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March 23, 2008|Lizzie Skurnick | 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.).

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