Philcon: Welcome to the Matrix, But You’re Not Sleeping

by Pixeleen Mistral on 20/11/06 at 12:10 pm

By Dae Tilling

Camaraderie, in a room full of people each shielded behind their own laptop? That was the first oddity that struck me at the Virtual Worlds track of Philadelphia’s annual science fiction convention. For an entire day, panels about virtual worlds were broadcast into Second Life from Philcon. In the seventy years that Philcon has been running, this was a grand first. The organizer, Tim Binder, who chaired Philcon in 2000, set up a program room for the day with a video camera and screen showing the panelists to the avatars watching from either Indigo or Chaos in SL. At the same time, the real world panelists and their audience could not only see and talk with the avatars, but also watch short SL clips, including the classic of Robbie Dingo making a guitar.

The virtual worlds track was an eye-opener for many members of Philcon, myself included. I’m an educator and a science fiction author; it was fun to watch the instruction potential of SL become immediately apparent as teachers wandered into the panel room throughout the day. Well over twenty universities are already conducting classes in SL. In the panel entitled “Educational Institutions in Virtual Worlds”, panelists Bridget Joyce Boyle, Timothy Allen and Glenn Hauman joined me to discuss the pitfalls and promises of schooling in SL, special classes for special needs children and ways to reach the 1.5+ million total residents.

“Virtual Reality, Real Problems”, with my fellow panelists Helen Thompson, Mark Sachs and Jennyfur, ranged far and wide over the virtual landscape–touching on issues of anonymity, security breeches, copybots and flame fests. The addicting nature of being online was addressed, people readily admitting to spending eight to ten hours a day in front of their computer screens. The why of it? People need people. It’s a human thing. But why settle for talking to or playing with the person who happens to live next door to you, when, instead, you could be with someone more suited to fit your needs?

In the “Mixed Realities–Virtual and Real Worlds Collide” panel, I joined Lawrence M. Schoen, Misty Rhodes, Surreal, Rock Robertson and Jenna Lynn Binder to field questions from a still-gaping audience as more and more Philcon members heard about what was going on and filtered in.

“Does your first life seem paler by comparison?” someone asked.

An answer out of the crowd. Crucial Armitage: “Second Life is giving me a first life.”

This led to a heated discussion of identity and truth in representation. No one disagreed that social skills can be learned in this non-threatening environment. For the disabled, it’s a new lease of life. It’s common and even expected to portray yourself in a virtual world as someone you’re not, but a warning shouted out that posers are easily spotted. It is possible to create an avatar that could do a lot of psychological damage. Over and over, I heard the caution: this is not a game. Even with eyes open, problems can ensue when love hits unexpectedly. And it does. It’s the tried-and-true winning combination of feeling safe with someone (or something) exotic.

The audience participants at Philcon were confused, bemused and, not infrequently, won over. The questions from the crowd went from simple:

“Can we have more than one avatar or more than one account?”

“Yes and yes.”

To the nearly undecipherable:

“What are some of the fun things you can do in Second Life?”

“We get drunk and go giffing for furries, but we use our alt accounts and speak in Skype.”

The camaraderie of the crowd on both sides of the virtual wall was solid. While people multitasked behind their laptops, occasionally instant messaging others in the same room, several of the organizers went out and brought us back pizzas. Fun and educational–the virtual worlds conference track at Philcon was best of both worlds.

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