Please note: Dr Margaret Gibson and I are still looking for Second Life residents to interview for our book Second Life: Living and Dying in a Virtual World. If you would like to participate please contact Kittyrissa (Clara Coates) in-world or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have been increasingly interested in the idea that virtual worlds offer their residents something more than escape or sociality. They offer, instead, a type of refuge – a space in which people are able to simultaneously live more fantastically and more honestly. Virtual worlds like Second Life – worlds which are not goal-oriented in the same sense as games – allow residents to live according to their desires. Those who wish to build – and have the skills to do so – can purchase blocks of land for a tiny fraction of what they would cost in the offline world – in rl (real life) – and construct museums, memorials, theme parks, educational institutions – there are endless possibilities.
For people who wish to socialise, but who experience barriers to doing so offline, the virtual world offers a lifeline. It is possible to choose one’s own embodiment and to speak via voice chat or through typing. Perhaps more importantly, social norms are different. It is possible, in the virtual world, to ‘go afk’ – to not respond for a time, either because one has stepped away from the computer or for another reason – without being perceived as unforgivably rude. Tom Boellstorff describes the norms of interaction in Second Life in the excellent Coming of Age in Second Life. For my purposes, the important factor is that actions which may be considered rude in the offline world – taking a break when socialising, looking away when talking, delaying responses – are accepted or irrelevant in Second Life.
Second Life can therefore serve as a type of refuge for people who, for whatever reason, struggle with interaction in the physical world. In the virtual it is possible to dismantle, at least partially, the boundaries that exist offline.