The other day I watched a presentation by Linden Lab CEO and Second Life creator Philip Rosedale. Second Life, for those of you who don’t know, is a virtual world in which people interact with each other on a social and economic level much like, well, Real Life. Once you register an account in Second Life (SL from now on) you can create an avatar that represents you in the virtual world and in that world you can make friends, set up a business (or two!), attend social events, and even learn at an educational institution. In his talk Rosedale explained the motivation behind SL and the ideas he has for its future.
The first question he introduced was “why build a virtual world at all?” I say ‘introduced’ and not ‘addressed’ because, try as I might, I never found him directly answering this question. He instead took a round-about approach in which he gave some history of himself - how he was a creative kid who always wanted to build things - as well as his opinion on the purpose of the Internet.
Mr. Rosedale thinks that the ultimate use of said Internet is to simulate a world in which we have the unlimited potential to create. He thinks that everyone on earth has awesome ideas but is limited when it comes to actually realizing them. Second Life, then, is supposed to be a space where we can create without boundaries. Rosedale actually likened SL to outer space. Like outer space, he said, virtual worlds fascinate people because they allow us to reinvent ourselves. They allow us to begin again. And, like outer space, virtual worlds allow us to fantasize that maybe, just maybe, if we went far enough, we would find a place that will allow us to create a whole new identity. We truly have no idea what we will find if we travel far enough.
This perplexed me, because as I watched screenshots of SL pop up on the PowerPoint behind him, I saw nothing but objects and places that could easily be produced in the real world. A slice of watermelon. A Japanese-style outdoor boardwalk. A jazz bar complete with grand piano. If SL is supposed to be this awesome place where we can create anything, why are all the objects in it so familiar? Though space in SL is purportedly boundless and its world boasts 100 terabytes of user-created content (25,000 times bigger than World of Warcraft), why is it all familiar? Sure, I might run into something weird like a player avatar who has an internal combustion engine for a head, but an artist can draw that, can’t they? You don’t need a computer to display that creativity.
Maybe creativity isn’t the point. Maybe the point of SL is to bring people from all over the world together. SL claims to have a population of about 250,000 residents, all sharing information with one another. Rosedale says that virtual worlds, and SL in particular, are the best way for us to organize, share, remember, and experience information. He used the example of a common object, a chair. The web as we know it now presents information in the form of text and links, and maybe a few pictures. SL shifts everything to images. Creativity is expressed solely in graphic form. If I show you a picture of a chair instead of just telling you about it, you’re more likely to remember that I talked about a chair. And everyone, regardless of what language they speak, understands an iconic representation of a chair.
But what does this do to abstract thought? If I casually insert a chair into a story without elaborating about it in any way, you would conjure up an image of a chair in your head. Maybe it would be an image of your favorite chair at home, or a chair at Grandma’s house that you had fond memories of as a child. Or maybe the only chair that comes to mind is The Chair from the movie Juno. Regardless, you have now, on a cognizant level, interacted with my mention of a chair in a way that is meaningful to you. My description of a chair may be utterly forgettable, but your mental image will stick with you. Your ability to think abstractly has been enhanced.
Though SL features an interactive environment with 3d graphics and personal avatars, it is not a game. There is no way to win; there is no overarching goal to achieve. The point is simply to be social and creative. Because of this, SL has its own economy. Players are able to buy land from Linden Lab, set up shop, and sell virtual goods and services to other avatars. The SL currency, Linden Dollars, or L$, is able to be exchanged for real dollars at any time.
The existence of an economy makes sense when the point of the virtual world is to create. Rosedale points out that people who create want two things - fair ownership of their work and the ability to sell it. If the whole point of a virtual world is to provide an infinite playground in which to create, it is natural that an economy is right behind. When money comes into play however, things can go awry rather quickly. Pyramid schemes surface, adult entertainment runs rampant, and people have to be more wary of one another in general. Money corrupts the innocent and pure rather quickly.
Call me crazy, but I don’t think that Rosedale created Second Life with altruistic intent. People can create, sure, but they have to pay Linden Labs for that privilege. SL is a business just like any other online business. It creates content and tries to sell it to consumers as value. The rather utopian notion that people can be anything or anybody they want is refuted by the participants themselves who merely re-create the real world in cyberspace. True freedom to create anything one might imagine is so paralyzing that people keep to what is safe. As one Second Life user I talked to puts it, “Everywhere you go in SL, it’s either Star Wars or nudity.”