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Real Life

Second Life offers a heightened reality.

Immortal Scofield could be considered a goth dreamboat. He is tall with long, flowing raven-coloured hair, a goatee and broad shoulders. He’s gregarious and popular, enjoys moshing and being funny. He is in the bands Gorgoroth and Type O Negative and sometimes stumbles around drunk---having a good time and entertaining people.

Immortal’s sister Allatu is more serious. She is three years younger, five feet two inches tall, with a round face, long black hair, pale skin and black make-up. She is a businesswoman, running a company called The 3rd Six, selling death metal t-shirts and gothic wear.

Sounds like people you might know? Well, you don’t. That’s because they’re not real. The diabolical duo are a pair of avatars, demon vampires in the 3D virtual world Second Life. In Second Life, your avatars can have relationships, parties and sex, earn real money and buy products from companies such as Adidas, Mazda and Telus. They can also fly, teleport or own a baby unicorn as a pet.

Holly Fox, a local player, created her satanic Scofield siblings over a year ago when she first registered on the site. “It’s a playing dolls kind of thing,” she says. Offline, Fox is 31, a Satanist, a mother of a teenager, works two jobs and is involved in the local metal music scene.

While some people take to consuming copious amounts of alcohol or drugs for escape from the minutiae of everyday life, others turn to the virtual world where they create a newer, better version of themselves. Want to be more popular? Skinnier? Taller? Funnier? Want to change your eye colour? How about grow a tail? Need a confidence booster? Create a profile of who you have the potential to be. Upgrade and upsize your own persona on the internet! The possibilities are endless.For Lee Chisholm, another Second Life user, it’s all about the people inside it and the objects they have built or are building. “Second Life IS real life. It’s just a connector between you and other people in the world, but it represents you in three dimensions.” Chisholm, 26, says Second Life is just a natural progression of how we view information. For him, the appeal of Second Life lies in the business and technical opportunities, allowing people to test new business ventures without risk, representing things more comprehensively or interactively in a 3D model rather than a 2D webpage.

While not everyone is on Second Life or even on networking sites, most of us don’t spend a day without going online, using the internet to gather information, communicating and conducting business and work. There are countless ways to distract us from the daily ennui of school and work: Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and Wikipedia seem to reign. Even email has become passe in the wake of all of this: We want our information interactive and we want it now. So when does spending too much time online become a problem?

Dalhousie Counselling Services deals with students and assists them with a variety of concerns, including addictions. Dr. Victor Day, a psychologist and director of the centre, says online addiction is a loose term, more of a conceptual analogy. “We see it more like a problematic habit. From that point of view it depends on what the nature of the habit is. People use the internet in a number of ways.” Often internet addiction is linked to other addictions like pornography or gambling. What about online role-playing? Images of a techno nerd holed up in a basement playing games come to mind.

Day says online use becomes a problem when a person becomes uncomfortable or distressed, unable to stop of their own accord or if the use significantly impairs their functioning in life. It is usually a matter of how much time is spent online and whether it detracts from some other roles or seriously affects a person’s relationships. “There’s nothing wrong with using one’s imagination in an entertaining way,” says Day.

Dr. Christopher Helland is an assistant professor of sociology at Dalhousie who has examined online religious groups in Second Life. “The original debate was people would spend too much time online in these fantasy or virtual environments and that would somehow decrease their real sociability or offline life,” he says. “What they found was this type of activity actually increases people’s sociability. It increases their connectivity with other people, playing positively in lives.”

Holly Fox uses her avatars to make connections with like-minded people. These days she only logs on to socialize and chat, spending about 20 hours a week online, cutting back from when she first started. She jokes as she describes Immortal and Allatu, talking about them in the third person, highlighting their positive traits, giving details about their lives that only family or close friends would know. “I try to make my character more like me, but I find I become more like my character. Now that I have a male character, I’ve become a lot more aggressive and powerful in real life. I have more of an ego. It really livens me up.”

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