On Tuesday, Reuters assigned a full-time reporter to cover a virtual-reality environment called Second Life. The news agency will now bring breaking headlines to thousands of immersed characters, and perhaps more interesting, pipe game-world news to our real-world Web. So what is this virtual playground?
According to its Web site, Second Life (SL) is an “online society within a 3D world, where users can explore, build, socialize, and participate in their own economy.” It has amassed nearly a million members since opening in 2003. People sign in, design avatars, wander around and most importantly, spend money. They own land and do business. Toyota, Sony, Adidas and Starwood Hotels have all established digital outposts there. While access to the world itself is free, SL has a thriving, $130 million (U.S.) per year economy built upon “Linden Dollars.” (Current exchange rate: L$ 273 to $1 U.S.)
Admittedly, this all sounds pretty interesting. Attempts to create viable virtual-reality cultures have in past been bogged down by crushingly slow frame-rates, sparse and irregular attendance, and a limited set of available actions. At first glance, SL seems to sidestep these problems. It boasts massive membership, apparently addictive interaction and broadband-supported animation. Moreover, the world is almost entirely user-created. People design their own buildings, items and clothing; those with marketable skills can sell their work to others; and so on.
Provide the framework, and let users supply the content: the Web 2.0 model. This approach has worked wonders for Flickr, Blogger and MySpace. Can it save virtual reality?
I joined SL to find out. I downloaded the software, logged in and was deposited onto “Orientation Island” with the other neophytes. I “edited my appearance” until satisfied with my ensemble: pompadour, beard, zebra-print skirt and thick leather vest. After a brief and fruitless attempt to make small talk with a mostly-nude female (note: virtual world thus far eerily real), I found the exit and teleported to the main game area.
It is difficult to describe the scene that awaited me. I arrived at an open, wooden structure atop a grassy hill with perhaps two dozen characters milling around inside. Three well-rendered exotic dancers gyrated amidst a crush of males; a black-clad gentleman was flying (literally, flying) in tight circles above the women, while a lanky blue-haired nudist tore around the room shouting obscenities that would make Mark Foley blush. A tiny female named Cherry — according to the nameplate floating above her head — was strangely clad in a browser texture, her entire body a shrink-wrapped Facebook screenshot. She was addressing the room in general, complaining that she couldn’t “find the right menu.” Mr. Blue Hair made her an offer entirely unfit for print.
As extraordinary as I found it, this wild scrum was evidently commonplace: The Reuters newshound was nowhere to be seen.
So this was Second Life, the future of e-commerce. The sober description I’d seen online seemed ill suited to the mad whirl before me.
Focus. $130 million per year, you say? All right, I can handle it. Let’s talk turkey.
I entered the fray, and asked where to buy some Adidas, or a Toyota. A male character in nightclub attire shouted, “Who wants to ROCK?” and immediately broke out some dance moves. A bikini-clad female approached me and a menu popped up, inviting me to do various X-rated things. (“Buy a Toyota” was not on the list.) I offered my skirt for sale to the room at large. A green, alien-looking figure lay prone in mid-air, hovering at eye-level and apparently sleeping. Nightclub Man levitated well above the crowd, and boogied again. “Dancing on AIR!” he exclaimed.
It continued in this way for some time. I was mostly ignored, occasionally propositioned for text-based sex and wholly unable to conduct business. I am sad to report that peddling homegrown pixel-bling to ultra-Goth Furries requires a skill set I do not have. Those who make money here are better sellers than I.
I spent another hour in-world, succeeding only in getting lost, cursed at and stuck in a vacant house. On my Yale-hardened weird-o-meter, literally everyone I encountered buried the needle.
Judging by my brief visit, Second Life has more in common with an AOL chat room than a digital economy. For all its promise of immersive neo-capitalist escapism, it seems a little too trivial, better in concept than in execution. (Admittedly, a similar verdict might emerge if we judged our entire culture by a single visit to an Anime convention.)
In-world, life goes on. Reuters now reports that Ginko Financial, the SL bank that pays 44 percent annual interest, is quite possibly a pyramid scheme. Between this and the nude dancers, Second Life has a certain rawness, like a gold-rush border town: all skin merchants and Ponzis, quick buck artists and land grabs; a Star Wars cantina in the digital realm.
Let’s be frank. From what I saw, Second Life is a nerdy, Jolt-fueled pastime for social cripples and perverts. It may yet do well, but like myriad frontier outposts before it — and of course, the Internet itself — it will start out sketchy before the bland hordes move in.
Michael Seringhaus is a sixth-year graduate student in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.