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Wednesday, March 03, 2004

RESEARCHING ME (EVOLUTION AND COMMERCE IN SL)

It may be the first graduate research paper to be partly written from the cockpit of a flying battle cruiser, but I suspect it won't be the last.

Amsterdam Becquerel is a journalist student at a prestigious Eastern university, and we met in-world last Friday, so he could interview me for a paper he's writing, on subcultures. He tells me his essay will focus on the subculture that is the Second Life community, so we came together on an air field, to discuss that, and my own background in the world.

"How did you become involved in online games?" Amsterdam Becquerel asks.

"Well, I'd played Everquest for a time as a 'civilian', and then wrote about next generation MMORPGs for Salon... and that opened up the door to coming into Linden Lab, to check out Second Life. During the demo, Robin Linden suggested I write a journal for them, and since I dug the demo so mightily, I switched sides, as it were. And boom, here I am."

"And how long have you been here? In Second Life, that is."

"March 2003, I believe, lemme check." I scroll through my archive. "Actually, mid-April, looks like."

While we talk, Kin Zaius comes by with something he calls his Republican Dropship 17, hovering over us while we do our interview. I momentarily expect Tom Delay and Dennis Hastert to parachute onto the landing field, but instead, Amsterdam and I end up flying with Kin, and continue our interview on subcultures and the role of money in-world, while airborne.

"As someone who has spent considerable time observing and reporting on events in this world," says Amsterdam, "when considering the evolution of MMORPGS, and Second Life in particular, are there any aspects of the evolutionary process that have surprised you?"

"Well," I say, "the evolution of social status in-world does seem to depend quite a bit on building abilities and seniority, which is pretty unique, and also fairly surprising. Some folks are not necessarily social or even active players but [are still] considered legendary, due to their massive building/scripting kung fu."

"Right," says Amsterdam, "I've noticed how building can be a status thing."

"Totally, as opposed to high [character] level or wealth per se."

Somewhere in there, Kin Zaius drops us off near a suspension bridge, and wings away.

"There's your evolution there!" I say, referring to Zaius. "Stuff like that always happens, which is very much an evolution [away] from the typical MMORPG."

"What do you think people are looking for when they come here?"

"It's really all over the place," I answer. "We get a lot of exiles from other MMORPGs, and a lot of them want to chat and meet folks. Then there's a lot of people with Photoshop and other graphics software [experience], and they [just] wanna build."

"What are some of the most common complaints you hear from residents? For instance, I know the whole [story about the buying of] Avalon caused a lot of controversy."

"I actually get a lot of basic technical questions. 'How do I script this', 'where do I buy that land', stuff like that, because I'm a Linden, and people assume I'm a Liaison, or even, that I know what I'm talking about!"
Then returning to the story of the island: "Yeah, that was quite a controversy-- for a small subsection of residents, it's worth noting. Most of them didn't indicate caring one way or the other."

"I've encountered a lot of residents who are convinced their commercial dealings here will someday garner real world profits," says Amsterdam Becquerel. "Do you see that on the horizon?"

"Well, that does seem to be the direction a lot of residents are heading in," I acknowledge. "It's not my call one way or the other, but I will say the trend is that real commercial potential will be an aspect of Second Life. And only a small part of it, I should say. In the case of Avalon, for example, and other folks making money or having a commercial investment in SL, again, we are talking about a small subsection of folks."

"Why do you think it is that commerce plays such a big part of games like Second Life?"

"What makes you think it is an important part of SL?" I ask him, smiling.

"Maybe not so much in Second Life," Amsterdam explains, "but... I mean, I realize that you can be perfectly happy here without engaging in it, but at the same time, there are a lot of people engaging in MMORPGs hoping for some type of financial gain."

"Yeah," I say, "but again, folks really looking for financial gain and focused on that are still the minority. However, I do agree in the sense that in-world money, having it and spending it, improves the quality of your experience, for most people. If you have money, you can buy goods and services, and land, and also, having a lot of money is a sign of prestige, for many, and it's made explicit, that prestige, in the leader boards."

"In talking with people who have no knowledge of MMORPGs," says Amsterdam, "it's difficult to get them to wrap their heads around economic issues. They often think it's absurd. How do you convince them otherwise?"

"Well, the fact is people are making actual money from virtual property, in this world and others, so it's a reality, not a 'what if'. But to take it down to brass tacks, I'd say this: basically, the monetary value attached to anything in-world involves several things: bandwidth, server space, on the one side, and time and quality effort, on the other side. When you look at it that way, it's really not so strange. People pay money now for bandwidth (their ISPs) and for server space (like if they publish a blog), and on the other side, they value the quality work of, say, a construction worker who remodels their kitchen. In other words, the way we value things monetarily in-world isn't all that different from how we value them monetarily in this information age, offline. People make money with websites that feature lots of graphics and all that-- Second Life isn't really that big a leap, is it? It's just a 3D online medium, a close cousin to the Web."

[More with Amsterdam next week]

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Comments

People are making money reselling land. $10K a day I heard from someone. It's turning away new players FAST.

"I gotta pay $100 to buy some virtual currency company on top of the $5/month? They didn't tell me that when I signed up! grrr!"

Posted by: Jack Digeridoo at Mar 3, 2004 9:41:20 AM

I'm selling land in Immaculate Northwestern corner of the sim, extending south. Its moderately priced at $4L per/sq.m. One parcel is already gone, good beach property. It isn't necessarily in the reach of the newest of players, but it sure beats the $8L per/sq.m price of property being sold near the volcano in pompano.
I'd actively debate anyone who says land is a requirement of enjoying SL. I've released and sold mine several times without any adverse impact to my interests.

Posted by: Maxx Monde at Mar 3, 2004 9:49:24 AM

Why is it that RL$ keeps getting brought up in SL? I thought this was a 3d virtual web where I could build and socialize. Apparently its just another money making oppertunity. Yeah I woke up this morning and smelled the coffee.

sl$ turned into rl$, land barrons buying low selling high, LL hiring a rl marketing co to push their product, auctions for rl$, ppl in world now over charging for goods and services. Greed.

All I wanted to do was have a decent size plot of land to build. SL has gone threw many stages both good and bad. The bottom line for me tho is;

I am having as much fun as I did a year ago but now I am paying an additional 75 us$ a month to do it. I dont want to think about the bottom line but I now have to once a month. I am undecided if it is worth the additional cost at this point.

Catherine

Posted by: Catherine Cotton at Mar 4, 2004 4:56:55 AM

I have to agree with Catherine.

I didn't come here to get rich in rl... is this all that the world's becoming?

Posted by: Siobhan Taylor at Mar 4, 2004 7:28:34 AM

When I started playing this game, you could fly around and buy land in pretty much any sim for pretty cheap and reselling was silly because there was so much land to go around. People would just release to public when they moved.

If some greedy punk player told me to go to IGE and buy some Lindens so I could buy some land to get started there is no way I would stick around to play. I have no problems giving LL's money to play but I'm not giving some punk with visions of turning pro-gamer a dime.

Land barrons are erroding the community. EEERRROOOODIIINNGG.

Posted by: Jack Digeridoo at Mar 4, 2004 8:18:31 AM