Blog Article 1
Impressions of Second Life
By: Christina Cary, Intern, Summer 2011
When I first arrived at the CSN, I was handed a checklist of my tasks for the first day. Nestled among such inconspicuous items as “complete an online training course” and “pick up a code for the door” was “make a Second Life account.” As a fan of the television show The Office, this clip sprang immediately to mind, and the sparse instructions sheet left me wondering why, exactly, I was being asked to make an account on a grown-up version of SIMS that for some doubled as an online dating service. Second Life, it turns out, serves as a virtual lab, allowing researchers to perform experiments on Second Life users as well as on college students, the usual test subjects, all in a virtual space.
However, the native population of Second Life users makes virtual worlds far more than simple experimental fields. I quickly learned that Second Life has a whole array of social codes and expectations. I also learned that with my current avatar, I was likely to be labeled a noob. Those who used Second Life for gaming or social interactions take great pride in their avatars’ often costly and elaborate appearances, the product of time spend programming, trading, and cashing in numerous Linden dollars, Second Life’s official currency. After attempting to sufficiently alter my appearance and almost managing to delete my hair entirely, I decided to revert to my original appearance, regardless of its supposedly laughable connotations
My avatar at first seemed to me like an awkward puppet existing only as a tool for experimental testing and design. However, I found that as I became more immersed in the virtual world and used it more often and for more varied tasks, my affinity for my avatar grew. Interacting with the virtual world by building basic objects and taking part in pilots of experiments linked my real-world decisions with obvious results in the virtual world, further encouraging me to view my avatar as a crude representation of my own decisions and therefore of myself.
The myriad of potential perspectives a human subject can have on his or her representational avatar—as a separate, detached dummy, as a vehicle for use in experiments, or as the carrier of one’s own virtual identity and reputation—add an interesting extra dimensions to Second Life experiments that would seem to be absent in their real-world physical counterparts. Although one study comparing the decisions of Second Life users and undergrads in a virtual worlds experiment found little difference between the two, the authors did allow the undergraduates extra time to adjust to the virtual world setup and potentially bond with their avatar. This bond, however, likely still would not be as strong as that of an experienced Second Life user, and it would be interesting to see how, if at all, these differences would translate into behavior. One possible consequence might be that experienced Second life users could feel more aware of their avatar’s reputation and therefore feel as though any interaction with another avatar by definition lacked anonymity, even if each user’s real-world identity was kept secret. These questions of the nature and possibilities of virtual interactions and the complexities of the relationship between human and avatar add subtlety as well as interest to virtual world experiments and bring up issues of identity in virtual worlds and electronic communities that traditional laboratory settings, by their very nature, overlook.