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Virtual Utopia Proving Hard to Find

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
April 2007 Issue
March 5, 2007

Virtual Utopia Proving Hard to Find


The headquarters of a presidential candidate were violently assaulted in early February, with campaign workers beaten, windows broken, and obscene graffiti spray-painted inside and outside the building.

As media reports of this attack were appearing in the Washington Post and New York Times, a small nuclear device was detonated in a popular shopping district. The shopping district had been the site of several drive-by shootings during 2006.

No, these aren’t reports from Iraq or Afghanistan. These stories have been reported in major newspapers worldwide, but the events are taking place in the virtual world of Second Life (http://www.secondlife.com).

Second Life is an online, virtual community launched officially in 2003 by Philip Rosedale, former chief technical officer of RealNetworks, a pioneer in online music and video streaming. Residents can play for free, but Rosedale’s Linden Labs charges “premium” users a $9.95 monthly fee. For the monthly fee, residents receive a “stipend” of virtual money known as Linden Dollars. Virtual dollars can also be purchased, at a fluctuating exchange rate. Though there are 4 million Second Life accounts, Linden reports fewer than 150,000 residents made virtual purchases in December of 2006.

Unlike basic online chatting, the residents of Second Life, or SL, create avatars to represent themselves. An avatar is an animated figure that responds to commands. Serious Second Life members view their avatars as authentic extensions of their personalities.

At first, Second Life was dominated by model-perfect residents. The women were slender, with Barbie proportions. The men were tall, muscular, and tanned. Characters were similar to those found in the competing online world of The Sims. In The Sims, players earn virtual money through popularity. The more money you earn, the easier it is to attract yet more virtual friends. Critics complain The Sims encourages consumerism, greed, and shallow friendships.

Second Life was meant to be different. Residents of Second Life do not see their world as a game. From the beginning, residents of Second Life thought of themselves as pioneers. They sought a new type of virtual experience, one without winners and losers. Everyone received a small stipend, and most residents preferred to barter and share resources. But, try as some might to form a communal order, capitalism soon dominated. The avatars now own homes and many have virtual careers. Some run magic shops, while others operate bakeries. Anything is possible.

While Linden’s Second Life user agreement allows members to “own” virtual creations, other companies strictly prohibit such ownership and assert ownership over what users create. As a result, Second Life attracted a different set of residents than The Sims or World of Warcraft. Blizzard, the company behind World of Warcraft, also known as WoW, has issued warnings to users trying to sell “property” on eBay.

Second Life was about empowering the residents, users thought. The initial residents imagined Second Life would be a utopia, a place to meet people from around the world without the burdens of cliques or serious conflicts. It hasn’t worked out that way.

Linden Labs is a business. As Second Life gained popularity, real companies established online existences, paying Linden for prime virtual real estate. The virtual entrepreneurs selling clothing and furniture to residents were soon competing against familiar brands. Car companies gave away virtual vehicles. Young residents flocked to the same places they frequent in reality.

Politicians followed, along with political divisions.

From California, Representatives George Miller and Nancy Pelosi have offices in Second Life. Others are sure to follow. Some suspect the attack on the campaign headquarters of John Edwards in February was meant to implicate conservatives, encouraging conflict in Second Life. Utopia was short lived.

Areas in Second Life are called “islands on the grid.” Imagine wandering the Virtual Valley island only to encounter a strip mall, big box retailers, and chain restaurants. Your e-mail is stuffed with notes from non-profit organizations and politicians seeking your support. Popularity is determined by where you live, the car you drive, and the clothes you wear. Your escape from reality has become nothing but a mirror of the every day.

The virtual terrorists of Second Life claim they are trying to undo the changes occurring in their universe. By destroying corporate symbols and injuring consumers, these “freedom fighters” think they can force their version of utopia on everyone else. They do not want the online world to resemble reality… and yet their zealousness is producing exactly that result.

Maybe the disintegration of Second Life into a world more violent and politically radical than our own reveals something about human nature. The moment a community gets too large, cliques form. Groups challenge other groups, and eventually there are conflicts. Sadly, news reports suggest the radicals of Second Life include educators, accountants, and others who might never consider violence a solution to problems in real life.

If an educator can turn to nuclear weapons to destroy a teen clothing retailer or an accountant can participate in a drive-by shooting of political rivals, what’s the next step for this online world?

The double entendres of The Sims and the magic of WoW both seem less troubling than the descent of Second Life. Players in The Sims buy add-ons like Glamour Life to indulge in a pop star fantasy. They don’t imagine a world without cliques or consumerism — they mock that world.

That’s what the residents of Second Life got wrong. Residents of other virtual worlds are mocking reality with a wink and a nod to E! and Paris Hilton. Few of the players of The Sims think life is all about money, just the game. The players of WoW engage in battles because that is the game. There are peace movements in WoW, but a peace activist in WoW expects to be attacked. Making and breaking treaties is also part of WoW, proving the players might be more realistic than Second Life residents.

Second Life residents seem to take their online lives a bit more seriously than other online inhabitants. Too seriously, based on recent headlines.

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