First steps in Second Life

Visiting the Friends of the Urban Forest & Permaculture Project island in Second Life.

Visiting the Friends of the Urban Forest & Permaculture Project island in Second Life.

For some reason I’ve been dreading the next couple of weeks on the FO09 course. After the safeground of looking for community in forums, wikis and blogs we’re moving into the virtual world. It’s off to Second Life we go.

The fact that I know I’ll be in good company as demonstrated by the presence of the Nonprofit Commons, Second Life Education New Zealand (SLENZ) project and many other reputable outfits (including hundreds of universities), doesn’t dissolve my wariness. This is particularly accentuated as I don’t have a lot of time to devote to coming to a deep appreciation of what is offered. So, I’m likely to be both tentative and superficial. What a combination!

Anyway, I’ll set aside my reservations, without losing my skepticism and I’ll trudge off to the front gates of Second Life. I’m writing up my experience, using a diary format, after Earl at Groupings said he’d be interested to hear how things go.

Wednesday 14 October
4.12pm: I open the Second Life application I downloaded a couple of weeks ago. It’s pretty obvious what to do – create an account.

4.35pm: The name of the avatar I choose could stick for a long time, so I really should deeply mull this over. I don’t. Instead I enter a first name that pops into my head, then have a choice of 50 odd surnames. Nothing really appeals. I run a search on a few of those offered: Halaan is a of type clam. Exotic food, sounds fitting so it’s now a part of my Second Life persona.

4.37pm: I try logging in with my new name but it doesn’t work. Rechecking my email I find made a typo when searching – oh dear, my assumed identify refers to a character in Golgotha. Should I stick with it, or start again. I can’t bear to kill off my new identity so the name stays.

8.38pm: I don’t always read the fineprint of terms of service before accepting them (ahem). This time is different. My suspicions about Second Life are so deeply entrenched I’m actually going to read what conditions I’m entering into.

9.48pm: Being brutally honest, I’m not actually that much clearer about the conditions having spent the last 10 minutes reading them. Be careful is probably the sum of it. Regardless of intellectual property rights you may have in content you create or otherwise own, Linden Labs (which runs Second Life) owns all the accounts. I guess this means they can shut you down your business and lock you out. I’m reassured by both the Privacy and Harassment policies about the protections available.

9.05pm: My search for “Second Life scams” on Google reveals lots of examples of shysters and rogues plus some deluded folk making awful mistakes, but I didn’t see much about the architecture or what Linden Labs does that is worrisome. Time to take the plunge – click “Accept”. Will my life ever be the same.

10.25pm: Not so scary. But I’m stuck on the god damn help island where I first land. Read the start guide again. Look on the knowledgebase wiki. Finally, back to searching on Google: “basic start Second Life”. Where did I miss reading the bit about double clicking to ‘touch’ objects and then have the option of ‘teleporting’.

11.02pm: So far I’ve got a free Linux t-shirt, visited a memorial to John Lennon, strayed across a desert island. Barely seen a another ‘soul’. On Friday I know there’s a presentation on digital storytelling offered by TechSoup. Maybe there’ll be some likeminded avatars to chat to. Anyway, I’ve put the avatar to sleep… when I reawake I’ll be wandering into a class room.

Thursday 15 October
9.15pm: Not quite the first thing that I do, but before I dive into work I decide to see if my avatar wakes up with a crowd of people around it. 30 seconds to load and I’m looking at my avatar in Friends of the Urban Forest & Permaculture Project island. It’s deserted. How pleasant waking to a gentle back bird song soundtrack wafts over me. I resist the temptation to get a Pohutakawa, on sale to raise funds for the permaculturists.

9.27am: Bump into another bald avatar – we try to work out how to regain our hair. Another 10 minutes wasted but I triumph. I’m able to control where virtually every follicle grows. I’m manipulating buttons and sliders on the screen using my real body by hitting keys and moving my mouse to change things on screen to represent a likeness of myself – this is weird, other worldly. A kind of dissonance sets in. Eyes are glazing over.

9.40am: With a glimmer of my younger self on screen it’s time to sign-off and do some productive work. One of my fears has been somewhat allayed – you don’t necessarily wake in the morning with people screaming in your avatar’s face. Indeed, I’ve found out if there is any trouble there are lots of options: mute incoming chat, sit, teleport elsewhere (I don’t think avatars can be followed), quit, shut down.

1.54pm: I receive a request by email: Would you be my friend in Second Life? I don’t have to do anything immediately as I can respond to the request when I login to the virtual world. I’m pleased to a see visible instructions on how I can stop receiving similar emails. It’s really the last thing I want cluttering up my inbox.

8.00pm Five students turn-up for the introductory tour of second life… after some scene setting, we all login into Second Life. I accept the request to ‘teleport’ to where our tutor is standing on Koru island (here’s the SLURL for it).  It’s owned by the Nelson Marborough Institute of Technology where a Masters student is creating a wonderful learning environment: part funfair, part campus of the future.

Somewhere along the way two others have gone astray – without any easy way of contacting people outside of the Second Life we proceed without any idea of what has happened to them. Later we find out a software problem prevented them from logging on.

It was great to try out all the communication tools (chat and voice, plus one-to-one instant messaging) and befriend people. When I go ‘in-world’ I can see who of my friends is also there. Coming to grips with our inventory of map coordinates, facial features and spare underwear is essential, as you never know when your avatar will need this sort of stuff.

Aside from many laughs as we stumble around, the highlight of the visit to Koru was obtaining a free tuxedo from the Rapungakore learning space. This “The Skill Mastery Hyperdome” is part of the SLENZ project. Accordng to the blurb this is a space where “students can learn, develop and practise skills that will help them progress on their career pathways and achieve their life goals”. Heaps of outfits are hanging up for people to try as they simulate different interview situations.

9.40pm Quit. Re-immerse myself in reality reality – Dilmah black tea with milk thanks.

Friday 17 October
11.10am Arrive at Nonprofit Commons (NPC) meeting space with a friendly greeting from Brena Benoir. Unfortunately I missed the weekly meeting. To join in means sitting at my computer at 4.30am! Brena said they generally have a good turn-out (the meeting earlier had 34 people attend) and cover a wide range of topics (see meeting notes on the Nonprofit Commons wiki). Quite a few people turn up for dances on Tuesday and Thursday evenings,  plus there are other events I see from the NPC calendar.

Wednesday 21 October
8.45am Opening my email I’m reminded about Second Life – something that hasn’t been on the top of my mind in the few days. It’s advertising junkmail promoting a shallow consumerist culture:

“Looking your best is important in Second Life, which is why our Fashion Showcase offers limitless ways to show off your style. Plus, meet new friends who share your taste in clothes while you shop!”

I’m wondering if I can get some free wrinkles with a tan thrown in from the Male and Female Skins store. A chance to play I guess.

Much to my relief, in the last week I haven’t found I’ve got an unknown addiction for Second Life escapism. Nor have I come to any harm. There’s much to like about the imaginary, playful alternate reality – there is amazing creativity on show and a chance to talk with people from many walks of life. I can see some potential for education, as I glimpsed when visiting the employment training centre set up by SLENZ.

But there are real barriers, particularly if you don’t have a newish computer. Some of my classmates on the FO09 course have not managed to enter Second Life at all. And the learning curve is steep. When I was stuck for an hour trying to move from the first island I landed on, I was almost ready to delete the whole application and terminate my avatar. Buying stuff, finding a home, creating art works… to find out how this all works and if it’s worth it means more time in front of the computer.

For all my tribulations and doubts I’ll actually keep exploring, if very slowly. If you’re ever in SL, look out for my avatar, Tipene Haalan.