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Sunday, April 5, 2020

The Effects of Coronavirus Isolation on Avatars in Second Life - Zack Wonder Reporting


The measures that various governing bodies around the world are putting in place are making a marked effect on life. Limiting one’s social contacts will take a profound toll on one’s mental health. One of the ways to alleviate the threat on one’s mental capacity is to seek online companionship. A tell-tale sign is the depletion of electronics stores’ shelves of webcams. Online communities such as Habbo Hotel are rising from the doldrums and seeing double-digit percentage growth in user logins weekly.
According to New World news, Second Life has also seen a recent increase in new residents and old user logins. This is confirmed by SL CEO Ebbe Linden’s memorandum on the SL community website. I have also experienced this first-hand, having been away from the grid for three and a half years. Having to isolate in RL alone with my two dogs made me start seeking social contacts beyond my daily doggie walkies. 
In addition to having old avatars returning from hibernation, the Coronavirus epidemic is reflected in daily discussions and social life on SL. More often than not, the virus outbreak is being discussed between avatars in chats and IMs. I have even seen avatars wear face masks while traversing the grid. 
All this led me to survey the field by going out interviewing avatars. First, I met Shana at her beachfront property.

SLE: I learned that you are in RL isolation right now. Can you tell me how it has affected your life in general?
Shana: I just thought that people are walking along the streets and seeing masks, then they will come to the SL and there are masks again .... this is probably an extra stress, I don’t know.
SLE: And how has it affected your experience in Second Life?
Shana: I noticed that people became sadder, seriously, people began to joke less, all my friends became very anxious, and all talk comes down to quarantine.
SLE: I saw you once wear a face mask online. Is this something you do to reflect the situation?
Shana: I bought this mask at the very beginning of the epidemic ... but now it doesn’t seem like a good idea to me, it seems to me that it will once again frighten people.
SLE: Apart from the chats and people being sad, are there any other aspects in SL you think have been affected by the isolation and quarantine?
Shana: I just thought that people are walking along the streets and seeing masks, then they will come to the SL and there are masks again... this is probably an extra stress, I don’t know. I can’t explain it, but I feel that there’s less joy in SL now.
SLE: Okay. Final question: have you noticed anything in the way avatars are moving into SL? New avatars, old ones getting active again?
Shana: I only noticed that now more people began to spend more time in the SL... but I can be wrong!
SLE: That's a good observation! Thank you for your time. 
Later on, I met Vliny at the Prada sim, in a cafĂ© by a canal in Venice. She had reached to me due to my profile saying that I have returned to the SL after several years. 

SLE: What made you think I would appreciate someone getting to me, out of the blue?
Vliny: I like to read the profiles from people who are around me. Love to meet people and try to ask them if the profile catches me.
SLE: Have you met other avatars who have returned, after a long hiatus, like me?
Vliny: one yes, but seems he is not online actually, but he is still in my friends list. He once told me that he needs his times without SL
SLE: As do we all.
Vliny: Yes, I think we all have our reasons
SLE: Regarding the Coronavirus situation, how has it affected your life?
Vliny: Well, it reduced my social contacts completely. That is not always nice. But I am retired in RL because of my health and so I am used to being alone. That is for me the most important effect of the virus situation.
SLE: Has the coronavirus reflected on your SL experience in any way?
Vliny: Actually, not really... but I would say I have the feeling many people are back in SL because of the virus.
Vliny told me two of her former friends have returned to Second Life, both because of the isolation, and others are talking on Facebook on the possibility of returning. She also said that Europe seems to be leading on this trend, with American users following suit.

SLE: Someone told me that they have perceived a change in the mood in SL chats. Have you noticed anything?
Vliny:): They all feel lost at home in RL and that’s why they try to feel comfort and warm with the people in SL. [Everyone should] Spread love and peace.
A new friend of mine, Cray was building at his newly acquired sim that he is converting to become a mall and a nude beach (SLURL: http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Zinnia%20Island/164/162/22).
Cray had been gone from Second Life for 3 years. He told me as a single, laid-off carpenter, he had nothing else to do, and since he likes to build, he took on “Cray’s Risque Mall” as his project. He was taken aback at the new avatars’ 30-day limit on visiting privileges and spending, but having had these obstacles out of the way, he is in full force, building on his sim. when I asked him about how he sees the coronavirus situation reflected on SL, he told me: “No one really talks about it. But occasionally you see someone with a mask on or a cart of free toilet paper.” He also said that a remote acquaintance of his had passed due to the epidemic. Some people have their power lines down and it takes a long time to get them fixed. These are extreme issues jeopardizing one’s SL experience. Cray said he had tried the new Project Sansar first, but found no-one to talk to, and this was one of the main reasons he returned to Second Life. As a final comment, Cray told me: “Playing SL keeps social distancing. Everyone affected differently... my heart goes out to family members that experience loss of loved ones.”

My interviews, along with my SL experience in my new role as SLE reporter, revealed that the virus is profoundly affecting avatars’ RL personas as well as their online experience. Isolation brings loneliness and a need to communicate and to feel close to someone.
Second Life is a great platform to alleviate the feeling of alienation.
In Ebbe Linden’s words: “Please be kind and welcoming to those who may just need a friendly conversation to escape from this crazy world for a moment or more.”



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