EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece was originally written back in the fall of 2007 for the Image section of the Sunday Inquirer. For reasons that remain unclear, the piece never ran. Today on Philly.Com, they posted what is basically the same story with different people — eight months later! On top of that, they cluelessly characterize Second Life as a video game, which is sorta like calling the Internet ‘a series of pipes.’ Sorry, just venting my frustration with the institutional arrogance of slow-brained bureaucracies. The accompanying video piece, however, is an excellent example of how newspapers can use the web’s audio/visual components to amplify and expand the reader’s experience with the written word. Anyway, if you are asking yourself: Why a Second Life story on Phawker now, eight months after I actually gave a fuck? — well, now you know. Enjoy.
BY JONATHAN VALANIA Keiko Ketsugo sits Indian-style on a duck down duvet that sets cloud-like upon a broad sleigh bed in an upscale apartment in a desirable neighborhood in the city. The thirtysomething mother of one pecks at her Mac Powerbook open clam-like in front her. It is via this device that she will arrive without traveling. Tonight she is going to Hyperborea, and to get there she will journey across impossibly vast distances in the blink of an eye — 23,700 miles per second, to be exact — either by using the teleporter or simply flying there. Upon arrival, she will chat and flirt with friends and strangers, and quite possibly get romantic with her boyfriend. Or perhaps she will go down to her favorite dance club where the deepest house music is always pumping. She loves to dance. Or maybe she will go to a concert. Who knows, maybe Brian Eno, John Mayer or P-Diddy might be playing tonight. Or perhaps, with her pockets bulging with fresh, crisp Lindens, she will go shopping and buy pretty much anything or everything she wants. Or maybe there is a meeting tonight of The Liberation Army, of which she is a member, where they will plot another ‘direct action’ against the hive of French fascists in the Front Nationale — much like the time they blew up the American Apparel building just for being so clueless, crass and capitalist.
You see, about a year ago Keiko Ketsugo [pictured, right] got a second life. More accurately, she joined Second Life: a vast Internet-based 3-D simulation of reality, where you can literally be anything and everything you ever wanted to be — rich or thin or gorgeous or happy ever after, or better yet, all the above — and literally do whatever you want in a consequence-free environment. Players — and there are reportedly some 9.8 million of them — are tasked with the godlike power to create new life, as in a Second Life, for themselves. People in Second Life inhabit avatars or 3-D virtual representations of themselves. Avatars are almost always idealized versions of the self, and invariably look the way you always wanted to look if you were not at the mercy of the cruel randomness of the genetic lottery. Second Lifers spend a great deal of time and a fair amount of actual money, to create the lifestyle they’ve always dreamed of — remember, in Second Life nothing is true and so everything is permitted — and enjoy it as the person they always wanted to be. It is because of all of the above, but most notably her involvement in the decidedly anti-corporate Second Life Liberation Army — she is the group’s public affairs officer and fields the myriad or real-world media requests (ABC News, Reuters, The BBC) that come in after one of their direct actions — that Keiko’s true identity must remain a secret. You see, in real life, Keiko is a very prominent member of the local media establishment and she is quite certain her superiors would frown upon her political activities. After all, one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. Oh, and there is one other reason for her insistence on anonymity: her boyfriend is married in real life.
Tim Allen and Jennifer Vatza [pictured, lower left], a thirty-something married couple residing a cozy ranch-style house in Lafayette Hill, are only too happy to use their real names in print. You see, for the past four years Second Life has been a major part of their first life. Tech-savvy, early-adapters — she is an administrator for Moore College of Art and he’s the chief of technology for Crompco, a company that tests gas stations for environmental compliance — Allen and Vatza got second lives shortly after Second Life was launched in 2003. What lured in both Allen and Vatza was Second Life provision that any intellectual property that you create in Second Life — and you can manufacture and sell anything in Second Life that you can manufacture and sell in real life, and then some — will always belong to you. This remains an important distinction between Second Life and similar virtual world games, such as There, Active Worlds, and the more “mature” themed Red Light Center, and why Second Life draws so many creative types. Why Brian Eno and John Mayer give concerts in Second Life, and stores like American Apparel and corporations like IBM have created virtual versions of themselves in Second Life. It is why CBS has funneled $8 million into Second Life companies and why much of the action in a recent episode of CSI NY was set in Second Life. Like real life, Second Life has its own economy wherein players trade goods and services for Lindens, the official currency of SL. Currently, 265 Lindens equals $1.
Vatza, who has a degree in fashion design, created a line of edgy women’s apparel and opened up a high fashion boutique that nets upwards of a thousand dollars a month. Allen founded and sold off a number of SL companies, including the SLBoutique.com and sold it off for a tidy sum to Electric Sheep, one of the major movers and shakers in SL. Both Vatza and Allen were early promoters of the SL lifestyle, evangelizing about its awesome creative potential and capacity to create social networks on a scale that makes Facebook and MySpace seem like training wheels for Internet beginners. They organized and hosted national conventions for hardcore Second Lifers, and Allen ensured that Crompco now has the distinction of the being the first real life company to utilize Second Life for employee training. Vatza, who also managed the local rock band Trouble Everyday, encouraged her charges to be the first Philadelphia rock band to give a concert on Second Life. “We had a bunch of people from Brazil show up,” says Vartza. “How many bands from Philly get to play Brazil?”
Bringing people together is the whole point of Second Life, according to Allen. “I find the Internet to be a cold and lonely place,” he says. “A lot of people who write about Second Life get hung up on the virtual environment aspect but all the 3-D structure is not as important as building communities. Second Life is all about interaction and collaboration with other people and that, above all things, is the beauty of it.”
Keiko Ketsugo wants to make one thing perfectly clear: She did not go on Second Life looking for romance. It just happened. It’s difficult for her to gauge just how important or meaningful her SL relationships are, but these people are very dear to her (she has even met a few in real life) and just because her activities on Second Life aren’t ‘real’ — and that term becomes increasingly malleable when you cross into the murky world of 3-D sim environments — that doesn’t make them any less exciting, pleasurable, satisfying, and for that matter, legitimate in her estimation. And Second Life is not just about shopping and dancing and romance, Keiko insists. You can also save the world, she says, or at least try. In addition to her role as press attache for the Second Life Liberation Army, Keiko is currently working with a business partner on launching a company that will compute the carbon footprint of corporations in Second Life, assess a fee and then use that money to plant trees in real life to offset the environmental impact.
Keiko figures she spends about as much time each week on SL as most folks do watching television — an activity she has completely lost interest in since she joined SL — and she says her monthly SL user fees are roughly the same as a month of cable. “I am over TV,” she says. “That probably sounds strange coming from somebody who works in the media, but I am over it and I can’t imagine going back.”
UPDATE: Jonathan, quite a lot has changed since you wrote the story. The SLLA imploded when charges were made that it’s founder was in fact in real life the owner of corporate intelligence company. I had a chance to take a trip to meet my sl boyfriend and it was extraordinary. At little awkward at first but because we had come to know each other’s minds so deeply in our experience in Second Life – the transition into real life was soon quite seemless. It was crashingly romantic but brought home the fact that no matter how interesting, sexy and exciting our sl relationship (and it was intensely all those things) it paled when we were together in the real world. When I returned – sl suddenly lost its attraction. I also realized that I need someone who is all the qualities my sl boyfriend has – but who is available and can be embraced. I have not one regret about my sl experience. It’s gotten to me think differently about what’s possible in my life creatively. Plus after years of being emotionally defended I got to have something I thought I’d never feel again – the experience of being deeply and passionately in love. So even though I’m a bit bruised – sl showed me what’s possible emotionally. — KEIKO KETSUGO