Second Lives: A Journey Through Virtual Worlds

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9780091796570: Second Lives: A Journey Through Virtual Worlds

We’ve always dreamed of perfect places: Eden, heaven, Utopia. Imagine gambling without loss, love without heartbreak, sex without exposure, experience without risk. Welcome to the fascinating world of online virtual reality, the land of invented places and populations that is entered and inhabited every week by nearly fifty million people worldwide. Each participant creates a virtual body, works at virtual jobs, and makes virtual friends and family. In Second Lives, Tim Guest, an internationally acclaimed young journalist, takes us on a revelatory journey through the electronic looking glass as he investigates one of the most bizarre phenomena of the twenty-first century.

From Second Life to EverQuest and beyond, here are the computer-generated environments and characters that can easily become more engrossing and fulfilling than earthly existence. With the click of a mouse you can select eye color, face shape, height–you can even give yourself wings. Your character, or avatar, can build houses, make and sell works of art, earn money, get married and divorced.

In this fascinating and groundbreaking book, Guest meets people who found meaningful love and friendship despite never having met in person, catches up with the companies that have used virtual worlds to make big money, investigates the U.S. military’s massive online global model that trains soldiers to fight anyone anywhere, and travels all the way to gaming-crazed Korea to get a taste for just how big this phenomenon really is.

At first glance, these new computer-generated places seem free from trouble and sorrow. But Guest examines the dark side of this technology too, including the online criminals who plague imaginary worlds, from cyber mafiosos and prostitutes to real hackers and terrorists. It seems that one cannot escape greed, corruption, and human weakness–even inside a computer screen.
Are these virtual worlds a way to enhance life or to escape it? Guest explores this question personally as he lets himself be transported into myriad parallel universes. By turns provocative, inspiring, and disturbing, Second Lives is a crucial book for this millennium. After all, real life is so twentieth century.

Advance praise for Second Lives
“Tim Guest is a young writer with the literary goods. My Life in Orange, his hit memoir of growing up in a commune, looked at his past; his riveting new book, Second Lives, looks at our future: the world of virtual reality and the spellbound people who inhabit it. The book is some kind of revelation–by turns compelling, chilling, and illuminating. Curious, intelligent, offbeat, and artful, Guest is at the beginning of a big career.”
——John Lahr, senior drama critic, The New Yorker, author of
Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton

Praise from England for Second Lives
“An anthropological adventure but also Guest’s personal voyage . . . a fascinating portrait of rainbow landscapes and their inhabitants.”
Time Out London

“Rich and colourful . . . an important mapping of a new social frontier.”
–The Guardian

“Remarkably timely.”
–The Sunday Telegraph

“Astonishing.”
–The Sunday Times

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About the Author:

Tim Guest is a journalist and the bestselling author of My Life in Orange: Growing Up with the Guru, about his childhood on communes around the world. Guest’s articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph, New Scientist, and Vogue. He lives in London.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1
EXODUS
Leaving the real world behind

In August 2004, Derek LeTellier, then a nineteen-year-old student teacher from Chicago, entered a competition on some land near his home, to see who could stack objects the highest. Derek’s entry was a skyscraper, forty stories tall, built entirely out of wooden blocks—a triumph of effort and will over gravity and friction. He didn’t win the competition, but the land was empty and so LeTellier began to come back every few days to see what else he could stack. At the end of each day, he knocked the towers down. His experiments became a kind of regular neighborhood sideshow: Each week, a handful of locals would gather to watch his towers fall. Derek worked out how to stand on the towers as they came crashing down, and surf the tumbling blocks to the ground. Then a friend, James Miller, mentioned that the tower reminded him of the World Trade Center. Another friend who came along that same week had lost a relative in the real 9/11 attacks. He mentioned he would like to see what it was like to be inside the towers as they collapsed. So, at his friend’s request, Derek built a second tower, next to the first. The two men, along with a handful of others, climbed inside.

Derek’s intention hadn’t originally been to re-create the World Trade towers. “A lot of what looked like symbols for 9/11 mostly were due to practical reasons,” LeTellier told me. “The shape of the buildings, the size, and the placement of people inside them.” I asked Derek if he had been wary of any controversy the collapse might cause. “A little bit, especially when we put that second tower up,” he said. “At that point I got a little disturbed about what we were doing. How eerie it looked. Before that, it’s only an experiment. At that point, it became something more.”

Derek had also developed a tradition: As he knocked over his towers, he shouted a single word. The day he and his friend sat next to each other inside the tower, he shouted it aloud—“Die!”—and the two towers fell again.

And, as a result, the world ended—or at least part of it. The two buildings, which had taken Derek just five minutes to build, were among the largest constructions that area of the world had ever seen, and when they fell, as if in a rising pall of smoke, the world went black.

Literally. Because all of this was nearly, but not quite, happening. Derek was in his apartment in Chicago. Others were in their offices in San Francisco, and all across the United States. Derek’s re-creation of the World Trade Center attacks took place in the Olive district of a virtual world called Second Life. The towers, which had taken just a day to build, were the largest constructions Second Life had ever seen. When they fell, the world crashed. Every player was ejected.

Second Life is a virtual world: a computer-generated place, created by real people from all across the world who log on to live other lives online. The players—known in Second Life as “residents”—see these worlds as 3-D computer-generated images on their screens. They can watch their virtual selves on their monitor as if through the eyes of their online self, or, more often, from behind their head, a perspective called the “third-eye view.” Using their keyboard and mouse, they can watch their virtual selves wander over digital terrain. In the real world, of course, Second Life exists only as ones and zeros on the hard drives of seven hundred Debian Linux servers in a San Francisco data warehouse. The Second Life computers function like Web servers, only, instead of serving up Web pages, they serve up a whole 3-D world. All the buildings, objects, and terrain Derek and his friends could see on their computer screens were digital; the other people, who also paid to inhabit this virtual world, also looked computer-generated, but at the helm of each was a real person, somewhere on the real globe.

In virtual worlds, you are born fully grown: Each new character is an adult, albeit one who doesn’t yet know how to “be.” In every virtual world, you can walk, talk, and move things around using your keyboard and mouse—but in each world these controls are different, and have to be learned anew. Second Life’s solution to this problem is for each character to appear first in Orientation Island, a jumble of tropical hills and beaches where, like rehabilitation in fast-forward, you learn how to operate your self and inhabit the world. When I first logged on, under the virtual sky—perfect shades from blue to white, like the sky seen from a 747—I wandered the island. Here and there, placards—which I clicked on to read, and which appeared as text on my screen—taught me how to walk, how to talk, how to move objects at a distance, how to fly. (If the first part felt like rehabilitation, the second part felt like superhero school.) At the end of the final lesson, a teleport button transmitted my virtual self into the wider virtual world, where all the other people were.

In Second Life, you can move around, talk with others using the keyboard or a microphone, interact physically with others’ second selves–hug, wave—and, although I didn’t know this when I began my journey into virtual worlds, you can get married, make money, commit crime, and almost forget the real world even exists. And although only a handful watched Derek LeTellier’s towers fall, the dream they shared, of entering a new place and leaving the real world behind, had already begun to colonize the imagination of millions.

Derek’s experiments were a local affair, but virtual worlds were already on the scale of entire nations. By 2004, around twenty million people were regularly logging on to virtual worlds like Second Life; at the time of this writing, that figure has more than doubled. Between fifty and seventy million people worldwide—far more than passed through U.S. immigration at Ellis Island in the whole twentieth century—now regularly log on to these new online spaces to abandon reality in search of a better place. This time, though, our new lands have no indigenous inhabitants to dispute our claim to the territory. Virtual worlds are empty except for us, and are shaped entirely to our desires.

In the past, mankind could only dream of such utopias. Heaven, Eden, Oz . . . lands somewhere over the rainbow. But now, through computer technology, we have built ourselves a new kind of heaven: perfected virtual worlds, where we can finally move in and take up residence. Through computer screens in homes, offices, libraries, cyber-cafés, military bases, colleges, and schools, more people than inhabit Australia have stepped through the electronic looking glass to create second lives. In virtual worlds, it seems, we can finally break free of the forces of nature: We can shed gravity (in most games, you can fly) and we can rid our lives of friction (in online worlds, nothing takes any physical effort at all).

For the most part, these millions play what are known as massive multiplayer games: playful but constrained virtual spaces like Sony Online Entertainment’s Dungeons & Dragons–style world, EverQuest—the planet’s fifth-largest virtual world, with half a million players—or Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft, the most popular game in the United States, with 8.5 million players worldwide. In Southeast Asia, I discovered, the numbers are huge. In 2005, one South Korean game series, Lineage and Lineage II, boasted four million active accounts, and the numbers are rising exponentially. More people reside in Lineage and Lineage II than reside in Ireland. The population of virtual worlds seems to almost double every year. “I expect there will be two to three million more people in the U.S. that come on board in the next two years,” David Cole, president of the multimedia research firm DFC Intelligence, told Salon magazine in July 2002. The actual figures were in the top range of his guess—and eight million more residents have joined since then, attracted by a freedom of movement and expression that is harder to find in the real world. (And that’s not even counting the millions in Southeast Asia.) In 2002, game designer Brad McQuaid, one of the creative forces behind EverQuest, predicted virtual worlds “will rival the movie industry in the next five to ten years.” We’re well on the way. In 2005, Hollywood took in $9.2 billion in U.S. box-office receipts (worldwide, that figure rose to $23 billion). In the same period, the combined annual revenues from these new virtual worlds were estimated at $3.7 billion, a figure predicted to rise to $19.3 billion by 2009. By then, if current trends continue, virtual worlds will make more money than American football, baseball, and basketball combined, and, each year, more people worldwide will visit a virtual world than will visit a McDonald’s restaurant.

The economies of virtual worlds, I discovered, ran far beyond the income of the people who created them. In each world, there were virtual currencies, and the mass exodus from the real world had brought with it such a mania for virtual items that people were now willing to pay real money to acquire them. People who want, say, a more powerful sword, or their own virtual Frank Lloyd Wright–style cantilevered home by the virtual seaside, but don’t have time to construct it themselves, will pay substantial sums of real-world money instead. The money is paid via credit card, on websites in the real world, and the goods are delivered inside the game. I knew virtual worlds had their own currencies (in EverQuest, I had killed rats for a week to scrape together a single gold piece), but I had had no idea how these initially fictional currencies had begun to affect our own real-world ones. The largest virtual items broker, Internet ...

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