Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Second Life


It's the name of Second Life that put me off. I don't have time for my first life, let alone another one. But if something doesn't grab me initially, it's usually because I don't know enough about it. And there's no doubt that this is the future, or something very like it. I need to learn more.

Second Life is more of a place than a game. It's created by the people who use it. Participants make and animate a graphical representation of themselves, called avatars, and walk, fly, drive around a large continent and surrounding islands, chatting with others, building or buying things, and almost anything else you can imagine.

Although this metaphor will probably offend anyone remotely connected to Second Life, the most accurate way of describing the whole experience is that it's like playing with dolls. Mind you, these are very cool dolls. They can do and say anything at all. You build your own accessories, such as a house and furniture, clothes, car. You can also buy any of the above, at miles of shops in the world itself.

The imagination of some of the residents is impressive. One avatar I met over the weekend was a cartoon rabbit. He was wearing a t-shirt that changed its slogan every minute or so ("There's no place like" "Touch my carrot"). I've also met a dinosaur, a sphinx and a Luke Skywalker look-alike, complete with storm trooper outfit, light saber and R2D2.


My avatar is vaguely a copy of me, albeit thinner and with better hair -- no imagination! I haven't progressed far with making accessories, either. The best I've been able to create was the beginnings of a snowman. While I was struggling to do that, someone next to me was practicing with a motorcycle. She drove away before I got my snowman's head on straight. With built-in 3D designing software and scripting language, or using an external free application such as Blender, there doesn't seem to be too much you can't do.

Although there are no clear goals in Second Life, participants seem to treat it like a game of Life. They aim to sustain and grow their character over a long period, master the environment, create an interesting alter-ego and get "rich." Getting rich is at least possible. Second Life may be virtual, but the economy is real. The currency, called Linden dollars, has a floating exchange rate against the U.S. variety. The rate is currently about 250 to 1, so you'd have to be the Second Life equivalent of Bill Gates to be rich in reality.

You get 250 Linden dollars when you join. You own, and can sell, anything you make. Don't have much money? Get a job. The most skilled can work as a builder, the lucky as a fashion model for one of the many clothes designers. Residents who sign up for a monthly plan (instead of the free membership) get a plot of land to start off with, giving them a leg up onto Second Life's property ladder. Monthly subscribers also get a L$500 weekly stipend.

I find the culture a bit baffling, even after a few days. It seems to be bad manners to ask about, or even reveal, much about your "first life." To view someone's profile, you right-click on their avatar. Although there's a section for describing who you are outside of Second Life, I'm the only one who seems to have anything in there. That brings up an interesting question. What do you talk about? I like meeting people, not avatars. I don't need a name, age, address and social security number -- I just want to know where they are from (generally), what attracted them to Second Life, what work they do. I also want to know how old they are. How rare are 43-year-old residents? The main topic of conversation seems to be Second Life, or what accessories you have, or what you're building. As a newbie, I don't have much to contribute to the discussion.

Finding people and things to do and see is harder than I thought. Although there are a quarter of a million residents and several thousand online at any given time, the place is huge. There are several ways to get around. You can just walk or, with a keystroke, fly, just like in dreams. You can also teleport from one place to the next by clicking on a spot on the map or choosing a location from a list.

When I just wandered or flew around, I ended up finding mostly dull shops and casinos. My initial impression was that Second Life is a giant shopping mall with almost no one in it. I also ran into a lot of "mature" areas. I had no idea that anyone older than 12 got their kicks out of posing their "Ken" and "Barbie" into erotic poses. I don't feel enriched by this discovery. But once I figured out how to find "events" and centers catering to newbies, the experience has picked up a bit. I found a couple of wonderful parks, art galleries and "sandboxes," where you can try building things.

I'm also starting to understand the advantage of Second Life over more traditional text- or even audio-based communication on the Internet. You can use four of your five senses, making communication a lot richer and easier to assimilate. I can spot groups of people talking from a distance, for example, and swoop in to join the conversation. There are cinemas (videos), concerts and dance clubs. People have organized presentations in Second Life and play their own selection of music at their "house" or shop.

You also get a richer idea of a person by the avatar they choose. It doesn't tell anything about the more superficial aspects -- what they do or where they are from -- but you definitely get a quick impression of their personality and (possibly) world view.


I still don't have much time for a "second life," but as I get the hang of it, it's seems worthwhile dropping in when I can. I'm "Eamonn Supplee" (you have a limited number of surnames to choose from). Stop by and say hello!