Second Life interview

Another world


David Pollock talks to Warren Ellis, Reuters correspondent in the virtual world of Second Life.

I don’t know if anyone else saw it, but earlier this month there was a riot involving anti-racism protestors and Front National (the French equivalent of the National Front). One online commentator described it as a ‘conflagration of mini-guns, cursing Frenchmen and exploding pigs.’ It wasn’t reported widely.

The reason is that it was an online riot within the virtual world of Second Life. The events were ‘watched’ by Warren Ellis, the comic book writer behind Transmetropolitan, who this year became the first newspaper columnist to inhabit Second Life. Ellis files a weekly column for Reuters. That Reuters even have a Second Life correspondent shows that the world is starting to listen.

‘Second Life is like a computer game’, explains Ellis, ‘but with a lot more functionality. It’s the relative size of eight Manhattan Islands, and at any one time there are between 10,000 and 25,000 people wandering around inside it. It’s a design environment, a digital art installation, a games space, a media space and a social network all in one.’

Created by Linden Labs in 2003, Second Life is a global multi-user environment similar to the hugely popular multiplayer online role playing game World of Warcraft. Where the two differ, however, is in Second Life’s function as a tool for interaction, whereas World of Warcraft was designed with one task in mind, the building of an army.

In SL you can, literally, have a second life. ‘Residents’ design their own 3D character and can own virtual property. Bought and sold in virtual Linden Dollars, these are exchangeable for real US dollars, meaning that Second Life has a real-life economy of its own. So French neo-Nazi organisations, and the Swedish Embassy, have established bases there, real companies have opened virtual shops, artists like Duran Duran and Suzanne Vega play virtual gigs there, and sci-fi legend Kurt Vonnegut regularly holds court within the confines of this virtual world. So it was only a matter of time before newspaper columnists got in on the act.

‘I think the reason Reuters are interested,’ says Ellis, ‘is because SL is expanding very quickly, and real money is being spent there. I read recently that up to $1m a day are being moved around the SL economy, which alone justifies some kind of attention. A team in China are paper millionaires solely through buying and selling ‘land’ in Second Life, and events that would have been webcast a few years ago are now happening solely in SL.’

As well as espousing the artistic possibilities capable within SL - describing it as ‘an online mass of streaming media’ with ‘architecture on a scale of madness that’d make Escher blush’ ?" Ellis goes further by putting forward the quite credible notion that SL might form the basis of the next generation operating systems. He considers that SL might one day replace the likes of Windows as a more sophisticated environment through which we can control our computers and access the net.

Ellis goes on to imagine an SL-based operating system where you can navigate around your computer in an environment which mimics real life, yet one where you can still use applications and access the internet intuitively.

Online shopping will become that trip to the virtual mall, futurists were predicting at the launch of the internet.

‘SL is small and clunky right now’, says Ellis, ‘but the potential is there, and it fits in with the way the net and computers are going. On the other hand it could easily collapse under its own weight by summer, creaking under the strain of its ballooning user base.’

SL has been created to mimic real life giving it greater crediblity than other online environments.

‘It has been designed for interactivity and social connection. This is why internet pioneers are creating ‘embassies’ for real governments in SL. In a way, SL has the same foundation as MySpace: a company gives you a world and the tools and says, “here - make what you want”.’

Warren Ellis’ column


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