Time to Get a (Second) Life

The Line Between Games and Commerce is Blurred Inside This Massive Online World

News | Paul Krauskopf | October 2006

A College campus scene in Second Life, where real encounters play an ever-larger role (Photo: chickpick blogs)

Second Life is not meant to be a game. It’s a place in virtual reality, and it does its best to simulate real life. Real people make virtual transactions, buying virtual land with real U.S. dollars, holding virtual meetings where real decisions are being made.

"Second Life is like an animated version of real life," says Wagner James Au, former Linden Labs employee, creators of Second Life. "There’s no way to win and no specific objective."

The world of Second Life is populated by avatars of real people, replicas users can create, shape, clothe and masquerade. Since its launch in 2000, Second Life’s population has grown to 300,000 of which so far only 1%, or about 3,000 use the virtual space to do business. These virtual entrepreneurs each generate up to $20,000 or more a year in businesses performed through Second Life.

A recent cover story in BusinessWeek was devoted to Anshe Chung, a woman who earns hundreds of thousands of  dollars in one year as Second Life’s biggest real estate mogul. $1.00 buys 300L$, or "Linden Dollars," the currency of Second Life. You can use these Linden Dollars to buy virtual property, gadgets for your avatar or other virtual upgrading.

And since your avatar is an exact replica of yourself, with measurements such as your shoe size, he can try on shoes and clothes for you. As soon as you/he’ve left that changing room, walked over to the cashier and paid the belly-pierced, gothic girl behind the counter an order is placed at the respective "real life" store and your clothes are shipped (for real) within a week.

"I realize that the current Web has forced us into a cramped two-dimensional space that doesn’t quite capture the way humans naturally think, socialize, and well, window-shop," said Annalee Newitz in Popular Science. "Second Life could bring us back to the three dimensions where we belong."

Indeed more and more uses are being discovered for the 3D software. Architectural firms have explored the convenience of  virtual 3D models, inviting the clients into the Second Life world regardless of where they might be in real life and show him around. It’s global, fast and more efficient than a plastic model.

Psychiatrists have created a special room that confronts the avatar with visual as well as auditory hallucinations in order to help people understand what if feels like to be schizophrenic. The banking giant Wells Fargo has created a branch in Second Life training young people to be financially responsible, Wal-Mart and American Express are looking into Second Life for corporate training.

Undeniably, the appliances for Second Life are countless. Build a castle and place it on your Second Life territory. Should other Second Lifers enjoy staying in it, Linden Labs will reward you with Linden Dollars for creating a popular meeting point. L$ can of course be converted back to real dollars at any time.

But the back and forth between real and virtual life does not always function flawlessly. As with every innovation, Second Life repeatedly faces the intricacies of being new and un- established. A Pittsburgh (PA) based lawyer found a way to manipulate Second Life land auctions in a way that he was able to acquire 8’000 Linden Dollars worth of land at dumping prices. When Second Life found out, they froze his account and annulled the auctions. Now they’re being sued for intervening in a binding auction; they hadn’t been aware of the security leak in their software and are most likely going to have to pay the lawyer off.

Recently another major shake up has hit Second Life. The principle idea of Second Life, the liberty of being who you want to be and doing what you want to do has become subject to harsh criticism among organizations concerned with children’s rights. In some locations labeled "mature," that explicitly allow gambling and virtual sex, users were configuring their avatars to look like children before engaging in sexual activities with others.

Although no legal measures could be taken since no real people were involved, the ethical issues raised are enormous and Second Life creators Linden Labs are finding themselves at a difficult fork in the road. Should they intervene and break with their principle of an autonomous virtual world mirroring real life? Or should they retreat to an authoritarian position in order to put a stop to this kind of sleaze? The decision has not yet been made, but is certain to be a significant one, as it will decided to what extent to a virtual world can truly be real.

During the process of writing this aritcle, I cancelled my account with Second Life. Although I’m a convinced fan of technological innovation and a great admirer of our digital age, I was informed by Linden Labs that Russian Hackers had breached their security system and retrieved thousands of passwords and Second Life’s real member names. I was informed that all accounts were reset, and I had only to chose a new password in order to use my account again.

But the idea of Russian hackers sitting in a misty, Moscovian cellar bordered by wires and squeaking phone lines, the thought that these people could be sifting through my Amazon purchases at this moment, was just too much.

Canceling my account took three confirmations of the question "Are you REALLY sure you want to cancel?" The third time, as I was forced to click "Yes," a wave of guilt swelled up in me –  not only from the disappointing bouncy smiley face three times in a row, but also for myself. Was I too cautious, stopping myself from being part of this novel, entrepreneurial world from the very moment of its foundation? Wasn’t real life about taking risks and accepting dangerous situations?

In the end I felt there was too little at stake for me at this time that would justify a personal risk like that. I also understood that virtual-real life just isn’t always pretty and adventurous. Sometimes it’s even dangerous.

Other articles from this issue