Domingo 21 de Enero de 2007

Death in Second Life
Por Natalie Pompilio

The purpose of a virtual reality universe like Second Life would seem to be the chance to escape some of real life's undesirables, from the major -- like death and taxes " to the minor -- like cellulite, skin problems and surly in-laws. But the Grim Reaper, at least, has cracked the fantasy world.

For the uninformed, Second Life is a multi-user virtual world created by San Francisco-based Linden Labs. It currently boasts more than 11 million registered users worldwide. Participants create avatars to represent themselves; then these characters can do anything from talk with others, play war games, go shopping, throw parties, have romances. On a recent episode of the television show The Office, perennially strange character Dwight creates a virtual version of himself that is identical to his real self " complete with a job in the paper industry -- because, he says, "My life is so great that I literally wanted a second one." Meanwhile, seemingly stable Jim gives into fantasy, creating a city-living, guitar-playing, sports-reporting version of himself.

Call Second Life a game and risk the wrath of its fans. There are no points or winners or losers, they point out. You don't need to collect food or energy sources to stay active. "It's a social environment," said Maryann Wolf, lead author of A Beginner's Guide to Second Life.

Death, she said, could play into Second Life, but not true death.
"There's a lot of theme and role-playing so certain segments will set up a replica of the Civil War or World War II or the Enchanted Forest or The Wizard of Oz, and in those communities people get really serious about playing their roles, so death could work into that," she said. "You may see an indication on the screen that you can die, but all that means is you get immediately teleported back to your home base."

(For all those who argue about Second Life's authenticity, please note that the humans fly.)

Owen Lystrup, a Linden Labs spokesman, put it more simply: "In Second Life, avatars don't die naturally as humans do in real life. Since avatars are a digital creation, they actually don't die at all."

But death is still out there, and some people don't want us to forget it. In 2006, the U.K.-based World Development Movement, an anti-poverty campaign, placed a prominent digital counter recording the tens of millions of children who have died as a result of poverty since Second Life's creation. (See it at http://www.wdm.org.uk/deathcounter/)

Asked at the time why the group had done that, web officer Peter Taylor was quoted as saying, "Millions of people are now spending more and more of their time in Second Life or similar virtual environments. We are here to remind them that they can't escape the problems of the real world."

Earlier this year, the Amsterdam-based funeral company Uitvaart.com opened virtual offices, a crematorium, and a cemetery in Second Life. It also organized a coffin-design contest, not for the avatars but for the people behind them. Although response was disappointing " only two people submitted designs " the contest and the facilities got people thinking about death, their own and their family members', and that is a good thing, said Peter van Schaik, who managed the Second Life presence for the Dutch company.

"Often the death of a loved one comes totally unexpected. This leads to many open questions about what the deceased would have wished for his or her funeral," van Schaik said in an e-mail. "Sometimes this is even reason for disputes among relatives. Did father want to be buried or cremated? These are simple questions. The design contest was aimed at making people think about their funerals."

The virtual funeral home has also hosted open casket viewings, van Schaik said.

"It would be childish not to show open casket viewings," he said. "Death is no longer a big taboo in Dutch society. Crematoriums regularly organize open days during which they show around interested people."

Van Schaik said his company garnered great publicity from the Second Life presence. And while some foreigners may have been surprised by the open casket viewings, he didn't get negative feedback.

"The virtual world of Second Life is so playful that I don't think people that saw it would have really been offended," he said.

Users like Wolf don't have problems with the uglier parts of real life entering their fantasy one. Second Life, she said, "is a replica of the world as we know it."

Yet it's also the world as we'd like it to be. Wolf's 80-year-old father designed his own avatar and, with help from his grandson, learned how to make it walk and talk. It was wonderful, Wolf said, to see three generations "in-world," talking on their virtual property. "He was a very big part of our family, encouraging us to try new things," Wolf said. "When you have a dad who says, "The world is out there, reach for it,' you do."

Wolf's father died in March, before her book was published. She sees it as a memorial to him, a tangible reminder. And in Second Life, the family has maintained the character he created.

"Grandpa walked away," Wolf said, "but we have kept his avatar alive."


  21/01/2007. Obit Magazine.