Second Life I’m able to dance
One man’s search for a “real-life”
I met three people today: Tom Roome, Tom06 Castro, and Tom.
One is Tom Roome, your average 37 year old college student, who
can spend hours on his computer, competing in any number of virtual
games. He is opinionated, articulate and quick to offer advice
on searching for a job and how lack of experience has always been
his downfall. Tom loves to dance and socialize. He’s working
on his second masters degree and currently a teacher’s assistant
in the school of Arts and Technology at The University of Texas
at Dallas. Tom’s long-term goal is to secure a permanent
teaching position at a university once he completes his masters
of fine art.
introduced me to another Tom this same day, Tom Castro. We’ll
call him Tom06.
walked up in a zebra print T-shirt and tight shorts. We met on
his land in the virtual world, Second Life and Tom06 promptly
showed me his art gallery, were he displays many original works
of his and even some that he’s been able to sell in Second
Life. We walked slowly and I noticed Tom seemed hesitant to show
me all the walls in his gallery. The more we talked and walked,
it appeared Tom found a trust in my responses or lack of reactions
and he invited me to his Second Life house. We flew up to Tom’s
house, he calls his sky palace. In Tom’s virtual house,
he has a shower with running water and a toilet with blue water.
The house has an ultra- modern interior. Art tastefully lines
the walls, some images risqué enough to get the “mature”
label displayed in the right hand corner of his computer screen.
the multi-level house, adorned with more original works of art.
Many of the canvases exposed abstract images of Tom in provocative
or “sexy” postures. He commented that at times it
was difficult for him to be viewed as sexy, but his images successfully
gave an air of a gentle eroticism and yes, sexiness.
I followed Tom06 through his virtual world and continued the conversation
with our original Tom, a third Tom’s presence emerged as
he appeared prominently placed in the room. This Tom was a man
without a last name. This Tom is restricted to a wheelchair, securely
fastened to the seat by a buckled belt and limited to move his
motorized chair by a pedal under his left toe. This Tom has Cerebral
Palsy and he unabashedly lets you know, he’ll answer any
questions you have, but don’t make him explain CP, “Google
it.” After 30 plus years of talking about his disability,
one thing the internet has done for him is offer pages and pages
of medical, diagnostic, and personal explanations he’s grown
tired of providing. I found my mind wandering to all the other
possibilities the internet has given the disabled Tom.
Tom notes that most people don’t see past his chair or see
the man seated in front of them. This Tom doesn’t have a
last name because it would require a more in depth conversation,
one that rarely happens. This is the Tom that I was most interested
in knowing and it’s the Tom that Tom Roome is least interested
in discussing. I get the impression this conversation bores Tom
Roome. “I have a physical disability that limits me to a
wheelchair, I can’t walk, my speech is a bit difficult to
understand, and it takes me longer to do about anything a non
disabled person might attempt... Blah, Blah, Blah... What’s
next?” Tom wants to talk about his art, or his land and
the unfriendly neighbor in Second Life, or some geeky aspect of
one of the many on-line games that he loves to play.
I’m intrigued by the gap between the three Toms and anxious
to discover what opportunities a virtual world such as Second Life
offer to close these gaps.
I get the impression Tom has a wicked sense of humor. In his strained
speech and extended mannerisms, he reminisces of a dance he once
attended with other people restricted to wheelchairs, he described
it as a scene from a bumper car rink. In Second Life, he can actually
move smoothly on the dance floor and “physically” interact
with other people.
My question for all the Toms was, “What does Second Life do
for you?” To my surprise, it wasn’t the ability to fly
or walk, Tom has been playing on-line games for years and this ability
is almost passé at this point. For Tom, the ability to be
social was the greatest gift of Second Life. As I reflected on the
articles and buzz, this virtual world has created; I could see he’s
right. Although, you can meet in certain sectors of Second Life
and build guns and weapons and killing machines, and shoot at people
till your heart’s content, this isn’t the purpose of
this virtual world. The unique aspect of Second Life is the ability
to construct anything you want and maintain possession and you’re
never competing; unless, your attempting to get the attention of
some avatar who’s struck your fancy. The Economist magazine
coins the phrase “Making, not slaying,” in their September
28th. article, Living a Second Life.
Tom described a new freedom in Second Life, the ability to appear
normal and not need to fight for acceptance. It’s about the
way people interact with him. It slows communication a bit to Tom’s
pace. Stan, Tom’s partner of three years, whom he met on-line,
asked with a tone of disdain for the inconsiderate people, “Have
you ever tried to type using a stick held in your teeth, methodically,
one key at a time? That’s still faster and easier than getting
a person to stop and listen,” Stan implies.
a person with severely limited dexterity and a computer interface
that entails using your big toe on a mouse ball, games which rely
on a point system to advance can still be frustrating. Second Life
allows participants a freedom to exist without limits.
Interestingly, Tom06 has found a group of people on-line who are
disabled. One of Tom’s friends navigates the virtual landscape
in a wheelchair. I ask Tom why this person would still keep such
limitations and he explains, this is how this person views himself
and that doesn’t change on-line. I ask if he tells people
he’s disabled and Tom doesn’t hesitate. He definitely
lets people know he’s disabled, he says, It’s important
for people to understand, but it’s also important that he’s
honest, so people can trust him and respect him. He quickly adds,
“I’m not looking for pity.” I ask how he decides
when to tell a person and in Tom’s wise and succinct fashion,
he replies, “When people get close.”
This is the gap. Second Life wouldn’t be a novelty for a disabled
person if people in real life, “got close.” But they
don’t. Our third Tom is rarely perceived outside of his wheelchair.
There is a discomfort that keeps people at arms length and a distance
that extends beyond the chair. Perception can be altered in this
virtual world and avatars/people can be seen as who they are and
not as a society might stereotypically perceive them.
talks about a discomfort for people who aren’t familiar
with disabilities. The conversation never moves past the superficial
and shallow interactions. Tom’s voice lowers and spoken
almost as a sigh, “People don’t like to be uncomfortable.”
space will never replace our physical reality of food, shelter,
and safety. But, how valuable is a space that allows friendships
to form, cultivates relationships, creates communities, affirms
our talents, allows participants to pursue their passions, enriches
our lives, and even provides financial opportunities for some?
Is this real? Where does this world fit into our lives?
disabled person, this isn’t a second life, but becomes a
different life; maybe, a new life. A place where perceptions are
not shaped by the disability, but the human connection: Even if
it’s an avatar talking. Tom Roome moves his chair in place
and has Stan remove his shoe so he can walk Tom06 through the
virtual landscape and the Linden land of opportunity, as it appears
the Tom without a last name has shed his daily limitations and
continues his pursuit of a “real-life."
with Tom Roome by Scott Trent, October 11, 2006