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Lizzie Skurnick edits Old Hag, a literary blog. Her reviews have appeared in several publications, including the Baltimore Sun and the New York Times Book Review.

The Making of Second Life

Notes From the New World

Wagner James Au

Collins: 274 pp., $25.95


Second Lives

A Journey Through Virtual Worlds

Tim Guest

Random House: 280 pp., $25


For a brief and extraordinarily peculiar 10 minutes, I was a member of Second Life. Like all newbies, after downloading the hefty software, I was directed to an orientation area, where I chose an “in-world” name and an avatar. Stumbling through a garden where everyone was speaking Italian, I came upon a male avatar, who introduced himself, then asked my age. When I replied “33,” without another word, he rose, turned his pixilated back and flew swiftly toward the horizon.

For those First Life inhabitants unaware that there’s a digital alternative, Second Life is a vast, multi-user domain (MUD) available to anyone with an Internet connection. While most MUDs are games -- such as Sony’s mighty EverQuest -- Second Life, as Wikipedia helpfully points out, “does not have points, scores, winners or losers, levels, an end-strategy, or most of the other characteristics of games.”

Launched by Linden Lab, a San Francisco start-up, in 2003, Second Life boasts the motto “Your World. Your Imagination” and exists for “Residents” to explore and build upon, even open in-world businesses, while revealing as much of their real-life identities as they choose. In short, it’s a social networking service, amped up into a metaverse -- a term swiped from sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson to describe virtual worlds.


Now, Wagner James Au, the first in-world journalist in Second Life, and memoirist Tim Guest, whose “My Life in Orange” recounted a childhood in a cult, have written books detailing the creation, experience and implications of virtual worlds -- Au’s of Second Life in particular, and Guest’s of a plethora of such worlds. Au’s exploration of Second Life is less hard-hitting analysis than layman-friendly overview, alternately informative and speculative and occasionally breathless. (“Lost” fans may see a certain resemblance to the Dharma Initiative’s orientation films.) “[I]f your computer depicts a roaring waterfall, and your avatar is inside it, you will, with enough concentration . . . feel a sense of vertigo, even feel a chill from the thundering flume nearby,” Au writes.

“The Making of Second Life” begins with the first MUD, then skates over to the economic, personal, sexual and intellectual activities on Second Life. We meet Wilde Cunningham, a group avatar of disabled people that has blossomed through the Web; learn of a virtual Darfur camp, set up to raise awareness, that is routinely trashed; and examine user-generated software that allows avatars to simulate sex. Au also explores how people can “buy” land and build upon it; people whose avatars have a different gender or race; in-world marriages; Second Life outposts for universities such as Harvard; and singer Regina Spektor, whose label built a lounge for residents to sample her latest album.

The seriousness of Au’s project, however, is somewhat undercut by his unwillingness to argue Second Life’s influence, only measuring what could happen. In “Second Lives: A Journey Through Virtual Worlds,” Guest makes a better, albeit alarming, argument for real-world consequences: a baby left home alone with parents off in a cafe playing EverQuest, virtual “sweat shops” for online overlords to trade virtual currency for real currency, and “gamer widows,” spouses -- often female -- left in the lurch.

Guest is honest about what launched him on his virtual journey: mounting bills, depression, the pressure of real-world interactions: “In World of Warcraft, you didn’t even have a home to care for, much less a landlord who held your belongings hostage against four months’ missed rent.” But when it comes to writing the book, his reasons are more lofty. Guest finds in the virtual worlds a “spirit . . . of the idealized and troubled communes” of his youth. After quoting Shakespeare and Sir Thomas More (Au throws out such names as Jorge Luis Borges and John Locke), Guest shifts to an overview similar to Au’s, examining Linden Lab, profiteering hackers, the in-world punks and mafias, wars, sex, art and international growth (only a quarter of Second Lifers are in the U.S.).

But if there is anything more boring than minute detail about miscreants capitalizing on bugs in the system or terrorists whose “bombs,” at worst, shut down servers, I don’t know what it is. Even Second Life resident Anshe Chung, who parlayed her virtual land holdings into a million-dollar real-world fortune, at best elicits a yawn. Why? Because both authors, like real-world real-estate brokers, are simply selling too hard. In these books, we find a glossy brochure of a colorful world of self-made tycoons, instant romances, political upheavals, underground speak-easies, international intrigues, white-collar crooks and mafia dons. However, Guest’s aside that EverQuest allows the user to order a real-life pizza without logging out points to a far more pedestrian reality.

Au himself is part of Guest’s narrative (as an irritated journalist Guest misquotes for an article), as is Wilde Cunningham, whom both authors depict in saccharine terms. But Guest’s description of a visit to Second Life headquarters, where he’s chided for the misquote, and of a real-life visit to the Cunningham group, during which he loses his computer, cellphone and baggage, are far more fascinating than all his unfettered digital journeys, which are tediously overthought and underwhelming.

Because who determines whether a technological toy will leave its ineluctable imprint or whether it’s merely the electric carving knife of 2.0? The cellphone and e-mail have indubitably changed how we communicate. Blogging -- and Moblogging, Vlogging and Photoblogging -- have gone from a tool of the webby to the many, as have social networks such as Facebook and MySpace. YouTube crests at the top of the user-generated content wave, and Google has gone from one page to being the core of most users’ online experiences.

But will Second Life prove second nature? Au and Guest stress the myriad practical uses of virtual worlds: for academics and economists to model large-scale social patterns; for the physically disabled to experience life on a level playing field; for the military to conduct simulations of dangerous operations; for universities, institutions and artists to reach a larger audience; for the good of the environment. (Far-flung staff meetings online, say).

But what about those of us who have plenty of access to those things in real life? Guest likens Second Lifers to the people who left Europe for America “to rediscover a freedom of movement and expression that in their native lands had become unbearable.” Unfortunately, his examples seem to refer mostly to the hardship of maintaining oceanfront property and an apartment at real-world prices. Au looks toward the future, a “3-D datascape . . . where you move from one reality to another,” not only through fantasy worlds but the whole Web writ large. “Providing constantly updated knowledge from about every corner of the world,” he claims, “[it] will create total transparency over politics, the health of the globe’s citizens.”

But boosters have confused “virtual” with “virtue.” In this true New World, Au claims, “You won’t check Google News to read up on a coming storm in Southeast Asia -- you’ll RSS the hurricane itself.” They’ve been in Second Life too long. In the real world, you can’t rebuild a house with the click of a mouse.