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.
Packing tape and pyrotechnics
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 Life avatar, 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.
"I can shrug off my role as a mother."
“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.
In Second Life she doesn’t have to be a graying 55-year-old mom; she can keep the bright eyes and warm smile, but can pinch, tuck, and pluck the other bits so that she becomes 25-year-old Pendragon, a vampish babe with full lips, long jet black hair, and heavy eyeliner.
"It's like every toy you ever had, all rolled into one."
“I can shrug off my role as a mother,” she explains. “I can swear or misbehave in Second Life in a way I couldn’t in real life.”
The second-ever person I meet in Second Life, in a drop-off zone, proves that point. HOUSE Chemistry’s been in Second Life for nearly six years. The 28-year-old lives in New Orleans, and may or may not look like his in-universe avatar: a 6-foot-7-inch-tall man wearing all black, with thick brown dreadlocks down to his waist — he won’t say. Regardless, HOUSE Chemistry’s warm and welcoming, and seems to enjoy taking me under his wing, explaining the universe to me.
When I ask him what he does in Second Life, I’m expecting him to advise me to talk to people, make friends, and take some classes. He replies a little differently: “Anything I want. Walk near me. I’ll set this place on fire, watch.”
And so he does, under a clock showing 11:26, on one of Second Life’s introductory islands. Truthfully, I’m not impressed: it’s a pretty poor-quality animation with blocky gray smoke and weirdly flesh-colored balls I presume are meant to represent the actual flames. Still, I politely show my admiration and ask him whether he’d want to set stuff on fire in real life.
“No,” he says. There’s a brief pause. “Take your time. You’ll learn how to do all kinds of cool shit.”
I try and move the conversation on, asking HOUSE Chemistry what he does in real life. “I build things,” he replies. I’m intrigued by this person who builds things in real life, then sets polygonal representations of them on fire in Second Life, and say so out loud. He ignores it, moves on, shuts down the conversation.
“You got it now,” he says. “Enjoy.”
“You a wife or a men?”
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.
"There’s huge areas of Second Life that just look like suburbia and people will build a house and put a TV in it."
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?
There’s a long pause. “Err… It’s made me realize other people are not as scary as they appear to be.” The first person Berry ever encountered in a virtual world was in Uru. “And I ran away,” she admits softly.
“I don’t know what I was afraid of, really. But they spoke to me and I ran away, because it was a stranger.” As a woman, Berry says, the interaction was completely the opposite of what she’d been taught: “You wouldn’t strike up a conversation with an unknown male because there are dangers associated with that.” But when she plucked up the courage to stay and chat, “it made me realize I’d been frightened of that 5 percent instead of realizing 95 percent are decent.”
When mainstream media outlets touched down in Second Life seven years ago they tended to focus on the strangeness of it all. People were having sex through a game and dressing up as foxes and kittens. The reality, says Tom Boellstorff, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, is more prosaic: “Humans already live many different kinds of life: online is just one more of those kinds of lives.”
“You can do anything in Second Life,” Boellstorff continues, his voice rising in a lilt. “You can do crazy stuff. You can be a ball of light or you can be 500 feet tall, or you can be a child, or a dog, or whatever.”
You can do all that. But most people?
“There’s huge areas of Second Life that just look like suburbia and people will build a house and put a TV in it,” he says. “They’ll watch TV with their friends online.” An entire world of opportunities out there and people choose to be couch potatoes. It is, eerily, just like real life.
Ghost towns and boom towns
“We thought of Second Life as complementing your first life,” Hunter Walk, one of the original Linden Lab team members working on the universe from its launch, tells me. It was conceived as a space that gave you a set of choices that were missing from reality. “In your first life you don’t necessarily get to fly. Here you can fly. In your first life you can’t choose what you look like. Here you can choose what you look like — and it’s malleable.”
That changeability extended right back to the developers. “The story of the internet in general is one of unintended consequences,” begins Boellstorff. “It’s about repurposing and doing things the original designers did not design for.” As the custodians of an internet-based community, Second Life’s developers were little different. When they began sketching out the universe early in development, Linden Lab deliberately left things open-ended. “The early users showed us the way to where the community was,” explains Walk.
That community is now being overlooked, believes Berry, who began working for Linden Lab making textures and music in June 2008, and was fired in June 2013 after a dispute over money. “After five years working quite closely with them, I still don’t feel I really know what the culture is,” she says. “They simply never seem to understand their own product. It’s ludicrous that they don’t understand how people use Second Life, what they like it for, what they want it for.”
There’s no such thing as an average Second Lifer, but some people just don’t get it, no matter how long they spend in-world. Berry tried, years back, to convince her mother and siblings to join the world. “I’ve had very little luck. If I can’t get them to try it they’re obviously not going to understand it. And it’s really hard to explain it to anybody else.”
A giant bubble floated down from on high. “Step in,” she said
For the longest time I didn’t get it. I’d spent several weeks pottering about, teleporting from one place to another. I stood on a dock of a bay, overlooking an azure sea and hearing the whistle of the wind. I walked through a cold, gun-metal gray futuristic world full of walkways that reminded me of any number of first-person shooters. I’d chased a woman, inexplicably sprinting, arms flailing, through the palazzos of Milan, looking at the fashion boutiques. I’d visited London — in reality a tired collection of worn cliches, a cardboard cut-out of the Beatles crossing the street down from a roundabout with a red telephone box on one corner. It was kind of cool, but it was also corny.
Then Berry invited me to Nemesis. It’s where she lives in-universe, all rolling green hills and gated houses. Berry — or Pendragon, as she was in this world — wanted to show me just how magical Second Life could get.
She had in her possession Starax’s Wand. Created by a user, it was at the time the most expensive item a user could buy in Second Life. Clever coding meant that if its possessor mentioned certain words in-game — “money,” for example — the universe would change around it (a briefcase full of cash would descend from the heavens and spit out greenbacks, for example).
The wand has been largely outmoded by updates, but some commands still work. We were standing outside the perimeter wall of Berry’s house, green grass beneath our feet. Her avatar hunched over and moved her hands on an invisible keyboard: the animation shows when the real person is typing. In the chat box appeared a word.
A giant bubble floated down from on high. “Step in,” she said. I did. And the bubble rose, and I saw a bird’s eye view of Nemesis. I was suspended in mid-air in a giant bubble, and could roll over the shoreline high above the sea. I couldn’t help but smile; finally, I’d found my niche.
People come to the Second Life universe for different reasons: some go there to escape their reality and to stretch the boundaries of their lives in ways forbidden by the constraints of their bodies or the norms of society. Some go to meet friends and family; there are some who want to create buildings, paintings, and whole new worlds. And some — big companies and small entrepreneurs — hope to make a living.
There’s no such thing as an average Second Lifer, but some people just don’t get it
Even after the deluge dried up there’s a booming economy in Second Life: Berry began taking meetings in 2006 with companies looking to extend their reach into the universe. Her knowledge of the world was her selling point, helping companies avoid missteps in this strange, new place. “Reportedly Adidas spent a million dollars on their sim in Second Life,” Berry says with a laugh. What it got them was a single store selling sneakers. Problem was, the sneakers slowed down the universe: “Anybody running an event would say if you’ve got Adidas trainers on, take them off because they were lagging the sim so bad!” Ironically, Berry says, it was when the big companies descended on Second Life that the place felt most like a ghost town, and not a boom town: they didn’t get the ethos, didn’t engage, and left empty offices and buildings.
Berry’s earnings from Second Life have varied enormously: a poor year can see her earn £5,000 ($7,600) for her consultancy work, as well as creating music and textures for avatars and locations in-world (a few years ago she specialized in providing Christmas trees to those looking to get into the festive spirit). “It’s not a fortune,” she explains. “I haven’t earned a lot of money from it.” But it pays the bills.
Second Life isn’t a whole new world — that’s something everyone, from Berry, to Walk, to Boellstorff, has been keen to stress. For those truly committed, who have property, and cash, and a business, and money invested in the universe, it’s simply an ongoing extension of their lives: “That’s why we chose the name,” Walk says.
Settling a civilization
Second Life has survived its first 10 years, but every society rises and — inevitably — falls. So what of Linden Lab’s creation? Will people still be living Second Lives in 2023?
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see Second Life around for quite a while,” says Hunter Walk. It’s been seven years since he left the prosaically crazy universe, but he still remains on its periphery. For a couple of years after leaving Linden Lab he occasionally dropped back in on the world, teleporting from place to place and checking out the sights. “It never quite got to the point where it was something I’d be able to integrate into my life,” he says regretfully. Instead, he now reads about it, takes pictures, and watches videos.
Tom Boellstorff looks to history for precedent. LambdaMOO was the original MOO (object-oriented MUD, a multi-user dungeon game). Set up so long ago that its creator, Pavel Curtis, can’t remember whether it went online in 1990 or 1991, it lives on today through the benevolence and hard work of a core group of volunteers that refuses to let the world die.
Fee Berry’s less sure. Resident for nearly a decade, she’s seen a lot of areas of Second Life fall victim to the decay that’s part of a relentlessly forward-looking world: “They haven’t really preserved the history of Second Life, as far as I can see, and don’t really rate it as anything worth saving. I think that’s a shame.”
Her 'Second Life' relationship became a real-life romance
Fired by Linden Lab and exasperated at the direction the universe is taking, she’s spending more time in OpenSim, a financially free and less constrained version of the Second Life architecture, working on paid projects. There’s one drawback: it doesn’t have a strong enough community or economy — yet. If it gets those, it wins hands down, she says.
But that doesn’t mean she’s quite done with Linden Lab. She starts extolling the virtues of OpenSim, but brings it back to Second Life.
“I hope to get a better work–life balance, and to be able to spend entertainment — leisure time — in Second Life,” she says. I get the sense that deep down, she’s made such a strong connection that she’s permanently a resident there. After all, her Second Life relationship with partner Oclee Hornet became a real-life romance. “He had a bald avatar, which is quite unusual in any world,” she says. “I was interested to know why.” Berry spent most of May in Rotterdam, where Hornet — real name Eelco Osseweijer — lives. The two own a two-story red brick home together in Second Life, on which they spend $295 a month for the freehold to the land. “There’s a possibility we will live together [in real life] at some stage in the future,” Berry explains.
Despite it all, I ask her, despite the changes, and the intractability, despite the disputes and the stagnancy, you’re still a Second Life fan?
“Oh yeah,” she says. There’s a pause and her voice grows richer, the kind of alteration in voice that only comes when speaking through a genuine, heartfelt, and involuntary smile.
“Oh yes. Yes.”