Second Lives, A journey through virtual worlds. By Tim Guest. Published by Random House. ISBN: 0091796571. Price: £12.99.
A lot of people want to understand virtual worlds, but they don’t have the time or patience to learn the interfaces, build an avatar and go exploring. For them, Tim Guest’s book Second Lives: A journey through virtual worlds is both the most accessible and the most entertaining way to learn about these new dimensions.
Guest, a London-based writer whose earlier book, My Life in Orange described his upbringing in the Bhagwan cult community, is a veteran player of PC games and MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games). His background is helpful: from the outset, he senses the cultish prickliness of the pioneers of virtual worlds, and the obsessive, addictive behaviour of many citizens of the ‘metaverse’.
Second Lives is lucid and jargon free, and describes in great clarity the landscape, background, economics and experience of virtual worlds for the lay reader. He also explains how their economies work, and why Linden Lab’s Second Life is so different from other worlds: it has few rules, a convertible currency, no real objective or game, and crucially, it allows members to own their intellectual property. Guest is enthused by the potential of the technology but sufficiently sceptical to capture, mostly through “first hand” avatar interviews and transactions, the other-worldliness of online encounters.
These encounters can be very strange indeed. For the purposes of research, Guest visits an avatar-prostitute, with whom he has virtual sex, and becomes mixed up with a would-be Second Life mobster, who tries to persuade Guest’s online avatar, Errol Mysterio, to carry out a mafia-style hit on another character. He also meets Second Life’s online terrorists, the W-Hats, anarchists whose activities have so irritated Second Life that it announced it was calling in the (real) FBI.
Perhaps of more interest to business people, Guest also meets several people who make money from Second Life – in the form of Linden dollars that can be converted back to real dollars. Most of these make small amounts by making online items such as virtual clothes or fashion accessories. But one of them is Anshe Chung, who proclaims herself to be the first person to have become a (real dollar) millionaire by buying and renting virtual property.
Tellingly, less than 20 of the 360 pages of the book are devoted to how corporations use Second Life, and there are few hard examples of sustained, successful initiatives. Among the ones he discusses are the use of Second Life at Wells Fargo (for training young people in finance), Reebok (which sold 18,000 pairs of virtual trainers) and IBM (for collaboration). But Guest also describes how he hung out for two days in the expensively constructed virtual store of American Apparel, the $80 million US clothing chain. For the whole time he was there, he didn’t see a single customer.
Serious business in virtual worlds
Businesses are exploring the use of virtual worlds for collaboration, for training and for a host of other ‘3D web’ applications.