Try a thought experiment with me. Imagine, for whatever reason, that you woke up today to find that Second Life had simply ceased. What would you do with your time? What might you return to? What might you try that’s new? How else would you get what you now get from Second Life?
A group of people tried to answer that question last night at the Basilique Chat Salon. Some, as you’d expect, said they’d try alternate virtual worlds. Others said they might resuscitate long neglected hobbies (and possibly relationships) that they had allowed Second Life to distract them from.
Personally, I think this question strikes at the very heart of the specific benefit we get from the time we spend in a virtual world. I found this question challenging; not because a lack of alternatives ways to spend my time, but rather in how I could think of so many.
I used to worry about what I’d do if Second Life disappeared. I haven’t worried about that for over a year now.
Needless to say, I’d miss a lot of things – painfully. Among many other things, I’d miss the friends I’ve made here, I’d miss the weekly chat salons, and I’d miss spending time at Basilique. I’d aim to stay connected with my friends in other ways, but I’d move on from visiting Second Life.
I’d be fine.
A thread I heard at last night’s discussion is that things in Second Life are easier. For some it’s easier to be yourself, easier to be unknown, easier to meet different types of people, easier to socialise, easier to work on one’s issues, easier to relate with people, and easier to escape them.
Maybe Linden Lab should have called it “Easy Life”.
I like easy things too. For example, I like it when forms on websites are easy to complete. I like the ease of getting groceries delivered to my house. I love the ease of contactless payment systems when I use the London transport system. In these things, I don’t for a second miss the more challenging alternatives.
I am honest with myself – when I remember. While I don’t reject “easy things” outright – I can recognise when I’m taking the easy way, especially when I can see that I could be taking a more challenging – and possibly more rewarding – approach to get what I want.
For over a year now, I’ve cut down the time I spend in Second Life. By carefully managing my time, I try to spend 2-4 nights/week completely offline, so I am acutely aware of what I do when I’m not in Second Life.
I know one thing – I would not just jump over to an inferior virtual world (sorry, but I do think they are inferior, or I’d be there instead of Second Life). Project Sansar would attract me, and I would definitely give that a go.
In the meantime, I know that if Second Life were to disappear tomorrow, many aspects of my life offline would change, and most would possibly improve.
Because I love being productive, I’d likely invest more time and energy into my professional life. I’m confident I’d see financial and professional benefits from that added investment, which would probably enable me to find the funds I’d need to entertain myself more offline.
I read a lot of Second Life material – in blogs and discussions I take part in. If Second Life died I’d like to think that I would still read as much as I do today – but I’d likely read more books and quality online magazines about the many other interests that I have.
Second Life offers us ready access to loads of friends that are only an instant message away. That need for connection wouldn’t go anywhere, so if Second Life ceased, I’d make more of an effort to develop my local network. Not online – because for the most part social media bores me rigid – but physically.
One of the best things about virtual worlds is the opportunity they give to meet people you might not easily meet at work or your neighbourhood pub. A virtual world stands in for that ephemeral “third place” between home and work that we – as a species – tend to long for.
People that live in rural or conservative communities genuinely appreciate the diverse types of people they can find online within speaking distance. I live in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, so access to as wide a variety of people as I can find in Second Life is not a problem. Without a doubt, it takes more effort, but they’re out there and not too hard to approach.
I’d keep writing as much as I do – which I now estimate is about 40-50,000 words a month when I include my professional writing commitments. I’d stop writing about my experiences in Second Life – of course – and I would focus more on my other personal writing interests. I know I’d find them just as interesting.
I love putting on theatrical performances inworld. If I could no longer do that, I’d likely take up amateur dramatics, and would probably act in community theatre. Artistically, I’d draw more and take more photographs. I’d spend more time going outside: more outings, more theatre, more attractions, and more restaurants and bars. Again, London has everything I could ever want in that respect; my choices spoil me.
People cite virtual travel as a benefit of visiting Second Life. Being on Europe’s doorstep, I’d go on more vacations and travel more. With that – and the more frequent local outings – I’d definitely spend way more money than I now do for entertainment (and that’s not a positive thing). I also know that I’d get more unstructured exercise – from walking and being out and about more – which would be very beneficial.
Something I’m sure of is that I’d likely not stay up as late as I do, which means I’d get to bed earlier than I do now. As a result, I’d have more sex and I’d get more sleep. Now that I think of it, these two outcomes alone might be enough to make it all worthwhile.
Anyway, this conversation reminds me to keep balancing the time I spend online with everything I want to do offline, so that I can continue to get the best of both experiences.
I shared many of these thoughts at the Salon last night, and someone asked me (as I half-expected they might), that seeing as how I can paint such a pretty alternative picture, why do I spend the time inworld that I do?
It’s a fair question. I will readily admit that when I first joined Second Life, I was in a different – and less abundant – place in my life. I felt socially isolated. Being an expat comes at a social cost, and regardless of how socially fluent one might be, recreating a social network that one has cultivated over decades isn’t something one can easily do in only a few months, or even years.
As I better acclimatised to my life abroad, I found it easier to get my needs met offline. By then, however, I’d invested heavily into this virtual world – both time wise and financially. I see it as a valuable part of my life – and yes, having a wonderful life offline does not prevent one from enjoying Second Life – I’d argue instead that I can enjoy it more so. Nothing I say here should imply that I don’t value my experiences in Second Life, or the relationships I’ve cultivated there. They are as important to me as my offline experiences; in large part because I recognise them as part of my one life, not another life.
More than anything, my recognition of the need for balance arose acutely when my best friend and work partner left Second Life last year. In his aim to redress the lack of balance he felt from spending too much time in Second Life, he ended up quitting cold turkey, and hasn’t logged on since December of last year.
That was one way. It’s legitimate. And it’s common. Unfortunately, this approach has many costs – many of them irrecoverable. I would recommend anyone I care about against that particular approach.
Instead, I chose another route. Like a responsible occupying force, I chose to conduct a measured withdrawal (e.g. 2-4 days a week off) so that I could maintain stability in what I was leaving behind. As a result, I feel I’ve achieved a very healthy level of balance that not only allows me to enjoy the best of what Second Life has to offer, but to also make sure I pursue my offline interests and desires to the degree which they deserve. Since I’ve done this, Basilique, and my own social and creative pursuits have actually become more enjoyable than they were when I was ‘all-in’.
Like a relationship with a person, it’s easy to lose perspective of the world around you when you fully immerse yourself in Second Life. Healthy relationships, with people and interests, should not be obsessive or addictive.
The more you bring into your relationship from your pursuits and interests outside of that relationship, the richer and more long-lasting your relationship will be, because you won’t lose yourself as a result of your involvement. Instead, you bring more of yourself to it, because you are a stronger person outside of it.
I believe that this is a healthy way to approach Second Life. It doesn’t happen by accident though. It happens by dedicating oneself to enriching one’s offline life as much as possible, and choosing to spend time in Second Life because you want to, not because you need to.
C.S. Lewis, who most famously imagined a virtual world of lions and witches in a wardrobe, once eloquently said, “Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.” In a world where we so often cling to what we may lose as opposed to what we might gain in the face of that loss, his words are more apropos than ever.