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Get a (Second) Life!
By Mark Kendall
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).
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
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
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
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
online games for long hours at low wages to gather items that can be
sold to more prosperous players overseas. China, meanwhile, clamped down
currencies, fearing that the trade in imaginary money could undermine
the real-world Yuan. On a political level, Thomas says, the Chinese
"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,"
A good chunk of Thomas' documentary centers on Kasi Nafus -- better known
by her avatar, Nephilaine Protagonist -- who was jobless in Seattle and
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
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."
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
SL unleashes people's creativity, Thomas concedes "at times it just
doesn't feel as if anything like this should really exist." Why? "I
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
take off until early residents launched a tax revolt, according to
Thomas. Residents were paying fees based on the things they created, but
ditched that tax after residents organized a large-scale series of
protests that involved dumping crates of tea over all the place, and the
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
Land ownership remains a big issue. Entering Second Life is
free, but residents pay if they want property on the islands that form
"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
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.
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.
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
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.