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Second Life is a hugely popular 3D world which is inhabited by thousands of people. To call it a game would be slightly inaccurate although it does include many games. The aim is to produce a fully functioning virtual world in which people socialise, play, create and do business with each other. There are many disparate areas of the Second Life world and people can buy land, build whatever they want on it and charge others for content. The bustling economy and vibrant social scene that has emerged in the world of Second Life is complex and impressive. The massive uptake is driven by the fact that basic membership is completely free and Linden, the developers, claim millions of people have a second life in their virtual world and that millions of dollars worth of transactions are occurring every month.
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Second Life was launched in 2003 and it allows users to download a free client and create their own personalised avatar. The success of the world is completely based on community interaction and asset creation. The developers, Linden, have included a 3D modelling program which allows users to model their own characters and objects for use in the world. They also have a basic scripting language so users can create animations, gestures and even develop their own entertainment activities.
The bustling economy in Linden dollars, which can be exchanged for US dollars in game, is largely based around land. Land is scarce and can be bought, sold or rented. Users can also charge other people money to play the game they created or take part in an activity they scripted in the world. There are various objects which will cost you money and people trying to make money from selling them, the object remains the property of the creator unless they release it. However most things are given freely and the amount of work people put into their creations is very impressive.
Second Life started out as a glorified 3D chat room with a number of places in game people could meet up, flirt, chat and generally catch up with each other. Like an extension of IRC Second Life offered a more immersive social experience. The community and the interaction is the strength of Second Life. However it inevitably has a darker side and one of the strangest aspects of Second Life is the bustling sex trade. Users can buy their character a phallus and even hire a prostitute or engage in various fetish scenes. The range of sexual animations that have been created leave little to the imagination and there are whole areas of the world which are essentially huge adult swinger parks. The popularity of sex themes has led Linden to create an entirely separate grid for children so that they don’t come into contact with anything unsuitable.
Even although the basic client is free if you want to get involved in the world you’ll find you soon need to spend some money. The game is run on thousands of servers and so user generated content costs money to store, consequently you will be charged if you want to upload a file into the game, even if you just create a T-shirt for your avatar.
You can teleport around from place to place instantly or you can fly. One of the things that surprised me when trying Second Life was how sparse the world is. There are large open areas with few people but this is really because the overall scale is massive and busy areas are often extremely crowded.
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Graphically speaking Second Life is fairly basic. To judge it by game standards the avatars are poor quality however some of the animations are very good. Much of the content depends on who created it and since there is no real quality control other than natural popularity you get some sub-standard objects and avatars. The same is true of the buildings and games, some are well made and engaging, others are extremely poor and you’ll feel ripped off if you spend any money on them. The general standard of the games in Second Life is pretty woeful and in my opinion the majority are not worth spending money on.
Ssecond Life also has a major pop-up problem. Naturally rendering something this size is a real challenge and the virtual world is hosted on thousands of servers. However there are times when scenery, people and objects only pop in when you are very close to them and in busy areas the world suffers from terrible slowdown.
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Second Life has a bustling community and there are people into every conceivable aspect of human culture, if you can find them. The community is what makes the world an interesting place to visit and the fact that people have designed and built the majority of the content is a unique and interesting thing, although as I said before the lack of quality control can spoil things a little.
For the most part people within the world are very friendly and will help you if you need it. You can have all manner of bizarre conversation and flirtations but you should always remember that the avatar before you is no real indication of who the person controlling it might be.
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The basic system requirements are an 800MHz processor, 512MB RAM, 1024x768 screen resolution and a decent graphics card (GeForce 4, ATI Radeon 8500 or better). You would be better off with at least a 1.5GHz processor and 1GB of RAM if you want a smooth experience.
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There can be no argument about the popularity of Second Life if Linden’s statistics are to be believed. They claim over 16 million residents although only 1,442,781 have logged in during the last 60 days and that drops to 526,418 for the last 7 days. That’s still an impressive number by any standards and Second Life can be an interesting place for a visit. It doesn’t have the same level of immersion or the addictive quality of a game and the actual games available to play in the world are fairly poor. This is first and foremost a social scene, a place to meet other people, share interests and talk. Although much has been made of the bustling economy there are very few people actually making money from Second Life and it certainly doesn’t appear to be a viable career. It is interesting to note the growing popularity of micro-payments though and this is a trend we are likely to see continuing as publishers offer game clients for free and make their money through small transactions for extra content. All in all Second Life is an interesting place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.