It was never just a game.
To an outsider, Second Life may look like a crappier version of World of Warcraft. It's a vast digital space many people can log into with their virtual avatars, only instead of going on wild adventures, slaying dragons and collecting epic swords, it just seems like a bunch of people hanging out in bars, offices, galleries—normal places. That's a fair assessment of Second Life, but what makes it special and lasting isn't as apparent.
Yes, Second Life, which first launched in 2003, looks incredibly dated. Thirteen years is an eon in the technology business. There are massively multiplayer games that look prettier, bigger social networks that are better integrated to our daily routines, and video games that are far more fun to play. So why is it still hanging around?
The short answer is that there's nothing else quite like it. Second Life was never just one of these things. It was a unique combination of all of the above—plus some weird sex stuff—that no other company has managed to displace. Even Second Life's developer Linden Lab is hesitant to compete with it.
A crucial difference between Second Life and MMOs like World of Warcraft is that the latter are mostly fixed worlds. Once in awhile, developer Blizzard will introduce a new continent or reconfigure an existing location, but all players are guests in the world that Blizzard created. Second Life, by contrast, allows users to not only create their own avatars, but also to shape and create the world they're in, importing their own 3D assets and modifying the world with the Linden Scripting Language.
If you let users make whatever they want, they'll make a lot of sex stuff.
That means that Second Life users can build anything from virtual genetics labs, to depraved sex dungeons, to campaign headquarters for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
This is probably why you know Second Life even exists, and you probably first heard about it around 2007: That's when Second Life started to seep into pop culture at large.
It was featured in the American version of The Office, which made fun of the fact that it's a virtual world where you could work at a paper company, and CSI: New York, which was infatuated with the notion that a virtual world could have a seedy underbelly.
I was in art school at the time, and my teachers, who previously dismissed video games, started talking about Second Life as a new frontier for exhibitions, installations, and performances. Universities like MIT and Stanford started building virtual spaces in Second Life, assuming that in the future they'd be able to host virtual lectures and classes.
Second Life users can also sell creations like these to others, so some are sticking around simply because it's good business.
"Last year, users redeemed $60 million (USD) from their Second Life businesses, and the virtual world's GDP is about $500 million, which is the size of some small countries," Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg told me in an email.
He added that while many have tried, no competitor has been able to successfully provide this type of freedom in a virtual world.
"Apart from the technical challenges, another major undertaking is the legal and regulatory compliance work required to support a global user-to-user economy from which users around the world can redeem real money, without fraud and money laundering," Altberg said. "In addition, there are challenges related to empowering users with a huge degree of creative freedom on an open-ended platform such as ours. Many would-be competitors tried much more restrictive approaches, but ultimately none have found the same success that Second Life has."
In 2006, CNET attempted to tell a story about Second Life within Second Life. It interviewed Second Life's real estate tycoon Anshe Chung within the virtual world, only to have the event interrupted by a sudden parade of floppy, floating dildos. Such are the dangers of a virtual world where the inhabitants are given this level of control.
If you let users make whatever they want, they'll make a lot of sex stuff. Dirty, kinky sex stuff to float any boat. Wagner James Au, who runs New World Notes, a blog about Second Life, and who literally wrote the book about it, told me sex is a huge part of Second Life.
"No doubt the variety of virtual porn sites in Second Life are a strong draw for many regular users, especially because many of these sites feature extreme sexual kinks and fetishes that aren't readily available online elsewhere," Au told me over email. "In fact, half of the most popular locations in Second Life are Adult-rated, most of them advertising what they offer in the actual location names: Chained Desires, Yiff Spot (i.e. furry sex), Bukkake Bliss island, etc. At the same time, many of these Adult locations are also communities with regulars who get to know each other and share other interests beyond kinky sex, so I'd say the online community aspect is just as much if not more of a draw. (If it wasn't, they'd just go elsewhere to watch non-interactive porn.)"
"We're seeing VR experiences and behaviors that reflect what Second Life users have been doing for years."
Altberg told me that today, about 900,000 users log into Second Life every month. Au said that figure might be a little misleading, explaining that the virtual world sees about 600,000 monthly active users, and about 300,000 first-time visitors who try it once and never come back.
Neither figure is huge compared to World of Warcraft, which, even in its decline, still sees 5.5 million subscribers, but it's a lot of people who are very engaged.
"It's all user-generated content so it generates a steady stream of screenshots/videos/etc, posted across social media, it's free so it still attracts constant waves of fresh visitors, and lately, it's a reference point (or cautionary tale) for the new wave of VR platforms," Au told me in an email. "I think it's a thing still worth writing and thinking about, because despite its lack of overall growth, it's a fascinating microcosm for both Internet and real world culture. And as a user-generated content platform, it still regularly produces really engaging, cool content, like a real life artist with a government grant to produce Second Life art, or a couple dudes playing live metal guitar for a Second Life audience from different parts of Japan."
Second Life is still a thing because despite its age and the easy jokes, it owns an entire market it invented itself. A competitor, perhaps one with better graphics and the slick public image of a modern tech company, would have to directly poach from Second Life. But because those users already have so much invested in the platform—entire businesses in some cases—they have little incentive to leave.
Linden Lab is currently working on another, VR-compatible virtual world code-named Project Sansar, though it's cautious about calling it a "competitor" to Second Life.
"We see this platform running in parallel with Second Life, rather than replacing it," Altberg said. "Project Sansar allows for a new level of quality, accessibility and scalability for users and their virtual creations, and is designed to reach a larger, broader audience. While many Second Life users may be Sansar users as well, we believe that members of these thriving Second Life communities will maintain their relationships and creations for years to come."
It's hard even for Linden Lab to displace Second Life because it got so many things right the first time. While some are surprised to find out that Second Life is still a thing, Linden Lab likes to think of Second Life as a great example of how humans interact in virtual environments.
"As the VR market continues to grow, new experiences are introduced, and new hardware is released, we're seeing many experiences and behaviors that reflect what Second Life users have been doing for years," Altberg said.
Indeed, the most surprising thing about Second Life is not that it's still a thing, but that 13 years after its inception, it is still way ahead of its time.
Why Is This Still a Thing is a column exploring the anachronistic, seemingly-outdated technology that surrounds us. New columns appear every Friday.