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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Chicago

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.

The typical RL newspaper story about SL is some variation of "Look Who's Joined Second Life?" Over the months, that blank has been filled by an increasingly odd coterie of groups: Microsoft, H&R Block, NASA, NOAA, Santa Clara University, the Swedish Embassy. Harvard Law School professor Charles Nesson taught a class last year inside SL. In June, the MacArthur Foundation announced that it had given $550,000 to the University of Southern California for the express purpose of staging events in Second Life. Jonathan Fanton, the foundation's president, has his own avatar: "Jonathan MacFound."

Corporate America has stampeded into Second Life. Companies--ranging from the NBA and Sun Microsystems to Nissan and Reuters--have set up their own elaborate islands. Coldwell Banker, for instance, has an in-world headquarters where they rent virtual houses. Some companies have been more imaginative in their approach. When the Starwood hotel group was planning a new chain, Aloft, they created a virtual prototype and solicited advice from residents, using Second Life as an elaborate focus group.

IBM has a massive, in-world corporate headquarters which spreads over multiple islands. Fortune reported in January that 3,000 IBM employees had created avatars (including CEO Sam Palmisano) and that 300 of them were "routinely conducting company business" inside Second Life.

It's unclear what that business is. In fact, it's unclear why any of these corporations are in Second Life, other than to be able to say they are in Second Life. The temp agency Manpower bought an island in July. Their press release is indicative of the thinking behind such forays:

Manpower Island is a place where job seekers, employers and entrepreneurs can come together in an interactive forum to learn about and explore the World of Virtual Work, share ideas and identify new opportunities in traditional and non-traditional meeting spaces ranging from an amphitheater to a relaxing spot on the virtual beach.

At the convention in Chicago, a spokesman from Coca-Cola attempted to justify the company's huge Second Life "Virtual Thirst" campaign, whose curious motto is, "We believe that even avatars get thirsty." In the course of explaining Coke's SL experience, he claimed that "it certainly wasn't about selling cans of soda" before adding, just a few seconds later, that "when it comes down to it, this is about selling product."

This confusion hardly matters. A cottage industry of SL developers has sprung up to happily accept the money corporations are eager to spend shaping their islands and building their virtual headquarters. Sibley Verbeck is CEO of the Electric Sheep Company (wittily named for the Philip K. Dick novel about androids), the most successful of these design firms. His company employs 50 RL people, who work almost entirely inside Second Life. As Verbeck told Wired magazine recently, "We have basically not made any sales calls. We would like to. But we can hardly keep up with the Fortune 500 companies that are contacting us."

Yet these businesses seem to be chasing ghosts. As the Wired story noted, in June the most popular location in Second Life was Money Island, which gives away Linden dollars to people taking surveys. It had a visitation index of 136,000 (the higher the score, the more heavily visited the SL destination). An adult property, Sexy Beach, scored 133,000. The Sears store in IBM's vast complex scored 281. Coca-Cola's Virtual Thirst pavilions scored 27. That's not an anomaly. On a random day in August, 5 of the top 15 destinations were adult islands and four were "free money" islands. None was a corporate property, few of which even managed a score above 2,000.

So who is playing Second Life? Most of the time, walking around Second Life is like touring Las Vegas after the rapture. At any given moment, only 30,000 to 45,000 residents are logged on. Spread out over 700 square kilometers, that gives the SL world a population density close to South Carolina's. There are lots of modern, glass buildings and tree-filled parks. There are beaches everywhere you turn. But mostly the world is deserted. When you do find people, they're young and beautiful. There are no old folks in Second Life; no fat people, either. The typical SL gathering looks something like an Abercrombie & Fitch ad, only with extra fetish gear.

When I first arrived at registration for the convention in Chicago, there were about 70 young, hip, multiethnic twenty-somethings, all smartly dressed, standing in line. For a moment I was shocked at how much SLers looked like their avatars. It turned out I was in the wrong place--this was the registration for a local graduate school's open house. The SL crowd was somewhat different. There were a handful of Asians and perhaps a dozen African Americans; the rest of the 900 or so convention goers were white. There were nearly as many women as men, and the average age appeared to be early- to mid-40s. There looked to be more people in their 50s than in their 20s. And without delving too much into matters of body mass index, there was very little physiological correlation with the average avatar. On the whole, the gathering looked not unlike a Howard Dean rally, circa 2003.

It is impossible to get perfect data on residents because avatars are never deleted, even if they have been abandoned by players who have left the game. What we do know is this:

* Linden Lab reports that the number of unique residents as of July 2007 was 5.7 million; roughly 75 percent are male and 25 percent are female (in the RL, that is).

* Fewer than 475,000 residents have logged onto Second Life in the last two weeks.

* 18- to 24-year-old users make up 26 percent of Second Lifers; 25- to 34-year-olds are 38 percent; 35- to 44-year-olds are 22 percent; and 45 and above are 12 percent.

* The older age groups leave a disproportionate footprint, with the 35-and-overs accounting for 45 percent of the hours spent in Second Life.

This seems a much smaller and older pool of people than one might expect. Part of this, of course, is the appeal of Second Life--it lets you be something other than who you really are. For instance, LaraZ, the retired professor, started out in SL by entering her avatar in a modeling contest for a virtual fashion designer. She won, and now she spends her days working for the designer (no longer as a model, but as an in-world event planner).

Others have found second careers, too. Linden Lab's metrics show that in August, 42,691 users had positive SL income. The vast majority made less than $50. But in each of the last four months, over 1,600 users have earned between $200 and $500; just over 100 users have pulled in more than $5,000 per month.

The most famous of these is "Anshe Chung." She is the avatar of a German woman named Ailin Graef. A Chinese-born language teacher, Graef began working in Second Life as an escort. She invested the Lindens she made in virtual real estate: buying islands, developing them, and then renting out the space. Graef made news in 2006 when she announced that her SL land and cash holdings exceeded $1 million. BusinessWeek put her--or rather her Anshe Chung avatar--on their cover.

Graef later incorporated her business as Anshe Chung Studios. The government of China accorded the company special status as a high-tech enterprise, and it established its corporate headquarters in Hubei. Anshe Chung Studios now employs 60 workers who spend their time developing land inside Second Life. (Graef is such a big wheel in the SL universe that when the Linden market dipped, she threatened to create her own currency. She probably has the ability to destroy the SL economy if she were to flood the market with Lindens or land.)

You can see why reporters and corporate honchos and foundation presidents get excited: Second Life looks and feels like the future. Linden Lab CEO Philip Rosedale doesn't undersell this point. Rosedale, a 39-year-old, blond, good-looking former physics major from U.C. San Diego, is an alpha-nerd, a little like Val Kilmer's character from the 1985 classic Real Genius. In 2006, Rosedale told Wired, "I'm not building a game. I'm building a new country." At the Chicago convention he was only slightly less expansive. People "don't appreciate sometimes how big this thing is going to become," he said. "This is something that everybody on earth is going to use. . . . [Second Life] is bigger than the web."

It's possible that Rosedale is both right and wrong. The inescapable problem with Second Life's theory of inevitability is the fact that the vast majority of people who try SL walk away from it. Wired reports that 85 percent of the avatars which have been created have been abandoned. At the conference, Sibley Verbeck claimed that the number was 90 percent and stated flatly that the platform won't be successful if this ratio persists. It's difficult to think of a world-changing innovation that was discarded by 90 percent of its early adopters.

But SL is the first successful manifestation of an idea known among futurists as the "metaverse." The metaverse concept--a virtual world inhabited by real people--was pioneered in science fiction novels, notably William Gibson's 1984 Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson's 1992 Snow Crash. The first intellectual treatment of the metaverse came in the form of David Gelernter's 1992 book Mirror Worlds. Here is Gelernter describing it: "The software model of your city, once it's set up, will be available (like a public park) to however many people are interested. .  .  . Each visitor will zoom in and pan around and roam through the model as he chooses." His mirror world is a nearly perfect description of SL.

Metaverse enthusiasts predict that Second Life--or something like it--will replace the web browser as the way we interface with the Internet. (A thoughtful essay in MIT Technology Review makes the case that Second Life's nearest metaverse competitor might actually be Google Earth.) Perhaps. The more pressing question is whether or not the metaverse will compete with the real one. Rosedale believes it will. "There will be a tipping point where Second Life starts taking time away" from real life and the normal Internet, he told the residents in Chicago.

His keynote address to the SLCC, like the rest of the conference, was simulcast into the virtual world. (At one point, I sat in a room in Chicago listening to a panel while, on my laptop, my avatar sat in a park inside Second Life listening to the same audiostream.) It makes you wonder why, if these people believe so deeply in the metaverse, they needed to come to Chicago at all.

The metaverse has its temptations. People don't grow old in Second Life; they're always young and thin and fabulous. Death, literally, does not exist. In Second Life an avatar doesn't disappear from the records just because the resident who owned it has died. Perhaps the most curious practice to emerge in Second Life is the establishment of virtual memorials for dead friends. The SLCC program featured short tributes to the departed, many of which gave coordinates for the little pretend monuments erected to them. In memory of an avatar known as "tr0n Rich," one resident wrote, "Tr0n, you have touched my heart incredibly. I had grown to love you in a way I have never known. You were a very loved man and partner. You may be gone from RL but you will never be forgotten."

"Gone from RL" may be the most inadequate euphemism ever offered for the mortal condition. But its clumsiness hints at why first life will always be more important than Second.

Jonathan V. Last is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.