I have been playing around with the online community gaming platform Second Life, which I know is hardly cutting edge at this point with more than 150,000 members. I’m more interested in the community aspects of Second Life much more than the gaming part. No really.
Your first account on Second Life is free, incredibly enough. No monthly fee, unlimited access. That should have worried me right there.
I created my free account and had a great time just playing with the look of my avatar. If you are obsessive enough, you can create a pretty good likeness of yourself, down to eye shape and wardrobe. Once you are in the SL world, you realize that nobody cares about looking like who they really are. Why bother when you can be a warrior princess, a demon or a smurf? (I ran into all three of these characters within 5 minutes of logging in today.)
The level of detail and scale of the Second Life universe is astounding. SL has its own economy, its own lingo, police force, media and many freaky sub-cultures inhabiting it.
There are certainly lots of ways to be distracted in SL. Game developers insert games into SL and charge people to play them. Sex clubs try and lure you into their wicked dens to cavort with virtual strippers who tease and sway convincingly. Casinos entice you with various games of chance.
Beyond adult entertainment, there have been several projects built in Second Life to educate and enlighten. Creative Commons has its own island, as does the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard.
Today I attended a webcast of a briefing by David Eisenberg speaking on Network Neutrality, which was rebroadcast in Second Life at the Berkman Center’s island facility. It was a very strange experience “sitting” in an outdoor amphitheater with various other avatars, listening to Mr. Eisenberg speaking at Harvard. Meanwhile we were engaging in all sorts of side chatter, introducing ourselves, and posing questions to him. He couldn’t hear us, but a couple of the SL participants were also physically at the briefing in Harvard, so they were able to convey our questions for us.
It’s a brave new virtual world.
Later in the day, I visited a plot of land dedicated to raising awareness of the crisis in Darfur. It was built to resemble a refugee shelter, with real photos of Sudanese, videos explaining the situation, and links to websites for more information. You could even get a free Darfur wristband and tee shirt for your avatar, which I promptly put on. (SL “embedded journalist” Wagner James Au wrote a fascinating story called “Guarding Darfur” about a group of virtual janjaweed hackers attacking the Darfur village in SL, and the vigilantes who rose up to protect it.)
Second Life is certainly an intriguing place. I don’t see what it might add to my current real or virtual lives. I doubt I would become friends with someone through Second Life. The IM interface is still a bit clunky, and you learn more about people’s projected personas than their actual thoughts and feelings. But I’ll keep popping in once in awhile, if only to enhance my avatar’s wardrobe.