The Soul Solace Opening Meeting (Sep 3rd, 2004)

For those who wanted to attend but weren’t unable to do so, here goes a resumed version of the event.

Attendants were informed that I would post this information online and edit it; everyone who attended is welcome to email me and ask for corrections if they feel I have represented their views incorrectly. Names are not revealed to protect privacy, as some of the comments were quite personal.

The moderator introduced the session by asking participants to think about their relationships in Second Life. There were both very new residents as well as some quite old ones in the meeting, so there was a good spread of possible opinions. It was pointed out that things “go much faster” and are “pretty intense” in SL so that relationships also develop quite quickly. New residents already established a firm relationship of friendship and preferred to roam the Brave New World together.

Some residents pointed out that the mix between SL and RL actually go very deeply and no one really warns us beforehand before we start to join this “game”.

One former TSO (The Sims Online) player had already a previous experience: players with different connection habits (or physical distance) tend to develop close friendships but these do not translate well into real life (RL), and the friendship tens do drift apart.

The next topic was the “phases” that people apparently go through in this “game”:

  • It’s just a wonderful game
  • It’s a serious addiction but still nothing more than a game
  • Something more than a game

Most agreed on having gone through phases 1 and 2 already. A few begun to take the “game” as their true “second life”. The terms “addiction” and “initial overdose” have popped up in the conversation, but everyone agreed that these words have a very negative feeling, even if they describe properly what one feels during the first weeks of joining up. However, there seem to be no “withdrawal symptoms” if someone leaves the “game” for some reason (like vacations) and return later on to pick it up where they were.

The question if SL is “more than a game” was never definitely answered. Many of the participants had similar experiences on previouse online games and compare SL to a big 3D chat where they talk to real people and naturally develop relationships here.

Communication and the ability to break all barriers is the strongest reason for the “addiction”. We had a deaf participant which has a “wonderful way to communicate here without barriers”. High school grads participated freely in meetings and debates, at exactly the same level as older people with “serious degrees” and “important jobs”. There are no prejudices against looks, ethnicity, age, job, etc. Even people with alleged “anti-social behaviour” in RL can have perfectly normal relationships in SL because there is more freedom! Some even commented that this has enabled them to have more friends on SL than in the RL.

Despite some bad experiences (love affairs which simply didn’t work out), there was an overall consensus that SL just transfers relationships from RL. People brought friends and contacts from other games or chat rooms inside SL and their relationship continued there. In SL, friends are very supportive and comforting, even with problems that originate in RL. Actually, this view was even reforced – people are more supportive in SL than in RL.

Of course, there may be a good reason for that – people are with their SL friends much longer than they are with their RL friends. Still, the question of defining a frontier between SL and RL. Most agree that RL must always come first. However, as we relate to human beings in SL – not avatars or computer graphics – and these relationships are absolutely “real”. In any case, there are difficulties in transposing them back into RL. There are some success stories – after the initial shock of meeting the friend offline – and more good examples than bad ones. This happens more often with people having long experience of dealing with “online friendships” (> 10 years).

The next issue to discuss was trust. Can you trust someone you’ve just met online, and, in the case of SL, can be anything? The first reaction was interesting – after all, in RL, if you meet someone in a bar, he/she can also claim to be anything. This evolved into the discussion about the way people slowly tend to role-play less in SL (ie. adhere to more “fantasy”) and become much more like themselves. A current trend seems to be that “normal-looking avatars” are more “fashionable” or “attractive”. The reason behind this is that trust has to start somewhere. It is easier to build it in RL because in SL you have a stronger “fantasy” component – but this is changing. SL avatars acting and behaving just like their RL counterparts tend to build up trust more easily (so some proposed or encouraged having several avatars, one which is “really you” and looks and behaves like you do, and others for more fantastic settings and just for general fun).

Will this trust cross into RL? There is not a clear consensus about it. Many see that SL is just an online communication tool, like other instant messenger systems, chat rooms, emails or even mobile phones. If you’re used to build trust that way, SL will be not very different from you. Several mentioned that people in SL (or other online communication tools) give more opportunities for people to be more open and sincere – so trust can come more easily. On the other hand, some do not believe that this will work well; and several simply don’t want to consider any online tools as a “dating service” for RL and clearly separate both. Some simply don’t see SL as having “dating potential” at all – if it happens, it’s by chance alone, and not something done on purpose. Of course, we also shoud define first what “trust” really means!

An interesting view was brought by one of the participants is that your mind tends to substitute things when you don’t have all the information on the other person. There is a baseline built upon what you know, but much is left to imagination and assumptions used to fill in the gaps, and this may be a source of potential problems later on.

How to deal with relationships based on deceit and misconceptions? Experienced gamers just disconnect for a while and forget about it. This does not mean that it’s “easy”, just that you have the possibility of saying “no” and keep your distance (in RL this cannot be so easy, say, if your friend is a co-worker or a neighbour).

It’s not necessarily “easier” to make friends in SL – just faster. This comes from the intensity of the game and the time you spend together with your SL friends. However, it takes just as much work to keep a friendship online as offline! Some believe that “casual friends” are easier to make in SL (some claim that they are not emotionally abused online as often as in RL), but close friends are actually more difficult (or even impossible if you don’t meet him/her in RL), but there was no consensus on that. Some have the opposite view: personal offense is easier online, as you simply “aren’t there” to look the other person in the eyes. In any case, stable relationships are definitely possible and last for a long, long while (even if only in SL). Very difficult cases are the ones when one of the partners want to carry the friendship over to RL but the other doesn’t.

There are advantages in SL to meet likely-minded individuals, as there are no distance barriers, and it’s very easy to find them through events or places where they enjoy the same things.

Does RL interfere with SL? There are SL marriages, will they get interferences from your own family and marriage in RL? Experience seems to be an important factor here – both online experience in dealing with relationships, as well as experience with RL relationships. Some mentioned, for instance, that sexual affairs in SL – cyber sex – aren’t really cheating on your spouse/partner in RL, in spite of the deep emotional involvement in the act. Of course, the more solid your RL relationship, the less fear of having it threatened by an SL “experience” like that. Others simply discard “cyber sex” as irrelevant, uninteresting or simply not “realistic” enough to emote to. Others still accept sex and violence in SL as being parts of our own human baggage which we bring with us to the online worlds naturally (where humans are, there will be sex and violence always).

Another interesting issue was raised. SL does require an unusual commitment at the outset – once one you chooses a character (ie. not only the avatar, but they way he/she relates to other people), one cannot discard him/her for free… so one has to make some decisions at the outset, because one’s reputation in SL is not easily changed, once you’ve begun. This reflects what we do everyday in SL, too.

Curiously, SL as a “therapy” was also mentioned. “Wounded” or “hurt” people can learn and recover in SL as it is more “safer”. It still hurts, but is more manageable than in RL, and you can learn faster here. Some know about other players who come to SL as an escape from RL pressures. In SL you can unlearn and re-learn behaviour relatively cheaply. On the other hand, engaging in typical SL activities – building, creating, chatting – is very relaxing, rewarding and contributes for an overall better state of the mind. We should “jump from SL to RL (and vice-versa)” as it pleases you. A balance between SL and RL is, however, a goal to achieve. There is a temptation to give excessive importance to SL, but RL should come as top priority, even if several agree that things like domestic chores come after SL, for instance, or that these priorities were completely reversed for other online games.

But almost everyone agreed that SL influences a lot your RL, both positively (a healthy environment to be creative and communicative) and negatively (you have to take into account the time and real money you spend with it and keep both at manageable levels). People tend to have dreams (or even lucid dreams) about SL, or at least thinking about activities and projects they have in SL. This was followed by several comments around lucid dreaming and VR environments in general and how some can overlap. The issue was not only with SL, but with 3D-realistic games in general.

In any case, one group of attendants are slightly afraid that SL will “take over” (ie. predominant in your lives) while others reject the idea as they have taken measures to prevent that from happening. Still others would jump at an offer from Linden Lab to stay “forever” in SL if there was a way to get payed for it 🙂 (personal note: me too! And yes, I applied for a job there, too…)

What exactly is SL for the attendants? Each one seems to have his/her own experience. For some, it’s a new level of online gaming. For others, it’s more than that, but there are “games” within SL (ie. paintball, water polo). Still others refer to it as a “virtual environment where anything can happen”. Others just refer to it as “a place to practice scripting”. This comment was followed by several people explaining that they were dotcom burnouts (personal note from myself: SL as a gathering place for dotcom burnouts? Interesting! I am one myself).

To quote an ex-Apple employee who attended: “[SL] is officially the coolest thing he’s ever seen done with a network” 🙂

There were 18 people in attendance (not counting myself 🙂 )

About Gwyneth Llewelyn

I'm just a virtual girl in a virtual world...