2. The Mechanics Of The World Of Second Life

Second Life is not a game. It is an environment that facilitates creation and sharing. A set of powerful inbuilt building tools allow residents great latitude in creating both objects and their environment. In this chapter I present a comprehensive analysis of how the Second Life content creation tools work. I will take a detailed look at the features and capabilities of the building tools available inworld as well as tools to create avatars. Using examples of things I created to augment my experience I will show what is possible, and discuss the various problems one encounters when building. I will examine how the choices Linden Lab have made about how the content creation process works, and how content is distributed, have impacted outcomes for residents. Finally issues of ownership of digital property and business models are discussed.

When a resident first enters the world there is necessarily a lot of focus on how things work. Moving through the process of learning how the software client works and how to do things in the world is a vital part of becoming a resident. When we are newborns in meatspace, we must first come to terms with the nature of being a physical being and learn how our own bodies work before we can act in that world. Likewise, when we enter Second Life we must learn how to be an avatar and how the world of the avatar works.

Second Life employs the client-server model. The simulations that make up the world are running on servers maintained by Linden Lab which residents use an application installed on their computer, known as client software, to connect to via the internet. Linden Lab’s client is known as the Second Life Viewer1. There are also a number of third party viewers2 that can be used to connect to the Second Life servers.

During the time of my research I used first the Emerald Viewer, and, after Emerald’s removal from the approved viewers list due to the discovery of backdoors that compromised the client3 I changed to the Phoenix Viewer (see figure 6)4.

figure 6. Phoenix viewer version 1.61.1691

In virtual worlds there exists what Castronova5 describes as the fun economy, which is where games and virtual worlds seek to attract and retain players and residents and thus have fun as their primary imperative. For why would one play a game, or engage with a virtual world, in which the activities one participates in are not fun?

Harambam et al. predict that “the modern dichotomy of a free realm of play and an unfree realm of work may become increasingly problematic”6. This is exactly what Castronova7 posits will be the future of work, and indeed politics, in that those who have grown up participating in virtual worlds and games, being accustomed to developers responding to their fun requirement will expect the same from their meatspace employers and leaders. Harambam et al. further cite Dibble;

“Dibble even goes so far as to argue that ‘play’ constitutes the new rejuvenating force in stifled and fossilized capitalism. We seem to be entering, he argues playfully, partly serious, a new era of ‘ludocapitalism’ that transcends modern distinctions such as work versus leisure and profit versus fun.”8

Honestly, this seems like a dystopian nightmare, where corporations try to gamify their workplaces and reward employees with meaningless certificates and pizza parties instead of boosting wages. A nightmare which is already happening.

While some game and world developers do respond to user input, Linden Lab is famous9 for largely ignoring the input of their residents, for example one asks, “Any oldbies old enough around here to tell us how it felt in that legendary time when the Lindens did listen and, occasionally, heed?”10. This sadly all too familiar lack of response from those in power is not confined to the online world but has obvious parallels with contemporary political processes, for example as seen in Ukraine when the president, Viktor Yanukovuch reneged on his commitment to pursue trade ties with the European Union and instead signed a trade pact with Russia11 resulting in the Euromaidan (Eurosquare) protests and his removal from office12. No such consequences are coming for Linden Lab though. Despite an early plan to open source both their client and server, not long after after having opened the client a change of CEO saw Linden Lab reneg on this promise and they never released the source of the server.

Unlike in the meatspace world, in cyberspace one can usually just go somewhere else if one doesn’t like the rules of a particular game or world, which is exactly Castronova’s point. So how did residents of Second Life respond to the way Linden Lab failed to listen to their requests and suggestions? Initially there was no comparable place residents could go to as there were no other worlds to compare with Second Life. However in response to Linden Lab reneging on their promise to open source the server some residents of Second Life created OpenSimulator by reverse engineering the server based on an examination of the code of the client13. Soon open grids were popping up and residents suddenly had somewhere else to go, and go they did, in ever increasing numbers, while Second Life’s world continued to shrink at an ever increasing rate14.

Residents have enthusiastically embraced the freedom to create which Second Life gives them and the result is a world where most everything is created by them. The motivation for users to create their own entertainment is freedom and fun. The age of passive entertainment and the centralized creation of content is dying and a new age of creation and sharing is upon us. The technologies of the personal computer and the internet have facilitated this new age. The vast array of creative tools now available, combined with the ease and low cost of distribution facilitated by the internet, have opened the door to a user created world.

In order for a virtual world to be fun it needs content. While socialising is a very important part of Second Life’s attraction to users the aesthetic aspects of the world are crucial to its success. People come together in communities in Second Life and they represent the defining characteristics of those communities in the environment they create. Fans of Gor build environments that resemble the world of Gor. Steampunks build fantastic retro-futuristic environments. Universities build copies of their meatspace campuses.

Even the very earliest role playing adventure games had a form of user created content. Magazines would print source code that users could type into their computers to add new features to their games15. The Sims was however the first game/world to depend on user-created content, with content creation tools being released before the game16. Many virtual worlds and games afford some level of user input into content, but it is generally only user customised content, i.e. users can assemble content provided by the game developers into new configurations. It is worth noting that even when customisation is the only option available to them people enthusiastically try to create, and do so even in games that don’t explicitly allow, and indeed ban such behaviour, for example, Ultima Online, where users have combined existing items in the world to create things that looked like other things, but are non-functional17.

So what is user created content? Fiesler, relying on the OECD’s definition, says it is “created outside of one’s professional routine; it is something that people do in their free time, usually without monetary compensation”18, but this definition is lacking, for example, many residents have made content creation in Second Life their profession, but they are not being paid by Linden Lab to do so. I define user created content as an open and distributed rather than a closed and centralized content creation paradigm. It is anything created by the users of, rather than the creators of, a system, where those two entities are separate.

Fiesler goes on to say user created content “…is the product of a new movement towards a participative web culture, cultivated by new technology that is accessible and affordable by the general public”19. Here I think she is getting to the core of it. I see creation and community as being at the core of the Second Life experience. As Lawrence Lessig says,

“Technology could enable a whole generation to create – remixed films, new forms of music, digital art, a new kind of story telling, writing, a new technology for poetry, criticism, political activism – and then, through the infrastructure of the internet, share that creativity with others.”20

This is exactly what I see in Second Life. Residents are choosing to engage with Second Life because it provides them something more than passive observation (like television), or directed interactions (like video games). It allows them to be the masters of their own creative destinies, destinies facilitated by the personal computer and the internet. It allows them the freedom to have fun, and possibly to profit, in a space not bounded by, or that they consider to be not bounded by, the constraints of meatspace. This prioritisation of freedom and fun may one day be actualised in the political world of meatspace, but until that day comes we will continue to experience a conflict between the realities of meatspace and cyberspace.

Some have argued that there is no conflict as there is no difference between meatspace and cyberspace. Malpas21 asserts that “The virtual does not introduce any special legal or ethical problems that are peculiar to the virtual alone”. However he has overlooked the infinite replication at no cost of digital goods. Once a digital item has been made it can be replicated at no cost infinitely. But Malpas is not alone in missing the importance of this aspect of virtual life. Copyright holders and many content creators likewise fail to account for this phenomenon in their dealings with virtual worlds. The idea of content theft in virtual worlds seems hard to justify when the concept of theft itself seems not to apply. If I make a car in meatspace and you come and take it from me I no longer have a car. You have stolen it from me. If I make a car in a virtual world I can give an identical copy to you and still have an infinite number of cars myself. It seems clear that I as the maker of the car can rightly claim some reward for having made the car. But do I deserve this reward an infinite number of times? I suggest not. The key factor here is that I do not suffer a loss if you also have a copy of the car. I still have an infinitely replicable car. While copyright holders have argued that the loss of a potential sale is an actual loss22 this argument is spurious as there is no way to ascertain if this potential sale would ever have been realised. The fact that one might download a copy of a movie is not proof that one would ever have bought it. One might not have the means to purchase it or one might find it of such poor quality that no desire to purchase it exists.

The fact that no actual, physical loss occurs gives the lie to any idea of theft. Michael23 describes this as being a contrast between a physical constraint and a social constraint. If I am driving my car in meatspace you cannot simultaneously be driving it. This is a physical constraint. In contrast to this, the concept of copyright, which constrains you from taking a copy of my car in a virtual world, is a social constraint.

In an effort to address the lack of physical constraints in virtual worlds, and to artificially replicate the scarcity of objects in the meatspace world, Linden Lab created a software analogue of Lessig’s aforementioned permission culture24. The Second Life permissions system is designed to allow the creator of an object to decide what degree of control they want other residents to have over their creations. All objects have three permissions; modify, copy and resell/give away (the last is generally referred to as transfer). The permissions system is however easily circumventable, with programs in existence that allow users to copy even items with restricted permissions, and some third party viewers supporting object export25. The system is widely resented and ridiculed by residents, including many content creators, many of them being those who wish to give their content away for free. Support for the permissions system is found among some who seek to make a living from their virtual creations.

  1. Linden Lab, Second Life Viewer, https://secondlife.com/support/downloads/, Accessed 02/04/2014. ↩︎
  2. Second Life Wiki, Third Party Viewer Directory, http://wiki.secondlife.com/wiki/Third_Party_Viewer_Directory, Accessed 02/04/2014. ↩︎
  3. Lefebvre, E., (2010), Second Life’s Emerald client facing obsolescence, http://massively.joystiq.com/2010/08/24/second-lifes-emerald-client-facing-obsolescence/, Accessed 02/04/2014. ↩︎
  4. Phoenix Firestorm Project, Phoenix Viewer Downloads For Second Life, http://wiki.phoenixviewer.com/phoenix:phoenix_downloads, Accessed 02/04/2014. ↩︎
  5. Castronova, E., (2007), Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun is Changing Reality, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, pp. 137-187. ↩︎
  6. Harambam, J., Aupers, S., Goutman, D., (2009), “The Quest for the Ultimate Game: World of Warcraft, Second Life and the Commercialization of Virtual Game Worlds”, Sociologie, Vol. 5, No. 1, p. 19. ↩︎
  7. Castronova, E., (2007), Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun is Changing Reality, Palgrave Macmillan, New York. ↩︎
  8. Harambam, J., Aupers, S., Goutman, D., (2009), “The Quest for the Ultimate Game: World of Warcraft, Second Life and the Commercialization of Virtual Game Worlds”, Sociologie, Vol. 5, No. 1, p. 20. ↩︎
  9. Korolov, M., (2013), Outrage grows over new Second Life terms, http://www.hypergridbusiness.com/2013/09/outrage-grows-over-new-second-life-terms/, Accessed 08/02/2014. ↩︎
  10. Nino, T., (2011), Why should Linden Lab listen to your feedback anyway?, http://dwellonit.taterunino.net/2011/03/01/why-should-linden-lab-listen-to-your-feedback-anyway/, Accessed 08/02/2014. ↩︎
  11. Al Jazeera, (2013), Ukraine drops EU plans and looks to Russia, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2013/11/ukraine-drops-eu-plans-looks-russia-20131121145417227621.html, Accessed 08/02/2014. ↩︎
  12. Wikipedia, Euromaidan, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euromaidan, Accessed 08/02/2014. ↩︎
  13. http://opensimulator.org/wiki/History ↩︎
  14. Korolov, M., (2014), Grid Activity Down Slightly in January, http://www.hypergridbusiness.com/2014/01/grid-activity-down-slightly-in-january/, Accessed 08/02/2014. ↩︎
  15. Scott, J., (2010), Get Lamp, http://www.getlamp.com/, Accessed 11/02/2014. ↩︎
  16. Ondrejka, C., (2004), “Escaping the Gilded Cage: User Created Content and Building the Metaverse”, New York Law School Law Review, Vol. 49, No. 1, p. 84. ↩︎
  17. UO Stratics Staff, How To Make The Pianos, http://uo.stratics.com/homes/betterhomes/essay_piano.shtml, Accessed 01/02/2011 ↩︎
  18. Fiesler, C., (2008), “Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Fandom: How Existing Social Norms Can Help Shape the Next Generation of User-Generated Content”, Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law, Vol. 10, p. 733. ↩︎
  19. Fiesler, C., (2008), “Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Fandom: How Existing Social Norms Can Help Shape the Next Generation of User-Generated Content”, Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law, Vol. 10, p. 741. ↩︎
  20. Lessig, L., (2001), The Future of Ideas, Random House, New York. ↩︎
  21. Malpas, J., (2009), “On the Non Autonomy of the Virtual”, Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, Vol. 15, No. 2, p. 138. ↩︎
  22. Geist, M., (2005), “Piercing the peer-to-peer myths: An examination of the Canadian Experience”, First Monday, Vol. 10, No. 4. ↩︎
  23. Michael, G. J., (2012), Anarchy and Property Rights in the Virtual World: How Disruptive Technologies Undermine the State and Ensure that the Virtual World Remains a “Wild West”, http://ssrn.com/abstract=2233374, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
  24. Lessig, L., (2004), Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity, p. 4, http://www.jus.uio.no/sisu/free_culture.lawrence_lessig/portrait.letter.pdf, Accessed 18/12/2013. ↩︎
  25. Second Life Forum, (2011), The truth about copybot, http://community.secondlife.com/t5/General-Discussions/The-truth-about-copybot/td-p/481152, Accessed 08/02/2014. ↩︎

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