Why reality just got a little blurred for me

On a really great day my life can be described as marginally contained pandemonium. On just a good day my feeble control gradually ebbs; and on a typical day chaos reigns. So, just how anyone could want to have a second life running in tandem with her first life is well beyond me. Apparently, however, it’s not for more than 1,000,000 other inhabitants of planet Earth who now use the Internet to create a new, streamlined body that can inhabit mansions, fly, walk, or teleport to exotic locations, cavort and even marry with other like-minded adults, and otherwise disport themselves in any way they see fit.

Second Life is this 3-D virtual world that exists only on the Internet, and Hally Ephron has utilized this phenomenon in her novel “Come and Find Me.”

In the case of Ephron’s heroine, Diana Highsmith, this second life found in the fictional Other World is her only way to handle her real world. Diana was a “black hat,” a person who violates computer security for little reason beyond maliciousness or for personal gain. Black hats break into secure networks to destroy data or make the network unusable for those who are authorized to use the network. Diana gave up being a black hat and became a white hat, joining forces with the love of her life, Daniel.

A white hat is one who hacks into security for non-malicious reasons, perhaps to test a security system or while working for a security company that makes security software. Diana, Daniel and mutual friend Jake formed such a white hat company and began to make some serious, legal money.

As an aside, a grey hat is a combination of a black hat and a white hat hacker. A grey hat hacker may surf the Internet and hack into a computer system for the sole purpose of notifying the administrator that their system has been hacked and then the grey hat may offer to repair the hacked system for a small fee.

Ephron’s back story tells us that Daniel had died in a horrible climbing accident that left Diana so bereft she refuses to leave her home. In this yearlong, self-imposed isolation her only real-person contacts are her sister, Ashley, and the UPS man. Diana’s only solace is in her avatar Nadia in this second-life Other World. The mystery begins when Ashley is kidnapped and virtual avatars begin to invade Diana’s real world.

Ephron tells a good story. She uses locations, in this instance Boston and New Hampshire, to make the familiar a tantalizing blend of ordinary and disquiet. As I read, the menacing encounters, first in Other World and then in reality, served to create first apprehension and then downright fear for readers. There is nothing like sinister characters, wild chases and a flawed heroine to make an entertaining mystery. Ephron has definitely created a modern mystery that capitalizes on Internet technology.

This really got me thinking about Second Life — which I had never heard of before I read Ephron’s book. I got onto the Second Life website and tried to explore on my own. I did not get too far.

Fortunately, Richard Mansfield’s “How to Do Everything with Second Life” was just the reference I needed for my exploration. This Second Life is a very sophisticated setup. First I had to choose an avatar. That is my persona in this life. I had to learn to move, communicate, and create my “look.” In Second Life, I am thin with flawlessly tanned skin, long, perfectly cut hair that swings fetchingly when I walk — the swinging part costs extra — and my outfits are always designer. Yes, you have to pay for all those charming extras.

The essentials covered in Mansfield’s book certainly cover what I needed to know about creating my avatar. After that, I noticed all the rest. Avatars were living on private islands, giving gifts, selling things to other avatars, and getting married! Apparently two avatars can marry in Second Life even if the real people in the real world are already married to someone else. By the way, apparently this has caused quite a furor in some real marriages, so I did some research and found that this is not a reason for divorce or bigamy allegations in the real world. Virtual marriage in Mansfield’s navigation text is covered, however. The book is certainly well-researched, very comprehensive, easy to understand, and really allows me to function in the virtual world. As I played, though, real-world opinions on virtual worlds began cropping up in news reports.

These reports are generally quite sensational and really negatively color opinions on Second Life. Spouses complained of partners spending up to 15 hours a day in Second Life. Teenagers were bullied in Second Life just as badly as in the real world, and family money that should have gone for groceries, mortgage or rent was being spent buying luxuries for the avatars. I began to develop a serious distaste for this Second Life business.

But then I read “Alter Ego: Avatars and Their Creators” by Robbie Cooper. Cooper explained that the word “avatar” or “avatara” is Sanskrit. It originally referred to the visible forms adopted by Hindu gods to represent themselves in our mortal world. Cooper claims that around 10 million people worldwide participate in MMOs. These are “massively multiplayer online games” to which Second Life belongs.

However, beyond the description of the MMOs and the awe-inspiring profits of the creators of these worlds, the argument that science fiction’s “metaverse” is fast approaching, and in time a networked world will be our actual reality, are the real people who control these avatars. Before I read the book, I had an expectation or two about who would be involved in Second Life; and it was not particularly flattering to the participants.

As I read, however, I began to change my opinion. It is, after all, pretend. Adults are playing pretend with their avatars. This is something we cannot often do.

Then I read about Jason Rowe. His story fully convinced me. Jason was born in 1975, he lives in Texas, and he averages 80 in-game hours per week. His avatar name is Rurouni Kenshin. Rurouni is a ranged weapon specialist. When Jason is Rurouni he can ride an Imperial speeder bike, fight monsters, or just hang out with friends at a bar. In the real world, Jason has minimal use of his hands, he is on oxygen, in a wheelchair, and very disabled. In Jason’s words, “The computer screen is my window to the world. Online, it doesn’t matter what you look like.” Seeing a picture of Jason and his physical limitations alongside the picture of his powerful avatar suddenly made me so glad we have Internet programs such as Second Life.

This freedom was echoed by other disabled players who just want to experience life at some level where their differences are not known or inhibiting their ability to build, dream, and play. I also was taken by the Asian participants in Second Life. Often in their world, their lives, in their words, are completely planned out for them. Individual freedom, hopes and desires take a very modest second place to the needs and expectations of their countries. Second Life offers the freedom their first life will never have.

Most importantly for me as I read I was happy to find that MMO participants cannot be stereotyped. Each individual is seeking to fulfill a need that is not being met in their own world. That they succeed is heartening to me because in each case their first lives are fuller because of the second.

Second Life is but one of many virtual worlds. While Ephron’s Other World is not real at this time, the virtual worlds of Cooper and Mansfield most certainly are. These worlds are fun to investigate, enjoyable to read about, and freeing to those who struggle daily with mobility and acceptance in their lives.

Elaine Holden of Peterborough is a nationally recognized expert in the diagnosis and treatment of dyslexia. She is the director of The Reading Foundation and Senior Lecturer at Rivier College Graduate School of Education. She wants everyone reading.

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