The Parallel Universe of Second Life - Fantasy Week


A Greek Bar in Second Life. Photo by Entressen Kirjasto.

In the virtual fantasyland of Second Life, you live vicariously through the avatar of your choice. For me, that is an ashen-faced vampire wearing a black tutu and knee-high leather boots, with blood permanently dripping down my fangs. I imagine myself as a temptress in Twilight or True Blood, if such storylines exist in this hypothetical universe. In addition to my saucy attire, I am tall and brooding. When I lift my arm, sparkles fly out of my hand. I have yet to determine the purpose of the sparkles, but I will.

This is only the beginning of my imaginary universe, of course; there are a gazillion of options for how I will live and what I will do in my spare time.

“Second Life is an online virtual world that’s created by the people who use it, with the world’s largest user-generated virtual goods economy,” explains Peter Gray, PR Manager for Linden Lab, the company which developed the game in 2003. “For some people, their creations and experiences in Second Life may be similar to things they might enjoy in the physical world – like going to live music performances, for example. For others, Second Life is a place where they can enjoy things that are totally different from their offline lives – immersing in a vampire role-playing game, for example.”

Yes, that’s me. Though truly, Second Life is a close parallel to reality. You can buy land and build; you can travel to exotic locations like the North Pole (by teleportation); you can get married and evidently you can consummate the affair (this is unsettling for many reasons not least of which are that some avatars are animals and automobiles). The sun rises in Second Life and it sets as well. Last night, I hit the club scene and when I checked in today, I was still at the club, but could see everything more clearly in the daylight. Incidentally, it also produced the feeling of a noxious hangover.

Perhaps what’s appealing about Second Life is that, in some ways, it bridges the realms of reality and fantasy. Part social network, part video game, you’re ‘you’ but in disguise, and you’re imagining a world you may like to live in, but can’t or at least not in the near future. I chose to be a vampire because I wanted the freedom to bite people, but there may be other incentives. You can chat with strangers you meet along the way, and if you accrue a savings, you can build an empire.

Needless to say, there are tiers to the program. A premium monthly membership (for $9.99) allots you all the luxuries, while free birds are limited in the scale of their dreaming. For instance as a member of this latter group, I am able to walk around the Egyptian bazaar I teleported myself to but not allowed to purchase any of the weaponry for sale. I’m sure there are creative ways of earning your keep (biting a certain number of people maybe?) but at this point I am still figuring out how to walk.

In fact, learning to navigate Second Life is a skill to be mastered. Walking and turning around come somewhat quickly, but other options – say, punching or jumping – are not as evident. Furthermore, the boundaries of right and wrong are distinctly drawn in the virtual realm. When I asked Gray whether I could launder money or join the drug cartel, he described the gist.

“Second Life isn’t a dangerous place,” he comments. “Your avatar can’t die, and if you run out of Linden dollars, you can purchase more on our exchange. Unlike the real world, if you encounter something you don’t like in Second Life, you can just teleport somewhere more fun.”

There aren’t many loopholes either. On my rendezvous in the nightclub, I intentionally bumped into another person to see if I could drum up a fight, but that person didn’t react at all. I figured the man either didn’t notice me or he literally didn’t know how to retaliate. Then, when I tried to shove him, sparkles flew out of my hands.

As you might expect, there have been a number of criticisms Second Life has faced throughout the years. In 2007, Linden Lab was forced to ban gambling from the community premises, forcing some virtual companies to go bankrupt. According to an article in Information Week, “the abrupt ban left casino owners like Anthony Smith, of Brighton, England, scrambling to figure out what’s next. Smith, who goes by the name ‘Anthonymark Alcott’ in Second Life, ran a business called Casino World on a full server – known in Second Life jargon as a sim. He said he’d invested about $3,800 in the business, plus 12 to 14 hours per day every day.”

Arguably, Mr. Smith sealed his own fate. The gambling fallout caused additional disruption, nevertheless. Ginko Financial, an imaginary world bank, collapsed as a result. Yet Grey notes, there are no laws in fantasyland. “Second Life does have rules that users need to follow (our Terms of Service and Community Standards), but the content, experiences, and communities of Second Life are created by the users themselves.”

And isn’t it all fake anyway? To even worry about economic distress, in my opinion, is when Second Life stretches too far. Best to just to mingle at nightclubs, venture to African markets and live a stress-free existence. It’s a fantasy very few ever have the chance to experience.