He wears Armani suits and linen shirts in one life; leather pants and biker jackets in the other. He has a sensible hair cut and stern glasses in one life; a shaved head and rude tattoos in the other. He’s a powerful vice-president of a respect ed company in one life; and a stylist for poodles in the other.
And there are more than 7,000,000 people like him in the world. Each living a regular everyday life, and then going online to live a Second Life. Operated by Linden Lab, based in San Francisco, Second Life — introduced to the public in 2003 — is a virtual 3D world offering a parallel existence.
However, unlike in the real world, in Second Life you can be whoever you want, and do whatever you dream up.
“It’s not a game. It’s a platform. A place where real people come and lead virtual lives,” says Sebastian D. Marcu, a young German who works with Worlds Unlimited, a Second Life development company based in Cologne. “I work on strategies and concepts for companies, showing them how to use virtual worlds, Web 2.0 and communities as a tool to improve their business,” he says. Online, he works and socialises as a virtual character, called an “avatar”, called Enrico Visconti, an Italian.
“It’s an immersive world,” says Sebastian, adding that it appeals to people because it’s “not information driven, but heart driven. It’s not about being informed, it’s about participating.” Ironically, Second Life might be the refuge of breakaways and secret rebels, but it still follows basic societal norms. To really enjoy it, you need to build relationships. And eventually, you need to make, and spend money.
On the bright side, you can accomplish both in ways you might never have dared to in the real world. Introverted Chinese teacher Ailin Graef, Second Life’s first millionaire, for instance, started out as Anshe Chung, a virtual stripper. She used the money she made to buy land online and develop cutting edge boutiques, which she rents out, and locations like a fantastical floating city she built above a desert.
In three years she became a virtual property baron and real life millionaire.
Although Linden Lab sets up computer servers and creates the land, it is then auctioned off to people like Anshe. Essentially everything inside the software, from the malls to the mountains — has been created by users, who can then make money from these creations.
Although entering Second Life is free (you’re issued a standard avatar body), you need to pay for the frills — whether they’re new shoes or sky diving classes — using Linden dollars. (About 270 Linden Dollars make a US Dollar, and they can be converted at one of the many thriving Linden Dollar exchanges online. Second Life currently supports millions of US dollars in monthly transactions.)
Just like in the real world, spending money becomes addictive, especially considering the products on offer: routine silks, scarves and gowns, as well as an “Orb of power to warp the fabric of space and cloak you in invisibility”, “The Petrify spell to turn people into stone statues” and a strap on “pregnancy tummy” for avatars who want to have virtual babies. (“With a timer that ticks along as your pregnancy progresses, each tummy is good for one baby and is not reusable.”)
“You end up spending 20 to 100 US dollars a month, depending on what your interests are,” grins Sebastian. “My friend spent US$150 and then thought, ‘Oh my god that’s real money!’ So he became a Second Life shoe designer and now makes US$50 a month.”
With all this healthy commerce, Sebastian says Linden Labs makes about one million US dollars every 24 hours. Its explosive growth, boundless scope for creativity and large numbers of active residents are what make Second Life so alluring.
There’s tremendous variety as residents come from over 100 countries. About 60 per cent of the avatars are male, and the people logging in are aged between 18 and 85. Of course, since the most attractive feature of Second Life is the fact that people can be whoever they want, all this information is only approximate. A Punjabi can be Parisian online. And an 85-year-old man in a nursing home can be a peroxide blonde at a rave party. (A number of men, in fact, have female avatars.)
As in real life, people tend to form relationships. “There are people with real life partners and also virtual partners,” says Sebastian. “What is a pixel lover? I don’t know. But there are weddings in Second Life. It’s a huge business. People will book a whole virtual island. Islands with special experiences… a castle flying in the sky for instance.” Is it infidelity? That’s a grey area, since a pixel wife isn’t likely to call home.