by Alphaville Herald on 04/02/07 at 10:12 am
by Aidan Aquacade
Meet Roberto, quite an eye-catching avatar who is one of the more interesting characters that can be found frequenting random areas of the Second Life world that we explore from day to day. Above Roberto’s head is a floating, spinning, square picture of his real-life self. This floating image of himself is something he calls a “tip hat”, where people can pay a small donation to receive a party hat, and witness Roberto doing a dance in return for their kindness. Some of the contributions Roberto receives go toward the cause of making his avatar look as much as possible like his real self. This, however, raises a few questions: Isn’t there an easier way to raise the money? Why is it so important for him to look like his real-life image? And what’s his motivation for setting out on such a time-consuming and ultimately unrewarding task? The answer is simple: Agoraphobia.
Roberto Salvatierra, aka SL resident Roberto Salubrius, is a medical student from San Jose, Costa Rica, who suffers from the fear of open places and being out in public that is known as agoraphobia. He told me that at first, his main reason for making his avatar resemble his real-life image as closely as possible was to help him in curing his affliction. By seeing himself in a simulated 3D environment, Roberto feels he can become more comfortable with unfamiliar open spaces. If we were to look at this as a meaningless exercise, however, we would be mistaken. Speaking of the real impact of the Second Life environment on his first life condition, Roberto recalled his initial experience of the virtual world: “When first I came in here, I teleported to a forest, then I fell over a hill, running. At that exact moment, I got so anxious, I felt like I was there, running down the hill. But the anxiety came down fast as soon as I felt that I was in my house at a safe place, so I thought okay, the real problem is actually my perception of my environment.”
There are many misconceptions about agoraphobia: that it’s caused by lack of intelligence, or a lack of courage. Roberto is lacking in neither of these things. He is a member of Mensa, and has fought his illness to attend medical college, where he is the top student in his class. Speaking of these misconceptions, he explained to me that “agoraphobia is a condition [that] not many people understand. They think that we don’t do things just because we don’t want to. It’s a condition, a disease, it needs to be treated and cured. It’s not about courage. For instance: you can’t go out and tell a diabetic, ‘Hey man, make your pancreas make more insulin.’ The problem is that [with] a diabetic you can test their blood sugar, and see that it is up. There is no test to see if you have agoraphobia, so even your family thinks it’s lack of courage, but it’s not, we are sick. People just don’t get it.”
Roberto explained to me that unfortunately for him and people like him, agoraphobics don’t have support groups like alcoholics because of the nature of the condition. He has found that the internet is a great resource in bringing agoraphobics together, which is why he set up a website for people like himself to talk about it. But now he feels that a 3D environment like Second Life can “go way beyond that”. Being interviewed on the issue for a Columbian national newspaper, among other things, has made Roberto an important spokesman for the treatment of agoraphobia using the Internet.
With the money that he has raised so far in Second Life he has set up an in-world group called the “Agoraphobia Support Group” which he hopes other people with agoraphobia will join to discuss their shared difficulties. In the long term, with the money he raises through his tip hat project, he hopes to perhaps buy a small section of land in Second Life to build a place where agoraphobics can go to share ideas on this pioneering method of fighting this illness.
So if you see an avatar that resembles a Costa Rican man in his underwear, smoking a cigarette with a spinning picture over his head, it’s more than likely Roberto! The work that he’s doing within Second Life could certainly be seen as pioneering and has the potential to help a lot a people with a very difficult condition. So throw a few Lindens his way, you could really be helping someone — and the dance is too good to pass up!