A very interesting development is occurring in the world of technology and on the Internet at the moment, one that many of you may already be part of. This interesting development is known as Second Life. I won’t hide my inspiration for this article, I like many others watched the Four Corners program recently about Second Life. There are interviews and other relevant links here. While the report did a good job of explaining what Second Life is, I thought it missed a few significant issues.
Second Life is an online virtual world, where tens of thousands (and eventually hundreds of thousands) of people can interact in 3D at the same time and on the same map. They can talk, dance, walk, fly, buy things, sell things, and do just about anything one can do in a “first life”.
The concept of a virtual world has been around for quite some time. The original concept would have come from video games, where the term MMORPG is commonly used, which stands for Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. These games catered for tens of thousands of people at any given time, and are called “role playing games”. The participants take on the roles of fictional characters that they create and complete tasks or quests to gain higher status within the game. Some examples are the Everquest game from Sony, or the more popular World Of Warcraft.
There was a deviation, however, from this type of game late in the 90’s, with a game called The Sims: this game quickly became the most popular ever made (in terms of sales figures). In The Sims players take control of a person, and guided that them through life by building a house, feeding them, bathing them, getting them to socialise, and working their way up the corporate ladder. If the needs of the character were not tended to i.e. hygiene and sustenance, the character would die and the game would end. The popularity of this game reflected people’s interest in leading a virtual life.
The games creators continued with The Sims 2 which eclipsed the first one in terms of sales, but the developers were eyeing a much greater prize, The Sims Online. The idea was that The Sims Online would be what Second Life is becoming: it would be the players’ Second Life.
There were many issues, however. In games like World of Warcraft, players build their status in the game by completing quests or tasks, or finding items. This is the basic need within the game. In The Sims Online, other than social interaction there was no basic need. You could hit a limit with your skills, progress through your character through their career and that would be it. The content in the game was limited to what the developers chose to create, and the only remaining reason to play the game would be for social interaction (which was enough for some).
What the creators of Second Life have done that is different to all other games and virtual worlds so far, is established the idea of Intellectual Property within the game environment.
To do this, they have made one change, (almost) all the content in the game is developed by the players. All players start out as one of the basic “avatars” with a few animation gestures and no real possessions, and if they want to attain any possessions or learn any animations they must be either created by the player or obtained somehow from other players. Most of the time this will be done by purchasing from another player using the game currency, Linden Dollars, which are freely exchangeable for US dollars at a fixed exchange rate.
Linden Labs (the developers of the game) make money from first selling real estate in the virtual world to the citizens (citizens want the real estate in order to have a place to sell their wares) and then charging a land tax at the end of each relevant period. This creates a functional economy, there is a limited supply of land as each piece of land requires server processing power which gives a supply side floor on the price. And the demand for land is created by entrepreneurs looking for a place to sell their wares, which creates a price ceiling.
Now the world within Second Life is a functioning economy which responds to the supply and demand of its citizens. Money is exchanged for goods and services and everything has a real world value as a result of the functional exchange rate (there are actually some “World Exchange Markets” that even trade in all currencies).
Similar to the real world, in the Second Life virtual world, the economy places great value on intellectual property. Within the real world however, there are physical limitations on the capabilities of all beings. In the virtual world, the only limitations are those that are programmed in by the developers, which is open to constant testing and manipulation of its citizens.
This came to fore when a program called “copybot” gave citizens the ability to copy any item that they could see in unlimited quantities. This of course would destroy the games intellectual property base, and as a result Linden Labs sent out many threatening warnings that accounts would be closed, the official word regarding this action can be seen on the Second Life website. It appears that Linden Labs has handled the situation, and its advice to those that have been targeted is to appeal to the courts of the “real world” using the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The fact that Linden Labs handled the complaints and policed the situation to solve the problem, and their suggestion to pursue legal action under protection of the DMCA raises two very peculiar issues.