My So-Called Life
The press conference starts in 45 seconds, and I am going to be late. Oh, I'm hurrying as fast as I can, jogging down a path lined with picket signs and a couple of motorcycles. I can see the platform up ahead where everyone will be gathering to hear about the International Fund for Animal Welfare's (IFAW) crusade against seal hunting in Canada. Once I'm in range of the platform, I leap into the sky and fly up to an amphitheatre, taking a seat next to a talking penguin.
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.
But I wasn't happy as a foxy-wolfy thing, even if the suit was kind of cool. So I completed my tutorials, adjusted my body image to look roughly like the RL version of me, thighs and all, and brought up the search window. I typed in "fashion." Hundreds of shopping centers popped up in the results, featuring everything from stores dedicated solely to sexy fairy costumes to NFL pro shops to vintage shops. I nearly wet myself right there in my ergonomic office chair. This was way, way better than NorthPark Center, and no parking hassle.
I used my startup 250 Linden dollars to buy a distressed pair of black jeans that look a whole lot like my favorite pair of Express pants in RL and splurged on a wild, hot pink ponytail. Where to now? To try to get laid, of course! After all, this was supposed to be like the real world.
Actually, that hadn't been my first inclination (I kind of wanted a martini), but when I searched for the most popular locations, something called !SEXYLAND FREESEX MONEY NUDE popped up. I'd be doing my readers a disservice if I didn't check that out.
Uncomfortable about explaining to the company IT guy—whom I suspected would be interested in such things—why I was eating up bandwidth wandering around a virtual sex farm, I waited until I got home to check out !SEXYLAND FREESEX. As my RL man of the hour looked on in horror, I played with some free-floating animation balls—pink for girls, blue for boys—that, when touched, caused my avatar to grind and wiggle in a variety of uncouth positions. On the screen next to me, some guy's avatar seemed to be having a pretty good time with an animated log, assuaging whatever fears my RL boy might have had about the likelihood of his girl getting addicted to Second Life lovin'.
Pumped up about saving the seals and suspicious of any animation balls that would cause me to become intimate with nearby flora, I joined a Dallas-Fort Worth networking group and found one of the few virtual versions of North Texas, a sparsely furnished hub created by some technology students at the University of Texas at Dallas, complete with generic, boxy architecture, not unlike RL Richardson itself. Fresh off a RL vacation to the U.K., I decided I'd go to England instead.
In a region called "Li'l Britain," I found a dance club and a handsome bouncer named McCloud who joined me in dropping it like it was hot. We grabbed two animation balls—"drop it male" and "drop it female"—and our avatars were suddenly grinding away. As I rubbed my denim-clad booty against McCloud, he swung his uber-beefed, tanned arms up in the air like he just didn't care. In the meantime, we chatted in a SL instant message in the corner of the screen.
I asked him about his job as a SL bouncer as he gyrated his crotch into my lower back and learned that in his RL, he's a 22-year-old Englishman with a steady girlfriend. The bouncer gig is just for a few extra Linden dollars a week. He had to interview with Li'l Britain's owner, and now he's in charge of making sure nothing gets out of hand in the area. Which it periodically does—something I learned from a go-go dancer who called herself Ikey.
"We get a lot of racism comments," she said, gliding across the floor in a pair of furry high-heeled boots while McCloud continued to feel on my upper thighs with his virtual man-paws. Apparently I'd just missed a round of screaming, hollering racist viciousness, something that seemed incredibly silly considering there are as many races in Second Life as there are colors that can be displayed on a computer screen. Since there's no requirement that anyone look like themselves in RL, I couldn't imagine insulting anyone else too effectively. But I guess a blanket shout-out of racial slurs is bound to get somebody riled up. People are, it seems, just as capable of being idiots in SL as they are in RL. I should have known better than to be surprised. So I just kept dropping it like it was hot, all the way to a strip club called Fantasy Ranch.
You've probably been there—it's a strip club in Arlington as well as a strip club in Second Life, run by a RL exotic dancer who goes by "Stash" in-world. I met Stash, who lives in Irving, in the DFW group. She makes about 40,000 Linden dollars a week as a dancer and escort. Sexually oriented businesses are one of the biggest money-makers in Second Life. Buxom and blond, Stash IM'd me, "In RL and SL, men will be men."
I soon learned the DFW group was experiencing a minor crisis. The group's founder, a guy named Silicon, hadn't logged into SL in more than a month. Earlier they'd had plans for building a virtual West End, maybe a Deep Ellum. But without their fearless leader, everyone felt a bit lost. The last anyone heard, one of Silicon's relatives had taken ill, and that was it for the group's founder. So if you're out there, Silicon, come back. SL Dallas needs you. We gotta get on that virtual Deep Ellum—if you haven't heard, the real thing isn't rocking so hard these days, and I'd rather have a virtual Shiner in a virtual Gypsy Tea Room than nothing at all.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.