It might best be described as "Third Life." Real people, who have virtual alter egos in Second Life, get together in a real-life convention to celebrate their alternate existences. That was the setup behind the sold-out Second Life Community Convention held this past weekend in Chicago.
As the third such event of its kind, it attracted about 800 attendees and, of course, was streamed live into the actual, virtual Second Life. In other words, welcome to the mirror worlds of the early 21st Century.
Centered around the Chicago Hilton, the gathering focused on four main areas -- education, social events, business, and machinima. Machinima uses manipulated video game imagery and dubbed audio tracks to create stories that leave the video game plots far behind. Second Life machinima similarly co-opts the characters and landscapes of its environments.
Entrepreneurship, Teaching, Sex
There were plenty of subjects for discussion at the convention without making up new ones. Panels addressed aspects of the Second Life virtual experience, such as entrepreneurship, teaching, art, music, or sex. The Chicago Tribune reported that the cybersex discussion drew about 200 real people to the hotel's Boulevard Room, nearly all of whom claimed to have participated in virtual, carnal activities.
Booths sold figurines based on popular avatars, the Tribune said, as well as real lingerie designed from avatar-based lingerie. Lingerie was one choice of dress for the Saturday night masquerade ball sponsored by a Second Life virtual sex promoter, and there were musical performances by musicians best known by their online selves.
The real-world Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation, which has an initiative to explore "the role of philanthropy in virtual worlds," funded some programs at the convention. A new category that it announced is for "entrepreneurs and builders of new digital environments for informal learning," with prizes of $250,000 and $100,000 in actual dollars, not Second Life's Linden dollars.
"Virtual worlds," the foundation said in a statement, "are about much more than games" and are "already critical tools for business collaboration and social activities." It noted that a recent Walk for Hunger in Second Life had almost 400 participants.
'Geeks and Art-School Types'
The real people walking about in Second Life as avatars might be hard to characterize by their online selves. But the real-life people attending the convention, according to Carolina McCarthy on her CNet News blog, were "largely a mix of geeks and art-school types," most of whom were in their early- to mid-thirties. A few attendees even wore "flat-out business casual in dress pants and button-down suits," she noted.
McCarthy said she wasn't sure if people were mostly introducing themselves by their avatar names or the ones they use in "meatspace" -- otherwise known as the real world. The 800 attendees, in any case, were just a tiny sample of Second Life. Although the online world claims nine million residents, about 40,000 are reported to be in Second Life at any one time.
But the sample of Second Life residents convening at the Chicago Hilton hotel did not have a monopoly on imaginative lives spilling into real ones. The Tribune noted that a competing convention was taking place in another ballroom at the same hotel -- fans of an ESPN online fantasy football league.