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Volume 41. No. 2.
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Get a (Second) Life!
Tax revolts, an ever-growing population and outlandish personas ... No, this isn't California. It's Second Life. And it might change yours, says Glenn Thomas '92 (aka the purple bunny).

By Mark Kendall

Glenn Thomas '92 has spent the last few years trying to make sense of a fast-growing destination where people from all over the globe gather to create far-out personas and act out their fantasies. Along with the fun come tax revolts, rapid population growth and continuing battles over land development. But no, this isn't California. It's a virtual world called Second Life. And it just might change yours.

Designed and operated by San Francisco-based Linden Lab, Second Life has grown to attract more than six million registered users and almost as many gee-whiz media stories. Residents create cartoonish, 3-D avatars -- ranging from impossibly proportioned humans to nut-gathering squirrels -- that can fly around a world comprised of elaborate islands, public or private, wholesome or X-rated, and everything in between. "People like it," Thomas says, "because it's like living inside an amusement park."

But SL is something more than a game, and that's what inspired Thomas to embark on his near-completed documentary, The Ideal World (www.idealworldmovie.com). He had long been interested in the implications of virtual worlds, but in the past their appeal tended to be limited to "people who want to dress up like knights or sorcerers." SL, created in 2003, is fundamentally different in that Linden Lab simply provides a platform for others to create an entire world -- residents build the places and things, from tropical jungles to Irish pubs, from muscle cars to clothing -- that fill SL. And the creators hold the copyrights to things they make, which quickly led people to realize they could make money selling stuff. "First people made beer and pizza money, then it was rent money, then it was people making $100,000," says Thomas, who in real life is a Seattle-based consultant advising companies on how to best use the Web and mobile technologies.

Serving as a sort of techno-Tocqueville, Thomas says his goal in making his documentary is simply to introduce people to a world-or worlds-that most know nothing about. "It just came down to the idea," says Thomas, who will show a rough cut of The Ideal World at a virtual worlds conference in August in Singapore, "that this is very important for where things are headed."

Already, virtual worlds are spilling into the real one. Quite a bit of press has gone to Eastern European virtual game sweatshops, in which workers "play" online games for long hours at low wages to gather items that can be sold to more prosperous players overseas. China, meanwhile, clamped down on virtual currencies, fearing that the trade in imaginary money could undermine the real-world Yuan. On a political level, Thomas says, the Chinese government is "freaked out" by virtual worlds because they are hard to monitor and could be used to organize opposition to the government.

As more people here and abroad settle into virtual worlds, they bring more and more questions: What laws apply? What if a person based in, say, Europe, has a dispute with a person in Asia? Can avatars enter into contracts? What if there's a run on a virtual currency? "It's getting stranger by the day," says Thomas.

A good chunk of Thomas' documentary centers on Kasi Nafus -- better known by her avatar, Nephilaine Protagonist -- who was jobless in Seattle and started hanging out in SL, where she wound up creating her own business making elegant, intricate virtual clothing for people to garb their avatars. Now she's making a good living in SL, easily converting her Linden dollars into U.S. dollars, which has allowed her to buy a nice piece of real-world property. "What am I missing out on?," Nafus asks in a video snippet created for the documentary. "Am I missing out on office politics? Am I missing out on gossiping around the water cooler? Am I missing out on sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic for two hours every day? I don't think I'm missing anything."

Most people, though, enter SL for social reasons, not to make a living. Niche communities thrive. "There are lots of social groups that develop in this world that you would never see in the real world," Thomas says. As he goes on, you start to understand why. "There's a whole community of furries," Thomas says. "People from all over the world who like to pretend to be furry animals." There really does seem to be a group for everyone: A recent article in the Second Life Herald spotlights the Merczateers, a military group devoted to "Soviet/ Russian technology and infrastructure."

 While the be-what-you-want-to-be freedom of SL unleashes people's creativity, Thomas concedes "at times it just doesn't feel as if anything like this should really exist." Why? "I guess it's because in the real world you don't have people playing out their fantasies in front of you in such a straightforward way," he says. "Anything goes ... it's very different from someone putting up a goofy Web page."

About half of Thomas' documentary is devoted to footage from within SL. Thomas created a variety of avatars of his own-young and old, male and female, even a big purple bunny-for use depending on the situation. But Thomas also traveled to virtual world conventions and interviewed SL residents in real life, allowing viewers to see the human behind the avatar. It became obvious that SL residents can't completely escape their real-world selves. "A lot of people, no matter how kind of unusual their avatar might be, are still pretty much the way you expect them," he says. "You're not often surprised when you meet the person in real life if you meet them in the virtual world first." In time, he learned to pick out people in the real world who he had previously only seen as their avatar. "It was very strange honestly. It left me thinking, 'I shouldn't be able to pick you out in a crowd,'" says Thomas.

 And Second Life certainly has its share of strife, from grade-school style shoving to wider social uprisings. "Stop getting pushed-sit down!" screams another article on SL's Web: "Pushing with various weapons, or one avatar ramming into another, can be very disruptive to your experience, since you can get thrown far away from your original position." On a larger level, SL's virtual economy didn't really take off until early residents launched a tax revolt, according to Thomas. Residents were paying fees based on the things they created, but Linden Lab ditched that tax after residents organized a large-scale series of protests that involved dumping crates of tea over all the place, and the symbolic burning of landmarks such as a Route 66-themed gas station in a section of SL known as Americana. Oh, and don't forget the rats holding protest signs decrying "King Linden."

Land ownership remains a big issue. Entering Second Life is free, but residents pay if they want property on the islands that form the "grid," as it is called. Land barons have emerged, snapping up vast swathes of property and leasing or re-selling it. Perhaps the most famous is Anshe Chung, who last year announced she had accumulated $1 million in real estate holdings within SL. Soon after, griefers, as in-world trouble-makers are known, used animated genitals to disrupt an in-world news event featuring Chung, the Chinese-German businesswoman known as Ailin Graef in the real world. "You do see these kinds of extravagant acts of dissent," Thomas says. The growing commercialization of SL is controversial. "There's a certain ethos that capitalism is bad, and making money is bad, and it's all about creativity," says Thomas. But that hasn't stopped entities ranging from IBM to Coca-Cola to the NBA from plunging into SL. "Everybody's scared of being left behind, like so many companies were with the Web at first," says Thomas.

So where is this world headed? Thomas admits he isn't quite sure, and that he doesn't know whether SL will emerge as the big player in virtual worlds. If Linden Lab is wise, Thomas says, it will further loosen control, moving to an open-source system that allows anyone to add onto the grid using their own servers, creating near limitless growth. Linden would simply retain control over the currency. "That gives them enormous power," he says. Even if SL fizzles, other virtual worlds certainly will rise. Already, Club Penguin has kids moving into igloos and its icy virtual world. Habbo Hotel is checking in teens. "Five years from now, 10 years from now, it will just be a natural part of people's world in the way the Internet is now," he says. Still, Thomas seems more bemused than obsessed, conceding he doesn't devote any of his spare time cavorting in Second Life. "I've got other things to do," he says.
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