Does your life suck?

Aug 23, 2006 at 12:00 am

I have no idea how I ended up loitering on the rooftop of a burger stand called Hot Beef Injection. But that's where I find myself on a Tuesday afternoon with a skater girl named Tripper Tapioca. Behind me, a giant waffle spins slowly on a fixed axis — landmark signage for the local diner. Across the street sits a fenced-in skate park of wooden ramps and elevated beam-like railings that's adjacent to Stizzy's Skateshop, an urban-style boutique selling boards, T-shirts and customized BMX bikes. This is Zephyr Heights, a 65,536-square-meter island where motorcycles rev like cyberpunk coyotes, the movie theater has a fully stocked candy counter but an empty marquee, and the locals try to attract a specific genus of tourist with the slogan: "Zephyr Heights — We aim to remove the stick from your ass."

Tapioca co-owns all of this. In fact, the pale-skinned skate-punk in laced-up boots, knee-length pants and dark sunglasses helped develop this barren land mass into a "grungy suburban" milieu in just six months: the motorcycles, the waffle house, even Stizzy's, a street-style store hawking her personal skateboard brand. Actually, this self-described "generally quiet" girl is one of the best-known skate-park designers and board vendors in the world.

In this world, that is.

This is Second Life (SL), a 3-D virtual environment created by Linden Lab, a seven-year-old San Francisco-based company. In this pixelated alternate world — in real-world scale, a 42,000-acre mainland, roughly half the size of Detroit, surrounded by islands — account holders aren't users, they're "residents." In this world, you can fly. You can "teleport." You can't drown. You do not age. You can have an awkward version of cybersex. You can tailor your "avatar," an endlessly customizable 3-D representation of your Second Life self, in any imaginable shape. You can be an emerald dragon, a horned devil baby, a furry fox, or a lumbering gingerbread man. But most avatars you'll encounter are idealized human shapes. And in this world, real people spend real money (yes, actual U.S. dollars) on make-believe skateboards, T-shirts and islands like Zephyr Heights, which cost $1,250 to purchase from Linden Lab with a $195 monthly maintenance fee — possessions that can't be ridden, worn or visited outside a computer screen.

Beyond this world, in real life — aka what Second Lifers refer to as "meatspace," where your body is made of flesh, not bytes — Tapioca says she's Diane Falco, an 18-year-old living in New Jersey. She spends most days as her Vans-wearing, faux-hawk-preening, alter-ego avatar, hanging out and building things in her home base of Zephyr Heights. Falco, who's out of high school, sells boards for $300 Linden Dollars (L) apiece. She says they earn her between $50,000 and $70,000 weekly in the fluctuating fictional currency, which as of last Tuesday was trading at approximately $308 Lindens to every US dollar. On average, that grosses Falco a real-world income of between USD $162 and USD $227 every seven days, the equivalent of a part-time job. And since she still lives at home with her parents, Second Life functions as Falco's office.

Founded by Philip Rosedale, former vice-president and CTO of RealNetworks, Second Life was intended to replicate a "metaverse," as described in Neal Stephenson's 1992 novel Snow Crash. It is often likened to the 6-million-plus member Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG) World of Warcraft (a fantasy role-playing challenge involving elves, orcs and monster-slaying). The main similarity between the two 3-D realms is that the animated figures featured in both aren't preprogrammed; they're powered by people logged on to the same network. Beyond that, Second Life is markedly different from its metaverse counterparts. Like the virtual-life game The Sims, there are no stated objectives. Attacking other people, rather than advancing you, can get you evicted. And the environment (dance clubs, casinos, sex dens, mansions, castles, restaurants, modern homes, conference centers) is constructed entirely by its 300,000-plus residents, a number that's tripled just since January.

Real-world institutions have recently recognized Second Life's potential. CEO Jeff Bezos is a Linden Lab investor. Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society has an island similar to Falco's, and holds conferences in Second Life. This past winter, MTV staged an avatar fashion show that was rebroadcast on its broadband network MTV Overdrive. And in May, BBC Radio 1 simulcast a weekend music festival of acts like Gnarls Barkley, Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand, from real-world Scotland to SL; that same month, 20th Century Fox organized an "in-world" red-carpet premiere of X-Men: The Last Stand for avatars. And Major League Baseball has an ESPN-simulcast in the works, co-sponsored by Budweiser.

Real-world retail is also sensing a ground-floor business opportunity, since fashion is one of SL's biggest industries. Hipster-thread brand American Apparel (AA) recently opened a fully functional store in Second Life, selling virtual clothing to avatars (a fleece track jacket goes for about $300L — the same price as one of Tripper's skateboards — or about a dollar), complete with dressing-room headshots of AA founder Dov Charney and AA-characteristic decor like an orgasm-faced-girl photo triptych.

Major record labels, too, are making their way into the SL-scape. In late May, Warner Brothers Records (WBR) chose to forgo the now-traditional MySpace record-streaming release route, opting instead to debut New York-based singer-pianist Regina Spektor's album Begin to Hope, by holding a listening party exclusively in Second Life. "It took a couple of e-mails to explain even to publicity what this actually was," says Ethan Kaplan, director of technology at WBR, who was originally a beta-tester for Second Life and helped oversee the Regina Spektor project. "Still, they're like, 'You mean people spend all their time in a virtual world and they're spending real money?'"

Yes, they are: During June, $5.3 million exchanged hands among residents in Second Life. In addition, each resident pays Linden Lab $9.95 in monthly account fees; quarterly accounts cost $22.50, and an annual membership runs for $72. (You can sign up for a free account, but basic-account holders don't receive a weekly stipend of $500L and can't own land.)

It gets even more surreal. There are at least two community newspapers that cover in-world news, one of which prints avatar wedding announcements, sports updates and a comic strip starring residents. There are also real-world author signings, "live" musical performances, and short movies filmed entirely in-world. Plus, Second Life has its own independently hosted version of Flickr (a photo-sharing site of avatar shots called "Snapzilla"), its own resident-managed MySpace, and even its own avatar-equivalent of "Am I Hot or Not?"

Second Life has been labeled "an emerging online society" for a reason: The possibilities within this 3-D framework are open-ended and therefore difficult to articulate. "I say SL is a mash-up of MySpace, Friendster, all these social-networking community sites," says David Fleck, Linden Lab's vice president of marketing. "Plus, add to that your favorite [instant-messenger] client, add to that your favorite context-creation tools — such as PhotoShop or 3-D Studio — add to that a little bit of eBay and Amazon and, ultimately, out of that comes something called Second Life."

"If someone's comfortable with technology and gaming, I'll just say [Second Life is] 'World of Warcraft, but all user-created,'" says Wagner James Au, a Second Life blogger and consultant who was paid by Linden Lab for three years to cover Second Life from the inside as an "embedded" journalist. "For the Web 2.0 crowd, I'll say, 'It's MySpace meets meets World of Warcraft.'" Or better yet, Au adds, "Sometimes I'll just say, 'It's like Legos on acid.'"

Born again

At first, my Second Life sucked. First, I downloaded the SL software and my computer kept burping up error messages. When I finally got access to a computer capable of handling Second Life, I logged in with the avatar name "Lily Pixie" and found myself on Orientation Island, a tropical parcel where information booths teach newcomers how to control their avatars. Then I was unceremoniously dropped into the Welcome Center, an outdoor park-like quad of reception-area benches and leafy planters where avatars are essentially born. Not long after, a Snoopy-shaped avatar descended on the Welcome Center and activated a physical attachment: a stubby human penis. I still didn't have my SL sea legs and accidentally ran straight for the dog's schlong. The other avatars mocked me in textual laughter: "hahahahaha."

As in a chat room, contributors communicate by exchanging text messages either through a public chat or one-on-one instant-messaging (avatars awkwardly air-type while they're talking, their fingers tapping invisible keyboards). If avatars are conversing, but not instant-messaging, their communiqués pop up as you pass. That same first day, I overhear a fellow new citizen in the Welcome Center looking for guidance:

Alycia Bradley: ok so . . . this is my first ti[m]e and day here . . . what is here to do.

Jrdan DarkeS: you could always suck my penis

Alycia Bradley: nice mouth

Later, I would learn that Snoopy's behavior and Jrdan DarkeS's response is called "griefing" — SL jargon for the act of abusing other denizens. As I soon discover, most residents are consistently affable and helpful. Linden Lab makes it that way by imposing "community standards"; residents can be suspended or expelled if they violate "the Big Six" rules on intolerance, indecency, harassment, assault, disclosure and disturbing the peace. To keep track of in-world miscreants, Second Life has created a "police blotter," which enumerates daily offenses, along with official Linden-sanctioned punishments. On any given day, you'll see something like "Date: Monday, June 26, 2006/Violation: Community Standards: Indecency, Mature Content/Region: Ahern/Description: Obscene group name and charter/Action taken: Suspended 3 days."

It took me a while to learn to control my avatar. I'd press the wrong key and end up descending into what appeared to be solid ground . . . sinking, sinking, sinking. Apparently, my steep learning curve isn't unusual. "Someone was asking me what Second Life was," says Boston-based video producer and video blogger (aka "vlogger") icon Steve Garfield, who set up an SL account in May to attend a Harvard Berkman conference in both real life and Second Life simultaneously. "I'm like, 'I went to go check out this conference center, and I fell in the water, and I walked around on the bottom of the water, and I flew out of there. Then I bought a Devo hat and it took me a half-hour to figure out how to put it on.'"

"When I have a few minutes of downtime, I'll hang out at the Welcome Area and people are like, 'So now what do I do?'" says California-based podcaster Eric Rice, whose Second Life double is Spin Martin. "That's a really, really broad question. I guess it's probably a little like going into the Wild West in the old days and going, 'So now what? This is the Promised Land? A big field?'" he says.

Many citizens do regard the limitless territory as akin to a land-rush opportunity. "I see it like New York in the early '80s," confesses 25-year-old resident of Allston, Mass., and former Honeypump promoter Ben Sisto, who plans to open an art gallery in Second Life. "A lot of artists settled in the Lower East Side because the rents were cheap, even though there was a heroin addict in their bushes. I feel like Second Life has that same opportunity: the rent's $10 a month."

And that was Linden Lab's mission. "Philip Rosedale had this vision of what Second Life should be ... he always wanted to create a place that everybody could participate in and be whatever they wanted," says Linden's Fleck. "You might argue that's a utopian mentality, but it was more about equality — just saying, 'Here, give everybody the same thing and don't create privileges for people or entities that come into Second Life.'"

Such egalitarian beginnings have created a medium for acres of virtual innovation. There's Nakama, an anime-inspired urban wasteland of purple-and-pink high rises and J-pop flowers that feels like a cross between Akira and Fruits Basket. Or Walleye's Acropolis Bowl, a functional candlepin alley with pool tables, gaudy patterned carpeting and a mini-arcade that includes Q*Bert. Or Taco, a vivid place with a tortilla-topped gazebo and a chocolate-river-flowing candy factory where Oompa Loompas and googly-eyed taco shells celebrated Second Life's third anniversary. There's also Midnight City, a moody Manhattan-like shopping district of funky shoes, lustrous street lamps and taxi stands where avatars buy skin tones, lingerie and breasts. And let's not forget Mai Tais Beach Club, a rump-shaking beachside joint located in Little Italy that blares Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie." There, an avatar named Gale Giles sometimes invites her peers to dance, explaining how to get one's body wiggling. "All you have to do is touch the machine (it's attached to my bum)," she informed me. (I declined by teleporting away.)

"Content creation is exceeding the ability to actually consume it," Fleck says. "So if you go in there starting right now and you decide to spend all your time, full-time, in Second Life wandering around, checking things out, participating, you cannot see it all and consume it all."

Business is booming

Tripper Tapioca is the sort of girl who hangs out not only at beef stands, but also in vacant parking lots and abandoned tenements. But then her game crashes, and I'm left alone. Zephyr Heights's unofficial police officer, Barry Rawley, finds me and shows me around a local flea market where he hawks Aerosmith T-shirts for $45L apiece ("[I]'ve probubly [sic] sold around 2-3 of them," he types, "they aren't that popular"). Tapioca returns and teleports me to the second floor of an empty warehouse, a weather-beaten, shadowy room that's littered with drained beer bottles and furnished with cinderblock seats. In the middle of the floor are three card tables stained with bloody handprints, scarred with skull-and-crossbones logos, and decked with revolvers — this is where Zephyr Heights's co-owner Sirius Gateaux holds rounds of Russian roulette every Thursday.

Zephyr Heights has a few recurring pastimes other than skating. There are boxcar races, water-balloon battles (Tapioca says that even though you can't get wet, "It's still fun: They knock you back") and Russian roulette for Linden bucks. Gambling is a huge hobby in Second Life, as is sex. At any given time, the Linden-calculated list of SL's 20 most popular places is almost completely made up of casinos and "adult" playgrounds. And one SL game, Tringo, a combination of bingo and Tetris, proved so popular in-world that it's now available externally for Game Boy Advance.

Tapioca tells me she's been a Second Life citizen since Oct. 15, 2004. "I used to play The Sims online, but it started to get boring," she says. Stizzy's, her skater product line, started accidentally. "I was just messing around with the building tools and decided to make a bike." That innovation led her to tinker not only with virtual skateboards, but with real-life ones as well, through the customizable Canadian Maple decks site, Board Pusher.

What does her real-life family think of all this? "My parents actually play too," she informs me, though she won't reveal their SL identities. "They don't tell people their real age ... and if people knew they had an 18-year-old daughter, their cover would be blown." Falco agrees to ask if they'd be willing to meet me in-world; less than a minute later she announces, "My dad is coming here now." And then — poof! — a male figure whose avatar-moniker I promised not to disclose appears.

Tapioca's father explains that he's at home on a Tuesday afternoon because he works at night; his real-world name is Anthony. He's admittedly "impressed by [my daughter's] ability to build and create," he says. But he has no personal interest in busting his ass for imaginary stuff. "Work is a real-life function for myself," he texts.

Of course, real-world Anthony could be Tapioca's "alt," an alternate avatar account, or a friend Tapioca IM'd and rounded up to sustain the parental ruse. (For what it's worth, the two characters typed simultaneously and spoke in different tones.) But the who-really-is-that dilemma is one of SL's major complexities: Real-world anonymity is not only an intrinsic feature of the imaginary realm, but a Linden-upheld guarantee.

There are some residents who don't blur the lines between their digital personas and their flesh. Ex-MTV VJ and podcasting guru Adam Curry, for instance, is a celebrity SL resident who goes by Adam Neumann and has his own compound, Curry Castle. (Earlier this month, when Curry's real-world mother passed away, an in-world wake was held in her honor.) Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford legal scholar and Internet-copyright expert, is also an SL resident. And Long Beach, Calif., City-Council candidate Brian Ulaszewski one-upped Howard Dean when he coordinated a virtual meet-and-greet in Second Life.

Yet, as Rosedale must have partly intended, obscurity can be a great equalizer. "I have this big Tiki house [in SL]," says Boston-based C.C. Chapman, a digital marketer at Babson College who also hosts the music podcast Accident Hash. "The other night we did a strategy session [in the house] talking about digital marketing. I knew who these people were from talking with them before, but everyone else there didn't," he says. "This guy over here was a CEO and this woman over here is a stay-at-home mom trying to start her own business. But here they're on a level playing field — they don't know the difference — and that's cool. The medium empowers people to be whatever they want to be."

Such freedom can also be a conundrum, as when real-world writer Wagner James Au spent three years reporting on SL as his counterpart Hamlet Linden. SL, he theorizes, "demands new ethical [journalistic] standards because, really, in Second Life, you don't want to violate people's anonymity." So in researching a story, "I would ask people questions that, based on my knowledge, would work, and demand a detailed explanation," explains the San Francisco-based reporter who dons a white suit in honor of journalist Tom Wolfe — as does his avatar. (Au's actually been recognized at his local Trader Joe's, thanks to his real-world resemblance to his avatar.)

Au emphasizes that he also looks for "consistency" in stitching together real-world tales. For example, Au cites avatar Catherine Omega. In 2003, Omega claimed that she'd found herself temporarily homeless in real-life British Columbia. Still, she logged on to SL by stealing Internet access with an old laptop, went dumpster-diving for the necessary video components, and tapped into a live wire for power in the place where she'd been holed up. "She said she was a girl in her 20s squatting in a burnt-out apartment, but she could be a 50-year-old fat guy living in Milwaukee," Au explains, pointing out that three years later Omega is still an SL resident and her biography hasn't been debunked. "She could've been making this all up, but even then that is really fascinating: the level of detail that she has put into this role-playing — it's almost as important as it being true or not."

That's essentially the same policy of the Metaverse Messenger (MM), a weekly SL community newspaper. "We don't print anything about a person's real life that they don't want us to," says publisher Kristan Hall, who sits on the MM masthead as her SL self, Katt Kongo. Hall herself embodies the weird disconnect between meatspace and virtual space. "In Second Life, I have a mansion, it's on an island, I have a Mustang," she says over the phone from Texas. In real life, she's a 37-year-old mother of five who admits, "I don't have a nice vehicle." In Second Life, as the bosomy publisher of a 27-page newspaper with a circulation of 12,215 (up from six pages, and 400 readers in just a year), "a lot of people know who I am. I'm stopped. I will go somewhere and people will say, 'Oh my God, it's Katt Kongo!'" she laughs. "In real life, the neighbors are like, 'That's the lady with too many kids and too many cats.'"

Another real-world person experimenting with an entirely different SL persona is Boston-based blogger Andy Carvin. Last fall he joined SL as Andy Chowderhead, but he got "bored with it" and decided to create Abdi Kembla, an African refugee he modeled after photos he found online of former Somalian child soldiers.

"Previously, when I used my old Andy Chowderhead avatar, I found people were more likely to come over, say hello, and start a conversation. But with Abdi, people tended to just act as if I just weren't even there," says Carvin, who estimates that he spent between 20 and 30 hours in February and March exploring as Abdi. "The more I traveled through SL, the more I realized I seemed to be the only African-looking character around anywhere." He adds, "I encountered gnomes, floating beams of light, characters that were shaped like boxes, elves, everything you can imagine — but no African-looking characters."

In general, you can lump Second Life avatars into two categories: hot or fantastic. Women are mostly busty, hourglass-figured and sexy. Men tend to be buff and handsome. "More often than not, people have a picture in their head of what they look like at their best: Very few people want to have their avatar look like they just woke up, haven't shaved, [have] bad breath and gained a few pounds after the wedding," theorizes Andy Carvin. Otherwise, avatars tend to be surreal — think Snoopy, dragons and "furries."

Wagner James Au met about 100 real-life people usually shrouded by pixels at an SL convention held in New York last year. "You had people who looked like they were going to ask about Jean Luc Picard and you also had people who looked like they're more interested in creating an S&M dungeon and doing tricks with juggling and fire," Au says. "I would say, it was sort of a Star Trek convention meets Burning Man."

A new art form

A few days after I'd been with Tripper Tapioca, I returned to Zephyr Heights to find a gang of spiky-haired delinquents riding bikes, attempting aerial stunts and shooting guns in the skate park. (Co-owners Tapioca and Gateaux weren't around or they would have stopped the pistol-play.) Another time, I found Gateaux himself slumped over the area and levitating like an inverted vampire. Outfitted in a dark suit with a red-handkerchief-stuffed breast pocket and red tie, the lean, swarthy avatar eventually woke up, recognized me and floated down to explain that even though he was logged into Second Life, in real-life he was neglecting his computer-powered chassis while he read an article.

I ask Gateaux if he's still holding Russian roulette tomorrow night. "Oh yes we are," he writes. "I think you're gonna like it ... And bring alot [sic] of cash."

I hear different things about death in Second Life. Ever since I saw the Russian-roulette tables, I've been anxious to play. But that's not until tomorrow.

In the meantime, Gateaux leads a guided tour of Zephyr Films Studios, a piece of land he and Tapioca have just begun turning into "a realistic movie studio." We fly over to the studio back lot and land in a temporary office building, one of two boxy soundstages. There, Gateaux, who says he's really a 19-year-old film student in Vancouver, Canada, types, "I can gain a lot of experience to use in my real life. Turning a script into a movie ... it's the same thing everywhere. And then editing, exactly the same."

Gateaux is talking about "machinima," a compound term for machine cinema, a filmmaking subgenre that describes the computer-generated imagery shot inside a 3-D mechanism. Thus far, machinima's biggest crossover success has been Red vs. Blue: The Blood Gulch Chronicles, a sitcom shot entirely inside the XBox multiplayer game Halo; the New York Times Magazine profiled its twentysomething creators last summer. Those same Red vs. Blue creators, Rooster Teeth Productions, have since produced a 17-part series using The Sims 2 called Strangerhood, which Gateaux uses to gauge how he can do better. "With machinima, your possibilities are endless," he types, while standing on barren grass outside the soundstage. "If you ask me, you can do much better in SL cuz [sic] in SL you have the ability to make every animation or object that you want." That includes props, sets and characters who can change outfits, hairstyles or genders with a few clicks.

Already, SL machinima creations are spilling out of Second Life. This past March, Silver Bells and Golden Spurs, a Western shot "on location in Second Life," screened at the South by Southwest Festival. Plus, SL machinima shorts are posted online and added to YouTube almost daily. Right now, you can find "Better Life," a music-video-styled meditation on an avatar-man and his loneliness, shot by resident Robbie Dingo; an evening-news-narrated segment on intermittent SL events created by avatar auteur Pierce Portocarrero; and "Video Camping," a two-plus-minute Blair Witch Project homage that's actually an advertisement for an SL video camera (that doesn't actually record anything; it's just an avatar accessory). Residents are even vlogging about their avatar lives: Tao Takashi narrates the avatar life of an Asian-sounding name with a distinctly German-sounding voice. Linden encourages such creativity, and recently announced that it will hold a second-annual SL trailer contest; the best entry will win L$100,000 — or about $300.

Other creative disciplines are toying with the technology. Science-fiction author and Boing Boing blogger Cory Doctorow has appeared in-world for two book releases, the most recent of which had him clicking on virtual copies of his book, thereby autographing them. "Live" audio performances also take place in Second Life. A resident can sit at home and sing into a headset or a microphone that transmits his or her real-world voice through a Shoutcast server; it looks like the audio is being projected by the avatar.

While an audience of 15 or 20 avatars drifted around an inner-tube-choked pond at an idyllic spot called Mill Pond, and a friendly green dragon surf-danced on a pool float, Micala Lumiere — a reddish-haired avatar in a camisole, heels and jeans — stood on a wooden dock above us, belting out Lilith Fair-like cover tunes such as Jill Sobule's "I Kissed a Girl" and Jewel's "Morning Song." At first, Lumiere's lilt seemed prerecorded. But when a giant gingerbread man materialized behind her mid-song, Lumiere finished her karaoke and then giggled about how having a huge cookie looking over her shoulder made her nervous.

"I would love to be able to get involved with an artist having virtual concerts," says Jeff Watson, senior director of new media at Warner Brothers Records, who helped orchestrate the in-world listening station for Regina Spektor. Spektor's SL pad is a Manhattan-style loft with a reel-to-reel that streams six songs from the record, hardwood floors that glow colors corresponding to each track's mood, and a clever furniture-piece tie-in: click on a glass coffee table underneath the tape player and a URL for a page vending a $450 real-world model of the very same table comes up. "You could have a fan interview or an interview with a journalist or a roundtable — you could completely geek out in this thing," Watson continues. "I would love to even have a band record a special Second Life song and sell it with Linden bucks."

"We think of this as like 3-D album art," says Watson's Warner Brothers collaborator Ethan Kaplan. "It's about enhancing the experience, and the possibilities are endless. For a rap artist, you build a 50-feet-tall Hummer." Then he adds, "For Slayer [who's also on Warner Brothers Records], you could build, I dunno, an underworld?" It likely won't be long before Second Life spawns its own version of Gorillaz.

SL is already creating its own marquee names. Take Aimee Weber (her avatar name), an SL fashion designer who left her real-world job to work in Second Life full-time. Thus far, her two highest-profile projects have been the Regina Spektor listening station and the American Apparel store. "I think Second Life will be like the Web eventually," says Weber. "Almost everything cool will need to have a 3-D presence online. Just like now if you say that a company doesn't have a Web page, you're kind of like, 'What happened? Why no page?' I think that'll happen with 3-D."

"SL is going to be a part of your online experience, no different than the concept of a browser," predicts Linden's Fleck. Presently, "all the sudden your browser pops up and allows you to see whatever it is that you searched for, or clicked on in somebody's document or e-mail. Similarly, I believe that's what SL is going to be: another browser that pops up and allows you to experience whatever it is you're looking for [in 3-D] online." He adds, "When that seamlessness happens, we'll be well on our way to having something that's part of everyday life."

The immortal

It's Thursday at 8 p.m. EST — 5 p.m. SLT — and I've seated my avatar at the Russian roulette table beside three others: Sirius Gateaux, who's in a tight powder-blue T-shirt and dark shades; Sonny Fisher, a traveler-looking dude in a hat, camo vest and construction boots; and Rihpez Ogg, an ogre-like, keg-torsoed, bespectacled cigar smoker with uneven spikes jutting from his bald head.

I'm nervous. In real life. Even though the gun is in fake life.

To be honest, Lily, my avatar, has become something of a phantom limb — weirdly, I've already had a dream from Lily's perspective — and I don't want to see her blow her brains out. Plus, I keep thinking of The Deer Hunter.

Gateaux is first. He bets one Linden dollar, spins the revolver in his hand, and holds the barrel up to his temple. And then ...

Blam! His body falls sideways onto the floor. He's dead. Already. On the first try.

But then he's not. No holes, no blood, nothing. "#$%#@$%," he curses.

"That was freaky," I type, sitting across from his now-empty chair.

"Haha," he responds, already upright.

Haha. That must be how death feels to an immortal.

Then it's Fisher's turn. Hollow click. He shakes his head.

My turn. I bet a buck. Inhale deeply in real life. Raise the gun in my fake one. Click. Empty. Lily shakes her head wearily.

"Freaky," I virtually squeak.

Ugg's next. One try and — blam! — he's done too. On the floor. Dead. Then he rises. "Ah, rebirth."

Fisher and I pass around the gun a few more times. We raise the bets from one dollar to ten-spots. We both keep coming up empty. There's $61 on the table.

It's my turn again. I bet ten bucks. Inhale deeply for real. Raise the gun for fake. And —


I am totally dead. On the floor. It's something of a release.

Fisher wins. My meatspace heart races.

If Second Life truly takes hold, millions will spend hours doing business, meeting people and just living inside the virtual world. As future upgrades are made, there will likely be short-term advances: voiceover technology, fewer system crashes, photorealistic environments. But in the longer term, humans might someday be able to upload their memories, their personalities, their entire lives, into their avatars. And they might be able to program them to live and breathe and interact for all eternity inside Second Life. Humanity's great quest for immortality might finally be solved.

As I stand up unscathed, after blowing my virtual brains out, I'm certain that this isn't the end of the story — for either Lily or Second Life.


Web Links

Secrets of Second Life:

Metaverse Messenger:

Aimee Weber:

Wagner James Au's New World Notes:

Links in second life

Zephyr Heights:

American Apparel:

Regina Spektor's Loft:


Second Life Me:

Welcome Center:

Spin Martin's Slackstreet Studios:


Walleye's Acropolis Bowl:

Midnight City:

Mai Tais Beach Club:

Mill Pond:

Camille Dodero is a staff writer at the Boston Phoenix. Send comments to [email protected]