In Second Life, there is even talk of suicide

Second Life includes just about everything, so it shouldn't have surprised me to encounter a group of avatars chatting about committing suicide.

A search function helps an SL visitor find the 10 most popular sites inside SL, which include places to get Linden dollars for free by filling out endless marketing surveys, as well as virtual nude beaches (there are more than one in the top 10,which should not surprise anybody). Other searches help a visitor find upcoming happenings, tons of them, including live concerts or sporting events, listed with the times when they are available.

However, I got into the suicide discussion after being notified by email that one of the members of a goth dance club I had visited was leaving to devote more time to a new job in RL (Real Life), and a going-away party was about to start. Just that email alone got my interest: How could anybody be so obsessed with SL to have to stop using it to devote time to a real job? Or maybe it was emotional/mental exhaustion? I wanted to know.

The email advised me to show up at a waterfall outside of the club, rendered in a fair amount of detail as a stone castle. I had visited the club once weeks ago for all of five minutes, but had joined it with one simple click and, apparently, consented to be emailed of upcoming events, such as the party. So I clicked a link in the email and was quickly transported to the waterfall.

I arrived earlier than the stated start of the party, but there were several avatars already dancing, after touching a floating ball that animated their dance moves. I didn't dance, and walked around to try to find the person who was leaving. An organizer of the club, perhaps the developer in RL, was slouched on a rock nearby. His posture showed he was exhausted, realistically enough.

The text chat conversation that ensued went something like this:

Man (on rock): What are doing when you leave?

Woman: I got a job in research in RL.

Man: Will you ever come back?

Woman: I kind of doubt it. It is just too much work to run things.

Man: Too bad.

Second woman: You know, you should commit suicide, in SL.

Woman: Wow, hadn't thought of that.

Man: When I sell this place, I want to kill myself too.

Woman: You really are exhausted.

Man: Yep, burned.

Third woman: I heard you can buy graves at this one place. (She gives a name of another simulation.)

Second woman: Yeah, but the graves don't stay. They go away after a while.

Man: I think I would like people to come see my grave.

Woman: I might look into that.

You know what happens next. I am off to a search function to find the site where you can spend your Linden dollars on a grave. I think I just want to see what you get for your money. Is it a headstone, or a hole? And must you also buy a grave plot, and where would it be? As it turned out, I might have gotten the name wrong and ended up in a gallery where you could buy tattoos and hairdos, but there were so many items that I stopped looking. I've always hated shopping, even in RL.

I quit SL after that encounter for the day, and haven't gone back in many days. I don't think the gravity of the conversation sank in until I told an editor about it and saw her reaction. "You can buy a grave in Second Life? Suicide?" she said.

I thought: Yeah, you do things in Second Life you don't do anywhere else. Or maybe, more accurately, you dream things in SL you don't dream elsewhere.

It had been interesting for me to overhear that discussion. I did think about who was talking, how old they might be in RL, their relationships with each other and much more. I even wondered if "goth" is quickly followed by "death" and "suicide" amongst teenagers, which just showed me that I was hopelessly out of touch with the goth scene. (That was one reason I went to the goth club in the first place, to learn something I knew next to nothing about.)

I even entertained the thought that the simulation designer might have scripted the dialog I was reading as chat, to conform with the style and notions of goth. If so, it was convincing as if it were real-time, using real expressions. (That last sentence is a bit of a mind-bender if you think about it, that you can get something revealing and real from a simulation.)

To explain some of the background to all of this blog: My short life in SL began last spring when a keynote speaker at a Computerworld conference urged the audience, including me, to visit SL and learn about it, and even encouraged businesses to consider launching a world or buying an island to set up demonstrations of products or services. Then, this past summer, I learned that Cisco Systems Inc. had used SL many times

to arrange virtual meetings between its resellers and developers, with the intention of finding an unusual and fun way to bring them together instead of taking an expensive business trip or attending a stiff Web or phone conference.

After that, I launched an SL client, and created an avatar and found several Cisco-related sites, including one for Cisco users. I thought, "What a great resource for a reporter!" but quickly realized that none of the users were using their real names, and that I probably would never figure out a time when a virtual meeting was being held to even be able to ask questions about Cisco products of the anonymous people gathered there. (Another mind-bender with SL: you can have virtual meetings, buy virtual products, even entire homes, and fight virtual battles, but time itself is always real. If you want to chat, you have to be in a simulation at the time others are. Similarly, if you want to commit suicide, you will be dying for only that short moment. You can invite friends to watch at that exact time and place and even record it and send it in an attachment via email to others, but it will instantly become nothing more than your avatar's history.)

As a result of the suicide discussion and my other few visits to ride a bike around an island or pilot a sailboat past several islands, I've come to understand some of what SL can mean. Anthropologists and other scholars are studying SL, as Computerworld's Ian Lamont related in a recent blog. I am not so sure it would be easy for a company, church, school or other organization to tap into SL's potential for bringing people together to share ideas, but it has gotten me thinking, quite a lot, about how communications and interactions actually work. I've also noticed how some of my own real life memories feel like the sites and sounds of SL.

Even though SL is "just an animation," as one skeptic put it, I find myself pondering some of the deepest thoughts I've ever had and even fleeting memories of long ago vacations. The memories are prompted by simple things, as one might pause in front of a painting in a gallery and find meaning. The strangeness of walking in SL by buildings or forests and hearing sounds of traffic or the wind provoke these flashes. In one simulation in SL, I encountered buildings and a train station as rock music played, which evoked a specific memory of actually visiting Krakow, Poland, in the summer of 1980 and seeing a uniformed guard at a train station who was holding a machine gun as a new song from Boney M, a popular German rock group of the time, played over a loud speaker in the neighborhood. Don't ask me why this happened, but it was something like the memories we all have that are jolted when an old song plays on the radio or we smell garlic and basil in the pasta.

Similarly, in the quick discussion about suicide in SL, I was reminded of the same casual tone that author John Gardner used in his book from 1977, "In the Suicide Mountains," which I had read in one sitting the day it went on sale. Then, as with the SL discussion, I thought: They aren't being reverent enough about death.

So maybe the trick for developers and others studying and trying to put SL to further use is to find ways to connect with the crazy collection of memories and feelings of its visitors. It is a similar task to what movie producers do, perhaps, with mass audiences. Doing well at developing in SL seems more like a form of art and not a rational process, certainly. If somebody can connect the simulations to scents, imagine how that could further the experience. (Somebody probably is already.)

At times, even in my limited visits to SL, I feel a little lost, as if I'm actually inside of the Zippy comic strip still appearing after many decades in my daily newspaper. Poor Zippy. He's perpetually wandering amid pop culture icons and tacky modern architecture, certain his life has meaning but unable to get anybody else to see things from his point of view. He wafts about from place to place, his muu-muu giving him some vague body shape and substance as he tries to explain matters to his wife Zerbina. Hmm, I wonder if Zippy has an island, or even a beach shack, in SL, or if cartoonist Bill Griffith even knows about SL? Gotta check. If Zippy's not already in SL, I may kill my current avatar, and start over as Zippy2, which might be just about the right persona to put on to take it all in. My muu-muu would be orange, I think.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

Bing’s AI chatbot came to work for me. I had to fire it.
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