A Strategic Assessment of Second Life – Part 1

I first heard about Second Life in an article in The Economist back in October 2006. I had flirted with Project Entropia about a year earlier, but I could not figure out how to get out of the airport welcome area. I struggled for several days, wandering around various empty aircraft until I finally gave up. Why Project Entropia? Because I was fascinated by the new Esthetics Economy that is being developed in games. Game Theory, Experimental Economics, realtime models of social and economic interactions, whole economies based on art and metaphor. Project Entropia was a disappointment and then, suddenly, there was Second Life.

I was impressed from the first moment I saw the LL website. I registered straight away, gave my credit card details and went Premium. I downloaded the software and, bang, I was inworld – in Ahern. I stumbled around for about an hour, offering friendship to almost anyone who wasn’t screaming obscenities then flew north, leaving the kids behind. (I did not know that in June, Linden Lab had opened the doors to kids via anonymous accounts.)

As I flew over the land, I was amazed at the world I had entered. Below me stretched miles and miles of changing scenery, extraordinary buildings and objects of every kind. It was like flying over India or Cairo or the jungles of a Tolkienesque South America.

Slowly, I began to meet people. Most were kind, polite and helpful. I was hungry for knowledge, hungry for the freedoms and choices available in the new world. I learned how to dress, to walk, to amend my shape. I shopped for hair and eyes and jewelry and, with each passing day, I became more human, more real, more integrated into the world.

How can I sum up those first few months? Hardship, yes, for I also met some very unpleasant people. Joy, yes, the wonder and magic of creativity and kindness. Delight, amazement – and responsibility. Responsibility because there were no rules, no police, no parents, no priests, no lawyers, no politicians. Responsibility to make decisions – to calculate risks – to live in a world of nasty people as well as generous people. Responsibility to be an adult – alert, intelligent, flexible and tolerant. What a marvelous world!

I met a former real estate dealer who taught me the ropes. I brought in thousands of dollars and began paying hundreds of dollars in tier. Second Life was expensive, but I had faith in Linden Lab. Here was a company that understood the creative entrepreneur! Finally, there was a world for people like me – and I bought into that world, heart, mind and checkbook.

Then, in the spring of 2007, things began to change. New rules, new restrictions, new sanctions, new controls. Risk was to be stripped away, to be replaced by a “more predictable” user experience.

Many people think this is a good thing. In the fora, I see a constant stream of reformers, each wanting to remove yet more risk and individual responsibility. Some want full-blown Disneyfication – to create a vanilla playground of perfect safety and security in which no one is offended by anything. Others want to eliminate ‘inequality’ – to hammer every nail flat into the board. These voices, each with their own pet complaint, verge on a howling mob, drowning out the wonder of Second Life like vuvuzela horns at the World Cup.

Second Life is not cool anymore. The creative types are leaving – and taking their quirky, idiosyncratic, unorthodox, iconoclastic characteristics with them. “Wonderful,” you say. “Good riddance to all those freaks and weirdos! Now Second Life can become a nice safe place to raise our kids.” Yup, no more gambling,  no more banks, no more naked people on the mainland (lock ’em up in Zindra), no more bad words in search. Soon SL will be a clean, tidy, uniform, safe, secure…boring, dull, banal, mediocre wasteland.

The vanilla playground is not working. Entrepreneurs are no longer willing to invest long-term capital and labor in an increasingly unpredictable environment with lower potential returns. They are moving on to other projects – and taking their money with them. They are going to where there is risk and uncertainty, to where there is messiness and opportunity, to where they can live on their wits as adults, to where their energies and talents are rewarded, to where they are not branded as freaks and weirdos by the good and proper citizenry of a sanitized society.

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