After Alan Donais lost his job of 30 years because the company shut down, he up and moved from his home in London, Ont. to live on a 32-foot boat in Nashville, Tenn.
"It was a complete change of life for me," Donais said. "And living on the water is a lot different than land."
After decades in the same job, living in the same city, he made social ties that were hard to leave behind.
"In that time I had lots of friends and miss them a lot. I haven’t talked to hardly any of them. So you think, you know, wonder what they’re up to, wonder what they’re doing, wonder if they got a job, wonder if they’re thinking of me," Donais said. "But you’ve got to move on."
Donais said leaving the friends he’s known for years isn’t easy, but he said he’s getting used to living in a new place.
"Change is good," he said.
And after six months of living there, Donais has started to make himself at home again.
"It’s like a small community down at the marina. If you need a hand with anything, there’s always someone there to help you."
Today, as economic resources are strained, companies are struggling to make ends meet and more people are finding themselves in Donais’s situation.
Linden Labs is one company that has experienced economic strain. But if it were to close its doors, it wouldn’t just put people out of jobs, it would put millions of people out of their second home.
One Second Lifer who calls himself Hardthrust Rumpler compared the possibility of Second Life closing to being uprooted.
"It would be like moving from one place to another and losing friendships etcetera you had in your old location, especially casual ones like say the guy at the coffee shop," Rumpler said over Second Life. "You would have a sense of loss I’m sure."
In his real life, Rumpler is a university administrator from Australia. Like Donais, he would have to build a new community if his virtual one was suddenly shut down.
For Rumpler, connections made in the virtual world are parallel to those in the real world. He said things online can become even more personal.
"What tends to happen in Second Life is that everything to do with relationships is on hyper drive. Add that to the lack of inhibition due to anonymity and relationships form very, very quickly," he said. "You can meet someone, talk to them in IM and very soon you may be telling them very personal things about yourself and your feelings."
He said if Second Life were taken away, it would leave a gap in his life.
"He has become a part of me. That may sound dumb, but it’s true," he said. "It would be losing a part of myself that I use to express myself."
Rumpler said his online persona allows him to explore his identity through things like his actions and choice of clothes.
Associate professor of computer science, Mike Katchabaw, said people become emotionally engaged in online worlds like Second Life.
"You start to identify with the character. You get feelings for that person that you’re playing. You feel an attachment to that world because you’re spending time in it," he said.
Katchabaw said if the world were to shut down, some people wouldn’t care and would simply look for something else to do online. But for the many people who have built relationships in Second Life, he said, the closure of the world could have a significant impact.
"In a way it would almost be like they got into an accident and they temporarily lost the use of their legs and they can’t get out of their home," Katchabaw said, adding that if they were to also lose access to email and phone, they would feel the same kind of disconnection.
Being disconnected from Second Life for an extended period of time, Katchabaw said, would almost be like withdrawal for some users.
Brad Dorrance agrees. He founded the London, Ont. chapter of Online Gamers Anonymous after he gave up his online life. He said the process of quitting put him into a state of withdrawal.
"There is irritability. There is anxiety," he said. "There’s dreaming about the game at night when I was asleep. Thinking about it constantly. And you know, going through just kind of a mental obsession with it."
"I’ve heard other people tell me the same thing, that it was very hard to let go of that."
Dorrance decided to quite his online gaming because his online identity had begun to affect his offline life.
"Unfortunately I was looking to gaming to solve all my problems rather than dealing with it constructively. So I wound up playing way too much and I guess kind of running away from them," he said, adding that he could spend 60 to 80 hours a week playing games.
Dorrance said he immersed himself in online role-playing games to escape reality.
"If everything else in your life is falling apart you can jump in and do or be anything you want to. I think that’s pretty attractive stuff," he said.
"To create that alternate identity, that avatar, is much more interesting and much more easy to get heavily invested in."
As he felt strain from relationships and being out of work, Dorrance said his alternate identity gave him an out.
"Escaping from that for hours and hours a day was really a drug for me."
But, eventually, Dorrance said, that escape wasn’t enough.
"I was lonely, I was miserable, I was empty and I was just going through the motions of gaming every day 10, 12 hours and again there was nothing left to it. So you can’t get any lower than that and that’s basically how it ended."
He quit gaming after he saw his mental health deteriorating and tried to commit suicide. Although his own experience has turned Dorrance away from the gaming world forever, he said online games are manageable for most.
"For most people, those potentially addictive design elements are manageable and just make the game fun," he said.
For Dorrance, there is a difference between a healthy escape and an addiction.
"We all have our escapes, right? We love to go to the movies, we love to go out with friends. It’s important to have those outlets, but its also important to put them in perspective," he said.
"When our escapes become our lives and when our lives take a back seat, then something’s out of whack. That’s really the difference."
One woman gave up her second life after she found her escape into the virtual world taking over her real life. A video-game designer from northeastern U.S. created a Second Life avatar named Morgana Darkstone but gave up her alternate identity when she found herself spending up to 10 to 12 hours a day in the virtual world.
"There came a point where eventually I really wanted to do nothing else except log in to Second Life. Real life became secondary to me, a distraction, an annoyance, a boring but problem-rich irritation that I had to suffer through in between my online sessions," said Darkstone in an online message.
"Over time, I came to prioritize Second Life over my real life relationships and work and responsibilities, which of course, negatively impacted all of them."
Darkstone joined Second Life at a time in her life when she was unhappy and longed for an escape. But soon, she said she discovered that this new identity was more than just an escape from real life problems, it was an outlet for a part of her that she wasn’t ready to explore in the real world.
"I think that Morgana, at the core of it, personified a repressed part of my sexuality. I am a closet bisexual in real life, but happily married to a man. He and all the world think I am straight," she said.
"No one knows that I have bisexual feelings. So, the anonymity of, and the ability to create a persona in Second Life allowed me to explore the lesbian side of sexuality."
The experience was an eye opener. Darkstone said she was surprised at how passionate and engaged she became in pursuing relationships with women. She loved the freedom of being able to explore this side of her sexuality without consequence.
"It felt great to come out, even if only in a virtual world," she said.
She became consumed with her virtual identity and invested countless hours creating an avatar that reflected what she would ideally like to look like.
"I made her dark eyed and dark haired: qualities I see as sultry and seductive," said Darkstone.
"Of course, she looks nothing like the real me. I have mousy brown hair, green eyes, an average build, and am on the short side. Attractive but ordinary. Darkstone was intended to be gloriously beautiful with a sexy, slightly dangerous allure. In other words, nothing like me."
A year and a half after starting Second Life, Darkstone said she realized that while she was immersing herself in the virtual world, she was neglecting her marriage, her health and fitness and her work-a change in behaviour that contributed to her losing her job.
"In a way, my real life world has been burning down around me, while I ignored the smoke and flames and escaped into Second Life."
The problems she was facing in real life only worsened and she was no longer able to pacify herself with Second Life.
Loss of Second Life
"So, I resolved to quit SL. Finally. And for good," she said. "I feel that it is imperative to the health and wellbeing of me, my family, my relationships, and my income, that I do. It is deadly serious to me."
On Dec. 5, 2008, Morgana logged in for the last time on Second Life.
But for many people, being cut off from the virtual world would be devastating.
Psychology Professor Guy Grenier said that, for those who have disconnected themselves from their real world, the collapse of the virtual world could cause them to undergo a grieving process.
Grenier said the day after Second Life shut down there would likely be an uproar.
"Certainly it’s going to be night of the living dead," he laughed. "All of these zombies are going to come out the next day."
But even though the day after might be scary, Grenier said most people would be able to move on with their lives.
A second identity
For some people, Grenier said, creating an avatar is just a matter of curiosity. But for many, it’s about building an identity.
Mark Federman, a McLuhanist researcher at the University of Toronto, says the desire to escape reality by seeking an alternate identity is nothing new.
For centuries, people used fictional literature to take them out of their real life and into that of the characters, he said. In the early twentieth century, people turned to movies to take them away from the Depression’s grim reality.
"Their lives were so unglamorous they wanted for that hour and a half or two hours to be taken into the bejeweled, bedecked, wonderful fantasy life that they could just escape to and become something else, to identify with the characters and the situations that they saw on the screen," explained Federman.
"[They did it] literally to live out aspects that they could not realize in their first life, in reality."
People also learn social skills through their avatars, said Federman. He disagrees with those who say that technology and the subsequent cyber world are isolating.
"Somebody who’s sitting there typing on their computer without a social connection, not in Second Life … that’s isolating," said Federman. "But when one is connected and engaged in the larger world, which is that we contribute to people’s identities and they contribute to ours, then, and only then, do we get this collaborative construction of identity."
Federman said the world is in a 300-year cycle of adopting technology, which began with the invention of the telegraph some 160 years ago and has been characterized by increasingly rapid exchanges of information.
Today, people use technology to interact in forums like Second Life and their identity is shaped by these relationships, but there’s always the possibility that Second Life will die out. Since Second Life relationships are a rehearsal of real life social skills, according to Federman, people would be prepared to use what they have learned.
"If it disappears off the face of the earth, people have rehearsed, and once the trauma and the lawsuits finish, this is a (social) skill they have acquired."
According to some people, the end of the virtual world is something that might become reality.
Jonathon Himoff, CEO and founder of Rezzables, a company that creates and manages virtual destinations, doesn’t see virtual worlds as they exist today playing a big role in the metaverse of the future.
"I think the whole virtual world space itself will collapse because a world isn’t as interesting as the web."
But that doesn’t mean virtual identities will cease to exist. Himoff predicts the avatar will be taken to a new level when it manages to escape the boundaries of the virtual world.
"Really, what people want to do is be able to travel across the entire web using an avatar and having an immersive, rich experience," he said.
Alexis Brown, Kate Kurys, Emily Burke and Jill Buchner are students in the MA Journalism Program at the University of Western Ontario.
Who R U? An Exploration of Identity at the Edge of Tech, is a collaborative feature series created by the students of the 2008 Online Journalism class at the University of Western Ontario, Instructed by Wayne MacPhail. The series looks at how technology is changing our identities and our idea of identity. Each of the nine episodes includes a feature article, a podcast (part of the rabble podcast network) and a video segment on rabbletv. We’ll feature one episode a week, each Thursday here on rabble.ca. Hope you enjoy Who R U? We welcome your feedback, as do the great students who produced the series. Thanks to all of them for sharing their work with the rabble audience.