Name that metaverse

Leading thinkers on online games tackle the challenge of tagging the infinitely extensible virtual world of "Second Life."

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read
NEW YORK--When tens of thousands of people can gather in a fully 3D environment to buy and sell fanciful clothing, defy gravity by flying, make friends from all over the world, build residential communities, speculate on land prices, and create and license software, what do you call it?

For three years, Linden Lab, the publisher of "Second Life," has grappled with that question.

"Second Life" is one of a very small number of so-called virtual worlds that eschew the traditional medieval fantasy-based role-playing game play common to such online blockbusters as "World of Warcraft," "EverQuest" and "Ultima Online." As such, Linden Lab is loathe to call "Second Life" a game, despite the accessibility of such a term.

"Second Life" has become something akin to a platform, an operating system and a browser all rolled into one.

In the beginning, "we did this thing with 'Second Life' where we positioned it like a video game because it was very easy to" understand, said Philip Rosedale, Linden Lab's CEO. "Today, there's almost a rebellion against that. The breadth of use you see (in 'Second Life') today speaks to the fact that people are trying to use it differently."

But "Second Life" and its conceptual cousin, "There," are patterned more on the infinitely open-ended notion of Neal Stephenson's groundbreaking novel "Snow Crash" and his creation of the metaverse than on group-based slaying of monsters. So defining exactly what genre the two titles belong to can be a challenge.

With that in mind, Linden Lab convened some of the leading thinkers about virtual worlds for a round table discussion here Thursday and tried to tackle precisely that question: What is "Second Life"?

To those gathered for the third annual State of Play conference--a mix of lawyers, academics, consultants, journalists and others--the question revolved around the dynamic that "Second Life" has become something akin to a platform, an operating system and a browser all rolled into one.

"What do we want to call this space?" asked Julian Dibbell, a writer for Wired magazine and the round table's moderator. "Is it a virtual world, or has that been played out? Or do we just want to call it the metaverse?"

A matter of trust
Several attendees pointed to the trust factor in "Second Life" as an element of its identity. Wagner James Au, who is paid by Linden Lab to be "Second Life's" embedded reporter, explained that not long ago, residents began collecting money to be given to Red Cross Katrina funds. The key, he explained, was the trust between members and the users who organized the fund-raising, as all the funds went initially into his bank account.

Dibbell, who had at one time been earning a significant amount of money trading the weapons, clothing and armor of the online game "Ultima Online," agreed, relating how he had once allowed a fellow UO player he didn't know very well to use his in-world house to store virtual goods with tangible value.

"There was real trust developed with the UO...guy," Dibbell recalled. "There was bonding because he was entrusting stuff (to me) with real market value."

Eventually, Dibbell turned the conversation toward the economies of virtual worlds like "Second Life." He explained that in the early days of persistent worlds, when they were two-dimensional experiences, there was no such thing as a developed virtual-world economy with virtual items carrying real-world value.

"And then came massively multiplayer online role-playing games with their huge size and their incredibly directed framework for activity," he said. "That seemed to almost naturally generate these rich economies (which then) spun out into the real world.

Spatial and contiguous
But Dibbell also said that "Second Life" belies the notion that the activity that creates value has to be based on the goods of games, such as weapons, armor and the like.

"I had always assumed (the development of economies in games like 'Ultima Online') proved you needed a game to make these economies happen," he said. But "you add the treadmill of (open-ended) achievement and the economies take off."

Another that takes off, said Rosedale, is competitiveness, though not necessarily in the sense of who can score the most points.

Rather, he said, because "Second Life" incorporates neighborhoods and people setting up homes near each other, its members can see and watch each other as they create the kinds of houses, businesses, vehicles and other things it allows.

"Because it's spatial and contiguous," Rosedale said, "you're more likely to encounter competition" when neighbors spot each other creating new and valuable things.

In the end, Dibbell brought the conversation full circle, trying to pin down participants on how to define "Second Life."

Susan Crawford, a professor at Cardoza School of Law, called it "Other Lives."

Dibbell himself ventured "Second Homes."

Thomas Malaby, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said his preferred designation was already taken.

"I would like 'domain,'" he said. "'Domain' suggests action."

Others suggested "spaces," "dreamspace" and "state."

Robin Harper, Linden Lab's senior vice president of community and support, rejected "state" or "country," noting that such names bring with them an expectation on the part of users that the publisher will provide in-world government and policing, something Linden Lab has steadfastly avoided, preferring instead to allow users to police themselves through community standards.

Ultimately, the group did not arrive at an answer. But the fact that each person had come to share their views reflects the fact that environments like "Second Life" present a conundrum for those would seek to name them with designations already in use. After all, "Second Life" is an entirely new place in the digital realm and one that in some ways more closely resembles real life than it does any pre-existing games.