[‘Letters from the Metaverse’ is a regular weekly column by Mathew Kumar about his adventures in the massively multiplayer online world of Second Life. This week’s column covers getting started.]

Depending on who you talk to, the online virtual world of Second Life is one of two things. It’s either a model virtual community, standing up as well as a shining example of a real marketplace in a virtual world as it does as a thriving social gaming sandbox, OR it’s a gigantic sweaty virtual orgy, featuring every fetish you could hope to dream of played out in virtual public. Fancy putting on a diaper and being teabagged by someone dressed in a raccoon suit? You can probably do that in Second Life.

2006_07_04_hat.pngAhem. I can already hear the cries of the Second Life devotees who subscribe to the former view of the world, but to be honest, as it stands no one really seems to know what Second Life is, or what it means, with everyone from Business Week to hyperbole obsessed academics and "ludologists" stumbling over themselves to define it. Which is probably why our fearless leader, SimonC, asked me, as a total newbie to Second Life, to put on my investigative journalism hat (it’s got a little card in it that says "Press") and INVESTIGATE.

Well. As soon as you’ve gone through the painless creation of an account and installation of the client, which checks in at less than 30mb, but eats up to a gigabyte of your hard disk as it streams the world, you’re dumped quite unceremoniously on Orientation Island in your new virtual form.

For some strange and not entirely discernable reason you’re only given a limited number of choices for your second name, and the choices are uniformly terrible, consisting largely of Japanese food (Oh! Those wacky Japanese, with their “Ebi” and their “Gyoza”!) or the names of science fiction authors. These names probably ensure that you have a unique name in the world. A uniquely stupid one.

So my avatar is called “Seven Kikuchiyo”. He’s actually called Seven as a (weak) reference to Killer7, which I was playing and somewhat enjoying at the same time I began Second Life, so I picked his second name as a bonus reference. I am all about the pop culture references.

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So this is Orientation Island, which will completely fail to help you if you’re as impatient as I am. You’ll quickly learn how to edit your character and create a terrible facsimile of yourself, probably with polygon shears you can’t spot because the camera is so bloody unhelpful. You’ll learn to fly and to run around like you’ve crapped your pants (or at least, that’s what the animation looks like to me) use vehicles, buy stuff, and use your incredibly confusing inventory, which rather than a traditional box of objects is a system of hierarchical folders containing everything from the animation which makes you run like you’ve crapped your pants, to the pants you’ve crapped.

Anyway, I got bored of all that jazz, and quickly exited through the first gate I could find onto the main island, making sure to fail to pay attention to where it was sending me. That would have been way too sensible. No matter, because all of my all my stereotypes of Second Life as the grubby red light district of the internet were smashed within seconds, as I was teleported directly in front of a sex shop.

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Here you can see a range of sex animations for your avatar. If you'll click it to get a closer look, you'll note that most of the animations explicitly list a male and a female as taking part in the sexual congress, the same way that fascists like George W. Bush considers marriage to be between only a man and a woman! Does this mean that the inhabitants of Second Life discriminate against gays and lesbians? Is this something I could… INVESTIGATE?

NEXT WEEK: I forget all about that and attempt to buy clothes which aren’t completely lame, probably.

[Mathew Kumar is a freelance journalist who’s dabbled in MMORPGs, but is too cheap/strong willed to play past a free trial. He got his break with Insert Credit, and his work has been featured in publications as diverse as The Globe and Mail, Plan B magazine and Eurogamer.]