Maybe One Life is Enough: My Digital Ethnography Experience in Second Life


This week I will be reflecting on my experience with the program Second Life.  Before this week, I had heard of Second Life both professionally and casually through colleagues sharing experiences on the program as well as reading about stories of classes being held in the Second Life world.  Having experienced online games that also attempt to create a “free roaming digital world” and being a former avid gamer, I must say, I went in with rather high expectations.  


My experience with Second Life started with a few technical glitches.  After creating my account and downloading the relatively small “Second Life Viewer,”  I was disappointed to see that my video card drivers were considered out of date despite being as updated as possible.  (Editor’s Note: The error also said the card itself may be out of date and I suspect that was the cause)  I switched to my laptop and attempted to download the Viewer again with success after not being able to log in the first few attempts.  Eventually however, I was up and running and ready to create my avatar.  I chose one of the 10 or so options available to me at the time and decided to pick a male with hair and skin features closest to mine.  I suppose it is interesting to reflect on the basis for this decision and also the amount of choices available.   Can we really all essentially be boiled down to 10 different variations?  My avatar also came fully dressed and I thought the black tie with a casual jacket was a nice touch.  


I should note I was rather quick about this element of character creation and have always been this way in my history of gaming.  I just wanted to get started, and didn’t particularly care what my character looked like!  To start the game, you are thrust right in the middle of a landing pit of sorts and I immediately notice the classic evidence of “newbs” (or fellow first timers): erratic movements signifying acclimation to the controls. There was even the token newb “pwner” who greeted me by pushing my character into a glitch in the landing pit rendering me unable to move.  I was eventually pushed back into a position where I could move by the same person (Reflecting I assume they are just seeking the thrill of “messing someone up” in the beginning of their experience, gamers will be gamers.) and I was ready to start again.  But where to start?


I suppose this is the dilemma of life as well.  Where do these motivating factors come from that tell us to get a job that we spend 40 hours of our week at?  Why do we feel the need to live in our own home?  Why do we seek the life long companionship of a single partner? In Second Life, I found myself consumed with the idea of just meeting other “players” and trying to talk to them about their experience in the program.  I said hello in the launch pit area and it was returned by two other people.  I eventually would engage in conversation with my first official friend on Second Life, Julia.  I learned that Julia was from Colombia and this was her first experience on Second Life as well.  She did not speak English very well but I thought she was doing fine.  After speaking just a little while, I told Julia I was going to see what else there was to do here.  I followed the arrows on the map and wound up in another landing pit of sorts.  Again noticing the telltale signs of newbs, I began to think this was getting a little redundant. 


The rest of my experience in Second Life involved picking different “destinations” from the bottom of my control center and viewing the ways people were interacting at these locations.  I was surprised to hear region-specific music being played at these locations and even more surprised at the prevalence of the digital currency within the program.  The whole thing felt like a gaming version of craigslist personal ads with different backgrounds for each type of page.  There was no compelling reason to do anything within Second Life and suppose that the educational elements of the program must have involved joining a very specific group that you probably had to be invited to.  I was expecting more freedom and things to do.  I thought there were interesting elements within the program such as a dress code for some of the locations, but did feel changing outfits was more of a chore than it was worth.  


I suppose at the end of the day, I have already been “tarnished” by gaming and was not able to completely engulf myself in the experience of Second Life.  From a digital ethnography view, I’m also not so sure about the research implications available to us as a result of this platform.  There is a lack of guidelines and intuitive roles within the program that interactions with others are simply at the breaking language barrier level.  I did see people dancing and casually interacting on the program, but it always felt forced  or like it was people who were too comfortable with each other, implying they had spent A LOT of time on the program.  So I wonder if the platform is just too large of a buffer in order to really research the way people interact.  Also, the program “lagged” when too many people got together, inhibiting my ability to experience the world.  


Did you have a better experience in Second Life?  Was I a cynic in my experience?  Does that mean I’m a cynic in real life?!?!  🙂


Do you think there is solid ethnography research to be had on this platform?  Can we really study the complexities of human interaction online in a free roam digital environment?


6 thoughts on “Maybe One Life is Enough: My Digital Ethnography Experience in Second Life

  1. This was an interesting account of Second Life, coming from someone who has had experience gaming. Because I do not have relatively any experience gaming, I spent a lot of my time trying to just get my barrings straight (which still wasn’t great after four hours). I agree with you when you mentioned that there wasn’t really any compelling reasons to do anything or stay in Second Life. I have no clue how so many people spend hours everyday on the site. I also felt like the lag time in some destinations was pretty bad.
    I’m not so sure that solid ethnographic research could be conducted on the site. I feel like a lot of people don’t accurately represent themselves on the site. My avatar was a vampire and I somehow ended up in a romance lounge. That’s not a very accurate representation of myself!

  2. I think the ethnography research to be had is solid if you’re looking to study how humans behave in that particular environment: anonymous, no laws (only rules), and why people populate it to the extent that they do. Maybe that’s the biggest question. Why come “in” here to SL instead of “out” there? I’m sure there are a million different reasons so the research mainly involves trying to catalog them all.

  3. Jake I absolutely do not think that your second life experience makes you cynical haha! I too had a hard time figuring out what I was “supposed” to do, I think a lot of us had this experience based on blogs I’ve read. It’s weird being dropped into this world where we don’t really know what the goal is… but I think that kind of mirrors life in a weird way? How do we really know what we’re supposed to do with our life until we’ve been living it? I think that all comes with submersing yourself in the game (although I have no interest to do that either). I do think it’s a really fascinating idea though. I believe that Royce has a great point, when it comes to applying ethnography to virtual worlds like second life the valuable research can come from looking at how people choose to live and choose to interact with one another. If you haven’t had a chance, I suggest you read Lesley’s blog- I think there could be a lot of psychological or sociological research to be gathered from the way that people choose to act the way they do when there are no laws.

  4. I don’t think you are cynical at all, otherwise I am too!! And maybe that is the case, but given the anonymity of the characters in Second Life, I don’t think it would be possible to benchmark their behavior in this realm with their behavior in the real world. I may be closed minded on the issue but I am not seeing the value in studying the interactions between people in this virtual world, maybe because of the creepy experience I had. And in reply to Wendy’s comment above, I have to wonder if studying this community as a way to study how people react without laws would be misleading. After all, we all seem to have the same consensus that utilizing SL for socialization purposes has resulted in unpleasant and questionable interactions, there must be more of us that think that way. But how would we know we are the majority? We don’t like it so we sign off and I think it is safe to say that most reasonable people do the same. Maybe we would have to find specialized interest groups in order to find value or to be able to study the masses.

  5. Jake, I don’t think your view of Second Life makes you cynical, as your experience pretty much reflected mine, at least you were able to interact with someone! I liked how in the beginning of your summary you said that you chose the first avatar you saw, as I to do the same. I just want to start and see where the game takes me. I can see what you’re saying with not knowing where to start, and having to find our way as we do in real life. Great point. I wish there were better instructions on how to use Second Life, but Life doesnt come with an instruction book. So I guess we’d all have to try a second time to see how our experience would be different this time around.

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