Hate this life? Try a second one.

Does anyone remember Second Life? Is it even still a thing? I was rummaging about in the archives when I came across a piece I wrote for the Sunday Times twelve years ago. It appeared on Christmas Day.

………………..

Christmas is a time for miracles. Before the week is out, we will look back, shake our heads in wonder and say: “It’s a miracle we survived.” Personally, I am not prepared to chance it. Taking crime, taxi drivers and the aberrant nature of my family into account, the odds of not surviving are disproportionately high. I don’t have enough money to flee the country. I do, however, have plenty of time. Time which I intend spending with my new friends in my new life. My Second Life.

The godlets at Linden Labs must have taken a lot longer than six days to create this world. It’s far more complicated than the one I’m living in at the moment. I am told that once I have explored this vast digital continent teeming with people, entertainment, experiences and opportunity, I might even find a perfect piece of land on which to build my dream house. This is wonderful news. In my first life, I can barely afford the rent.

Then I discover something that sets alarm bells ringing. Millions of US dollars flow through Second Life each month. Although the virtual currency is called the Linden dollar, it can be converted to genuine American money at LindeX, the SL Linden Dollar exchange. Excuse me? I will have to spend real money? On stuff that doesn’t actually exist? This feels wrong. Very wrong. Drowning my gut instinct with a shot of whisky, I cross myself and take the plunge.

The SL website opens on a digital babe wearing a bikini top, short skirt and giant black and white wings. She is standing on the edge of a forest. Cute. Damn cute. I want to find her and take her to a Christmas party immediately.

The only thing that scares me is Second Life’s logo. It’s some sort of eye with Mayan overtones. I find it disturbing. It reminds me of the eye above the pyramid on the US dollar bill which, as everyone knows, is a secret symbol of the Illuminati.

A registration form asks me to choose a Second Life name. I am disappointed to find that I can choose only my first name. The second I must source from a variety of options. Not a good sign. Overtones of Big Brother. Hints of Stalinism. Why is my right to freedom of choice being trampled on before I have even joined their world? They also want my real birth date ‘for my own protection’ and a genuine email address. Sweat trickles down my spine.

Surnames range from Adamczyk to Zhangsun, with a whole bunch of Boomhauers, Gigamons and Obolenskys in between. You can’t be a Smith but you can be a Skinstad. Jones is out but how about Jaxxon? Or Tigerpaw? Or Demonia? Why can’t I just be me, Ben Trovato? Sadly, no Trovatos are allowed in Second Life. The closest I can come is Benjamin Trenchcoat. But it is not to be. Not only is the name unavailable, but my first name is not available with any of the surnames on the list. This means there are countless Bens waiting out there for me. It’s a depressing thought.

Then, finally, a name nobody has thought of. Joumase Troglodite. Far from perfect. I’ll probably spend most of my time spelling it to the girls that I meet. But what the hell. If I have anything in Second Life, I have time. It’s not like I’m going to get old and die. Oh, no. None of that mortality nonsense for me. I don’t care what happens to me in my first life because I will remain eternally young and virile in this brave, new world. Whoops. Get a grip.

Now I must select my doppelganger. I have 12 avatars to choose from, none of whom look remotely like me. I’m assured that I will be able to change my appearance at any time. This is good, because I choose to be some sort of half-rabbit, half-rat and I know that even the girls in Second Life would balk at opening up to a snaggle-toothed rodent.

Another form has just popped up. It wants my real name. Maybe I should legally change my name to Joumase Troglodite. That would fox them. They also want to know what country I come from. Things are bound to go horribly wrong. Why would I make it easier for them to track me down? I put Sierra Leone.

Then, instead of being plunged into a brightly coloured utopian paradise, I am encouraged to Upgrade to Premium Now! What’s this? For $6 a month, I can get land on which to build, display my creations, entertain or run my own business. In return, I will receive a one-time grant of L$1250 (that’s Linden dollars) plus a weekly allowance of L$300.

My sphincter tightens reflexively. I am sorely tempted to Skip This Step, but I hesitate. I have been in strange places with no money before and I know how ugly things can turn. I tell myself that this is not Guatemala. This is a place that doesn’t exist anywhere outside my imagination. Somehow, this makes it all the more terrifying.

Without my weekly allowance, I’ll be just another random rodent slouching down the street with nothing to do and nowhere to go. It will be a very bleak Christmas.

A payment form flashes up. Well, that’s my cover blown. I fill in my credit card details and submit. Not Authorized. No reasons given. Maybe it’s because I have provided them with two different real names. I skip back a couple of steps. Punch in my real name. Switch Sierra Leone for South Africa. I still get rejected. Already in trouble and I haven’t even tried to sell someone a fake Rolex. What kind of dysfunctional world is this where you have to tell the truth at all times?

It’s no good. I close down and start all over again, feeling increasingly like a refugee trying to get a permit to live in South Africa.

I try once again to upgrade from basic to premium, this time choosing the $9.95/month option.

Something seems to have worked. I’m told that my next bill is due on January 8, 2008. Although my account reflects a zero balance in both Linden and US dollars, I am allowed to buy 512 square metres of land. With what? Where’s my one-time grant? My weekly allowance? Where’s my vast digital continent teeming with people? I’m going to find a way to bust into this cursed world. And once I’m in, I’m going to rob a bank or mug someone. They leave me with no choice.

It takes 15 minutes to download Second Life. And there it is. Wow. I am not alone. There are 49 610 people logged in right now. At 9pm on a Saturday night. How terribly sad.

Up pops a Critical Message. Residents must treat each other with respect and ‘refrain from any hate activity which slurs a real-word individual or real-world community’. There are Behavioural Guidelines. Contravention of the Big Six will result in suspension or expulsion from the Second Life community. They don’t tell you what the Big Six are, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

As if by magic, I appear on Orientation Island where I will learn to move, communicate and modify my behaviour. A bit like a cross between a high-tech kindergarten and a reformatory.

Half a dozen avatars drift about looking just as lost and confused as me. Our names hover above our heads, making anonymity impossible. I feel exposed. Someone called Ahmadeno Camel gives me the lazy eye and saunters past. Then I walk into a rather plain-looking avatar going by the name of Esme Alsop. What’s the point of going into SL and then giving yourself a name that reminds people of the ugly girl who works upstairs in accounts? She stands there looking at me for a while. Great. That’s all I need. Cornered by Esme Alsop telling me about her operation while the other avatars fornicate and carouse all around me. I turn and walk away.

I am no longer the rodent I was when I started this tomfoolery. I am now a handsome young avatar in jeans and a black shirt. Rather nice, if you ask me. A girl with long black hair and a French-sounding name moves away before I can get close enough to talk to her. That’s the French for you.

Talking is done through a stereo headset and microphone or by typing in your comments. Conversations appear on the screen, making typing errors seem like some sort of speech defect.

I turn around to find the sublimely named Satine Odriscoll watching me. “Hey babe,” I type. “Wanna grab some egg nog?” She stares at me in silence. No response. What’s the matter with this girl?

Have you lost your hands?” I type. Still nothing. “Are you a mute?” I add. Suddenly she runs off. In tears, probably. Why do I feel so bad? That’s not even me. It’s just some stupid avatar. But part of him is me. Don’t we share a consciousness? Oh God. I feel an existential crisis coming on. Or is it metaphysical? Isn’t this meant to be fun? Why am I thinking so much?

One of the tutorials on Orientation Island involves going to the library and fetching a torch. I want a beer, not a torch. Anyway, I do as they ask and I am pleased to see that it is a torch of the flaming variety, not one of those dainty plastic orange numbers which would have made me look a bit LGBTQI.

Uh, oh. Someone called Samehabo Kanto has snuck up behind me and is clearly ogling my bum. What does she want? Why doesn’t she say something? What if it’s not even a girl? I’m not turning around. In my confusion, I somehow manage to attach three or four flaming torches to different parts of my anatomy. Everyone avoids me after that. I can almost hear them whispering, “Here comes that Torchboy freak. Run!

Bored with the tutorials, I inadvertently take off my pants. Luckily I have on a pair of white undies. This will almost certainly make my intentions a little clearer. I look around for someone to chat to, but I find myself all alone. Oh my God! Those aren’t undies! That’s my bum! I’m naked! And here comes Joss Ninetails! Don’t panic. Play it cool. Joss glances at me and carries on walking as if she comes across naked men in the street all the time. Maybe she’s from San Francisco.

Impatient to move on, I give the tutorials a miss and walk down a road that takes me to Help Island. I feel my spirits sink. Where is Christmas Party Island? Rum ‘n Coke Island? Hot Monkey Sex Island?

Then I have some sort of fit. My head shakes violently back and forth. Am I sick? How will I ever find a doctor? Fortunately the shaking stops after a while and I wander off. I walk and walk and walk and see nobody at all. Great. Lost my way. Lost my pants. But look – I can fly! I soar over the sea and back across the island looking for parties to gatecrash.

When I finally land, Disco Randt comes up to me and asks me why my pants are off. I shrug (there is a long list of gestures, including laughing and smoking) and type, “you should know – you took them off.” Disco replies, “yeah right” and hurries away without a backward glance. My first conversation! I am so excited that I have to sit down for a bit.

Help Island is proving to be no help at all. I need to teleport to the mainland where everyone is having fun. But I can’t find the teleporter. I begin to suspect one needs a degree from MIT to work it all out.

I come across a billboard warning Residents not to ‘grief’ one another. Griefing can range from shooting, bombing and pushing, to more subtle forms of intimidation. There are guns and bombs on the island? Where? I must get some at once! Girls are impressed by weapons. Okay, some are terrified, but mostly they are impressed and they will fight among themselves to chat with me. But it’s no good. I can’t find out where to get the bombs and guns. Everybody I ask walks away from me. Some of them even run.

Hello, what’s this? Someone with the unfortunate name of Bogdan Pausch drives past me and parks at the edge of a shimmering technicolour mountain. He gets out of the car and I hurry over. “Give me your car or I will shoot you,” I type. Bogdan gives a tinny laugh. No fear. Nothing. How does he know I’m not armed? Bogdan wouldn’t last a day on the streets of Johannesburg. I try to force my way into his car, but it doesn’t work. Bogdan laughs again.

I spot Joss Ninetails and chase after her. I ask her if she can help me get to the mainland. She types, ‘Hi Joumase. Follow me’. I go weak at my virtual knees and start walking after her but I’m momentarily distracted by Creij Sciarri. She has a magnificent pair of wings on her back. When I turn around, Ninetails has disappeared. Damn! She was my last chance of getting off this cursed island.

I fly out over the ocean and once I am far enough from the coast, I press the ‘stop flying’ button in the hope of putting a swift and painless end to my second life. No such luck. I just kind of float there for a bit, then fly back to the island. At least in the real world I can kill myself.

I need help getting off Help Island,” I type to no-one in particular.

Somehow I manage to teleport myself somewhere. Probably to another part of Help Island. A group of people are standing about chatting. Great. Maybe they know the way out. But from what I can pick up, they know very little about anything at all. For a moment, I think I have landed in a section reserved for retards suffering from Tourette’s. They have mouths like sewers and say LOL in every sentence. They also ignore me completely.

I am bitterly disappointed to discover that Second Life is infested with the same half-witted imbeciles who inhabit the real world. There must be reasonably smart people somewhere in this godforsaken world. But where?

Disconsolately shambling along a path leading to nowhere, I come across another enormous billboard. It features a resident with some sort of No Entry sign over his crotch. The message is: “Please Don’t Walk Around Naked.”

Nearby, a knot of people are gathered. I wander over to eavesdrop on the conversation but I can’t understand a word. It looks like Spanish. This is meant to be Second Life, not Vida Segundo.

Feliz navidad,” I write, my avatars’ hands making little typing movements. The lads stop chatting and turn to look at me. “Donde esta las senoritas?” I ask. One of them fires a burst of what looks like Catalan at me. Then they take turns laughing and walk off. “Bloody foreigners,” I type quickly, but it is too late. They are already out of range.

It’s 2am in Cape Town – 4am Second Life time. I go to bed, naked. When I wake up on Sunday morning, I find that Second Life has taken over my brain. I can think of nothing else. This can’t be good.

Dumping reality in a crumpled heap on the bathroom floor, I fire up the Acer with fresh enthusiasm. Today, I’ll buy a house. Today, I’ll find a Christmas party. Today, I’ll … hang on. Where’s my money? I’ve paid $9.95 and there’s still nothing in my account.

I have no idea where I am. Cuwynne Deerhunter walks up to me. She is well-dressed and neatly groomed. I’m glad that I have my pants on. Without wasting a moment, I type: “I am hungry. Please can I have some money to buy a loaf of bread? And maybe a house.” She calls me a loser and stalks off.

With nothing better to do, I drop by the offices of Uthango, the first South African not-for-profit company to open virtual offices in SL, to see if someone there could lend me money. Apart from me, the place is empty. Then again, it is a Sunday. I suppose they are all at home slaughtering cows or polishing their Ferraris or whatever it is that black diamonds get up to over weekends.

I teleport somewhere else and when I materialise I find that I have gone all limp. I am standing motionless, chin slumped on my chest. “Come along, off we go,” I shout, stabbing at the arrow keys. Something is wrong. In brackets behind my name is the word (Away). Away where? It’s as if something stole my brain while I was being teleported. Inexplicably, I am still able to remove my pants. I whip them off in the hope that someone will notice and come to my rescue. But nothing. I stand there for ages, rooted to the spot. To the casual observer, it must appear as if I am intently studying my willy.

Joumase Troglodite has gone away. Where or why, I cannot say. There is nothing for it but for me to go away, too. I think I’ll go to the pub on the corner where the girls are friendly and the beers are cold. Spending Christmas in the real world might not be so bad, after all.

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