Earlier this month, the metaverse development company Metaversatility launched a new showcase sim "EmVee Cuba" in Second Life (click here to teleport.) It’s a lovely, picturesque island, pushing the envelope on what is possible in SL, with each prim, texture and light placement designed to create an immersive sense of walking through a historic Cuba that never was. The builders are to be congratulated for some fine work.
That said, I can not help but compare this more idealized vision of Cuba with the reality of life over here. My then girlfriend and I spent a month there in the summer of 2005, and the imagery in virtual Cuba bears only passing resemblance to what we encountered during our travels.
In virtual Cuba, you will find a couple of lovely fruit and vegetable stands, with tasty looking mangos, watermelon, eggplant and other produce. The reality of Cuba is that there are frequent food shortages and restrictions, to the point that most Cubans do not get access to fresh fruits like mangoes and papaya, while tourists find them plentifully in hotels all over. It’s actually illegal for a Cuban to eat shrimp or lobster, which are only available for tourists.
Much of the food you find on the streets is terrible. In Cuba everywhere we went you could get a doughy, greasy bread with tasteless cheese on it that
they call "pizza." Or you can get "hamburgers" made from pork or chicken
that actually aren’t that bad. One place we ate at served "fritura"
sandwiches, which were bland corn fritters served in a roll.
The "helado" ice cream shop in virtual Cuba reminded me of one of the few "luxuries" that most Cubans had access to, which was ice cream. Every town had very popular ice cream shops near the town center, with long lines of people waiting to get a small bowl which cost a few pennies. None had the selection of flavors like in virtual Cuba — in fact while we were there I’m not sure we encountered anything else besides strawberry. Which was kind of funny since there were of course no real strawberries to be had anywhere in Cuba.
Virtual Cuba has some cheeky propaganda on the walls like this "Rezzolution" sign. The lack of advertising is very noticeable and somewhat jarring for anyone from a capitalist society like the US. The only billboards you see are propaganda from the government. This billboard of Fidel Castro telling people "Vamos Bien" ("It’s Going Well") kind of creeped me out whenever I saw it.
Bicycles are everywhere in Cuba, as a cheap and ready form of transportation. So this virtual bicycle does remind me of bikes I saw in Cuba. But cars and trucks are more common, often beautifully maintained 50s era vehicles that must have been completely rebuilt and painted several times over.
Virtual Cuba has a number of shops where you can kip out your avatar in the latest SL fashion and skins. Shops are few and far between in real life Cuba, with the exception of small grocery stores and mostly empty department stores. Most proper stores only sold to tourists, like the cigar shops and guajabera shirt sellers.
Of course what virtual Cuba lacks most is… Cubans.
It’s the people of Cuba who are in the end what was most memorable about our trip. From the hard-edged, sarcastic Havana residents to the kind, gentle campesinos. We’ll remember the guy we met at the Malecon in Havana who insisted we go with him to eat with his family in a distant housing project outside of Havana. We’ll never forget the doctor’s wife who ran the B&B we stayed at in Viñales who talked about how there was both no racism in Cuba and that her daughter would never marry a black Cuban. Or the campesino who rented us a couple of horses who didn’t understand how Americans could own land and keep everyone else off of it.
If somehow you managed to get Second Life to run in Cuba — where the Internet is locked down tighter than anywhere in the world except maybe Myanmar — I have to wonder what an average Cuban would think of this digital representation of their country. I imagine they might find it hilarious, in the same way that New Yorkers laugh derisively when they encounter the "New York New York" casino in Las Vegas. Or maybe they would find it sad that we had the time to amuse ourselves with unreal playgrounds like Second Life, while they lived often hand-to-mouth existences, closed off from the rest of the world.