The misadventures of Ryszard Etzel

February 11, 2007

As you may recall, I recently admonished hardcore Second Lifers to Get a First Life, and I have questioned the intrinsic educational value of Second Life. I have received no irate commentary from such folks yet, but I suppose they would tell me to “get a Second Life.” That sounds fair, as they have had more experience with First Life than I have had in Second Life. In fact, a discussion at work on Friday prompted me to make a “preemptive strike” by creating a Second Life account of my own.

I am part of a web usability committee that meets roughly twice a month on Fridays. Our meetings last an hour, but the meeting on Friday lasted a half-hour. However, we ended up going to an hour when someone asked the head of our committee about the wallpaper on her desktop, which actually came from a Second Life snapshot. This prompted me to ask about the purpose of Second Life. I actually meant to ask about its educational value, but the head of our committee described how it actually has no purpose. Instead, users have to create their own meaning out of it. (Very existential, I kept thinking.) We ended up having a philosophical discussion of sorts, which helped pique my curiosity about the experience of using Second Life.

I began by selecting a name for my avatar. I believed that one could use their own name, but a dropdown menu limits the number of available family names. This forced me to come up with something different, and to use my imagination. The first name that came to mind was “Richard,” after two of my favorite composers (Wagner and Strauss). That seemed too obvious, so a derivative seemed more suitable. I ended up settling on Ryszard, a Polish variant on Richard.

Now I needed to find a suitable last name. Although I probably could have chosen anything for a virtual space, I felt compelled to select something that could reasonably work well with Ryszard. After looking for a few minutes, I determined that Etzel sounded appropriate. Although its warlike connotations might give people the wrong idea, it sounded like it would work.

After setting up Ryszard, he dropped into the Second Life orientation center in the form of a “sexy male.” (Any resemblance between Ryszard’s original appearance and my own is purely coincidental.) Other avatars landed in the same circle in various forms of undress, like The Terminator at the beginning of the original movie. In the orientation area, Ryszard learned how to walk, fly, move objects, sit, and stand. Upon reaching the graduation temple, Ryszard flew to a larger island to practice more Second Life skills.

As Ryszard wandered through the intermediate and secondary orientation areas, I kept thinking about how Second Life seemed like a utopian rehabilitation center, or a heady hybrid of a futuristic sci-fi utopia (or dystopia) and an afterlife. Fully fledged adults had to learn the skills that many in the non-digital world take for granted, and helpful avatars could guide them through the process. Ryszard included, many of them seemed preoccupied with learning their own skills, and little interaction seemed to occur. It made me start to wonder what an existential writer would make of the whole business.

I knew that Ryszard probably had much to learn, but it seemed time for him to move on to the “real (second) world.” However, before teleporting away from the orientation level, avatars receive a warning that they may never come back. Unintentionally, the statement carries a certain poignancy, reminiscent of a child leaving its parent(s) or guardian(s) for the adult world.

Since I signed up on the “First Basic” plan, Ryszard has no land to call his own. He currently wanders around as a vagrant in Second Life, with no circle of friends of whom I am aware. Ailsa McMillan, an avatar Diane created, has him listed as a friend. They currently occupy roughly the same space as Second Life vagrants, but they have not officially met each other since they have yet to be logged on simultaneously. (I assumed that we would at least see each other in a state of suspended imagination.) Ryszard does fly around and observe other avatars, but he has generally avoided interpersonal contact with them. Someone pushy tried accosting him yesterday. Our home computer’s processor had difficulty with the demands of Second Life, which made the encounter even more annoying. Ryszard’s actions must have looked funny to others’ avatars as a result of the processing problems.

Ryszard has also changed his appearance over the past few days, going from “sexy male” to a cross between Patrick Stewart and Sir Georg Solti (no slouchers in looks and charisma themselves). I have had problems with manipulating hair in Second Life, so bald seemed the way to go… at least for now. Clothing is even more difficult to handle, so I went with something simple. I do hope to acquire a nice gentleman’s wardrobe for him, but he still wears the dark tattered jeans that came with his avatar.

Despite a few difficulties, Ryszard’s experiences in Second Life do not make me run screaming from it. Diane and I hope to hook up Ryszard and Ailsa, and to possibly buy a little piece of land with a house for them. It might be useful for meeting other professionals (and perhaps students online), and it certainly sounds more visually appealing than simple instant messaging. Nevertheless, I still wonder about its intrinsic educational value. It has lots of neat features, but it still has an air of “gimmickiness.” More importantly, not everyone would have the capabilities to run Second Life properly. The computers my wife and I use have different processing capabilities, including a 2002 laptop that would not even download Second Life, a 2004 desktop that could not process Second Life very well, and two 2006 laptops from our places of employment that do a decent processing job. I suspect that we may need to upgrade the processor and/or video card for at least the desktop, while the 2002 laptop might remain a hopeless case. (Since Diane is the IT person, I’ll leave that decision to her.) As an additional problem, Diane started to feel nauseous while testing Second Life; in fact, a friend of hers mentioned a similar problem when she tried it. I can see how that would happen, with the poor resolution of all monitors (at least compared to what one sees in the non-digital world), as well as the illusion of constant movement in three dimensions on a two-dimensional monitor just a foot or two away.

So, now I have a Second Life. Even if I have a number of reservations about it, I at least have a foundation to take on the challenges (and to take advantage of the potential opportunities) that it offers. Ryszard also hopes to see some of you (or your avatars) soon. However, I would advise you to have some Dramamine handy, just in case…


One Response to “The misadventures of Ryszard Etzel”

  1. […] case you’re curious, the searcher probably ended up here. I can assure you that it wasn’t a proximity […]

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