Book Review: Tim Guest’s “Second Lives: a journey through virtual worlds”

secondlives“Dear Diary. Today I met Wonder Woman as I flew over the mile-high Scrabble board. We hoverported under the sea where we had a snowball fight, then went to a night-club where a 6-foot cat dressed as Kylie Minogue gave me a lapdance.”

At this point, any sensible diary would be backing nervously towards the door. Unless its author happened to be one of the six million people signed up to the imaginary on-line world “Second Life”.

For those who don’t know, “Second Life” is a bit like the real thing, only slightly stupider. You design an “avatar”, a virtual you, to look however you want (flatter stomach, larger breasts, lion’s head with fire-breathing capability and a tongue like a water flume). Then you build your own house, get a virtual job, buy virtual stuff and generally fly around (the favoured mode of transport), meeting other people and chatting. You can even make money, exchangeable for real dosh on third-party websites (the richest resident has made about $2.5 million from buying and selling “Second Life” land). It’s the perfect, escapist Utopia, where you can be whoever you want.

Except it isn’t. As Tim Guest’s astonishing if slightly sprawling account of his slide into alternative on-line worlds makes clear, when it comes to the seedy side, “Second Life” is really one gigantic interactive B-movie, with weirder graphics. This is paradise only for the fraudsters, virtual Mafiosi who, for a real-world price, will have another resident “deleted”. Or for the racketeers who intimidate you by moving a family of giant penises in next door to your dream home (I’m no expert but that’s bound to affect your market value).

And then there’s the sex. One survey revealed that the top 20 most popular venues in “Second Life” included, well, 20 strip-clubs. The avatars themselves come without genitals, but don’t worry, you can just pop into your nearest Genital Shop and buy yourselves a gynaecologically realistic add-on. And whilst you’re there, why not buy yourselves some positions (personally, I’m saving up for the “Male BJ Push-up”). It may not sound erotic, but there’s money in it. One madam, Evangeline, told Guest she made 50 real-world dollars a trick – impressive when you consider that all that’s involved is some dirty talk and a lot of clicking. Still, at least you’re unlikely to contract any diseases except, perhaps, Repetitive Strain Injury.

The problem with a lot of this edgy, virtual world sleaze is it often ends up slightly silly. Evangeline turns out to be a 17 year old boy as, inevitably, do lots of the other protagonists. The virtual Mafiosi of “Second Life” enact tragically authentic virtual “made men” ceremonies and give their avatars names like Tommaso Ludovico, Carlo Platini and, rather less intimidatingly, Gandalf (he was later “taken out”. I think the name was just too embarrassing). To “kill” they dupe their victims into breaking one of the “Second Life” Terms and Conditions then report them to the people who run the website and get them banned. Not exactly the sort of “hit” that will have Hollywood money-men running to make The Godfather: Part IV.
Guest meets one guy, at 24 practically a geriatric, who claims to have made $100,000 of real money in just three weeks selling a fraudulent item in the virtual world “EverQuest II”. Which all sounds very rock’n’roll until it turns out the item was a “Gnomish Thinking Chair”, something unlikely to impress the hardened lifers on the Maximum Security Wing at San Quentin. It’s still unclear whether anyone can be tried in the real world for crimes committed in the virtual world, but the Mafia Capo Guest worked for in “Second Life” was taking no chances. His emails added the disclaimer that he wasn’t a Mafioso in real life, he was only role-playing. It’s clear these virtual criminals are simply terrified their mums will find out and ground them for a week.

Guest has done his time in numerous virtual worlds, you suspect not just for research purposes. He’s met Jedi Knights in “Star Wars Galaxies”, rubbed shoulders with dark elves and ogres in “Everquest 2” (scene of over 5000  weddings – presumably there are wedding lists at some troll John Lewis’). He’s keen to remind us of the uplifting qualities of virtual worlds, summoning up Freud and Jung and Baudrillard and Sartre like some Ph.D-laden goblin army from sub-Tolkien world “Warcraft 2” (over 7 million residents and rising). And the subject certainly suggests some interesting philosophical issues: the mind/body dichotomy, the nature of reality – Descartes 2.0, if you like: I click therefore I am (a geeky, teenage boy).

But the truth is humanity doesn’t emerge well from the book: in the Far East, (real) workers spend long hours in “virtual sweat shops” hunting virtual beasts for virtual points to convert into real cash, whilst brutal real-world revenge attacks for killing someone’s character are becoming more frequent. On “Second Life”, people have started offering sex with child avatars. There’s even a virtual world called “Sociolotron” where residents can drug and rape each other.

So despite the fanfare for the digital man (and some women) telling us that the virtual will soon seem as real as the real, that we’ll soon be creating some incredible Matrix-like alternative truth on-line, I will always take comfort in the fact that, every now and then, we’ll still have to log off and go for a wee.

This review first appeared in The Sunday Times in June 2007.

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