How Second Life Impacts Our First Life...
Henry Jenkins is the Provost's Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. He arrived at USC in Fall 2009 after spending the past decade as the Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program and the Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities. He is the author and/or editor of twelve books on various aspects of media and popular culture, including Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture and From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games. His newest books include Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide and Fans, Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. He is currently co-authoring a book on "spreadable media" with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. He has written for Technology Review, Computer Games, Salon, and The Huffington Post.
How Second Life Impacts Our First Life...
After having written so much about Second Life during my recent exchanges with Beth Coleman and Clay Shirky, I swore to myself that I would not write about this virtual world for a bit and let reality catch up with some of my theories. No such luck. I recently heard from digital theorist
Trebor Scholtz suggesting that there had been some interesting responses to the Shirkey-Coleman-Jenkins exchanges over at the iDC (Institute for Distributed Creativity) mailing list. Scholtz asked politely if I might weigh in on some of their arguments (always a dangerous thing since I am not on the list and not fully following their conversations) and clarify my position. I asked if I could cross-post my response here on the blog.
The question which Scholtz posed to me was deceptively simple:
My main question to Jenkins and all of you concerns the relationship between this virtual world and "first life." Do these virtual worlds merely provide an inconvenient youth with a
valve to live their fantasies of social change (elsewhere), or do they, in some measurable way, fertilize politics in the world beyond the screen?
The last several decades of observation of the digital world teaches us that the digital world is never totally disconnected from the real world. Even when we go onto the digital world to "escape" reality, we end up engaging with symbolic representations which we read in relation to reality. We learn things about our first lives by stepping into a Second or parallel life which allows us to suspend certain rules, break out of certain roles, and see the world from a fresh perspective. More often, though, there are a complex set of social ties, economic practices, political debates, etc. which almost always connects what's taking place online to what's going on in our lives off line.
Here, for example, is a link to the webcast of a session of the 2005 Games, Learning, and Society conference at Madison, Wisconsin. (Check out the session called Brace for Impact: How User Creation Changes Everything). It was one of the first places that I heard extensively about the kinds of educational uses of Second Life. One of the stories there which caught my imagination dealt with the ways people were using this environment to help sufferers of autism and Asperger's syndrome to rehearse social skills and overcome anxieties that can be crippling in real world social interactions. (They call their island, Brigadoon). Those who are undergoing therapy in Brigadoon are able to interact through Second Life for several reasons, as I understand it: first, because it creates a buffer between the people lowering the stress of social interaction; second, because it reduces the range of social signals through the cartoonishness of the avatar, helping them to learn to watch for certain signs and filter out others. Ideally, participants then return with these new social skills and apply them to their interactions in their First Lives. But even if that is not possible for all of those involved, they have had a chance to interact meaningfully with other human beings -- even if through a mediating representation.
For me, Brigadoon offers both a demonstration of the value of having a Second Life that operates in parallel to your First Life and as a metaphor to think about the ways we can try things out, learn to think and act in new ways in virtual worlds of all kinds, and then carry those skills back with us to our everyday reality.
In some cases, the Second Life opens up experiences that would not be possible within the constraints of the real world. My former student and friend, John Campbell, wrote a book, Getting It On Online: Cyberspace, Gay Male Identity, and Embodied Identity . His research primarily centered on much earlier forms of chatroom technologies rather than Second Life per se, but much of what he found there is still very relevant to our present conversation. One of the things I took away from Campbell's book was the idea that these chartrooms played important functions for queers who lived in small towns or in conservative regions of the country where there were little or no chances to socialize with others who shared their sexual preferences. Entering into a virtual world (even one as simple as the early chat rooms) allowed them to begin to explore aspects of their sexual identity that they could not yet act upon in their First Lives. Through this process, they developed the self confidence necessary to come out to their friends and family, they felt some connection to the realm of queer activism, and they made a range of other life-changing choices. I wanted to bring this into the conversation because I see from time to time academic theorists who want to dismiss the kinds of sexual experimentation that occurs in Second Life as interactive porn. Such language shows a limited understanding of what such spaces can and often do mean to the people who participate in these sexual subcultures in virtual worlds.