Hypotheticals and Thought Experiments, the Online World of Second Life

In the Economist:

PETER YELLOWLEES, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Davis, has been teaching about schizophrenia for 20 years, but says that he was never really able to explain to his students just how their patients suffer. So he went online, downloaded some free software and entered Second Life. This is a “metaverse” (ie, metaphysical universe), a three-dimensional world whose users, or “residents”, can create and be anything they want. Mr Yellowlees created hallucinations. A resident might walk through a virtual hospital ward, and a picture on the wall would suddenly flash the word “shitface”. The floor might fall away, leaving the person to walk on stepping stones above the clouds. An in-world television set would change from showing an actual speech by Bob Hawke, Australia’s former prime minister, into Mr Hawke shouting, “Go and kill yourself, you wretch!” A reflection in a mirror might have bleeding eyes and die.

When Mr Yellowlees invited, as part of a trial, Second Life’s public into the ward, 73% of the visitors said afterwards that it “improved [their] understanding of schizophrenia.” Mr Yellowlees then went further. For about $300 a month, he leases an island in Second Life, where he has built a clinic that looks exactly like the real one in Sacramento where many of his students practise. He gives his students “avatars”, or online personas, so they can attend his lectures inside Second Life and then experience hallucinations. “It’s so powerful that some get quite upset,” says Mr Yellowlees.

Second Life, as Mr Yellowlees illustrates, is not a game. Admittedly, some residents—there were 747,263 as of late September, and the number is growing by about 20% every month—are there just for fun. They fly over islands, meander through castles and gawk at dragons. But increasing numbers use Second Life for things that are quite serious. They form support groups for cancer survivors. They rehearse responses to earthquakes and terrorist attacks. They build Buddhist retreats and meditate.