“Our dreams are a second life.” ~Gerard de Nerval
Whenever Second Life is in the mainstream news, it’s almost always a sad little article about the dashed hopes of creators and corporations, the demise of a dream, the sorry spectacle that is Second Life today, which is somehow both empty and full of perverts and losers.
Chris Stokel-Walker’s article, over at Verge, begins with the sentence, “Do you remember Second Life?” so you may well sigh, roll your eyes, and move on to something less clichéd. But Chris takes a thoughtful look at Second Life, based on his visits and chats with residents, and with ex-Linden Lab employees and a professor of anthropology.
Don’t let the comments get you down! The commentariat is mostly interested in the page design (which is a little dizzying) than with the meat of the article, except for, yes, several “Second Life is for losers” remarks. As the following article points out, some people “get” Second Life, and some just don’t.
By Chris Stokel-Walker, for Verge, September 24, 2013.
Do you remember Second Life? Set up by developer Linden Lab in 2003, it was the faithful replication of our modern world where whoring, drinking, and fighting were acceptable. It was the place where big brands moved in as neighbors and hawked you their wares online. For many, it was the future — our lives were going to be lived online, as avatars represented us in nightclubs, bedrooms, and banks made of pixels and code.
In the mid-2000s, every self-respecting media outlet sent reporters to the Second Life world to cover the parallel-universe beat. The BBC, (now Bloomberg), Businessweek, and NBC Nightly News all devoted time and coverage to the phenomenon. Amazon, American Apparel, and Disney set up shop in Second Life, aiming to capitalize on the momentum it was building — and to play to the in-world consumer base, which at one point in 2006 boasted a GDP of $64 million.
Of course, stratospheric growth doesn’t continue forever, and when the universe’s expansion slowed and the novelty of people living parallel lives wore off, the media moved on. So did businesses — but not users. Linden Lab doesn’t share historical user figures, but it says the population of Second Life has been relatively stable for a number of years.
You might not have heard a peep about it since the halcyon days of 2006, but that doesn’t mean Second Life has gone away. Far from it: this past June it celebrated its 10th birthday, and it is still a strong community. A million active users still log on and inhabit the world every month, and 13,000 newbies drop into the community every day to see what Second Life is about. I was one of them, and I found out that just because Second Life is no longer under the glare of the media’s spotlight, it doesn’t mean the culture inside the petri dish isn’t still growing.
One of Second Life’s million-strong population is Fee Berry, a 55-year-old mother of three children who lives in Middlesex, a leafy suburb of London, England. And though her Second Lifeavatar, Caliandris Pendragon, is cool and calm, I’ve caught her at a bad time.
“I’m moving house,” she explains. In the background I can hear boxes being heaved back and forth, tape unspooling and being wrapped around packaged items. At one point in our conversation she has to ask her son to keep the noise down.
Berry became a stay-at-home mom after the birth of her first son and started gaming in 1998, playing Riven, a more puzzle-centric sequel to Myst, a popular adventure game first released in 1993. Both were developed by Cyan Worlds, at the time simply called Cyan. A friend introduced Berry to Riven when she bought a second-hand Apple Macintosh; she was initially wary, telling the friend, “I don’t think I like those sorts of things.” She finished the game within three weeks.
She stuck with games produced by Cyan for the next six years, graduating to Uru, their MMO adventure game. When Cyan discontinued support for Uru Live, the online section of the game, Berry, like many others, moved on to an alternative. As with everyone entering their Second Life, she was dropped from the sky. Her feet first hit the turf of the new virtual world on February 12th, 2004.
“It’s like every toy you ever had, all rolled into one,” she tells me in awed tones, recalling the power of the game to keep her playing nearly a decade on. It’s also liberating, she explains, allowing her to forget about the kids, the responsibilities, and the extra few inches she’d rather not have. It lets her cut free.
The concept of an avatar in the sense we know today first emerged in the 1980s from the LucasArts game Habitat and the cyberpunk novels of the time. Philip Rosedale, who created Second Life, describes an avatar as “the representation of your chosen embodied appearance to other people in a virtual world” — one that often blunts the harsh edges and tones fat into muscle.
There are people like Berry who use their second lives as a way to play a different role, a smudged mirror reflection of themselves — and that’s great. But there are those who believe that identity in Second Life is too opaque.
On my first day in-universe I meet Larki Merlin, a 40-something German Second Lifer who likes to punctuate his conversation with written-word emoticons. “I am all time on big smile,” are his first words to me. His next words are to the point: “You a wife or a men?” Merlin’s asking that for a good reason; he stepped away from Second Life two years ago “for a long time — too many crazy people, only sex and lies. 50% of the girls are in rl [real life] boys.”
This might not be far off the truth: Berry tells me that at one point Linden Lab said six of every ten women in Second Life were men behind their avatars. One of the most famous women in Second Life, Jade Lily, is a male member of the US Air Force named Keith Morris. Morris real-life married another Second Lifer, Coreina Grace (real name Meghan Sheehy) in 2009.
Despite this, Merlin’s back, but he admits that there are slim pickings in the universe: he’s met maybe two of a hundred friends in Second Life — and “you waste 200 hours to find them.” He’s back, but barely.
Every story has two sides. I asked Berry about her experience in Second Life: has it made her more comfortable, more confident? Has it changed her first life persona in any way?
Read the full article Second Life’s Strange Second Life at Verge.