It didn’t happen intentionally. I’d signed up for an account in Second Life some fifteen months ago, last September. Once I’d downloaded the viewer and tried to run it, though, I quickly discovered that the computer I had at the time just couldn’t display the constant stream of downloading graphics well unless I was willing to sit waiting for ridiculously long periods of time for them to appear, rezzing as it’s called within the digital world of Second Life. After several interminably long and boring attempts to see more than slowly-loading grey shapes and even more annoyingly slow graphics, I gave up in frustration and moved on to other things.
A few months ago, I upgraded to a substantially faster computer, and eventually decided to try Second Life again, this time with the idea of writing an article exploring this virtual world from the perspective of a transsexual woman with some pretty significant real world body and acceptance issues. I went into Second Life with the intention of exploring it for a week or two, writing my piece, and moving on, back to my online life much as it was at the time, someone who spent a large part of her online life in real world relevant pursuits and in the sci-fi action game Eve-Online. Little did I know I was about to find myself seriously hooked, to the point where I’ve essentially given up on Eve and now find myself spending as much, if not more, of my online playtime in this virtual world.
While the uninitiated often assume Second Life to be simply yet another of the many online games like Eve or the ultra-popular World of Warcraft called MMOG’s (Massively Multiplayer Online Game) many Second Life participants insist it’s not really a game in the classic sense but rather a virtual world, and now, having spent a considerable amount of time exploring this online alternate reality, I find myself in full agreement with that viewpoint. Indeed, while you can find many different games to play within the world of Second Life, this virtual world itself is far more like an idealized version of our own reality (commonly referred to in MMOG gamerspeak as RL, short for Real Life) than what most of us would expect to find in a similar offering more accurately defined as a game.
There are no classically defined game goals in Second Life, no enemies to kill, no levels to reach, no points to win. It is, at its core, a gigantic 3D graphical social and business network, in some ways MySpace or Facebook taken to the next step, where users, called Residents in-world, interact with each other through the use of avatars, graphical in-world representations of Residents which can be customized and personalized in minute detail, with just about every aspect of a Resident’s graphical appearance changeable and adjustable in some way. The avatars aren’t even limited to simply human male or female forms. In Second Life, one can be a model-beautiful woman or man, an overweight senior citizen, a furry (humanoid animal form), a child, a vampire, a winged angel, even something as distinctly unnatural as a dragon, a unicorn, or a giant snowman. With the many tools available in Second Life’s viewer and extremely wide range of components used by Residents to alter their appearances created in-world and available for purchase or oftentimes even for free all over Second Life, the customization possibilities are just about limitless. In Second Life, it’s not an exaggeration to say you can literally be just about anything you want to be.
Almost everything in Second Life, except for the actual land itself, is created by the Residents themselves. Along with the avatars, Residents can purchase land from Linden Labs (the company that owns and administers Second Life) or from fellow Residents, build and create everything from the homes they live in and the shops and social gathering places they do business in to the clothes, skins, and hairstyles they wear, or they can purchase items created by others. Second Life enjoys quite an active and thriving economy, with Residents having the ability to easily buy and sell Linden dollars, Second Life’s in-world currency. The exchange rate currently fluctuates between about 250-275 Linden dollars to one US dollar, and many of the more active and popular businesses can generate quite a tidy real world profit, even to the point where some Residents are able to leave their real world jobs and run their Second Life businesses full-time. The various in-world homes, social gathering places, themed areas, and businesses are similarly unique and diverse, with upwards of 9,000 different areas, called sims , currently in use and more being created by Residents all the time. There’s as much variety and diversity of experience in Second Life as there is in the avatars used to explore it.
By now you might be asking what all this has to do with being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Quite a lot, actually. There’s no shortage of Queer-themed sims, social gathering places, or other community-relevant experiences to explore in Second Life. It’s said that many people who are questioning their own sexualities and gender identities come to Second Life to explore them in a safe environment, free from the real world repercussions they might risk if they did so elsewhere. In addition, while there’s a non-sexual Teen Second Life environment (called a grid in SL-speak) for those under 18, adults on the main grid can safely explore just about every sexuality, gender variation or fetish they might have an interest in.
Sex between avatars is also possible, with genitalia of wide-ranging qualities and abilities available for purchase in much the same way as other avatar features and in-world items are. In addition, Residents can create or purchase animation override scripts (AO’s in SL-speak) alone or incorporated into other items such as furniture, clothing, or sex toys which can be employed to enable sexual partners to experience a wide variety of positions, acts, and other experiences. Power exchange play, such as BDSM or other domination scenarios, is also quite popular in Second Life and there are a multitude of sims, stores, clubs, and other related in-world businesses catering to those interests as well.
While it can be difficult to experience Second Life fully without spending some real world cash to get some Linden dollars in your pocket to spend in-world, creating an initial account is free and there are numerous ways to earn Linden dollars without spending any yourself, such as jobs working in a variety of positions for in-world businesses, or you can buy some virtual land yourself, which requires the payment of a monthly fee to Linden Labs for the right to own land as well as an additional monthly fee (called a “tier”) based on the amount of land you own, and open your own in-world business. Residents who build or create things in Second Life retain the full legal rights to their creations and copies can be sold to other Residents to generate income. In this way, skilled in-world creators can not only fund their own activities in Second Life but also generate real world income. While most Residents shouldn’t expect to get rich running a Second Life in-world business, it’s by no means impossible. Second Life has already produced its first real world millionaire, a virtual realtor who topped that mark a year ago.
So what actually does happen when a transsexual woman with major real life body and acceptance issues enters Second Life and begins to explore and define herself within it? You’ll find out in Part 2, when I’ll talk about my first experiences and encounters in this virtual world, creating and refining my avatar, my first meetings and sexual encounters with other lesbians, and finding and working my first in-world job, and why I find this virtual alternative reality so very compelling.