The Magazine

Get a (Second) Life!

The avatars are coming.

Oct 1, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 03 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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The online computer game Second Life has garnered more attention in the last 24 months than any other bit of technology. Heralded everywhere from the Wall Street Journal to the Hollywood Reporter to Scientific American, it has been variously proclaimed a revolutionary communication tool, the future of the Internet, the next great business frontier, and a giant, looming social hub that will make MySpace and Facebook obsolete. One technology research group predicts that by 2011, 80 percent of Internet users will be in Second Life or something like it.

What is Second Life? Technically, it is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG), the geek term for an Internet portal where large numbers of people interact in a virtual world. But during the last couple of years observers have begun debating whether it is a game at all, or rather something different, a new kind of virtual space. What is certain is that millions of people have signed up for Second Life. Almost 900 of them--up from 450 last year--gathered in late August at a hotel by Lake Michigan for the third annual Second Life Community Convention. They came from across the country as well as from France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Japan, and from all walks of life. One of them, an attractive older woman named "LaraZ Allen," is a former college professor who was at loose ends after retirement. Then she found Second Life and began playing for roughly six hours a day. The longest she has ever gone at a stretch is 12 straight hours. "It takes the place of work," she says.

Second Life was developed in 2003 by the San Francisco tech company Linden Lab. Players (Linden Lab calls them "residents") download a program to their computer that allows them to log into Second Life and create a character they control, an avatar. They customize the avatar's physical appearance, making it look like anything from an Asian woman to a white man to a giant animal resembling a college football mascot. And then they appear in the Second Life world.

This world looks like a cartoon rendering of the real world, or, more accurately, a cartoon rendering of Malibu. The real world infrastructure of Second Life is a farm of computer servers. Each hosts a small virtual region, which is rendered as a 65,536 square meter island. These islands feature animated beaches and waterfalls, shopping malls and dance clubs, houses and office buildings. Altogether they form a vast archipelago (which is itself subdivided into three minicontinents). If the virtual land inside Second Life were made real today, there would be 780 square kilometers of it, more than a fourth of the size of Rhode Island. All of this land belongs to the residents. Linden Lab sells it to them; an island costs $1,675 and then $295 a month in maintenance fees. (Linden Lab has gone far in guaranteeing residents real property rights. Unlike most MMORPGs, Second Life allows residents to own the virtual space and the objects within it.) Once you buy your island, you can develop and use it however you wish: Some residents have even created scale versions of downtown Dublin and Amsterdam.

Inside Second Life, avatars move by walking, flying, driving virtual cars, or simply teleporting. As to the question of what Second Life residents do, well, they do what any normal person does in RL (Second Life slang for "real life"): They go to dance clubs and socialize. They perform charity work--last June residents raised $75,000 for the RL American Cancer Society by holding a virtual walk-a-thon, where, using their keyboards, they directed their avatars in tiny loops around a virtual track. They take SL jobs, and they earn and spend money. The currency used in Second Life is called the Linden Dollar, and it trades in real world markets for about 265 Lindens on the U.S. dollar. Today there are nearly $3.4 billion Lindens in circulation, meaning that Second Life residents are spending a lot of real money on their virtual world, buying pretend clothes, pretend cars, pretend houses, pretend sex. (It should be noted that sex--yes, sex acts between animated characters controlled by RL humans at keyboards--takes up approximately as much space in Second Life as pornography does on the Internet.)

And doing all of this buying and selling are 9.6 million residents. This number, however, is somewhat slippery. It is the number of avatars that have been created since Second Life first launched. A better number, "unique residents" (meaning actual people, who may have multiple avatars) is closer to 5.7 million. An even better number, residents logged in during the last 30 days, is just under 800,000.

But it is that eye-popping 9.6 million that has attracted the attention of mainstream America. Because of it, schools, businesses, nonprofit groups, and other organizations have come running to Second Life, eager to be part of the future.