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Living it up in a parallel world
The Globe and Mail
Alexandra Shimo
July 29, 2006

Each night, with her daughters tucked into their beds in their three-bedroom suburban Burnaby, B.C., home, Airdrie Miller takes off for her second life. While her two girls are sound asleep, the 37-year-old math teacher "lets it rip."

As in rip the night away — in cyberspace, as Anna Mandelbrot, her on-screen character, or "avatar," in the virtual-reality world called Second Life.

Technically, Second Life is a gigantic multiplayer on-line role-playing game, but Second Lifers become quite indignant when you suggest what they are doing is merely playing a game. And indeed, SL is really nothing like a game, insofar as nobody wins, nobody loses and there is no endgame. Players don't join Second Life to slay dragons, speed around racetracks or shoot down enemy soldiers; there are no warlords, warriors or witches to battle. Instead, players do the things they might enjoy doing in real life, except they do them in cyberspace.

In all, more than 350,000 Second Lifers sit at their computer screens around the world, living out parallel fantasy lives through their avatars. For Miller, that involves Anna going dancing most nights in clubs, attending rock concerts, and making the meetings of a depression support group — while Airdrie stays at home and looks after her children.

"I have two girls who are 8 and 6," Miller says. "My husband works full-time, and he has his own podcast, and he's a musician, so he's very busy. I really go stir-crazy, because I'm at home so much with the kids. Second Life brings entertainment to my life. I call it my window to the adult world. I can dance, meet new people, and have fun — without worrying about offending anyone."

Miller's story is fairly typical of a Second Lifer. The average age of SL players is 32, and women make up 43 per cent of the site's residents. By contrast, in EverQuest, an on-line game with more than 450,000 players worldwide, 16 per cent of players are female, with the balance heavily represented by boys and young men.

As for their real-world co-ordinates, SL players come from around the globe, with the United States, Britain and Canada, respectively, being home to the three largest groups of players. Right now, close to 3,000 new members are being added every day, and $9-million a month is transacted between players. "In the last couple of months, our growth has just taken off," says David Fleck, vice-president of marketing for Linden Lab, the San Francisco-based creator of Second Life, which makes its own money by selling real-estate in its virtual world.

In fact, the growth rate of the SL economy is clicking away at 15 per cent a month. Statistics like that are a marketer's dream, and many companies are buying up virtual land and developing properties inside the game. BBC Radio 1, for example, has rented a tropical island within Second Life for a year, and also simulcast a rock concert in Scotland straight onto the site: While real people attended the May event in Dundee, music from Franz Ferdinand, Pink and others was streamed live into Second Life, and thousands of avatars gathered round the virtual stage, which was staffed by computerized bouncers.

Last month, American Apparel opened a store in Second Life — decorated in the same minimalist, art-gallery aesthetic as the real chain's — where it sells cyber clothes that look like their brightly coloured real-life counterparts. "By the very virtue of these people being involved in Second Life, they are trend leaders, as opposed to followers," says Raz Schionning, director of Web services for American Apparel. "Trendsetters set trends. We want to increase our brand awareness among this group of people."

Not surprisingly, sex permeates much of the social-networking going on in this virtual world. Players can purchase cyber genitalia that animate with a fellow avatar's touch, or — for those into bestiality — animal parts and costumes, which are exceedingly popular.

I asked Miller to take me to one of the sex stores to purchase a starter kit. At 1 a.m., customers roamed the spacious store under large, luminescent signs advertising human and animal body parts. We bought a cyber female starter kit for me, and Miller helped me attach my new cybernipples. Breasts fully attached, we moved on to a party hosted by a friend of her SL neighbour.

Linden's Fleck says that the key to Second Life's success is letting people do whatever they desire. "Our founder Philip Rosedale's vision was to create this open canvas, so people can be whatever they want to be, and can do whatever they want to do."

Players buy and sell goods using Linden dollars, which can be exchanged for real money using a real credit card, at the exchange rate of $1 to $220 (Linden). Second Life's software also gives users the tools to make virtually anything — design a dress, customize a home or build a boat, all things that can be resold to other avatars.

Real-estate agents buy virtual property from Linden Labs, and develop it into houses, mansions, nightclubs, castles and offices. As in the real world, there is a combination of the mundane, the conventional and the weird in Second Life. The population includes a virtual wedding planner, a tattooist, a pet manufacturer, a car maker, a tour guide and a detective agency, which can be hired to check whether your virtual spouse is cheating with a virtual lover. There are cyberfishing competitions and town-hall meetings.

Last week, the American Cancer Society hosted a virtual Relay For Life on the site, where avatars walked around virtual versions of Toronto, New York, London, Paris and other cities to raise money for the charity. And earlier this month, ESPN streamed TV coverage of the Major League Baseball Home Run Derby onto several virtual stadium Jumbotrons inside the cyber world.

Even universities have taken up residence — at least 50 institutions of higher learning have bought space to build campuses, where they can experiment with using this virtual world as a teaching tool. The U.S. public-radio show The Infinite Mind is even building a virtual headquarters in Second Life, housing a broadcast studio with glassed-in viewing gallery, lecture facility, archive library, and amphitheatre to seat 100 avatars. The new facility is scheduled to open in August.

"Virtual avatars are extremely popular," says Clive Thompson, who writes about science and technology for The New York Times Magazine, Wired and Details. "People like seeing a virtual representative of themselves on-screen while they interact with others, as seen with the success of Yahoo's avatars," he says, referring to that site's customizable on-screen characters. "Right now, there are all these things that essentially involve us being in a little virtual place with each other — instant messaging, discussion boards, blogs and on-line commerce. All these things are eminently transportable into an on-line avatar-based world where people get together and do all this stuff virtually."

Thompson's enthusiasm is shared by journalist Mark Wallace, who writes for The New Yorker, among other publications. At least, that's what he does with half of his time. The other half is spent as Walker Spaight, the editor of the Second Life Herald, one of the site's two main newspapers. (There are several other local and special-interest papers; the avatar elves have their own, as do the sadomasochists). As Spaight, Wallace covers virtual town-hall meetings, where avatars voice concerns about problem landowners, taxation levels on their virtual properties, virtual bullies (called griefers) and nightclub openings.

"I've worked as a travel journalist, but Second Life is my most interesting beat," Wallace says from the virtual offices of the Second Life Herald. "We once wrote about a real-life native American who keeps his tribe's heritage alive in the authentic village he built in the game." Other stories he has covered have involved gangsters, militias and socialist microstates. Property rows between residents have broken out, too, sometimes escalating into full-scale wars, says Herald founder Peter Ludlow, who in real life is a philosophy and linguistics professor at the University of Michigan.

"There are Mafias in Second Life who make money running nightclubs, complete with cyberprostitutes," notes Ludlow. "There are paramilitary services who have guns that will blast your avatar to another area of the game, and weapons to take your computer off-line."

Some observers chalk this up to the nature of the virtual world itself. "The combination of pseudo-anonymity and distance really releases people's ids," Thompson says. "You see that in any sort of on-line environment where you are allowed to create a new you. So you see people who are normally mild-mannered, but they are freaking out on-line. People use it to express all the stuff that's inside of them that maybe they can't actually get out in the everyday world."

Back in Burnaby, Miller says her behaviour definitely changes when she enters Second Life. "In real life, I'm pretty straight-laced. I'm a casual West Coast dresser," she says. But in the virtual world, she confesses, "I wear more party dresses and tight-fitting clothing. I do things I wouldn't do normally in real life, like dropping in on a house party and dancing with strangers. The game makes me more outgoing and social."

Miller has noticed that others, too, behave differently inside this virtual world. She has run into people having virtual sex in public at a nightclub, and has been propositioned to work as a cyber prostitute. A man she met at a party even "mapstalked" her, following her around the game and spying on her, but that stopped once she removed him from her contact list.

"There are fewer consequences, there are fewer constraints, so people are more free to do what they want," says Miller. "But it's not out of control or anything. People are there to have fun."

Second Life not only has its own currency, it has its own lingo. Much of the language has developed to save time while typing, as residents communicate through instant messaging, or IM. Below are the most common terms.

Afk: Away from keyboard. Indicates the person won't respond for a little while. Players also write Brb, or Be right back.

Av: An avatar, your on-line character. At the start of the game, you customize your av to take any form you want.

Griefer: A troublemaker inside the virtual world. Can be used as a verb or a noun. Griefing takes many different forms; a Canadian known by the on-line name Plastic Duck was kicked out of Second Life for griefing residents by revealing their personal information to hackers.

Newbies: Someone who's new to the game and is probably still struggling to master the controls; often used derogatorily, as in "Check out that Newbie, she hasn't got a clue how to use her flying legs."

Prim: The basic building blocks in Second Life. A prim (primitive) is a cube or sphere or other shape that you can create using the build tools. They are combined to make much of what you see in Second Life — houses, vehicles, furniture and so on.

RL: Real life. As in, "Did he do that in SL or RL?"

SL: Second Life. When players are Second Life, they are said to be "in world."

TP: Teleport. "Can I have a tp?" That means "Can you send me a teleport invite through my profile page, and beam me to wherever you are?"
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