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The virtual world of Second Life made headlines last year with its first property millionaire and a dedicated news feed to Reuters. It is now home to nearly 3.5 million residents, among them a simulated Mia Farrow and a cyber Jay-Z. Another Man talks to the internet pioneer who made a childhood dream into a virtual reality.
When I first met Philip Rosedale, CEO of Linden Lab, the company who make Second Life, in 2005, he seemed to have everything worked out. We met in Linden Lab’s open-plan offices in San Francisco. Around us, 30 or so Linden Lab employees sat at their desks, most focused intently on the screens of their high-end PCs, one intently blow-drying a collection of hand-painted fantasy figurines. The office walls were lined with pictures of far away places – a Japanese temple, a tropical beach – which looked like travel posters, but, on closer inspection, turned out to be charts of a different kind of yearning: pictures of popular destinations inside the world of Second Life. I sat at Rosedale’s desk and he showed me his creation. Second Life is a virtual world: a computer-generated place, created by real people across the world living other lives through the electronic looking glass. By using their keyboard and mouse, they can design and control their other selves: they can walk, talk, embrace, flirt, get married, be divorced, and die, all under a perfectly blue, virtual sky. In Second Life, you can fly, and, with the click of a mouse, you can build, or become, almost anything imaginable. Residents can even earn virtual profits – as journalists, property developers, and even virtual escorts. When Philip and I first met, the dream of virtual worlds – of living an entirely new life – had already permeated the imagination of millions. Across a range of virtual worlds – including Korean-made Lineage II, then the planet’s largest with eight million players – between 25 and 30 million people regularly left their real selves behind to inhabit an imaginary arena. The concept was compelling. In one survey, conducted by economist Edward Castronova, a professor at California State University, one in three residents of EverQuest, one of the first significant online worlds, spent more time in their virtual shoes than at their real jobs, and one in five said that they thought of the domain of their virtual self, not their real apartment, as their home. Millions of people, starved for space to connect and express themselves, were finding it easier to be themselves online. When I first visited Linden Lab, Second Life had 25,000 residents. Of those, around one in ten, Philip told me, spent more than 80 hours a week as their virtual self. Philip was in love with the world he had made, but the one thing he couldn’t understand was why everyone else wasn’t too. “We can’t understand why there aren’t a million people inside Second Life,” he told me. Since then, their world has grown. Just over a year ago, Second Life had 100,000 residents. By last October, the millionth resident entered Second Life. At the time of writing, there are over 3.3 million residents, and 30,000 more are joining every day. Recently, I asked Rosedale what he felt about the success of his world. “I have to resist the urge to say, ‘I told you so!’” he said. “Nobody believed in this idea in 2002. Everybody thought we were nuts. Nobody would invest money in it. But I didn’t care, because in the beginning, I had enough money to fund it myself, and then after that, we found these incredible angel investors, and the rest is history.” When Rosedale gets excited, his eyes become wide open. And when he talks about Second Life, he gets really excited. When we spoke recently, he’d lost none of this enthusiasm, and it was easy to see why. In two years, his world had grown from 25,000 residents and 140 acres, to millions of people inhabiting a virtual world the size of Manhattan. Second Life has been featured in Business Week, the New York Times, and on Good Morning America. Mia Farrow, Jay-Z and Suzanne Vega have all ventured on to his virtual soil. On my own journey through Second Life, I’ve met disabled people liberated by virtual worlds, as well as the vice president of IBM who believes virtual worlds like Second Life are the future of the internet. The world’s first virtual millionaire, a land baron called Anshe Chung (a Chinese-born German named Ailin Griff) held a Second Life press conference to
declare her milestone. “There was no way to market Second Life at the beginning, which I found cool in a Zen-like way,” Rosedale told me. But Linden Lab has now clearly solved the marketing problem. Virtual worlds are big business. Most charge a subscription fee to enter, and in 2005, the combined annual revenue from these ventures was estimated at £1.9 billion – a figure predicted to reach £9.8 billion by 2009. But one unique aspect of these worlds is that the residents themselves can share in the bounty. In “On Virtual Economies”, Edward Castronova examined the economy of EverQuest. Players could buy and sell items inside the game, and cash-rich, time-poor players were willing to pay real money to acquire non-existent things. One EQ platinum piece was worth about 1 cent and so he calculated EQ’s percapita GNP was $2,266, making it richer than India, Bulgaria or China, and almost on a par with Russia. By these standards, the world’s 77th largest economy was a sub-continent that only nearly existed. By 2005, a company which specialised in trading virtual goods put the market at £400 million. The recent boom in press attention surrounding Second Life, in which Linden Lab specifically encouraged exchange between real and virtual currencies, was driven mainly by the entry of real-world businesses – American Apparel have set up a virtual store, General Motors bought islands to market virtual cars, and Comic Relief have planned virtual fundraising events. The focus was on the money – after all, consumption is a metaphor our society easily understands. But at root, the Second Life explosion has a different cause. Most virtual worlds restrict what residents’ online selves can do. World of Warcraft, now with 7.5 million subscribers, steers residents along pre-planned quests. The result is a little like a residential theme park, with millions of players in similar costumes, lined up to perform the same tasks. From the beginning, though, participants’ ingenuity surprised even the virtual worlds’ designers. The designers of EverQuest were stunned when they came across their first in-game wedding. In The Sims Online, a virtual world based on the world’s bestselling PC game, players couldn’t build things, but could join things together. They very quickly began to construct their desires – in one case, building a piano from tables and chairs, using cigars for the keys. Second Life was designed specifically by Linden Lab to foster and exploit this kind of creative input. Compared to the amusement park atmosphere of other games, the world they envisioned was more like a public space, with a minimum of rules. Linden Lab would create the physics, design the interface, and invent the basic rules covering ownership, and with luck, a whole virtual society would emerge and develop. They christened their world after what they saw as its unique benefit, “We agonised over the name,” Philip says. “We took the classic marketing perspective, where you talk about features and benefits. So the feature is a distributed computing environment in which you can build anything, the benefit is a second life.” “We’re trying to create an environment in which anything can happen. It’s the residents’ own world,” Philip told me. “All these really incredible things are coming from the community.” Linden Lab built only a small portion of the world, but once residents began to inhabit it, and use it to enact their dreams, the contents blossomed into a strange, dream-like landscape, where giant chessboards, fairy-tale castles and suburban neighbourhoods jostle for space. It is this facility, for people to create what they want, that makes Second Life unique – and this freedom to create is exactly what Philip Rosedale always dreamed of. In fourth grade, Rosedale built his first computer from a kit. In eighth grade, he bought a retractable garage door motor, climbed into his attic, and sawed a hole in the ceiling so that when he pushed a button his bedroom door would slide upwards, Star Trek style. It wasn’t easy, though, to shape the world according to his dreams. “I would imagine some neat thing, and then try and build it in the real world, and it was rather difficult,” he told me. That year, frustrated by his growing ambitions, he began to yearn for a “magical machine”, a supertechnical tool-belt that would let him build whatever he wanted.