‘WHAT’S THE SOUND OF MY VOICE?’ (Jn 1:19-28): 02 January 2008 (Saint Basil the Great and Saint Gregory Nazianzen, Wednesday)
Last month, I got myself an avatar and was born into Second Life, a virtual world that’s growing and spreading very fast. I was curious about this virtual 3D universe, where the residents–as the members are called–build almost everything you find there: every object, every building, etc. It also had a lot of potential for education, so I wanted to learn more about it.
One of the first and most fascinating things I found upon entering Second Life is that you can make your avatar fly or teleport it to different places. Newcomers are also advised to check out a place called “The Shelter,” so I teleported my avatar to that place. True enough, there were other residents there, and they came in all possible shape, size, and color. And why not? You can change your avatar’s appearance–from the face, the body type, to the attire. I found the others dancing, and I too soon quickly figured out how to make my avatar dance. Some of the other residents greeted me, and I greeted back. Then I overheard a conversation about me. One said to another, “I’m so glad I’m no longer wearing newbie outfit! So tacky!” Of course mine was the only avatar in that entire place that was wearing the tacky newbie outfit. I still hadn’t figured out how to get or create a new one.
After seeing all I could in that place, I flew out of the Shelter to explore other places. I was amazed at how vast and elaborate that world was, with buildings, objects, and people I had never even imagined before. At one point I found myself in an abandoned building that had all sorts of strange-looking furniture. Each furniture had a tag that offered to do things to my avatar like “be cuddled,” “be embraced,” and, to my surprise, even other more sexual experiences. For a while, my avatar stood there staring at the furniture. It was tempting to try things out. After all, the experience would just be virtual, and it would only be my avatar involved anyway, right? I mean, it wouldn’t hurt, would it? But for some reason, I felt a strong urge to leave the place. Funny, I think I even actually made my avatar flee the place!
I haven’t found time to go back to Second Life since then, but I’ve been thinking about that first virtual experience. First, I’m surprised at how I was affected by the remarks made in the Shelter concerning my avatar’s attire. All along I thought it was just a case of me having an avatar, but I guess because I created it and I could move in Second Life only through and as my avatar, to a certain extent, I am my avatar. What is said about it or done to it would affect me–personally. That’s also probably why I felt I should not yield to the temptations I encountered. Maybe something inside me told me that I could be affected more deeply than we would usually think.
Secondly, the second episode also made me ask myself: “Would I choose to be moral when no one’s looking, or when no one knows me?” I can choose to let my avatar do anything there because no one knows who I am and there are no apparent–or at least, immediate–consequences on me. But will I choose to be moral simply for the sake of being moral? Interesting question.
I’m amazed at how similar the virtual world is to the real world. I didn’t exactly expect to find people who would be critical of other people’s appearances the way we do in this world. In the course of my exploration, I might have also unwittingly landed in a virtual red light district. I don’t know. Of course my very limited experience in Second Life has given me at best an incomplete and imbalanced view–I am sure many good residents and good things can be found there–but that first experience has revealed to me parts of that world that is so uncannily and disturbingly similar to this one.
It seems to me that what happens in the real world probably happens in the virtual world as well. Both worlds, after all, are shaped by people. Which makes me wonder: Is the virtual world all that different from this real one? Maybe the virtual world is not so virtual, after all. And certainly the virtual world isn’t so virtuous either.
Today’s reading talks about John the Baptist being the lone voice crying out in the desert. My question is: “In this new world where more and more people are finding themselves today, this virtual world, what would be the sound of my voice? Will my voice be any different from the rest–a lone voice like John the Baptist calling out to the rest? Will it be too different and too strange–or will it simply join a cacophony of other voices, indistinguishable from them?”
Whether we like it or not, the virtual world is fast becoming part of our lives. I think it’s important to learn about that world, to be part of it, to live there, and to test ourselves and voices there. Who knows? We may not recognize–or like–the selves we create there, and there in that new and dangerous world, we may be surprised and even be frightened by the sound of our own voice.