through the gray wall of a partially rendered mansion and
sashays toward me. Our bodies are gray geometrics, oddly naked
forms over which textures and colors begin to appear. First,
our skins—mine sallow, hers a dark chestnut. Our clothes next,
appearing piecemeal, then quickly: her skirt and fishnets,
my sunglasses, her blouse. She stops walking and watches as
I slowly render into existence in front of her.
fine,” she says, flirting.
I say as my hair, the last of my physical appointments, settles
a small, vacuous-looking girl dressed in tight clothes that
cling to her large chest and violin-shaped hips. Her shock
of hair remains stubbornly unrendered and moves within a harsh,
angular outline. I involuntarily shift my stance wide and
place my hands on my hips.
language?” she asks. I tell her that I speak English. She
seems disappointed, somehow, although nothing about her appearance
has changed. Her face is still frozen in that thoughtless
expression of blissful confidence.
English,” I add, apologetically.
worry, she says, she is French, but can speak English, too.
There is an awkward pause as I scan the façade of the virtual
brothel that has now snapped into appearance. I can hear the
virtual ocean behind us lapping against the virtual beach.
Her hair finally realizes itself in a thick black mop that
hangs as though underwater, coded into the digital breeze.
Redgrave, a taller, slim girl in a naughty schoolgirl mini,
joins us. She is co-owner of the Lone Wolves bordello and
cyber-madam to 10 girls.
Redgrave says. In Second Life, the virtual world owned and
operated by Linden Lab, my name is Simon Ochs. Or, more specifically,
Simon Ochs is the name I have given my avatar, the little
cartoon-like representation of my inworld presence.
we help you with something?” Redgrave asks, licking a large,
pink lollipop. My avatar pantomimes typing on a keyboard—the
indication of speaking in Second Life—as I tell her that I
am a reporter curious about the virtual world’s culture of
cool!” she says, adding that she would be happy for a bit
of the attention the press has lavished on Second Life over
the past few months. “We need the publicitie!”
difficult to understand Second Life, the virtual world built
on a grid of digital “land” eight times the size of Manhattan,
if you think of it as a game. It is not a game: There is no
goal to Second Life, no winning or losing, no teams, no levels,
none of the trappings that one would readily associate with
game play. Instead, think of Second Life as an environment.
It is another world, with rolling hills, oceans, islands,
clouds, the sun and stars. It is a world with its own thriving
economy, private-property rights, and millions of residents.
creator, Linden Lab, designed the free client software that
users need to download in order to interact, and stores the
binary atoms of Second Life on its thousands of servers. Practically
everything else inworld—the games, the goals, the buildings,
the interactions, the clothes—is defined, designed, constructed
and owned by the residents. Linden Lab provides the natural
elements, and the people provide the rest.
is a newbie to Second Life. She tells me through an instant
message, the main form of communication in Second Life, that
she is an economics student in the Netherlands. She joined
at the beginning of this year, drawn by stories of the virtual
world’s booming economy and tales of easy fortunes made that
dominate the media’s coverage of Second Life. “I started when
i sow someone becoming a miljonair on tv :),” Redgrave says.
“Even mine teachers sow it at school.”
Redgrave is referring to is Ailin Graef. Known inworld as
Anshe Chung, Graef is the most lauded of all the success stories
of Second Life. Last year, the Chinese teacher-housewife,
who lives in Germany, made history when she announced that
through her virtual-land empire she had accrued a real-world
wealth of more than $1 million. She built her empire by buying
land from Linden Lab (current rates run $1,675 for a 16-acre
“region”) and then turning around and reselling or renting
the space. She is the most successful land baron in a field
of hundreds of competitors.
stable economy of Second Life is based on the Linden, the
inworld currency. A user can buy Lindens from LindeX, the
official currency exchange, or from about a half dozen other
exchange companies, at the rate of roughly $4 to 1,000 Lindens.
Last year, Second Life’s Gross Domestic Product topped $150
million. That’s larger than that of a dozen of the real world’s
real-world money flying around has, of course, attracted the
attention of corporate America. Pontiac has bought land, and
so has Microsoft. Circuit City and Sears have both opened
showcase stores. Universal Pictures, in part of its ad campaign
for the new film Smokin’ Aces, set up an inworld game
in which users run around and pretend to be assassins. Reuters
opened a bureau inside Second Life, with a full-time reporter
covering the beat of the virtual realm. American Apparel,
W Hotels, Toyota, Adidas, Sun Micro Systems, CBS, NBC (and
the list goes on and on) have all bought in to some degree
and invested time and money in Second Life.
executive of IBM, Sam Palmisano, announced last November that
his company is set to launch a $10 million incubator in Second
Life for new businesses. In an article in Fortune magazine,
he echoed many in the established business world by prophesying
that Second Life will become the “next phase of the Internet’s
Wallace watches all of this interest with guarded optimism.
He has been following the inworld activity of Second Life,
and the business world’s response, over the past couple years
as Walker Spaight, the managing editor of muckraking inworld
publication Second Life Herald. The Herald,
Wallace boasts, is the most colorful of all the inworld publications
(and yes, there are a few), with a large staff of paid freelance
writers who cover all angles of the Second Life experience.
done a lot of interviews with griefers [people who get a kick
out of creating inworld havoc],” Wallace says. “We have done
a lot of Mafia stories in the past. We do a lot of sports
stories. Lately, we have done a lot of stories about real-world
corporations coming into Second Life, and how residents haven’t
always reacted too favorably to that.”
corporate America’s interest in the virtual realm as a promising
development. MTV’s new virtual attraction, Virtual Laguna
Beach, Wallace says, “is an incredibly important development.
MTV is reaching people just when they are developing their
ideas about what is the right way to communicate with the
rest of the world, what is the right way to interact with
their peers. It is an incredibly influential brand. And to
have Virtual Laguna Beach out there, on television [in promos],
is pretty amazing.”
of Second Life, Wallace believes, is the ability it affords
its users to express themselves.
power of expression is exponentially greater than what you
can achieve with a flat Web page,” he says. “You take a 3D
form that is whatever you like, whether it is humanoid, or
a furry, or a robot, or a what-have-you, and you have a greater
range of expression. The fact that this place enables such
a range of self- expression is exciting to a bunch of people.”
just an extension of what we already do online,” Wallace adds.
“It just pushes it out to another dimension.”
to a landing on a platform hovering 150 meters above the land
of Montmarte, the home of the Snail Races. The owner and creator
of the races, RacerX Gullwing, a large rabbit distinguished
by his top hat and suit coat, is busy preparing the racetrack.
He waves a cane at a snowman, and seemingly from every direction,
large, flat prims (building blocks in Second Life), still
gray, still rendering texture and color, hurl past me and
drop from above, extending the platform further out into the
open air. The size has now easily quadrupled. A few people
wander around and chitchat as Gullwing attends to his work.
In a half-hour, the race will be on.
I am early, and I have time to kill, I try on my new leather
jacket. Not bad—it’s a biker jacket, nothing I would wear
in RL (real life), but it was free. I switch the tint of my
sunglasses from violet to black, and, for full effect, I switch
the color of my eyes from realistic fawn to a glowing red.
goes dark, and the stars come out. A deep fog rolls over the
platform. The racers have climbed into their giant snail vehicles
and are lined up at the starting gate. I join a few other
spectators on the bleachers and watch as streams of bubbles
float from the mouths of these massive racing snails.
is a confusing contortion of the lumbering snail bodies. They
run, leap and maneuver tight turns on a track that must have
logic to it, but at the moment, is lost on me. I try to take
a virtual picture, and my computer freezes. I am kicked out.
The race is still going on, but I am missing it. I load Second
Life back up as quickly as I can, but it takes so long.
screen tells me that 22,000 other people are inworld right
now—which is about average.
minutes pass, and I watch as my avatar reappears and makes
his way back to the racetrack just in time to see the winning
snail skid across the finish line. The sky fills up with purple,
green, red and yellow fireworks exploding in celebration.
(a 46-year-old computer programmer living in California) says
that he started the races back in 2004. At the time, he says,
he was living in his brother’s house, not doing much, and
got involved in Second Life at his brother’s suggestion. His
brother figured that maybe if he learned to script (build)
in Second Life, it might lead to real work. There were stories
circulating at the time of people making their livings in
the virtual realms. So Gullwing gave it a shot.
creation was a giant snail. That led to more giant snails,
which eventually led to racing them. The first races were
land races; later came the floating racetrack. The races became
more popular, and now he holds them every Saturday.
says he makes very little money off the snails. But what it
has done for him is draw the attention of those corporations
moving inworld to his scripting abilities.
for one of those big corporations,” Gullwing says in an instant
message. “I write them scripts and help build demos for there
clients . . . this place is getting a lot of big name companys
and they really don’t have a clue how it’s done in here. Well
maybe a clue, but they don’t want to learn to script really.
Simpler to pay some one thats been here a while.”
he says, he charges $20 an hour. To build in Second Life.
And he is as busy as he wants to be.
surrounding Second Life during the last half of 2006 was pretty
hysterical. The augurs of cyberdom claimed to foresee the
inevitable transition to the 3D Web, and with it the coming
of a bold, virtual world first described in vivid detail by
Neil Stephenson in his already-classic 1992 novel Snow
Crash. In it, Stephenson painted a not-too-distant future
in which a virtual world, known as the metaverse, exists that
is as populated and as complex as the world around us. And
Second Life was the harbinger of this coming metaverse. The
proof? Second Life’s burgeoning population.
Lab boasts that during 2006, Second Life’s population more
than tripled, from less than 1 million residents to more than
3 million. And that amazing growth quickly became a popular
theme in the business media. Every week, articles about Second
Life trumpeted every little venture: the new corporate presence,
the first inworld film, the first politician’s speech, the
first musical performance by a celebrity.
2006, at the fever pitch of the hype, Clay Shirky, a professor
in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York
University, partially as a reaction to the media-driven hysteria,
published an article at Valleywag.com titled “A Story Too
Good to Check,” in which he argued, basically, that everyone
talking about Second Life needed to take a deep breath.
was that Second Life, though interesting, was nothing revolutionary,
and that it certainly wasn’t as popular as everyone was saying
it was. He argued that the number of residents claimed by
Linden Lab was specious. And his reasoning was simple: Linden
Lab counts anyone who starts an account in Second Life and
logs in, even once, as a resident.
who tries a social service once and bails isn’t really a user
any more than someone who gets a sample spoon of ice cream
and walks out is a customer,” Shirky wrote. “So here’s my
question—how many return users are there?” The answer was
simple to discover: Linden Lab makes that information readily
accounts started, after 60 days, Linden Lab retains only a
who logs in once in 60 days a resident? Shirky asked. How
about someone who logs in every 30 days: Are they a resident?
That would make the population 670,303. How about the number
who logged at least once a week? That number is 296,907—one
tenth of the total number Linden claims as residents.
went on to speculate that Second Life is simply a “ ‘Try Me’
virus, where reports of a strange and wonderful new thing
draw the masses to log in and try it, but whose ability to
retain anything but a fraction of those users is limited.
The pattern of a Try Me virus is a rapid spread of first time
users,” he wrote, “most of whom drop out quickly, with most
of the dropouts becoming immune to later use.”
Linden Lab’s numbers are a little misleading, Shirky lays
the blame for this hype at the feet of the business press
who took a statistic that he refers to as “evocative but meaningless”
and ran with it.
guesses that in six to nine months, there will be some interesting
roundups, when the businesses who jumped into Second Life
during the gold-rush months of 2006 look at their investments,
their gains and losses, and the real promise of the virtual
is the story that will be told later,” Shirky says. “But it
is clear that at least some businesses are going in partially
based on wrong population figures.”
numbers aren’t the only issue Shirky has with Second Life.
There is a steep learning curve, and a practical level of
wealth by the users is necessitated. A high-speed Internet
connection is absolutely necessary. A computer with a good
graphics card and a fast processor doesn’t hurt. Once inworld,
it takes a little practice to learn how to control your avatar.
Newbies are easily spotted by their inability to walk in a
straight line. The software itself is glitchy and clunky.
When large groups of avatars gather in one area, the world
can slow down to a frustrating stutter. The chances of the
software freezing are pretty good.
without considering the technical aspects (and say you have
mastered the art of walking all over again), what’s the point?
Second Life isn’t a game, insomuch as there is no engineered
purpose, no goals, no scoring, no real rules (other than some
base physical laws and behavioral expectations). For the casual
user, Second Life can seem like just too much, too confusing
and too pointless to attempt to master.
leads Shirky to question the value of a virtual environment
just a question of execution, or is there a philosophical
problem with virtual worlds?” he asks. “Or to put it another
way: Is 3D another video phone?”
been promised each and every year since 1964 that this will
be the breakout year for video phones,” Shirky says. “And,
in fact, they turn out to be not a terribly good idea. Not
in their execution, but in their basic conception. And that
is my position, not a very fashionable position, but what
is wrong with virtual worlds is closer to what is wrong with
video phones. . . . They are not a general-purpose tool.”
we are witnessing with Second Life, Shirky says, is the birth
of a collection of niche applications, nothing more.
can actually help cure people of agoraphobia by exposing them
to virtual heights,” Shirky says. Burn victims, during the
incredibly painful process of acid bathing, can be shown virtual
images of ice worlds, which has been proven to have a self-anesthetizing
are looking at the same shared artifacts; architects use virtual
fly-throughs to check the traffic flow of buildings. One user,
Luciftias Neurocam, a neurosciences professor from Pennsylvania,
has created his own ecosytem, with the hopes of publishing
his data in a paper on dynamic systems.
is a cool, cool list of these niches’ uses,” Shirky says.
“Sex and games is one of the niches that often works in one
of these environments. But I think that the claims of generality
are basically push-driven. And what I am actually afraid of
is that the cool stuff is being lost in the assumption that
this is all on the way to some general-purpose metaverse.”
in Second Life seem endless—games, casinos, role-playing,
online courses, nonprofit organizing, scientific research,
and on and on—to make an exhaustive list of them would be
impossible. But, of course, Redgrave’s niche appears to be
one of the largest (surprise, surprise).
me through the rooms where she and her girls ply their trade,
beds and sex toys scattered about. She takes me up into the
mansion’s skybox, a room of windows that hovers 600 meters
above the “Earth.” The room, she says, is completely private.
No one can see it and no one can overhear your conversations.
It is where she will bring her high-end clients, once she
me that she charges the going rate for sex in Second Life:
L$800 for 30 minutes, L$1,500 for an hour. She says that she
had made about L$4,000 ($16) in the past three weeks, spending
a couple hours a day inworld.
Second Life essentially boils down to two people (or three,
or four, etc.) watching and manipulating cartoon porn and
commenting on the way it makes them feel. Horny, usually.
and quality of inworld sex, Redgrave says, really depends
on the escort’s imagination. “You need to keep the costumer
interester so do roleplay. You need to show him you like what
you 2 are doing. And ofcors the people that come to you also
like to watch the naked avatars :).”
her what she thinks it is about Second Life that is so attractive.
easy :),” Redgrave says. “Its an escape that you have from
your real life. Like alot of people that i meet are like 40
lonely in real. They wanna have fun be popular for once and
they come here.”
a strange world this second life,” she adds, “still need to
get used to alot of things. Ooh yes i meet new people see
new places every day. Some expiriances are good some bad.
But altogetter its a great world.”
am flying away from the mansion, as an afterthought, I instant
message Redgrave to ask her how old she is. It is an odd question
in Second Life. Everyone looks so fake, so idealized that
age isn’t really ever considered. Most avatars look nothing
like the people controlling them, and that is the point.
ask, you Brethren,” I type, “how old are you?”
to say i am 18,” Redgrave writes back. “In sl i’m not alouwt
to say mine real age. or i might get bannd :)”
Banned?” I ask.
cos you have to be 18 or older to play the game :),” she says.
“so i’l be abol to tel you the truf at 4 july.”