Voiding the Virtual Daze

Exploring virtual worlds, such as Second Life, can be a wonderful experience. Very few places hold the capacity for such intense creativity and beauty in one place by people from a variety of lands, cultures, and backgrounds. I know; I've spent the better part of the last seven years in one, myself.

Visit one area, and find yourself in the middle of a delicate, gorgeous japanese garden. Travel to another and find yourself standing on a windswept mountain peak, overlooking a beautiful bay far below you. Move to a third, and enter some of the most elegant ballrooms that you can possibly imagine.

But frequent these online worlds or roleplaying games for too long, and one can't help but start to notice some very disturbing trends among its citizens, at the same time. The question, after seeing the impact these places have on people, is this: When is it stimulating entertainment and education, and when does it slowly start to slip into the realm of simple obsession and addiction?

I've struggled with this question, myself, as of late: I've taken steps to return to my 'reality roots', so to speak: to spend more time offline, more time with my writing and my website development (as this website is a testament to), and with my family. I don't avoid the virtual worlds completely, but I've found that it's been a welcome relief to mitigate my involvement in them, a bit, and to keep a more firm grip on my real life, as well.

This is a tricky subject and one that a single person couldn't possibly answer based on just their own experiences. My own involvement in Second Life was, by neccessity, limited: After work, home, and hobby responsibilities, I usually only had a few hours free each night. Needless to say, however, for the longest time I would spend those few hours each night caught fast in the 'Virtual Daze' of Second Life. I've seen some people, especially women, who are logged into Second Life nearly around the clock; a few of them who never seem to log off at all.

What is it about a person's life that makes escape on this sort of scale even a viable option? Again, I can only answer for myself: I tend to be a bit of a hermit, in my own sphere: Second Life gave me a chance to meet people from all over the world, forge bonds and make friends but in a manner that could be easily jettisoned when things became out of hand or unbalanced. If a conversation becomes strained in Second Life, you log out of the application. In Real Life, such simple escape isn't always as easily accessible.

Virtual worlds also gave me the capacity to experience different geographical and cultural areas, as well. As described above, I can visit a virtual japanese garden easy enough, where in reality, I'm stuck fast in the woodlands of New England and haven't been close to a japanese garden. I loved to attend dances within Second Life, both contemporary and ballroom, where in real life I haven't donned a tuxedo since my eldest daughter got married.

Another benefit of virtual worlds: In real life, tuxedo rentals can be a tad pricey. In a virtual world, they're far more affordable, and often completely free of charge. In fact, nearly anything can be bought, or even built, within Second Life for a song. Yes, there is a virtual currency involved, but it trades with the U.S. dollar at a rate of about 250 to 1, and most items one needs can easily be built, not bought.

All this creativity and capability comes with a price, however. Most virtual worlds are in a constant state of change, ever evolving. You can frequent an event at a favorite club only to return one tuesday to find the club gone and replaced with some god-awful ugly black box store or, worse yet, some yahoo's idea of a massive castle.

That incredibly beautiful woman you've spending time with all these weeks? You may login one night only to discover that she's now shaped like an ostrich or a large ferret. She may have morphed for some bizarre, unfathomable reason, into the image and likeness of a young seven year old child.

Nothing takes the joy out of virtual romantic activity faster than having the one you're admiring suddenly translate into an ostrich, a ferret, or a kid, let me tell you. In fact, that's another serious danger of the anonymity that being a virtual world avatar brings to the table. There's absolutely no guarantee that the apparently sensual, gorgeous, alluring young woman you've been dancing with is, in fact, a woman in real life at ALL.

She could just as easily be a three hundred pound prison inmate named 'Bubba', for all you know. Sure, prison inmates possibly need love, too, but not under THOSE circumstances...

In the end, that's the true message of a virtual world. In cyberspace, everyone can be beautiful, alluring, wealthy (by reality standards), have a gorgeous cabin or home somewhere. Everyone is an incredibly talented dancer. Every man stands six foot eight, has massive biceps, and long hair like Fabio's. Every woman can stand toe to toe with Angelina Jolie and make her look downright butt ugly, in comparison.

But its fake - all of it. All of those incredibly beautiful areas in a virtual world will, usually sooner than later, simply vanish. The pyramids in Egypt have been here for thousands of years, but the ones in Second Life will generally only last a month or two, before they vanish.

The beauty of the avatars is fake. The buildings are fake, the scenes are fake, the scenarios are fake. They're fun to experiment with, for awhile, and most definitely beautiful to behold. But sooner or later, they all turn back to the pixel dust from whence they came.

And the best way to void the virtual daze of these places and keep your own reality safely in use and in balance is to learn that hard lesson, as soon as you can. Enjoy these virtual worlds, yes. Learn from them, experience them, be awash in creativity while within them. But like a night out at the movies, go HOME afterwards, take what you've learned there, and apply it to your REAL life.

Anything less is just an addiction, and one just as deadly as alcohol, tobacco, or cocaine; perhaps even more so...