Beneficial Social Effects of Interpersonal Connections Inside A Virtual World

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    I was wondering what the social effects were from interaction within a virtual world. Since the field is so large, I decided to focus on one such world. This world is known as Second life. I am going to be examining the effect the interpersonal connections made through this service and if it is a helpful or adverse idea.

     First off, I should probably give a bit of background on Second Life since not everyone if familiar with it. Second Life is what’s known as an online virtual world. This is an internet-based 3-D environment in which players create virtual characters for themselves and use them to explore what’s around them and interact with each other. Second Life is a 3-D virtual world entirely built and owned by its residents. Since opening to the public, it has grown explosively and today is inhabited by a total of 7,931,406 Residents from around the globe. (SL Website)  

    Second Life resembles an idealized version of Earth, with shopping malls, museums, beaches and cinemas. There are futuristic Blade Runner-style cities and places that resemble ancient Japan. The world even has a newspaper (www.secondlifeherald.com), a television station, and its own currency – the Linden dollar, which you must use to buy things.

    I wanted to be objective so I contacted someone from Linden Labs and asked if there was anyone they suggested I talk to. They had me contact a user that uses the pseudonym Siegfried Stargazer. Mr. Stargazer is a licensed psychologist who was injured in a catastrophic vehicle accident. Due to his injuries he cannot speak and lost both legs and an arm.

    He told me that “Second Life has given me back my practice. I actually have my office set up inside a private island in the simulation. My clients come as their avatar which helps relax them.” He explained that because you craft your own avatar, you can be anything you need to be to feel comfortable. He went on to explain that the choices in the avatars help him see things he might not otherwise see. A seemingly vibrant and cheerful girl with an avatar that is just the opposite can give warning bells that might not be seen in real life. (Direct Interview)

    After the interview I wanted to have more facts to back things up so I went to the website for Science Daily and came across an article on Second Life. The article subject was precisely targeted at the question I was asking. It stated that:

    Social interaction is enhanced rather than diminished by online interfaces, according to new research on the program Second Life. Eryn Grant, a PhD in Queensland University of Technology’s School of Humanities, recently completed a study which took an in-depth look at social order in emergent online environments. In doing so, she said she had immersed herself inside the ‘game’ Second Life, an online social interface that allows people to interact socially and economically in a 3D virtual space. “I wanted to see how you go about being a functional member of Second Life, what the rules and norms were, and how they were put into place, and I did that by analyzing conversations,” she said. People on Second Life communicate through their avatars using textual chat-like features, and can meet at dance clubs, join groups with common interests and philosophical discussions about their communication and social skills in a virtual world. “There are not many places we go in the world where we are guaranteed social contact, in real life it is harder and less likely that you will go up to a stranger and start a conversation,” said Ms Grant. She said a major finding was that Second Life could act as an important tool in connecting strangers by making it easier for people to find a world in common.(Grant, ScienceDaily July 21, 2008)

    What I gathered from the article was that Ms. Grant was a supporter of the virtual field. Her references to social interaction and how much easier it was on Second Life followed directly to the idea I was working with. I wanted to remain objective so I kept digging. I followed the links she had listed for more information on the subject, as well as a few from the SL website such as the one from the Minneapolis Star Tribune concerning the Mayo Clinic. It said:

    Friedman, a Mayo Clinic cardiologist, has given medical lectures worldwide. But last week he entered a new dimension, when he gave a presentation on the online fantasy world known as Second Life.

    To most people, virtual reality and avatars are the stuff of games. But the Mayo Clinic is one of a growing number of real medical centers that have established outposts in this fictional universe to explore new ways to teach and practice medicine.

    “There’s a lot of really serious activity going on,” said Leslie Beard, a researcher at the University of Toronto who has studied the use of Second Life in health care.

    Among other things, organizations are using it to train medical students, conduct research, raise money and offer individual and group therapy.

    “Virtual worlds,” her 2009 study found, “have significant potential to improve health communication and patient experiences in the real world.”

    Second Life is perhaps the best known of the Internet’s “virtual worlds,” where people don alternate identities, interact with strangers and sometimes conduct real business, even in the most surreal settings.

    Last year, Mayo Clinic hired a designer to create its own space, “Mayo Clinic Island,” in this alternate universe, with a virtual hospital and giant outdoor “conference center.” Since then, it has hosted several medical-based events on Second Life, including a seminar on Marfan syndrome and Friedman’s lecture on abnormal heartbeats.

    Friedman, a heart specialist who describes himself as a technology geek, said it’s one way for someone “surrounded by wheat fields in southern Minnesota” to reach a bigger audience. (Learner, Star-Trib)

    There was a quick link to another article on the web and as I read it I came across the following “The avatar becomes a psychological and emotional extension of one’s sense of self,” says John Suler, a psychology professor at New Jersey’s Rider University who studies the psychology of cyberspace and has written a book on the subject. (Grant/Philadelphia Inquirer 7/27/2010)

    When I read those words, I began to think I was reading about sci-fi or something, but this is what can happen in today’s world with today’s technology.    I began to see more and more articles explaining just what I had thought might be the case. Second Life has some very helpful uses other than just basic amusement.

    I continued my exploration, finding quite a few recurrences of the same basic ideas. I also found a few critical articles calling to light the possibility that people could become too far immersed in their virtual lives and forget to maintain the real ones. While I can understand their worry, I do not see this as an issue since the interface is specifically designed to constantly remind you that it is a simulation. Even altering your avatar’s hairstyle and clothing are multiple steps on click menus.

    There are some definite real world applications for interconnection and global interaction. There are already tech firms using the simulation to work on projects from all over the world, and even to have their status meetings and lectures within the simulation. The United States military even has a presence there in the form of a recruiting and informational center. This is on top of the many social venues available. There are concerts, classes and poetry readings. I even came across a Buddhist meditation class while looking around. Over all, I have to say that I feel there are many beneficial elements to the social interaction found on simulations like Second Life.

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