Second Life: Dollhouse or Reality?

This weekend I heard someone say, "Second Life is just a dollhouse where people spend their time dressing avatar dolls and furnishing virtual houses!" Someone else insisted, "Second Life is a game for people who don’t want to admit they’re roleplaying."

So what is Second Life? Is it just a game, a place where folks waste their time dressing dolls and role playing, or is it something more? This picture shows a dollhouse in Second Life that you can actually buy (at Babydolls Boutique), but let’s that put aside. The criticism of Second Life isn’t that it contains dollhouses, but that it is a dollhouse. quotes the following Random House Dictionary definition of a dollhouse as, "a miniature house the scale of children’s dolls," and the American Heritage┬« Dictionary definition as, "A small model house used as a children’s toy or to display miniature dolls and furniture."

If all a person ever does in Second Life is modify the appearance of their house, then the first description would be pretty accurate, but how many of us limit ourselves to working on our Second Life houses and doing nothing else? There may be some, but no one I know. If the dollhouse is taken to be Second Life itself, and not literally our houses in it, the analogy is even less valid. "Toy" and "miniature" do not begin to describe Second Life, a world which spans the globe, with generally 60,000 or more people logged on at any one time, and in which many of the world’s largest corporations and universities have an active presence. People are building businesses, establishing careers, and finding new ways to interact in Second Life. It is no dollhouse.

The role play argument may be slightly harder to dismiss. offers two definitions for roleplay:
1. To assume the attitudes, actions, and discourse of (another), esp. in a make-believe situation in an effort to understand a differing point of view or social interaction: Management trainees were given a chance to roleplay labor negotiators.
2. To experiment with or experience (a situation or viewpoint) by playing a role: trainees role-playing management positions.

Roleplaying is clearly a huge and vibrant part of Second Life. It takes many forms. You can fight with guns, knives, and arrows in a reproduction of the 19th century American Southwest, or do high tech battle in science fiction sims. There are fantasy battles, and there’s even a reproduction of real life jail, where people can voluntarily be locked up as virtual prisoners for a week, or play at being guards or other prison staff. There’s also a virtual wrestling league where avatars can engage in wrestling matches; I wrote about it in April. It’s clearly roleplaying.

A few months ago, I wrote about a Muslim sim where you can go on a virtual Hajj. Roleplaying can be an attempt to understand other cultures, and this Hajj is one way of doing it. This is a classic, nongame use of roleplaying.

The line between roleplaying and real life becomes murkier in Second Life places like the 1920s Harlem Cotton Club, which I wrote about in May and New York City’s Chelsea Hotel, which I’ve also written about. Both are places that replicate a different time and place, where people can dress up to fit in with the setting, but where the primary reason for going is to listen to live music and dance.

Another murky area is the forms that our avatars take. Few people have avatars that mimic their real life appearance. Most of us don’t even try. When we choose avatars of a different gender, or nonhuman avatars, is it roleplaying?

But is everything in Second Life roleplaying? If a singer adopts a furry avatar and establishes a global base of fans through Second Life performances, or a college offers classes conducted entirely in Second Life (which I wrote about recently), or when Pop Art Lab tries to change how people worldwide listen to music, which I wrote about on Saturday, is it roleplaying?

It’s not. When people are creating new things, establishing new careers, and building businesses, they are generally not engaged in make-believe or simply playing roles. It’s for real. And this aspect of Second Life is real. Call it synthetic reality, augmented reality, or whatever you want, but it’s real, an augmentation of our physical lives, allowing us to do things and meet people we could not if we were limited to the physical world.

Second Life certainly can be used as a dollhouse or for roleplaying, but it can also be used – and is being used – for very real activities that augment our physical lives.

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