The Drax Files 13: People can learn, and grow and heal together

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.

Barbara and Fran
Barbara and Fran

Now, both Fran and Barbara – Fran Seranade 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.

Fran's experiences have been a focus of study for Tom Boellstorff
Fran’s experiences have been a focus of study for Tom Boellstorff

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.

Creations Park, founded by Barbara and a centre where people with Parkinson's Disease from around the world and their friends can share, relax, and enjoy  themselves in a stress-free environment offering a broad range of activities
Creations Park, founded by Barbara and a centre where people with Parkinson’s Disease from around the world and their friends can share, relax, and enjoy themselves in a stress-free environment offering a broad range of activities

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.”

Fran and Fran and friends
Fran and Fran and friends

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.”

She’s right.

In Conversation 7: Perceptions, realities and acceptance

The Drax Files have taken Second Life by storm. Each segment is a rich piece of video journalism reaching into the heart of the platform, its appeal and its potential; so much so that they invite discussion and feedback. Over the months, Draxtor and I have taken time out to explore some of the themes and ideas raised in various episodes and also discuss the series in general terms. Given the subject matter in this segment, however, I thought it would be good to expand things, and have Barbie Alchemi share more of her thoughts and insight with us.

Things started off with a general discussion on technology and how people react to it, which then filtered down into ruminations on Second Life, people, the Internet, and reaching past our own perceptions.

Inara Pey (IP): One of the themes that often comes up around the subject of Second Life is that the technology works against it, that things like the steep learning curve prevents more people engaging with it. While I accept that getting to grips with the viewer can be a handful, I’m not totally sold on the idea that the learning curve plays a major role in stopping people from getting involved in the platform. What are your thoughts?

Barbie Alchemi (BA): You name it, there has always been people who want to keep things as they are. And they are resistance and afraid of new technology. Yet there are other people who embrace the new and take those steps forward to move into the new.

Draxtor Despres (DD): Barbie, you say people are afraid of new technology, so I’m going to play devil’s advocate with you. Why, for example, does it seem to be socially acceptable to stand there, waiting to pick your kids up, and you’re updating, “Hey! I just ate a burrito!” But when we engage in something really powerful within a virtual environment, it’s seen as strange or odd or unhealthy.

Barbie Alchemi
Barbie Alchemi

BA: (laughs) I don’t think I have an answer because it’s not strange for me. I knew about Second Life for about five years before I got involved, and I had the same impression as everybody else, “Oh, those poor people! They don’t have a real life!” And meanwhile, I had this wonderful, full, fulfilling life, I had lots of friends, I did volunteer work, I was working, I had all these things, and I thought my life was complete. And I had an image of Second Life and I made fun of it and couldn’t understand it.

BA: But when my brother introduced me to it, I became intrigued, and the thing that really grabbed me was the unlimited creativity. How it brought back that ability to really create as you did as a child, where you could create in your mind and it could become your reality. And I really think it is a powerful, powerful tool in that way.

IP: The power of affirmation and visualisation you refer to in the video, and the ability SL offers us to reconnect with things we enjoyed as children and indulge creative whims which otherwise remain stifled or unspoken.

BA: Second Life can be used in that way because we think it, we can create it; the thoughts we think create our emotions, our thoughts and our emotions are what create opportunities in our lives, and then our thoughts and our emotions are how we react to those opportunities.

IP: In the video, you refer to Second Life as being liberating, allowing people to express who they really are. You use the concept of laying aside masks, something I’ve taken the liberty of expanding upon in the article. How important a part of Second Life do you think this is?

BA: When I came into Second Life one of the great things is that I felt the freedom that nobody is going to judge me here. I love that; I feel that I don’t judge other people and other people don’t judge me. We’re free to be who we truly are. One of the first groups I went to was a philosophy discussion group, and one of the questions they asked was, “Where are you more authentically yourself, in your real life or your Second Life?” And I remember everybody in that group saying they were more authentically themselves in Second Life than in real life. And that concept really intrigued me.  In real life, because we’re always seeking other people’s approval, we perhaps lose sight of who we really are. In Second Life, that freedom of expression can be recaptured.

Drax-44DD: But perceptions are an issue. Once people are involved in Second Life, it’s perhaps easier for perceptions to be broken down; but it’s getting people past those perceptions and signed-up in the first place. And it isn’t always perceptions about Second Life.

DD: Despite the exposure that this story has through the San Diego Union-Tribune, everybody knows Fran where she lives now. she’s a big star. But nobody she invited to take a look at Second Life with her wanted to. Nobody. Not staff, not residents. And she talked to me about it, and she said that it’s not even about Second Life per se, it’s about the internet.

DD: People there are afraid of the internet; for them it is the gate to hell that opens on the pornography and the shysters and con-artists. So this is another big issue here, and does open the discussion a lot more than just Second life.

DD: Second Life is bombarded nowadays because everyone is anonymous, and anonymous is supposedly dangerous. Of course, there’s two sides to everything, and people do use the power of anonymity for nasty things, but that’s not an argument for exposing everything and giving everything to Google and Facebook. Because when we do, we actually lose ourselves and lose everything.

IP: You’re saying that not only do we need to reach out and persuade people that Second life isn’t the den of iniquity they perceive it to be, but we also have to work against this push from the social media giants that freedom through anonymity – the very thing that Barbara points to as being a powerful aspect of Second Life …

DD: And Rod Humble.

IP: …And Rod Humble, indeed – is “evil” or “bad” for people at large.

DD: It’s a manyfold problem. Sometimes I don’t think Second Life users help. For example, Fran is very active in the real world; she’s not withdrawing into her room and hiding in Second Life, not at all. She goes to dinner with friends, she plays games, she organises and puts on little comedy plays and theatre shows, so she’s an all-round active person. But people do have these clichéd views that Second Life is a withdrawal into fantasy land, and we react defensively.

DD: When filming these segments, I find myself reacting to those clichés and trying to prove that SL users aren’t all basement dwellers, and I get into an internal monologue with myself as to why I get so defensive. I think perhaps we all get defensive; and perhaps we should be thinking, “What the heck,” and that like Jo Yardley says, we need to come out the virtual closet by embracing it, and be self-scrutinising with any defensiveness. The more self-confident we can be about embracing the perceived “weirdness” about SL, and the more we can say, “There’s nothing weird about it,” then the better.

Fran Serenade
Fran Seranade

BA: Second life is a reality; but it is a reality without something solid. That doesn’t mean that it’s not real. Perhaps one of the ways to explain that is that years ago, people had pen pals. Let’s say that someone had a pen pal on the other side of the world and they wrote to them all of their lives, but they never met them. They could have a real, genuine love and relationship and friendship with that person; both of their lives could be changed by it and it could be one of the most meaningful relationships of their lives, yet they never meet in the physical reality.

BA: I believe that’s what we’re exploring here. It’s the reality of our mind. What is reality anyway? Reality is the story that we tell ourselves. With Second Life, who we are becomes revealed here. The way we create our avatar is a reflection of who we are inside, so we can’t hide, we are revealing our true self.

BA: One of the things that is very powerful is bringing people together. People grow and learn and heal by being together. and there can be such deep friendships and feelings of family and community that can develop in Second Life. That’s really a vision I had for Creations for Parkinson’s, where people could come together and play together and work together. Our mission statement originally was: Let’s work together in love to use our creative talents to make a difference in our world.

DD:  I admit I’m pessimistic at times. Given all the work that Gentle Heron (of Virtual Ability) does and the movie we put out, Login2Life, and others, as well as this amazing story, despite all this stuff and the amazing capabilities in the platform and the stories we can bring to the world, there is so little response. It makes one wonder why there is so little influx. So it’s a very complex problem.

DD: When I was flying down to meet Barbie and Fran, a neighbour happened to be on the same flight as she was going for an interview, and I told her about filming with my virtual stuff, and meeting these amazing people, and she replied,  “Yeah, I’m not convinced that this should be substitute for human interaction…I don’t think that playing with a cartoon is the way to go.” Where does this come from? Why is it that people like my neighbour don’t get that Second Life is full of people, that the interactions here are human?

DD: But that said, I really think this story has the potential to resonate more than any other one. There’s a richness here that goes beyond those clichés of perception in the outside world, and it really does point to what the future may hold. Not just in bringing people together, but the many different ways it can bring people of all ages together, and what it can mean for deepening all of our experiences as things like the Oculus Rift appear, helping everyone to share in opportunities and things that might not otherwise be available to them.

IP: And on that note, I’m afraid we must call things to a close, as we’re out of time, at least until episode 14.

Related Links

10 thoughts on “The Drax Files 13: People can learn, and grow and heal together

  1. Another amazing episode and interview, so sad that sometimes we do wonder if we do really belong to same Rl World at all or We are from an alien planet but most, so proud of being on SL (or any other virtual World) !


  2. You know Inara – you just made me a better person: I admit I do butt heads at times when talking to neighbors, friends, colleagues about SL, especially when I feel I am must get on the defensive when they suggest that I am advocation abolishing physical life altogether…but NOW I will take your sentence, a bit adjusted and read it out loud every morning to remind myself: “SL allows us to be free. It is an extension, not a replacement!”


  3. “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?”

    Yes he was, that’s why pseudonymity is so important. There are of course different shades of mask to meet people’s comfort zones.

    This episode was fantastic because in five minutes it conveyed so many excellent positives about the use of virtual worlds, positives that are absurdly under reported or talked of.


    1. Thanks Tom, and they are.

      Now we need to get stories like this out under the media’s noses once more! 🙂


Comments are closed.