ADAM ONDI AHMAN, Second LifeWhen I first met Skyler Goode in Second Life, he was only 8 years old. When I met him the next day in real life, he was 51 years old a grandfather who had retired from the U.S. Air Force.
Skyler Goode is the creator of an online Mormon community in a virtual reality role-playing game on the Internet called Second Life, or SL for short. In real life (RL for short), he is Keith Thompson, a high priest in the Stayton, Oregon, ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. What began as a hobby to fill time has become a personal mission to create a real sanctuary where people can feel spiritual while role-playing in a virtual world.
"Really, all I was looking for when I found Second Life was some way to spend my time," Thompson said in a recent interview at the Deseret News building in Salt Lake City. "I had no idea it would become what it has."
Thompson is on disability with severe attention deficit disorder. He found himself looking for things to fill up his time at home and became interested in trying a role-playing game. He had an interest in child psychology that came from having foster children and thought it might be fun and even educational to role-play a child in a virtual reality family.
Skyler Goode, Thompson's identity in Second Life, was "born" on Dec. 11, 2006. The game used to encourage people to start as children in families where older, more experienced players could show them the ropes. The idea, according to Thompson, was to build communities modeled on real life.
EACH PERSON IN Second Life chooses his or her own avatar. An avatar is a three-dimensional, moving replica of a person. It is the way people represent themselves as they walk around the virtual world, sit on virtual chairs and talk with other virtual people.
"It feels a little weird for most people since most people don't use avatars and walk around in virtual worlds," said Richard Miller, executive vice president at the More Good Foundation, a group that tries to raise positive awareness of the LDS Church online. "But, each avatar is a real person."
I first learned about the Mormon island in Second Life from Miller's blog at the More Good Foundation. I went to www.SecondLife.com and downloaded the software to my MacBook Pro laptop computer. The registration process gave me options on what type of avatar to choose. I chose a man in a white t-shirt and jeans and gave myself the name Mortimes (short for Mormon Times) Finesmith.
I appeared in a place called Orientation Island where people learn how to control their avatar. It was somewhat disconcerting when my avatar first appeared on my screen as what can only be described as a gray Barbie doll without clothes. I later learned from Thompson that this is because of my slower Internet connection. Bodies render before clothes.
In a few seconds I was a man wearing a white T-shirt and jeans. Similarly dressed avatars surrounded me. I eventually figured out how to edit my appearance. By the time I left Orientation Island I was wearing a suit and had adjusted my face to resemble Joseph Smith. I was now readya virtual reporter looking for the legendary Mormon island.
THOMPSON WAS ADOPTED by a man avatar and a woman avatar. They hadn't yet been virtually married when Thompson, or rather, Skyler, became their virtual child. He watched his virtual family come togetherand then fall apart. "It was a typical American family today," Thompson said. "I watched my parents get married and a few months later I watched them get divorced."
He had come in contact with another LDS avatar, Paladin Palmer, who encouraged him to do something more than just play a game. "She piqued my interest in using Second Life as a form for sharing my testimony," Thompson said.
Before his "parents" broke up, they taught Thompson how to create things in Second Life. He bought a small parcel of virtual land for about 70 real dollars, built some marble arches and put in some plants. He put up a sign that said it was built and maintained by members of the LDS Church. He also assigned keywords to the Second Life search engine such as "Mormon" and "Christian" so that people could find his "little garden spot to share his testimony."
He didn't have to wait long to attract attention. An angel with black wings named Aleph Bosch came and sat on his peace arches. "He proclaimed himself an atheist," Thompson said. "I never really did figure out what his interest was, but he was the first of many that were to come."
Soon, Thompson's garden was getting a visitor every 15 to 20 minutes day and night. His attention deficit disorder and social skills were getting a workout that he would never have been able to get in the real world. "I realized very early on that this was going to be bigger than my little intention," Thompson said.
As he bought more land to build a virtual visitors center, he received much encouragement from other Latter-day Saints. In a matter of a few months he had bought an island for about $1,000, christened it Adam ondi Ahman and moved his peace arches and visitors center. Other people began moving their LDS-themed buildings to the island buying the land from Thompson.
It wasn't long before he had recouped the $1,000. He took the money and bought another adjacent island he named Deseret. His little garden was becoming a community.
I ENTERED THE WORD "Mormon" into the Second Life search engine, found the LDS Friends welcome plaza on Adam ondi Ahman and clicked on "Teleport." The game made a whooshing sound and I found myself, or rather my avatar, Mortimes, on the Mormon island.
It was late and quiet. Nobody was there. I clicked on the "Mini-map" button on the Second Life interface, which brought up a map. Each avatar on the island appeared as a tiny glowing green dot. I flew (yes, you can fly!) toward one green dot. I landed and then walked up some stairs in a building and looked in the window of an apartment. I saw a woman avatar named Belisima Grunberg going through her clothes inventory.
By then, I had been playing the game long enough to start to be sucked into its alternate reality. It was weird to be standing outside somebody's window and trying to get their attention. Belisima, however, wasn't disturbed and gladly showed me around the island.
Belisima's real name is Brita Graham and lives in real-life Montana. She became interested in Second Life as a librarian for all the resources available. She spoke, as most avatars do, in text using her computer's keyboard. Voice is available, but rarely used. "There's something very experiential about SL that can be very complimentary to learning," she wrote later in an e-mail, "especially for young people in our digital age."
She encouraged me to find an avatar named Skyler Goode who created the island and was "the big cheese."
We walked over to a model of the Salt Lake Tabernacle and went inside. Skyler, aka Thompson, had created a realistic interiorincluding the entire Mormon Tabernacle Choir and a video of President Thomas S. Monson on a screen.
I asked Graham if I could take a screenshot photo of her. She had already said she felt uncomfortable entering the Tabernacle in bare feet. Now she wanted to change out of her jeans, "Let me put a skirt on, at least." A second later she was wearing a long skirt. I took the picture.
Just then, as we were conversing about the replica of the Washington, D.C., Temple on the island, a gray-skinned, partly rendered, Barbie-nude avatar floated down from above and stood between us. "So much for dress codes," I typed to Graham.
The avatar was Dabue, who described herself as "not a good Mormon." As her clothes and then skin materialized, she asked, "Is the bishop here? I need to get my temple recommend renewed."
Graham and I continued to try to have our conversation as Dabue peppered us with comments such as "let's have sacrament." She left us saying, "I will hie to Kolob then." Off she flew bumping into the Tabernacle ceiling before trying to find a door. Graham later commented that she didn't think she had handled Dabue very well and that Skyler would have done a much better job.
"Truly, I've been really impressed by how he extends kindness with all types passing through," Graham wrote in an instant message, "from griefers (bullies) to curiosity seekers to people of other cultures, to just the lonely. He really has a knack, and not just for designing very true to life structures."