Second Life (SL) is a privately owned, partly subscription-based 3-D virtual world, introduced in 2003 by West Coast company Linden Lab. Users can visit this virtual world almost as if it were a real place via their home computer and an internet connection. Visitors can explore, meet and communicate with other people, learn skills that expand their gaming activities and develop more sophisticated social skills.
Technically, Second Life has the most in common in the gamming industry with Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, or MMORPGs. It differs in a number of significant ways from the typical MMO, though, so the term “virtual world” is ultimately a more accurate description. Depending on whom you ask there are over 1.2 million members; 200,000 users in any given month who are online 40 hours per week on an average.
Each player in Second Life creates an avatar, an onscreen representation that is their identity within the game world. Some players have multiple avatars; moreover, the appearance of an avatar can be easily changed. For these reasons, it’s a little difficult to determine how many active players there are.
The game is played on servers operated by Linden Lab. According to their statistics, in mid October of 2006, the number of registered accounts in Second Life reached one million. By mid December, this number had doubled to two million – and the rapid growth continues. However, there is a difference between registered accounts and unique, returning users. Many accounts are created by users who log in once or a few times and never return, and some regular users have multiple active accounts.
The User Generated World
The principal characteristic that differentiates Second Life from other MMOs is the fact that players create most of the online content, as opposed to landscapes and scenes provided by game developers. There is a 3D modeling tool in SL that allows any resident with the right skills to build virtual buildings, landscape, vehicles, furniture, and machines to use, trade, or sell.
This creative process is a primary source of activity in the game. It is a variation of Sims-like activity with an injection of real life economics. Players can also upload unique graphics into the game, which, become the intellectual property of that player.
Content generation and sale is a primary motivator of the game’s economy. Any resident can also make gestures from small animations and sounds from the standard library. Outside SL, users can use various graphics, animation, and sound tools to create more elaborate items, and upload them into the world. Once the creation is in the world of SL, the system makes efforts to help protect the intellectual property of the content creator. That creation can remain sole property of the developer, or transferred – or sold – to another player. Players who meet online can communicate via instant messaging, keeping their dialogue private.
Not only are visual elements popular, but music has become a standard component of the SL experience. Players are uploading music that they have recorded or produced themselves, and have become a regular feature in the game in the form of scheduled events. Linden Lab took note of this phenomenon and developed a component in the game’s structure that provides for musicians to exhibit their own creations and use the site for outreach, much as bands have used YouTube for introduction of music videos.
Virtual Economics, Real Estate, and Real Money
SL has its own economy, which is based on value in real dollars. Linden Dollars (L$), the game’s form of currency, are bought using real currency, based on a variable exchange rate. Players buy and sell hard-won assets developed in the game on eBay and other forums. Within the context of the game, items change hands with Linden dollars, which are acquired through various labors or through buying and selling.
Real estate is an important commodity in SL. There is only so much of it, with new releases of landscape orchestrated periodically by Linden Lab. Once a player buys a piece of real estate, he can build on it and sell his improved property to another player. At least one player has become a real estate speculator, buying property as it becomes available and reselling it for a profit in real dollars. Linden also makes its cut in the real estate market, as there is a monthly fee for significant land ownership.
SL has tapped into a similar desire to create that is found in the Sims, and it has proven to be a powerful force. Residents spend a quarter of the time they’re logged in, tens of thousands of hours a day, creating things that become part of the world, part of the landscape for everyone else. This includes everything from nightclubs to psychiatrists’ offices to Asian tea houses. Players with suitable software skills go to elaborate lengths to create environments, both as personal assets and as potential items for sale.
You can join the game for no fee and go about playing – but you cannot own real estate. Beyond the entry level there is a tiered structure of fees; basic membership is $9.95 per month. Paid members receive a weekly stipend of Linden dollars to keep their activities afloat. In fact, people are spending $15 million in real dollars every month within the confines of the game. You can go to a virtual boutique for clothing, buy a home, a plot of land, and the items of value introduced into the game increases every month.
Overlaps with the “First Life”
The budding opportunities presented by the MMO virtual environment have not bypassed professional advertisers and marketers. One enterprising individual has opened an agency in San Francisco offering to get real products introduced into SL, for exposure to the real consumers behind the avatars. Corporate America will continue to expand its presence in SL just as it has begun to recognize the power of YouTube and MySpace.
It’s not only the marketing types that see opportunity here; software geeks are selling applets that allow couples to cuddle or dance. An accomplished player with knowledge of the environment can meet a newcomer online and teleport him or her to a boutique, a nightclub, a resort – the tools of socialization are streamlined somewhat by your digital composition. A team of Northwestern University students developed a virtual newscast that utilizes video clips from online sources and an avatar as the ‘talking head’ reading the voice over.
One of the interesting challenges for Linden Lab is the growth of their phenomenal success. Because they utilize open source software and their online environment is constantly growing, the technological support must grow with it. The headaches in the shop have ranged from access problems to Linden $ banking difficulties to the continuing need for more bandwidth. But as the optimists say, these are Cadillac difficulties – nice problems to have.
Many think that SL is one more step in the utilization of the Internet as a social networking tool that transcends mortal human socialization – both geographically and emotionally. With the ever-increasing interaction between Second Life and the one in which we all labor, in form of “virtual” press conferences”, product announcements, and more, SL offers not only purely escapist opportunities, but ways learn more about the people and world outside the game.