Sunday, October 5, 2008

Wilde Cunningham --- A heartwarming story

I know that many of you do not understand my interest, nor any one else's for that matter, in Second Life. But I would like to tell you something that might make you change your mind about its value for some in the overall scheme of things. It's truly a heartwarming story that I would like to share with you.

The learning curve for mastering Second Life is rather steep as I will be the first to admit. So, as always, my solution is to read a book on the subject. I bought one at the bigbox bookstore, the only one they had at the time, although I now own four of them. Then I looked into what they had at the Vancouver Public Library. Not that many, however all of them were situated in the main downtown branch, so sight unseen I asked for them to be brought to my local branch, one at a time.

I browsed each of them and learned a little more about Second Life, technically speaking, but then I read a couple which were more about the social/anthropological side of Second Life which I found totally fascinating. One gave the history of the online MUD or multiple-player computer games which eventually evolved into the exceedingly popular World of Warcraft (WOW) and into the virtual world of Second Life, not a game but a very social, creative, educational variation where everything is built and created by the residents. This I found very interesting for while SL is a new experience for me these games have been around and extremely popular for quite a while.

The second of these social books was Second Lives: A Journey through Virtual Worlds by Tim Guest. In this book Tim wrote mostly about the people, the companies and educational institutions of Second Life and whom he met both in Second Life itself, called in-world, and in real life.

Wilde Cunningham*

One of the SL characters/avatars he heard about was Wilde Cunningham, played by a group of nine people, four men and five women, aged 30 to 70, with cerebral palsy. They are aided in this endeavour by one of their caregivers in real life, June-Marie Mahay, and Tim met up with her online character "at her place" in SL.

June-Marie explained that she helped out in a Boston, Massachusetts, day-care centre for the physically disabled, called Evergreen. One afternoon, she mentioned her online hobby, Second Life, to her group and they all were very eager to try it out. Together the group created a character by consensus, voting on each element of appearance: spiky red hair because they had always wanted to show off and orange skin as a form of racial compromise. They named the character Wilde, after the rambunctious group's nickname. Wilde loved their new online life. They met people, made friends, built an online gift shop which brought them real world income.

With June-Marie's help they began to spend as much time in Second Life as the bureaucracy of the day-care centre and their ailing computer network allowed. They were nine real souls inhabiting one virtual body: multiple personality disorder in reverse.

June-Marie told Tim how amazed she was at the change of the group after 6 months of Second Life. "They're so much more confident now, even in the real world."

She showed Tim the tropical island in Second Life that was owned and maintained by Wilde, a gift from a man called John Lester, founder of Braintalk, an online community to support people with neurological conditions and their carers. While they were both in SL she introduced Tim to Wilde although he was a bit taken aback to find Wilde was a woman that day. June-Marie explained that they alternate playing two months as a man and two months as a woman, which the men find a bit tough, flouncing around as females, while the women have absolutely no problem with being portrayed as a man.

Through June-Marie they had a conversation with Tim, asking him questions about his life as a writer while he inquired about their feelings regarding Second Life. One replied that it was like opening a whole new world. He said it allowed him to have a voice and to say things important to him. Interactions for these people in real life are difficult because of their lack of language and the possibility that they can be dismissed because of their appearance.

Tim's conversation with Wilde ended with a question about did they enjoy sharing the same virtual self. The reply was, "Everyone enjoys playing together. We feel the most like the rest of the world that we have ever felt."

He wrote:

As Wilde, they were liberated from their daily plight. As Wilde they could walk. As Wilde they could dress themselves. As Wilde, they were eloquent, funny and mobile.

So Tim decided to meet them in real life, to visit Evergreen. There he found June-Marie, a freckly, frizzy haired redhead of about forty who introduced him to the group and then they went to the computer room to bring up SL and suddenly, there was Wilde projected onto a screen connected to the computer. As Wilde appeared, Mary, one of the group, said, "Look at me! I'm so beautiful!"

The director of Evergreen, Kathleen Flaherty, while initially unenthusiastic, later realized that she had underestimated the individuals in the group. "They've solved more problems than I thought they would...... They are just more alive. Second Life defines them."

Of course without June-Marie Wilde's help virtual life would be impossible for them She spends hours online herself making changes to their virtual world on the group's instructions. One of the members has a collection of virtual dolls in her house on the island which June-Marie has lovingly constructed.

On Tim's last day he had a private meeting with one of the women, with June-Marie interpreting as needed, where she explained what Second Life had meant to her. She said that people don't take you seriously in real life because of your handicap but that people should listen to the disabled. In Second Life you have the right to be who you are, she told him.

You can find a short 2008 update on Wilde Cunningham, for things have changed somewhat since the book was published. You will also find some of their writings at the link. Like this one.

trapped, by mary

i'm trapped inside my body
trapped inside this shell
while the outside doesn't look so good
the insides doing well

its hard to speak the words dont come
as easy as for you
how can i show you what i feel
or all that i've been through

i yearn to give and share and laugh
i ache to know a friend
i crave to tell you how i feel
that the lonliness would end

i'm trapped i'm trapped but so are you
tho perhaps you see it not
your trapped inside frailities too
your worries make you rot

take my hand oh feeble friend
for i am feeble too
together we can make the world
better for me, better for you

I know that this is a pretty extreme example of where Second Life can make a difference to someone's real life but it is not as uncommon as you might think.

The woman who started the UK Guild of Writers of which I am a member (they do have to have readers to appreciate the writers you know) has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and finds in SL an incredible outlet for her creativity and interests which her health problems make more challenging for her to pursue in real life. She has built a beautiful area, modeled on some Scottish islands, called Milk Wood, without the cold and rain, but filled with flowers that never fade, deer in the woods, swans on the lakes, fireflies and birds, lots of chirping birds. Here she hosts poetry readings, authors reading their works, trivia contests, many different literary activities in the various venues she has built for everyone's enjoyment. She even has cottages for rent and a lovely market where people display their wares.

I have heard of people who are paraplegics spending time in SL and it seems to me that no matter how physically you are challenged if you have some means of using a computer Second Life can enrich your real life in ways that for the rest of us it might seem hard to imagine. Perhaps I'll be an old lady in a wheel chair one day, still visiting and enjoying my Second Life as JMB, seen above ready for Fall.

* Image from here, the first part of a series of four articles written by Wagner James Au.


Carver said...

That is a very heartwarming story JMB. It shows the positive side of the internet to me (besides the great research potential which I've used when the internet was all text).

I haven't participated in Second Life but in some ways blogging (although not an alternate reality- well it could be but not how I do it) is a positive side of the internet where I've met people I almost surely would never have met without it.

This also shows me how second life is different from the SIMS which was popular when my daughter was a teen. The SIMS weren't played online, at least not when she was a teen, but the players on home computers could create there own world. However, second life has taken it so much further with the social aspect of interacting with people who have their own second life. I may take it up after I retire. Blogging is already so time consuming for me that I dare not add anything else.

Crushed said...

I find I need to work out the control in there. I seem to move too far too fast and I can't interact with objects.

It's interesting in visualising how VR technology might be used positively in the future. We're alwayys hearing negative prophecies about people immersing themselves into simulations and leaving the real world. But of course, there are cases where that might significantly enhance quality of life.

Moggs Tigerpaw said...

Very interesting post JMB. It made me think,and I love sl already.

I can see how while they are in sl it could effectively 'un disable' many disabled people make the old young, the sick well, and give the less well off a chance to live the high life virtually.

There truly is so much to Second Life, some may bad,or may be seen as bad, depending on perspective, even some most would dissaprove of. But for definate a grand grab bag of good stuff.

It really makes you wonder where it will all end up...

Dragonstar said...

This is rather fascinating. It sounds like the sort of thing that I'd better keep away from - I spend too much time at my computer anyway!

Shades said...

Fascinating stuff.

I remember what a technophobe you were over there in your early days.

I'm too busy to go there much.

Anonymous said...

Very fascinating.. did you read y short story/account about disability and role playing games on me short story blog?

Dr.John said...

I love stories like this. I think it is wonderful what Second Life did for them. Thank you for sharing.

Nunyaa said...

I so get lost in SL, think I need more time to understand it.

Ellee Seymour said...

Yes, a heartwarming and charming story, I'm glad SL still gives you lots of fun.

leslie said...

What a heartwarming story about how SL has helped so many feel more free to be creative and interact with others. Glad you're still enjoying it - and I absolutely adore your fall outfit! :D

jmb said...

It's true Carver, blogging takes up a lot of time and so does SL. I just wanted to show how it is so much more than an entertainment for some.
Crushed I still can't walk very well in SL. Who knows what is coming down the pike, technology moves so fast and hopefully it will benefit us all.
Yes Moggs, SL certainly has what many would consider its unsavourary side, as does RL but I hope the majority of it is positive. A bit of a slob in RL I am always perfectly dressed in SL and there's no laundry to do.
OH Dragonstar I think you might get addicted to it very fast, once you get past the initial learning curve.
No kidding Shades, I was definitely not equipped at first and every day I learn something new from someone.
Muts I did not read that story on your blog but I will look for it.
Dr John, isn't it a wonderful story. Sadly the update is not so positive but hopefully it will improve for them.
Nunyaa, it's a pretty complicated world in many ways, but fun.
Yes Ellee, I still find it a lot of fun but so time consuming.
Thanks Leslie, I look very nice don't you think? Do you think I should buy an umbrella. They sell them there although it never rains.

Thanks to everyone for visiting and commenting.

"Grendel" said...

I fundraise for the Autism Association and last year we had a donation of $1000 via characters in 2nd life who bought virtual works of art at a virtual auction for Linden $ which they then converted to $AUD - neat. I wrote about it at the time ( but I didn't know the impact 2nd Life was having for others.

Moggs Tigerpaw said...

Jmb, I agree much more good than bad.

But never rains?

Now there you are wrong. Shall we say it only rains, or snows, when it is wanted.

They had lovely deep crisp even snow and regular snow falls at Ren Isle last Christmas.

I also know of an island with a whole ecology, rain clouds, plants, etc.

But you are right. Mostly it never rains.

CherryPie said...

What a fascinating post. I have a RL friend who spends hours playing WoW

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Fascinating post. I had never even imagined this aspect of SL.

Vic Grace said...

Interesting post. I heard a talk show on the radio when I was driving to Vancouver in the summer along the same lines. A woman had some disfigurement which inhibited her meeting people but she said in SL she is beautiful and people stop and chat, she then finally met someone from SL and that person was able to overlook the disfigurement because they had taken time to get to know each other online. If only the real world was as kind.

I will try and use SL again but I think my connection is too slow as it states only for broadband but maybe satellite is broadband I don't know. I think I would really enjoy it.

lilone_sandgrain said...

hi there,

this is lilone_sandgrain, june-marie mahay, or simply sunshine as i go by in real life. you did an excellent job covering wilde in this article. often times i see blog entries or articles which are barely accurate. i wanted to let you know that its a great job. and never to discredit the days of small beginnings, for one never knows just how much good they can do by simply trying something small.

best wishes in 2009