Book Review: Dr. Margaret Gibson Makes the Case for Second Life Being a Mature, “Haunted” Virtual World

After my recent cancer scare, I picked up a book that I had been reading, which I had set aside, titled Living and Dying in a Virtual World: Digital Kinships, Nostalgia, and Mourning in Second Life, by Dr, Margaret Gibson and Clarissa Carden (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). I had promised earlier that if I had time, I would write a book review, and here is that review.

Living and Dying in a Virtual World

This book, which covers various issues of nostalgia, memorial, and mourning in the virtual world of Second Life, is highly recommended reading, particularly for those people who don’t “get” Second Life, or understand why over a half-million people still use the platform regularly after 15 years. Here is a lengthy excerpt from the final chapter of the book, which I found especially thought-provoking reading:

SL was one of a group of virtual worlds which came online in the early 2000s. Not all have survived. The Sims Online, later EA Online, is a notable example of a world which, despite being loved by its residents, did not make it. Of those that have continued, some, like World of Warcraft, are game-focused. The purpose of their existence, and for the continued interaction of users, is apparently self-evident. Second Life provides no such explanation for its own continuation. It continues to exist because it remains in use—but the reasons residents choose to live in SL may be as numerous as residents themselves.

Due to its age, SL, while no longer cutting-edge technology, is still a very new type of entity. Mature virtual worlds have not and could not have existed at any other moment in history. Never before has it been possible for residents to have engaged so extensively and for such long periods of time in a single digital environment. Our ideas of what constitute meaningful relationships, and the way in which these relationships should be remembered, have simply failed to live up to the rate of change. While there is a great deal of ubiquity to memorialisation online, it is easy to forget that there are still people who are surprised by this phenomenon and are not willing or comfortable participants.

Existing media discourses pathologise long-term engagement with virtual worlds such as SL. If SL is inherently and necessarily secondary, it can be redefined as a distraction, a space in which individuals unreasonably and unfairly spend time which could be more usefully employed elsewhere. This perspective has informed the salacious media coverage which accompanied SL’s early years and, arguably, has contributed to an almost complete refusal on the part of major media sources to engage with SL in more recent years. There are, of course, exceptions, such as The Atlantic’s 2017 article “The Digital Ruins of a Forgotten Future.” As the name implies, however, this article, while sensitive and extensive, ultimately positions SL as something that is not quite comprehensible. There is almost a sense of confusion that this virtual world, which is no longer new and which appears not to have lived up to its initial promise, has stubbornly refused to die.

However, this book has demonstrated that SL continues to be a space in which significant and valuable lives are lived. The distinction between “real” and “virtual” lives reflects a biological fact. Avatars cannot age, or die, or experience the sensation of touch. Avatar life cannot exist independently of physical embodied life. The avatar is in this sense secondary—its death cannot end the existence of the human operator, even though the opposite is true. This purely pragmatic view of firstness and secondness not only obscures the lived reality of second lives, it also speaks against a discourse which holds that the “true self” exists independent of the circumstances of our physical lives. This discourse has been powerful in shaping our understandings of the relationship between computers and mortality. Computers can only be understood as offering a potential salve for mortality if the “true” self can exist outside of the physical body. This understanding of the “true” self is also prevalent in the perspectives of SL residents, who see SL as a place in which they are freed from the constraints of their embodied lives and can finally live “truly.”

Dr. Gibson goes on to make the case that Second Life has indeed graduated into the ranks of a “mature” virtual world, and even goes on to say that it is, in a way, “haunted”:

This tenuous connection to significant objects and spaces is exacerbated by rumours of SL’s impending death. Linden Lab has been spruiking a new virtual reality project, Project Sansar, for a few years. It has gained support from prominent SL residents who have been invited to create spaces and objects within this new environment. It has, however, led to real fears among members of the SL population who suspect that SL will eventually be shut down. If this were to occur, it would follow a string of other virtual worlds—notably including The Sims Online—which have been destroyed after becoming unprofitable. This is a danger inherent in investing heavily in a virtual world, one which likely contributes to the ideas of firstness and secondness which remain an important part of the language of residents. However, residents do not act with a constant awareness of or fear of the possibility of SL’s impending death. The longevity of this virtual world has created a situation in which its life can be projected into the future—it has become a taken-for-granted part of individual biographies which is not understood as facing an imminent end unless residents stop to consider this as a possibility. It is this taken-for-grantedness, this association with individual memory and biography, which characterises SL as a mature virtual world.

Yet SL does not function independently or outside of the physical world. Its history is its own, but it is interwoven with the history of the world offline in both an individual and collective sense. There are spaces in which a resident is transported to an imagined version of a time and place in the history of Europe or the USA. In this book we have discussed 1920s Berlin, but there are also historical representations of Chicago, Texas, Rome, London, and others. In these locations the work of heritage associated with the upkeep of memories and physical places or objects is overtaken by a new kind of heritage work which is rooted in experience and emotion. The heritage sites one encounters in these spaces are not carefully preserved and contextualised in relation to a history which encompasses that which followed their moment of prominence. Instead, they are spaces in which one can live history devoid of context. In a way this allows for a more accurate understanding of individual biography in relation to historical metanarratives—these spaces provide one with a sense that those residing within them do not know what comes next—theirs is an unknown and unseeable future. Yet the users of the avatars do indeed know the future and are thus in a situation in which a future is known but not known, full of possibilities and yet constrained.

Second Life is a haunted virtual world with various forms of spectrality around lost and deceased lives, the persistence of memory, and the persistence of grievability, but it is also a world that regenerates itself. There are always new projects on the horizon. The extent to which these projects are likely to materialise in SL itself is open to question. The future of this world cannot be assured any more than could the futures of those virtual worlds that have gone before. What is certain, however, is that those residents who have developed important networks of relatedness and who have engaged in the acts of memory we detail in this book will find ways to maintain those networks and those memories.

In short, what makes SL a mature, still-thriving, and evolving virtual world is its strong community. Linden Lab might, perhaps, be a little surprised at the stubbornness and tenacity of SL’s userbase, some of whom (as this book excerpt alludes to) are adamantly opposed to the idea of a new virtual world, Sansar, “replacing” their beloved Second Life. (As I have stated often before on this blog, no matter what Linden Lab does with Second Life vis-à-vis Sansar, they can’t win.)

Galen, in his recent guest editorial, talks about how Linden Lab might choose to reinvigorate Second Life in the (unlikely, but still possible) case that Sansar fails to take off:

What if Sansar fails?

It’s a bit sad that there are many vocal Second Life users who are hoping for this outcome in the belief that Linden Lab will use the money saved to improve SL faster. Personally, I’m not ready to predict Sansar’s imminent or future demise. I still think Sansar has the best shot of success among all the social VR platforms right now.

But let me just speculate for a moment what would happen if LL were to give up on Sansar development and essentially shut it down. I’m going to imagine it from the perspective of what I would do if I were at the helm of Linden Lab and not make an actual prediction, per se.

What would cause me to shut down Sansar? Most likely, this would result from a series of very visible signs that people are preferring some alternative to Sansar and that doom Sansar to have a small niche audience. If, for example, someone made a YouTube video showing how you could create your own multiplayer VR social experience from scratch in Unity in 15 minutes, that would be a solid sign. Or if HiFi’s rendering engine was as good and their typical daily concurrency peak was over 10k and growing, while Sansar’s remained flatly under 1k. It wouldn’t be one single thing. It would be several devastating signs like these that would do it.

Assuming I just shut down Sansar, what would I do with the remaining staff, budget, and experience gained from Sansar? The obvious answer is: Improve SL. I would probably take a big gamble that would still be bold but not as dramatic as Sansar. In particular, I would turn SL into a “hybrid grid”. Let me explain what I mean.

SL is a fossil. Yes, there’s plenty of room to improve it, but the gradual improvements to it are always supposed to be backwards compatible with content going back to 2002. That hinders SL’s potential immensely. That’s why LL took the big leap into the Sansar project as a totally new world to begin with: for a fresh start. I think they know that Second Life’s days are numbered and that something will eventually draw most of SL’s population away.

To breathe new life into SL, I would engineer a significant and only partially compatible version of the Second Life viewer and servers. Let’s call the current technology “SL classic” and the new part “SL next-gen”. The next-gen part of SL would take advantage of many of the lessons learned and technologies pioneered for Sansar. Picture having a new SL client that supports both classic and next-gen sims. Those sims could live alongside one another, as though two grids in one. Your account would be good for both. So would your money. But maybe you would have to create a new avatar in the new grid. Or maybe there would be some conversion utility. And some assets you own in the classic grid wouldn’t be fully compatible with the new one. And assets made specifically for the next-gen grid would be largely incompatible with the classic one. The overarching goal would be to gradually migrate everyone over to the newer platform and eventually retire the old.

There are many possibilities that would open up if I were in damage control mode after Sansar had died and I wanted to know what to do next. But I would likely favour doing some sort of hybrid grid as described above and seeking to gradually migrate SL’s residents and ventures into the newer technology platform. That’s what would make SL’s population grow again and give SL many more years of life ahead.

In other words, Second Life as we know it may indeed evolve into some sort of “hybrid” grid system, as Linden Lab slowly moves its SL grids over to new technology (they are already hard at work on a project to move Second Life sims from physical servers to “the cloud”). While this latter work is far from Galen’s idealized “hybrid” grid system, Linden Lab would be wise to consider all its options, lest it lose its Second Life population to rival virtual world platforms such as High Fidelity and Sinespace.

The community fostered by Second Life, as a mature virtual world, “haunted” by the associations, memories, and aftereffects of its millions of users over the years, will continue to live on, in one way or another. I find Dr. Gibson’s book a reassuring academic treatise on the topic, and well worth a read.

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