By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
No, this isn't real life. It's Second Life, an online 3-D world built and populated by the nearly 5 million virtual "residents" who live there. After downloading a special browser from secondlife.com, users are represented "in-world" by infinitely customizable avatars that look like exotic dancers, leprechauns and adorable, doe-eyed children, among about a bazillion other things. The space itself is as big as myriad servers owned by founding company Linden Lab can support, which is to say really damned big. Millions of acres of land are spread over a couple hundred virtual islands in addition to more than a hundred square kilometers of space on the mainland. It's all available to rent or buy, depending on what you'd like to do—build a house, a casino, a strip club, a dishwasher or just a nice closet in which to store 300 pairs of those pink leather fairy wings you created last weekend before the Law and Order marathon.
San Francisco-based Linden Lab was founded by a software programmer named Philip Rosedale, the guy who brought us one of the first online video players, Real Video, back in the mid '90s. In 1999, Rosedale started Linden Lab and began working on the technology behind Second Life, the "massive multiplayer online role-playing game" he launched to the public in 2003. Though there are nearly 5 million registered users, many residents have multiple avatars and even more log in just once, never to return. Recent estimates put actual active-user numbers at around 230,000.
Here in Second Life, where I've parked my pink-haired avatar in a place called Progressive Island to watch thoroughly disturbing video of parka-clad men shooting little white, furry seals frolicking in the snow, the possibilities are endless. Whether it's how you want to look, where you want to live or what you want to own, the only limits are your imagination and your willingness to learn basic programming techniques and scripting. Too cool to code? Pay the nerds with the currency of the realm, Linden dollars, to make cool stuff for you. Just like in the real world, you look great, and they get rich. Well, actually, they look great too because they're wearing their own stuff. Just so you're clear on who gets the last laugh.
Once you're in, you direct your customized avatar around a landscape that looks like most computer games, though infinitely more varied as far as content goes. Real-life (or "RL") groups such as the IFAW can build bases from which to tout their environmental causes, programming a slippery ice floor featuring a couple of lazy white seals. And there are hundreds of Second Life (or "SL") malls with stores and stalls selling clothes, hairstyles and body modifications, if you'd like to spend your Linden dollars on a Pam Anderson frame or a set of cat ears. Some real-life companies, such as Reuters and Calvin Klein, have in-world outposts where they "print" news and sell virtual cologne.
Avatars relax on beaches, in the mountains and in meadows. You can chat with other users via an in-world IM system and join groups of folks with similar interests. Through Skype, a net-based phone system and a free resident-created modification called Second Talk, residents can talk to other characters if they've got a headset and the inclination. In late February, Linden Lab announced plans for an official voice chat program.
There are role-playing games within Second Life itself, where you can don Renaissance costumes or space suits, depending on the theme, and injure other users with a variety of exciting weapons. All without leaving the comfort of Mom's basement. Or your office or your trendy New York City apartment. As Rosedale told online tech news site CNET late last year, "It is as hard to describe the 'typical' Second Lifer as to describe the 'typical' New Yorker or San Franciscan."
Just look out your window; everything that's out there is probably in Second Life, along with a whole lot of things you're unlikely to find on planet Earth, such as talking penguins and, sadly enough, women walking upright with 34EEE breasts.
The seal-hunting press conference was one of the first useful things I'd done in Second Life after spending several of my first online days trying to figure out how to get cool hair and a nice pair of jeans—pretty much the same thing as my daily mission in RL.
For my first avatar look, I'd chosen a pre-fab foxy-wolfy-looking character with big white ears and a sexy dress. I was dumped onto Orientation Island with a bunch of other newbies, some wandering around in the nude while they tried to figure out how to put clothes on their bodies. One of the first gestures I learned was an appreciative whistle, especially useful when you're wandering around the Communication Island learning volcano (yes, a learning volcano) and you happen onto a rickety wooden bridge to find someone standing there with no pants on.