A New, In-Depth Article About Second Life Appears in EGM

Mark Hill has written an article about Second Life for Electronic Gaming Monthly (EGM) magazine which is probably the most comprehensive and in-depth look at the virtual world since Leslie Jamison’s lamentably-titled profile in The Atlantic.

The article, titled The Second Life That Wasn’t, takes an interesting approach to its subject: Mark hunted down and spoke with the authors of five guides to Second Life which were published by Wiley between 2006 and 2009, with the official cooperation of Linden Lab:

  • Second Life: The Official Guide (published in 2006);
  • The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Second Life: Making Money in the Metaverse (2007);
  • Creating Your World: The Official Guide to Advanced Content Creation for Second Life (2007);
  • Scripting Your World: The Official Guide to Second Life Scripting (2008); and
  • The Second Life Grid: The Official Guide to Communication, Collaboration, and Community Engagement (2009).

The article covers the corporate boom and subsequent corporate bust of Second Life in some detail. One of the authors of the Wiley series of books, tech journalist Daniel Terdiman, is quoted as saying:

SL was one of the most-exciting topics in technology. Every big name you can think of was opening up in SL, and while there were obviously major problems (usability being the most threatening), it looked like it could grow to be a major platform with millions of users, tons of brands, and a flourishing economy. That notoriety was why I was able to get a book contract very quickly. Of course, with every hype cycle comes a crash, and in SL’s case the crash came so quickly that by the time the book came out we were already well past hype and into the skepticism cycle. Brands were pulling out, and we had trouble selling the book.

Mark writes:

… while it’s easy to flip through these books and conclude that the world has long since moved on, but Second Life didn’t die so much as it quietly powered through the insane expectations that were created for it. In 2019 the Second Life community forums saw a spirited discussion on “Tipping Guidelines for Gentlemen Clubs” (in another throwback, one employee of a Second Life club comments, “Most of the women I work with, myself included are professional phone sex operators”). In the game’s subReddit just shy of 6,000 users share screenshots, discuss their favorite in-world creations, offer shopping deals with slick videos, and troubleshoot technical problems. Complaints that Second Life is dead and requests for tips on getting into SL can be found on the same page.

As of 2017 there were a reported 600,000 active accounts, with contemporary concurrent users hovering around a maximum of 45,000. Even accounting for some bot activity, that’s better than a legacy MMO of comparable age like EverQuest. No SL user will again grace the front page of Business Week because of all the money they’ve been making, but no one is predicting an imminent plug-pulling either.

And (of course!) there’s an interview with Wagner James Au of the long-running SL blog New World Notes, who seems to be the standard go-to person whenever the mainstream news media wants to talk to a so-called “expert” on Second Life:

Just what are Residents still doing? James Au provided some highlights. “The majority treat Second Life like a kind of Sims-type dollhouse for their avatar, tricking it out with the latest user-made fashion/skins/accessories/housewares. Second Life users who create and sell content make as much money from Second Life as [Linden Lab] does. Probably the second biggest niche are roleplay communities, who’ve created roleplay regions inspired by Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Fallout, etc. Then third is likely a sub-niche of extreme adult roleplay, some of which has led to a huge lawsuit. There’s also a small but very active community which reflects Second Life’s glory years, when it was embraced as a platform for creating art and imparting 3D-based education, and for using it as a tool for real life therapy. For instance, there’s a community for using SL to address Parkinson symptoms.”

It’s a good article, and I would encourage you to head over to the EGM website and read it yourself.

One final thought: it is interesting that Second Life continues to be a moderate success despite not having any real-world corporate partnerships (the only recent example I can think of is Sanrio, with their Hello Kitty world). Perhaps there is a lesson here for Linden Lab with their new social VR platform, Sansar, where the company has been trying mightily to woo corporate suitors by (among other things) banning adult content.

A quote from another of the authors Mark Hill interviewed, Kimberly Rufer-Bach, underlines the harsh truth that it was not the corporate presences that upheld SL, but individual Second Life residents who simply desired a world where they could be anybody (or anything) they wanted to be:

When the first real-world organizations came into SL, they were mostly educational institutions quietly doing small research projects. But then came the marketing projects, which generated and lived on hype. It was not realistic to figure a copy of a real-world store was going to make big bucks selling virtual shoes or shirts. There weren’t yet enough avatars in SL to make enough money. Plus, they were competing against established brands in shops run by SL [Residents].

Similarly, I don’t think anyone figured that the SL userbase would visit a company’s virtual shop and then run out to buy real-world items. Leveraging the hype was all about getting press for your organization by being one of the first to enter into this cutting-edge virtual world. For a while it was a sure thing; hire some SL developer to establish your organization’s presence, and you would reap lots of profitable press coverage. Because of this, SL unfortunately experienced a flood of carpetbaggers promising clients unrealistic things that couldn’t really be done with the platform, while underpaying Resident content creators, sometimes disappearing without paying at all.

Linden Lab would be wise to keep Second Life’s past history in mind when making future plans for Sansar. A virtual world full of corporate sponsors shilling products might be the very last thing people want when shopping around for a metaverse. (Facebook Horizon may learn this lesson the hard way, too.)

Thank you for telling me about this article, Neobela!

WIRED Article on Building Virtual Worlds As a New Form of Self-Expression

Example of a game built in Dreams

Clive Thompson is a contributing editor at WIRED magazine and a journalist who writes about technology and science for the New York Times MagazineWIREDSmithsonian, and other publications. He has written an article that appears in the printed September 2019 issue of WIRED, but is also available to read on their website, titled Building Virtual Worlds Is a New Form of Self-Expression.

In it, he reports on a trend: people creating immersive, three-dimensional virtual worlds as a means of self-expression. To me, it’s not really a “trend”, since I have been immersed in virtual worlds since 2007. But he makes the point that virtual world building is starting to appeal to a broader, more mainstream audience:

For years, making immersive digital environments—for games or movies—was the province of pros. The tools were hard to use and expensive. But the story of media in the past 20 years has been one of creation tools becoming cheaper and easier to use, and then eventually going mass-market. Editing photos and video was once hard too, but now we do it as proficiently as we wield paper and pencil. As media scholar Katie Salen notes, “We’re culturally more literate with complex tools.”

With 3D design, too, there’s been a boomlet in software like Tinkercad and Sketchup, which lets hobbyists mess around with architectural and industrial design, and there’s Minecraft, where ordinary people can make and share lush, albeit blocky, environments. In many ways, people have tapped into the enjoyment of “world-building,” says media scholar Mimi Ito.

Example of a virtual world built in Dreams

While he does not talk about virtual worlds such as Second Life and social VR platforms such as Sansar, he does mention Dreams as an example of such a world-building tool. Dreams, by a company called Media Molecule, describes itself as:

Dreams is a space where you go to play and experience the dreams of Media Molecule and our community. It’s also a space in which to create your own dreams, whether they’re games, art, films, music or anything in-between and beyond.

Here’s a short trailer for Dreams, which is already available in Early Access on the PlayStation Store for US$39.99, to give you a sense of what you can do with the product:

Clive concludes his article by observing:

As more people become literate in 3D world-building, what will it mean for society? It’s easy to see this moving mainstream, much as image-meme culture did. What began as a bunch of teenagers using Microsoft Paint to mess around with cat photos in the early aughts had by 2016 become a powerful form of political rhetoric—Bernie Sanders with the Beatles (“DID SOMEONE SAY THEY WANT A REVOLUTION?”), Hillary Clinton as the Joker, Pepe the Frog as a fungible symbol for white supremacists.

Right now, world-building is limited by its walled-garden nature; you can only interact with someone’s creation inside the games themselves. But I could imagine these new forms becoming more easily shared outside those confines, at which point they’d metamorphose into a true public discourse—making virtual worlds a way to impact the real one.

And, as I say, a rising tide lifts all boats. Who’s to say that someone who starts off in Minecraft or Dreams, doesn’t decide to carry their newfound talents over to other virtual world and social VR platforms?

Thank you to Selby Evans for the heads up!