Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Virtual Pilgrim's Tale

 A Virtual Pilgrim's Tale - a once strange experience of a Virtual Life -

  So my friends, "All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”   Tolkien

Virtual worlds are a new phenomenon and  I do think of them as an extension of our myths, dreams and imagination through time which began with oral storytelling, painting,  literature and plays - and in the last century, to radio, cinema and television.  They all  allowed and allow us to escape the mundane for awhile.  The best of these arts  also inspire, disturb, and make us think. Today these experiences have become very mesmerizing and real with the magic of  technology so now we have 3D social and interactive communities in virtual playgrounds.
It appears that these technologies are  here to stay and they have powerful emotional effects and repercussions on those who choose those alternate worlds to look for fulfillment, to satisfy dreams, to escape from the mundane or even just to entertain themselves. There is wonderful art to be found there along with unique creativity. In the media much is touted about the limitless imagination of the virtual world. Game makers draw in people whose real lives may be less than satisfying with promises of excitement, super hero status, and romance etc, but, this is the nature of advertising.
However, in my own experience there is often a price to be paid for playing at the fair, although I will leave it up to each person to decide what that price is for themselves- or if it is worth it. It is a "brave new world" and not one where I am convinced we are always the masters.30237-katkarnot
After having played the brilliant and wonderful single player Myst series  and after having participated in one of the original "Mud" roleplays on the history channel website, someone told me that I should check out Second Life.  I did not know at the time the difference between the two platforms, or the innocence of the Myst worlds compared to Second Life worlds, and I would never have expected what was to come.
Disclaimer:
I am not intending to offend those supporters of Second Life  who love the platform and have no problems with it, those who may use it wisely and creatively (even profitably) -or those who use it "moderately" while not putting their first lives second. Though a few of those people exist in Second Life I must honestly say that I personally did not meet them on my own journey until much later when I had left and come back.  Most denizens I met were completely immersed, emotionally and time wise and had invested hugely in their second lives. 
I also do not want to offend those who because of health or physical issues enjoy or find creative inspiration and/or respite in virtual worlds, though I still feel cautionary depending on how much time is spent disconnecting from real life.  My tale is from my own experience and hopefully at least food for thought.
Observations from Cyberspace
My first look at the Second Life scene was not immediately appealing to me.  I saw a lot of sexy looking avatar creations,  acting like contestants on “So you think you can dance” at the hundreds of virtual night clubs and shopping malls. They were all dressed in either high couture, grunge or steampunk, and everything in between.  My avatar still walked like a duck and I had no idea what an AO (walking styles and gestures),  Hud (for fighting battles) or skin were, nor the cost of these items. I'm a bit of a nerd so this fashion/ club scene was not really my idea of a stimulating experience .  
However, while out exploring  I came across a brilliant recreation of Ancient Rome (called a sim). I found it very interesting, and  more to the point, for me, an historical dream come true. Like a paleontologist finding dinosaurs sprung to life, a history buff  now could pretend to be a citizen of Rome, SPQR, and stroll along the Aventine Hill as it once was.  I had wonderful memories of visiting archaelogical Rome and Pompeii some years before so I wasted no virtual time in buying myself some Lindens ( SL currency) and with that, a stola and sandals, veil and hair pins, everything to become a well dressed ”domina” (not to be confused with dominatrix which I discovered are plentiful there also) and went off to explore market, forum and arena. What fun!!
I met someone, citizen and builder  - Salve civem!!- who was willing to take a newbie under wing, show me around  and tell me what practical things I needed to be a total virtual person.  I went shopping in earnest - and was totally surprised to find everything is sold- everything! (really!!  includes a what!!?)- umm - belly button rings, tattoos, hair, eyes and other more intimate body parts are on sale everywhere. 
On a subsequent visit, after declaring me his long lost cousin from the outlands of the Empire my guide, Mark Anthony, revealed his true intentions of  a virtual seduction in an ancient equivalent of a seedy tenement building, - my mistake for clicking the scripted couch (something like the casting couch and "do I have a role for you baby!"). This was all in keeping with true Roman decadence of course.
When in a panic and not thinking straight just log out.  You can always say later that you "crashed."  Seeking sexual encounters as a cartoon in a virtual world seemed very bizarre to a guarded  person like me.  I was seeking something else,  and besides, having my own romantic ideas and imagination I needed to sort it all out and find my own comfort level. 
I began a virtual "walk about."After a little more time I began to see that this was a whole new world with endless possibilities, imaginatively, creatively and emotionally, -  a “second life!”  
BDSM as a path to enlightenment?!!!
At one point I even got a glimpse of a sim world from the darker side called Gor (again through someone I met on a historical site), where I wondered if there might be  a lot of bored, unhappy housewives and men with masculinity issues behind the beguiling avatars and explicit role play taken from a set of erotic science fantasy novels. There were Vampire sims and other less psychologically savoury places. I think I lasted an hour on Gor, but I met some interesting role players including one woman  who when I asked why she chose this venue told me she had grown spiritually as a submissive slave on Gor! I said nothing and threw that one out into the ethers of cyber space.   Perhaps as  William Blake said " The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom." Do you think? or else this was some kind of cyber insane asylum.   
I quickly had become aware at that time that SL had a high content of  strange behaviours along with those willing to indulge in them.  There were no real restrictions on anything.  Although some things might be considered taboo, the general consensus  seemed to indicate that “if it’s your fantasy then go for it.”  Some people called it a therapeutic release of inhibitions and inner demons,- an acting out in a "safe"environment with the idea of it as being healing, but I couldn't help but think of it in a more sinister light, an opening of a Pandora’s box that can never be closed again and I wondered how this would affect the real life psyche. Honestly speaking I didn't want to explore my dark side! There is a mindset in SL with which for some reason I never was quite able to come to terms.  I felt that eventually the dues would have to be paid.
Ancient Histories you won't find in text books
Nevertheless, through Ancient Rome I found another  beautifully detailed sim with interesting role play called Egypt, Nile 76cbb-hanainpharaohsgardenifmusicbethefooValley, where I joined the citizens of Alexandria as an esteemed  courtier of  the Pharaoh Ptolemy Suter I in the Greco Roman Period. My imagination was on fire and I began to create a story! I was in my stride.  I succeeded for a while to keep real life separate from virtual life.  From the Palace in Alexandria I wandered into the virtual Sahara desert  and a Bedouin camp outside the city walls, and then into a tale of a Bedouin Prince and  his tribe (a grand character, who shared many stories with me and later confided to me as a  friend about some of his own real life struggles.) We all shared a role play life in Ptolemic Egypt including conflicts with Rome and palace betrayals.  So the story was supposed to follow the Pharaoh's Minister into a marriage with the desert sheik in great pomp and circumstance in the temple of Isis so there might be a few more twists to the tale - but no one lived happily ever after. Role play obligations, friendships, commitments, disagreements and emotions could be intense and burdensome, and the lines between fantasy and reality were somewhat blurred  by the pixels of wind and sand. I wondered if this is how actors might feel on movie sets.
 A Death in Second Life
It's a strange feeling to miss or mourn a place that only existed in pixels -  a few electronic and illuminated signals - an illusion. News flash! It's not real -  and yet I know the experience can be  powerful.  The emotions we experience don't discriminate between virtual and authentic life.  Role play stories and the social connections have persuasive effects on the mind.  In my own wordsArt imitates life with virtual dating, dancing, even virtual families.  There are virtual gardens, even some that can be watered (virtually) when the real gardens lie just outside the doors to our technology caves.   It's mind boggling. My own garden was in sore need of hands on weeding!
During my time in SL  sims closed, and a few fellow players died in real life including Pharoah Ptolemy, the visionary creator of  Egypt Nile Valley and the Great Sahara. This beautiful, detailed  sim was soon terminated due to lack of funds and reabsorbed back into the SL grid as though it never existed.  I was wondering why Pharoah (or Bruce) had not been online the last few days. Rumours began circulating that he was dead. A few suggested  he might just be using another avatar (as many do), but after several days I knew he would never just abandon his role and prized creation. His citizens finally received the sad word from someone who knew him in real life that he would not be returning. I was very sad and had not known that he was ill. I hoped that he was loved and that his first life was as eventful as his second but I hadn't known him as any other than "Oh great Pharaoh, Beloved of Ma'at." His subjects held a virtual funeral for him, in procession from the palace to the Valley of the Kings before the grand palace, the temples, the Nile river and all the picturesque Alexandrian pixels were dispersed forever. Are they still floating as memories in cyberspace?  It was all very surreal.  
Thinking back, my time in his Egypt Nile Valley was the most enjoyable and fun time I spent in the virtual role play world. His Egypt was a brilliant work of art and history and virtual theater, and also I'm sure a labour of love. I had been in SL for less than a year.  May your soul be at peace, Bruce, Pharoah Ptolemy Suter, Horus of gold, Lord of the Sedge and the Bee.  
the bedouin camp outside the walls of Alexandria

Memories of Role Play Egypt
( don't run cursor over photos)
Yours virtually with the sheik watching a game of touch football
can you find the goal post Kasim? photo CanyouseethegoalpostKasim.gif
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"can you see the goal post Kasim?"
 the oasis camp outside Alexandria had been a busy hub and for a while it was great fun with some hilarious role play - afterward it unraveled as was inevitable.
 I remain carried away on the pixel winds
phoenixflagatnomadcamp
Persia
After Egypt, Nile Valley, I witnessed the creation of other sims, some of which were also amazing builds.  For several more months I continued to enjoy the story aspect of SL and was invited to play a Princess of Persia where I helped organize a festival, created the Dune Mouse Chronicles ( the Jerboa)  and wrote A Campfire Tale (tales of the caravanserai). I was beginning to transform and my role play characters became slightly tongue in cheek now. I also had discovered scripting and building along the way so that is my own phoenix flag in the picture that flapped and rippled in a good southeasterly. I spent a good deal of time designing and was losing steam in the role play scene.
In my own words
 I also made a riddle fairy quest with scripts and art in a beautiful sim called Ancient Ireland and briefly played a ditzy celtic witch whose spells all went awry. My  Fae Door Quest was written about in Prim Perfect Magazine.  They were featuring interesting sims with an Irish theme.  That magazine is still in publication keeping up to date with real estate  in the virtual world. 
 Romance, betrayal, drama queens and jerks
In the game of Second Life I saw many betrayals and I saw sims that failed due to betrayals including Persia and Ireland. Huge resentments and bitter feelings were sometimes carried forward into new sims and there were many temper tantrums and attempted sabotages.  I saw virtual promiscuity and infidelities, mind games and cruelties.  There still was some excellent role play but with it always, the ever so tiring and non-stop drama.  In other words, the boundaries between real life and virtual were for the majority usually unclear. Role playing could be a lot like real life emotionally, and even more deceitful and cruel because of the careless ease of behaving badly anonymously.   It's easy to idealize love in an imaginary world, but  most relationships take real work to build,  and more than a few romantic words and gestures with the click of key on keyboard. That was painfully made obvious by the doomed romantic couple portrayed in the film, Life 2.0 who left their spouses in real life.
Every hero becomes a bore at last - (ralph waldo emerson)
I thought to myself “why do people put themselves through this turmoil?”  Life can be hard enough and Second Life mimicked first life in all ways! It seemed that most don't escape real life issues but rather magnify them in Second Life, and usually to no worthwhile outcome, but rather just an endless, torturous repetitiveness.   Some people had surreptitious multiple avatars/alter egos and  many had deeper psychological issues. I had an SL stalker at one point I had to mute and report.
what a croc!! (click me carefully)
(What happens in SL stays in SL?- and more drama queens and mad mice)  
while in the Persian sim, I became embroiled in a  situation leading to a culmination of deceit, betrayal, confrontation and an end of friendships. There was a lot of resulting  anger and bitterness.  As in real life gossip and rumours abounded and many  were only too happy to give you the virtual dirt.  People also spied on each other with  "alts" (alternate avatars). The sim eventually collapsed in a huge flurry of drama, insults and infidelities.  The dune mice scattered. I was becoming more disillusioned and suspicious.  
Since then, much time has passed and I bear no ill will to anyone and hope the reverse is true but I knew that what happened in SL was not role play, it was serious business that crossed over into real life! It all now seems so strange and irrational.  But that is another tale. 
Second Thoughts
"But!" -you say,- "it’s supposed to be make believe and fun?!!" 
Ok I get it- what can be better than having a little danger psychologically to make your experience compelling, and yet at the same time know that it is safe physically or at least that is what the brilliant Linden CEO and creator, Mr Rosedale would have us believe.    It seems a good  concept- but -I began to see that the emotional pain and damage were all too real -   real life relationships broken up in favour of virtual ones and one woman who left husband and children in real life to be a slave on Gor, because it “saved” her from her real life depression!! Go to a doctor already!!  This was not like a story, with a beginning and end, this went on and on inexorably.
When you are spending much of your (leisure or other) time in the virtual world, or think of it as the best part of your day, you do have to stop and give your head a shake!!  Trying to talk to online friends about how I was feeling didn't elicit any sympathy or discussion on it.  Though I felt that there might be something wrong with this picture, most others did not.  They loved their pixel mansions and fashions, and pixel boyfriends. "Don't forget, all avatars are real people somewhere!"  I began to have visions of all kinds of unsavoury  characters sitting at their pc's  totally unlike the avatars they portrayed and in varying degrees of mental instability. I began to doubt my own sanity.  I heard some players say they preferred their second lives to their first  and in spite of any toll on their first lives could not or did not want to leave.  I felt sad about that and it seemed a line had been crossed.  It's easy to be defensive and think there are worse things in life than being a Second Life devotee.  I think though, that a break is often needed to see it with fresh eyes or to reset one's compass. I have since talked to others who felt the same way, who became bogged down in the pixels and who have mixed feelings about these brave new worlds.

Practicalities and Money spent
For it is in giving that we truly receive  ( Francis of Assisi)
Practically speaking it took a very large amount of money to keep a full sim up and running (I think a full sim could cost anywhere from 2 - 500 dollars monthly)  -"a lot more than a monthly monetary donation to Feed the Children"- was a thought that crossed my mind more than once and which I  then shrugged off.  I confess I contributed some monies to the sims I joined, and also on costumes, flexies and prims, my own vanities as a "perfect" avatar specimen.  Although there are certain charitable fund raising organizations within SL I saw that  some people spent exorbitant amounts on their virtual lives and I wondered if they were wealthy or reversely if they went without in their first lives.
Some make money in SL and if they make a living then more power to them!   I think a lot of the money made just goes back into supporting one's second life but the documentary Life 2.0 did not elaborate on that when it portrayed an SL designer who spent 15-20 hours a night/day in her pj's  on the basement computer claiming a 6 figure income.  She seemed to have good business acumen and a good personality but her real life seemed lacking and uneventful for all the money she made. 


oh by the way, as an introvert I must say a little about -  Social Anxiety

SL has a very active social aspect which can be fun and interesting and even a jump start for the reclusive or socially anxious, but "most of the time" who the person behind the avatar is or for that matter anyonetell_her_your_a_gaurd_dog met online (and not in the flesh) usually you don't know!! Many are sincere of course, and a few may even cross over into your first life. But if you do crave a more meaningful social life, step out of your comfort zone,  go volunteer your time somewhere.  Join Big Brothers and Sisters,  take up a cause, or spend more time with "first life" friends and family. If something happened to you these are the people who will come to your aid, not your multitude of online friends.
I had a number of  virtual friends  with whom I shared many hours of compelling storytelling, experiences, laughter and emotion.  Only two (who also left)  ever contacted me or answered an email to ask how I am. 
The relentless whirlpool of Second life has both wonderful - and terrible distractions,  but  finding the genuine is always a journey of the heart. As human beings we do have a tendency to waste time anywhere.  Carpe diem! 
 SL (or any other virtual platform) has high points of amazing imagination and creativity.  I was inspired by the some of the art in SL to more creativity in my first life.  There is a great potential in virtual worlds for education. It has been reported that having an avatar can have a positive effect in lifting depression of people with mobility issues. Perhaps given the right circumstance and caution virtual role play can be helpful psychologically to some.
 At the same time, no matter what people might say, there is a very seedy side to SL and on a deeper level it seems to also unleash monumental hedonism, deception, immorality -as well as avoidance of reality. In my tale of the virtual pilgrim I compared SL to a Pandora's Box- once opened it's almost impossible to close.  Does all this perceived "limitless freedom" improve us as human beings or does it result in an incredible amount of lost time, and harm to self and others? 
Teacher are my lessons done?
In my own words
Is there a check out time?
 To be honest,  I met very few who could spend only one or two hours, two or three days a week roaming the virtual world.   I  sometimes too, sat in the evenings in front of my monitor for many hours enthralled by a story or in a creative fervour but I now feel that I was wasting a lot of time and perhaps missing other opportunities. I certainly wasn't making money there and a virtual life demands it's own price of time and emotion, sometimes excessively. But I know each person must decide what is important to them and come to that point on their own.  Time spent in a virtual world might not seem a waste of time to everyone.  For me though  I wondered if my life on many levels was at a standstill.  Even though I didn't blame SL for that I felt I had come to a wall.  My creativity  had timed out.  I was not 'fully in the present"  and I wasn't being "mindful" in either world.  I realized that to be the best I can be I must  concentrate on what was true value for me. Sadly, my real life was about to deliver a bitterly painful blow.
The precarious balancing act of two worlds
When all was said and done the time divided between two worlds might be compared to the parable of serving two masters; - one will almost certainly win out over the other.  But the universe and God sometimes have plans for us and not always what we would want.  We can be caught unaware and then we must pay attention. My closest SL friend became seriously ill in real life and thus began his own transformation and withdrawal as he re-evaluated his life. I was already in the throes of change and spending much less time in the virtual world but there was much worse to come. A sudden death dealt a devastating blow to my family. I felt both sorrow and guilt as often happens when tragedies occur that are not foreseen and at last, I realized  that time truly does slip away and is therefore so precious.  Suddenly for me, at that moment of reality the whole second life experience with it's own vanities, deceptions, and lack of physical effort, seemed empty and profligate. I needed to completely change direction and find renewed purpose.
My family picked up the pieces and went forward as best we could,  and it wasn't easy. Healing will come slowly though grief will forever be a part of the joys and challenges. I came to realize that much of life is about loss, and yet that can strengthen and forge us too.  I had to learn to let go.  
Now here's a no brainer: the more time  (and money) spent  in and improving  Second Life, the more real life passes by;  and perhaps  less time is spent  setting the imagination free in a different way, so ....  I ended up taking some courses,  reading books again , meditating, doing Tai chi, and travelling more. I took a new job and got out with a camera into the countryside.
 ...and so..we embarked, two trekkers, storytellers and histinvernessriverory seekers seen here at Inverness,  the gateway to the spectacular Scottish highlands - one part of a summer's journey through  breathtaking Scotland, Ireland  and  then France (a year of exciting planning, and saving). I am a dreamer but I want to realize my dreams in all fullness.  I became an explorer again. We met up with our relatives in those green glens and fairy groves, explored  the countryside and old stones and drank French wine by the Seine and even found the graves of Jim Morrison and Isadora Duncan.   I turned my imagination and focus to what Oscar Wilde, (- we also visited his grave in Pere LaChaise), one of my favourite writers,  so eloquently said -“The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”  So much to unravel and unfold and write about !! 
A change in direction meant ultimately to log out of the virtual playground. I wasn't sure at that point when I might be back so I said a goodbye on mywebaaabc profile.  I thought of it as taking a hiatus but realized that SL itself can also be the hiatus in reverse. SL is not liberating as many claim. In a way it can become a prison of it's own. I knew if and when I did return I would have a different perspective.  It had been both a disturbing and a fascinating journey -  and I was ready for something new. Still,  I wasn't able to delete and destroy my beautiful heroic avatar who was part of my  creative endeavours, and storytelling.  I left her there in slumber, suspended in cyberspace, slowly circling like a dream catcher,  all memories of her adventures and her stories caught up as the shining, flickering shadows of my own dreams.  (2012)

Part 2
 back on earth - the dune mouse discovers baseball, and  transits Venus on the way to the Ring of Brodgar 
I actually captured it!  Venus transiting the sun 2012

Go Pickles

A return to Ixtlan? 
"I will never reach Ixtlan he said, "Yet in my feelings... in my feelings sometimes I think I'm just one step from reaching it. Yet I never will. In my journey I don't even find the familiar landmarks I used to know. Nothing is any longer the same."  -  Carlos Castaneda, A Journey to Ixtlan
2015- I  finally popped back in-world with an old friend and with some trepidation, to look around again and say hello.   Many of the same people I had met before are still there and very involved with their virtual lives and the social platform. Others have left - or "perhaps left"- (as only an SLer will understand!).  I enjoyed exploring again and seeing the art that had first attracted me, but the seductive spell that had  first captured me had been broken by my absence. There was a readjustment as my direction and perceptions had changed.  "Nothing is any longer the same."
There are some amazing artists, designers, writers and dreamers and the venue remains a wonderful canvas for the imaginative mind. This for me is the best of a virtual world like SL -but as there is a lot of time involved in building a "life" in second life I prefer  keeping a virtual experience as an enhancement to my world of adventure and  five senses.  I remain a gypsy in both worlds.