The Verge has an article out about Second Life. Second Life’s Strange Second Life may not sound the most promising of titles, and the opening paragraph may not make for the most inspiring of reading material:
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 neighbours 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.
However, never judge a book – or in this case, an article – by its title (or its opening paragraph!). What follows is actually an astute look at the platform, as seen through the eyes of a newcomer, Chris Stokel-Walker, a freelance writer in the UK, and through those of long-time resident Fee Berry, as well as a few others.
Fee, who lives in Middlesex, England, is actually none other than Caliandris Pendragon, also once known as Misty Mole. She’s been involved in Second Life since 2004, having migrated from the worlds of games such as Riven and Myst. She’s been both a resident of SL and she’s been employed – until June of this year, at least – by Linden Lab. As such, she is eminently qualified to talk about SL from all sides.
The attraction which brought Fee to Second Life is more than likely the very same attraction which brought each of us here in the first place and caused us to “stick”, as Stokel-Walker relates:
“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.
Fee provides a very clear and concise view of Second Life, one we can all perhaps identify with: the wonders that it presents to us; the opportunities for discovering new friends, learning new things; the initial shaping of the world by Linden Lab – and the fact that, when all is said and done, it’s entirely possible that not everyone at the Lab really gets the in-world culture the company gave birth to simply by allowing Second Life to be so open-ended.
It is this examination of the cultural and historical aspects of Second Life, unburdened by bias, that helps to set this piece apart from the more usual offerings the media serve-up when talking about the platform. Not only do we get Fee’s perspective, we also get to hear from Hunter Walker. One of the original Lab employees working on Second Life from before the launch, but since departed, Hunter also provides insight into the early days, again as Stokel-Walker relates:
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.”
Nor does it end there. This is a piece which has not been written as a late-coming feature built from SL’s tenth anniversary infographic. Rather, it is a piece that has come about through experimentation and research, with Stokel-Walker spending time in-world, going through all the pangs, trials and tribulations of a newcomer to Second Life. He is clearly someone who is attracted to the platform without – at least initially understanding why. And this brings an added element to the article, because his story will be so familiar with many of us:
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 clichés, 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 he goes on to describe how, for him, the magic of Second Life took form – courtesy of Fee and her Starax’s Wand, and we find ourselves caught-up in his own very personal, but nonetheless identifiable, “Eureka!” moment:
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.
This is a piece of considered depth and breadth – full kudos to The Verge for not limiting it by word count. It is a rich tapestry of ideas, views, interactions skilfully woven into a whole. Within it, Chris Stokel-Walker touches upon such diverse subjects as of the sociological aspects of virtual worlds (complete with input from Tom Boellstorff, who also popped-up in another piece I covered involving the media and Second Life), through to the potential continued longevity of SL, going so far as to briefly mention the rising potential of OpenSim as possible competition – together with the reality that it is not quite that as yet. Even the way in which Second Life and real life can intertwine is examined through Fee’s own SL / rl relationship with Oclee Hornet (Dutchman Eelco Osseweijer).
As touched upon above, it is an article which will resonate with anyone who ha been involved in Second Life for any length of time, albeit it possibly in different ways. Right up to and including Stokel-Walker’s closing exchange with Fee:
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.”
If you ever want to offer-up a piece for non-SL friends to read should they ask you about your interest in SL, Chris Stokel-Walker has provided the perfect item.
With thanks to Pete Linden and the LL community team for the pointer.
- Second Life’s Strange Second Life – Chris Stokel-Walker, The Verge