Going to a writer’s group in Second Life

About a month ago, I logged back into Second Life for the first time since 2007, when I’d signed up an account to see what all the hype was about. Back then, I’d spent a couple of hours staggering around and crashing into things with a ridiculously proportioned (and shirtless) avatar. As I recall, in those hours I did discover the avatar could walk under water and fly, and I did end up in a remote shrine that someone had built to a deceased loved one … then I checked out.

Moments after sunset from the Church of the Dawn Treader

Enjoying a virtual sunset from the Church of the Dawn Treader

Second Life is a virtual world, mediated by a 3D rendering machine like that used for immmersive console games. Everything in it is built by users, so it represents a vast, interactive and habitable canvas of human imagination. Virtual items (from houses to body shapes, furniture, clothing and hair and scripts to make your avatar move in a certain way) can be bought with virtual currency (Linden) that has real-world equivalence.

I’ve very little experience of 3D computer games, finding them quite dull. Every time I’ve been persuaded to pick up a controller and race around a virtual racetrack or shoot things, I’ve wanted to drive to the mountains in the distance to get a closer look. As I found, you can’t do this in most games. However, you can in second life.

The learning curve for someone who is not familiar with virtual reality (VR) environments is very steep and if you’re a noob, it’s obvious. The two big time sinks at the outset are adapting and outfitting your avatar, so it doesn’t look generic, and learning to control the avatar and virtual camera seamlessly, so you can go where you want to and see what you want to. Then there are matters of etiquette to learn before you can interact socially with confidence – just like the real world. I’ve easily racked up over 30hrs ‘in-world’ to get to a point where I’m reasonably comfortable.

Second life (SL) has been the butt of fairly disparaging press. There’s still a perception that it’s all about cybersex and a place for pathetic people who don’t have a real life. The relative anonymity that avatars give ‘players’ is also seen as inviting dangerous and unhealthy behaviour. This is all unfair. All the ‘Adult’ activity is banished to specific parts of the SL world that can’t be accessed by mistake. Sims (sections of virtual estate) have their own rules down to how much ‘flesh’ your avatar can show and even whether it can carry weapons in that area. This leaves the newcomer free to explore and discover all that’s good.

Exploring the beautiful surreality of HuMaNoid on the LEA6 sim

Exploring the beautiful surreality of HuMaNoid on the LEA6 sim

There’s spectacular virtual artwork on display in galleries and fully interactive installations, with whole sims given over to showcasing the fruits of SL designers and builders’ imaginations. There are educational opportunities, music venues, support groups, role-play environments, museums and accurate virtual rebuilds of architecture from antiquity to the present to explore. In my first week back on the grid I went (in avatar) to a summer solstice ceremony (put on by a community of fairies), attended a couple of ‘live’ concerts and hung out at a jazz club. I attended a couple of church services, a meditation group and a storytelling circle (also attended by some imps and fairies). I visited some art galleries and chatted with the artists about their work. I even bit down and went to a writer’s group, which has since become a fairly regular fixture in my weekly calendar.

Here’s an account of how that was for me and my avatar (who is called Klaus, by the way).

The Writer’s Group

A little blue box pops up in the corner telling me that a poetry group is about to start and giving me a teleport link to go there. I check the notecard I picked up in the ‘Written Word’ sim earlier and see that this looks like the kind of thing that I might be able to try – they are going to pick a word and write a poem using it as a starter. I can scribe under pressure, I’ll probably manage.

Teleporting is a little scary, just as it would be in real life.

Once you’ve clicked, you can’t change your mind while it’s happening – and it’s terribly easy to click on a teleport … It doesn’t give you much time to have second thoughts before it dumps you into the destination sim. If it’s busy, you can easily land on one or more avatars in what quite genuinely turns out to be a heap of tangled limbs. You never know what’s waiting for you at the other end – I’ve learned to hover near CTRL+SHIFT+H as Klaus ‘rezzes’ into a new sim, just in case I want to jump out and go home quickly.

Once I’ve landed, I quickly try to move away from the landing area, find a bit of space and get my bearings while the graphics render, which can sometimes take several seconds.

I see Klaus come out of the teleport, a grey shape, falling into a suspended assortment of shattered-glass shards that quickly arrange themselves to resemble modern furniture. There are a few chairs around a table on which there appears to be a tall hourglass shape. People are there already. The other avatars are taking a while to render, so there are wigs of hair and odd textures floating in their places.

I’ve got my ‘avatar impostors’ setting on 3. This helps to speed up the rendering by only fully showing 3 other avatars – the remainder will be shown in outline only, like grey paper statues.

I do my ‘find space after teleporting’ manouvre and get myself wedged behind something that might be a pot plant and something else that turns out to be a wall.

“Hello Klaus” pops up in local chat.
“Welcome Hostarius” pings another greeting.

I realise I must have both my ‘display name’ and my ‘user name’ floating above my avatar’s head so – not for the first time – there’s confusion about how to address me. You either have to switch one of them off, using one of about a gazillion sliders and check boxes embedded in the preferences menu, or quickly let people know what you prefer to be called. I’ve since dropped ‘Hostarius’, not least because he acted like a total noob at a gathering of fairies on day 2.

While I don’t want to be unfriendly, I’m acutely embarassed by my faux pas with the pot plant, and I want to do the whole entry thing again with more dignity.

“Come and join us, we’re going to write a poem,” the host chats.”You’ll need ‘voice chat’ on.”

“I’d love to join you, thank you.” I chat back, discovering that Klaus has managed to find some space again and get out of the corner, but he’s also turned his back on the group and walked away.

I mange to swivel him round, and I see an empty seat at the far end of the table. That’s a relief! The chair could save Klaus from the indignity of making jerky, drunken nooby-avatar moves across the room: if I can just plant a right-click on that chair, it might let me sit on it from a distance.

Success! A right click brings up a wheel menu with the inviting option I’ve come to love: “Sit Here”.

Klaus teleports to the chair. Most of the furniture in SL has built-in scripts that arrange your avatar in a relaxed pose when you sit on it, without you needing to think about it.

Klaus relaxing at home

Klaus relaxing at home thanks to scripted furniture

Next, I do two things quickly. I snap the camera to front view so that it looks down on Klaus from the front. Mainly I want to make sure he looks okay. The furniture has done its job and seen to everything; he’s settled, even looks like he’s a regular. Directly to his left sits the looming figure of a fox in a battered top hat. Again I’m struck by how much ‘larger than life’ the avatars are in SL. Everyone’s huge. I’ve been at pains to keep Klaus under 6ft, so as not to stray too far over my real life (RL) height, but he might as well be a pixie. It doesn’t matter what he sits on, his feet don’t touch the floor. I’ve since found out that there are communities of ‘normal sized’ avatars on the grid. I guess they exchange notes about how difficult it is to find shoes and furniture that fits.

I may write more about pixies and shoe sizes later. In the meantime, I’m frantically opening up a help page to find out how to turn on and use ‘voice chat’ and clicking through menus in the hope that I’ll get lucky and turn it on by chance.

I manage to activate voice and give it all the permissions it needs to use up even more of my cranky CPU, then turn my attention back to text chat.

Things have moved on. The conversation is about someone known to the rest of the group who has come and gone again in the previous minute, possibly because someone else tried to sit on her. I’m pretty sure it’s not me, but I do chat a quick apology in case I’m sitting in someone else’s chair, and the group proceeds.

Most of the time, the host is doing the talking. She has a soothing, affirmative voice: materteral, unhurried and unharried, but slightly wry. I’m going to realise how very important people’s voices are and the way they use them in this alternative reality. She’s talking to another group member; they are choosing a word by picking a random page in a book, followed by a random verse, line and finally a word in the line.

The host explains for the benefit of ‘Klaus’ that once they have a word they are going to start a timer for 20 minutes and everyone is going to write.

I’m not quite following the process, I’m too busy reading the wiki on how to write a new notecard because I’m assuming we’ll have to share our work at the end of the session by pinging a notecard to the group or something. Notecards are the in-world method for sharing chunks of text.

We have a word …

It’s ‘doom’ – oh dear. We now have 20 minutes to produce the goods. I step away from the screen and go to kitchen to make a coffee and think about ‘doom’.

When I get back, Klaus’ head is drooping onto his chest in the classic ‘away’ pose that avatars assume if their puppeteers become inactive in the window.

I type something in Evernote, planning to paste it into a notecard if I need to. This is a new one on me. I always compose poetry longhand: I’ve never typed a draft directly. There are 7 minutes left on the clock … tap, tap, tick, tock:

DOOM

A point

Of no return

Thick with regret

Turning of locks and
Sliding of bolts and
Everything behind but
The last card on
A dark table with
No pips and
Coming up short

Played out
At the mercy of
No mercy and
A maelstrom of
‘If only’
If only
If only

Time’s up!

It turns out we’ll be going round the circle, reading out our work. The host is careful to mention that each can read if they have something, including ‘Klaus’ if he’d like to. This is what voice is for.

I’ve been on conference calls many a time, and it’s important to take turns when speaking and let the chair person control things. You have to be smarter in SL because there’s text chat ticking along in the background all the time. The official stuff’s happening on voice, in an orderly fashion, each person manually toggling their mics on and off when it’s their turn to speak. An unofficial commentary continues in text chat. This is another thing that takes getting used to, seamlessly switching between typed/read and spoken/heard communication.

We go round the circle. I’m very interested to hear what other people have managed to write – and what their voices sound like.

If I’m honest, this is the bit that has kept me away from real-life (RL) writing groups. I’m not good at being enthusiastic and encouraging if I don’t genuinely like what someone has written and shared. It turns out that’s not a problem with this group; the writing is good. In fact, it’s excellent considering people have only had 20 minutes to draft. Klaus joins in with the applause and commenting with relief, and I feel encouraged by the response to my thin offering.

Then it’s time to hear the original poem from which the hand of fate drew the word ‘doom’ at the beginning of the session. It’s a familiar one to me, “The Deer’s Cry” (aka “St. Patrick’s Breastplate”):

… I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion with His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection with His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgement of Doom …

Well that’s just about it. Ensues the very same awkwardness of saying goodbye and leaving at the end of a meeting in real life when some people seem to be hanging around to chat a bit more. I feel like I’ve done ok, and Klaus will definitely come back here. I chat-type a cheery farewell, hit CTRL+SHIFT+H, and Klaus jumps into the sky, heading home at the speed of pixels.

Where next?

Well, I’d like to go to the ‘Dr Suess Party’ at the leopard lounge … but I’m out of Linden and can’t afford green eggs and ham, let alone a Lorax avatar for the evening!