Fantasy World
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 7 (July 2004)

Fantasy World

Philip Rosedale, CEO of Linden Lab, is the chief visionary for Second Life, an online 3D world that allows visitors to live their dreams virtually. For more information about Second Life, see "Life, Or Something Like It," page 54.

How would you describe Second Life?
It's an immersive 3D world owned by its users—a place where you can change everything, and create or experience anything you can imagine. Buy and sell land, build a real business, design cars, play games, go dancing—these are all possibilities.

Philip Rosedale

Is it a game?
Second Life is more than a game. It's is a living, growing, digital world. And as participants add attractions—like theme parks or charity events—it will become more like another country you can visit with a computer. Yet, because its early pioneers often build virtual businesses that provide entertainment to others, it often feels like many games within a broader open platform or playground.

How did the idea originate?
I've been intrigued since an early age by the possibility of using networking and computers to create a special kind of space between people that captures our passion to communicate, express ourselves, and pursue our dreams.

Why hasn't this been done before?
Bandwidth and 3D capabilities haven't been sufficient for doing something compelling until now. I actually started the company in early 2000 figuring that it would take a few years to create the product and have it ready for today's enabling technologies.

Are you tapping into the desire people have to remake themselves?
Remaking one's identity is only the tip of the iceberg of what digital worlds can offer. We all share a tremendous passion to express ourselves and an inability in real life to do it as well as we would like. By creating an exceptionally plastic environment in which you can change everything from yourself to your home or your car or anything else in your environment, SL can be the closest thing to having someone else be able to see inside your head.

Why did you create a world where nonviolent behavior is rewarded?
SL is actually neutral with respect to violence, as opposed to most MMORPGs, which reward violent behavior as part of a heroic narrative. In SL, a strong sense of community is created during the process of building a new world, in engaging in the debate over what the future will look like. But there are many struggles in SL as well—over land or between neighbors, for example.

How is positive behavior encouraged?
We created forms of transparency like ratings and social networks that tend to encourage positive behavior, but I'd say these are emergent characteristics more than intentional design. I think we are seeing a trend in the real world as well toward higher levels of transparency, which will probably also result in better overall human behavior.

How popular has SL become?
We are still small relative to the big consumer MMORPGs, but SL has been growing at almost 30 percent per month since the beginning of the year. Moreover, our users made more than a quarter million transactions last month, buying and selling things from each other.

What are the demographics of players?
Among active users, about 64 percent are male and 36 percent are female. The average age is in the late 20s, but there is a wider age range among people participating in SL than in typical online games. And all types of people are represented, from college students to home business owners to stay-at-home moms to digital artists. Some 20 percent of users are international, and more than 30 countries are represented.

Do people redo what they've done in real life or try new experiences?
Both. There are lots of real-world businesses now being mirrored in SL, but they are much more exciting and rewarding to do because of the speed with which things happen in-world. For example, a clothing business might start and succeed or fail in days or weeks versus months or years in real life. Certainly, you can also use SL to become something you've never been. About half of the people create avatars that look a lot like they do, and the other half go in a completely new direction.

What technology makes the experience possible?
Streaming technology that delivers everything needed to render the world in real time over a broadband connection is the key to collaboratively creating and changing a rich visual environment.

My background is in streaming media (with RealNetworks), and we borrowed techniques for streaming audio and video at high compression rates to stream the geometry, images, and sounds of a 3D world. We are also using a server grid computing model with more than 200 Linux-based computers that is expanding rapidly as we add land.

How far will this concept go?
As the server computers get faster, it will be possible to put more objects in the world. Today, there are about one million user-created objects in SL. With 10 times the processing power, there could be 10 million objects. Within a few years, the visual quality and density of objects should be pretty close to a real-world environment. However, from an economic and emotional standpoint, I'd say it's already pretty real. For example, people are making a real-world living selling virtual things.

What are some of the potential benefits?
SL is a fascinating tool for evaluating social systems. We've had college classes spend time in SL looking at sociological issues as part of their studies in game design, urban planning, architecture, and digital media. Some of the private islands that we sell will be test beds for folks who want to play with social rules. For example, we have one organization that has purchased a large private island to test whether this type of environment would be effective for corporate communication.

Could it be used for evaluating policy issues?
We've already experienced this in our own in-world policies. When our users felt the economic system was impeding their ability to enlarge and expand their projects, they had a tax revolt, and we were able to see the results of that. This sort of scenario could be useful for examining the effects of real-world governmental policies, as well.

Are there dangers in living fantasy lives?
The early stages of online environments have simplified the world in a way that invites a dangerously simplified perspective—the idea that you can shoot your way out of any problem, for example. But as digital worlds offer capabilities beyond the real world, we will actually see the opposite—an ability to become better people by being there. A number of participants have told me that, in addition to simply being fun, SL has made them better or smarter. This is one of the things that inspires me about SL.