Seven days in Second Life
It has a population bigger than Glasgow and a booming economy. Barry Collins spends a week in the virtual world of Second Life
Where else could you design your own swimming pool, discuss world politics with a zebra in a bar and make £200 before lunch? Welcome to Second Life (www.secondlife.com), a truly massive, utterly surreal and dangerously compelling online world that's attracting thousands of new residents every day.
Unlike most games, which are played within the strict parameters of the developers' imagination, Second Life hinges on the creativity of its members, allowing them to build objects, industries and communities that the company had never envisioned. Aircraft hangers nestle alongside football pitches; casinos are mere seconds away from support groups for real-life victims of sexual abuse; political debates are a few mouse clicks away from open-mike nights at a comedy club (and are not always dissimilar).
But what's it really like to live, work and play in Second Life? I spent a week undercover in the online world, attempting to sample as much of the culture, community and environment as possible. Parts of it were hugely entertaining, parts of it were scary, a small fraction of it was borderline illegal, but as you'll discover from my diary below there was never a dull moment.
I'm dropped from the sky into my Second Life, and immediately find myself on a mountain top surrounded by blokes in blue jeans and tight white T-shirts. At first glance, Second Life appears to be an Alpine audition for the lead role in Grease. Thankfully, a little name tag - bearing the "Bozza Bayliss" moniker that I'd chosen at registration - appears above my avatar, distinguishing me from the rest of the Travoltas.
I work my way down the mountain to a training camp, where you're taught the basics through a series of pop-up tutorials: how to move objects, open doors, talk to your fellow residents and fly. Within seconds, I'm buzzing around the landscape like Peter Pan on speed, and I'm immediately forced into practising my communication skills by apologising to the bemused woman who's just been ploughed into by a flying 1970s musical star.
Before the hit-and-run victim has time to regain consciousness, I'm off into a training camp clothes shop to change my appearance. I opt for a black crushed-velvet top and, for no other reason than because I can, a pair of dragon's feet. I emerge looking like a reptilian Graham Norton (having perhaps taken "training camp" a little too literally), although compared to the man with a goat's head and luminous pin-stripe suit alongside me my appearance is quite mundane.
There's still all manner of training tasks to undertake, but I'm itching to get going and, after a brief game of chess with a fellow newbie, I ask to be teleported to the main Second Life "grid". I'm warned there's no return path to training camp - once I press the teleport button, I'm on my own. Armed with nothing more than my dragon's feet and spirit of discovery, I'm off.
I land in the middle of nowhere, and wait a few seconds for the scenery to appear. Unlike conventional games, Second Life is completely server based - all the dynamic environments are redrawn every time you visit, and if the servers are busy it can take ten seconds or so for the world around you to materialise. I fly around and find myself in what appears to be a nightclub - a gothic warehouse with dance podiums and pictures of sultry women on the walls. A classy joint compared to my normal haunts. I spot a group of people sitting on beanbags and strike up a conversation and, given that my balance of Linden dollars (the in-game currency) currently stands at zilch, I ask how I might start making money.