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The French Riviera Beckons. You can be there in 15 minutes. Free.

With a modest internet connection and a comparatively new computer, you can leave your four walls behind — without leaving your chair. Photo of Ville de Coeur by Jason Velázquez.

When I arrived, the land and sea were enveloped in a velvety blanket of pre-dawn inkiness. An impossibly large full moon hung over the Mediterranean even as thin whispers of orange and pink began to seep into the sands of the beach I tread, wondering why I kept returning to this place. How it continued to draw me in despite the truth I knew about it.

Still too early for the trolley, I resolved to walk the cobbled streets and look in the shops. The sound of the waves lapping the nearby shore and crashing into the rocks off in the distance was a constant serenade that was somehow part of the stillness rather than an interruption of it. That stillness was really only occasionally broken by the sound of the winged unicorn whose rider repeatedly goaded the beast into rearing up, neighing loudly and spreading its wings to their impressive full width. A large orc (or troll or something) in leather armor and wielding a battle axe stood nearby admiring a flower basket of impatiens affixed to an ornate lamp post.

A perfectly normal-appearing young woman chatted with the two of them as the morning sky brightened and the trill of small birds began to rise with the sun.

I was experiencing day break over the the quaint fishing village, but this version of the Côte d’Azur exists not In Real Life (IRL), but in the virtually limitless virtual 3-D world of Second Life (SL), an online home for digital makers since 2003, before the term “maker” was even a thing. This locale, named “Coeur d’Azur,” mimics the cozy, rustic aesthetic of the South of France nearly perfectly. A church bell tolls the hour somewhere off in the distance, and now, with enough daylight, I see that lavender shoots erupt out of planters and in little fenced gardens everywhere.

Traditionally, “daytime” in Second Life lasts three hours, realtime, separated by one hour “nights;” photo by Jason Velázquez.

Second Life doesn’t bill itself as a game, but rather as the world’s largest interactive virtual reality playground. Created by San Francisco-based Linden Labs, this anything-goes universe continues to grow in popularity as a space for socializing, doing business, and sharing information about an indefinite number of topics. Using a 3-D graphics engine with a fairly forgiving learning curve, creators worldwide develop nearly all the content, from their own in-world identities, or avatars, to mewling kittens, vintage Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and the Eiffel Tower. And while there are plenty of sources of free clothing and accessories, millions of virtual items are available for purchase in the marketplace, where talented makers can earn a fair amount of Linden Dollars, or Lindens, selling strikingly realistic wares. While most creators don’t assume they’ll get rich in Second Life, those Lindens can add up, eventually to be converted to US Dollars (or other fiat currencies) IRL — the exchange rate now is hovering right around $0.003 $LD to the $USD.

As you would expect with any technology that’s been around longer than some of its users have been alive, the operations behind Second Life have evolved over time. The one thing that remains constant is the simulation’s ability to give people a welcome break from the real world. Since the onset of COVID-19, this virtual galaxy of invented spaces is seeing a major uptick in visitors to its digital shores. Turns out, finding complete newbies to SL was so easy, I was nearly tripping over them in every destination I explored.

The winged unicorn rider, “СΛЯL,” said that he was happy to have discovered “someplace to go” in the age of quarantine.

The assumption that the player is the human and the object is the unicorn might be exactly backwards in Second Life; photo by Jason Velázquez.
СΛЯL: well its first time i been here but i say i like the realism of the place

he told me via the text chat box. The young woman he was chatting with who looked like…well, just a young woman, said that although she’d been a resident for a while, she found herself clocking more time in SL lately

Coral Melody: definitely… i never spent this much time in SL

While many players are reluctant to share even basic details about their identities IRL (they come here to shed those personae after all), I was generally able at least to get geographic info for a few folks I met.

СΛЯL: << UK here

Coral brought up the concept that she perceives herself as having a second home in Second Life.

Coral Melody: i’m from Nottinghamshire UK and i share my second home with the Duchess Sinning in Poitou Coeur
Female avatars make up about half of the players in SL, though, of course, in a world where you can be anything you like, if someone says they’re a potted plant in real life, who are we to say they aren’t? Photo by Jason Velázquez.

Residents never have to pay just to explore, and can, in public “sandbox” regions, even build objects of all kinds that they can keep in their inventories. But premium members (currently $11.99 per month), can either “live” in the small house of their own that comes with membership, or build the house of their dreams on land they buy, either from other players or from Linden Labs. Residents of any membership status can choose to look for lodging that they can rent from landlords on negotiated terms. Players with personal space of their own tend to get pretty involved furnishing their digs with items they’ve built and bought.

Conversation with Coral and СΛЯL turned to esoteric gaming topics, and so I bid the unicorn rider and the young woman goodbye and headed off in search of more newbies. I reminded myself that the young woman might have been a 60 year old man, and that while I thought I was talking to the unicorn rider, the resident might actually have been the winged unicorn itself controlled from across the world be a person of any age or gender. The rider may have been the prop. The only thing of which you can be fairly certain in Second Life is that an actual unicorn is probably not controlling its avatar by typing away on a keyboard in some distant, mystical land. Probably.

“I discovered Second Life in 2004 when I was working for an architectural firm and my podmate showed me how they had made their buildings in this virtual world.  Having read Snowcrash I knew this was something I had to try.  A month later I was spending 40 hours a week inworld on top of my regular job.

In 2007 a friend told me Linden Lab was opening up an office in my hometown.  I knew I had to apply and get my foot in the door.  I was hired that year and I also met the resident who later became my husband.  We’ve been together for 13 years now.

What does Second Life mean to me? It means everything in the world to me.  My family, friends… my source of enjoyment and creativity… and a job and community that I love dearly.”

—Alexa, Second Life resident.
Responding to Linden Labs’ request for Second Life Stories

It was still pretty early, so I thought I might stroll for a bit and explore other regions and neighborhoods in Ville de Coeur. I stopped in at the Coffee Bar, a picture perfect café that doubled as an extension space for the main Kuumba Gallery, located in another region. Looking at the baked goods behind the glass case helped me identify what nagged me while I was outside admiring the lavender — no sense of smell. Oh well, maybe in SL version 17.0.

Some creators in SL specialize in retail and hospitality interior design, and can even be hired to make your virtual cafe or business look better than anything you could create IRL; photo by Jason Velázquez.

I did like the art on display though. I stood in the center of the space, trying to decide between two oils, one of crashing waves, the other a landscape with serene trees, both by Hadiya Draper. I decided on the landscape. The price, L$300, seemed a bit steep, but then, the cost of good art always does. Now I just needed somewhere to hang it…

I walked on, and found myself admiring the yachts moored in the marina. The craftsmanship was exquisite. While I didn’t expect that I’d be able to afford to buy one anytime soon, there was always the possibility that I could learn how to build one. A coastal cruise around the Mediterranean would be lovely on a day like today, I mused mistily.

While the blue skies and blue waters of Coeur d’Azure are hard to beat, the world’s creator, Bedrich Panacek-Guisse, graciously explained by chat that it was actually 4th region in Ville de Coeur out of eight that he’s created with his partner, Ayla Guisse. The addition of le Midi, and especially the French Riviera, filled an obvious need to represent the Mediterranean part of France. While some areas of Ville de Coeur (VdC) are based on actual towns, such as the regions of Bourgogne and Alsace, others are amalgams of localized architecture, foliage, and geography.

Some artists in SL create their work digitally, while others paint their works IRL, then digitize them and offer them for sale in SL Galleries, such as the works shown here by Hadiya Draper in the Kuumba Gallery; photo by Jason Velázquez.

“Azur is based on paintings by an unknown artist from the late 19th century,” explained Panacek-Guisse, “and the feel was in keeping with our goal of keeping VdC with the theme of villages and countryside of Southwest Europe.”

When I commented that this estate was, quite possibly, the most realistic in Second Life, the builder seemed gratified, saying that he and his partner enjoy trying to accurately recreate parts of Europe. The upkeep is expensive, he notes, but says that rentals of commercial and residential units just about let them break even on land fees.

I took a chance and asked about his identity IRL. He told me that he is a software developer in Maryland, U.S., while his partner lives on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea and works supporting various countries in Europe. Neither are designers outside of Second Life.

Couer de Azul, with its verdant walkways and gardens, bursts with color at every turn; photo by Jason Velázquez.

“Ville de Coeur grew out of my love for Europe and history, he said.” “This was originally founded as the Duché de Coeur 12 years ago, which represented France in the 17th/18th century. At the time, Baroque [role play] was popular. That nearly stopped six years ago, and I decided I needed to move on. Ayla was one of my merchants, and we discussed alternatives. After a trip to Quebec City [in SL], I decided I wanted to make this a similar concept where we would keep the historic feel, but make it present day. My other partners in the duchy did not like the idea and split off from us. Ayla and I pursued this together and have been at it for the past 5+ years.”

While Ville de Coeur doesn’t exclude younger SL residents in any way, its mild environment and attractions are geared towards, and attract, the over-40 crowd, with some visitors and residents in their 70s. Word got around.

“We did not anticipate growing to eight regions,” said Panacek.” We thought we would stop at five, but over time we tried to meet the needs of others.”

Some vehicles in SL are part of the scenery. Others can be ridden and take a degree of skill to pilot; reach out and “touch” an object to find out who owns it, whether or not you can use it, and more information; photo by Jason Velázquez.

Their most recently crafted destination takes the visitor not to another location in France but to the Italian coastal region of Amalfi. Anyone who isn’t familiar with that scene of medieval buildings stacked up between the shores of the Mediterranean and a nearby back wall of cliffs might recognize the topography — it was the filming location for the 2017 blockbuster, Wonder Woman. And these Second Life creative partners stay true to the real-life environment.

Ironically, the realism is a big draw for people looking to get away from the bombardment of bad news IRL.

“We have seen an increase since COVID-19,” said Panacek, “however, we introduced Amalfi just as the lockdown began, and so it is difficult to measure new traffic. But our events are seeing slightly increased traffic. In Azur, we are most proud of keeping the feel rural and a safe place in SL.”

While lacking in some of the senses, he suggests that it’s a fair alternative to social distancing. “You can dance here completely safe in knowing you won’t get Covid-19 from your dance partner!”

And if you’re worried about certain European…skin sensibilities? Panacek and his partner assure interested travelers that it’s a pretty PG-13 kind of place.

“We are fairly rigid here about what we will allow to keep it safe. For example, although it is acceptable in Nice, France [IRL] to go topless, it isn’t recommended. We don’t allow it here at all.”

System Requirements/Recommendations for Second Life

Some tentative tourists curious about Second Life may recall early reports of the graphic nature of this cyber playground. That’s kind of what people do with any new technology — give them the tools to build or be anything their minds can conceive of, and the Beavis-es and Buttheads of the world will, predictably, create naked…things. Since those early days, a ratings system has been put in place that allows residents to control the level of maturity (or immaturity, as the case may be) they see: G (general audiences/tame), M (mature, about a TV-14 level), or A (adult, if you’re easily offended, don’t watch).

With still so few people about, I thought it might be time to take my curiosity elsewhere. I began to double time it over the cobblestones while I searched an events listing to see if I might catch any great live music concerts or the like. Just as I noticed a classic French mime staring at me, I spied an entry for the “Tour de Coeur” bicycle race. Intriguing! And, as the mime kept creeping me out, I decided to give up walking in favor of teleporting. Why plod when you can blast through a digital wormhole, right?

Mimes are to be found anywhere in France where crowds (and especially tourists) gather. Ville de Coeur, albeit virtual, is no exception; photo by Jason Velázquez.

When I appeared at the start of the race in the Piazza di Amalfi, the racers were already lining up, but I had just enough time to pull one aside for an interview. And even though Panacek informed me that a majority of Second Life residents in Ville de Coeur are from the UK, US, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, a growing number of locals were either French or natives of Francophone countries. The region of VdC provides a comfortable place for French speakers living outside their real-life home countries a place to gather, and gather they did for the race through the streets and countryside of VdC. 

One of the racers, Maryse Teichmann-Lilliehook, responded in much the same way people do to reporters IRL.

In addition to events geared to spectators, such as move music concerts and readings by world famous authors at book clubs (S.L. Huang gave a talk yesterday, 4/29) groups of residents frequently organize participatory events such as the “Tour de Coeur.” Photo by Jason Velázquez.
Maryse: “Ah non! Je ne veux pas être photographiée avec cette tenue!

( “Oh no! I don’t want to be photographed with this outfit!” )

GG: Why not?

MTL: Ce kit de coureuse me donne un look de tube… je n’ai pas été plus mal fagottée depuis l’époque des avatars classiques!

( “This runner kit gives me a tube look … I haven’t been more frumpy since the days of classic avatars!” )

GG: Where’s your home IRL and what brings you to Second Life today?

Maryse: Je suis canadienne et SL me permet malgré tout de fair ele tour du monde virtuel.

( “I am Canadian and SL still allows me to go around the virtual world.” )

GG: Freedom of movement during COVID-19?

The graphics card and memory on my ancient iMac weren’t fast enough to capture detailed images of the contestants riding by, but you get the idea; photo by Jason Velázquez.
Maryse: “Alors SL est effectivement un très bon moyen de voyager durant le confinement.

( “Well, SL is indeed a very good way to travel during confinement.” )

The riders wore team jerseys representing the different regions of Ville de Coeur — Alsace, Azur, Bourgogne, etc. The group was a truly respectable showing, particularly as a response to the very recent bad news coming from French sports minister Roxana Maracineanu.

Maryse: “Le Tour de France en réel à était annulée alors on a au moins celui ci.”

( “The Tour de France in real time was canceled so we have at least this one.” )

The crowd began to get a bit rowdier as the start of the race approached.

Someone shouted:

Je proteste…Amélie ne porte pas la tenue réglementaire!

( “I protest … Amélie is not wearing regulatory attire!” )

Another asked,

Hmmm is Pernod served chilled after each etage [stage]?

Maryse, well-aware of the famous locally produced liqueur, countered,

Limoncello, for myself please!
Go Alsace!!!!!!!

Someone cheered.

Coeur de Bourgogne!

a rival fan rebutted.

And then they were off. My ten year old, underpowered iMac was no match for the demands the race place on my graphics card (it takes longer for the scenery to “rez,” or appear in full detail), so I wandered off to hunt down a glass of wine and a bite to eat. I found the perfect sidewalk café, of course. And when creators can bring anything imaginable to digital life, naturally, they won’t forget to include the cute, but annoying little birds who’ll steal your baguette right out from under your nose if you let them.

These little birds were not, in fact, animated, but plenty of fauna are in SL; photo by Jason Velázquez.

 I decided to make one last stop before heading back to the the beach. I teleported to one of the designated newcomer-friendly regions. These are the places you can visit when you’re new to Second Life that offer a safe place to learn just to move around, talk to other newbies, and get some of the available free clothes and accessories.

Queeny, from Nigeria, looked a little bit dazed, even if only through the appearance of her avatar. Frustrated by the social effects of the coronavirus, she summed up the frustration that caused so many people to give Second Life a try:

Queeny: I’m just so bored!

Another newbie, who asked neither to be named or bothered, said she was having a hard time getting used to the controls. She was attempting to learn to fly (you can fly in most of SL), and crashing into buildings, trees, and other players. I left her to get some practice in the skill and soon came upon a five-year resident, jackstir, who described Second Life both as his relaxation and entertainment.

jackstir, a five-year resident of SL, enjoys welcoming newcomers to SL; photo by Jason Velázquez.

From England IRL, the SL resident said that he’s spending slightly more time in the simulation than usual, which is saying something, given that he spends a great deal of time as a mentor to newcomers, helping them get oriented and find their cyber-legs.

jackstir: It’s the main thing I do in SL.

GG: What do enjoy about taking on that role?

jackstir: Helping someone else to enjoy SL rather than become frustrated with the complexities can be very rewarding. SL can be very confusing for new arrivals.

GG: Have you seen an increase in new arrivals in the last few weeks?

jackstir: There was a huge influx of new arrivals 3 weeks ago. Also, lots of old accounts have come back.

GG: I notice that I haven’t seen anyone wearing a face mask here, either as a statement or as humor.

jackstir: A few weeks ago there were people wearing masks, but they were seen as a bad joke.
Don’t accept gift from strangers in SL — occasionally tricksters encode objects with animations that can, at the very least, make your avatar do embarrassing things. Popular “free shops” are generally trustworthy and can even have some fetching clothing and accessories; photo by Jason Velázquez.

The mentor revealed that he also facilitates a mental health discussion group in Second Life, which makes a surprising amount of sense in a way. If a participant chooses, they can have almost 100% assurance of anonymity in the simulation, which could be key to discussing painful or delicate issues for someone who lives in, say, a small, gossipy town IRL.

Make sure your appearance and behavior are appropriate for the maturity level of the region you’re in. Trying on a new outfit can cause you to be in your birthday suit — a big no-no in G-rated parcels.

It had been long day in the grid, but I thought I’d head back to the coffee bar to see if anyone was hanging around before exiting Second Life. I ran into one of those returning residents who’d been in self-imposed exile for one reason or another. Amalthea Keres, a 24 year old interior designer from San Francisco, IRL, had spent some time in the digital playground for a short time some years ago. We grabbed an empty table, and I got to hear her story. Stir crazy from lock-down, she remembered the freedom offered by Second Life. When I met her, she told me that she’d lost access to her old account and had to create a new one, which was only two days old. Expecting the unexpected when it comes to meeting people is part of the appeal of the world, she said.

Returning resident, Amalthea, discussing the appeal of SL over a beaker of what appears to be Absinthe in a quiet cafe and Coeur de Azur.
Amalthea Keres: It’s actually exciting…beasts and vampires are fun to talk to.

GG: San Francisco was hit by COVID-19 pretty hard early on…

Amalthea Keres: Yes, and I’m sick of sitting at home. SL lets me move around.

GG: Has the pandemic disrupted your connections with friends and family a lot?

Amalthea Keres: It has, but we can just wait it out…as long as we’re at home.

Flying away over the red tile roofs of Ville de Coeur, I wondered what, as the post COVID-19 world took shape, what would qualify as “home” to a species that had already moved so much of its life into cyberspace already?

Bonus!

Some residents in Second Life are likely to act the same way people do IRL if you just knock on the door and ask, “Can I come in and check out your home?” Both here and there, a domicile is a place of private refuge. A safe space.

Some SL players, though, proudly give tours of the homes they’ve spent weeks, months, even years, building. Resident Cassie Middles, offers the world this video walkthrough of the adorable cottage she’s been working on with her SL partner. Enjoy!

Not bad ASMR, either!

Civil: Credibility Indicators

Original Reporting

This article contains new, firsthand information uncovered by its reporter(s). This includes directly interviewing sources and research / analysis of primary source documents.

On the Ground

Indicates that a Newsmaker/Newsmakers was/were physically present to report the article from some/all of the location(s) it concerns.

Learn more about Civil’s Credibility Indicators

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