My avatar's so-called life

Newbie finds "Second Life" fantastical, brimming with possibility, surprisingly like real world. Images: Scoping out 'Second Life'

Getting dressed up usually means adding a scarf to my casual ensemble. So why do I suddenly feel so self-conscious in jeans and a tank top?

Maybe it's because the other avatars in the room look so dazzlingly fabulous in heels, feathers and flouncy skirts that I want to slink out of the place and go buy myself an evening gown. This uncharacteristic fashion-consciousness surprises me, especially given that it's not me, but a virtual facsimile of me that's underdressed for the occasion.

Inside Second Life

Sure, I am fully aware that a computer screen--and plenty of geographical distance--separates me from the people behind the other avatars. Nonetheless, as a newbie to the world of "Second Life"--Linden Lab's open-ended, 3D, digital universe built and owned by its residents--I find I am trying to prove myself to a bunch of digital strangers. As they attempt to teach me to open a box of virtual clothes using my mouse and a series of clicks, I fail to catch on and end up with the box on my digital head (not the best look, even in cyberspace). They LOL, and I want to bolt from the Awesome Designs boutique in embarrassment. Can an avatar blush?

And so goes my second day as a resident of this vast digital continent, home to upward of 500,000 inhabitants from around the globe and to many more opportunities for entertainment, education and creative expression in virtual dance clubs, casinos, art galleries, lecture halls and venues catering to what could roundly be dubbed alternative lifestyles. I've never read Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash," created an avatar or even played an online game, so I knew I was in for a culture shock.

I've had years to figure out how to work the room at a book signing or holiday party, but how do I converse with a combustible avatar wielding a sword?

Indeed, the realm I find is far more elaborate than the online cartoon I had envisioned. It's an artfully rendered digital landscape of mountains, beaches, jungles and galactic surfaces dotted with gazebos, fortresses, lighthouses and open-air malls.

Avatars in elaborate costumes walk (and fly) through dreamlike spaces, exploring the many sites and communicating via instant messages and public chats that are visible to all. I like my first life well enough, but this second life I've discovered is mesmerizing: garbage-free, fantastical and brimming with possibility--a moving canvas.

Still, as much as the richly saturated scenery entrances me during my first week in-world, I'm struck even more by the evolution of my avatar, whom I've named Amelia. She is, of course, purely an extension of my imagination, born of the "Second Life" avatar-creation tool. Given the options for toying with her height, nose, eyes, cheeks, chin, skin tone, makeup and more, she could look like Charlize Theron or Halle Berry. Instead, she's turning out to be a decidedly recognizable iteration of her flesh-and blood alter ego.

And I don't just mean her choice of jeans, tunics and sensible shoes over the many bold, flashy and sometimes interplanetary-looking garments available for purchase with the "Second Life" currency known as Linden dollars. I mean the way she spends her in-world time, mostly flying solo above the lush topography of the island Sala and sitting on benches in parks as verdant as anything here in the San Francisco Bay Area. She doesn't just look like me (in an impossibly perfect-skin, cartooney kind of way); she shares similar interests.

Mastering the metaverse
Maybe my in-world leanings shouldn't come as a surprise. If I'm introspective and a bit shy in real life, more apt to work in the garden, meditate or read a book than hit a bar or nightclub, why wouldn't the same hold true in my second life? I don't like to shop, so what makes me think Amelia would want to teleport around the whole of "Second Life" in search of the perfect little black dress? Put an avatar in a goth gown and wings, after all, and that doesn't mean she'll automatically tune in to death rock and watch "The Crow."

In the metaverse, it's possible to try on all sorts of identities, but in the end, don't you bring yourself across the digital borders? I did.

This could, of course, be related to my unfamiliarity with metaverse protocol. In my first life, I know what to expect--at work, with friends, walking down the streets of my neighborhood. But new to the world of avatar-to-avatar communication, I question my social skills. I've had years to figure out how to work the room at a book signing or holiday party, but how do I converse with a combustible avatar wielding a sword?

My co-worker Daniel Terdiman, a veteran of "Second Life" who has written extensively about virtual worlds, tells me that just like people in the real world, avatars often need time to warm up. He tells me that he, too, took time to adjust to life in the metaverse and spends much of his time there engaging in activities that mirror his first-life pursuits. Amelia breathes a sigh of relief. "Second Life" is fanciful, but maybe she doesn't have to morph into a fire-breathing, tabletop-dancing torch singer after all.

It is, of course, conceivable that I'll become increasingly comfortable in this brave new universe and that my virtual inhibitions will crumble, turning my avatar into a 7-foot-tall anti-Leslie who's entirely comfortable swinging from chandeliers and belting out karaoke to a packed house.

It's also possible that the novelty of "Second Life" will wear off and Sala and Serenity Woods will become a distant cybermemory. I kind of hope not, though. I'm not ready to give up flying just yet.

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