One afternoon in November, Fran Serenade led me and her daughter Barbie down a steep section of the Appalachian trail. The sun was high and Fran hiked briskly, ducking the blue-green diagonals of fir trees, her hair wild behind her. She wanted to show me her log cabin, which was off the trail next to a red barn by a blue lake with a pretty waterfall. Outside the barn, we met Fran’s kitty, Amici, and a handful of other cats, all of them wearing knit caps. Fran pet Amici, who followed her, mewling.
Inside the cabin, a fire raged in the fireplace. Fran pointed out her favorite things: an antique icebox; an embroidered tablecloth; a crochet basket. Then we were off to Tai Chi practice.
With her mountain of blonde curls, heart-shaped face, hip-hugging jeans, and tiny waist, Fran recalls a young Dolly Parton. She’s so pretty, she’s almost doll-like. Barbie is slim and pretty, too, though, in her leopard print vest and red lipstick, her look is less country, more glam. Mother and daughter both wore heels, even as we hiked.
It turns out heels work perfectly well on virtual trails, no matter how steep. The trail and cabin we visited exist inside an online virtual world called Second Life. They were designed to recall a real-world trail and cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, where Fran once lived. Fran Serenade is the avatar of Fran Swenson, an 89-year-old former nurse with a head of silver curls and a Brooklyn accent. Barbie is the avatar of Barbara, her daughter in real life.
Fran used to spend her summers in the Blue Ridge Mountains cabin with her husband. Then her husband got Parkinson’s Disease. Slowly he lost control of his body, she tells me, until his ability to breathe slipped away and he was gone. That was in 2003. A year later, Fran received the news: She had Parkinson’s herself. The day she got the diagnosis, Fran allowed herself a couple of hours to despair. Then she sat down and wrote a list of all of the things she would not stop doing, and signed it “The Unsinkable Fran.”
When Fran first entered Second Life eight years ago, the virtual world’s popularity had already peaked. In 2006, membership in Second Life hit 1.1 million. Some members were making good money selling things inside the virtual world: That same year, the first Second Life millionaire graced the cover of Businessweek. It also scored mentions in television programs likeThe Office and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
At the time, some futurists believed that Second Life was social media’s final frontier, a digital utopia where everyone with an internet connection would eventually take up residence. But traditionalists feared that residents would become so wrapped up in their virtual lives they would neglect their physical selves and offline relationships — that they would live almost exclusively inside Second Life. Then the gamers turned to newer platforms and developers became obsessed with 3D virtual reality. Second Life membership plateaued. Facebook took off instead.
Today, Second Life is mostly forgotten by the broader public. An estimated 800,000 users are active on a monthly basis, according to Second Life parent company Linden Lab. That’s tiny compared to the 1.86 billion users who are active on Facebook each month.
Yet some communities have quietly continued to thrive in the virtual world. One of these is the disability community, a sundry group whose members include people who are blind or deaf, people with emotional handicaps such as autism and PTSD, and people with conditions that limit their mobility, such as Parkinson’s, cerebral palsy, and multiple sclerosis. There are no official tallies of their numbers, but Wagner James Au, who has writtenextensively about Second Life, estimates they may account for roughly 20 percent of users. Some active members estimate the number higher — at as much as 50 percent.
Unlike traditional gaming, Second Life is governed by few rules. Residents can customize their avatars in an infinite number of ways. They can fly and teleport as easily as they can walk, run, and jump. They can build bespoke homes and islands almost from scratch, and buy and sell wares in virtual stores — from biker gear to bird song to the ability to swim like a mermaid. They can marry a Second Life lover, take a rocket to the moon, or simply tuck themselves into bed at night.
For many disabled residents, who may spend 12 hours a day or more in Second Life, the most important moments and relationships of their lives happen inside the virtual world. For them, the fevered fantasies of a decade ago have become reality: Second Life is where they live.
Second Life’s largest community of disabled residents is clustered on Virtual Ability Island, which is actually an archipelago of five islands — two public and three “residential,” where people can rent or buy homes. It’s the creation of a woman named Alice Krueger. In 2007, Krueger joined Second Life with a few disabled friends she knew from online chat groups.
At the time, she was becoming more isolated as her multiple sclerosis progressed. She’d lost her job, had to drop her volunteer work, and couldn’t even attend her children’s school events. Her friends had stopped coming to see her. She was 58.
“I basically was stuck in my room,” says Krueger. “I’m not that kind of a boring person. I was looking around for, ‘What can I do if I can’t do anything in the physical world?’” She and her friends from the chat group had begun hearing about Second Life. They liked the idea that you could be mobile and have a “body.” So they tried it.
Soon they were 20 strong. A community of librarians invited them to use a small parcel of land on one of their islands. Krueger named their group Virtual Ability and acquired nonprofit status. With the librarians, she applied for a grant from the National Library of Medicine to develop an orientation and training center for people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. There were other disability groups in Second Life, and Krueger recruited from them. They decided that the island’s design should make a political statement: that disability is created by the environment. There are no stairs on Virtual Ability Island—only ramps.
Today VAI has a thousand members, and hosts a dozen or so events per week, including games, live piano concerts, dance parties and self-help workshops. The main island, Virtual Ability Island, includes a welcome center with mentors who teach newcomers how to operate and customize an avatar. Another island called Cape Able, for the deaf and hard of hearing, has a “deaf chat” coffee house, a carryover concept from offline—only here, visitors text rather than sign. The island’s art gallery features works of art by the deaf and disabled.
A popular VAI event is the twice-weekly campfire. One Wednesday in December, I decided to check it out. I arrived early, just before 11 a.m. Second Life time, which runs on Pacific Time. A circle of about 10 sleeping bags and a handful of small open tents were set up around a giant bonfire that crackled and threw off sparks and skeins of smoke.
Though it was morning, I had been instructed to set my sky to midnight so that I could watch the glowing auroras that had been tucked into the firmament. I clicked on a green sleeping bag to lie down on it; my avatar stretched back, and I watched the miasma of blues, greens, and purples wash across the black sky. The circle of light from the fire extended just beyond the ring of sleeping bags and tents. Though the fire didn’t throw off heat, the crackle and light and smoke projected warmth. It felt as though I’d stepped into a television set that was running a show about camping, only the episode hadn’t begun yet.
Soon, avatars began teleporting in to the beach — like paintings come to life, they materialized in broad strokes, a head, a torso, a tail, a wing. Krueger, whose avatar is named Gentle Heron, was the first to arrive. She brought Nightchill Aeon, a man from Alabama who has autism and was brand new to the group. They were joined by a blind man named camaro92, a deaf Catholic nun named Sister who wore combat gear, and a woman from the UK with autism and agoraphobia whose avatar was a small metal ball in a wool hat. She carried a blue balloon.
Eventually, a dozen avatars were in attendance. The human avatars sat or lay on sleeping bags; the hybrid avatars hovered near the beach-side dock. The campfire conversation was held in text to accommodate those who could not hear voice, like Sister, or who are averse to communicating in voice, like the autistic woman from the UK. Once everyone was settled, most of the action took place inside the group chat window — people were too busy typing to bother with their avatars. The conversation was brisk and intimate. It continued for two hours and then suddenly everyone split, teleporting out to other locations or closing Second Life.
“Catch some of you at Saturday’s campfire?” a giant gray bird named Cora asked before she flew away, texting “wingwave” in lieu of “adieu.”
I was one of the last to leave. The scene was almost exactly how I found it, animated by light and sound, but it felt deflated, as though all the theater and magic had moved off set. Even though the avatars were mostly immobile during the two-hour chat, I could sense the people driving them. Those people are what bring Second Life to life.
When Fran first entered Second Life eight years ago, she was deeply homesick. She had sold off her beloved homes in North Carolina and on Nettles Island in Florida, and she’d moved into a retirement community in southern California, where her daughter Barbara lives. Barbara’s brother, an inventor and software engineer, had begun exploring Second Life on his own and invited them to try it. They didn’t plan to stick around long, but Barbara quickly saw the potential. To give her mother back a sense of home, she began to recreate the places Fran so desperately missed on an island she called Frantastica.
She built the craggy mountain we had hiked, blanketed it in fir and birch trees, and stitched in the waterfall. She designed a length of the Appalachian trail and plunked down the cabin. Then she stretched a glittering white sand beach at the mountain’s foot, dotted it with palm trees, and filled the bay with sailboats, inner tubes, and jet skis. She made the birds sing and the waves wash upon the shore; she put in hammocks and gazebos and gardens and the covered bridges Fran adores. And she filled Fran’s new cabin with familiar mementos, like the quilts and tablecloths and wall hangings from her former life. Learning to operate an avatar wasn’t easy for Fran, but she kept at it.
As Fran and Barbara tell it, the more time Fran spent in Second Life, the younger she felt in real life. Watching her avatar hike trails and dance gave her the confidence to try things in the physical world that she hadn’t tried in a half decade — like stepping off a curb or standing up without any help. These were small victories, but they felt significant to Fran.
Fran’s story began to spread after Draxtor, a Second Life video artist, filmed a Youtube video about her. (His “World Makers” video series profiles the people behind the avatars in Second Life.) In the film, Fran recounts her experience of Second Life as a quasi-fountain of youth. It also describes the fundraising Fran and Barbara have done for Parkinson’s research through Second Life and Fran’s weekly virtual Parkinson’s support group. Suddenly Fran had a following. Some in Second Life’s disability community now use the term “Fran effect” to describe improvements in real-life functioning that they attribute to their experience in Second Life.
This is not just magical thinking. Abundant research shows imagining movement, without actually moving the body, can have positive effects on motor skills, balance, and learning. The same effects are found in athletes and people who are healthy. Researchers have even found that people who have been paralyzed by severed spinal chord can stimulate regrowth and repair by envisioning their limbs moving over and over again — though it requires great effort and takes time. Studies suggest the therapeutic benefits of virtual reality extend beyond movement disorders — to chronic pain, cognitive functioning in people with ADHD and PTSD, and social skills for people on the autism spectrum.
Shyla believes her therapist’s worry is misplaced — that she has confused Second Life with gaming, which is less purposeful.
Some still worry that Second Life can be bad for one’s health. Shyla, a 52-year-old woman I met who suffers from osteoarthritis, a spine defect, and chronic pain, says she spends enough time in the virtual world for her therapist to express concern about it. She leaves Second Life running all day long, from about 9 a.m. until late in the evening. Four nights a week she works late in a virtual bohemian store called Freebird, which sells geodes, “vintage” cat clocks, and pet hamsters.
But Shyla believes her therapist’s worry is misplaced — that she has confused Second Life with gaming, which is less purposeful. Shyla also has mixed feelings about identifying as disabled inside the virtual world. Though VAI introduced her to Second Life, she doesn’t attend many VAI events these days. “I don’t want to be ghettoized,” she says.
Often when Shyla meets people in Second Life, they’ll reveal to her only after they have been talking for a while that they, too, have a disability of some kind. She wants to encourage optimism among the disabled in Second Life, but doesn’t want to devolve into what many in the disability community call “inspiration porn” — the need to find meaning in their suffering with a happy ending.
The able-bodied tend to want to fix the disabled — many disabled people want a fix, too — but the idea that suffering purifies and strengthens the spirit is a touchstone of many world religions. These impulses combine in the trope of the disabled hero enabled by technology, or “supercrip,” one of seven major disability stereotypes, according to media analyst Jack A. Nelson.
James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster Avatar hews to this script. Paralyzed marine Jake Sully is sent on a mission to planet Pandora in the body of a local Na’vi alien. He is meant to help remove the Na’vi by military force, but the Na’vi receive signs he has a “strong heart” and teach him their ways. He ultimately saves them and their planet with extraordinary courage, and permanently merges with his avatar.
Sometimes the happy ending is a bit more subtle. In a recent standout episode of the futurist Netflix series Black Mirror, aging protagonist Yorkie, a gay woman who has been paralyzed since the age of 21, begins moonlighting in a benevolent virtual world called San Junipero. There, she finally falls in love and begins to live a full life. What is most remarkable about the episode is its optimism, as the show generally paints a deeply dystopian picture of human interaction with technology.
Second Life is practically ancient today in technology terms. It’s glitchy and counterintuitive. Voice communication often goes down. Finding a particular outfit can require sorting through thousands of inventory items stored in folders. A novice can easily find herself suddenly naked when trying to change.
But updating the underlying interface is nearly impossible, because dedicated users have spent the past decade learning how to master it, building their own workarounds and creating third-party viewers that rely on it. Any change would upend those efforts.
The next wave of virtual worlds will be vastly superior—and they’re just around the corner. Second Life parent company Linden Lab is expected to roll out a new virtual world this year called Sansar, which will use virtual reality headsets such as the Oculus Rift or Vive. Another virtual reality-enabled world called High Fidelity is also set for launch this year; it’s the creation of one of the two original founders of Linden Lab, Philip Rosedale.
When news of the new virtual worlds broke, it stirred up a lot of anxiety among Second Life veterans, who feared it would spell the end for the homes, relationships, and businesses that they had invested in over the past decade-plus. Barbara, for instance, has spent thousands of dollars and seven years of her life building and purchasing things for herself and her mother inside Second Life. These things cannot be transferred to Sansar or High Fidelity.
But Linden Lab has made an effort to reassure residents that it expects Second Life to be around for a long time. The company discloses little financial information, given that it is privately held, but CEO Ebbe Altberg says that Second Life is hugely profitable.
Annual GDP inside Second Life is a half billion, according to Altberg, and Second Life creators redeemed almost $60 million in aggregate last year, though Linden Lab makes most of its money from the rental of Second Life islands to residents and not from its cut on the exchange of goods. Revenues from Second Life are actually funding the creation and roll-out of Sansar, according to Altberg.
“There might be a day many, many years from now that we go, ‘Wow, there’s only 12 people left, for good reasons, because they found somewhere better to go, and so it doesn’t make sense to operate this thing,’ but there’s no point in thinking about that right now,” says Altberg. “That is so far out that we spend zero seconds even thinking about it.” Right now Second Life has a big advantage, he says: existing feature-rich environments and the dedicated communities and creators who have already been using the product for years.
Despite their investments in Second Life, some members of the virtual disabled community are still eager to try out the new worlds. For one thing, 3D virtual reality may offer greater therapeutic value than the 2D kind available through Second Life. It could be especially good for people whose disabilities make it difficult to operate a keyboard, because everything can be done directly from within the headset.
“You are God in a sense, because you have complete control of your life.”
But for those with mobility issues, managing a full-bodied avatar of the kind required by immersive VR would be difficult. And for the deaf, text-based worlds like Second Life may be better than immersive VR worlds, according to Jamais Cascio, a cyberspace veteran and futurist: The new VR headsets give you some spatial cues using sound. For the blind, as well, text-based programs convert easily into speech. Then there are those whose nausea or vertigo may be set off by the headsets. Also, the cost is steep. A virtual reality headset plus an up-to-the-minute computer that can run advanced graphics could run thousands of dollars. Most people with disabilities have limited ability to work and limited financial means.
A Second Life viewer tailored to the disabled is also in the works. Donna Davis, a media studies professor from the University of Oregon, and her colleague Tom Boellstorff, an anthropologist from the University of California, Irvine, have a National Science Foundation grant to build one that will improve the experience for the blind and the deaf. (Today, blind people use a viewer called Radeghast that was designed for Second Life’s “restrained love” or bondage community. It has some quirks.)
Ultimately, one of the beauties of Second Life is what makes it so janky to use in the first place: the ability to build things almost from scratch, using flexible Lego-like blocks called “prims.” Users can be true creators. “You are God in that sense, because you have complete control of your life,” Barbara tells me.
This week, Fran turns 90. Five of her closest friends from Second Life — all members of her weekly support group — decided to travel to southern California for a physical-world dinner to celebrate. But on her actual birthday, the party will happen inside Second Life. Barbara is throwing Fran a bash in a virtual replica of the Savoy Ballroom, a 1940s-era Harlem jazz club, with six hours of live singers and tribute bands.
Real-life Fran was once an avid dancer — the kind who would draw a crowd. These days, she mostly travels by walker or wheelchair. She doesn’t get out much, except to go to services at her local All Worlds-faith church. Though she adores cats, she doesn’t own any these days; she couldn’t care for one, she says. A faint tremor troubles Fran’s hands, and has begun to interfere with her crocheting.
But on her birthday, Fran’s avatar will don her dancing shoes and hit the dance floor. She will dance as long and as late as she wants to, with everything and everyone she loves around her.