A life less ordinary offers far more than just escapism - University of ...

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A life less ordinary offers far more than just escapism - University of ...

Technology Virtual worlds

A life less ordinary

offers far more

than just escapism

People don’t make do with just the real world any

more. Powerful PCs, widespread broadband and

sophisticated computer graphics have spawned a

series of alternative online realities where new

societies are quickly evolving from scratch.

In a three-part special report beginning this week,

New Scientist investigates the impact of virtual worlds.

Do they offer a more liberating experience than real

life, or does anonymity bring out our worst instincts?

What other virtual experiences are on the way, and

which will win – those that closely resemble the real

world, or a virtual universe of worlds to suit all tastes?

anil ananthasWaMy

WILLIAM WISE had always felt he

should have been born a woman.

A year and a half ago, he finally

got the chance to live as one. He

chose a provocative new look:

a cute, contemporary hairstyle

with bangs, a tank top with

spaghetti straps and a plunging

neckline, and bare midriff. There

was one twist, however. He had

to live inside an online virtual

world called Second Life.

This alternative persona

(pictured above), which goes by

the name Jani Myriam, allowed

him finally to understand what

it was like to live as a woman –

something he felt unable to test

out in the real world, but which

gave him immense fulfilment.

“I liked myself so much better as

Jani – she was fun, happy, even

bold and witty, while the real-life

me was overwhelmed with fear

and self-doubt,” he says.

The realisation sparked a

personal transformation. Wise

came out as a transsexual to his

family and friends, and is now

preparing for several operations

that will change his gender in

the real world too, where he will

soon be known as Rebecca.

“I eventually discovered what a

transsexual was and that I might

well be one,” he explains.

Elsewhere in Second Life,

Wise’s story is starting to be

repeated. From people with

gender concerns or disabilities to

those dealing with the aftermath

of cancer and stroke, this popular

virtual world is becoming a

uniquely comforting place for

those who find reality challenging

or hostile. Far from isolating them

from the real world, however,

what people do in the virtual

space is feeding back into, and

improving, their real lives.

Political and social activism is also

taking root in the virtual world,

sparking hopes that it could

change things in the real world.

It hasn’t always been obvious

that virtual goings-on could feed

back into the real world. When

Linden Lab of San Francisco,

California, started Second Life

in 2003, it quickly gained a

reputation as being little more

than a hippy hang-out, where

people had cyber sex, took virtual

drugs and indulged in eccentric

games, such as a virtual

recreation of the Boston tea party.

However, Second Life has

since morphed from a virtual

playground into a force for

change in the real world. As

virtual objects and services

gained real-world value, a

flourishing internal economy

emerged, and real-world

businesses started to take notice.

Meanwhile people began to see

the virtual space as a forum that

enhanced some forms of social

interaction.

“There are signs that we are

witnessing the birth of a

significant new modality of

human interaction,” claims the

website of Tom Boellstorff, an

anthropologist at the University

of California, Davis, who has been

“Second Life has morphed from a playground

into a force for change in the real world”

26 | NewScientist | 25 August 2007 www.newscientist.com

26 23/08/2007 15:07:42


–William Wise’s alter ego, Jani Myriam–

studying the impact of virtual

worlds on relationships since

2004, via his avatar Tom

Bukowski. “You’ll see all kinds of

expansions of virtual worlds into

domains of human life that we

can’t predict,” he adds.

So what makes virtual spaces

appealing? A significant aspect is

the ability to choose your own

body. “In the actual world, we

are born with bodies ,” says

Boellstorff. “We can change them

only with significant difficulty

and expense.” That’s not the case

inside Second Life, where

residents are free to customise

how they look with a few mouse

clicks. Even apart from being able

to change your gender, this has

“all kinds of implications”, says

Boellstorff, particularly for

disabled people, who in Second

Life can do the same things with

I feeL your paIn

you are inside a C17 military transport

plane, your hands shackled. a black

hood drops over you, and the

screen goes dark. soon you hear the

sounds of a plane landing, and see

glimpses of light through your

hood. a prison official shouts “shut

up!” and there is clanging of metal

against metal. Eventually, you end up

kneeling inside a cage, with barbedwire

fencing all around.

“it’s a slightly visceral experience,”

says nonny de la Peña. the los angelesbased

documentary film-maker has

developed a version of the Us military

prison at Guantanamo Bay inside the

virtual world of second life, together

with Peggy Weil of the University of

their bodies as everyone else.

Susan Tenby of the San

Francisco-based non-profit group

TechSoup.org, which provides

affordable technology products

to other non-profits, remembers

the instant she realised Second

Life’s potential for people with

disabilities. “For me, the ‘Aha!’

moment was when I stumbled

upon a [virtual] quadriplegics’

meeting,” she says. She found

people there who were severely

disabled in real life but able to

walk or even fly in Second Life.

“I said to myself, ‘Wait a minute,

these are real people. This isn’t

just a game.’” It inspired her to

start Nonprofit Commons, which

offers, among other things, free

virtual office space and furniture

to non-profits wishing to set up

shop in Second Life.

One of those groups is the

Transgender Resource Center

(TRC), which was started by

William Wise, and it is likely that

its work there has already had

an impact in the real world.

Staffed with volunteer avatars,

the TRC provides counselling to

transgendered people, something

that has the power to save lives.

“People with gender concerns

are at a higher risk of suicide

than the general population,”

says Melady Preece, a clinical

psychologist at the University of

southern California, los angeles. their

aim is to simulate what it is like to be

detained without recourse to legal help.

“you can bring home the idea of what it

means to have your habeas corpus

stripped,” says de la Peña.

When you enter the installation,

your avatar is offered an orange prison

suit and a head-up display (hUD), a

virtual object that allows the prison

authorities to control the movements

of your avatar and what you see.

activate it and your vision goes blank,

as if you are shrouded by a hood. you

lose control of your avatar and can be

virtually pulled to any location. the

virtual prison also shows documentary

movies about Guantanamo Bay, and

British Columbia in Vancouver,

Canada, who studies social groups

within Second Life, including the

TRC. “I have no doubt that the

volunteers at the TRC have

prevented, whether knowingly

or unknowingly, a number of

suicide attempts.”

For more than a year, Tenby

has also hosted weekly meetings

at the Commons, where people

from around the world meet to

discuss challenges facing

humanity. She says these

meetings benefit from being

virtual: conversations still occur

in real time, but geographic and

social barriers disappear. For

example, on 22 June, the John

T. and Catherine D. MacArthur

Foundation, a $6 billion

philanthropic organisation based

in Chicago, Illinois, hosted a

discussion in its own virtual

amphitheatre that explored how

virtual worlds could bring about

social change. Tenby mentions

how she found herself standing

next to the president of the

foundation, an opportunity that

doesn’t often arise in real life.

Because Second Life avoids

such real-world limitations, it also

allows people to step into the

shoes of others to raise awareness

of their fate. For example, political

activists are already exploring

this through a simulation of

will soon feature avatars controlled

by constitutional attorneys and

representatives of detainees, who will

talk with visitors.

De la Peña says there are other

places that might be replicated, such

as the Us-Mexico border or the

Palestinian territories. “those are places

with significant social issues that are

being played out all the time,” she says.

“i think the potential for activism and

change is amazing.”

Weil says such simulations are “more

powerful” than a library or museum,

because they exist 24 hours a day, and

anyone from around the world can

enter, keeping issues alive even when

they fall out of the public eye.

Guantanamo Bay that encourages

Second Life visitors to consider

the plight of inmates there (see

“I feel your pain”, above).

There are some who are yet

to be convinced of Second Life’s

ability to produce change in the

real world. “I think the jury is still

out,” says Dave Pentecost of the

Lower Eastside Girls Club of New

York, an organisation that offers

arts, athletic and career skills to

teenage girls.

One problem is that the

benefits are only available to

those with access to computers,

broadband connections and the

keyboard skills required to control

avatars. He also points out that

although the income generated

from virtual activities such as

selling virtual goods is real, it isn’t

yet “compelling enough to pull

people out of poverty”.

There is also another challenge

facing Second Life do-gooders.

The presence of real money

means the world is increasingly

becoming a magnet for people

who want to make a fast buck,

while the earnest attitudes of

some residents are provoking a

backlash from those who would

rather make trouble. We will be

investigating virtual abuse and

misbehaviour in next week’s

instalment of New Scientist’s

virtual worlds report. l

www.newscientist.com 25 August 2007 | NewScientist | 27

27 23/08/2007 15:07:43

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