Virtual World Emigrants: Embarking for a New World

Like these cats, residents of Second Life are moving to unknown places.

Those who have been following the evolution of Second Life know that the sands are shifting again, this time spurred by news that Linden Labs will be eliminating discounts for non-profit and educational institutions January 2011. The result appears to be a mass emigration underway as Second Life refugees make their way to other grids.

The metaverse has changed significantly in the past couple of years–there are many more places to go. While there are a plethora of gaming worlds, there also has been an increase in worlds similar to Second Life, including several that use the Second Life code as their starting place. This tweet by Cathy Anderson links to a timeline of virtual worlds which illustrates the explosion:

This weekend I began exploring some of these other worlds, specifically those that share the key characteristic of Second Life that made it so attractive to educators, the ability to modify the environment and create truly original content.  It was a bit overwhelming–as the timeline above illustrates, there’s a lot out there!  But as I moved my avatar through one of the other world grids, I had a new appreciation for Second Life, in particular an appreciation for all the content created by its user community; the freedom  to create and distribute content is what has made the platform so powerful and successful. This potential is included in the new grids, too, but a quick perusal of what’s currently out there drove home the reality that those users who are migrating to these grids have their work cut out for them.

I am reminded of what happened when large numbers of people left Europe to move to the “New World” to establish the colonies in the United States: they left behind many aspects of their existing societies and began building their world anew. The new colonies had a more primitive living standard than what the colonists left behind, a trade-off they made because of the freedom and opportunity the new world promised. Similarly, the “starting over” faced by these virtual world pioneers means a return to a rougher way of virtual life.

Living in a pup tent on the sand

Ready to "Rough It" in Virtual Worlds

For those interested in the company of some fearless fellow explorers, there is the Hypergrid Adventurers Club founded by John “Pathfinder” Lester (formerly Pathfinder Linden in Second Life). I have no doubt that members of that group will be the pioneer leaders for the rest of us and will do much of the heavy lifting of settling those new worlds. Having spent only couple of hours exploring on my own, I can see there are real benefits of linking up with a group, just as there were benefits for the pioneers who settled our physical world to do the same.

For my part, the roughing it that comes with exploring these new worlds can feel intriguing–and  exhausting. After spending a couple hours exploring one new grid, I ended the night by logging into Second Life to hear an outstanding live music performance. I’m sure I will go back to explore the new worlds. But unlike the pioneers who established new worlds on our planet, it’s nice to have the option to experience the comforts of the old world at the end of the day.

Photo, Cats in Space, courtesy of WF&DT.

The Power of Virtual Placemaking: A Transformational Memorial

The Transgender memorial in Second Life

The Grounds of the International Transgender Hate Crimes and Suicide Memorial

The power of virtual immersive platforms becomes really clear when you find a place in a virtual world that really uses the environment effectively. The International Transgender Hate Crimes and Suicide Memorial provides an excellent example of such a space.  To start, the memorial is a peaceful, visually appealing place: a beautiful building and surrounding green space, with the sound of waves crashing at the shore. The dark granite walls, reminiscent of the Vietnam Memorial Wall, lend a somber tone to the space and the feeling of being in a protected enclave.

Upon entering the building you encounter an alter filled with pink and blue candles.  This is the memorial for transgendered people who have died from suicide. Each candle has a name associated with it and when you click on the candle a description of what happened to that person comes up in the chat. I clicked on quite a few of the candles: the tragedy of these deaths comes through loud and clear. Nearby the altar is a box where you can submit a request to light a candle for someone.


The alter with candles inside the memorial

The Altar with Candles

Outside there are headstones, each one representing the homicide of a transgendered person. Once again, as you click on each headstone a description of how the person was murdered is shared in chat. The horror of these deaths is palpable. There are two large pillars on either side of the memorial which have names etched in brass, listed by year. Currently there are names going as far back as 1998, but one of the memorial creators, Random Demin, told me they have names going back 40 years.

Its hard to describe the emotional power of this place. I felt a deep sadness and anger: the candles, headstones and list of names all come together to drive home the violence, loss and utter senselessness of these deaths. The information here–about the violence our society perpetuates against transgendered people–is not new to me. But this information is delivered with a powerful punch: the names of people and the stories about their death personalizes the information in a way that statistics can’t.

Stepping back from this experience, it’s helpful to consider how this place might be helpful in a healing process for some people–clearly not all of what’s needed, but certainly presenting an opportunity for transformation:

  • Suicides often invoke shame for survivors, and shame isolates people and grows stronger in isolation. Certainly there is a lot of cultural shame that is levied on transgendered people. Standing in front of those candles–yes, even standing as an avatar–one can sense the power of numbers. All of a sudden it’s no longer about one suicide…it’s about many suicides and it’s about a world that hurts people for who they are, hurts them so much that they feel they have no choice but to leave it. This awareness of the larger context can help support a transformation of shame into anger: anger at the conditions that make it a hostile world.
  • You can memorialize someone you’ve lost with a candle or a headstone by contacting the site’s creators. This is a powerful symbolic act for many people in real life and virtual life. It burns perpetually, both in memory of the loved one and bearing witness.
  • It’s hard to come to this memorial space without seeing the larger context: a society that is hostile to a group of people. Understanding this larger context provides a deeper level of understanding and potentially can become the impetus for taking social action. Taking action is taking power back, and powerlessness is part of the core of what is so difficult when a loved one is lost to a traumatic death.
  • Building this memorial space is both a healing act and an act that challenges our larger society to take stock of such senseless deaths and challenge the people and culture that perpetuate this violence.

    Statue in the Courtyard

Random Demin was able to give me some background on this project. She and Gwen Collins created the memorial in 2007 and held their first 24 hour vigil there that year on the International Transgender Day of Remembrance, November 20th. This Day of Remembrance was established in 1999 by Gwendolyn Ann Smith. Moreover, the project has a larger long-term goal of creating a memorial in real life. In the mean time, Second Life provides a good substitute that can fill some of the functions of a real life memorial in a safe place.

This memorial is a wonderful example of the power of virtual placemaking in terms of healing grief, raising awareness about injustice, and facilitating community. You can visit the memorial in Second Life at As in past years, they will be holding a 24 hour vigil there on November 20, 2010. You contact Random Demin through Second Life or through the Foundation for Advancement of Transgender Equality,  F.A.T.E. International.

Grieving in Virtual Spaces

Vietnam Wall

Vietnam Memorial Wall in Second Life

So many of the cultural practices involved in grieving are healing because they bring people together to share their grief. The sharp edges of grief are softened when we come together with others to grieve together. Recent events in my life have left me thinking a lot about the power of virtual spaces in helping people grieve.

Certainly coming together face to face is vitally important. But this is always time limited and it’s also not always possible. Virtual spaces can provide a way to extend the reach of a community.  There are many forms that these spaces can take: forums and listservs, virtual condolence books, memorial websites,  and Facebook pages are some simple examples.  A more complex example of a virtual memorial can occur in 3-D space, creating memorials in virtual worlds.

  • Forums, Listservs, Chat Rooms: a virtual bulletin board or email listserv can both become a form of virtual group when a shared grief experience emerges, or when they formed with the purpose of providing a safe grieving space. They function very much like a group, except they are asynchronous, that is, the members are interacting from different points in time and space. Chat rooms, on the other hand, are synchronous virtual groups, which requires that all members be on at the same time. These are harder to organize, as a result, although you can find them online. I haven’t seen any dedicated to grief issues, but they may well be out there. There even can occur within virtual worlds like Second Life, where avatars will get together at a common place and time to discuss a shared topic; in this case it’s the getting together with other avatars that forms the core of the grieving experience, not the space itself. While members of forums, listservs, and chat rooms might end up grieving the death of an individual member, most often they are groups devoted to some shared type of grieving experience, e.g., parents of murdered children, etc.
  • Virtual Condolence Books: At the simplest level, these places can provide an opportunity to convey condolences, thought, and memories to the family of the deceased, often across a distance: virtual condolence books serve this function well. I just shared some thoughts with my cousins on the loss of their mom, my aunt, someone I haven’t seen since I was a child. I wasn’t able to make it to the memorial service that was being held many states away from me, but it was a way for me to convey some thoughts about my aunt to them. Certainly, sympathy cards can convey this too, but there is something powerful about seeing all the condolences together. I was disappointed to see, however, that the site only stays active for one month, although there is the option to buy a year, a “forever” website, or a bound book for the family.
  • Websites:–or a simpler option, Facebook pages–also offer a chance to share condolences with the family. However, this medium allow for richer sharing opportunities, a virtual memorial space that invites diverse members to share, not just those who were the closest to the deceased, as is the case in real world memorial services. I just started a memorial Facebook page last week for a colleague/friend, a psychologist, who died suddenly in a biking accident. In addition to the information about memorial events and the photos that have been shared, a friend of his posted a link to music (Into the West, from Lord of the Rings 3) as a tribute, and a couple who had received treatment from him shared their thoughts, as well. This type of virtual space has the potential to allow people to go one step further and  interact with one another. In this way it it can facilitate the development of some sense of community, a group of people coming together to share their grief. At the same time, people are free to “lurk,” that is, choose not to participate but to experience the site at a private level.
  • Virtual World Memorials: My last example of a virtual grieving place are memorials created in 3-D, virtual worlds, like Second Life. A quick place search on “memorial” yields a long list. I visited two: Transgender Hate Crimes and Suicide Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial Wall, a reproduction of the real world monument. The first illustrates how virtual worlds can provide an opportunity to create memorial spaces that are unique to those platforms–the latter demonstrates the ability to create representations of real world places that have significant meaning. There’s so much more to explore when it comes to virtual world spaces that I will pick this up in a future post.

    Transgender Second Life Memorial

    Transgender Memorial in Second Life

All of these examples illustrate some ways in which virtual spaces can mimic “real-world” grieving rituals. But I think the real power of these spaces lies in their ability to provide novel ways to facilitate grief work–options that haven’t been open to us previously. For example, an event memorial website provides a grieving space for a much larger community than one would ever have ready access to in the real world. These can spring up “ad hoc” in the comments around news stories of terrible events. But they are more enduring when they become sites devoted to the event/tragedy. This September 11th Memorial is one such example. The International AIDs Candlelight Memorial is another. These sites offer opportunities to share grief with people all over the world. Just taking a moment to look through the 12250 dedications (as of 8/8/10, 6pm EDT) at the AIDS site one sees dedications to individuals, and some to much larger groups of people. These sites offer an opportunity to link to a global community around an important issue or event. The AIDS site, in particular, links to many sources of updated information about the AIDs epidemic, providing a good example of an effort to transform grief into some action that will bring meaning to the loss. This same opportunity arises with virtual world memorial sites, but in addition to providing all the opportunities that a website might provide, they can provide unique opportunities for interaction among individuals within the environment, or between individuals and the environment.

I would love to hear any thoughts/experiences you have on this topic in the comments.

Future blog posts on this topic: virtual spaces can create new rituals for grieving,  how social workers might use these tools with their clients.

The Power of Virtual Place

A moment enjoying “place” in Second life

Many have written about the power of place, that is, how location–physical space and the physical environment–anchor our sense of ourselves and our lives. The experience of returning home to a familiar landscape after traveling to foreign terrains evokes a feeling of comfort, of being “all right” with one’s world. This power of place is rooted in the geography as well as in the built environment. Significant changes to these environments can result in a feeling of dislocation: recall the scene in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life where George Bailey experiences his home community, Bedford Falls, as it would have looked had he not been born. His anxiety mounts as he frantically looks for familiar landmarks and either fails to find them, or finds them significantly changed.

I know all of this as a social worker, as someone who understands the importance of understanding people within their environments. Even so, I wasn’t prepared for the emotional impact of the disruption of place in a virtual world.

There was a time when I spent a good deal of time exploring Second Life, the 3D virtual world where users create the world and all that lies within it. Second Life is primarily a space where people interact and connect. Yet unlike the socializing that occurs in many other virtual spaces, e.g, Facebook, Instant Messaging, chat rooms, etc.,  those interactions take place within very specific places. As in “real life” (the physical world) connecting with people in Second Life can occur while sitting on a beach, walking in a forest, drinking coffee in a cafe, or dancing to live music. Over time, one typically develops favorite places, in fact, Second Life allows you to highlight those places on your profile. And as you get to know people you develop favorite places to frequent together.

Last night I spent some time back in Second Life exploring some new places. After doing this, it then occurred to me that it would be nice to see some of my favorite places again. I wasn’t prepared for the sinking feeling in my stomach as I called up the address for some of those places and saw the words “unknown region” instead. There was a moment of disbelief and disorientation. And then sadness. And then a bit of that frantic feeling expressed by George Bailey as his world made no sense. I wondered if I had any photos of those places. And I felt a strong urge to gather up those photos and look them over, in the same way I’ve done when someone I know has died.

These feelings reminded me vividly of one of the most important things that my experience in Second Life taught me: that our reactions to 3D spaces and the digital images within them are very real, suggesting that reality is more an internal experience than an external physical state.