If you’ve heard of Second Life, the 2000s-era web-based online world with millions of loyal “residents” who populated it with personal avatars, you’re likely to think it has become irrelevant or obsolete. But at the peak of its popularity, the site received a lot of attention for providing users with a potentially dangerous escape from reality—one so powerful that it was not unheard of to leave real jobs, friends, and families for those found within the site.
Second Life is the ultimate democratizer in space making. The vast web of locations in the site's virtual world, called sims, are almost completely user-generated. For as little as $75 a month, anyone with an internet connection and basic CAD skills can create, upload, and maintain whatever place they dream up. Sure, sometimes this “great equalizer” spits out such venues as SeDucTions and Sinners Burlesque, but more often than not, builders have responded to the complex opportunities and challenges presented by their unique situation with innovative design solutions.
One place to observe this is in the site’s many spiritual sims, in which religious architecture often responds to the displacement of religious authority in the digital world, since a lack of official (sanctioned) ties to tradition offers a designer more agency than in the real world. Read on to discover four cases that carve out a space for spirituality in Second Life and reveal some of what works—and doesn’t—in today's virtual sacred architecture.
Hikari is a Buddhist sim filled with elaborate gardens, private homes, and small meditation pavilions. Its designer, Sylvio Kurze, has a professional background in 3D modeling, but no formal religious or architectural education. He sought inspiration for his zen-esque Buddhist structures where any of us would: Google.
Kurze also bases the gardens off of his own experiences as a hobbyist landscaper. As such, Hikari sits in its own architectural category outside of conventional zen. It is a visual and spatial manifestation of what Buddhism means to the sim’s builder, and does not require the permission of a monastic order to exist.
Koinonia was one of the first Christian churches to arrive in Second Life. In its description, Koinonia promotes itself as a progressive, LGBTQ-friendly Christian community. This mission of inclusivity is directly reflected in its unorthodox design. In the absence of weather, the cathedral has no door and is wrapped in large windows to let in the digital sun and stars.
Rather than pews arranged to direct attention toward a single focal point, a circle of cushions and chairs encourages openness and conversation. Minimal ornamentation and furniture place social interaction and relationship building as the main objectives, rather than worship of iconography or lavish architecture meant to invoke the presence of a deity. Koinonia seems to knowingly detach itself from any particular corresponding time or place in reality, unencumbered by any one stylistic motif.
Unitarian Universalism is another spiritual sim that stems from liberal Christian ideology. Real-world Unitarian Universalist buildings often riff off of Presbyterian architectural styles and look like your typical small town chapel. They may also utilize more of a mid-century modern approach with large windows and angled roofs.
The Second Life sim deviates from this convention completely, providing a semi-circular arrangement of cushions in a lush outdoor garden and waterfall. An airy dome structure hangs high over the setup, framing services in stained glass. The Unitarian Universalism sim takes advantage not only of its ability to disregard the tradition set by physical Unitarian spaces, but also the opportunity to sit at the foot of a waterfall without getting splashed that only VR can afford its users.
Unlike the previous three sims, the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt relies almost completely on architectural precedent. Although its campus fills the entirety of a small square island, by incorporating Egypt in its name, the Coptic Orthodox Church establishes an intended audience before users even teleport inside. The main building is a detailed emulation of physical coptic churches: two crucifix-topped towers rise over a wide, arched nave. Inside, the linear organization of the pews and wall separating the altar and apse work to preserve the authority of the church as they direct avatars through space.
The most significant difference between this sim and its real world counterparts is scale: massive wooden doors dwarf the avatars, and it is impossible to fit the entire building into the viewport. Perhaps the designer has taken advantage of free and infinite virtual materials to make the church more resplendent, or more likely, the space was designed by a novice 3D modeler who forgot to take avatar height into account during the design process.