Is having an avatar a waste of time? Mac McClelland, writing for Orion magazine, suspected that it was. But she joined up with Second Life anyway (SL, for short), just to make sure. I hesitate even to write about SL for fear of sending recruits. But for the three of you out there who don’t already know, Second Life is a cross between a self-directed reality show and an out of body experience. By going “in world,” players can project themselves onto the avatar of their dreams, even a raccoon with big, human boobs; live in a pirate ship; own waterfront property; teleport from one popular spot to another; attend real lectures with thousands of avatar friends; and become skilled enough at the controls that they can even blush and have sex. After a fashion.
The avatar who gives McClelland a tour of SL is so enthusiastic about its virtues that she sounds like she’s hawking time shares in Cabo. She argues that a virtual world peopled with avatars is so much more satisfying than a chat room, because it creates as “sense of presence” and “brings people together.”
So let me get this right: You switch on the electrons, log in and launch the program, create a representation of some alternate self, and thus regain the presence you’ve lost in a chat room?
It makes sense that people want to feel more present. We spend way too much damn time online. The night McClelland first went in world as “Girl Next Door” with the name Isis Askenaze (great name, btw), 47,758 other users were already there. If by “there” you mean sitting at their computers manipulating simulacra of themselves inside a world built by computer code. Here’s a thought: how about inviting your neighbors over for dinner, instead?
Humans love to play make believe, and SL could be a wonderful game, to be sure, and wonderfully addictive. So I know that if I were ever to opt for my own Second Life, I’d get sucked right down the rabbit hole.
And that worries me. McClelland worries, too. As she puts it, time spent as an avatar is time not spent with actual people. When the timeshare saleswoman looks ahead to a rosy future, she promises “we’ll all have our avatars running around out there.” To this, McClelland rightly responds that this “could preclude our bodies running around out here.”
Frankly, I wish she had pushed this point further. Because it’s not just the whole, complex life of the body and interaction with other actual people that we are missing when we act as puppeteers of an imaginary life. It’s our lives in the natural world.
At a time of rapid climate disruption; of disappearing species, poisoned water and soil; of millions of gallons of crude still gushing into and strangling the life out of the Gulf, few things—if any–matter more than the embodied nature of the world and of ourselves in it. In the virtual world, we don’t feel the sun on our skin, or hear the rain, or smell the trees, or pet the dog or smell its breath, or see a hummingbird’s red throat flash in the garden, or interact with any of the other species that make up our actual home. That complex, wide-alive reality and the things that threaten it may seem to disappear while we’re playing in the virtual world; but it’s still there, demanding our attention. And instead of listening, we’re off pretending to be someone else communing with other pretending people, in a world devoid of nature.
Maybe just now we need less make-believe and more block parties, more community gardens, more political organizing, more working to bring down emissions, more strategizing about how to do our part together. Maybe now is the time when we all need to be building the local communities we can rely on and share with. Actual people we can join with to save what’s left of the actual world we depend on for our own animal survival.