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Virtual loses its virtues

The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Early inhabitants of Second Life say their online world looks too much like the real thing (if you ignore the flying people and the elves).

February 22, 2007|Alana Semuels | Times Staff Writer

LIKE any pioneer, Marshal Cahill arrived in a new world curious and eager to sample its diversions. Over time, though, he saw an elite few grabbing more than their share.

They bought up all the plum real estate. They awarded building contracts to friends. They stifled free speech.

Cahill saw a bleak future, but he felt powerless to stop them. So he detonated an atomic bomb outside an American Apparel outlet. Then another outside a Reebok store.

As political officer for the Second Life Liberation Army, Cahill is passionately committed to righting what he considers the wrongs of a world that exists only on the computer servers of Linden Lab in San Francisco.

Linden is the company behind Second Life, a virtual world in which Internet users act out parallel fantasy lives. They date. They build houses. They work. Some players support themselves in real life by selling goods or services in the game.

Some see the space as a utopia free of real-world constraints, where they can build their vision of a perfect realm from scratch. It's a place where denizens can reinvent themselves as a supermodel or a rodent, own an island or fly, no plane necessary, to a virtual Grauman's Chinese Theatre.

In the last year, the number of people who had visited Second Life skyrocketed from 100,000 to 2 million. As the population grows, early denizens are learning the truth of Jean-Paul Sartre's observation "Hell is other people."

The website is facing the problem that many would-be utopias faced before it: When building the ideal world, it's impossible to change while remaining perfect in everyone's eyes.

Cahill and his compatriots say they don't necessarily mind the new residents, but they want more influence in deciding the future of the virtual world. Most important, they want Linden Lab to allow voting on issues affecting their in-world experience.

"The population of the world should have a say in the running of the world," Cahill said during an in-world interview. Cahill is this participant's online name, incidentally. He refused to reveal his real-world name for fear of banishment from Second Life.

The army has staged a number of protests in Second Life to publicize its position. Three gun-toting members shot customers outside American Apparel -- bullet wounds in Second Life are not fatal but merely disrupt a user's experience -- and Reebok stores last year.

Then they stepped up the campaign, exploding nukes, which manifested themselves in swirling fireballs that thrust users at the scene into motionless limbo.

Cahill said the group targeted in-world corporate locations to draw real-world attention to its cause.

LONG-TERM Second Life residents have given Cahill and his conspirators money to buy virtual guns and other weapons. Cahill says he believes that 80% of long-term residents support his cause.

Cahill, an entrepreneur who splits his time between London and San Francisco in the real world, compares himself to John Adams, the second U.S. president. Adams would have been considered a terrorist by his foes, Cahill said, because he helped lead the American Revolution. The Second Life Liberation Army, he said, is just trying to make the world a better place.

It's not unusual for original members to feel a loss of control when their community grows, said Michael Macy, a sociology professor at Cornell University who studies online worlds. It's like a poky mining town that suddenly finds itself in the middle of a gold rush.

"If thousands of people show up to pan for gold," he said, "the original members are going to be very upset."

But the malcontents and pranksters -- and there are many of them, even outside Cahill's organization -- make for a dangerous environment. Land sharks try to drive users off certain properties, and mafias have been known to harass users. Giant male genitals have crashed events, bouncing around and distracting participants. A recent posting in the Second Life Herald called the space "the freaking wild wild west."

For some users, these events illuminate how much Second Life has changed. Some early users in particular point to corporations as the culprits. They began to build their presence in Second Life as the population grew.

Big companies such as Toyota and Adidas have opened stores in the game, where players can buy virtual products for their make-believe characters. Second Life has its own currency, Linden dollars, which can be earned in the game or bought with real money at an exchange rate of 267.3 Lindens to $1.

"The utopian age has passed," said Peter Ludlow, professor of linguistics and philosophy at the University of Michigan and editor of "Crypto Anarchy, Cyberstates, and Pirate Utopias." Ludlow, whose Second Life persona, or avatar, is named Urizenus Sklar, compares Second Life's current status to the ending of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, in which the Shire, previously untouched by the outside world, is destroyed.

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