1 October 2006

Living a second life [The Economist]

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Second Life
“Second Life is not a game,” writes The Economist this week. “Admittedly, some residents—there were 747,263 as of late September, and the number is growing by about 20% every month—are there just for fun. They fly over islands, meander through castles and gawk at dragons. But increasing numbers use Second Life for things that are quite serious. They form support groups for cancer survivors. They rehearse responses to earthquakes and terrorist attacks. They build Buddhist retreats and meditate.”

“By emphasising creativity and communication, Second Life is different from other synthetic online worlds. Most ‘massively multi-player online role-playing games’, or MMORPGs (pronounced ‘morpegs’), offer players pre-fabricated or themed fantasy worlds. Second Life, by contrast, was designed from inception for a much deeper level of participation.”

“Unlike other virtual worlds, which may allow players to combine artefacts found within them, Second Life provides its residents with the equivalent of atoms—small elements of virtual matter called ‘primitives’—so that they can build things from scratch.”

“Because everything about Second Life is intended to make it an engine of creativity, Linden Lab, the San Francisco firm that launched Second Life commercially three years ago, early on decided that residents should own the intellectual property inherent in their creations. Second Life now allows creators to determine whether the stuff they conceive may be copied, modified or transferred. Thanks to these property rights, residents actively trade their creations.”

Second Life’s total devotion to what is fashionably called ‘user-generated content’ now places it, unlike other MMORPGs, at the centre of a trend called Web 2.0. This term usually refers to free online services delivered through a web browser—for example, social networks in which users blog and share photos. Second Life is not delivered through a web browser but through its own software, which users need to install on their computers. In other respects, however, it is now often held up as the best example of Web 2.0.”

“Second Life is also attracting the attention of corporations and advertisers from the real world hoping to attract the metaverse’s residents. Publishers now organise book launches and readings in Second Life. The BBC has rented an island, where it holds music festivals and parties. Sun Microsystems is preparing to hold in-world press conferences, featuring avatars of its top executives. Wells Fargo, an American bank, has built a branded ‘Stagecoach’ island, where avatars can pull Linden dollars out of a virtual cash machine and learn about personal finance. Starwood, a hotel and resort chain, is unveiling one of its new hotels in the virtual world.”

“Toyota is the first carmaker to enter Second Life. It has been giving away free virtual vehicles of its Scion brand and, in October, will start selling all three Scion models. Toyota really hopes that an ‘aftermarket’ develops as avatars customise their cars and sell them on, thus spreading the brand ‘virally’. Toyota will be able to observe how avatars use the cars and might, conceivably, even get ideas for engineering modifications in the real world.”

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