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'Second Life' for teens: 3D fun sans the brothels

After two years as an adults-only playground, the virtual world will feature a new grid for teenagers. Images: A new metaverse

In the 3D online world "Second Life," players can fly, turn themselves into dragons, build fantastical houses, drive supercharged hovercrafts and do just about anything else they can imagine. In short, if they have the skills to create it, they can do it.

As long as they're 18 or older.

But on Monday, Linden Lab, the publisher of the virtual world, is expected to launch what it is tentatively calling "Second Life for Teens."

Second Life for Teens

"It was pretty evident for us that 'Second Life' was a terrific environment for kids," said Robin Harper, Linden Lab's senior vice president of community. "Every time a teen would sit down in front of 'Second Life,' he or she would immediately get it."

In fact, she said, company employees often found teens playing the game. But because behavior in "Second Life" can take on just about any flavor, including an erotically explicit one, it has always been for adults only. Thus, Harper said, teens discovered "in-world" were always banned.

"Second Life" is one of the leading examples of a type of massively multiplayer online game known as a metaverse. Its 40,000 users create nearly all of its content using 3D modeling and scripting tools, and they have few boundaries. Its members pay a one-time fee of $10 and monthly fees if they buy virtual property in the game.

Now teens will be able to take advantage of the same open-ended environment, albeit without risking being exposed to virtual brothels or metrosexual goblins.

"I like that it's just for teens," said a 16-year-old boy who asked to be called by his "Second Life" screen name, Aesop Thatch. "So we don't have to deal with any of the things we'd have to deal with in the main grid, like sex or pornography."

According to Harper, "Second Life for Teens" has been in beta for the last five months and has slowly grown to have hundreds of participants. And because the game is dependent on user-created content, the publishers turned to donations from members of the main grid for content to populate the teen version from the get-go.

"We had lots of donations of everything from clothing to a parachuting platform to a coffeehouse," Harper said. "It was just based on the goodwill of the people who made the donations. So it gave (the teens) a good jumping-off point, and also showed them what was possible."

For the most part, online games encourage users of all ages to join. Players of such titles as "Everquest" or "World of Warcraft" are all too familiar with the immature behavior of teens more interested in wreaking havoc than in making the games better.

Of course, not all teens are problems. And some online games depend on them to make for better and more cohesive communities.

"In general, the kind of time that younger people spend online is very exciting to us," said Ron Meiners, the community manager at There.com, another metaverse similar to "Second Life." "They are very open to online social experiences."

In any case, Aesop Thatch said he thinks that the teen version of "Second Life" with several hundred players is actually a better place than the 40,000-plus player main version, where teens must go once they turn 18.

"Two people that have transferred to the main grid...they're wishing they could come back to the teen grid," he said. "We have a much tighter community than the main grid, so the two that have reported back are kind of feeling lost."