The comparison to LEGO is remarkably appropriate. Like LEGO, Second Life's content creation engine allows its residents to wield incredible power over their environment, but without the trappings of a formal game to accompany it. "By [making content] well, you can create really good-looking things with really interesting behaviors, and that, in fact, have great value to other residents, which is an angle that if you want to take, you can, you don't have to. If we said, 'OK, the game is, you must get rich,' that would be a game. But you don't have to, and some people choose to and some people choose not to," he tells me. "A lot of people, even if they don't want to make and sell stuff, they arrive and say, 'Gee, I want a better-looking avatar,' and they buy something to make themselves look better. And what's so great about it from a user-creativity standpoint, is that you can first buy something, because you don't yet know how to make your avatar better, and then you can ask the question, which is the completely logical follow-up - 'How did you make this?'"
It doesn't stop there. "It turns out that, well, all the tools are sitting right there, and you can go to classes, and talk to the people who are good creators. It's the ultimate learning environment; people can just show you how to make things right then and there. Compared to MMORPGs, this is profoundly different than traditional crafting because you can't really go outside the lines, you know, outside the box."
By now, I get the picture. Second Life is different from the run-of-the-mill online game. Giving users such incredible control over the sheer physics of any other persistent online world would result in utter chaos; I imagine Horde and Alliance conflicts not being fought by noble heroes, but instead by bored engineers who compete with each other over how many level 2,000 invincible dragons they can catapult at each other. Maybe even self-replicating invincible dragons. Certainly, Linden Lab can afford to give their Second Life residents this kind of power because there is no game to balance in the traditional sense - no Necromancers to balance against Shamans and Warriors and Warlocks and Jedi and all that.
Instead, they are taking up the task of balancing life, and despite the virtual nature of the world they tend, their work has very real consequences. The in-game currency, called the Linden Dollar (L$ for short) was worth about 0.0037 U.S. cents on IGE.com, at the time of this writing. "One of the things we're seeing now, in the in-world economy in the trailing 30 days, is something like eight million U.S. dollars, and the Linden contribution to that is tiny, tiny, tiny. The original need for us to prime the pump is gone," Cory tells me.
These aren't merely shiny swords dropped by big bad monsters, either; virtually every transaction that occurs in Second Life is related to a completely user-created object, and in 2003, Linden Lab announced that SL residents would have very real intellectual property rights to any of their in-game creations (with the notable exception that Linden Lab retained the rights to use any creation for testing and advertising purposes). By creating a fairly popular (Second Life hit over 100,000 residents in January 2005) online world with a virtual currency traded most commonly against the very real U.S. dollar, Linden Lab has put themselves in a position closer to that of a modern state than that of merely a conventional videogame company.
Of course, the most revealing things of any state are the things that make them break down. People don't need a game as an excuse to piss off their fellow man, and even Second Life, with its comparatively laid-back virtual space, is not immune to this kind of behavior. I ask Cory about Linden Lab's response to the GriefSpawn (covered in an earlier issue of The Escapist) incident, where a notorious group of individuals brought down the entire server grid by abusing a particular feature in the in-game item scripting system. "We temporarily broke something in the scripting language, and decided it was a bad idea and put it back in. It's funny, when I talk about this I have this pair of slides, where I have a cute little baby seal, and I say, 'This is the shiny new feature the griefers abused,' and the next slide is the baby seal getting clubbed, and that's, you know, nerfing the feature. You just have to make decisions as to where you're going to come down on this," Cory explains. "At Linden Lab, we decided very early on that it's more important for people to have the ability to do very interesting things, and that we will deal with the griefing however we need to, through a combination of social pressure, giving land-owners the means to protect themselves, and ultimately if we need to, law enforcement. These are the same ways you do these things in the real world."