What's the first thing people do when they are introduced to Second Life, a virtual world governed by open source computer code, a realm where none of the real world's mundane toils and obligations intrude, where the variety of things one can do is limited only by the depth of one's imagination? They build avatars that resemble themselves and houses that remind them of home. Second Life's 3.5 million citizens - 10,000-30,000 online at any given moment - are busy recreating all of the familiar customs and institutions of the non-virtual world.
Such is one of the key conclusions to be drawn from Second Lives, a travelogue of sorts by UK writer Tim Guest. Artificial worlds inside the computer have been an inescapable theme in science fiction at least since the publication of William Gibson's 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. But over the past few years, progress in microprocessor technology for home computers and the spread of broadband have brought fiction to life.
Guest's book is both a traveller's guide to this world under perpetual construction and an anthropological investigation of its indigenous tribes. He spends several pages, for example, recounting his ride around the 'in-world' in a hot-air balloon piloted by a self-appointed tour guide named Hank Ramos. Hank flies the balloon over a Wild West town, an office complex, a virtual Venice, a shuttered amusement park and a full-scale recreation of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. "Linden Lab made only the terrain," Guest writes. "Everything else was built by what Hank called 'the community' out of basic virtual shapes called 'prims'."
The landscapes of Second Life are sustained by nearly 2,000 computer servers at San Francisco start-up Linden Lab, which opened the new world for occupancy in 2003. Second Life recorded 700,000 new users between December 2006 and January 2007 alone. Linden sells land and other goods to users, including Linden dollars, the native currency on Second Life, convertible to real US dollars (US$1 = L$276), while users sell the virtual objects they've built in Second Life to other users.
In January 2007, Linden Lab sold virtual goods and land worth L$165 million and user-to-user transactions totalled L$6 billion. Anshe Chung (the avatar of Ailin Graef) from Wuhan, China, became the first real millionaire by selling Second Life 'property'. Companies too have joined the bandwagon: a Reuters website is devoted to Second Life news, and Electric Sheep, based in New York, builds virtual buildings for companies seeking a presence in Second Life.
As I read, I wondered how a second life could be a welcome diversion when it so thoroughly mirrors the first. Prims can be sculpted into almost anything, so why isn't Second Life filled with elephant-shaped houses made of toothpicks or fantastical soap-bubble castles in the sky? Why is so much of the Second Life world's 360,000 hectares of land covered by depressingly familiar strip malls, office buildings and billboards? Guest's answer is that Second Life and other online environments, such as There.com, Sony's Everquest, Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft and NCSoft's Lineage, aren't really about virtuality; they're about community and intimacy, which may be missing from the real lives of many users.
"Since its inception, Second Life has mostly consisted of people who generally treat it much like real life," Guest is told by Plastic Duck, a 19-year-old Second Lifer who discovered the world while bedridden with Crohn's disease. "They build homes, buy clothes and hang out with friends. They don't take kindly to anything that wouldn't normally belong in real life."
Although Guest's book is a fount of fascinating detail and insights, its structure will be as disorienting to newcomers as Second Life itself. In one chapter, Guest visits a care home where people with cerebral palsy use Second Life to escape the limitations of their bodies; in the next, he expounds on the history of virtual worlds; a few chapters later, he auditions as a foot soldier for Second Life's version of the Cosa Nostra. A book driven by first-person, journalistic narrative deserves a clearer timeline.
In the end, no guidebook can hope to capture a place that changes so fast. By far the best way to get to know Second Life is simply to go there.
Second Lives: a journey through virtual worlds, Tim Guest, Hutchinson, £12.99, ISBN: 0-091-79657-1.