My So-Called Second Life
Murrow Hunt is not me. I have to keep reminding myself that as I wander… I mean he wanders… the art gallery of Fatum Castle, stopping to glance at each image hanging from the space’s stone walls.
It’s a series of snapshots recreating the imagery of the Major Arcana, the “face cards” of a tarot deck. An information card tells me the artist is Tateru Nino, who describes herself as a “talent-less hack, and here is her first and only artistic work.”
The photos are as tall as I am… as Murrow is. There’s the High Priestess, a dark-haired model captured with a regal smile and clad in purple velvet. Across the gallery is the Hanged Man, the image of a muscular blond guy hanging upside down by his feet.
There’s also Judgement, an extremely thin young woman brandishing a silver sword, her large feathery wings spread out magnificently. And the Lovers, two anthropomorphic canines in fishnet and leather, cuddling beneath a starry sky.
Overall the photos are a good subsection of the local populace. There are people in dark suits and low-cut evening gowns, police uniforms, Asian robes, gothic dresses and birthday suits. Most are white, except for the large glowing red man posing as the Devil. And the grim-faced specter of Death. And the twenty-foot-long dragon posing for the Wheel of Fortune.
Of the humans displayed, every one is young and pretty, and either thin or well-built. Most people are around here.
It’s now a quarter ’til 11, and the woman Murrow’s waiting to interview was supposed to show up almost an hour ago. As he helps himself to the complimentary Champagne, I realize he’s been stood up.
And that I’m upset about it.
Maybe Murrow Hunt is me.
Brave new world(s)
Questions of identity are integral to the world I’ve entered. It’s called Second Life, a massive three-dimensional realm that only exists as countless bits of information stored on computers and transferred across the internet. It’s a type of “massively multi-player online role playing game,” (or “MMORPG,” or “More-pig,” or just “MMO”) an electronic scenario wherein thousands – and sometimes hundreds of thousands – of players can log in, create a character or “avatar” and cooperate and compete in the same digital world together.
MMOs are all the rage these days, with the biggest one, World of Warcraft, containing several million accounts (official estimates are hard to come by – the census at Warcraftrealms.com suggests 2.5 million US accounts as I write).
But when the San Francisco-based company Linden Lab opened Second Life to the public in 2003, they created something unprecedented. Unlike Warcraft and other MMOs, which take place in fantasy worlds with pre-existing back stories, quests and goals created by the games’ developers, Second Life doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is – a virtual world. There are no pre-set goals, no wars to be waged or missions to complete except for those you create for yourself.
In fact, the majority of things in the Second Life world, from the streets you walk to the clothes you wear, were created by other players using the in-game building and scripting tools. Learning to do so can be tricky, however, so most use the game’s currency, the linden, to purchase items created by others. You can even buy, sell and own in-game land once you pay the $10-a-month fee for a premium account as well as a tiered land-use fee, all to Linden Labs.
This in-game market is built on a single, vital premise: Linden Labs bestowed property rights to all Second Life residents in November 2003. That means everything you build and buy in the game belongs to you. The potential for creation is astounding, as is the potential to make real-life cash off your Second Life business.
That’s what has the mainstream media buzzing, and Second Life’s population booming. While players of other games can buy and sell in-game goods for real dollars, Second Life is the first to have a fairly complete economy, including an ever-shifting exchange rate for lindens. Players can go online to convert their in-game cash to real world bucks, at about 300 lindys to one US dollar as I write.
The result could be likened to a gold rush, as bemused reporters fill Business Week, the New York Times and other unlikely bastions of journalistic integrity with stories of players making a living wage selling pixilated real estate and digital fashion, all while sitting in front of a screen, playing a game.
Through the looking glass
Of course, when reporting on a place, you have to go there. In this case, “going there” entailed downloading the free Second Life client, creating an avatar and diving in.
My plan was simple. I figured this was essentially a bizarre variation on travel writing, so I’d take the Anthony Bordain approach – total immersion, letting the locals be my guides.
It sounded like a good idea at the time.
The first step in creating an avatar is to name it. As a journalist, full disclosure was vital, so I chose to make my mini-me as close to the real deal as possible. Unfortunately the Second Life naming conventions wouldn’t let me make another Chris Lowrance. While allowed to choose any first name I wanted, I had to pick from a large menu of last names. I opted to merge a couple of professional heroes, Edward Murrow and Hunter Thompson, while giving my real name and credentials in my account profile.
Once in-game, Murrow Hunt was deposited on Orientation Island, supplied with a white T-shirt, a pair of blue jeans and some non-identifiable shoe-like objects. A series of demos taught me the basics of moving and interacting, as well as how to change clothes and customize my appearance. A surprising amount of variation is possible – the basic controls let you alter the size, shape and angle of every body part imaginable, including a male avatar’s “package” (the options range from “coin purse” to “duffle bag”). A good builder can make his avatar look like absolutely anything, and shops sell body shapes as well as the clothes to go on them.
Resisting temptation, I made Murrow a reasonable facsimile of myself: short, scrawny and pale, with messy hair and a soul patch. The one thing he lacked was glasses – in real life I can’t take two steps without them. I was also a little disappointed in his attire – I managed to make his clothes a washed-out black to match my own beatnik tastes, but they were close enough to stock to call me out as a newbie from a mile away (if, that is, your graphics card can render a mile at a time, which mine cannot). Buildings, avatars, and even the ground, cut in and out randomly as I took off in search of better duds.
It took me about half a minute to get hopelessly lost.
Second Life is massive and growing every day. The handful of major continents expand in all directions, and innumerable islands pop up off the coastline. With no clue how to use the world-map, I tried flying as high as I could (did I mention you can fly here?) to get my bearings.
To my right a giant monkey materialized, three furries (people who enjoy dressing as anthropomorphic animals, a fairly over-represented subculture) floating around its knees. To the left an endless loop of fireworks burst over and over above a giant mall which, like every other shop I’ve found, is best described as a cross between a giant Hot Topic and an extra-seedy Victoria’s Secret. In front of me loomed some kind of giant Roman palace, but the words “No Access” appeared as a barrier whenever I got anywhere close. Not only other players, but also doors and other objects spoke to me as I passed. Sometimes items in shops literally asked me to buy them.
It was the result of various tastes, talents and aims acting in whatever fashion they pleased. It was postmodernism with the throttle stuck and the brake lever snapped off. I was truly through the looking glass.
I needed help. Luckily, back in the real world I found the Metaverse (trumpy.cs.elon.edu/metaverse/), the site of Megan Conklin, an assistant professor of computing sciences at Elon University. Along with resources and a blog about teaching technology, Conklin’s site links to the text of “101 Uses for Second Life in the College Classroom,” a presentation she gave at the Games, Learning, and Society Conference in the summer of 2005. The presentation was based on her experiences teaching a course called “Imagining Technology,” wherein her students studied Second Life from a social and anthropological perspective.
To do so, Conklin took her students into the game.
“First of all, they’re trying to figure out this whole virtual space, and then all of the weird stuff that goes along with it, like griefing [purposefully trying to ruin another player’s enjoyment of the game],” she says. “They don’t understand why someone would specifically want to ruin someone else’s game, and so they find incidents of that happening, they go out and interview other players, other avatars to see if they’ve had experiences like that or not, and they report their own experiences.”
As she opens Second Life on her laptop, she describes a lot of the same difficulties I’m having. Her avatar, Professor Radiks, is only a slightly younger version of herself, with different hair.
“I named her Professor to try and have some authenticity with my students,” she laughs. “I tried to find her clothes that weren’t completely inappropriate, which is harder to do than it sounds. I went up to an avatar and said ‘Hey, I’m trying to find something conservative, maybe just jeans, a T-shirt, Polo-shirt, sweater, you got anything like that? Is there a store around that sells that? She dressed me in a total Victorian outfit that looked something like this.”
With a few clicks Conklin’s avatar dons a white and pink flowered hat, parasol and floor length dress like something out of Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon. It apparently has a script (computer code that can create movements and interactions) attached to make Professor Radiks move daintily, holding one languid wrist in the air like a Parisian belle.
“One of the problems my students had in-world was finding clothes they liked and getting rid of that stock avatar look,” Conklin tells me. “They wanted to customize their avatars a bit, and it was easy if they wanted to wear club clothes, but if the girls wanted to wear something conservative, forget it. Preppie does not exist in Second Life!”
Anthony Crider, an associate professor of physics and colleague of Conklin’s at Elon, quickly picked up the game after reading Conklin’s “101 Things.”
“Now, the one hundred and first thing on that list, literally, was ‘Build a planetarium,'” Crider tells me. “I thought, you know, ‘Yeah, I think I could do that.'”
Crider already had experience working with the 3-D authoring program Maya and some knowledge of scripting. Second Life has a working sun and moon, so making a planetarium seemed feasible.
“In evenings for the heck of it last summer, I did exactly that,” he says.
It wasn’t long before Crider’s creation caught the attention of Linden Labs. In Second Life, the company’s employees maintain avatars, referred to as “The Lindens,” that act as guides and representatives. And police. Think Agent Smith from The Matrix, only less scary.
“I met with Pathfinder Linden, who’s one of their community outreach people,” Crider says. “He said ‘We don’t have a place for educators to meet yet, but your planetarium looks like a good one. Let’s move your planetarium over to Linden property.’
“It was the first building in the educator facility,” Crider tells me.
Crider’s other major Second Life creation is a functional replica of the telescopes his students use. He uses it to train them in-game, where they can’t break anything, before they put their eyes to the real thing. He says it’s been more successful that simply handing students a manual or sending them to a website.
“If you’ve played with any of these 3-D games, you really get a feeling for where things are, more so than just looking at a picture on a screen.”
“I don’t think there’s a consensus as to how you should be using Second Life [in the classroom],” Crider says. “There’s a lot of people, like in psychology or that sort of thing, that are doing similar things to what Megan did, where you study what people are doing in Second Life. But there’s an emerging branch of people using Second Life as a tool and not as a place where you just do the Second Life thing.” In fact, Crider says, real world businesses have begun using the game to train employees, with digital mock-ups of workspaces.
“It’s a metaphor for real life, really,” Conklin says. “It’s an alternate universe.”
Ethics and the alter ego
“One of the problems my students run into a lot is privacy and avatar identity issues,” Conklin tells me. “If I talk to you in-world, is that private? Are there rules governing that, either official Linden policy or unofficial etiquette type things? If students are writing papers about conversations in-world, how does that play out? That’s a very evolving and new area.”
I know what she means. Trying to contact local players hadn’t turned up much, and the one I did get a hold of refused to meet me in person or give any information about her real life I could use to confirm her identity.
“That’s part of the appeal of playing, in some respects,” says Conklin. “That no one knows if you’re a man, woman, any of that. Avatar and identity issues are central to something like Second Life.”
The story of Crider’s Second Life avatar, Chaac Amurula, is a case in point. “It was pretty odd for me, because I started this as just a game,” he says. “I played Tringo [a game created within Second Life that has since been extremely successful on cell-phones], met a bunch of people, went to some of the clubs that are in world, went to some poetry readings. But it was my little avatar that was going out and doing that.
“I made him a meaner version of me. Just a little bit meaner, with a little bit better hair, I guess,” he says. “Then, as I started to get into the educational side of it, all of a sudden I was letting a select few people in on what affiliation I have, what university I work at, really who Chaac Amarula is. This guy [Chaac] was someone else that I was playing, but now, this afternoon I have to meet with two people to set up the finances of some sort of non-profit to run Spaceport Alpha [the public location of Crider’s planetarium in Second Life], and they’re real people. Honestly, I don’t remember what their real names are. I remember their avatar name, and they remember my avatar name. But they know who I am, now.”
It’s an issue Conklin’s students had to focus on extensively.
“So they’ve already put a name with a face, in-world,” she says. “And now they have to put a different name with a different face outside the world, and then attach those… so you have this cube of a person!
“That issue of not having a real name, or if I do have a real name, do I reveal that? How much of the avatar identity is me and how much is the character? Am I role-playing; is it a game or not a game? This is very tricky.”
“Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever.”
– Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky
The quote is engraved, or at least bitmapped, on the teleport entrance to Spaceport Alpha, home of Crider’s planetarium and the Second Life International Space Flight Museum. Tsiolkovsky was a Russian rocket scientist and in the quote he was referring to space travel, although he died before ever seeing it happen.
I eventually discovered how to search for locations, such as shops and dance clubs, and then teleport Murrow Hunt directly to them. Unfortunately, that didn’t help me find the good locations, and I got fleeced on a pair of sunglasses that don’t quite fit and a pair of boots that I couldn’t get out of the box. When I clicked “wear,” Murrow would put on the box, like a kid pretending to be a robot. After a passing avatar explained how to fix this, I discover the boots were buggy, displaying a transparent rectangle around themselves at all times. Digital buyer beware.
With nothing but 95 lindens, broken boots and overpriced shades to my name, I decided to look for some high culture, Second Life-style, and the Spaceflight Museum seemed like a good start. The museum holds detailed scale replicas of various real-world rockets and landers, including the absolutely massive Saturn V, the biggest rocket ever built. Even in this artificial world, through a window on my monitor, the sheer size of the Saturn V next to Murrow makes me feel dwarfed.
I was still in awe when the woman that stood me up the night before sent me an instant message.
“Damn, Murrow, I forgot all about you,” she said, even though I had told her my real name. She asked if I’d like to meet now, and offered me a teleport to her location.
It turned out she was waiting for me on a piece of property owned by herself and her in-game lover, a beautiful landscape and ornate house with marble-textured pillars and an indoor pool. It’s the kind of thing everyone dreams of having in real life, but anyone can have in Second Life, if you don’t mind it not being real.
“We built this place together,” she tells me via Second Life’s chat function (her avatar whips her hair back and makes typing motions with her hands).
She’s from Winston-Salem, and since that’s one of the few things I can claim to know for sure about her, I’ll refer to her as Salem. She asked that I not use her avatar’s name or image, for fear of in-game harassment (an avatar name is all that’s needed to send an instant message or find a profile, which can make the avatar easier to find in game).
I can’t attest to the veracity of anything she told me about her real life. Second Life profiles do state whether a player has payment info on record with Linden Lab, to verify if a player is over 18, and Salem’s profile says she does. Other than that, I can only report what she claimed, which I found interesting enough to note.
In real life, Salem says, she’s in her late twenties and is married with several children.
“My husband knows I play the game, and what I do in it,” she tells me.
She says her husband plays other online games, but isn’t interested in Second Life, although he’s glad it makes her happy.
“I’ve tried to interest him in playing, but it’s no use,” she says.
As mentioned earlier, Salem also has an in-game lover with whom she jointly owns in-game land. Their house reeks of love nest, with chairs, couches and pillows that have “cuddle” and “sit in lap” scripts attached to them.
When I ask if her real husband knows about this, she says he does.
“He gets jealous sometimes, because I get something out of it he could never give me. But he gets over it.”
What does she get from Second Life?
“Understanding,” she says. “[her in-game lover] understands what I really am, and that’s something my husband could never, ever do.
“Second Life has made such a difference in my real life” Salem tells me. “I have snapshots [images from in the game] that are as precious to me as anything from real life.”
It’s obvious Salem takes Second Life very seriously, even claiming that, in the eight months she’s played, she’s lost 40 pounds “just from being happier.”
“I’ve heard of abused women leaving their husbands because of Second Life,” she says. “It gave them the strength to do it, after meeting other people and seeing what life could be like. It’s potential for therapy is astounding.”
On that, many people agree. For instance, the Second Life group Wilde Cunningham consists of nine physically disabled adults sharing an account. They use Second Life as a means of interacting with others, a world where they are free from the obstacles of their conditions. Similar groups exist for people with Cerebral Palsy, Asperger’s and Autism, and according to an April 6, 2005 report in Wired magazine (“Second Life teaches life lessons”), a British organization has used the game to help abused children in Portuguese safe-houses build social skills.
“I really believe Second Life can make people stronger in [real life],” Salem says, “just as long as they remember to balance the two.”
For her own part, Salem claims to spend about 20 hours a week playing the game. She says she spends between $25 and $75 in real money on the game each week, but doesn’t use the game to try and make a profit, although she’s done some interior decoration for in-game locations, including one of the numerous sex clubs. Think Eyes Wide Shut, animated by Pixar.
Before I leave, Salem gives me several “landmarks,” links to in-game locations she finds interesting. She also provides me with a script to free my avatar if he gets stuck in an animation, a common bug often exploited by griefers.
Finally, with Salem’s help, I was finding some interesting and well-built places, including a very lovely garden that could be rented for weddings. I also found the exact outfit I’d been hoping for from the start; a black button-down shirt and some Converse All-Stars.
There was only one catch: ninety-five lindens won’t buy much. Except, as it turns out, a few hands of blackjack.
Gambling is big business in Second Life, with the multiple in-game casinos being some of the most popular destinations. The real-world legality of this is vague, and much like the early web, real-world law hasn’t fully set its feelers on Second Life.
The first US lawsuit involving an MMO just cropped up in Pennsylvania, where a man whose Second Life account and assets were deleted after he allegedly defrauded Linden Labs on a land auction. He is suing for the real-world value of the property. The case could have a deep and long-lasting impact on how in-game property is defined and is sure to bring more legal attention to Second Life, including some of the more illicit in-game activities.
But for now, I can sin to my (Murrow’s) heart’s content.
Like most things in-game, the machines and tables are all automated – you pay the object and it tells you the results and doles out your winnings. I haven’t a clue how it really works and it sounds like an easy way to scam people. But I also figured there wouldn’t be many people hanging around a casino that never paid out, so I teleported around looking for the busiest place I could find.
I decided to give the slots at GCI Casino a whirl. A few one-linden bets netted me 25, so I upped the ante. Two minutes later I was in the hole 40 lindens.
Slots are wholly dependant on luck, though, and maybe Murrow didn’t have it. What I needed was a game of skill… a card game.
Ten minutes later I took my five lindens and fled.
I was down and out in Second Life, and I’d only been there two days. Remember, at the current conversion rate, I lost almost one third of a dollar, or about 30 cents. I could have bought a real-life gumball with that, or an hour of parking in downtown Greensboro.
It was also getting late, and I knew I needed the next day to make sense of all this on paper. With no cash my shopping spree was at an end, but there was one place my editor would hang both me and Murrow if we didn’t go see.
There’s a city in Second Life called Amsterdam and it looks a lot like its real-life counterpart, complete with a train stop and Dutch signs on the storefronts. It was thus far the most cohesive and well-built place I had been.
But the signs aren’t the only similarity between the real and semi-fictional towns. There’s also the profitable and well-organized prostitution industry.
It’s undeniable that, in another similarity to the web, many people use Second Life to get off. Sex, whether it be free or not, is rampant within the game, but restricted to territories, or “sims,” designated as “mature.” Sexual behavior in a “PG” sim is a surefire way to draw the Lindens down on you.
As for the mechanics, there are certain skins and animations you can purchase, or build, or find attached to beds and floors in some clubs. There are also sounds that your avatar can play on command, and don’t forget old-fashioned dirty talk. After all, people have done it over the phone since there have been phones.
The result isn’t much more than that – glorified phone sex – but nevertheless you’ll find several digital johns walking the streets of Amsterdam, and they’re carrying a lot of lindens.
The city’s official sex workers are the Amster-Dames, headed up by the avatar Andrea Faulkner, but the info card says freelancers are also allowed to work the corners. The Dames are sort of the elite of the city – one has to apply, and applications are not always open. They’re easily recognizable, as they have the cleanest animations and the most decked-out avatars. Their services don’t come cheap – Faulkner’s base rate is 2,000 lindens per half hour, or about $6.66 in real cash. Not a bad wage for chatting up some guy in a video game.
It was while looking for an Amster-Dame to interview that I spotted Synn Mounier, a tall and thin avatar with long black hair and white skin, dancing topless on stage at a club called BabyDollz, Her title is “Amster-Dancer,” an official exotic dancer in the employ of Amsterdam.
“The streams do not cross, though,” she says. “Amster-Dancers aren’t prostitutes, and vice versa. Unless they do it somewhere else!”
Mounier says in real life she’s a 30-year-old business student finishing an online degree in Oregon. She says her real-life fiancee also plays, “but in [Second Life] we’re quite separate.”
She also has an in-game partner. “We’re actually friends in real life.
“After all,” she says, “it’s just a game. Some people do forget that.”
Mounier says her real-life personality isn’t too different from her avatar’s. “Well, I’m not a [six-foot-six] stripper in real life!”
Mounier says she started playing Second Life for the sense of community. As for why she dances in-game, her reasons are similar to what I’ve heard from real-life strippers.
“I think it’s the easiest way for a woman to make money in Second Life, honestly.”
Since dancing basically means turning on a dancing animation and sitting back in your chair, she’s probably right. She’s also begun building clothing to sell in a friend’s shop, but she says sales are slow. She hasn’t made any real-world money, but says she doesn’t put any in, either, getting by on a free account with no land. As for time, she claims a few hours on the weekends, and briefly on weeknights to talk to her partner.
In the time we talked, she hadn’t made a single linden, so she invited me to a café in her in-game community, Caledon. Founded by the avatar Desmond Shang, Caledon is one of the largest and oldest independently run communities in Second Life. The theme is “19th Century Steampunk Victorian,” complete with massive sailboats and a working trolley.
“The people are very into the whole Victorian thing… everyone is Mister or Miss… very polite,” Mounier tells me as we drink espresso (or rather, our avatars go through the animation of drinking espresso). In a 180 from a few minutes ago, she’s now clad in a full Victorian dress. “It’s a very cohesive community. A nice place to come home to after being ogled by people for a couple hours.
“It takes a lot of work to do a sim,” Mounier continues. “You have to be dedicated. I have a fairly full real life, so I can’t dedicate myself to that level here.”
She admires Shang and others like him that can dedicate themselves to in-world projects.
“Like-minded people can move virtual mountains,” she says.
The future of the metaverse
My 48 hours in Second Life at an end, I bid Mounier farewell and teleport back to Spaceport Alpha to collect my thoughts.
The promise of real money may be fueling the boom in MMOs, but they’re still a long way from being mainstream. Linden Lab claims over 300,000 players in Second Life, but only eight to ten thousand are on at any given time. There are some big legal and ethical questions still unanswered concerning both the role and power of the Lindens and the ability of a large, trademark-holding business to function in-world. Still, some are calling it a revolution and pointing to the people already earning a living wage in-game as evidence.
Back at Elon, Conklin is skeptical.
“You’ve got to get big numbers to make a dent with people who charge $500 an hour for their services,” she says. “This is still a niche thing. We can talk about the theoretical issues, and that’s what I do with my students. ‘What if the Coca-Cola company were to… ?’ But for an actual lawyer to get behind it, there’s got to be some money involved somewhere, and right now I don’t know. It’s super geek territory. I don’t see any judge coming close to understanding what’s going on here.”
“I don’t think there will be much consensus on this kind of thing,” Crider says. “People have been talking about, ten years into the future, what will happen when, instead of having a Second Life client and a Warcraft client, you have your ‘3-D browser’ and then you log on to the Warcraft site with it.”
“That will grow the numbers,” he adds. “When enough people have an experience, then there’s some agreement as to what the rules should be. That doesn’t exist yet.”
While Salem seems to take the game more seriously than Mounier, both seem to see themselves at the beginning of something important.
“The potential here is endless,” Salem says.
“It’s only going to get larger,” Mounier says.
And back again
In all honesty, I have no clue who the person behind Mounier is, or if anything she told me about herself is true. She could be a 60-year-old man, or three men, or a hyper-intelligent sea turtle with a waterproof keyboard for all I know. The same goes for Salem, and the many others I’ve chatted with in the past two days.
And somehow, I could care less. Despite everything my logical brain insists, I really feel like I had coffee with an exotic dancer in a Victorian neighborhood, and stood on the top of a Saturn 5 rocket, and lost my shirt in a casino, and drank free Champagne in an art gallery in a medieval castle. As Murrow left Coldon, I caught myself wondering what a small virtual townhouse would really cost, and how hard it would really be to make about 600,000 lindens a year.
For some, Second Life is the ultimate escape tool, a way to hide from their real-life problems. Others see it as a fun diversion, an interesting curiosity. Then there are those that see a new world, a vast uncharted wilderness with a lot of profit hidden within.
The early internet is still the best metaphor I can find. There was a real sense, in the ’90s, of something big looming around the corner, and also the real possibility it could all collapse the next day.
The jury’s still out on these new frontiers and what they’re really going to mean. They could remain the providence of “super geeks,” as the young web was. Or they could explode into something no one can live without. There’s a lot of optimistic talk, but no real answers.
I just can’t help thinking Tsiolkovsky was right about the whole cradle thing, but wrong about where we’re going next.
To comment on this story, e-mail Chris Lowrance at firstname.lastname@example.org