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  My Second Life, Part 1  
Posted 2004-04-14 by Tony Walsh
Until yesterday, I'd pretty much sidestepped the entire gamut of Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs). The two main reasons for this avoidance have been the potentially addictive factor of games such as Evercrack, and the subscription fees involved. I've followed MMOGs--I've even proposed civil disobedience in The Sims Online--but from the sidelines it's just not as fun.
Second Life always interested me to a degree. It's a 3D environment where the order of the day is mainly social interaction. Each user takes the form of one or more "shapes" (avatars) which are completely customizable and generally humanoid. Shapes can be switched at will. Second Life is not exactly a game, although users have created some games within the environment. Last fall, the developers of Second Life revised their Terms of Service and allowed those who contribute content to the game to retain intellectual property rights. Second Life "Linden Dollars" are transferable to real-life cash via certain `net-based exchange services, so suddenly you have a situation where, by creating items of virtual worth (such as clothing textures or other artwork) there is a possibility of real-life kickback. Then I heard about Second Life's free 7-day trial and figured it was about time I got my feet wet MMOG-style.

The first step was to download the installation software and create a new account, normally a totally boring process, but I was forced to choose a name for my Second Life avatar. As many gamers and other assorted nerds well know, picking a name is not an idle decision, particularly when (as far as I could tell) once it's set, it's stuck. While the first name of your avatar is totally open, the last name had to be selected from a pull-down menu of pre-generated names, most of which were "traditional" family names. I'm pretty sure the reason for this inflexibility is twofold: to curtail abuse by restricting the potential for offensive language, and to lighten the load on the Second Life system (a last-name lookup is easier with a set number of last names). I chose the last name "Grace" and the first name "Zero." Zero Grace-- perfect for a newbie.

I entered Second Life's starting area in a white T-shirt, blue-jeans, and sneakers, which I am guessing is the standard wardrobe of newcomers. The first order of business was to put on some better clothes and customize my avatar's body. I essentially made a "mini-me" rather than some sort of fantasy avatar. There is an extremely high level of customization available, more than any other game I've played--the only basic limitation (which can be overcome with user-created outfits) is that one's shape is humanoid. Other than this, it's possible to create an avatar that looks--more or less--exactly like oneself. My only beef was the body weight of the avatar. I'm a skinny guy, but despite noodling with the controls for a long time, my appearance in Second Life was unable to be replicated--it seems when you crank down "body weight" and musculature settings low enough, your avatar just ends up looking really lumpy in strange places. My knees and calves, for example, were disproportionately huge. Ah well, relatively trivial.

It wasn't long before one Second Life's caretakers (all with the surname Linden) flew in to see if I needed any help. He sailed down from the sky in the form of a fez-wearing, bearded midget and gave me his contact card. Exchanging cards allows users to see which of their acquaintances is online, and to send in-system instant-messages back and forth. After some pleasantries were exchanged, I walked through some of the basic Second Life tutorials--there were prizes to be had by doing so, my friendly guide told me. My first booty was acquired by participating in a camera-control tutorial. I was awarded L$100, or a hundred Linden bucks. I breezed through another few lessons, and then teleported to another area--this one was the "real" world as far as Second Life goes. I was nervous.

It was evident even from my first fifteen minutes that Second Life has a strong commerce element. In-game money plays a big part, not only for one's personal betterment, but that of the community and the out-of-game system as well. Money can be used to buy housing and items. It costs a small amount of money to influence another user's reputation (i.e. rating someone's behaviour costs L$1) and it costs money to upload material such as portraits. Each user gets a weekly stipend of L$1000. The presence of an economy gives users something to strive for, if not only for in-game benefits, then the dream of converting Linden dollars to real dollars. Just about everything is for sale in Second Life. Each object in the world gives up its attributes when nudged, including whether or not it is editable (users can create and modify certain items), what intellectual property restrictions exist, and usually what the item costs to purchase. Armed with L$450, I could afford to buy quite a bit of product, from paintings, to outfits, even to vehicles, but I chose to keep a grip on my cash while roaming the near-endless world.

Second Life's environment is dreamlike and surreal, like a massive theme-park has exploded, leaving chunks strewn across an infinite landscape. Standard transportation includes walking, flying (although there are some no-fly zones) and teleportation. The world is split up into zones, each with its own terrain, sky, and other features. Users are able to buy and modify portions of land, so most of Second Life's zones have been sculpted and built upon already. Walking and flying around the world reminded me of Web browsing in its early years. The file-size to bandwidth ratio is high, so oodles of custom material is downloaded whenever you turn your head (this seemed to create a lot of network lag at times). Images appear blurry at first, and progressively become more detailed as the texture file loads, just like GIFs on a dial-up modem. It was amusing to really feel the constraint of the network again (normal Web browsing is a no-wait situation for me these days.) The user-modified areas I visited in Second Life were largely uncreative--there was quantity, but not quality. Like the early Web, users have a publishing tool that hasn't yet been fully realized, and/or the designers are only beginning to become accustomed to the media. There were some gems discovered among my travels, including a Spook House, where for the price of a dollar I was shuttled around a scary carnival ride, and a gorgeous island retreat which included elaborate guest accommodations and a cathedral for in-game marriages. I saw many, many art galleries but it wasn't often easy to tell whether or not the gallery owner was the artist behind the work, or if they had merely found something of interest on the Web and uploaded it to Second Life.

Intellectual property is always a thorny issue. Second Life has admirably allowed users to retain rights to their own material, and upload whatever they like. The problem is that most users don't understand copyright and trademark laws. There are discussions on the Second Life forums about this, and there is an abuse-reporting system in place, but in my travels I spotted a VW Beetle and Indian Motorcycle for sale, as well as a bastardized "Lenscrafters" logo--all of these are in violation of trademark and copyright laws, and, the images and words are being used in conjunction with commerce (convertible to real dollars). The worst abuse seems to be among the many art galleries, where the works of well-known, contemporary artists are being used presumably without the permission of the artist. Second Life's Web site could do more to hedge this type of abuse before it occurs by establishing a page devoted to basic intellectual property rules. Besides, if users are forced to have to create original content, the economy of Second Life will be more active as artists and designers churn out original, licensable material for sale.

In my estimation, much of Second Life's success hinges on user contributions. A good piece of content (such as a fully-operational Spook House or Jet Fighter) can go a long way in terms of entertainment, but there are also users working to enhance the functionality of the system itself. In my travels, I found an item called a Hippo, which is a (somewhat convoluted) method of "radar" used to indicate persons in proximity to you with similar interests to your own. By typing in keywords, one can create criteria for Hippo-detection. When one or more other Hippo-wearers are within range, their keywords are searched, and the users notified of a match. It's sub-systems like this that speak volumes about Second Life's flexibility--few games allow users the potential to alter the fabric of "reality."

[list all My Second Life entries]
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Comment posted by Bel
April 14, 2004 @ 1:35 pm
Thats a great article, Zero. Your comparison to the early days of the net, was spot on, IMO. And yes, educating users on copyright issues should be given more attention. I've put together a website for SL residents to upload fun and interesting screenshots from the world.
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
April 14, 2004 @ 7:33 pm
Thanks for the comments. Those screenshots on your site are great!
Comment posted by ChromalBrodsky
April 15, 2004 @ 3:43 pm
Well, two comments:

One person's treasure is another's trash.

90% of everything is crap.

I'll add that the US Supreme Court has pretty clearly protected parody-speech (e.g.: "Primcrafters"), which I'd argue the business you cite would fall under.

Overall, not a bad article. I think you got the stipend amounts a little mixed up, though. Isn't it L$500/week for the $9.95/mo premium account? Also, be aware, some of us squat here for no monthly fee, earning our income via ratings and dwell bonuses or by running teaching events.
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
April 15, 2004 @ 3:58 pm
Agreed on your first two points :)

I'm not a lawyer, so I overlooked the parody-speech protection-- although nowadays, trademark lawsuits are getting pretty open-ended [i.e. Lindash vs. Microsoft, whereby "dash" is "dows" which of course means "Windows(tm)"]

I probably did get the stipend amounts wrong. I think someone told me the amount and I just took it for granted (first day in and all). It's good to hear you can offset your overhead with in-world activities.

Thanks for your comments!
Comment posted by Billy Doyal Tullos Jr
November 13, 2004 @ 2:32 pm
excellent info
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