In The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen R. Donaldson, the eponymous hero returns to The Land, an alternate world to Earth, where time passes much more quickly. An absence of a year on Earth might equate to centuries gone in The Land. And so it has been with the virtual world of Second Life. For those readers who are unaware of Second Life, this is a pre-Minecraft virtual, open space where “players” can tour public plots of land or maintain private islands. I put “players” in quotes because Second Life isn’t really a game, but is instead a Utopian sandbox where anyone can create anything from clothing to architecture to the wildly fantastical. As might be predicted, avatars created places in-world that mirrored the real, and this included reconstructions of ancient monuments and reimaginings of ancient cities.
I first used Second Life as a home for a Latin-language villa in the Roma SPQR sim when I was the Director of eLearning for Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, publisher of pedagogic materials for teachers and students of Latin and Greek. I wanted to build a virtual space accessible by anyone in the world who wanted to come and role-play in Latin within the context of a Roman virtual space. In 2008, five speakers from the U.S., England, and Sweden converged to have the first oral Latin conversation in Second Life using Ventrilo, voice software, as a proof-of-concept. The villa was active from 2008 until 2010 when I left for another position at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.
Five years have passed since I last logged in to Second Life, and now that I am interested in archaeogaming, I wanted to return to the virtual world to see what had changed. Was Second Life even being used anymore, and by whom? What was the in-world culture like now? Were the sims and plots that I used to frequent still there, and if so, how had they changed, or had they just been abandoned? On a whim this morning, I created a new avatar, Archaeogaming, and logged in with my underclocked PC. I immediately felt at home, graphics glitches and all.
After I composed myself, I walked to what used to be called “Orientation Island”, surrounded by about a dozen n00bs. As there is no need to buy anything or to level up in Second Life in order to explore, I called up the World Map, ran a query for “Delphi”, and then teleported there. I did not expect to arrive amidst a one-person fishing derby and a row of beach cabanas littered with advertising. There was nothing ancient here.
I then decided to teleport to Roma SPQR. In 2010, the sim was both public and private, with the public area set for spectacle including an arena for gladiatorial combat, a Macellum for shopping for Roman-themed goods, a triumphal arch, a dedicatory column like that of Trajan, a Senate House, and farther on, the reconstructed port of Ostia. The private space (which guests could walk around in) is teh Subura, the suburbs, which contained private, locked villas and gardens, plus small shrines. Although the space blended elements of the Roman Republic and Empire, the space still had an airy, getting-there feel to it, although much better crafted than all other ancient-themed sims I’d been to when looking for a home for the Latin House. When I arrived in SQPR Roma five years later, I was shocked to feel as if I’d left Rome in the first century B.C. (in 2010) and teleported into the fourth century A.D. (2015). Instead of abandonment and entropy, the sim had grown with obvious urban planning and extraordinary care. And there were people present. I was in for several surprises.
The first person I met was tagged as a “Virtual Historian”, a citizen of the sim, who seemed to be hanging about on the chance someone stopped by and wanted a tour. He was polite and was also impressed that I had come back home after being away for so long. Claudius was in real life an archaeology post-graduate in Germany, and in Second Life was both tour guide and keeper of lore and history of this sim. The fact that the sim has its own lore and history recorded in the real world was exciting to me. After a moment, Claudius was able to look up the location of my villa so we could visit the plot. He also wanted to show me the sim’s best reconstructions of ancient Roman buildings.
As we walked, we talked about other avatars I might have known. As luck would have it, Nina Tiberia was also present in-world. When I met her in 2010, she was plainly dressed, but after five years, she wore Imperial purple and had become a mother. She had helped me build the Latin villa, and she remembered me. We shared a mutual astonishment, and the emotion I felt at seeing long-lost friends in a space I had spent so much time in was overwhelming. Nina showed me where my villa used to be, which was now a small wheat field. When I left, Second Life removed the villa, and the plot is still available to build upon.
Nina is not an archaeologist, but is instead a designer also based in Germany. She is responsible for the textures of nearly every material used in the reconstructions. She and Claudius showed me to the baths, which she said were excavated near her real-world home.
Nina and other citizens of the sim went to great lengths to be as authentic as possible in their reconstruction of the baths. For the benefit of the public, signs were posted showing the floor plan of the baths, an aerial photo of the bath complex post-excavation, and additional signage and a note card for my inventory explaining the bath’s history.
As I walked, I remember how the street had been lined almost exclusively with villas and houses, but that now we were flanked with municipal buildings. I found myself wondering if the old foundations still remained under the reconstructions.
At the station house, I learned that the floor plan was really almost all of what had been preserved in the real world. The citizens consulted with German archaeologists in order to create a best-guess as to what the structure might have looked like in the second century A.D.
The reconstruction took months to build, as did the others. When I commented on how proud I was that the sim was better than when I had left it, and that they were to be commended on all of their hard work with recreating ancient structures from when the Romans were in Germany, they said, “we love this land.” We’re in a virtual space, but with so much time and labor poured into the work, and with a 7+ year history of building up Roma SPQR, I can understand why.
The sim is owned and managed by avatar Torin Golding, the Emperor, who has worked at Pompeii and at another Roman site in northern England near Durham. It is used for public and private events, and even in-world conferences, which are held in a purpose-built curia. I regretted having to leave, but know that I will certainly return again soon to continue to explore the new city, comparing it to what I remember about the old one. I was moved by the impromptu visit after having been away for so long, and it was a pleasure speaking to the citizens responsible for the upkeep of the sim. I call this the “Old World” of Second Life: the mature public lands, which are likely lost to many of the current users, yet for those who know where to look, they provide a glimpse into what the virtual world used to be, and in some lucky instances, still is.
-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming