Virtual Worlds: Not Just for Sex Anymore.


For the longest time the virtual world of Second Life received a lot of bad press; mostly as a place to go if you wanted have virtual sex and live out your darkest fantasies. 

It is true that if you log into Second Life, or any of the assortment of virtual worlds now available, with the intent to find sex toys, fetishes and overtly sexual avatars, you’ll have no problem finding them. Sex is a part of cultures across the world and when you bring people from across the world together into a virtual space with countless ways to express yourself, it would be more surprising if there was not a virtual sex culture.

That is such a small part of what virtual communities bring to the world that those who focus solely on its vices are missing an expansive cultural phenomenon. These are communities of people for whom country of origin means almost nothing. Friendships, businesses, education, foundations, charities and even marriages happen with minimal regard for political or geophysical boundaries. The virtual platform has become a cultural mecca, launching music careers and giving audience to artists who had not had the courage to share their work before.

IThe Docks - Immersive Art Installation by Scottius Polke (RL Scott Rolfe)t’s a virtual website for artists, with the ability to go beyond the flat page and showcase their art in a three dimensional gallery to people around the world. The website created by Sasun Steinbeck, Art Galleries of SL, features more the 500 virtual galleries. Not only does Second Life boast a huge range of paintings, drawings, photography and graphics, but has given birth to its own form of virtual art, created from elements within Second Life and often not possible to recreate in the physical world.

Hundreds of live music performances happen daily, giving true meaning to the term world music. Performers range from pop/rock, folk and blues singers to jazz and classical musicians, the virtual world giving them a means to expand their fan base, earn a living and even support causes they believe in. Singer/songwriters like Craig Lyons view Second Life as a green alternative to road tours.Izabela Jaworower (RL Izabela Spiewak) performs live at The Labyrinth Theater Duo Appassionato, comprised of virtuoso violinists Izabela Jaworower (RL Izabela Spiewak) & Young Zeid (RL Xi Yang) are regular performers; and SL Musician Joaquin Gustav from Buenos Aires, Argentina brings a blend of Latin American guitar to the scene, enabling people around the world to hear music that they may never have otherwise.

Aside from the bountiful cultural possibilities of Second Life, there is a seemingly endless supply of compassion, warmth and encouragement in the form of virtual philanthropy. From the smallest event fundraising for a local organization, to national and international organizations, to spontaneous support of countries across the world in times of disaster, the world suddenly seems a whole lot smaller.

Japan Tsunami Relief

After the devastating tsunami struck Japan a vast majority Second Life residents immediately turned their thoughts and prayers to their friends in Japan. Relief fundraisers sprang up almost immediately. Funds were raised through individual events and went to the Japan Red Cross, UNICEF, Save the Children, International Medical Corps and more. Linden Labs participated on the Second Life Marketplace, selling special virtual teddy bears called Japan Relief Bears. Content Creators and Designers created special lines of items to directly benefit Japanese relief organizations. A new online organization was created, Project FUR Japan, taking into account the animals affected by the tsunami’s deadly toll. The organization has donated its funds raised to JEARS (Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support); an awe inspiring amount totaling nearly $30,000 USD.

Garden for the Missing

Just a few of the Missing featured in Garden for the MissingFounded by Second Life resident Ronnie Rhode, this virtual building features four levels and 200 posters of missing persons. Rows and rows of posters of lost children, adults and the elderly, some missing for years and years, remind us that there are families out there still waiting for their return. The Garden for the Missing has been an effort on the part of Ronnie to raise awareness about the plight of well over 100,000 missing persons across the US. She now estimates that about 350,000 people who had no idea the magnitude of the cause now do, because of Second Life.

Relay for Life of Second Life

The "track" at Relay for Life of Second LifeWith the arrival of virtual communities, a new opportunity arose. On July 16th, 2011 more than 3,000 individual cancer survivors, caregivers, family members and compassionate supporters from 95 countries joined together for the 7th annual Relay For Life of Second Life. For several months leading up to the Relay, 140 teams formed and began events within Second Life to fundraise for ACS; by the halfway point, the event reached the $1 Million U.S. dollars raised landmark for its cumulative total since the first virtual Relay in 2005.

The fundraising culminated in the most technologically advanced Relay in the world. Consider the sheer number of personal computers combined with the technology required to create and operate Second Life. Not to mention DJs from around the world streaming music for 24 hours, in-world TV stations joining together to host 24 telethon coverage of the event and the virtual campsites of the teams themselves, featuring stunning design and scripting skills. It was truly an incredible experience.

After the last campfire was packed up and the sites put away for another year, the grand total funds raised for Relay for Life of Second Life reached $373,098 USD and the most funds raised in a single relay season in Second Life.

Portrayal of how scholars feel that Stonehenge may have been used for funereal purposes (Heritage Key grid)All this really just touches a small fraction of all of amazing cultural connections going on within the virtual worlds. And it’s not just Second Life; the virtual world called Heritage Key is a remarkable place to explore the history of the ancient world, from ancient Egypt to Stonehenge and the Terra Cotta Warriors. With the technology created by Linden Labs becoming open source, many virtual worlds have come into existence, each with their own share of art, culture and innovation from InWorldz, to Reaction Grid and more.

While the physical world struggles to maintain peace and decide whose rules are the right rules, the virtual world is a step or two ahead, embracing cultures and the uniqueness of individuals while bridging the gap between continents.

Not Just Another Pretty Pixel


If you could look like anything you wanted, what would Tricia circa 2008 - photo by PJ Trentonyou look like?  Now reread that question and see if you missed that I said anyTHING.  Did your mind automatically go your physical attributes? Did you automatically make yourself taller or shorter, thinner or more muscular, with different hair or different eyes?  Or did you allow your imagination to run a little wild?  Would you be an animal, a mythical beast, or maybe something beyond what others have imagined?

In a virtual reality, where we can look like anyone or anything we choose, most of us choose to stick with human.  A few more of us add tails and ears.  Others add fur or wings or claws or vampire fangs.  But even though the additional parts may not be possible in the physical world, we still generally strive for an appearance that we feel is visually pleasing.

Scottius Polke - Otterly FamousThere are some brave souls, or perhaps those just willing to look outside the box, who have chosen to wander Second Life as geometric shapes, normally inanimate objects or walking works of art.  It’s a rather small collection of people who use the infinite creative ossibilities of the virtual world to be more than human, to make a statement, to shock, or just because they can.

It would be interesting to have a conversation with assorted Second Life residents about the choices that they made in their avatar appearance.  Maybe I’ll do that at some point!  But for now, I share a bit of who I am in relation to my virtual appearance.

I stay primarily inside the box with my normal human female shape, though I am known toFairy Tricia - photo by PJ Trenton occasionally take the form of a tiny cat or a huge dragon.  I also have a little butterfly  and a little frog in my inventory of appearance choices.  But, the virtual me that I have evolved to be over the last four and a half years is rather normal, given the never ending
possibilities.

I have given it some thought over the years and I suppose that virtual Tricia looks like the person I am in my head.  A few of my choices have been things that I am not.  Short, for one example, skinny for another.  In reality, just about everything except making myself shorter is not a complete improbability in the physical world, with hard work, hair dye and cosmetic surgery.

Even the “short” aspect is kind of irrelevant.  Height in Second Life is measured in the virtual equivalent of meters, but there are gadgets that tell you what your height is in feet and inches.  I chose a height that averages around 5’ 8”, which is my actual height.  However, in the virtual world, where such things are kind of a matter of perspective, I am
a shrimp among Amazons.  It’s actually kind of cool when you’ve been fairly tall most of your life.  It gives you a little bit different perspective.  I get picked on, but it’s all in fun.

Adventurous T - photo by PJ TrentonI chose realism for my virtual appearance, and chose what I think I would choose to look like if I had a handy control menu with little slider bars to adjust my height, muscles, waistline and butt and boob size.  I am an artist, and virtual me is the culmination of four and a half years of tweaking, adjusting, upgrading and taste changes.  She is a personal, one of a kind, artistic expression of myself.

I get a lot of comments on her appearance.  It can be quite gratifying, especially when  you’re not really accustomed to that in the physical world.  At least most of it is gratifying.  She is cute; she can be sexy or serious and does a great job of pulling off a professional business suit or a little black dress.  At first I thought I was being all risqué when donning the little black dress or the slightly sexy dresses, but really I avoid the slutty look, and believe me, there’s a LOT more of that out there than there is simple yet attractive.  I said to a friend the other day, I used to think that I would not wear the stuff that virtual Tricia wears, but then I realized that if I really DID have that body, I’d probably dress like that!

Self Portrait at the time of this writingWhat does irritate me, however, are the overtly sexual remarks, the comments from complete strangers who tell me my avvie (avatar) is hot, sexy, gorgeous, or whatnot.  This is where I start to bristle at the superficial beauty in Second Life.  To me, beauty should be practically irrelevant when ANYONE can be drop dead gorgeous.  Most of my choices in my avatar’s appearance have been to please me, rather than other people.  I certainly don’t consider myself ugly in the physical world, but I also haven’t had half the attention my virtual self gets.

I have experienced firsthand the difference in how it feels when a dear friend tells me I’m beautiful and when a stranger does.  I take more stock in the friend that says this, because they know me.  They have taken the time to know me and to talk to me; they know more about me than what a nice cartoon I have.  More often than not, they know what I look like beyond the keyboard and they have earned the right to declare me beautiful, or even average.  They have loved me when I am smart and funny, as well as when I’m cranky  or sad.

Maybe this is the same problem that ‘beautiful’ people have out in the physical world.  The inherent inability for humans to get beyond the visually pleasing to what is beneath the  surface, something that I’ll confess even I am guilty of.  I have had a few friends in my virtual life that I have dearly wished I could make over.  Maybe what I need at this point is a Contemplative T - Self Portrait 2009psychologist or anthropologist to tell me what it is that is hard wired in the human brain to get all worked up about something pretty.  In the meantime, I choose to remain virtually pretty, and when I receive an instant message from some pixel crazed admirer, “Your avatar is SO hot!” I’ll continue to use my well-practiced reply, “Thanks!  I made me myself!”

My Second Life: An Avatar Comes Out of the Closet


Many of us have this alternative version of what we think we should look like. Some maybe taller, others shorter… Not to mention, those of us would who choose to be skinnier or better looking. Then we might think to ourselves, if we could do anything, without limitation, what would we do?
 
I have spent the last four years finding out a lot about that.
 
On September 22nd, 2006 I heard a story on NPR’s On the Media about a virtual online world called Second Life™. On the report, former Virginia governor and presidential candidate Mark Warner talked with NPR’s Brooke Gladstone about becoming the first politician to deliver a major press conference in Second Life™. His technical staff created an ‘avatar’ for him (he requested to look like the average boring politician) and he spoke to a varied group of people from across the US, taking questions on his policies and goals. You can hear this report at: http://onthemedia.org/transcripts/2006/09/22/06 
 

 

A couple of days later, on a quiet Sunday afternoon, I decided to give this virtual world a try. For those of you not in the know, Second Life™ is an online community created by its residents. The possibilities for creative outlet in this virtual world are literally limitless. There are people who build houses, furniture, musical instruments, cars, boats, robots, dragons, technology and shoes. There are clothing designers, “skin” designers, avatar designers, landscapers and scientists. And my personal favorite…. there are artists. Second Life™ is a natural draw to the creative and curious.

 It all starts from the moment you first log on. You stand there; your Avatar (the digital version of you) is just like all the other Avatars, a blank slate. You start out, changing your hair color, adding muscles, slimming down, bulking up. Then you tweak the shape of your nose; make your lips little fuller, eyes a little smaller. Each Avatar becomes a work of art of its own. There are Barbie™ figures and the macho manly men, but there are furry Avatars, wolves, bears, cats and more. Blue people! Scaly people! I have personally seen dragons, dinosaurs, aliens, fantastic beasts, Santa, a chimpanzee smoking a cigar, Mr. Potato Head™ and a naked fat guy, among other things. Your appearance is truly only limited by your imagination.

Self Portrait of the Author

At the time I signed up, you could choose whatever you wanted for your first name, and choose from a selection of available last names. I chose my own first name, figuring I’d be confused enough without trying to remember to answer to a different first name. I chose the last name Aferdita because it sounded a bit like Aphrodite, and sounded really nice with Tricia. So, here I am, Tricia Aferdita.

After a day or two of exploration, I was hooked. I lured a couple of friends in (whose names I’ll leave out unless they want to out themselves!) and through one of them, I was introduced to a couple of people who would change my life.

The first person I met was named Ed Baron. Ed had joined Second Life™ in December 2004. Over the years he had developed an interest in helping new community members, particularly artists; create a presence within the community. And so it came to be that he helped me create a gallery online. He tirelessly answered my countless questions about the in-world currency, how it related to the ‘real world’ and what owning or renting land in SL was all about.

He connected me with a landowner, who had a little parcel of her “island”, called a SIM, available for me to build a gallery on. He then connected me with someone who created buildings professionally in-world and before I knew it, I had a three-dimensional representation of a gallery on the internet.

The First Intuitions Gallery – Oz, Second Life™

I named the gallery Intuitions Gallery and put up most of my spiritual, metaphysical, fantasy and wildlife art. Ed helped me organize an event to open my gallery, and people I had never met before, from all over the world, came to see my art. It was amazing!! It was a bit like having a 3D website for your art. People could virtually walk through the room, look close up at your work, then back up and look at it from a different angle. I got positive feedback from other artists and ‘real life’ gallery owners.

Soon I met an amazing artist who went by the entertaining name of Hecubus Dogpatch. I was completely blown away by his photorealistic egg tempera nature paintings. We became friends and I decided to try exhibiting his work at my virtual gallery. I learned a bit about building things in a virtual environment and created some special walls to “hang” his art on. I learned that I could make signs in Photoshop and import them into the virtual world to use as posters, banners, etc.

We hosted an opening reception for him in virtual style. You can carry a glass of champagne and it animates your avatar to sip elegantly from it, only to give the appearance a few minutes later of being spilled all over the carpet if you type or dance. It’s a silly place.

Hecubus’ work was a hit, and he was a funny and charming conversationalist. We made out pretty well in the virtual currency, called Lindens, which amounts to pennies on the dollar. But still, it’s fun to know that people admire and want to own copies of your work.

After Hecubus, I hosted another artist and within a couple of months of joining Second Life, I was introduced (by the same helpful, social butterfly friend) to another person who would change the course of my virtual and real lives, the avatar named Xander Ruttan.

Xander, in ‘real life’ was active in the U.S. art world as a co-founder of a California-based nonprofit arts organization, a freelance arts & culture writer, and former associate director of a prominent contemporary art gallery. He had a vision to create a virtual cultural center within Second Life™, an art district based on art communities like NY’s Chelsea and the Pearl Art District in Portland Oregon. After many long nights of chatting about the idea, art and life in general, he was encouraged to take on the project.

In January 2007, the community started small, on a parcel adjoining his home on a sim named Cetus. He named it the Cetus Gallery District. As he worked endless hours creating a neighborhood out of nothing but virtual blocks, I moved Intuitions Gallery from its first home to a new building in Cetus. We spent a lot of time brainstorming together and I became president of the group that we formed. I became sort of the community person – hosting events, promoting. Xander was the brains… the buildings and the business.

Cetus Gallery District

I credit Xander with a lot of what I know today about curating and hanging art, though we did have some near brawls over differing opinions in the early days. He was a “tough love” sort of teacher, but eventually I acquiesced to his wisdom, given his real life work as a curator and art director. Today, I really credit the success of my virtual galleries to his education, and I always try to follow as close to a real life model as possible.

During my time in Cetus, I changed from the slightly more whimsical and fantasy oriented theme of Intuitions Gallery to Tricia Aferdita Gallery, with an eye towards a more sophisticated art style and presentation. This is the gallery I have continued to operate ever since.

Tricia Aferdita Gallery – Tabula rasa, Avalon Town

After nearly two years, I began to want to expand beyond my role in Cetus. In August 2008, I opened a new branch of my gallery on a SIM called Tabula rasa in a community called Avalon. Shortly after that, I left the Cetus Gallery District entirely. After a few months of just managing my gallery, I definitely needed “something more” to. Having spent most of my virtual “childhood” actively involved in a community, I was a little bit bored.

As luck (fate?) would have it, Elora Dawes, one of the managers of the Avalon community, approached me about helping them organize events around town. After thinking about it for about 30 seconds, I agreed, and in February 2009 I became Events Director of Avalon Town.

Avalon Art District

In any community within Second Life™ there is the infinite ability to create useable space. Venues like theaters, bars, clubs and cafes provide a space for many avatars to gather and enjoy the varied entertainment available. Physical world musicians can perform in a virtual world by using live streaming audio and their own avatars. The advent of voice capability in world enables residents to perform poetry, literary readings and plays. Music lovers can become DJ’s with software and a music library, bringing a wide range of musical genres to virtual parties and events.

Events in Avalon include live music performances from rock, blues and folk musicians, incredible pianists and virtuoso violinists from the US, Canada, UK, Europe and South America. We have hosted regular live poetry readings, art history talks, seasonal and themed parties and design contests.

Virtuoso Violinist Izabela Spiewak performs in Avalon

Colleen Kesey, the avatar who owns the Avalon Town Estate, is an avid philanthropist and with her blessing I also instituted a series of charity events. Since 2009 we have raised funds for organizations like The International Fund for Animal Welfare, Make a Wish Foundation, The Multiple Sclerosis Foundation and NARSAD, the Brain and Behavior Research Fund. Coming up in January and February 2011 we will be supporting Virtual Museums Incorporated in bringing museums and education to Second Life™.

In April of this year, Elora stepped down as manager of Avalon Town to finish her thesis and the general manager of the estate asked me if I would be willing to take up her position. Since then I have worked in supporting Colleen, Mattie and the community, continuing to host events, help new residents, manage rentals and other types of maintenance and fun. This is all accomplished with the help of friends I have made along the way, including Ethan Westland, who has been a friend and cohort for years and now helps out as assistant manager. I have absolutely loved being a part of the creation and growth of this art community.

In early 2010, I met up with intrepid publisher Saffia Widdershins of the Prim Perfect Empire. Saffia is the publisher of Prim Perfect Magazine, a magazine about style for homes and gardens in virtual worlds. She also publishes The Primgraph, a magazine dedicated to the historical SIMS of Second Life™, and Designing Worlds, a long-running online television program dedicated to design in virtual worlds.

Having written a few things for work, and gotten an editorial published in our local newspaper, I was anxious to continue to stretch my writing muscles. So when given the opportunity to write for Prim Perfect magazine, I jumped at it. I have now written about a dozen articles in the last several issues of the magazine. You can find information about the magazine and links to the issues at this website: http://primperfectblog.wordpress.com/

 

As things happen to work, writing for Prim Perfect and getting to know Saffia led to the next huge event in my real and virtual lives. Saffia asked me if I would be interested in producing a television show on the arts in virtual worlds. Wow! TV! After some thought, I dove into it like anything else I have done in Second Life™, making it up as I go along! In July 2010 we launched Metaverse Arts on Treet.tv and produced 7 episodes in 2010. Ms. Aferdita is the producer and host of the show and we have covered physical and virtual art, identity, using the virtual world as a means to promote art and copyright law among other creative ventures in the art world. You can learn more about the show at our blog: http://metaversearts.wordpress.com/. You can also watch archived episodes at Treet TV: http://treet.tv/shows/metaverse-arts

 
 Metaverse Arts was the catalyst in inspiring me to share my virtual life with the rest of the world. I have been fairly transparent in Second Life™. Being an artist, I have felt that it is essential to share who I am in “real life” if I want to promote myself as an artist. I have even gotten business as a result of what I do. Now I feel that it’s time to share both sides of my life equally.I look back over the last four years and I am immensely proud of what I have accomplished and have never regretted a moment of the time and effort have put into my virtual projects. I have made wonderful, intelligent, caring friends that I will never, ever forget. Through them I have dared to explore who I am and what I can do in a way that I may never have considered, let alone dared to do, in my every day life.

Friends

In turn, my virtual life has inspired my real life. It has inspired my art, motivated me to paint again when I had given it up for 15 years. It has inspired me to write. It has given me friends that transcend internet boundaries. It has educated me, both about myself and about the world and those who inhabit it. It has helped me discover, or rediscover, things that bring me joy and encouraged me to stretch myself.

As we step into the New Year, Tricia Aferdita and Tricia Griffith become the same person. I invite you to share the journey and see what lies ahead!