I’m fairly slow on the uptake in a lot of areas, so it’s little surprise that the first time Second Life registered on my radar was on Friday, thanks to a report on Channel 4 News that people are starting to trade such significant sums of money on the virtual reality game that the Treasury is thinking about taxing it. Channel 4 ran a bit of the game in which they’d created a representation of the TV studio complete with “avatars” of themselves, although since the studio is already pretty hi-tech and Jon Snow, bless him, in common with most people on TV, already looks a little unreal it was hard to tell which was which. Other screenshots of avatars flying and sitting around greenish landscapes looking cool impressed me sufficiently to go straight to my laptop and get a (second) life for myself, although this has turned out to be somewhat less straightforward than Channel 4 made out.
I downloaded the software and signed up, choosing “boy next door” from a range of basic avatar templates (mostly because he looked the least stupid – there was even one with a fox’s head, which I couldn’t quite work out) and scrolled through a list of possible surnames including Abattoir, Picnic and Barbecue before settling on the relatively normal name Charlie Richmond. Don’t go rushing to your own Second Life however to look me up, as for reasons which will become clear you’ll probably find me half-naked, without a penis, hanging limply somewhere dull and obscure with the word “Away” above my head (in other words, even less of the life and soul than normal).
The last time I played a computer game as such was Tomb Raider about four years ago, and although I’m vaguely aware of the look of other games released since, Second Life looked to me just like Tomb Raider except instead of moving a pneumatic woman with a pistol in each hand around a jungle, my character was now a black shadow who wobbled about with nothing in particular to do in a landscape which seemed mostly to consist of a heaving carpet of multi-coloured pixels, a bit like a badly-tuned TV. Occasionally my head took on the same strange texture, which was distinctly unnerving, but I carried on, moving Charlie down a hill towards other black shadows with names above their heads like Fontaine Tangerine and Millicent Sugarbeet (actually I wondered whether SL had modelled the names on incidental characters from Russell Hoban’s books like Boumboume Letunga, Fister Crunchman and Hermione Thrust, although I doubt it).
Some of these characters were walking about and others had “Editing appearance” hovering over their heads but others were just standing there typing onto invisible keyboards. As I drew closer to the group things like “Hi” and “Hey Charlie” and “take ur cloths off belinda” started scrolling in the bottom corner of my screen. I couldn’t work out how to take part in these conversations at first although since the most interesting comments were things like “How do I edit my jacket?” and “When does this orientation shit end?” I decided I probably wasn’t missing much. Still, it was nice when I did get into my first conversation with a bloke called Kaye and a woman called Britchling, remembering that there were actually real people just like me behind their flickering avatars. My character’s head was still occasionally buzzing like a bad acid trip and I had some trouble editing my own appearance, as either my laptop or modem connection made everything happen sooooo s-l-o-w-l-y, but after a while I got a nice red shirt and pair of blue trousers for myself. “Charlie looks like Spiderman,” said Kaye. “lol,” said Britchling. To me however the other two were both featureless silhouettes so I couldn’t gauge whether they looked equally silly or not. I edited my appearance some more, deciding to start with underpants in an effort to be thorough. To do this involved “creating new underpants”, something I’ve never attempted before, although the supposed control I was given over the length and appearance of said hinterwear seemed misleading as no matter what I did, Charlie appeared clad in white long-johns. I tried editing my facial hair instead, but with similar lack of success, my character ending up with eyebrows that took up half his forehead and a five o’clock shadow whether I wanted it or not.
I gave up then, deciding beauty is only pixel-deep, and walked around the landscape a bit more, negotiating peculiar structures both practical and decorative and from time to time bumping into the odd person named after a member of Santana and a root vegetable. Someone had “Ask me for free furry avatars” hovering over his/her/its head, while elsewhere two identically-clad women were standing looking at some small white shapes on the ground. “Are those pieces of paper?” said one. “I’m trying to put them together,” said the other, “which is exceedingly difficult.” An object on a pedestal said “touch me to see your height”, so I did so and found I was 6’5″ – a truly second life indeed; the real life me would be craning my neck to look myself in the eye.
After a while I discovered gestures, and practised those for a bit, laughing and clapping at random, and then realised I could fly too. This was fun, although I mostly ended up miles from anywhere on an uninhabited stretch of coast, and whenever I clicked “stop flying” Charlie tumbled to the ground sprawling painfully, although he always managed to get up and start walking again with barely a tear in his virtual jeans. Charlie could also be walked through water without drowning and flown through strange beams of light without being fried, although paradoxically, often trying to get him to just walk through a doorway was more problematic, since the movement controls didn’t seem designed to get him to walk in a straight line anywhere, and if I misdirected him he’d walk into the wall instead and get stuck there until I walked him backwards again, to the right a bit and then tried again. Great chunks of time seemed to be spent just getting him to walk around places without bumping into stuff and extricating him from random objects. So much for virtual reality – why does it have to take everything so literally? I would’ve thought it was pretty obvious I wanted him to go through the doorway or around an object and not bash his nose on the wall or the obstacle in question. Artificial intelligence, exactly.
After an hour of playing, most of the people I met were still shadows and most of the landscape still psychedelic so, suspecting this was something to do with either my intermittent wireless connection or my laptop’s not exactly cutting-edge resources, I logged off and tried installing Second Life on my main PC, which I understood to be the faster and more powerful of the two computers. When I tried running it however I was told the software only worked in “32-bit true color” mode, which my relatively old machine apparently didn’t have (although this was the first I’d heard of it). I tried installing some drivers from the web but after some consultation with friendly geeks at YakYak it seemed I needed an actual piece of kit to be slotted into my PC, which was further than I was prepared to go even for virtual reality. I was a bit pissed off, this being the first time it came home to me that the PC that’s done me proud since 2001 was no longer up to some of the things life now demands of us.
So I went back to the laptop and, wavy head or none, spent a few more frustrating hours trying to work out the world of Second Life. I’d signed up for a free account so had no money to spend; this didn’t seem to matter in terms of clothes, which you could demonstrably “create” for yourself, or food, which Charlie never seemed to need no matter how long I walked or flew him around, or healthcare, which he never needed despite falling from the sky on several occasions. You needed money to buy land but I couldn
‘t be bothered to mess about with all that, still less be persuaded to pay the requisite $10 (real) monthly fee. Money did matter though in terms of the more intimate things in life: bored, I started searching for the much-trumpeted adult areas of the game, and teleported myself to a nudist beach where a generously-buttocked girl in a g-string was playing congas. Gamely I removed my own clothes, noting a distinct absence in the inter-leg region, like those old “Love Is…” cartoons. Walking towards us meanwhile was the owner of the resort (I knew he was the owner because he had “Owner” above his head), not only a fine figure of a man but one with an actual penis. When he occasionally flickered into a black shadow again, the penis mysteriously remaining in situ. “Where did you get your penis from?” I asked him. “Now there’s a leading question,” he replied, before saying “You can buy them or you can get horrible free ones.” I think that’s where my interest in the game ended really – I mean it’s bad enough encouraging people to pay real money to buy virtual land but what sort of cynical bastard designs a game where you have to buy your own penis?
In fairness, Second Life was quite addictive for about the first four hours, before I realised it’s shit, really. It’s kind of an adventure game without much adventure, or even much game, to be honest. Who’s got time to design virtual facial hair or create virtual underpants or earn virtual money to upgrade their virtual jacket or build a virtual sculpture on a virtual beach or buy a virtual penis in order to have virtual sex? That over a million people have now signed up for SL and major real-world companies such as Sony and Reuters (who I’d’ve thought should’ve known better) have bought advertising in the game and created offices which you can “visit” suggests some people are taking the whole thing a tad too seriously; no doubt indeed there are now entire organisations who insist as part of their corporate identity that all staff have an SL avatar and walk around a virtual replica of their office communicating with each other via the game instead of just by getting up and talking like the rest of humanity. It’s all rather worrying – SL’s “Linden dollars” may be exchangeable for real dosh (and at a fairly good exchange rate too), but no matter how much you earn there or how great your clothes are or how expensive your penis is, it’s never going to be an achievement you can translate into real life, is it? You can’t use it to attract women, or put on your CV “2003-2009: Constructed and administered an entire town in Second Life including multi-million-Linden-dollar industry in state-of-the-art cocks”, can you?
While it was a fun diversion for a little while, all Second Life did for me was remind me how much of a real life I need to get first.