What would you think if you overheard two people talking about Second Life? Although this may sound like the afterlife to most, that is, where, after facing the Judgment of God humans will be either admitted to Heaven by His mercy or driven into Hell by His justice, today, for millions of players, “Second Life” also refers to one of the most famous online virtual worlds where players can create an online life for themselves.

Every day, millions of people log on to online environments, seeking a second life in virtual worlds. It is noticeable that the average user is 26 years old, and spends 22 hours per week in his/her alternative lives [1]. After such dedicated players spend this much time in these worlds, not much is left for their offline activities. They literally live “in” these virtual worlds. What leads them to prefer a virtual life over a real one? Is something missing from the daily life? Why are people not happy or satisfied with what they have? Are they asking for more or looking for something they don’t have?

In Second Life, users can create a new character for themselves, a lifestyle, an environment or anything else they might imagine. Second Life, with about 17 million users, has its own economy and currency (Linden). Residents are able to buy and sell amongst themselves directly using Linden, which is also exchangeable for US dollars. Second Life's GDP (2007) is estimated between $500 million and $600 million [2], which is larger than the GDP of 19 countries in the world. In October, 2008 users spent approximately $30 million. Although Second Life does not have a government, many countries have embassies in Second Life. The online world even has an in-world newspaper.

Many forms of sports activities have also appeared in Second Life. Residents can watch or participate in football, soccer, boxing, wrestling, and auto racing. Virtual art centers and museums allow artists to create and exhibit their works in a way which might not be possible in real life because of physical constraints or high costs. Streaming vocal and instrumental music or inworld instruments allow performances of live music. Live theater is also available in Second Life. The British act Redzone toured for their new album on Second Life (2007).

There are several studies [3] discussing how these online worlds could be used for educational purposes. There are regions in the virtual world of Second Life for educational purposes, and a variety of topics are covered. Virtual worlds are favored because they are thought to provide more engaging experiences than traditional online learning. Virtual worlds can provide an interactive imitation of real life classroom environments. 80 percent of British universities have teaching and learning activities in Second Life. More than 300 universities around the world are taking advantage of the platform to provide educational services at lower costs.

Good and evil exist in Second Life, so religion is also finding its way into this world. Many religious organizations have opened churches, cathedrals and meeting places in Second Life. People are more willing to explore and discuss spiritual things in a virtual world [4]. Second Life also has a place to perform the Hajj ritual, providing a virtual experience before making the actual pilgrimage in person. However, some residents find the idea of virtual worship odd. They prefer spending their time flying, shopping, or engaging in other activities.

Are all these activities making users happier or just helping them to forget their real life? The more users spend time in these worlds, the more they became addicted to their new lifestyle, becoming alienated from the events and responsibilities of real life.

Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish scholar, addresses this question in one of his latest articles [5] as follows: “In spite of the dizzying developments brought by science, the new opportunities offered by technology, and so many means promising us welfare and happiness, the people of our time do not seem very happy. On the contrary, they are overcome by unease and depression more than ever. Although it should not be expected to be any other way, mere worldly opportunities, which are not supported by personal relationships to faith or knowledge of God, are not deepened or given meaning, and obviously do not mean much.”

Despite the large number of educational and social features available in virtual worlds, the main motivation that leads players to games like Second Life seems to be a lack of satisfaction with their real lives. People are either not happy with their work, lifestyle or social environment, or they are seeking a second chance in life, a fresh start. These worlds approximate real life ever more closely with each new technological development. It remains to be seen how virtual worlds will affect real human relationships. One day people may not realize the difference between real and virtual worlds. Is Second Life simply taking over real life?

Gulen makes a similar connection between technological developments and the afterlife: “Even though it would not be correct to speculate today on the days to come, people who predict the future claim that the world will become so attractive for the people of physicality and carnal pleasures that it will make them forget Paradise. With a feeling and passion that gives priority to immediate pleasures and delights, they will say like Omar Khayyam, ‘The past and future are all but tales; enjoy yourself now, do not spoil your life.’ Thus, they will see life as only eating, drinking, and resting, constantly making their choices in favor of worldly ease and comfort.” The belief that on a particular day all humans will be held accountable before God for their actions in this life helps to support and protect the social dynamics of society. Success in the afterlife depends on remembering that one day we will be held responsible for every single deed of our earthly life.

Social dynamics and problems related to online gaming have been discussed widely in academic arenas. The large amount of time, money and resources spent on these games, as well as the associated social and behavioral problems, and loss of productivity are only some of the issues that come to mind. Scholarly articles on ethical issues of life in virtual worlds [6] have increased lately, and many topics are broached, including matters of privacy, monitoring and eavesdropping, the fear of exploitation, identity theft, the ethical impact of aesthetic decisions, values and ethics that are manifested in the social processes and their relevance to activities, professional ethics, standards of integrity, given identity issues and practices, malevolence and altruism, legal and ethical doctrines of confidential and privileged information, ethics for students and instructors, ethical development stages and issues, vandalism, harassment and crime.

Are we living our lives to the fullest? Everyone has the opportunity to choose how they live in this world. If this time is not well spent, that is, acting as if there is no responsibility or judgment for every action, what would be the difference between people living in this world as if it is a game, and those playing their lives away in these online worlds? The Holy Qur’an says: “This life of the world is but a pastime and a game, but the home of the Hereafter, that is Life if they but knew” [7]. Some people prefer their online lives to real life, and unfortunately many others are not aware that their actions evince their preference for the real life over the afterlife.

The movie Matrix has a similar story. The Matrix is a virtual world for people whose bodies are connected to the Machines, which use the bioelectricity and thermal energy of humans as their energy supply. Humans live out their lives in this virtual reality that resembles the 21st century without knowing that they are in a simulation. In the movie, a group of free humans attempts to rescue (unplug) others from the Matrix. The main challenge here is to make others believe that there is another life which is more real or important than the one they are living. In fact, as human beings we are all confronted with the same challenge. Either we gain an understanding of the meaning of our existence in the world and live accordingly, or we are enslaved by worldly ease and comfort, immediate pleasures and delights.

I would like to end with a point the Gulen made on happiness: “It seems that until human beings come to realize their essence, it will not be possible for them to put their affairs in order or to attain the happiness they long for. And this is particularly so if they are trying to suppress their spiritual appetite through luxury, comfort, and seeking to satisfy their physical pleasures because they are unable to realize their real problems.”

Acknowledgment: This article has been produced at MERGEOUS [8], an online article and project development service for authors and publishers dedicated to the advancement of technologies in the merging realm of science and religion.

Halil I. Demir is postdoctoral scholar in the area of Informatics, and lives in Iowa.

References

[1] Yee, N. “The demographics, motivations, and derived experiences of users of massively-multiuser online graphical environments.” Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments 15:309–329.

[2] Wikipedia, Linden Dolar, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linden_dollar

[3] Delwiche, A. (2006). “Massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) in the new media classroom.” Educational Technology & Society, 9 (3), 160-172.

[4] Anselmo, D., 08/01/2007, “A ‘Second’ Way to Save Souls” (churchsolutionsmag.com).

[5] Gulen, M. Fethullah, “Days of Depression and Our Atlas of Hope,” The Fountain Magazine, Issue 67, 2009.

[6] Emerging Ethical Issues of Life in Virtual Worlds, Information Age Publishing, Charlotte, NC, June 15, 2009.

[7] The Holy Quran (29:64).

[8] Mergeous, http://www.mergeous.com

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