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What it is
Second life is a virtual world. As described on Second Life’s website (www.secondlife.com) it is a free 3D virtual world where users can socialize, connect and create using free voice and text chat. A virtual world is a computer-based, simulated multi-media environment, usually running over the Web (Boulos, Hetherington and Wheeler, 2007). Meadows (2008) describe a virtual world as an online interactive system in which multiple people, sometimes millions of people, share in the development of an interactive narrative. There are two primary virtual-world genres: Some are oriented around social interaction (such as Second Life) and some are oriented around game interaction (such as World of Warcraft). The question of whether Second Life should be defined as a game or not has been debated. According to Curtis (1992) a virtual world is not goal-orientated, it has no beginning or end, no “score” and no notion of “winning” or “success”, such a world is not really a game at all (Boellstorff, 2008, p. 22). As a result, virtual worlds are not games although you can play a game within a virtual world. Meadows (2008) stated that one thing that separates a social world from a game world is the balance of rules and roles. He argues that Social worlds such as Second Life is socially driven and that they have roles to be played such as “create drama for fun” or “make friends that matters”. Some examples of roles might be a bartender, a shoe salesman, a boucher, or a slave. Second Life offers something the other virtual worlds do not, the ability for users to create their own narratives from the ground up (Meadows, 2008, p. 25). So in a way you can say that Second Life is exactly what it is called, a second life. You have your real life but then you can also choose to have another life, a life in Second Life.
The idea of Second Life was created in 2002 by a company called Linden Lab, based in San Francisco. According to Meadows (2008) they thought that if they offered people the appropriate tools and infrastructure and gave them free access to these tools that the users of this system would create a parallel, virtual online world. They turned up to be right. And according to Guest (2007) that is what made Second Life different to most virtual worlds. Apart from some core elements (like Orientation Island) everything was made by the residents (Guest, 2007, p 71). So Linden Lab created the basic platform for Second Life: a landscape with land, water, trees, and sky and a set of building tools and means to control, modify and communicate between Avatars (Boellstorff, 2008, p 11). An Avatar is the character or figure that you use to participate with in Second Life. A virtual world is designed so that users can ‘inhabit’ and interact via their own graphical self representations known as avatars (Boulos, Hetherington and Wheeler, 2007). Meadows (2008) describe an Avatar as an interactive, social representation of yourself. But that does not necessarily mean that the Avatar has to look like the person it is representing. Every user creates their own Avatar and therefore they are free to make them look like whatever they want. Guest (2007) discovered when he first entered Second Life that most virtual residents were eager to liberate themselves from their real-world limitations. There were robot-headed monsters, cartoon-faced clowns, spiky-haired punks, leather-clad dominatrices and flying figures with fairy wings instead of arms (Guest, 2007, p. 15). Meadows (2008) describes Second Life as a landscape, more like a continent or a city than a game, one that is populated by avatar cultures as distinct as human cultures.
What you do
When you first enter Second Life you create your virtual self, your Avatar, to define how others will see you. According to Guest (2007) the process in Second Life is quite complex, you can customise hundreds of details like eye colour, face shape, height and even pot-belly width, all to suit your ideal self-image. Then you can choose your clothes as well. Each new Avatar in Second Life comes with a basic wardrobe free to all new users. In every virtual world, you can walk talk and move things around using your keyboard and mouse – but in each world these controls are different and have to be learned anew (Guest, 2007, p. 14). That is why the first place you get to in Second Life after creating your Avatar is Orientation Island. A place where you learn to operate your Avatar and how the new world works. After Orientation Island you arrive to the welcome area which is located on the main continent of Second Life and from there you are free to travel anywhere and do anything. You can socialise and make friends, you can work, you can build a house, you can sell your house, you can travel, you can buy things and you can get married, have kids and even have sex. Meadows (2008) stated that his second life was much like his first, only accelerated, smaller, and more dramatic. People married, money moved, wars began, kingdoms crumbled, noses and lips and hair and clothes shifted like tiny weather systems (Meadows, 2008, p. 82). Boellstorff describes everyday life in Second Life:
A man spends his days as a tiny chipmunk, elf, or voluptuous woman. Another live as a child and two other persons agree to be his virtual parents. Two “real”-life sisters living hundreds of miles apart meet every day to play games together or shop for new shoes for their avatars. The person making the shoes has quit his “real”-life job because he is making over five thousand U.S. dollars a month from the sale of virtual clothing. A group of Christians pray together at a church; nearby another group of persons engages in a virtual orgy, complete with ejaculating genitalia. Not far away a newsstand provides copies of a virtual newspaper with ten reporters on staff; it includes advertisements for a “real”-world car company, a virtual university offering classes, a fishing tournament, and a spaceflight museum with replicas of rockets and satellites (Boellstorff, 2008, p. 8).
A conclusion of that is that the “real”-world interferes with the virtual world. Boellstroff (2008) stated that over US$1,000,000 of economic activity was occurring daily in Second Life. The currency which is called Linden dollar can be converted to US dollars at a number of online Linden Dollar exchanges (Boulos, Hetherington and Wheeler, 2007). According to Guest (2007) every new Avatar in Second Life starts up with some pocket money in the form of 2500 Linden Dollars. But then if you start up a business and create something in Second Life you can earn money and then exchange it into “real” money. According to Guest (2007) the income has become so reliable and the exchange rates between virtual currencies so stable that enterprising businessmen in poorer areas of the world – Mexico or China, for example, had set up offices where employees worked at their PCs, working in virtual worlds to make gold and other items to sell for a real-world salary. Big Business was also popping up in Second Life and in 2007 The Maldives was the first country to open an embassy in Second Life, shortly followed by Sweden (Meadows, 2008, p. 69). But there are some major differences to the virtual life and the real life. For one thing the Avatar never needs to eat or sleep (Boellstorff, 2008, p. 9). And a day in Second Life only lasts for four hours (Meadows, 2008, p. 82).
The population of Second Life has more than doubled since January 2007, and, as at 2 May 2007, has reached more than six million virtual citizens or ‘Lifers’, all with their own fully textured high-resolution avatar (Boulos, Hetherington and Wheeler, 2007). Guest (2007) stated that at the time of writing, between 25-30 million people world-wide regularly log on to virtual worlds, to abandon our reality in search of a better place. More people than inhabit Australia have stepped through the electronic looking glass to inhabit their second lives (Guest, 2007, p. 23). But why? Is the real life not good enough or why is there a need to escape into a virtual world? Meadows provides an answer:
Human beings have a profound need to connect. We will travel great distances, give expensive presents, wait in long lines, and endure odd hardships of emotional immolation to achieve connection with other people. This desire is part of what makes avatar-driven systems so powerful, because when we are using our avatars online we feel emotionally safer to connect, and also more protected in doing so. Avatars are an amazing way of controlling the intensity of intimacy. This is why some people prefer Second Life and systems like it to the real world. Their intimacy and interaction with others can be more easily controlled, and they feel more protected (Meadows, 2008, p. 36).
There is very much a danger in getting too involved or addicted to Second Life. According to Boellstorff (2008) when residents spoke of themselves as “addicted” or “hooked” on Second Life, they typically meant they were spending too much time online. Some residents spoke of sleeping less so as to have more time in Second Life, and lack of sleep was often interpreted as a sign of addiction; others claimed that Second Life simply replaced television viewing, and thus need not take time away from actual-world activities (Boellstorff, 2008, p. 177). Meadows (2008) argued that Avatars present a danger of isolation from not only the real world, but from ourselves. If an avatar is used too much, it can remove us from our real-world society and we lose touch with reality (Meadows, 2008, p. 82).
By Sara Ringhagen, 11277821 email@example.com
Boellstorff, Tom. 2008. Coming of age in Second Life. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Boulos, M.N.K, Hetherington, L and Wheeler, S. 2007. Second Life: an overview of the potential of 3-D virtual worlds in medical and health education. Health Information & Libraries Journal, 24:233-245. < http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1471-1842.2007.00733.x/full>
Guest, Tim. 2007. Second Lives A journey through virtual worlds. London: Hutchinson.
Meadows, Mark Stephen. 2008. I, Avatar: The Culture and Consequences of Having a Second Life. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.