In 2008, I finally found the right pair of eyeglasses. I spent a few hundred Linden Dollars on them. (The Linden economy and its exchange rates fluctuate every day, but the U.S. buck remains strong: my eyeglasses cost less than a real-world two-dollar bill.)
The glasses were pricy, as virtual glamour objects go, because so many options are built in. I can change the frames’ shape, or the stems’ color, even the lenses’ transparency, using a series of nested context menus. I can make the eyeglasses very large or very small. It is like owning a hundred pairs of eyeglasses.
Linden Lab, the developers of Second Life, did not design my avatar’s eyeglasses.
Second Life’s inadvertent meaning—its intent, its point, if you demand one—is that this entire feckless reality, from your face to your shoes to the weeds under your feet to the birds in the sky to the freckles on your nose, is a mod. It is all user-generated, an amalgam of other users’ needs. The cigarette you’re smoking came from one person who is likely, in life, a smoker. Your cropped pinstripe pants were made by another guy, because he decided he needed too-short pinstripe pants and made himself a pair. Your hoverboard was designed by this other guy who owns both mattes of Back to the Future Part II on DVD. Your eyeglasses came from this otherother guy who is squinting amaurotically into his monitor at this very second. Your avatar becomes a meaningful hodgepodge of virtual identities lifted from other users. You are not alone.
One day a woman (or seemingly a woman, anyway) sought me out because I had purchased maybe 15 of her skirts. I had blown all of US$5 on her designs, if that. We remained friends for a long time.
When I asked Nikolaus if he wanted to have sex in Second Life with me, he said yes. He and I had been dating, rockily, for five years. He said he missed me.
I was in Texas. I’d been living with my parents for a few months. I was getting scared. I still rented the apartment on Pine Street, and Nikolaus still had a pair of keys to it. He was taking care of my pets and plants. Maybe if he really missed me, he could let himself into the apartment and sit inside. He could even use the Xbox if he wanted. He could read my books. He could use the kitchen, he could use the shower and the toilet.
Sure, he missed me. So he said yes.
I explained that Virtual Amsterdam was a place that couples went, and that I’d—really! Really!—never been there before. But I’d read about it. We could rent a room?
Nikolaus said yes.
I was embarrassed. But even if Nikolaus were lying, even if he didn’t really miss me so much, was our curiosity about virtual sex so aberrant? After all, if countless reports are to be believed, sex is the only thing to do in Second Life, am I right?
I tried to make a little joke out of it. This is pretty dorky, I warned him.
Again, yes, he said.
So I found Virtual Amsterdam on a map, and I zapped myself into it. This part is always nervewracking because when you go on any cross-world trip with a partner, you have to zap yourself away, and your companion is left standing there until he receives the telegram inviting him to zap to where you are. You worry, in those moments or minutes that he’s left standing there, he will abandon you.
Now I am trying to remember how I ever coerced Nikolaus into joining Second Life. I mean, it just isn’t the kind of thing he’d do—he’s a pretty cool guy. I know I helped him with his avatar. I do remember that. I watched him work on it.
He picked out a plaid shirt that looked exactly like those shirts in his closet I hate. I remember finding a decent pair of Converse Chucks and dark denim jeans that hung right. I knew the perfect pair of eyeglasses. I found a skin shaded with a faint beard. The wig was nearly a match.
I handed him a pair of sideburns.
After a long silence, as I watched him belabor his appearance, I asked him a strange question.
The longer you fix your avatar, do you find yourself becoming more and more attracted to it?
Yes. He said yes.
That made me feel better about being a pervert.
I don’t want to describe sex in Second Life, but I guess I have to.
Where any coupled activity is possible, poseballs will likely hover. Here, a blue ball is floating in midair—for the boys!—and a pink one nearby for the girls, because almost everything in Second Life is heterosexual. And if the two motions are intended to operate together, the pink and blue balls will be fused together like a nutsack. Together they indicate, for instance, a park bench built for snuggling, a dance floor suggesting junior-high slow dances, or a bed probably meant for sex.
So in a rented room in Amsterdam, or in any sex room, there will be some jumble of user-made poseballs scattered all around.
First, the users must turn off their animation scripts, or else the sex won’t work. The idea is to use the animation already loaded into the poseball.
Next, situate the male avatar on the blue ball. Right-click the ball and, from the pie-shaped context menu, select the wedge instructing the avatar to “sit” on it.
Situate the female avatar on the pink ball by the same processes.
Now, with both avatars on their respective balls, they will automagically get down to business.
Of course, you can’t be sure of any poseball’s genuine function until your avatar is actually straddling it, pantomiming the moves its creator has designed. This can transform virtual sex into a shuddersome adventure of discovery.
“Oh, jeez!” I typed. My avatar was somehow on all fours, accepting sex in a way that made me uncomfortable. I right-clicked on the pink ball to make her stand up.
My boyfriend was left there, pumping his invisible penis into thin air, until he elected to stand up from his poseball, too.
“Let’s try another,” I suggested.
And now we were giddily visiting every poseball, attempting sexual positions my real-life boyfriend and I would never have dared to endeavor, all these strange looped motions some faraway inventor had configured for us. We were flushed from the innuendo.
“I’m a huge fan of your work,” I typed.
It was a jest between us. I used to whisper it doe-eyed way back when we kept the lights on, always right in the middle of things to creep Nikolaus out. “I’m a huge fan of your work, rock star,” or “I’m a huge fan of your work, professor.” I’d always conclude my endorsement with a disturbingly approving leer: You’ll never guess who I’m pretending you are right now.
Second Life isn’t Sex Life, no; it isn’t all orgies and sex workers. I have kept myself occupied with plenty of other activities, thanks.
I have lost innumerable scavenger hunts.
I have camped at a simulated bonfire, listening to actual 1950s radio serials.
I have jammed myself into the bleachers of a crowded auditorium to watch celebrity game designer Raph Koster speak live from Georgia Tech.
I have dawdled in a Lovecraftian seaside village, have danced at a Prohibition-era-themed bar, have gone scuba diving in an ocean modeled after a pirate’s cove.
I have meticulously created a rollerskating airship pilot character for a steampunk MMO.
Certainly I have hoverboarded through a skate park.
I have worn a powdered wig to visit the Palace of Versailles. I have disguised myself in an Ultraman costume expressly to annoy patrons of the virtual Gion district. I have holstered guns beneath my bustle and canvassed the Old West.
I have complimented another avatar’s dress (“Thank you,” she replied, “it’s an Ivalde”).
Not only have I visited every house of horrors, I have toured that one haunted house specially designed to promote the 2007 Spanish horror movie REC. It’s provisional in glitchy ways, but it deliberately appropriates those shifting, tilting camera angles a scary Japanese video game would use.
I’ve even ridden a Ferris wheel with a teenaged boy. The carriage was so enormous, we were able to sit at opposite ends. If it had been a real carriage on a real Ferris wheel, we would have really slipped out, really splattered onto the planks of a real boardwalk.
Sitting on any virtual barstool anywhere, my toes cannot touch the floor. My hands clip the sides of pinball machines, my arms too short, evidently, to reach the flipper-buttons. And in most haunted houses, where I’d expect narrow tunnels and low ceilings and claustrophobic unease, the architecture is, instead, cavernous. Hallways yawn, almost as wide as they are long. Lofted ceilings vanish, stretching high above Second Life’s draw distance. Shopping malls are the same way. So are many homes. Doorways gape. Every window is a picture window. It’s easy to topple out from under balcony railings. Sofas seat eight. Lampposts illuminate the cosmos. Streets are eight lanes wide. Even the Chryslers are—to borrow a song lyric—as big as whales.
All this extra space for movement can be unnerving, perhaps scary. Awesome bitmapped expanses divide every home, tree, and davenport, so that I have to teleport, fly, or sprint to get anywhere in good time.
Maybe part of the trouble is, steering an avatar is more cumbersome than it looks. But here is the rest of the problem: my avatar is, in true-to-life measurements, 5’4”, or 1.63 meters. This is a white lie, of course, but it’s a real-world lie that my state-issued driver’s license will substantiate. In my virtual life, I like to uphold certain aesthetic principles about shortness and fatness, and these stalwart ethics are enough to get me excommunicated from many Second Life nightclubs.
I feel like a Lilliputian intruder because I am a Lilliputian intruder. I am a tiny troll. The average Second Life avatar’s height hovers somewhere between seven and eight feet.