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Review of Tom Boellstorff’s Coming of Age in Second Life

April 10, 2013

Tom Boellstorff, Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2010).

It was only a matter of time before the digital humanities discovered virtual worlds. In an overt reference to Margaret Mead’s famous 1928 book, Coming of Age in Samoa, Tom Boellstorff endeavors to apply the principles of anthropology and ethnography to the growing virtual landscape called Second Life (SL). I am personally excited about this work; I have spent a good deal of time over the last few years in SL. In this virtual world I have attended political events, I’ve curated music and visual art and been to many entertaining events, and had interactions with many academics who were there specifically to study this virtual world.

For those who are not aware, SL is not a game; it is a virtual setting where the users can create whatever content they want. I am tempted to provide my own impressions, but I will allow Boellstorff to describe it:

A man spends his days as a tiny chipmunk, elf, or voluptuous woman. Another lives as a child and two other persons agree to be his virtual parents. Two “real” -life sisters living hundreds of miles apart meet every day to play games together or shop for new shoes for their avatars. The person making the shoes has quit his “real” -life job because he is making over five thousand US dollars a month from the sale of virtual clothing. A group of Christians pray together at a church; nearby another group of persons engages in a virtual orgy, complete with ejaculating genitalia. not far away a newsstand provides copies of a virtual newspaper with ten reporters on staff; it includes advertisements for a “real” -world car company, a virtual university offering classes, a fishing tournament, and a spaceflight museum with replicas of rockets and satellites.

All that said, there are lots of locations within SL that are dedicated to serious academic inquiry. This is what Boellstorff is concerned with. He starts by demarcating SL as a virtual world, rather than a game; that it is a community, not just escapism; and that his intention is not to promote or vilify the platform that he is studying. Beyond that, Boellstorff admits a problem that is a common thread in the digital humanities: that it is constantly in flux. Thus, Boellstorff chose to examine SL during its “coming of age,” starting a year after SL was founded in 2004 through 2009. Ultimately, Boellstorff argues that SL is a social community where cultural creation is just as valid as the “real world.”

Structurally, Boellstorff divides the text into three parts; the first part concerns a description of the setting of SL, providing theoretical underpinnings via the work of people like Clifford Geertz and Benedict Anderson, and then details his methodology, which revolves around interacting with residents at face value, purely within the context of the virtual world. The second part involves a breakdown of the culture of SL, including discussions on the users’ sense of space, personhood, intimacy, and community. In the third part, Boellstorff gets into the meat of his argument, contending that humanity has had a concept of “the virtual” well before the digital age, and that technology is simply another medium for people to express and create culture.

Boellstorff does a decent job of balancing jargon and theory with straight forward descriptions of interactions and experiences within Second Life. On the other hand, his conclusions seem self-evident to me as a longtime “resident” of this virtual world. Of course SL is an extension of the real world, where people bring all their noble and baser inclinations and desires. It is a changing world of contradictions, which makes it not all that much different from the real. Where Boellstorff shines is being able to demonstrate that individuals are able to change their perspective in ways they could not do in the flesh; thus, people can change their race, gender, or appearance and learn from the way people interact with them. In my own experience, this was particularly important to transgender friends I had in SL. With this in mind, however, many people brought their cultural biases, which led to many of my friends having similar hurtful experiences they have had in the real world. Boellstorff demonstrates that human culture has not changed fundamentally with the advent of virtual worlds; instead, it has added more dimensions and platforms to express it.

One Comment
  1. Excellent choice. It seems like so much more could be done about the meanings being a chipmunk has for one’s sense of identity. Is it possible to talk about SL in it’s totality, or would more insight be gained from delving into the micro spaces?

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