Wednesday, December 15, 2004


When wilde Cunningham gets their Second Life sea legs, they'd like to build a house. They'd also like to build a castle, though not as much as a house, and to a lesser degree, they'd also like to run a store. They all seem to like creating note cards, however, and also love waterfalls. Some of wilde wants to influence the world positively, while at the same time, another part of wilde wants to fly a helicopter and get some guns. Another portion of wilde would like to be a woman; still another, to make money and publish the first part of their life story. More wilde desires: to communicate their thoughts with ease, and to be honest about their challenges.

I finally met wilde Cunningham after days of residents enthusing to me about them, and truth be told, if I hadn’t known their story beforehand, I’d probably never notice them. Because at the moment, wilde is a startling avatar, with their bulky body and their orange skin, and red hair jutting in every direction from their balding head.

But there's a very good reason for wilde's appearance, and also for their name.

"We decided on our name because we have a group at our program which we had to name, some time ago," wilde Cunningham tells me. "We took ideas, and then voted on them, and named ourselves 'the wildes' back then. We have had this name for two years." Cunnigham laughs. "Just too wilde to be normal."

I smile, and they continue: "How did we decide on what we would look like, and our gender? We formed the man avatar first, because that day, we had more men in the group. We always wanted a female one, but we haven't taken the time to create her yet. Mary and Johanna would like that very much. We decided on how wilde would look first by starting with skin colors. We have both black and white in our real life group, and didn't want to have those because neither is better than the other. So we picked orange."

And this is probably a good place to introduce wilde in all their components-- though maybe their friend lilone Sandgraine is the best person to do that here, as she did for me, some days before I actually met them in person, as it were.

The people of wilde Cunningham are severely disabled physically (but not mentally, not at all), and all but one of them are confined to a wheelchair. They owe their Second Life presence (though not their essence) to Ms. Sandgrain. In her first life, she works with the people of wilde at a care center on the East Coast. The idea of getting her clients a Second Life account sort of evolved over time-- she doesn’t remember when it finally hit her, exactly-- spurred on by her own interest in Second Life. (She’s been a resident since March of this year.)

"John’s key," says lilone. "He has veto powers. Mary, the Queen of heart. Micah the Joker. Nichole-- she's shy; she'll hang but not talk to ya, unless she knows ya. Scott-- key player. Charlene sometimes plays-- still learning the game... very shy, but witty like no tomorrow. Danny-- he's cried over Second Life." She also tells me about the other John, also shy, and about Johanna, who like Micah is a practical joker.

"Sure love these guys," lilone finishes. "They are my heroes. Rich treasure chests."

In early December, I got to chat with them in person, near the gift shop lilone helped build for them in the snowy region of Bretton.

"Good to finally meet you, wilde!" I say, when they arrive in-world.

"We feel the same way, Hamlet." wilde answers, and shifts their feet in the snow. Holiday music is streaming over their property-- a Bing Crosby song, a Snoop Dogg Christmas rap, and so on. "We have been looking forward to meeting you," they continue. "As you can see, our typing is even very slow. Sorry."

I tell them they type fine, then ask them how they decide what to say.

"Well," they reply, "members of wilde, together with lilone, toss out ideas and everyone chimes in when they agree, or chose not to answer, which is also OK. Mostly we vote and take group census on things. That’s what we do-- John G., John S., Scott, Mary, Johanna, Danny, and Micah. The others opted out [this time], which is fine too."

"I just shared with them about it," she tells me earlier, about Second Life. "And knew they’d love it. I'd share stories of my activities here. [To] John and Scott mostly. They love to hear such things. John is a hungry sponge. He can't speak as such, [but] he's been to college and overseas. But he can't ask questions easy. Imagine that. So much to know, and no power to ask. He can say 'more' and 'why'. His body won't let the [other] words out."

One response to all the questions they had, even the ones they couldn't ask, would be to just show them all what the world was like, from their own first-person point of view.

But even doing wasn't immediately possible. The care center had its own various concerns about doing this. It took lilone "lots of pulling and tugging," she says, and groans. "Lots of red tape and circles." The center had a computer with broadband, but it couldn't run the Second Life client without some serious hardware upgrades. (But more on that later.)

Then there was the problem of using an interface.

"Micah and Charlene could use the mouse," lilone replies, when I ask her if it's possible for each member of wilde to enter Second Life directly, perhaps with their own individual accounts. "John and Nichole could, but wouldn't alone. Micah can't read. Charlene has one hand, but can read." She shrugs. "None of them, really."

Their solution, for now at least, is lilone effectively acting as their interface: she sits at the keyboard, with the wilde group gathered in a semi-circle in a cramped care center room, peering over her shoulder and into the monitor, at the world inside.

Which is where they are now, while we stand there in the snow outside their gift shop. Wilde tells me about their experience in Second Life thus far (they'd been in-world for nearly a month, when we first chat).

"Some of our favorite people we've met are Toy LaFollette, Angelique LaFollette, Baccara Rhodes, Mash Mandella," wilde says. "As a group, our favorite experiences are watching Toy make waterfalls, meeting new friends, and writing the notecards." In the background, Frank Sinatra's cover of "Come All Ye Faithful" is streaming over Bretton.

Their time in-world is short, and with minutes left before they need to log off, I ask them if they want to fly with me somewhere, for awhile.

"Yes, we can fly," wilde replies, "but following is hard [because of] the lag, but we are willing if you are."

I am. So after a few false starts, wilde Cunningham and I take to the air.

To be continued...

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» MMO character run by nine profoundly disabled players from Boing Boing
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» The Nine Souls of Wilde Cunningham from datacloud
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