Part 1 of 2
July 2007 – So you want to start a business, make lots of money, build your dream home, find new friends, even fulfill your sexual fantasies? Then look no further than an Internet Web site known as Second Life (SL).
With a few clicks and keystrokes you are on your way to a second life, compliments of Linden Lab, a California-based company that has created an online world where humans can remake themselves.
SL is a complex, multi-faceted online phenomenon that Time magazine calls a “booming enterprise.” It’s akin to an Internet Service Provider from which a person buys a Web site, or in this case an “island,” for an initial cost of $1,650, plus a monthly fee.
SL, which does no advertising, claims to have 6.5 millions users from 100 countries – 55% male and 45% female with an average age of 33. It grew from 100,000 residents at the end of 2005 to 3.5 million by the end of 2006.
SL is best understood by picking it apart one definition at a time. Its creators define SL as a 3-D virtual world. Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia compiled and edited by the general public, says that “a virtual world is a computer-based simulated environment intended for its users to inhabit and interact via avatars.” According to the same encyclopedia, “an avatar is an Internet user’s representation of himself or herself. …”
Even more specific, SL describes the term avatar as “referring to the descended incarnation of a deity.”
To put it plainly, SL is an imaginary world controlled by computer users who are living out their wildest dreams through characters they create in cyberspace. In fact, BusinessWire reported that, “By the end of 2011, 80% of active Internet users (and Fortune 500 enterprises) will have a ‘second life,’ but not necessarily in Second Life, according to Gartner, Inc. [an information technology company].” Why?
Because “it’s just a way to live a different kind of life. You can do whatever you want to do,” Catherine Smith, director of brand strategy for SL, told AFA Journal. “What Second Life is, is whatever a person wants it to be.”
Second life as I know it
In preparation for this story, I cautiously ventured into SL as a “city chic female,” choosing from several stereotypes ranging from the girl next door to some type of furry male feline. Once I entered SL, I could select every detail of my appearance from the angle of my forehead to the size of my brow, the color of my hair and even the specifics of my figure. I became my own creator, and if I stayed too long I would become my god.
I navigated SL by walking, flying and teleporting around a limitless world. I quickly became friends with other avatars. We communicated by typing short messages to each other. Within minutes I was oblivious to the real world around me, especially after meeting a male avatar named Slade, who immediately became my confidante and guide. My avatar trusted and followed him as we traveled together to the virtual country of Korea before ending our journey at a dance club on sandy white beaches.
My relationship with Slade ended after a few hours. But over the course of the next several days I made other friends who helped me make sense of SL. I discovered that I could adopt a virtual child (who is really an adult posed as a child avatar), get a free beer, dance for money, relax at a friend’s house, compete in a sailboat race, play bongo drums, buy a wig at GurlyWorld, visit Hollywood, change my appearance and even go to church.
What I didn’t discover first-hand but what research reveals is that SL is a hub for entrepreneurship and education.
According to an article on Entrepreneur.com, “Linden Labs … has welcomed the entrepreneurial inclinations of its community in two important ways. First, Linden dollars, the ‘in-world’ currency, are easily traded for U.S. dollars at an official currency site. Second, Linden has taken the remarkable step of allowing players to retain the copyright for their in-game creations.”
“There was something about doing that that gave people an investment in the world,” Smith explained. “That really began to start the economy rolling where people began to create goods and services and then sell them back and forth to each other.” In other words, SL residents can spend real money for virtual products.
But while all of these business transactions are happening in a virtual world, some of the products are finding places in the real world.
For example, an SL resident named Kermitt Quirk created an in-world game called Tringo – a cross between the video game Tetris and old-fashioned Bingo.
It became such a huge success inside SL that a real life entertainment company heard about it and licensed the game from Quirk.
“The line is beginning to blur now [so] that the things you create in this virtual world … actually have value … in real life,” Smith added.
And this value also lends itself to the classroom. Inside the virtual world, Harvard is offering a distance learning class called “CyberOne: Law in the Court of Public Opinion.” A professor from Montana State teaches his architecture class inside SL. Residents can also take classes in online identity and urban planning.
In addition to the business and educational aspects, SL has opened its doors to the spiritual realm by allowing various religions – from Christianity to Buddhism to Wicca – to set up shop. From churches to synagogues to mosques, avatars can choose their place of worship. Avatars can assume positions of prayer and praise by kneeling, raising their hands and swaying.
“I put my avatar in a praying position and I pray at the same time, Sten Muhammed Yussif Widhe, of Sweden, told USA Today. “My prayer in my room is valid and my prayer online is symbolic.”
Lifechurch.tv, a tech-savvy real life evangelical church in the U. S., recently opened a campus in SL where sermons preached at the real church are offered in SL.
For many of these churches, SL is a new evangelism tool and way for nonbelievers to be introduced to principles of faith, according to latimes.com.
SL’s true colors
While the validity of this evangelistic approach may be debatable, the notion is real – just as real as the perversion, immorality and sin that taint SL.
Since SL is aimed at the over 18 crowd, you can expect to find adult content. Teen Second Life (TSL) has been created as an alternative experience for minors 13 to 17 and certain safety precautions – although questionable – are in place. Smith said age verification for both old and new users of SL and TSL will soon be required. That seems all the more reason to expect adult material in the original SL.
Smith explained how the adult-content areas of SL are clearly marked for residents. While the markings – which are only on about 15% of all regions – function as a warning they also validate the presence of pornography and cybersex – simulated sex between virtual figures. Therefore, SL has become a virtural meeting place for those seeking to satisfy their sexual fantasies.
“[I] quickly learned, having sex is exactly what many of the people on the site spend their time doing,” Joel Stein wrote in Time magazine.
Another man writes of his SL sexual experiences online at Villagevoice.com and refers to them as “user-controlled porn.” He describes himself as a 42-year-old straight man, who has been faithfully married for 15 years. However, because he has always fantasized about being a beautiful woman and having sexual relations with women, he created his SL avatar as a female.
“SL allows me an opportunity to explore this fantasy of being a lesbian, and also lets me engage in types of fantasy sex-play I would not normally do in real life … ,” he wrote.
In addition, PCMag.com reported that a German Second Life avatar is being investigated for posting child porn and for paying for sex with underage players or players posing as minors.
In an official statement, Linden Lab said it “has absolutely zero tolerance for depictions of child pornography in Second Life. … We simply will not tolerate the depiction of sexual or lewd acts involving minors in Second Life.”
Smith added, “If it’s illegal in real life, it’s illegal in Second Life.”
However, Smith explained that if a person wants to buy a piece of land in SL and set up a porn store, it’s allowed as long as the parcel is marked with an adult-content flag and the content is legal.
Hungry for heaven
Without a doubt, there is more to SL than meets the eye. My advice: Stay away! Better yet, run away! Who needs the temptations of a second fallen world of deception, self-indulgence and attempts to play God?
On the other hand, Christians can be reminded that since the time of the real Garden of Eden, humans have yearned to live in perfect bodies in a perfect world. It is our call to point those around us away from the virtual paradise and toward the real one.