In September, I covered the story of Fran Swenson, an 86-year-old suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, her daughter Barbara, and their experiences and times within Second Life.
I wasn’t the first to come to Fran’s story, which is remarkable in the way Second Life has had a positive and uplifting impact on her life; Hamlet Au did that way back in February. But such is her story, it does deserve to be heard and re-told, be it through blogs like Hamlet’s or this one, or through media coverage such as in the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Now, both Fran and Barbara – Fran Serenade and Barbi Alchemi respectively in Second Life – get to share their story and their insight and wisdom in the latest edition of The Drax Files. And I’m not exaggerating when I say that, in what has already been a truly outstanding series, this is the most powerful segment to yet come to our screens.
Having lost her husband to Parkinson’s in 2003, Fran found herself diagnosed with the illness the following year. Over time, she relocated from the east coast of the United States to the west, and as a result, her son Ken, still living on the other side of the country in Florida, proposed the idea of using Second Life as a means of bringing the family together more easily, offering to build a home for them in-world.
Barbara, also residing on the west coast, admits that, initially, she wasn’t that keen on the idea. Like many people, she considered SL as little more that a sexual playground, coupled with a steep learning-curve for those not particularly well-versed in the nuances of virtual worlds and / or computer games and environments. It was easier to point a derisive finger at Second Life users than to become one. But once encouraged to give it a go, Barbara soon found herself converted. What’s more, she was amazed when she started witnessing Fran’s response to the platform, both physically and mentally.
Fran’s experiences with Second Life have resulted in Barbara establishing Creations for Parkinson’s, and Creations Park in SL – both of which are designed to bring sufferers of the disease and their friends together in an environment where they can meet and share and enjoy themselves pursuing a wide range of activities.
Fran’s story is also one which has come to the attention of academic researchers such as Tom Boellstorff, an anthropology professor at UC Irvine, and Donna Davis, a strategic communications professor at the University of Oregon and who now leads the Thursday group sessions at Creations.
It was Boellstorff who pointed to the possibility of Second Life triggering “mirror neurons” in Fran’s mind. These are, as Barbara explains in the video, the neurons which allow us to pattern and mirror what we see in others. While there is some controversy as to their classification and origin, their effect on assisting the learning capabilities of young children is fairly widely recognised, and the theory is that in Fran’s case, her mirror neurons are reacting to her time in Second Life and are forging new pathways to connect her mind and body, offsetting some of the impact Parkinson’s is having on her.
While Fran’s own case is still the subject of study and so precludes definitive conclusions being drawn from a medical standpoint, the fact remains that the therapeutic value of Second Life on her own real life – allowing for the fact she is active in other areas of her life as well – is very genuine. In this, she is not alone; several research studies have shown that while our avatars can be highly stylised and all tend to be youthful in appearance, our identification with them can have lasting and positive benefits on our lives in so many ways.
“The avatar represents who I really feel inside,” Fran tells us, “When I look at my avatar, I feel like I’m looking at myself.” This reaction is not unusal; and it does act as a kind of positive affirmation that may well – perhaps thanks to mirror neurons again – offer something of a fountain of youth for the mind which can manifest itself as real physical improvements in health, vitality and happiness and in our self-identification.
However, to think this is a story about the potential impact Second Life may have on health issues is to only pick-up on half the story. This segment of The Drax Files is much deeper than previous episodes because it very much expresses the reality that far from being something that sets us apart from “real life”, Second Life is something which both enriches our real world experiences, and allows us the freedom to be who we really are in ways that are all too frequently denied us elsewhere in life.
Oscar Wilde once said, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” But was he necessarily right? Modern life requires we wear so many masks: the mask we wear to work, the mask we wear to church, the mask we wear when among strangers, the social mask, the stern-mum-and-dad mask we sometimes have to present to the kids, the mask we wear when joining-in with “the crowd”, or “the lads”, or “the girls” when on a night on the tiles, and so on. All of them allow us to express aspects of ourselves, but those aspects are always constrained to what we believe we should be projecting to those around us, rather than necessarily actually being who we are as a whole person.
Of course, Second Life also allows us to wear a huge range of masks in-world, and allows us to do so free of the constraints society would otherwise demand of us. We can be truer to different facets of our personality, to our hopes, our wants, and our desires. But the greatest gift Second Life perhaps gives us is that it actually allows us, if we’re willing to do so, to create and foster environments where we can all safely lay all our masks aside and simply be ourselves without fear of recrimination or judgement.
This is something not lost on Barbara, “We’re free to be who we really are,” she points out. “Sometimes people can be terribly shy, but in here, they open up for some reason. Meeting here with our avatar is a totally freeing experience, there is a deeper level of connection. We really let down our mask, and we are authentically ourselves; who we are will get expressed in our avatar. We’re out of the box.”
We often talk about overcoming the perceptions of all those who would see Second life as a den of digital iniquity and a haven for basement dwellers unable to “get a life.” Perhaps this is the way to do so. Not by attempting to challenge such ideas head-on or argue against them, but to show that Second Life and environments like it are not only capable of allowing completely free rein to our imaginations and creative abilities, but that they are a very valid social extension to people’s lives; that rather than being a means to escape the world, they offer a means to more fully engage with the world at large, and can actively expand our understanding and appreciation of the world through our interactions with the people behind the avatars.
When you combine this aspect of outreach and connection with the free-ranging creative opportunities within Second Life, you have a medium which, as we have all recognised in our time in-world, exceptionally powerful on so many levels for each and every one of us, regardless of age, social standing, background and so on. It’s not about hiding away or needing to escape from the tribulations of life or being unable to express ourselves in real life. It’s about extending and expanding and enriching our lives.
“This is about all people,” Barbara says towards the end of the piece, “Using their creativity in a positive way to make a new world.”