Second Life is an online virtual world that was launched and developed by Linden Lab in 2003. By 2011 it had about one million active users, called residents, that interact in a world known as the ‘grid’, through avatars that they create and design themselves. Many popular current designs include wings, glittery skin and anthropomorphised body parts. You can create anything you can dream. Through their avatars, residents can control and change anything about themselves and their world at any given time. Their avatar is the extension of themselves, their representative in the grid.
To name but a few things an avatar is capable of in Second Life, they can: communicate publicly and privately, travel, fly, have sex, fall in love, shop, adopt a virtual pet, have magic powers, party at 24/7 nightclubs where mixers from around the world spin classic and new tracks, and trade virtual property and services. They can attend discussion groups, concerts, drive-in movies, lectures and meditation workshops; play games that transport the user into other worlds; visit galleries and museums to view innovative 3D interactive artwork. This is all within the realm of stunningly complex and outstandingly beautiful graphics that assist in communicating this staggering new world to the resident. The computer game physics in Second Life are astounding. Everything you could ever wish for in real life – and more – can be found in the grid. But this is not just a game. The boundaries between real life and virtual life have become blurred with Second Life. It is the next stepping stone in the virtual world of strategic simulated reality, following creations such as Maxis’ best-selling game The Sims. In Second Life, the communication between virtual avatars veils the communication between the two very real people behind them.
Although The Sims has no eventual or definitive objective to the game, it is possible to encounter relative states of failure – through death (either accidental or instigated by the player), bad relationships and arguments resulting in a Sim leaving the game of his or her own accord, children who fail school will be sent away. Not only this; it is possible to lock a Sim in an ‘undead’ state by preventing them from getting out of the shower, for example, or leaving a room by constructing their environment in a particularly sinister way. Aside from the previous example of the programmed consciousness of Sims to leave the game, they are ultimately and completely controlled by the player. After all, it is the player who can control the extent to which a Sim interacts and gets on with a fellow Sim. So if he or she leaves the game, the player obviously enjoyed watching heated arguments ensue.
The Sims aims to simulate real life and Second Life, as its name reveals, really does act as an alternative life to some of its users. Since its inception, the fantastic world of Second Life has come hand-in-hand hand with obsession. After the release of James Cameron’s futuristic blockbuster Avatar in 2009, a spate of suicide thoughts and pacts were reported as viewers confessed their depression at never being able to experience the utopian world of Pandora, shown in the film. Similarly, the virtual reality of Second Life has had a shocking impact upon its users’ real lives. One addict confessed that because she was in trouble in her real life, “it was a nice escape into a world where no one knew my real life issues. I threw myself into the game [...] It took over my life. Second Life was basically my first life. I basically couldn’t turn the game off.” In a world where virtual shopping soured her taste for her real life shopping addiction, the game held her an obsessive prisoner to making L$ and dating the sexiest male avatar – who she later discovered to be a girl in real life.
Virtual entrepreneurs can also become addicted to making money in Second Life because it has its own internal economy, currency and banks. One need never spend money in the real world again. The currency of the grid is the Linden dollar (L$)which can be used, just as in the real world, to buy, sell, rent or trade virtual goods and services with other users. Avatars can have jobs and run businesses. L$ can be purchased with the players’ own currency using Linden Lab’s LindeX exchange, independent brokers, or other players who buy L$ using their own money on market-based currency exchanges. In 2006, the virtual land baroness Anshe Chung became Second Life’s first millionaire – in real U.S. dollars. Her net worth is based on her considerable land holdings in the grid which correspond to her cash in L$, which can be converted to real U.S. dollars. Her real-life persona, Ailin Graef, earned her fortune from her initial investment of $9.95 for the Second Life account by purchasing virtual real estate which she then developed, subdivided, landscaped and re-constructed for rental and resale purposes. Since then, she has converted her virtual success into a real-life fortune with her ‘spin-off’ corporation Anshe Chung Studios, which develops immersive 3D environments. In 2009 Linden Lab published figures revealing that 64,000 Second Life users made a profit in February 2009. 38,524 of these people made less than US$10 and 233 made more than US$500. Since Anshe Chung’s success there have been and there will be more Second Life millionaires and entrepreneurs. Naturally, as in the real world, only a small minority of Second Life users earn vast amounts of money from the grid. But then again, as in the real world, we all strive for more.
This addiction to Second Life reveals deeper psychological vulnerabilities that the game simultaneously provides a release from and exploits. As we are on the brink of a new screen-age, Second Life poses deeper, more introspective and existential questions that we must face in its microcosmic representations of real life. Why do some people feel the need to escape and detach themselves from reality in the first place, preoccupy themselves instead with the virtual? Is virtual happiness not different to real happiness? What motivates the desire to control the avatar’s appearance, movements, social circle, knowledge and financial situation? Of course Linden Lab has created a game where the wondrous is possible. But most importantly, they capitalise on the assumption that people want to change something about themselves. What is left when the virtual life supersedes real life is emptiness. After all, all those cyber relationships and lectures and parties were all virtual. You did not attend. Your avatar did. There is a time limit on your free, real life account. It should not be frittered away into cyberspace.