Embarking on a journey as a newcomer in Second Life, the virtual world where endless possibilities await, is a tale many of us are familiar with. Each story is unique, each experience a fresh perspective. As part of my research and anecdotes collected for my book, ‘Digital Existence: The Parallel Universe of Second Life’, I delve into these personal narratives. Today, I present the story of Ada Gimbal, a 3-month-old avatar in Second Life, whose journey from confusion to mastery provides insight into the ever-evolving digital realm. This account, along with others, forms the basis of my exploration into the virtual lives led in Second Life, further detailed in my book which you can find here.
Remember your first day in Second Life? Was it a rush of curiosity, a tinge of frustration, or a mix of both? Ada’s initial steps echo this familiar dance. With a background in communication technology and a lifelong passion for gaming, Ada saw Second Life not just as a game, but as a canvas for her creativity and technical skills. Yet, even for someone as tech-savvy as Ada, the world of Second Life presented its fair share of challenges and discoveries.
From the intricate art of avatar customization to understanding the complex social dynamics, Ada’s experiences shed light on the multifaceted nature of virtual living. Join me as we delve into her story, uncovering the layers of Second Life through the eyes of a ‘noob’ who quickly found her footing in this digital universe.
Ada invited me to her place for tea during the interview. “I was walking around New Babbage, trying to find a suitable place to sit and chat. However, I think it might be more appropriate to do the interview at the tiny place I’m subletting. It has all the furnishings and oddities of a newbie trying to find their way,” she said.
Visiting Ada’s place was like stepping into a charming time capsule from 2008. The small space was cozily arranged with furniture and freebies, reflecting the resourcefulness typical of a newcomer in Second Life. It was endearing to see how Ada had carved out her own corner in this vast virtual world, filling it with items that, while perhaps not the latest trend, were clearly chosen with care and personal preference.
As she served tea, I was touched by the simplicity and nostalgia of the moment. It reminded me of the early days of Second Life, a time when the world was simpler, and every small addition to our virtual spaces felt significant. The tea, served in a classic teacup that went into my inventory, lacked animation, yet this small detail only added to the charm of the experience. It was evident that Ada was authentically embracing her journey in Second Life, unencumbered by the need for the latest virtual trends.
Ada’s journey to Second Life is a tapestry woven from her rich background in communication technology and a lifelong passion for gaming. Raised in a world where digital landscapes were as familiar as playgrounds, she honed her skills in diverse areas like Blender and Python programming, sparked by her early days of Minecraft and Nintendo games. Her academic pursuits in computer science weren’t just about bits and bytes; they were stepping stones leading her to the expansive universe of Second Life. Here, Ada saw not just a game or a virtual community, but a canvas awaiting her unique blend of technical prowess and creative vision.
Her initial brush with Second Life came at a younger age, a time when the digital landscape was teeming with virtual worlds like Webkinz, Habbo Hotel, and Club Penguin. These platforms, while similar in concept to Second Life, were more attuned to younger audiences and didn’t quite capture her interest then. Constraints like her parents’ hesitation towards online purchases further limited her early explorations. However, her exposure to these worlds laid a foundation for her understanding of virtual communities. Interestingly, during her university studies, Second Life resurfaced as a subject, rekindling her curiosity and setting the stage for her deeper engagement with the platform.
From then on, she heard countless things about SL in the gaming community: “SL is old, ugly, outdated, dying, etc. She has also heard negative stereotypes about the people in Second Life, such as being freaks, misfits, disabled (used as an insult), weirdos, autistic (used as an insult), etc.”
So, she decided that she needed to see it for herself. And now she is here. She is approaching this experience as an outsider who needs to learn and become accustomed to the local culture. Ada is determined to keep an open mind and approach it with as much respect as possible.
When she first joined, she noticed many roleplaying communities. She thought it would be suitable to create a character that she could play and integrate into New Babbage seamlessly. Since she has always been fond of steampunk and found the people there to be friendly, she settled in that community. She believed it would be an ideal location to merge her scripting and 3D graphic skills to develop creations that would captivate people.
Her character is based on Ada Lovelace, if you’re familiar with her. The name “Gimbal” is a reference to both the mechanical part and the XYZ axis widget that is seen in SL and 3D software, which is colored red, green, and blue. Her character represents someone she aspires to be. She is an idealized version of herself who excels at combining the arts and sciences, much like Ada Lovelace. Ada’s story holds a certain romantic appeal for her, and she finds it very captivating.
In our interview, Ada delved into her initial challenges with avatar customization in Second Life, a journey she described as “an adventure, to say the least!” The recollection of her initial confusion is a common experience for many newcomers to this virtual world.
“Starting off, it seemed straightforward enough with body shapes, skins, tattoos, hair, eyes, and the like,” Ada explained. “But then, things like footshapers threw me for a loop. I didn’t fully understand them.”
She remembered the overwhelming moment when people bombarded her with free clothing in the starting area. “I was SO CONFUSED,” she emphasized. “I thought I could just slap something on and it would work. But no, it was far from that simple.”
Ada’s frustration was palpable as she shared her moment of exasperation. “I got to the point where I just considered making my avatar invisible because none of it made any sense to me.”
But Ada’s perseverance shone through as she unraveled the intricacies of the system. “I gradually understood the differences between system bodies, attachments, mesh bodies, and the whole concept of rigged versus unrigged clothing, not to mention fitted mesh versus rigged mesh. And to add to the complexity, I learned these systems aren’t necessarily compatible with each other.”
Her experience highlights a significant aspect of the Second Life experience: the steep learning curve in avatar customization. It’s a testament to the depth and complexity of Second Life, where creating an avatar is more than just a cosmetic exercise; it’s a journey through a maze of technicalities and artistic choices.
Well, it involved a lot of online research and kind people who explained to her the history of mesh bodies and the differences between these things, as well as the meaning behind the terminology.
With a background in technical writing, she specializes in creating guides on how to use various systems. The lack of documentation, especially regarding accessibility or for new users, frustrates her. Despite this frustration, she is determined to learn and spends countless hours searching the web for information on SL.
However, the average casual user would have given up long ago, just as she did over 15 years ago when she first booted up SL as a child on her family’s outdated computer.
She invested a small amount of money and took on a few projects in New Babbage to get started. But compared to what others spend to maintain this place, her contributions are minimal. Sometimes, she even worries people might consider her small tip as an insult, given the significant ongoing costs. The rent she pays is low as well.
During our conversation, the topic veered towards the financial dynamics of Second Life. I was curious about Ada’s views on spending real money in this virtual realm. “Are you against spending money in SL, or is it just that you are not in a financial position to spend money?” I inquired.
Ada was forthright in her response, “I’m just not in a financial position to spend money.”
She recounted her initial reaction upon encountering the virtual economy of Second Life. “When I first came here and saw land prices or how much money some people spend, I was surprised!” But it was a conversation that shifted her viewpoint. “Talking to someone about it gave me a new perspective,” she shared.
Ada likened the spending in Second Life to real-world hobbies. “It’s ‘hobby money’,” she recalled the explanation, which resonated with her. “In real life, we spend so much on hobbies like cars, bikes, watches, makeup, beauty, clothes, and even virtual products like skins in a game. Some people choose to channel their spending into Second Life.”
She acknowledged that from an outsider’s perspective, the financial commitments in Second Life might seem unusual. “Initially, it appears weird’,” she admitted. However, through interactions within the community, her viewpoint transformed. “It was only through talking to others that I could realize through being given a new perspective.”
Ada’s journey mirrors a common narrative among many Second Life users – an initial bafflement at the virtual economy, followed by an empathetic understanding of how hobbies and personal interests manifest in both real and digital worlds.
In recent weeks, Ada’s engagement in Second Life has deepened, marked by increased participation in community events around New Babbage. While she spends a considerable amount of time immersed in creative pursuits like working in Blender or scripting, her involvement in Second Life goes beyond these activities. For Ada, Second Life has become a poignant solution to a real-world challenge: the quest for affordable housing.
“I like to think of it as an ‘affordable housing simulator’,” Ada mused. “In real life, with the escalating property prices, it’s tough for people in my generation to have a place of our own.” Living with her parents post-graduation, she finds Second Life offers a unique respite from these realities. “It fills this void,” she explained. “Here, I can have my own space, even if it’s virtual. It’s a place I can design, personalize, and where I can host friends for tea and conversations–something I’ve always dreamt of but is currently out of reach in the physical world.”
Second Life, for Ada, is more than just a platform for digital creativity and social interaction; it’s a realm where she can fulfill her aspirations of homeownership and hospitality, albeit virtually. “It’s amusing and somewhat liberating,” she continued, “to have this cozy space here in Second Life, a luxury that’s scarce in real life for many of us.”
This virtual home not only serves as her personal sanctuary but also as a stage for her role-playing adventures, adding another layer to her rich experience in this digital universe. For Ada, Second Life is not just an escape; it’s a parallel reality where dreams deferred in the physical world find expression and fulfillment.
Ada believes that there is a lot we can learn from each other because of our diverse backgrounds and age differences. SL has provided her with new perspectives and has even helped her become more introspective. Through this, she has discovered things about herself that she was not aware of before. Even as she plays the character she has created, an idealized version of herself, she feels more invested, and the character imparts a lot onto her, just as she imparts herself onto this character.
We observe a disproportionate number of individuals in SL who, in real life, our culture would consider “forgotten” or marginalized when looking at the demographic trends. It is surprising to see this, as in online spaces, we assume everyone is a heterosexual male and that we represent the majority. Marginalized communities in SL may include women, people of color (with a notable presence of Asian creators online), older adults, disabled individuals, and more. Not only individuals with stigmatized identities shaped by our culture but also interest communities like BDSM and furries, among others, are part of this trend.
“I’m sure there’s something worth discussing this, but honestly, I have no way of verifying if what I’ve observed represents SL or is accurate.”
“If it is indeed the case, I’ve been pondering ‘why is this the case?’ lately while in the shower.”
“I find it both heartening and somewhat melancholic. SL has provided a space for those with marginalized and stigmatized identities in RL,” Ada said.
When asked if she was aware of the adult scene and what she thought about it, she said, “I would be open to it but I don’t know if I would ‘feel’ anything. Being a young and confused Gen Z, as the stereotype goes, I can’t even figure out what love is in real life! I’ve never been in a relationship before.”
“I’m still figuring myself out, honestly. I’ve said this to others and was laughed at XD. I took it well, of course. It’s all in good fun. But people here tease me for my sexual inexperience and youth, but I don’t mind. It is funny! Much like puberty, it is an awkward phase. I’m sure everyone just looks back at that part of their life,” Ada explained.
She learned that the hard way as she stepped on a few of the wrong influential toes in New Babbage when she asked why some buildings look “triangulated” in the distance. Someone took it badly, and they lambasted her for criticizing the architecture. From that point on, she learned to speak less and listen more before speaking.
Amidst our discussion about her experiences in Second Life, Ada shared a profound realization that had shaped her perspective. “The idea that ‘[I] can’t be someone [I’m] not’ really resonated with me,” she reflected. “It’s been a guiding principle in how I navigate this virtual space.”
She explained how this understanding influenced her interactions within the Second Life community. “It really helps with the whole personal versus criticism aspect of things,” Ada elaborated. “I’ve learned it’s not about trying to please everyone. Instead, it’s about valuing authenticity and treasuring the connections with those we truly resonate with.”
In exploring Ada Gimbal’s journey in Second Life, we see a vivid illustration of the complexities and personal growth possible in virtual worlds. Her experience, from her initial struggles to her creative and social achievements, mirrors the transformative journeys many undertake in these digital spaces.
Ada’s story is more than an individual narrative; it reflects the universal quest for identity and community, both online and offline. Her adventures and insights, as detailed in ‘Digital Existence: The Parallel Universe of Second Life’, resonate with anyone navigating life in our digital era.
For a deeper dive into the rich tapestry of experiences within Second Life, I invite you to explore my book, which offers broader perspectives on our digital existence. Learn more at Digital Existence: The Parallel Universe of Second Life.”