Saturday, September 13, 2008

Second Life: Reactions to the Concept

In a previous post, I introduced Second Life (SL), a virtual world connecting thousands of people in various simulated realities ("sims"). This post presents reactions I had as I continued to become acquainted with SL. My first concern was that SL might be counterproductive, from a therapeutic perspective. I had found, during a period of fascination with video games in the 1980s, that they had distracted me from real-life obligations and opportunities. It was frankly just more fun to be in my gaming world. So some important things passed me by. Of course, there may be some kinds of simulations that allow people to obtain training or otherwise work through psychological or educational needs in a virtual world. But just as doctors recommend painkillers and other medications for temporary use, so also I don’t know that I would assume that a targeted virtual reality tool should become a key part of someone’s everyday life. A crutch is not ordinarily supposed to become a permanent attachment. But what if the person has a permanent disability? Even there, I would worry that the cyberworld would become, not a crutch to help the person get around in real life, but an assurance that s/he does not need to get around in real life because the virtual life is just as meaningful and a lot more pleasant. In that case, the disability becomes crippling, not only in its original physical, mental, or emotional sense, but socially as well. Moreover, if I come to think of myself as a person whose physical or other disabilities are socially crippling, there may be a reciprocal effect where the original disability is exacerbated – because, for example, I may no longer even try to get the same level of physical exercise as I would if it seemed essential to treat the real world as my primary or only sphere of activity. Then, too, what should I make of the therapist or advisor who recommends that a person with a disability become immersed in SL, if I am not willing to do so myself? If I do not think it is appropriate for me to spend a large chunk of my life in a virtual realm, because I have too many things that seem important to do in the real world, how can I recommend it for a person with a disability? My view would be, implicitly, that I can write off those who find reality challenging. I can leave them to entertain themselves in their make-believe world, while I go about my daily business. It would be like saying, “I’m too busy to spend my day watching TV, but you probably have nothing more important to do, so please feel free to waste your time that way.” At some point in the future, virtual realities like those depicted in SL will probably have lifelike graphics, displayed on wall-sized monitors or virtual reality glasses. Interaction capabilities will be dramatically improved, to the point that the user’s experience in SL will be uncannily lifelike. How will persons with disabilities use it? If my experience to date is any indication, I expect that participants in that sort of virtual reality will be even further away from engagement with the real world. I notice, for example, that persons with disabilities seem to like to design their avatars as tall, broad-shouldered, handsome men and slender, beautiful women. The message seems to be that we accept that the world will not like you as you are, and therefore you must depict yourself in an ideal form that the world will appreciate. I would think that the real face or body would seem even more ugly or decrepit by comparison. Everything is so wonderful and easy in the imaginary world, and so hard and imperfect in the real one. Again, this is not to deny the possibility of some educational encounters and therapeutic interventions. It might be very informative or uplifting to try on a persona that varies from that of the real world. I wondered, for example, whether I could gain a better understanding of a woman’s perspective if I were to design a female avatar and walk around SL in that guise. In some ways, no doubt, I would. The experience would doubtless become much more realistic if, in some future development, virtual reality could become connected with actual hormones and emotions (as in e.g., Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World). Then, perhaps, I could learn a lot about what it means to be female – or, more to the point, to have a certain kind of disability. As another example, it could be refreshing to be treated as an equal if, in real life, I were an untouchable in India or a woman in a repressive culture or a homeless guy in New York City. Maybe it would be good for me to be exposed, or re-exposed, to what it is like to be treated like a normal human being, without being judged and without having to live up to the same old suffocating expectations. Again, though, this sort of thing cries out for real-world response, and not merely an acquiescence in the use of virtual reality for such a purpose. Before recommending SL for extended use, I would also want to investigate another potentially detrimental side effect. It seems to me that, when I use the computer for an extended period of time, I can easily become impatient with the pace of ordinary human interactions. I have long observed that participants in online newsgroups often become impatient and even angry with one another, to the point of saying things that they would be hesitant to say in real life. I am concerned, in short, that extended interaction with computers can impair a person’s people skills. It could be enormously counterproductive to train persons with disabilities, and those who interact with them, to be less patient with one another, or less tolerant of the constraints of real-life interaction. These, at any rate, were perhaps the principal reservations that I experienced when I began to become more familiar with SL and some of its denizens. As such, I was somewhat inclined to see the use of SL as not merely a tool or solution to some kinds of problems, but also as a potential symptom.