Second Life at ten: a decade of expression – part one

Wednesday, 26 June 2013 08:15 GMT By Dave Cook

Second Life turned ten this month. VG247′s Dave Cook explores the legacy and misconceptions of Linden Lab’s virtual world, and asks long-time residents why they’ve lived there so long.

Second Life

Launched by San Francisco developer Linden Lab in 2003, Second Life is an online virtual world with a fully-functioning supply and demand economy.

Residents of Second Life can make money by crafting in-world items using the world’s coding tools.

In 2006, virtual land baron Anshe Chung became the world’s first self-made millionaire.

Most residents of Second Life do not consider it to be a game, something this article touches on regularly.

The world has no scoring mechanics or quests, and there is no narrative whatsoever. It’s residents are not ‘players’.

You can read the second part of this article here.

Linden Lab launched Second Life on June 23, 2003 and within months it became a phenomenon among the tech and gaming press.

It’s now over ten years later and Second Life is scarcely reported by the media.

Back then you couldn’t go a week without reading reports that attempted to summarise what it was, how it worked, or the ways in which it impacted the daily lives of its inhabitants. Said reports were frequently inaccurate however.

Here was a virtual plane of existence that offered a fully-functioning economy, the right to free speech within the confines of social decency and an unprecedented degree of escapism. It was hard to fathom.

The freedom on offer scared and excited people in equal measure and no matter how hard journalists tried to summarise it, the world was difficult to understand at arm’s length.

You had to actually take up residency in the world over time to fully appreciate its allure, but even then it existed as a complex melting pot of ideals and motivation.

It played home to people who each had their own unique reasons to carve out a digital persona and live it with conviction, and it was this malleable appeal that spoke to residents on a personal level, and helped them extend their social reach in new ways.

Some viewed it as a means of escaping the mediocrity of the daily grind, others used it as a virtual meeting place for business discussion, while other reasons went much, much deeper. It is whatever you want it to be, and that is an incredibly powerful selling point indeed.

People are still living out second lives in the world today, and many of them have been doing so for several dedicated years. Today’s MMOs may have embraced ideals first coined by Linden Lab’s world, but there’s no denying the company was a pioneer in its day.

I found the prospect of denizens still committing to their alternate realities after such a long span of time fascinating, so I decided to approach the community with a view to better understanding the appeal of Second Life.

Approaching the Second Life community

The pitch was simple: Back in January I had planned to take up residency in Second Life for three months. I hoped that I’d have enough experience to properly summarise the world in a fair and accurate light in time for its tenth anniversary. However, the idea was quickly shot down by users. They told me it couldn’t be done.

Much of the resident’s scepticism came from the fact that gaming journalists had approached them before with the same concept, and they told me about how writers came bearing the most common misconception of all; that Second Life is a game.

I made the same mistake and was quickly met with a wall of rebuttal, as people who live within Second Life largely view themselves as ‘residents’ or ‘users’ instead of players. To them Second Life it isn’t something you play, it’s something you live and many of the world’s inhabitants regard their digital avatar as a true extension of themselves.

”[Linden Lab] is in a tough position. They’re the giant in the playground. As the operators of Second Life, and the developer of its core infrastructure, they’re in a difficult position where changing anything will disrupt someone.”

There was no malice in their objection but the residents told me they had been grossly misrepresented in the press before as addicts, shut-ins or worse, and they were fearful that history would repeat itself if I ventured any further. I was keen to avoid painting a false image of these people and their world so I kept on talking with them.

Several barriers were torn down between us over time and eventually I was able to speak more openly with some of the residents. It enabled me to clear the air on several thorny issues. For one, many of Second Life’s resident’s have little love for Linden Lab, the same company that gave birth to the world they had been living in for years.

One resident known as Tateru told me that the company is in a precarious place. On one hand Linden Lab is the creator of Second Life, while on the other, any significant changes it makes to the world will undoubtedly have an impact on those living in it. As such the company has to be wary of such consequences.

Perhaps one of the most prolific stories from within Second Life was the developer’s introduction of tax on residents who created a large flow of in-world content. Dubbed ‘Linden Tax’ by residents, the policy had a knock-on impact on real currency flowing through the world, which triggered mass protests among residents.

You can find a superb overview of the revolt here. It showed that while Linden Lab governed the world, it had to be wary of how even the slightest change might impact the lives of residents.

Tateru shared some insight into Linden Lab’s role in such changes, “They’re in a tough position. They’re the giant in the playground. As the operators of Second Life, and the developer of its core infrastructure, they’re in a difficult position where changing anything will disrupt someone – perhaps hundreds or thousands of people – and doing nothing is perhaps even worse.

“While it is staffed by a larger bag of competent, brilliant and caring people than you generally get gathered altogether in one place, the company itself projects an air of obscurity, secrecy, and capriciousness – as if it is about to pull on a Halloween mask and jump out of the bushes at any moment armed with a new policy or feature change that will upset someone.”

The balance between respect and distrust for Linden Lab changed depending on which resident I spoke with, but the prospect of writing one article to do all of these conflicting ideals, themes and facets justice quickly made my head spin. Some residents went so far as to suggest I ditch the idea altogether and re-work the concept.

After weeks of racking my brain for a solution I took their advice and decided to take up residency in Second Life for a short while, but rather than write an article with an authoritative air – where I acted as if I knew everything about the world – I would approach it with fresh eyes as a complete newcomer.

That way I could give readers a base-line view on the world, an insight on how it worked from a practical standpoint and to clarify several falsehoods surrounding what it means to be a resident. These people aren’t sad shut-ins; they’re smart, interesting people with great stories to tell – both real and virtual, so I managed to pin down three of them to guide me in my quest for the truth.

You 2.0

Dillon describes herself as ‘transgendered’. She has been a Second Life resident since September 2008 and lives in the world as a female because she has no desire to physically alter her appearance in real life for fear of upsetting her family. In Linden’s world she can enter a persona in which she feels most comfortable without fear of backlash or ridicule.

“The friends that I’ve made, the minds I’ve met, and the experiences we’ve shared are all reasons I stay,” Dillon explained. “I was thinking about this today. We travel through Second Life and meet people. Sometimes we connect with the people we meet, for the same reasons we ‘connect’ with people we meet in real life. We enjoy each other’s company.

“My best friend is a DJ. She had a gig last night. She’s from the East Coast of the US. Her girlfriend, who lives somewhere in Canada, was there as well. I live in California. A friend from New Zealand was there. My point is that Second Life lets us find and connect with all these people from all over.

“One of the things that strikes me the most is the way Second Life promotes tolerance of the different. In my particular case that’s demonstrated by the fact that I can – and do – have perfectly normal conversations and in some cases friendships with totally heterosexual males.”

“I personally am limited by my lack of language skills: English is all I can do. My multilingual friends can go even farther. The end result is that we establish friendships here with people from all over the world, and Second Life lets us truly share experiences. We can see the same things, hear the same music, and enjoy the ambience together. There’s no way most of us could to that in real life.”

Dillon’s depiction of a virtual plane full of collaboration and discussion is heart-warming and from the moment I first went in-world it became clear that Second Life truly was a social place. It certainly wasn’t a game either, as there was no scoring mechanic, no missions to be completed and no narrative to speak of.

It was just me against the world and it was up to me to decide how I was going to tackle it, but that in itself proved intimidating. As I wandered through plazas and parks the residents became increasingly noticeable by their absence, aside from the occasional person running around with purpose and a group of idle avatars chatting with each other by the area’s entry point.

The area certainly wasn’t how I imagined Second Life to be at the peak of its popularity. Instead I headed to an interesting steampunk world based on Victorian architecture which was full of grand halls and lush gardens just begging to be explored. Whoever built it was clearly well versed in design and programming.

As I strolled listlessly past detailed paintings hanging on the walls, delicate harp strings could be heard strumming on the breeze. It was relaxing, like a true moment of respite from the chaos and noise of the real world and my dreaded email inbox. It still felt largely abandoned however, so I then travelled to an adjoined airship world with a runway where residents could test-fly a variety of aircraft.

The vessel was lined with anti-air guns that I guessed had long fallen silent, and I started to feel slightly alone as the only person in the area. I began to stroll through areas with item vending machines crafted years ago and stores with no one in them, and I thought about the discussions people might have had one day, or the friendships they might have sparked in passing.

Tateru later explained that space is actually a key tenet of Second Life and that areas that may seem vast and empty are often that way by design, as to avoid crowding. There’s also an economical effect that sees market vendors spread out to avoid overcrowding and users jostling for sales in close proximity. It is not a loud, manic digital bazaar by any means.

While my first hours in Second Life were relatively lonely, that isn’t to say I didn’t encounter anyone during my time in-world. I had to ask a few people how to pull off basic functions like downloading free clothing samples from a store that had Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ blasting out the front, and then I had to ask someone else how to dress my avatar properly. It’s not an easy world to adjust to, but you learn by doing just like in real life.

“I was still fumbling along in the first few hours, exploring and learning, and ran into another pair of new users who were even newer than I was. They were having a rough time, and I shared what I learned with them. We’ve been friends ever since.”

What’s important is these people had no idea who was controlling my avatar on the other end of my laptop’s monitor.

I could have been literally anyone, even someone that they might have felt prejudiced towards had they met me in person, but yet they chose to help my bumbling, utterly lost soul as he wandered around in a daze. Something Dillon told me really backed this up, and humbled me in equal measure.

“One of the things that strikes me the most is the way Second Life promotes tolerance of the different,” she said. “In my particular case that’s demonstrated by the fact that I can – and do – have perfectly normal conversations and in some cases friendships with totally heterosexual males. In real life those guys would be almost forced by peer pressure to avoid me. Here, they feel free to accept or not on their terms.”

I found Dillon’s respect for how others think and the way they might approach personally taboo or off-putting subjects refreshing, as it showed that Second Life truly is a democracy where preconceptions no longer apply and where everyone is entitled to an opinion.

My own misgivings about the world corroded as I started to really appreciate the amount of clear effort that goes into each avatar’s existence. When you start to realise that residents have coded the majority of Second Life’s items – from clothes, furniture to whole areas – you really begin to understand that this isn’t just a glorified chat room.

Tateru described it wonderfully to me as a, “Content publishing and communications platform, imagined and produced by its users,” which I thought was just brilliant. Recalling those first, daunting few hours Tateru added, “I was still fumbling along in the first few hours, exploring and learning, and ran into another pair of new users who were even newer than I was. They were having a rough time, and I shared what I learned with them. We’ve been friends ever since.

“I started teaching new users, and ran a basic course in Second Life content creation that ran for about an hour. At the end, my students – who had had no content-creation experience in any form before – practised what they had learned, and one presented me with their first creation. A rose.

“I still have it, and a rose is one of my particular trademarks nowadays. That was when it clicked for me. That this new medium opened people up to talents that they had no idea that they had, or had never had the means to express before.”

In essence it’s not just a place where people can code and sell wares for money if they’re talented enough. It’s also a place where they can leave the rules, social pressures and hardships of real life at the door and just be the person they want to be, while making new friends in the process.

Like Tateru I quickly became frustrated at my inability to re-create my real-life goatee on my digital counterpart, or even pull off basic commands with my stupid, PC-illiterate mind, so I hit the fly prompt and went for a quick soar across the area. It was hardly productive but I wasn’t complaining.

After all, I couldn’t do that in real life, could I?

You can read the second part of this article here.


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  1. dizzygear

    Nice article, i had completely forgotten about second life. And bloody hell. Has it been 10 years already? I’m getting old.

    I do remember the hype back than. Story’s about people making a so called real life fortune selling second life items frequently made the media.

    The trolling stories were often amusing as well. Like how someone ruined an interview with flying dildo’s or something. lol

    #1 2 years ago
  2. Ireland Michael

    Second Life is an interesting experience, if nothing else. I have no shame in admitting that I used to use it in the past. But you have to know what you’re looking for to get anything out of it.

    I haven’t booted it up in a good three years, but there used to be a location I used to frequently go to, designed like an ultra futuristic nightclub (to this day one of the coolest designs I’ve ever seen in it), just because it played a style of music I’m big into it – industrial. As a result, I was introduced to people into the same sort of music, and made a life long local friend out of it as well.

    There was also a plot of land I discovered that was used as a virtual book club. It was an all Irish group. It was designed like a campfire. You could make copies of the pages you were reading, and give them to other people, and part of the rules was to read them out loud. It only lasted a few months, but it was great while it did.

    It was worth it for this:

    Actually an accurate likeness. Hahaha:

    Feels like forever ago.

    I’m not going to lie, much of the stigma it gets for the more… seedy side of things is disturbing and entirely true, but the game is designed in such a way that frankly, you’re not going to find that sort of stuff unless you actively go looking for it. If you find it, you only have yourself to blame.

    #2 2 years ago
  3. sh4dow

    To be honest, I only read that huge quote about “totally heterosexual males” – and then the context because I had no idea why that was so special.

    Once I did, it didn’t seem like something positive to me. After all, what is so great about being able to talk to people who would otherwise buckle under peer pressure? To me, that doesn’t make them any less despicable. Because they are what enables people to be outcast, thrown into depression and possibly even kill themselves (and/or others).

    #3 2 years ago
  4. TheWulf

    I still use Second Life, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

    The first thing I’ll say about it is that you haven’t been to University recently (or ever) if you don’t realise how helpful of a tool it is. Classes are often taught in it, and I mean all sorts of classes. The very nature of Second Life is incredibly helpful for media presentations and being able to talk to lots of people. For that purpose, it works better than any other application I’ve ever seen. Stuff like Skype just doesn’t even come close. If you have a good Professor, then Second Life is undoubtedly a very engaging learning experience.

    I’ve actually ran across classes randomly too and quietly sat in on them with my camera, intrigued by what was going on. I’ve learned a thing or two that way as well. Not only that, but I’ve also found business seminars and presentations happening within Second Life. Basically, a lot of well-educated and well-off people have uses for it. And then there are incredible works of art in it, only the other day I was browsing around the latest picks by Linden and I ended up in this incredible, if dystopian, sci-fi city. The amount of time it must have taken to put that thing together, it was breathtaking.

    That’s part of the problem with Second Life, though. It’s like a secret Internet, under all of the porn. The porn is easy to access, there, but if you know what you’re doing, there’s a wealth of other stuff there that you can really enjoy. It’s a blast. Not only that, but there are tools to create and code your own stuff, and those tools have been getting more and more powerful over time, with new features being introduced frequently.

    Let me give you an example.

    A good friend of mine is an engineer, and he learned all about spatial depth in coding from the LSL scripting language of Second Life. He had one project which involved drawing a triangle with a robotic arm. Every other project had a very wibbly effort. His, however, was very accurate, but the interesting thing was that the faster the arm got, the more accurate it was. So he just jammed up the speed and started cranking out these accurate triangles that left his classmates in the dust.

    At first, his Professor was absolutely convinced that he was cheating. Then he looked at the code and he was flabbergasted instead. Howlz had to explain to him that he’d learned about three-dimensional spaces and depth in coding from this online vidyagame thing, and his Professor became immediately interested. So I can see that coming up in the future with that Professor, because it really is handy.

    Yeah, you get porn, and idiots, and trolling. Just like the Internet, I suppose, and it can sour the experience a little. Especially when the trolls are frequently crass and lacking in ingenuity. (I’ve never seen an artful troll in Second Life, and it’s disappointing. I think that most genuinely creative people in Second Life turn their talents towards making things instead of pulling them down. I’ve never actually seen a true act of ‘artistic rebellion,’ so to speak, in SL. Just crass people being crass. So yeah, that can bring things down a bit, I understand.)

    But once you look past the idiots, there’s a lot there. I’m not even remotely ashamed to admit that I use something that successful businesses and clever University Professors do. Why should I be?

    #4 2 years ago
  5. TheWulf


    Exactly. It’s the Internet. Second Life is the Internet presented in a different way. In some ways it’s better, in others it’s worse. It has its uses. I will admit that it is easier to find the porn than interesting things, unless you’re specifically looking for interesting things. But then, that’s true of the Internet itself as well.

    It’s just another facet of the Internet, and really, if you haven’t had a good dive into it at least once, then you’re missing out. Of course, I understand that technophobia can also play a role in things like this, and those who’ve just barely acclimatised to the Internet would be freaked out by Second Life. But still, if you’re up to it, head in there and look for the more impressive, interesting stuff.

    You can find it if you seek it out, and it’s worth it. You’ll be in awe at what some people can and have done. And if you’re creatively minded enough, and with enough resources at hand, you might end up being one of those impressive people too.

    #5 2 years ago
  6. TheWulf


    Sadly, that’s nothing special or incredible. I wish that the trolling efforts were more clever, but it’s just crass idiots being crass. Anyone with even the most minute level of coding knowledge and a free dildo item can make that happen. It’s as simple as putting on your shoes. I’m still waiting to see a truly artful bit of coding in Second Life, though. Something with home-made assets and ingenious coding, something that makes an artistic statement as much as actually trolling.

    I don’t hate trolling, personally. I’m just bored of it, and often trolling tends to reveal the low level of intellect of the troll responsible. It’s really disappointing. Maybe one day.

    #6 2 years ago
  7. Erthabutt

    typical Wulf, never bored to write those endless essays. It’s impressive.

    #7 2 years ago
  8. Ireland Michael

    @5 Yeah, I’ve seem some truly amazing artistic creations in there. I’m glad to see that creative aspect is very much still alive. It’s making me tempted to load it up and see if half the places I used to visit still exist…

    #8 2 years ago
  9. TheWulf


    I think the point is is that there are amazing, open-minded heterosexual males out there. Whilst you can meet them in real life and in venues on the Internet, they’re often crowded-out by less desirable types — like homophobes, men’s rights activists, red pill idiots, and so on. So it’s hard to actually spot that kind of person. Two of my best friends are perfectly straight, but they have minds so open and intellects which are so far-reaching that they don’t seem like it, they don’t fit in with the usual straight, white crowd at all.

    It’s a process of marginalisation. On the Internet and in real life, more eccentric and open-minded straight people tend to be marginalised by idiots. It’s hard to preach your high-concept ideas and ideologies when there’s some fat, balding idiot of a straight, white male shouting obscenities and hate crimes right next to you. What you’ll find is that you’ll get drowned out, and instead of speaking publically, you’ll just find quiet corners to speak to people on a person to person basis about these high-concept ideas and ideologies of yours.

    Second Life, to a degree, has an inverse filtration system. There are many parts of Second Life that tend to marginalise the hate-crime lover. This is why you have trolling in Second Life, because those people feel marginalised, they’re feeling left out and shunned for the first time, and their response to this is to shoot flying dildos at people because that’s completely the most intellectual and correct response to the problem at hand. They just don’t know how to handle being rejected, since normally they’re not, and they lash out in whatever way they can.

    So what the article is actually saying is that in Second Life you can have a seminar with a straight, white person talking about high-concept ideas and ideologies. That shit can’t happen in real life, but it happens in certain corners of the Internet. That’s pretty cool. And you actually want to talk to them, and it makes the straight, white person look less… crass once you’ve been exposed to them.

    My real life experiences with straight, white people in real life have been overpoweringly negative, especially as a disabled person. My experiences with them online have been much more positive as the more interesting ones tend to hang out at the same corners of the Internet that I do, so it provides them with a better image. These aren’t people who’d crumble under peer-pressure in real life, they just tend to be drowned out. Since most of the pub club don’t really want philosophy. They want football. Y’know?

    #9 2 years ago
  10. TheWulf


    I just write whatever is in my brain. People are free to read them or not. I’d even encourage VG24/7 to have a block function so that anyone who finds them undesirable can just hide them. I don’t mean to cause a public disturbance or anything. I just often have a lot to say about things.

    #10 2 years ago
  11. TheWulf


    Please do! You need to see the sci-fi city. It’s breathtaking.

    I’ll expand on that a bit. There’s a new thing at the left end of the client which you can click and drag out from there. Dig around in there for the adventure/sci-fi stuff and you’ll find it eventually. I did. And it’s worth seeing.

    #11 2 years ago
  12. Ireland Michael

    Sci-fi City?

    #12 2 years ago
  13. TheWulf


    Yup. I can’t remember the name of it right now. And since I’m about to run out to walk the dog, I can’t look.

    Hence why comments are getting shorter.

    Must run!

    #13 2 years ago
  14. TheWulf

    Okay, I’m back, and I’ve quickly gathered up some info.

    The place is Hangars Liquides and it’s a sort of pastiche of Blade Runner and other dystopian cyberpunk/sci-fi cities. Except it’s a pastiche in the most wonderful of ways.

    Also, for those venturing into Second Life for the first time, may I direct you to the Firestorm client? It’s much more feature-rich than the basic client, and you can do and enjoy so much more with it. It’s definitely worth checking out. It also fixes some performance issues I was having with the official client (which is a bit buggier, in my opinion).

    So there you go.

    #14 2 years ago
  15. Ireland Michael

    @14 I much prefer the simpler clients, but thanks for the suggestion.

    I will definitely check that place out.

    #15 2 years ago

Comments are now closed on this article.

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