About 2000 AD/CE a number of things came together. Personal computers that were powerful enough, powerful enough but reasonably cheap computer graphics, and reasonably cheap continuous connection of computers to the Internet. There was then a delay until software developers took advantage of this, and in 2003 'Second Life' (SL) was opened to the public.
How was this different from anything that came before? Creative works that offer an alternative life for people have arguably been around as long as story telling. Authors like the Brontes created shared worlds. Illustrations and cinema films added a visual element. Second Life brought this all together, as its users created 3d virtual worlds, and walked their personal avatars around in them.
What did people do with these virtual worlds? The quick answer was 'almost anything'. There was considerable confusion from visitors only previously familiar with computer games. How did you win? Many weren't happy with being asked "How do you win in Life?". What were the rules? And being told, "The same rules that apply in daily life".
You can make a good case that our 'self' is something we develop through interacting with others. We take cues, get feedback, from our environment. In SL your avatar can look like anything you want, but, how the avatar is positioned, distance, facing, seems to be something people carry-over from their previous life experience.
It also seems as though people interact in a number of different ways, and these have been classified as immersive, dissociative, and augmentative. An immersive believes they are really there, their avatar is them. A dissociative thinks it's only computer graphics, their avatar is a game piece, played for amusement. Augmentative is more tricky, but the avatar is an extension of them, allowing them to develop themselves, add new experiences. These viewpoints can clash...
Second Life is a social media, a means of interaction. People can communicate via text chat or Voice, either privately or to all in 'hearing' range. Groups can be created, with group notices, and within-group text or speech. Virtual land bought, rented, or visited, with organised Events, public or more-or-less private. Virtual businesses run, selling all sorts of goods, from buildings, through clothes, to custom avatars, like teddy bears. And, yes, there are many organised games.
Why bother with SL? Well, you can be anyone you like, there. Any age, skin colour, gender - quite thoroughly non-human, if you like. You can fly, teleport. Discuss philosophy, or cake making, with people from all over the world. Fight daleks. Then go make a cup of tea in your own kitchen. Who you are, what you look like, your state of health, is irrelevant. Just that you're willing to interact.
Are there down sides? Of course, this is a new technology. Some get too involved, neglecting 'real life'. It just doesn't work for some, maybe for eyesight or personal reasons. There've been a few reported cases of strange dreams, even a few sensory flashbacks. But, the biggest hazard is likely a new reason for not getting enough physical exercise!
SL on Wikipedia
'Second Life' site
(c) ROMsys Ltd, June 2015, permission given to use for non-profit making purposes
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