First They Got Sick, Then They Moved Into a Virtual Utopia

When my son was about five, I sat him on my lap and let him explore the world of Riven (the sequel to the point-and-click adventure Myst). I remember feeling his back muscles tense up when he approached a cave and the music got creepy. “Can I go in?” he asked. I told him he could do whatever he wanted. He turned to look at me, as if to assess whether I was being serious, then took a deep breath, and went into the cave.

This article explores a different kind of digital freedom — providing simulated mobility and virtual social connections to people whose health does not permit it.

Today, Second Life is mostly forgotten by the broader public. An estimated 800,000 users are active on a monthly basis, according to Second Life parent company Linden Lab. That’s tiny compared to the 1.86 billion users who are active on Facebook each month. Yet some communities have quietly continued to thrive in the virtual world. One of these is the disability community, a sundry group whose members include people who are blind or deaf, people with emotional handicaps such as autism and PTSD, and people with conditions that limit their mobility, such as Parkinson’s, cerebral palsy, and multiple sclerosis. —

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