Tuesday, 6 September 2011

A Poor Second Life

Second Life is a "virtual" online world , where you exists as an "Avatar" (like the movie, but only a visual representation, not an "in your head thing"). It has its own economy, and property, goods and services can be bought and sold; the Linden dollar (its currency) can be exchanged for real currency.

It is owned by Linden Labs, which gets money by charging rent for land - real money, that is, not virtual money. Philip Linden notes that:

"Our residents create avatars. My Second Life avatar is "Philip Linden" -- spiky hair, muscular tattooed arms, and sometimes a black T-shirt emblazoned with bright red Rolling Stones-style lips. Then they buy and sell land and use programming tools to develop it -- homes, businesses, whatever you like".

It is estimated that trade in Second Life and other online systems like it is considerable. The currency in Second Life is Linden dollars, and real world currency can be exchanged for Linden dollars - and vice versa. This means that it has a real economy with "virtual" goods, recently estimated to be worth about $1.1 billion in revenues.

Second Life includes an infrastructure to facilitate commerce. It boasts a currency, the "Linden," which trades on an open market at about 265 Lindens to the U.S. dollar, and allows for secure transactions and easy record-keeping

In this 3D online world, residents rent land, which allows them a place to build their attractions and control access, and gives them space on Linden Lab's computer servers. They use Linden Lab's building tools to create objects, from buildings to hot air balloons, and use Linden's programming language, LSL, to bring their creations to life.

Because goods can be constructed with materials in virtual worlds, given just sufficient time, the time of others can be bought. This has led to the quite widespread practice of "virtual sweat shops" in places such as China and South America where workers who live the same kinds of poverty as those working in sweat shops making real goods are making virtual goods instead. There are sheds where those people work, slaving long hours on computers to generate virtual goods for those with virtual dollars to buy. And along with that is also property speculation, and elections.

There is a fairly good summary of Second Life and other virtual economies at


Religion thrives in Second Life, and the Washington post devoted an article to this:

This has its favourable sides. One member of Second Life, Yunus Yakoub Islam notes that

the faith community sparks a kind of internal diversity that might not be seen in real life. The Second Life mosque, for example, brings together Sufi, Salafi, Sunni and Shia Muslims. "They all talk to each other, which might not be the case in real life, I regret to say," Islam said. It also allows users to dabble in other faiths. Islam, for example, has attended evangelical Christian worship services in Second Life. "That would be a lot more difficult in real life," he said. "I'd be a lot less comfortable doing it."

But there are also the same kind of divisions that beset the real world:

In the game's Buddhism Listening and Discussion Group, one of the larger religious communities, with more than 400 members, increasing numbers of Asian Buddhists are challenging predominantly white American converts about their knowledge and practice, says Pepper Laxness, group founder who also goes by his Second Life name. What's more, a virtual universe is not immune from intolerance. In Second Life, troublemakers are known as "griefers." Religious harassment has ranged from naked avatars sitting on the Koran to a swastika painted on the synagogue.

There is an Anglican Cathedral in Second Life, which mirrors St Paul's in London.


But while the Cathedral is free to visit, nothing in this virtual world is really free, and its owners have to pay rent to the Second Life organisation, and this was increased in 2010, when the special status of religious organisations was removed. It is like having a world with a creator who owns all the land, and who rents it out to the people who live there. Is that what a capitalist vision of God is like?

The Cathedral site explained its plight at:

I'd like to share with you the current status of the Anglicans of SL financial situation.  As you may know, each month we have set a donation goal amount equivalent to one month's tier payment.  We have brought in an average of 84% of our monthly goal amounts for the past six months.  The donations have risen a bit within the past three months, to an average of 92% of our monthly goals.  We have been encouraged by this, and have been working hard to develop offerings that will bring in more community members and encourage further financial support of our ministry.  We weren't quite where we wanted to be in terms of financial stability, but we felt we were in pretty good shape.

Yesterday we learned of some news that casts a very different light on things.  An announcement was made on the SL blog regarding land pricing for educational and non-profit land owners.  Currently, Linden Lab allows these organizations to purchase and maintain private region sims for half the price as that charged to other retail customers.  It was announced yesterday that this special pricing will end on December 31, 2010, after which time these organizations will be billed at the regular price.  This will, in effect, double our donation goals.

It is very strange to think of donations for a virtual Cathedral, and there seems to be to be something fundamentally out of kilter with a society which treats that kind of "virtual extravagance" as important, while there is famine in Somalia, and social injustice in the real world, to say nothing of the social injustice which is also prevalent in Second Life. For the wealthy Westerner, it is a wonderful world to explore and marvel at, but for someone toiling over a computer screen in a badly ventilated factory, it is a very poor second life.

As one blogger commented: "I don't want to belittle Second Life and all its works but isn't there is a huge irony in a fundraising campaign to protect a virtual church in a virtual environment? Don't human beings have rather larger fish to fry? "


alane said...

I find this very frightening. Get real, folks!

Anonymous said...

A fascinating piece of speculation is to be had trying to explain how first life money is more 'real' than Second Life money. Both exist in digital form as credits on ledgers.

First life cash is real physical stuff of course ,but the economy revolves around the other stuff - digital money.

Anonymous said...

:-) beats the shit out of being real aye!

Pepper Laxness said...

Thanks for quoting me, though I haven't played Second Life for a few years. Like many things online that are immersive, it sucked up most of my time.

People were less inhibited "there", certainly, and it's a good way to experiment with your identity. It's self-therapy in part, and could well spark insanity for some.

I did come to realize that, no matter how much it feels like an alternate life, in the end, everyone is just sitting in front of a computer, and IT"S REALLY ALL FIRST LIFE.