In the Hands of the Enemy

Balancing Your Second Life


Gamers aren’t particularly nice people.

Don’t get me wrong. In my experience, most of us tend to be reasonably well-adjusted individuals, perfectly capable of maintaining an engaging conversation or doing each other favors. Some of us are even somewhat pleasant.

Give us a game of some sort – from chess to basketball to Pong – and we will do whatever it takes to win. We will push ourselves harder so we can get better, of course, and this is a good thing. If we really want to win, however, we aren’t afraid to do it by any means necessary, whether this means running some particularly aggressive screens on the courts or spawn camping the local newbies. I’m used to it, by now. Most seasoned gamers are. Give us gamers an inch and we’ll take a mile.

But to hear Cory Ondrejka, Vice President of Product Development at Linden Lab, tell it, Second Life residents are nothing of the sort. Far from the immature hijinks of text-based online social spaces or the mindless level grinding of massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs), Second Life provides a virtual, communal creative space for people to play. Or work. Or relax, socialize and have an online martini mixer. Which, you know, doesn’t sound so bad right now.

Unfortunately, it’s time for work, not play, and so I force myself to concentrate on Mr. Ondrejka, who is in fact sitting right in front of me in a meeting room inside Linden Lab’s San Francisco headquarters, and very confidently answering every question I have about their world. I never had the chance to see the notorious excesses of the dot-com offices in person, but I imagine Linden Lab’s strikes a healthy compromise between creative excess and corporate austerity. The nice man who showed me around made sure to point out that there were no cubicle walls dividing one employee’s desk from another – creativity flows like good feng shui around their office, I suppose. It’s reassuring that some people can stay professional with an original Street Fighter II arcade cabinet sitting in the office rec room.

The environment suits Cory, I think, who himself looks like he came of working age in the dot-com era. He stands at just under six feet or so, and he conducts himself in a manner that belies an unabashed enthusiasm tempered by the confidence of experience. Three ear piercings (two in the left ear and one in the right) contrast sharply with ever-so-subtle hints of graying hair. It’s rather fitting, somehow.

Second Life is clearly not a game,” Cory tells me. “There’s plenty of game-like behavior and plenty of play within it, but really, just about any definition of game you find there’s usually some goal component. I think it comes down to the more individual level, whether you consider real life a game.” This is true. The word “game” evokes, at the very least, a set of formal rewards and penalties corresponding to each player’s actions, whether it’s getting $200 for passing go or hearing that infamous ding in World of WarCraft. Second Life, by all accounts, has no such structure. The average player will log on, buy some land, hang out with some friends, maybe build something neat … and that’s it. No mob camping or gold farming here.

Rather, the appeal of Second Life is laid out in the name; it’s a second life in cyberspace. Second Life constantly endures comparison to the Metaverse of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, and with good reason; instead of providing a goal-oriented space for people who play a game a la EverQuest, Second Life is simply a place for people to do what they do in their flesh and blood lives. Some people will work, and some people will play.

But if Second Life is not a traditional online role-playing game, neither is it simply a glorified chat room. The real allure of Second Life is the design philosophy that allows users to manipulate and create objects at the level of in-game physics, with, as Cory puts it, “Smart Legos.” He is quick to point out that this is no repackaged crafting system found in the average MMOG, where players can moonlight as blacksmiths and the like. “‘Atomistic creation’ is why Second Life is so flexible, and it’s important to differentiate it from crafting, another signal characteristic of MMOGs. A lot of them have this idea that you earn various points and find stuff and can combine stuff in different ways, it’s sort of the tech tree approach that MMOGs and RTS [real time strategy games] have converged upon, and generally speaking, those paths are mostly pre-defined,” Cory explains excitedly, “In the real world, building tends to be kind of hard, you have to work with atoms and chemistry and physics before we get anything interesting. In a virtual world, you actually can work with atoms. We can basically give you smart Legos to make anything. And that’s why you can use the same tools to build a chair, or your house, to games, to guns – anything.”

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, 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.”

That’s right – law enforcement. Unlike most real-world liberal states, Linden Lab has a higher authority to appeal to – namely, the FBI. While the GriefSpawn incident was handled mostly by in-game methods – bannings and the like – Linden Lab’s response to a recent “attack” staged at the in-game holiday party of Philip Rosedale, Linden Lab’s CEO, was not so forgiving, and instead of mere banning and relying on “social pressure,” they simply released the names – actual names from actual credit cards, that is – of those responsible for the disturbance to the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation. Here, Cory pauses for a bit – he isn’t familiar with this particular happening – and says to me, “In most cases, laws come down to either damage to property or person, right, and so when we’re dealing with an attack, we’re spending developer time that could otherwise be used to make the product better. And then there’s both the fun and measurable economic loss to the residents,” he continues. “The way we deal with it is, if it looks like what people are doing would be breaking the law under any other context, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be in Second Life.”

But not every case of social breakdown stems from mischievous behavior. We begin to discuss a fairly high-profile Second Life event from a few years ago, where a group of concerned SL residents banded together to protest Linden Lab’s in-game taxation system by going to the island where new residents enter the world and setting their avatars on fire. Cory elaborates for me on some of the nuances of Linden’s unique position as both company and governing body: “What’s interesting is actually differentiating things like tax protests from an attack on the grid. There was tremendous pushback from the resident community about [the taxation system], panic, everybody saying they were going to leave. We spent hours and days in-world just having ad-hoc meetings with residents and talking about what this meant and where it was going. If you look historically at Linden Lab’s involvement with protests, we’ve always gone in and talked to protesters and really tried to understand what their point is, because it would be bad business not to. These are our customers, of course we want to understand their issues.” Eventually, Cory tells me, the goal is to devolve the actual governing issues of Second Life to the in-game landowners.

Before I know it, we’re nearing close to the end of the interview, and our discussion has meandered from individual marketing in Second Life to the structure of the economy to in-game dispute resolution to Cory’s upcoming vacation cruise (courtesy of Microsoft, amusingly enough, despite the fact Linden Lab apparently doesn’t really use their products). “The profound difference between Second Life and anywhere else is that we put all this power and control in the hands of the residents. There are plenty of game designers who have gone out and said, ‘Oh, that’s stupid, you gotta be crazy to do that.’ Which is fine, they have the rights to their own opinions. I think that SL isn’t a game, and so we get to play by a very different set of rules in [our residents’] design than [most developers] do,” Cory says to me. “I certainly don’t regard our residents as adversarial – if anything, they’re a part of Linden Lab. Remember, this is a world that the residents are building. For the vast majority of the residents, they’re building this place – why would they burn it down?” Finally, as I stand up to stretch my legs, he spells out that perfect quote for me, that sentence or two that encapsulates the entire theme running behind our discussion, and, I suspect, the theme that keeps him so zealously employed with Linden Lab.

“When you hear other world designers talk about the confrontational enemy-relationship with their residents, it just isn’t the same thing. In Second Life, the kind of creative energy we see out there is Second Life‘s strength. When you look at why Second Life has such incredible momentum moving forward, it’s because of our residents. To start with this foolish ‘Well, they’re the enemy’ – that’s just silly. I’ll be the first to say that no game survives first contact with the users. But that doesn’t mean it’s adversarial – games are better once players start playing them, and Second Life is better because of its residents.”

It seems like good game designers are the ones who make the games that their players can’t break. The Linden Lab team, however, don’t seem to be making any games at all. Instead, they simply gave their residents the tools to control their world and let them improve it as they see fit. And somehow, amid Second Life‘s social spaces and free-market economy and devolved governmental functions, Linden Lab and the residents of Second Life came up with a game where everybody wins.

Pat Miller has been doing this for way too long.

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