A long time ago, I used to be pretty active in Second Life.
Second Life, or SL, is an online virtual environment. It’s a lot like World of Warcraft and similar online games, except that there are no objectives, no points, no quests, except for those created by the users (“residents”) themselves.
MrH and I got into SL because we wanted a way to communicate in realtime without running up the cell phone bill. (That was in the good old days before unlimited calling was a thing.) I created an avatar, he created an avatar, and the first time we sat across from each other at a picnic table talking (well, typing) “in person” felt a little like magic.
MrH had a lot of other things to do, and SL never caught hold of him like it did me. I fell hard and deep.
I learned how to dress and customize my avatar. I learned how to manipulate in-world objects and create my own. I found places to explore, clubs to hang out and dance in, participated in hidden object hunts, made friends. I bought land so I could buy and furnish a succession of homes, even built my own.
Then, in 2013, I lost my sight.
The End of My Second Life?
One of the first things I wanted to do once I learned to use a screen reader was log into Second Life. I might not be able to do everything I’d done before, but surely with a combination of menus, keyboard commands and help from my friends, I could still go places and hang out.
But no. The first time I logged in, I discovered the horrible truth: The SL viewer, the software that connects your avatar with the SL grid, wasn’t screen reader compatible. I couldn’t see the menus. I couldn’t read any notifications. I couldn’t use instant messages and local chat. I couldn’t tell if the keyboard commands I knew had any effect.
MrH helped me send a message to my dearest SL friends, exchanging email information. And then I logged out, feeling as if a giant gate had clanged shut behind me.
But I Didn’t Give Up
If Second Life’s doors had closed behind me, I wasn’t above trying to find a window.
considered asking MrH to “drive” my avatar for me, describing what was around me and chatting with my friends. But it wasn’t really his thing, and he didn’t really have time, between work, helping me recover, and taking on new household duties. Besides that, he wasn’t as familiar with the viewer or the world as I was, and I knew not being able to just do things myself would lead to frustration.
I knew there was a third-party viewer that let you give a person partial control over your avatar. In theory, I could let a friend dress me and bring me places in SL. But that seemed a lot to ask of someone of someone, and I wasn’t sure who I could ask, anyway.
I found an internet forum for SL users, and somebody there recommended another third-party viewer, Radegast, which might work with screen readers. I made a mental note to look into it, and promptly let it slide.
Maybe I just wasn’t ready.
But recently, a real-life friend of ours who happens to be active in SL mentioned the Radegast viewer again. Even more recently, a writing prompt got me pining for one of the homes I’d constructed in SL.
This time, I was ready.
The Radegast Second Life Viewer
The first thing my Google search pulled up was actually the The Radegast Help Guide, subtitled “Getting Started With Radegast: A User Guide for the Blind and Visually Impaired”.
That was promising!
Fascinated, I read on.
The Help Guide and other information I dug up revealed that the Radegast viewer is a text-based viewer designed to work without a graphical display. One video I watched suggested that Radegast does display rudimentary graphics, but it’s very limited.
Best of all, the Radegast viewer is designed to work with screen readers!
The Help Guide suggested creating an avatar through the Virtual Ability web portal, which will start you out on Virtual Ability Island, which is set up to be easy for users with verying abilities to navigate. According to the Help Guide, you can even email Virtual Ability and arrange to meet a mentor for some basic instruction in Second Life.
I recommend this if you’re new to Second Life, because even in a scaled-down version, SL has a steep learning curve. I haven’t met them personally (yet) but my impression is that the Virtual Ability mentors could be very helpful with that curve.
But I didn’t just want to be in Second Life, I wanted to be me in Second Life. I filed a support ticket with Second Life Support, asking them to reactivate my old account.
I filed the ticket a week ago Friday. On Tuesday, I received an email with some security questions to verify my account. I replied that afternoon, and Wednesday the person handling my account replied that they would be happy reset my password for me.
I was one password reset away from Second Life.
As a return to Second Life began to seem real, I was surprised at how emotional I was.
Part of me feels like I’m coming home from exile. But I’ve changed over the past seven years, and SL has, too. Another part of me is afraid we won’t like each other anymore.
I won’t be able to build, or even move objects around. By extension, I might not be able to usethe new, more lifelike avatars and will be stuck with my old look. Will I look like a paper doll among Barbies?
Exploring won’t be as meaningful without visuals, unless I can find someone to describe things for me. The names of objects around me might give some clues…and then again, they may not.
I doubt I’ll be participating in any treasure hunts, either, due both to the difficulty of finding the tokens and not knowing what to do with the contents. The same applies to shopping, not that I plan to put much money into SL anyway.
What does that leave?
What Does a Blind Chick Do in Second Life, Anyway?
Well, talk to people, for starters. In addition to the folks at Ability Island, I’ll want to see if any of my old friends or groups are still active, and perhaps find some new ones.
I can still explore the grid, especially if I find friends to explore with.
Once I learn how to listen to media, I can go to clubs and music events. I ran across an article which said that some authors who’ve canceled book tours due to the pandemic will be doing virtual tours in Second Life. I’ll look for other events, classes and discussions as well.
During my roughly six years in SL, I took pictures. A lot of pictures. I regretted losing access to them, and if I can, I’d like to download them to my computer or a drive for safekeeping.
Beyond that, I haven’t decided. Losing my eyesight changed my relationship with the world around me, and no doubt it’s going to change my relationship to Second Life. But I’ve adapted here, and I hope I can adapt there, too.
I’ll keep you all posted.