Why does Second Life look so much like Real Life?

This is a recurring question on the Second Life educators’ discussion list. The question arises in relation to issues of both avatar construction and island/space design and use. Why should an avatar look like a real person (albeit usually an impossibly beautiful person)? Should professors in SL be professional attired, wearing what the might in the classroom (or maybe even better! flash clothes in SL are pretty cheap)? Why have buildings or roofs or classrooms? And so on.

The basic premise is that, given that a virtual world might look like virtually anything, why make it look like the world we’ve already got? Well, I’m happy to offer some answers, though I dont doubt they’ve been offered in other places before.

So why does SL look like RL?

  • It doesn’t. Yes, there is some resemblance, but SL is a fantasical, sometimes nightmarish, often trashy, extrapolation of RL. I don’t mean to just dismiss this question, but no one is having trouble differentiating between these two environments, right?
  • Because communities rely upon some common logic of engagement, context, and space. How do a ball of light, a pointer-finger icon, a doorknob, and a twelve-legged, spider-cat-fish-giraffee-thing on wheels have a conversation in a swirling fog of jello and banana peels? Only by ignoring the space  and avatars and focusing on the humans behind the curtain so to speak. To a large extent, virtual worlds function by immersion, the feeling of getting lost in the world, as any game studies person could tell you. Virtual worlds can be wildly fantastical, but they must be consistent and they must be comprehensible to the human user, as anyone who has read fantasy or sci-fi can tell you.

  • Because even though SL is a virtual space, it is a space inhabited by humans to achieve purposes that remain grounded in RL. No one would be interested in Linden dollars if you couldn’t turn them into $$$. Corporations and their PR firms would be interested in virtual worlds if they didn’t believe that the brand communities they built in SL would not translate to RL. I wouldn’t be teaching in SL if I didn’t think that learning there translated into RL. We interact as virtual humans in human spaces because we are doing human work and building human communities.
  • Maybe you shouldn’t judge an avatar by hir cover, but it’s unavoidable on some level. You can tell who just stepped off orientation island. Whatever you choose to look like, you probably don’t want to look like that! And you can’t just shed your existing notions of beauty. An attractive avatar is essentially shaped like an attractive human. Yes, there’s more possibility for the exotic in SL, but a ball of light or whatever is just never going to do it for me. That said, an avatar shaped and dressed like a exotic dancer, male or female, isn’t going to get a lot of positive attention as a serious academic or professional. Just like in RL. The point being that we have a complex code of fashion and body image and so on. You could try to leave it behind in RL, but you really can’t. SL looks like RL, because by using RL codes we can communicate for more complex socio-cultural messages than we could just invent on the fly in SL. Think about emoticons. Why do emoticons look like RL expressions?

All that said, I’m all for experimentation in SL AND RL! I’m all for drawing attention to the constructed and contingent quality of our identities, appearances, and environment… in SL AND RL. Maybe the question shouldn’t be why does SL look like RL but rather why does RL look like RL? Or why does RL look like SL?

In any case, we just bought our island today! Soon we will begin creating our college space. I have said that I don’t really see much point to having buildings, but we will probably have one, more for the iconographic effect than for practical use. I’ve advocated for

  • an outdoor ampitheater with a screen to show slides and/or video
  • small group meeting areas
  • a museum/gallery
  • a media center

But do we really need seats in an ampitheater? The questions go on.

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One thought on “Why does Second Life look so much like Real Life?

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  1. Interesting post Alex. I remember a few years ago when a group of S.U. Ed. profs went to Orlando to visit the Celebration (a planned community) school there. Here the designers could create an environment for learning out of a Disney imagination and unlike any conventional learning space in the U.S.
    Upon her return, I’ll never forget one prof’s saying, “They could have built anything and they built a school.” Within a short time the school came under fire for what was perceived by some parents as its progressive curriculum and pedagogy. Evidently folks who moved into Celebration were more interested in a ‘back to the future,” the 50’s, than they were innovation. I haven’t read anything recently about what’s happened in that community. It would be interesting to have an update.
    Isn’t our being stuck in the forms (duh, our bodies!) we grow up with and are familiar with significant to why it is so very difficult to change anything significantly, including what we learn and how we learn it, in schools?
    Are you familiar with this initiative–one with a goal of creating “breakthrough” public schools: http://www.bigpicture.org/
    Worth checking out. I hope to learn more about it in Boston next week at the Alan November conference. K

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