It was wolves that drove Timothy Kensington to start a Second Life account. Looking for a new way to make friends on the Internet, his first foray into virtual worlds saw him log on to World of Warcraft, a massively multiplayer on-line role-playing game. The trouble was, he kept getting killed by the creatures.
“I'd spend all my time hanging around Stormwind,” Kensington, a resident of Syracuse, New York, told the Georgia Straight by phone, referring to one of the cities where players congregate within the game. Since he didn't like leaving the safety of the city, his character never reached higher levels. Thus, when the friends he had made in the game left Stormwind to seek out new adventures, Kensington was left behind.
“Anytime I tried to go places with people, I'd end up getting eaten by a wolf,” he said. “The game part of it just wasn't for me.”
At its most basic level, the Internet is a platform for communication. Sending and receiving e-mail is one of the first experiences most people have on-line. Applications like Google Talk and Windows Live Messenger and Web sites like Facebook and Twitter build upon that most basic of Internet functions. Naturally, there are some who want something a little more than text and smiley faces.
The drawback is that multiplayer on-line games come with strings attached. As Kensington discovered in World of Warcraft, players of these games have objectives to meet.
In Second Life, however, Kensington found a three-dimensional virtual world that, like World of Warcraft, allowed him to create an avatar, or representation of himself, and interact with others in a much more immersive environment than anything else he had found on-line. And all without predetermined goals.
Second Life's functionality goes well beyond that of chat applications, according to Alfred Hermida, who once covered the virtual world as a technology editor for the BBC News Web site and now studies it as an assistant professor of journalism at the University of British Columbia.
“It tries to replicate a physical environment in a virtual environment, so you have the same environment you would be familiar with, but you can take on another persona,” Hermida said.
Second Life's name is appropriate, he said, since the software—which runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux systems—enables users to create a new identity on-line. It's even possible to make real-world money in Second Life, and many users have turned living in the on-line world into a career. Buying, developing, and selling virtual real estate is one of many ways to turn a profit within the game.
Although Hermida maintained that it's too early to tell whether the Second Life economy will ever become mainstream or lead to sustainable livelihoods for users, he said, “There certainly are indications that there are ways of doing business and replicating some of the things you do in the real world in the virtual world.”
Real-world companies like Telus and American Apparel have set up shop in Second Life. The news agency Reuters even maintained a Second Life bureau for two years, closing it this fall.
There are educational opportunities inside virtual worlds, according to Hermida. He cited work done by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a U.S. government agency, that simulates tsunamis and other natural phenomena.
“In Second Life, you can go to their labs and see how these things happen and see these simulations,” Hermida said. “That's a very good educational tool, because you can see how a tidal wave happens and see what the impact is. It's been used by academics who hold virtual classes there.”
While Linden Lab's Second Life, which dates back to 2003, is the most popular of these nongame on-line worlds, Internet giant Google experimented with its own virtual-environment program, Lively, earlier this year.
Lively, launched in July, keeps interaction basic, providing users with customizable avatars that can be used to communicate with others in hundreds of chat rooms. Users create the rooms themselves and invite others to join them in these virtual environments. Rooms can be embedded in Facebook profiles and other Web sites.
In a November 19 post on its blog, Google announced that it would shut down Lively on December 31 in order to “focus more on our core search, ads and apps business”.
Prior to the announcement, Niniane Wang, the Google engineering manager who spearheaded the development of Lively, told the Straight that the free program, which is available for Windows, aimed to enhance interpersonal interaction on the Web.
“Instant messaging is entirely text-based, and emotions can only be expressed through emoticons,” Wang said. “Likewise, a social three-dimensional space is emotionally more interesting than text comments.”
Although Lively will soon be dead, Second Life boasts about 500,000 users a week and doesn't appear to be heading off-line anytime soon—at least not if Kensington's experience is any indication. Already a year into his virtual life, he said he loves Second Life and pointed out, “I haven't once been killed by wolves.”