Republished: Second Life at The University of Twente (Part 1)

Posted on 5 February, 2008


This post originally appearead on Dan’s Glass Houses blog on June 16th, 2007. 

I’ve just returned from the University of Twente, near Enschede, in Holland where I presented at an interdisciplinary Second Life workshop.  On the eve of the workshop Dr Peter Ludlow (Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto and founder of the Second Life Herald) presented a highly entertaining public lecture covering a wide range of topics from how the Herald came to Second Life to private and public feuds in the Second Life community.

One of the central themes of the lecture was that of emergent behaviour within the community.  Dr Ludlow began his virtual world journalism in The Sims Online (TSO).  TSO had a much more limited palette of actions than Second Life, but nevertheless it became a centre for the creation of x-rated businesses, mafia-esque extortion and protection rackets, the formation of shadow governments (theoretically) dedicated to standing up for the “little man” and even a vibrant financial exchange (albeit not supported by the game client, but via eBay and similar).

Second Life of course is now home to many of these emergent behaviours, which makes it a perfect place for reporting interesting (and more often than not challenging and thought provoking) in-world stories, in Dr Ludlow’s case via the Second Life Herald.  One of the highlights of the lecture centred on the telling of a dispute and the resulting conflict which can be read on the Second Life Herald: ‘A History of the Second Jessie War‘.

The arrival of a number of real-world businesses to Second Life was covered, with Dr Ludlow suggesting that in creating a presence many corporations had fundamentally missed the point of a virtual world, failing in any way shape or form to provide compelling, interactive content, with little or no social element and a distinct clash with the overall Second Life aesthetic.  Of course the investment required to create a Second Life presence for some of the biggest companies in the world is in the grand scheme of things next to nothing.  Arguably then the publicity of their arrival is where the primary value lies, a continuing engagement with their in-world content coming a distant second.

The lecture covered the ‘numbers’ issue (what the statistics of Second Life actually mean) and some high profile issues like that of age-play in Second Life.  This area in particular raises some interesting scenarios.  There’s some feeling that were Linden Labs to move to controlling or guaranteeing content in some way then their role, from a legal standpoint, would shift quite considerably to something much closer to that of ‘publisher’.  And consequently they may well find themselves at the beginning of any number of law cases.

Following the lecture a number of us, including Dr Ludlow and myself ended up in Enschede town centre, pondering the possible futures and resulting consequences of our increasing use of virtual worlds in our daily lives.  There was certainly a degree of agreement that the real world/virtual world boundary was one that was at best very thin.  The argument isn’t about ‘where’ something is taking place (.ie. on a screen or in cyberspace) but that ultimately every story and every experience is a human one.  It happens to you, it’s part of your life, and as such doesn’t sound at all virtual to me, but a very real and lived experience.

And this of course is fundamental to the appeal.  Whether it’s about business communications, entertainment or education a virtual world such as Second Life provides a very real, lived experience.  In time I’m sure the media will catch up and perceptions will shift quite considerably.  Second Life may well (indeed almost certainly) pass behind us as a stepping stone technology, but a cultural move to understanding the importance and maximising the benefits of virtual worlds is here to stay.