One of the aspects of Second Life I find most fascinating is the formation of families. Residents join together to role-play family life, taking the part of mothers, fathers, and children. These families may consist of people who know one another solely within the virtual world, or they may be more blended, including ‘real life’ friends and relatives or even members of families formed in other virtual worlds.
The appeal of this form of sociality is, to me, obvious. Second Life families spend significant amounts of time together. They often form close bonds which continue outside of the virtual world, and which include both aspects of role-play and more traditional friendship.
More surprising is another way of creating families within Second Life: by adopting, purchasing or giving birth to virtual children. These children are not avatars controlled by a person. They are purely digital objects. Marketed primarily to female presenting avatars, they are sold as a means of experiencing motherhood within the virtual world. This motherhood is unlike that experienced in blended families of role-players. It is a motherhood centred on the self, with the child-other represented by a digital object which can often grow, express needs, and respond to speech, but which cannot interact in a meaningful way.
The experience of pregnancy itself can be replicated through such objects. It is possible to purchase, or obtain for free, attachments that can be connected to an avatar in order to simulate pregnancy. Some of these attachments are quite complex and can respond to particular gestures or actions on the part of the wearer. Several are available which mimic the stages of pregnancy and can allow the user to ‘look inside the womb’ and see their virtual foetus.
Associated with the potential for virtual pregnancy are a range of other services and products. It is possible to obtain an abortion within Second Life, or to be artificially inseminated. Clinics exist providing maternal healthcare and a space in which to experience virtual birth.
Another path to this form of motherhood is through adoption: through purchasing a virtual child. Adoption agencies operate within the world which serve to sell virtual children of all ages. These bear a close resemblance to the adoption agencies which exist to match Second Life residents roleplaying as children with residents wishing to role-play as parents. In fact, it can be difficult to determine which form of adoption agency one is visiting without close inspection.
Virtual children are often a significant investment. Not only do they require an initial outlay of Lindens (Second Life currency, exchangeable for US dollars), but they often have needs which must be met through purchasing food, toys, and furniture. There is a booming online business providing clothing and accessories for virtual children.
There are, of course, as many reasons for investing in virtual children as there are residents possessing them. Some use them to simulate pregnancy and early childhood before another resident joins their family and takes over the role of the child. Some take their virtual children to specially designed playgrounds and interact with other Second Life mothers. Some simply enjoy the sight of their avatar pushing a pram with a baby inside: a clear marker of motherhood in a world in which most avatars are embodied as young, beautiful, and unmarked by age or life experience.