Much has been written and spoken of regarding Second Life¸ the Internet based virtual world founded, developed and managed by San Francisco-based Linden Research, Inc. (colloquially referred to as Linden Labs). Although Second Life has been around since 2003, it was not until late 2006 that it came to pop consciousness via coverage in mainstream news media. Second Life allows its participants to interact in a virtual environment that is not unlike the real world, except without many of the physical limitations the latter entails.
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Participants, referred to in-world as "Residents" (rather than members or users) because they have a “stake in the world and how it grows”. This supposition holds true given the fact that most of the content in Second Life is user-created rather than developed by Linden Labs.
After the unceremonious act of registering an account and downloading the client software, your avatar - a 3-D graphical representation of one's self in the world - is introduced to the world via Orientation Island, where Residents learn the basics of communicating, traveling and interacting with objects and people. It took me some time getting used to this since the interface is rather unwieldy and cumbersome. Although movement controls are comfortably identical to those used in action games and some MMORPGs, many of the controls, such as those used for traveling, locating groups and accessing the inventory resemble an office application.
Immediately after, Residents get transported to Help Island, where volunteer Residents help new ones with acclimatizing themselves to the world with tips and a freebie store provides Residents with their first taste of "content" such as scripts and clothes.
Second Life's in-world geography can be divided into:
Islands - small, independent "land" masses that are usually controlled by a private Resident or perhaps a real-world company looking to establish a presence in the game world.
Mainland - the core continent of Second Life which is owned by Linden Lab and frequently populated by its own employees.
Estates - a collection of regions that are privately owned in nature. Frequently these estates are governed by a single code of conduct, and may or may not be themed in nature.
Although Second Life is frequently referred to by some as a "game", the fact that it lacks any clear cut goals, objectives or any other competitive aspects contradicts such a notion.
Where MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games) such as World of Warcraft and Ultima Online encourage players to develop abstracted skills and experience points by baking bread and fighting monsters, any competitive drives in Second Life are largely self-imposed due to the emergent social nature of the world.
Almost everyone I spoke to seemed to make their claim in such a manner: locating an emergent social need and finding a way to fulfill it, or discovering something that can be done within the world that somehow accrues the Resident some status. Some make their stake by contributing to the content available in the world by sharing and trading objects and skins. Since I have absolutely no skills whatsoever with regards to coding or texture editing, I was completely unable to ingratiate myself within the "local" culture in such a manner.
Although there is none of the traditional material limitations that object creation would have in a real world, the creation of these objects (and scripts) has effectively given Second Life an economy. The question of whether the economy is a real and sustainable one is a central question among academics and business publications fascinated by it. Created objects are tradeable commodities that have given the best object-makers some amount of status. When an object is well made, it becomes desirable and that desire/demand lends it some kind of value.
Because of the frequently reported financial gains some Residents have made in trading digital commodities, particularly (un)real estate, there are many who hold similar aspirations of buying, developing and selling such virtual property. They do so by purchasing land - in real-world terms, dedicated CPU resources - from Linden Lab and using it to develop the value of such virtual spaces in order to be sold off to another party for a profit. Prior to signing up, I distinctly remember reading about Anse Chung,
With all that said, Second Life basically operates as a social space where pretty much most of the social activities that one engages with "in the real world" have been approximated by users within its space.
Some have taken to piping in music and video to create virtual concerts and virtual film screenings and other such virtual events, including but not limited to: charities, fund-raising, beauty pageants, education, seminars, contests and even sports. On a weekday, such an experience is reasonably enjoyable, but on weekends, server load issues can cause such events are ridden with lag, if they haven't already bogged down to a stand still.
There is also a lot of sex in Second Life. Granted, it's no pervert utopia, but it is telling when a vast number of Residents I observed seemed preoccupied with flirting with avatars of the opposite sex. A lot of this involves chat-sex and Skype-sex. Another part of this involves dressing in a provocative style or using in-game gestures or user-scripted ones to approximate the movements of sex. At first, I found this odd because avatars in the nude have no gentialia. Upon further inquiry, I found out that you can buy them (I didn"t as I had no money). I'm certain that prudish hearts are thankful that sexual behavior and other similar acts of a graphic nature are forbidden outside of private areas.
Other users with a more fantastical taste use Second Life to engage in role-playing sessions or create digital play areas for a various number of subcultures. I initially joined a group for the television program Jericho, but almost nothing was happening there. But a quick look at the group search function shows that just about any subculture is being represented within the world (and in the cases of those that don't, very well have the potential to be represented).
For example, some Residents have modified their avatars from their default human appearance to look more androgynous, or sometimes non-human, as is the case with those who fantasize about having sex as anthropomorphic animals. Others use Second Life to re-enact popular worlds from science fiction and fantasy, or recreate historical periods from the past. Entire lands are devoted to a recreation of medieval Europe or Shogun-era Japan, while others focus on Star Trek and Dune.
Generally speaking, Second Life is a whole lot friendlier than other virtual worlds. While MMORPGs tend to attract power-hungry individuals who like to make lives difficult for others, Second Life's power dynamic is built entirely on socialization. Any potential mischief made by others tends to be short-lived, and attempts to maintain such misbehavior quickly results in being effectively ostracized by the community. There just isn't much of a long-term career to be had at being a trouble Resident.
Linden Labs makes their principles of etiquette pretty clear cut from the very beginning. During installation of the client software, they present six guidelines for the community"s standards, ominously referred to as the "Big Six". They are:
4) disclosure (of privacy)
6) disturbing the peace.
From my experience, Residents are just as well behaved as the Big Six community standards expect them to be. But more than one Resident has implied that Linden Lab is not absolutely consistent in how they enforce these standards, and it is usually the Residents themselves who have to come up with clever ways to police others.
Second Life most definitely provides a fascinating case study for emergent social behavior among humans since it recontextualizes most of that behavior into an environment that is still quite similar to the real world, but devoid of most of the tangible limitations of it. In fact, the only real problem that Second Life may suffer from is that its Residents can shape the world in any way they want it to be, something which can't be said for real life.
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