Second appearances

I’d forgotten just how much Americans throw themselves into the Halloween spirit. In the UK Halloween lasts for little more than two or three days, but in the States it dominates for a good month before the day itself – and that enthusiasm for all things ghoulish extends into Second Life just as passionately as it does in the ‘real world’.

So for the last few weeks it’s been fun to stroll around various SL locations and view the scuttling spiders, flying ghouls, swirling mist and cute Halloween treats such as blood wine left out to tempt visitors such as myself. Some of these touches are wonderfully subtle, such as the family portrait over a fire that morphs in the corner of your eye into a picture of ghosts writhing, so briefly you wonder if you actually saw it.

Here for example is a Frankenstein monster guarding a gravestone that popped up in one of the public areas of SL in the last couple of weeks:

While Britain might think it’s getting more into the Halloween spirit these days, it’s nothing compared to the States. When I was travelling around the States in the 90s, I was bemused to arrive at a public transit bus station to find it decked out in orange and black – in mid September. So all this activity in SL reconnects me to that time I spent in the US, watching Halloween itself in a wet and spooky Seattle and wondering whether all Americans were really this barking mad. (I needn’t have worried – further investigation proved that they were, indeed, mostly this mad!)

So does this mean I’m having a better time of Second Life since my first look earlier this month?

Well .. Yes and no. I’m still enjoying strolling through and finding some great locations; particular thanks to Wagner James Au’s New World Notes blog for finally steering me to the Crooked Tesseract House, for example, a location I’d heard about for weeks beforehand but been unable to track down – and rather wonderful for a mathematician at heart such as myself.

Other contacts have also led me to find some nice coffee houses and general relaxed chat destinations, mercifully free of griefers, vampires and juveniles running around wanting to have sex with the nearest lamp post if they can. Instead, these places are generally full of like-minded people who just want to chat about life, the universe and everything – including US politics, fairly inevitably at the moment, but that suits me fine. I generally only check these places out at unreasonably late hours of the night, UK-time. And bizarrely it seems that most of the people I meet are also insomniacs from the UK!

The technical problems I wrote about at length in my first SL post have mostly eased away or got under ctronol, making it less of an exasperating experience. The teleport problem is still around – but only if I try and log in between 7pm and 11pm, suggesting it may be something to do with peak rate net use on the UK side rather than something inherent in SL itself, although I can’t find any information about it through the usual support channels so it remains a mystery – I just know better than to try using it at that time.

But as to whether I’m warming to SL and becoming properly ’embedded’ – no, that doesn’t seem to be happening. It’s a nice enough place to visit now I’ve got the hang of it and know the places that suit me; but it’s not ‘sticky’. I can go for days or a week before thinking “Oh, maybe I should pop in … just briefly …” and doing so more out of a sense of “should” than because it excites me.

It occurred to me that my lack of commitment and engagement was because I hadn’t really invested anything (other than a little time) into Second Life. I hadn’t paid for a membership, I’d just signed up for a free account. Maybe I would feel differently if I had a little “skin in the game” as the American saying goes? So I decided to exchange some real world money for some Linden Dollars, the in-world currency, and give myself a little “walking around money” – $10 bought L$2550 and I suddenly felt pretty rich!

“Skin in the game” has a double meaning in the SL context, because the first thing I wanted to buy was … a new skin. Yes, in SL, beauty is not only skin deep, the skin also comes “off the rack”. While Second Life’s normal control seem to offer the user a myriad number of controls over one’s avatar appearance – from the size and shape of the ears, to the spacing of the eyes, the length of the arms, the shape of the jaw – the end result of all this tinkering is strangely frustrating. The blank face staring back at you looks more like a lump of Play-Doh than a realistic character, and after a few days of walking the SL world with this expressionless automaton it’s very easy to begin to dislike the poor sap with a passion.

Where Second Life’s default tools fall short, a whole new industry is sure to spring up from the inventive, profit-seeking members, so “skins” have been one of SL’s top commodities almost since the start – almost to the point of looking like SL’s creators, Linden Labs, intentionally hobbled the avatar creation system in order to allow some free enterprise opportunities. These skins are in essence suits that are worn over the basic body avatar, allowing some artistic person the freedom to ‘paint’ a realistic face and body that then replaced Play-Doh Boy entirely. It’s amazing the difference it makes to how you feel: I felt suddenly more ‘real’, and felt I looked less like the penniless new boy.

(The skin does not come with … how can I put it, essential male body parts. These are available for purchase as well – “fully working” come to that! – but I managed to hold off on such a purchase thinking it really unnecessary and even slightly indecent and pornographic. That said, I did have a moment of feeling personally somewhat emasculated as a result of this decision; and I could swear that I detected a note of deep hurt and annoyance from my avatar, too, as he sat down and … very pointedly crossed his legs.)

Hair was next. In the regular avatar settings, hair is also modifiable – but remains in essence a static blob of colour with a faint texture painted on it. Hardly inspiring, so it was no surprise that SL retailers started selling hair made up or ‘prims’, the basic building blocks that constitute everything in SL. Now the hair could be any shape or style, and it had realistic properties – so that if you fly, for example, your hair can stream out behind you in the wind. (Linden Lab’s decision not to utilise such prim building blocks for the regular avatar hair is more clearly based on practicalities than the avatar limitations: these prims all take time to rener, and when there are too many prims in once place then the system lag can get really bad. Sending off every avatar with a headful of prims would have brought down the system in double quick time; this way, only people who really want such detail will find out about how and where to do it, and hand over the money to achieve it.)

And then onto some clothing. Here was a bit of wish fulfilment for me (and isn’t that what SL is supposed to be for, deep down?) I’ve always wanted a long black coat, figuring it would look stylish. Unfortunately such coats are expensive in the real world, and look ridiculous in just about every real world situation (shopping, at the office, on the train – they just end up making the wearer look like a sad Goth/Matrix reject) so I’ve never had one. But it would be perfect attire for Second Life, I thought, and after hunting around I finally found one that I liked.

Which is why if you bump into draml Braveheart in SL these days, he’ll look rather different from the scruffy Play-Doh Boy of a few weeks ago:

Yeah, the Matrix-esque dark glasses are a bit over the top, but they were free. The watch was free, too – just because I had some walking around money didn’t make me immune to a bargain!

So did getting “some skin in the game” in both senses actually change my view on Second Life’s stickiness overall? Well, certainly while I was out and about shopping for skin, hair, coat and accessories it made a huge difference, and was very enjoyable – certainly worth $10 (and there’s a lot of cash left over from that investment still to be spent.) But once that was done … No, not really. As I write this I haven’t been to Second Life all week – partly because of being so busy in First Life, and mainly because I’ve had a cold that’s left me feeling very unlike playing in either First or Second Life – I just want to wrap up warm and go to bed early.

But I’m not sitting here yearning to log in and take the new avatar for a stoll, either. I’m increasingly thinking that SL is a nice place to visit occasionally, but not anywhere I’d want to move to for any length of time.

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