minutes and feel so frumpy that I head back and give myself some liposuction, a botox-free facelift, and lengthen my legs, and I am back to being the svelte body I was meant to be. It’s like everyone is part of an alien race — ethereal, slender, and gorgeous. Not a single ugly person in SL. Not a one.
As I ponder all of this, Pert Bert is back, chatting about where I’m from, about his Masters degree from some university in Ontario. I mention that my husband is Canadian, thinking maybe now he’ll walk away. Why else does a man approach a woman repeatedly? Not only am I tethered to my physical body, I am tethered to the social mores that dictate what a woman of a certain age and certain marital and parental status thinks about social interactions with seemingly unattached men. I think maybe I’m overreacting — it’s not like flirting is part of my life anymore, so maybe I’m misreading the conversation — when Pert Bert types: How old are you? Older than you are, I shoot back. How do you know? I want to say, if you need to ask, you’re young, but before I can type that out, my 11-year-old asks: Is he hitting on you? I’m mortified, but also feel validated. It sure looks like it, doesn’t it? Dad and I, we’ll get a good laugh over it.
I finally shook off Pert Bert, and, well, that’s about as far as I’ve gotten. I was invited to a meeting of Academic CIOs but couldn’t figure out how to teleport myself there. The SL universe is so huge that it is unsettling. For all of my willingness to dive right into technology, and my comfort in the world of online everything (shopping, researching, communicating), Second Life has proved to be, well, a whole lot more difficult than my First Life.
Deb Keyek-Franssen is Associate CIO for Academic Technology Initiatives at the University of Colorado and Co-director of the Colorado Coalition for Gender and IT. If you see her purple-haired avatar on SL, please stop and say hello.