First They Got Sick, Then They Moved Into a Virtual Utopia

Kristen French at BackChannel: “…Today, Second Life is mostly forgotten by the broader public. An estimated 800,000 users are active on a monthly basis, according to Second Life parent company Linden Lab. That’s tiny compared to the 1.86 billion users who are active on Facebook each month.

Yet some communities have quietly continued to thrive in the virtual world. One of these is the disability community, a sundry group whose members include people who are blind or deaf, people with emotional handicaps such as autism and PTSD, and people with conditions that limit their mobility, such as Parkinson’s, cerebral palsy, and multiple sclerosis. There are no official tallies of their numbers, but Wagner James Au, who has writtenextensively about Second Life, estimates they may account for roughly 20 percent of users. Some active members estimate the number higher — at as much as 50 percent.

Unlike traditional gaming, Second Life is governed by few rules. Residents can customize their avatars in an infinite number of ways. They can fly and teleport as easily as they can walk, run, and jump. They can build bespoke homes and islands almost from scratch, and buy and sell wares in virtual stores — from biker gear to bird song to the ability to swim like a mermaid. They can marry a Second Life lover, take a rocket to the moon, or simply tuck themselves into bed at night.

For many disabled residents, who may spend 12 hours a day or more in Second Life, the most important moments and relationships of their lives happen inside the virtual world. For them, the fevered fantasies of a decade ago have become reality: Second Life is where they live.

Second Life’s largest community of disabled residents is clustered on Virtual Ability Island, which is actually an archipelago of five islands — two public and three “residential,” where people can rent or buy homes. It’s the creation of a woman named Alice Krueger. In 2007, Krueger joined Second Life with a few disabled friends she knew from online chat groups.

At the time, she was becoming more isolated as her multiple sclerosis progressed. She’d lost her job, had to drop her volunteer work, and couldn’t even attend her children’s school events. Her friends had stopped coming to see her. She was 58….

As Fran and Barbara tell it, the more time Fran spent in Second Life, the younger she felt in real life. Watching her avatar hike trails and dance gave her the confidence to try things in the physical world that she hadn’t tried in a half decade — like stepping off a curb or standing up without any help. These were small victories, but they felt significant to Fran.

Fran’s story began to spread after Draxtor, a Second Life video artist, filmed a Youtube video about her. (His “World Makers” video series profiles the people behind the avatars in Second Life.) In the film, Fran recounts her experience of Second Life as a quasi-fountain of youth. It also describes the fundraising Fran and Barbara have done for Parkinson’s research through Second Life and Fran’s weekly virtual Parkinson’s support group. Suddenly Fran had a following. Some in Second Life’s disability community now use the term “Fran effect” to describe improvements in real-life functioning that they attribute to their experience in Second Life.

This is not just magical thinking. Abundant research shows imagining movement, without actually moving the body, can have positive effects on motor skills, balance, and learning. The same effects are found in athletes and people who are healthy. Researchers have even found that people who have been paralyzed by severed spinal chord can stimulate regrowth and repair by envisioning their limbs moving over and over again — though it requires great effort and takes time. Studies suggest the therapeutic benefits of virtual reality extend beyond movement disorders — to chronic pain, cognitive functioning in people with ADHD and PTSD, and social skills for people on the autism spectrum….(More)”