Monday, April 10, 2017

Another Life in Second Life

Contributing Author: Slatan Dryke

Introduction by Slatan Dryke

Corriere della Sera (Evening Courier) is an historic Italian newspaper, founded in Milan in 1876. It is the first Italian newspaper for circulation (more than 460,000 daily printed/digital copies).

The first edition was announced by newsboys in Piazza della Scala at 9pm on Sunday, March 5, 1876. The launch took place on the first Sunday of Lent (traditionally the day the Milanese newspapers did not come out). Corriere then exploited the absence of competition; however, in order to not alienate the competitors, they donated the proceeds of the first issue to charity.

Corriere has a supplement called La Lettura (The Reading). La Lettura is the weekly insert of Corriere della Sera dedicated to the world of culture, art, books and music. Originally, La Lettura was an illustrated magazine published from 1901 to 1946. The magazine returned in 2011, as a supplement attached to the edition of the Sunday newspaper.

Virtual Ability was contacted by a journalist who was interested to know more about the group’s activities in Second Life. I am Italian, so for an easier and quicker collaboration I was placed in charge of giving all the information requested.

The following is a translation of the article which was published on March 5, 2017. The date is just a coincidence!


Another life in Second Life

by Pietro Minto * Illustration by Mirco Tangherli

"The virtual reality site appeared to have lost its relevance, but over time it has seen a new energy, thanks to disabled and chronically ill avatars."

Second Life® - it has been said for a time - is just a memory, one of the many web phenomena that had disappeared after some seasons of glory. For those who do not remember, Second Life is an online virtual world launched in 2003 and created by Linden Research Inc.®, a corporation based in San Francisco. Inside the platform anyone can create a character (avatar) and wander through, meeting other users. Anything can happen: users can get married, exchange goods and have sex. For a couple of years Second Life really seemed the medium of the future: the media were convinced, Businessweek has dedicated a cover to the phenomenon, which incidentally was proposed as the perfect synthesis between the MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game - video games where thousands of people play simultaneously the same game) and the idea of virtual reality that we all had in mind, from the eighties.

Things did not go well, though. Over time the real world forgot Second Life and moved on to the social networks and video games like World of Warcraft, virtual worlds populated by millions of users who interact online. Yet the product still exists and it is used by about 800 thousand users per month - a trifle by comparison with Facebook and Twitter, but a large enough community to contain multitudes. What few know is that in recent years Second Life has become a useful tool for many people in need.

In this virtual world, for example, there is an archipelago of five islands called Virtual Ability Island, home of a community dedicated to people who have physical or mental disabilities. A little further on we find Brigadoon Island, populated by people with Asperger's syndrome, a developmental disorder of the autistic realm that concerns social relations. Or again, a disco called Wheelies, which is the main spot for wheelchair users. Second Life has become a reference point for many people, who can live in an alternative world, whose social interactions are based on entirely different rules and procedures. Just like in World of Warcraft, where many people are playing the same game at the same time, but Second Life is not a fantasy environment: it is a 3D version of the real world.

According to research by Karen Stendal University of Molde, Norway, the virtual reality solves two of the main problems faced by people with chronic diseases and disabilities: accessibility and mobility. “Some adults with permanent disabilities,” wrote Stendal, “demonstrate communicative problems. This has an impact on the ability of these individuals to interact with others, start friendships and do their part as members of a community.”

Second Life, along with other online resources like forums and specialized blogs, proved to be a “viable inclusive force” for people normally isolated. The mobility potential of the virtual world it is clear: the movements are unlimited and without dangers, there are no barriers and there is no need for caregivers. To increase the inclusiveness, there is the possibility to change the avatar appearance and the surroundings; in Second Life, anyone can be what he wants and change the world how he wants. Virtual Ability is the largest community on the platform, operated by an American nonprofit organization that organizes activities and events both in the real and the digital worlds. Its inworld headquarters is a unique place with different structures and a walkway with billboards and information that users can click and read. The community boasts about a thousand from around the world.

La Lettura has been in contact with one of the Italian members, Slatan Dryke - one of the platform's strengths is the anonymity - he has been in Second Life since 2007; he joined the VAI group in 2011.

“I knew its excellent reputation,” he said, referring to VAI, “since I am a member of other support groups with the role of Mentor,” a guide figure for other members.

“Second Life in general, but Virtual Ability in my particular case,” adds Slatan, “helped me to reconnect with reality and my life, as a further support to the therapy that I followed to manage a form of PTSD.”

The inhabitants of this archipelago are a diverse group: “about one quarter of our members are not disabled, but they have a relative or friends with disabilities, or are female and male nurses, researchers and medical professionals.”

The other people of Virtual Ability may live with conditions of disability or discomfort that include paralysis, spasticity, depression or anxiety, Down's syndrome, autism and other sensory problems such as blindness and deafness.

Virtual Ability works closely with researchers and scientists to analyze the role that virtual reality can have in people with certain disorders.

Virtual Ability's world in between the real and the virtual: the corporation organizes two annual events open to the public, the Mental Health Symposium and the International Disability Rights Affirmation Conference, in addition to many daily events in the virtual platform.

“Some events,” explains Slatan, “are educational, while others are oriented toward entertainment, such as themed parties, trivia competitions or tours to explore other locations in the virtual world.”

VAI is also populated by parents and guardians who tell their experiences, as in the case of Shiloh's mother, a child with Down syndrome whose avatar is a grown man, photographed while watering the garden.

Into this virtual reality, the woman says, “My son has pumpkins. He learned to count to four, sometimes goes skating, he loves to flip.” Here, Shiloh can move freely, garden (something that excites him) and learn new words.

Then there is Zip's dad, a child with cerebral palsy, he joined in Second Life after watching a video on YouTube, in which a person with the same problem found a bit of serenity in the virtual world.

(Editor’s note: The journalist mistyped in the original article. The paragraph should read as follows: “Then there is Zip’s daughter, a child with cerebral palsy, who joined Second Life after watching a video on YouTube, in which she saw that a person with the same problem had found a bit of serenity in the virtual world.”)

Now, this utopian island between bits and real pain might remind one of San Junipero, an episode of the fourth season of Black Mirror, a television series on the relationship between humans and technology. There was set up a simulated world where terminally ill individuals could move to full-time, going back to their youth and experiencing a digital endless peace.

The television reference is easy considering the case of Fran Serenade, told recently by the BackChannel site, an 89-year-old lady who in Second Life has chosen to create an avatar to dance as she once loved to do in her youth.

Between fun and therapy, this platform seems to be an important resource that will improve quality of life for many people. Another study conducted by Karen Stendal has demonstrated the potential of these worlds, focusing on the relationship between the users and their avatars, which can become a strong relationship, even if it takes time to grow.

The same also happens with other avatars, representing a part of that society (the others) with which some of these people have trouble relating.

Virtual Ability is not the only group. There are over 120 support groups in Second Life, dedicated to different types of chronic diseases or disabilities, from cancer survivors to depression, from multiple sclerosis to various forms of addiction.

Now, if someone tries to tell you that Second Life no longer exists, you can allow yourself to disagree.


For additional reading:

Part of the original article in Italian, on PressReader: https://www.pressreader.com/italy/la-lettura/20170305/282162176004718

Corriere della Sera - La Lettura on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/LaLetturaCorriere/photos/pcb.1329468063780176/1329460567114259/?type=3&theater


Photo Credits:Corriere della Sera