How Second Life Works

By: Jonathan Strickland & Dave Roos

Second Life residents gather at a snow landscapeto chat, dance and stare at the ground. See more pictures of popular web sites.
Second Life

Few online social networking sites get as much attention as Second Life (SL), the three-dimensional virtual world where users, called residents, can preten­d to be whomever -- or whatever -- they want to be. Although it's an online environment, its influence reaches into the real world -- including a virtual economy that's dependent upon actual money. In reality, or perhaps virtual reality, Second Life is a complex environment filled with potential risks and rewards.

At its most basic level, Second Life is an online environment created by Linden Lab, a company based in San Francisco. Second Life is an online world in which residents create virtual representations of themselves, called avatars, and interact with other avatars, places or objects. Second Life isn't just a fancy chat room -- residents can do much more than communicate with one another. For one thing, they can contribute to the world around them, creating buildings, objects or even animations. Resident additions to the virtual world are called user-generated content, and this content is one of the factors that makes Second Life such a unique online environment. User-generated content also explains why Second Life is for adults only -- Linden Lab places few restrictions on residents, meaning that you can see some pretty raunchy creations while you're exploring the environment.


In Second Life, residents can go to social gatherings, live concerts, press conferences and even college classes. They can do a lot of things you can do in real life -- buy land, shop for clothes and gadgets or just visit with friends. They can also do things that are impossible in the real world -- avatars can fly or teleport to almost any location. Some residents design short programs, called scripts, which give avatars or objects new abilities, including special animations or the ability to generate copies of other objects.

In many ways, Second Life is similar to Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs). Like an MMORPG, users represent themselves with a customizable, three-dimensional figure that acts like a computer-generated puppet. Users navigate through an online world, encountering strange landscapes and new people. Unlike MMORPGs, residents in Second Life aren't in a game, though there are games inside Second Life's virtual environment. They inhabit a virtual world free of pre-determined goals or tasks, just like the real world.

In the next section, we'll become a little more oriented with the way Second Life's world is organized.


The Geography of Second Life

All new residents appear at Orientation Island when they first log into Second Life.
All new residents appear at Orientation Islandwhen they first log into Second Life.
Second Life

Second Life geography spans two worlds -- the real world and the virtual world. In the real world, Second Life exists on a collection of server host machines, called sims. These computers store all the information found within the virtual world. Each sim runs between 2 to 16 server processes, which simulate regions in Second Life. Every region is 256 m2 in the virtual world. Linden Lab calls the collection of networked sims the grid.

When a new resident logs on to Second Life, his or her avatar appears at "Orientation Island." Here, the resident participates in a tutorial, learning how to navigate through Second Life, communicate with other residents and how to use menus and commands. The resident also learns about the places he or she may venture. All regions have a rating of either PG or mature. Regions with the PG rating should be free of objectionable material, including violent or sexually explicit content. In mature areas, rules are less strict -- avatars might wear revealing clothing or nothing at all, and residents have few behavioral restrictions.


Regions also have safe and unsafe ratings. A safe rating means you can wander around without fear of attack from other avatars or objects (unless you encounter griefers, residents who harass other users). An unsafe region allows residents to simulate combat, either with other users or with objects programmed to attack avatars. Unsafe regions let residents create their own version of an MMORPG, or simply satisfy the visceral thrill of getting into a fight.

Other geographic spaces in Second Life include the mainland, estates, islands and parcels. Linden Lab owns and oversees the mainland, a continent inside Second Life. An estate is a privately owned collection of regions with a unifying theme and code of conduct determined by the estate's owner -- there are estates in Second Life that simulate towns in the old West or medieval Europe. Islands are pretty much what they sound like: Small, independent land masses, usually under the control of a private owner or company. Parcels are very small units of land measuring 4 m2.

Premium membership residents can buy or rent land from Linden Lab or other residents. Land gives residents a place to build and store their virtual possessions, but it's not a necessity -- many residents wander through Second Life without ever owning land. If the resident buys land on the mainland, he or she answers directly to Linden Lab. If the resident rents land on another resident's estate, he or she will have to comply with that resident's rules and conditions. In turn, the estate owner has to pay Linden Lab for the land he or she owns.

Architecture in Second Life ranges from ultramodern to medieval.
Architecture in Second Life ranges fromultramodern to medieval.
Second Life

Land owners can set their property as public access or private invitation only. They can also designate their land as a PG or mature area. If they own land on the mainland, they can create whatever decorations, landscaping or buildings they like. Because of this, neighborhoods on Second Life's mainland tend to be a hodgepodge of clashing styles. Estate owners can be more restrictive, requiring residents to comply with their aesthetics.

Now that we've learned about the geographical organization of Second Life, we'll examine what its avatars are like.


Second Life Avatars

Everything your avatar carries can be found in your inventory.
Everything your avatar carries can be found in your inventory.
Second Life

New Second Life users select their avatars from generic male and female templates (residents and their avatars don't necessarily share the same gender). Although a resident could use an unmodified template, everyone else would know that he or she was a newb -- a new user who doesn't know how things work. Most residents customize their avatars a little before leaving Orientation Island.

One important factor in avatar customization is the inventory. The inventory holds hair, skin, objects, animations and body parts and has an infinite capacity. A user can open his or her inventory and choose to put on or remove items, like clothing or hairstyles. Residents can add to an avatar's inventory at any time, creating a practically limitless number of avatar customization options.


They can change their avatars' appearance as often as they like. Nothing in Second Life is permanent -- if a user decides his or her avatar should evolve from a hulking brute to

an emaciated goth kid, he or she can make the changes at any time.

A resident can also right click his or her mouse on the avatar, which pulls up a pie-shaped menu. One of the menu choices is appearance, which allows a user to adjust the way his or her avatar looks. For example, if the user wants to modify the avatar's hairstyle, he or she might use the tool's slide bars to make the hairstyle longer or shorter. Even with this level of control, the user can only adjust what is already there. If he or she wanted a completely new hairstyle, the user would have to either design it or buy it from another resident.

Some residents create special skin textures for avatars ranging from realistic skin and hair to fantasy-inspired scales or feathers. Users can find dozens of residents who sell and trade clothing, skin and even body parts in Second Life. Savvy residents can customize their avatars by creating their own clothes and skins in a graphics program and importing the file into Second Life.

Avatar customization is just one way residents can tweak their Second Life experiences. Users can also build objects within Second Life using simple in-world tools and menus. By creating and linking together basic prim structures, users can create more complex objects. They can also use the Linden Scripting Language, a programming language similar to Java, to give objects specific properties. For example, a skilled user could create a puppy dog that follows him or her everywhere. Residents make objects for different reasons -- some do it to bolster the theme of a particular area or avatar design, others build objects just for fun.

Residents can even build houses and other buildings. Some use programs like AutoCAD to design their structures before importing them into Second Life. Others purchase building designs from other residents. Buildings can be extremely realistic or defy real-world physics.

Second Life's capacity for customization is extensive. The world inside Second Life doesn't just foster user-generated content, it depends upon it. By encouraging user innovation and participation, Second Life has created a loyal community of enthusiastic residents.

In the next section, we'll learn about the navigation, communication and interaction systems in Second Life.


Walking and Talking in Second Life

Flying in Second Life is as easy as clicking the "fly" button on your screen.
Flying in Second Life is as easy as clickingthe "fly" button on your screen.
Second Life

Second Life's controls can be a little intimidating for new users. Its interface includes several menus, buttons and keyboard shortcuts. Many users find the learning curve too steep and quickly give up -- only about 10 percent of all users who make accounts ever bother to return after their first visit [source: New Scientist].

Avatars can get around Second Life by walking, flying or teleporting to their destination. Residents make their avatars walk around by using the arrow keys. Pushing the up arrow key makes the avatar walk forward, for example. Moving the mouse changes the position of the avatar's head, making it look around.


At the bottom of the resident's screen are several buttons, including the fly button. Clicking on this button will launch the resident's avatar into the air, allowing him or her to fly around like Superman. Flying lets avatars navigate over water or avoid other obstacles they might encounter on the ground.

Teleporting is the fastest method of travel in Second Life. Residents can teleport their avatars by opening up the map function. A window appears with the Map of Second Life, and the resident simply double-clicks on a destination to teleport there. Some locations may have restrictions, such as an island reserved for private use by another resident. In these cases, the avatar teleports as close to the location as possible without violating access restrictions. Without permission, the avatar can't enter restricted areas -- the resident would have to ask the area's owner for an invitation.

Residents can also choose a few different ways to communicate with other users. They can opt to use the Voice feature, which allows residents with microphones to talk to one another live. Residents can also use a chat box, which opens a window in which users can type messages. Chat box conversations are broadcast to everyone in the immediate area, so for more private conversations, residents can instant message another user.

Pie-shaped menus include options that allow residents to interact with other users or objects. Right clicking on objects pulls up the menu, displaying a list of things the resident can do. Another way you can interact is to use gestures. Gestures are animations that can convey a mood or simulate an action. Second Life includes a tool that lets you design your own gestures, or you can get them by buying them or trading with another resident.

In the next section, we'll learn about the engine running Second Life and what kind of computer equipment you'll need to explore the community.


Second Life's Tech Specs

As of October 2007, Second Life uses the Havok 1physics engine. This software simulates real physics within a virtual environment. The physics engine determines how avatars and objects behave within the virtual world, including collision detection (the engine tells the software when two items are touching and how each should react), vehicle dynamics and what animations look like.

The more sophisticated the physics engine, the more realistic simulations using it will be. Linden Lab announced that it is upgrading Second Life to the Havok 4 physics engine. Games that use the Havok 4 engine include Halo 2 and Halo 3, BioShock, Medal of Honor Heroes and Full Spectrum Warrior. As of October 2007, the Havok 4 Second Life engine was still in the beta testing stage.


Residents can hear and view streaming audio and video inside Second Life. Second Life supports audio in MPEG and Ogg Vorbis formats. Streaming video requires the user to install Quicktime. Residents can choose to display video on specific surfaces in the land they own. To do this, they designate the surface's texture as a media surface. If any other surface within that resident's land has the same texture, it will also display the streaming video. Since this can cause confusion, residents should make sure the surface they choose has a unique texture within their land.

­Second Life requires a fairly hefty setup on the user's end. It's compatible both with PCs and Mac computers. Technical requirements for the PC include:

  • A Cable or DSL connection
  • Windows 2000, XP or Vista operating system (Linden Lab recommends XP or Vista)
  • An 800 MHz Pentium III processor or better (at least 1.5 GHz recommended)
  • 512 MB of computer memory (1 GB recommended)
  • An nVidia GeForce 2, ATI Radeon 8500 or Intel 945GM graphics card or better

The Mac requirements include the cable or DSL connection, the same amount of computer memory and graphics card requirements as the PC, and:

  • Mac OS X 10.3.9 or better
  • 1 GHz G4 or better processor

Next, we'll take an even closer look at creating objects in Second Life.


Creating Things in Second Life

With a little practice, you can build your resident a pretty sweet ride.
With a little practice, you can build your resident a pretty sweet ride.
Second Life

Absolutely every object, building and flying car you see in Second Life was created by a Resident. The basics of object creation are easy, but it takes a lot of practice and some serious scripting capabilities to make the really impressive stuff. Fortunately, there's a designated place in Second Life for you to practice these skills: the sandbox. The sandbox is a public space where residents practice building different objects.

You can open the object creation tool three ways:


  • Click the "build" button at the bottom of the screen
  • Right-click on the ground or any empty space and choose "create" from the options wheel
  • Press cmd-4 (ctrl-4 on Mac)

When you open the object creation tool, the default window is "create," indicated by a magic wand symbol. At the top of the window is a list of the 15 prims -- basic shapes like cubes, cones and tubes -- available to Second Life users. A seasoned builder knows how to stretch, cut, link and multiply these prims to create everything from a hotel to a Ferrari.

Here are some of the basic building options:

  • Create an object by choosing a prim shape and clicking on the ground or any open space.
  • In the "edit" window, you can move, rotate, stretch or change the texture of the object. (The default texture is wood.)
  • Use the "object" tab in the edit window to enter precise measurements, rotation angles and more advanced features like tapering and twisting.
  • In the "texture" tab, you can choose from existing textures in your Inventory and edit their color and shading.
  • You can link objects together by selecting multiple shapes and pressing ctrl-L.
  • Copy objects by simply selecting an object, holding down the Shift key and dragging the object.
  • Check the "use grid" box in the edit menu to see helpful on-screen rulers as you stretch, move and rotate your objects.

With just these simple tools and key controls, you can make almost any stationary object in Second Life. But if you want to bring your creations to life -- give them movement and interactivity -- you'll have to learn the Linden Scripting Language (LSL). LSL is most similar to the C programming language. There are many Web sites and online tutorials for learning basic and advanced LSL scripts. You can even find a few at the Second Life forums.

To attach a script to a Second Life object, click on the "scripts" tab in the edit menu and click "new script." Within the script editor is a pull-down menu with dozens of common scripting commands. Although, without a basic understanding of LSL, you can't just piece together a working script with those commands.

One of the cool things about Second Life is that you retain intellectual property rights for every object you create in-world. With those rights, you can choose to allow other people to edit your objects or not. You can also assign a price tag to an object and sell it on the Second Life marketplace, which we'll learn more about later.

In the next section, we'll take a closer look at Second Life residents.


Second Life Population and Rules

This popular dance club shows a variety of residents in Second Life's population.
This popular dance club shows a variety ofresidents in Second Life's population.
Second Life

Linden Lab listed the population of Second Life at more than 10,500,000 residents as of October 2007. That figure sounds impressive, but it's important to keep a couple of mitigating factors in mind. First, Linden Lab allows users to create more than one account, so some of the 10,500,000 residents are duplicates. Second, the virtual world has a high churn rate, meaning most visitors only log on once and then abandon the program. Some observers mark the churn rate as high as 90 percent, meaning only 10 percent of all the people who visit Second Life will come back after the first visit [source: New Scientist].

Second Life publishes Economy stats, which include the number of residents who have logged in to the program over the past week, two weeks, month and two months. In October 2007, just fewer than 1,000,000 residents logged in.


According to Second Life's Web page, 60 percent of residents are men. User age ranges from 18 to 85. Residents who use Second Life come from all different backgrounds, from corporate executives to college students.

One unifying trait all residents share is that by creating an account in Second Life they agree to obey Linden Lab's terms of service (TOS). Linden Lab designed the TOS to help protect itself and honest residents from malicious users. Users should read the TOS carefully, particularly if they want to participate in Second Life's economy. The TOS makes it clear that Linden Lab has the right to wipe out a user's inventory, including any in-game currency he or she might have. The company also makes it clear that users can't hold Linden Lab responsible for incidents that delete user information.

Along with the Terms of Service, Linden Lab requires all users to follow the Community Standards. Community Standards lists six kinds of behavior, called the Big Six, which could result in a users' suspension or banishment from Second Life if he or she violates them. They are:

  1. Intolerance: Using derogatory language or images relating to a resident's gender, race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation
  2. Harassment: Stalking another avatar, participating in cyberbullying, using intimidating words or actions or presenting unwelcome sexual advances toward another avatar
  3. Assault: Committing an act of violence against another avatar in a Safe area
  4. Disclosure: Revealing personal information about another resident
  5. Indecency: Inappropriate behavior in PG-rated areas, including running around nude or shouting obscenities
  6. Disturbing the Peace: Engaging in behavior that is meant to disrupt other residents' experiences in the virtual world. This can include making repetitive, distracting noises or filling a space with so many objects that the area suffers lag as a result.

Linden Lab has employees in Second Life who can respond to situations, but the company mainly relies on users to report misbehaving residents. For most first offenders, Linden Lab will issue a warning. However, for repeat offenders, Linden Lab may suspend or revoke the user's membership. Offenders could lose all their items and money in the game, and as the Terms of Service make clear, Linden Lab would not have to refund their money.

In the next section, we'll look at some young Second Life users that populate the world of Teen Second Life.


Teen Second Life

Teen Second Life's home page is where teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 can create an account.
Teen Second Life's home page is where teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 can create an account.

Because Second Life places age restrictions on its residents, teenagers can't participate in the virtual world. It's not that Second Life is exclusive -- it's that Linden Lab wants to protect teens from the sometimes bawdy content that residents stumble across. But there's a separate virtual world altogether for users between the ages of 13 and 17: Teen Second Life.

Teen Second Life is a completely separate three-dimensionalvirtual world exclusively for people between the ages of 13 and 17. Teen Second Life operates on the Teen Second Life grid, which is inaccessible from the regular Second Life Grid.


Teen Second Life shares nearly all of the same features as regular Second Life. A basic account is free, but a premium account allows you to buy land. Teens can customize their avatars, build an endless variety of objects, and buy and sell in Linden dollars. They can also chat and send in-world instant messages, just like the older residents.

Safety is obviously a big priority whenever a teen community is concerned. Linden Lab staffs the teen world with liaisons who are there to help teens find their way around and to keep an eye out for potential problems. Here are some of Linden Lab's safety tips for Teen Second Life:

  • Never reveal real-world personal information to anyone
  • Never agree to meet someone in the real world
  • Keep passwords a secret
  • Log off immediately if you feel uncomfortable or harassed at any time
  • Report any strange or inappropriate behavior by going to the "help" menu and clicking "report abuse"
  • Share your Second Life experience with your parents

The virtual world of Teen Second Life is tiny compared to regular Second Life. According to Linden Lab statistics, Teen grid avatars make up less than one percent of active Second Life users. Teen Second Life receives heavy competition from similar teen virtual worlds like Virtual MTV and Habbo. But no matter the returning rates of these young residents, they at least have a virtual world outlet provided by the Teen Second Life community.

Part of belonging to the virtual world of Second Life includes participating in its economy. Next, we'll learn how users make a buck in the virtual world and how some make real world money, too.


Second Life Economy

At this Second Life jewelry store, you can buy accessories using Linden Dollars.
At this Second Life jewelry store, you canbuy accessories using Linden Dollars.
Second Life

­Second Life's economy is based off a unit of currency called the Linden Dollar. Linden Dollars are virtual money, but that doesn't mean they're worthless. Residents can go to a currency exchange service to convert U.S. dollars into Linden currency, and vice versa. The official exchange service is called LindeX. The exchange rate fluctuates, just like real currencies. In October 2007, the exchange rate was about 267 Linden Dollars for every U.S. dollar. Most transactions within the game world use Linden Dollars.

Second Life's economic model is one of the main reasons Second Life gets a lot of attention. Some people find it strange that someone would spend real money for a virtual house or shirt. It's even more difficult to believe that some people are making a living off of buying and selling items in Second Life. Some are concerned that the U.S. government will explore ways to tax in-game transactions.


Resident Ailin Graef not only makes a living off of Second Life but also became the first person to become a real millionaire through transactions in Second Life. Graef made her fortune by dealing in real estate, becoming what some residents call a land baron. She bought land in Second Life from Linden Lab, developed it using creative and stylish themes, then rented or sold the land back to other residents [source: Business Week].

Not all purchases use Linden Dollars -- land sales and auctions usually require real cash. If you want to buy your own island in Second Life, for example, you'll need to throw down $1,675. This will buy a 65,356 m2 island (an entire region). For this fee, you get to choose the island's terrain and location.

Own enough land and you'll have to pay Linden Lab a monthly fee to use it. Your land use fee pays for renting space on a server. The monthly premium membership fee entitles a resident to 512 m2 of land at no additional charge. As a user purchases more land, the land use fee increases.

As of October 2007, the land use fee ranged from $5 per month for ownership of up to 512 m2 of additional land to $195 per month for up to 65,356 m2 of land. Second Life calls residents who spend at least $125 per month on land use fees -- meaning they own at least 32,768 m2 -- concierge members. Linden Lab bases the land use fee off the maximum amount of land a resident owns during each 30-day billing cycle. Concierge members have access to a special team of Linden Lab customer relations employees who help resolve issues.

In the next section, we'll look at how organizations and events in the real world are crossing over into Second Life.


Second Life and the Real World

have virtual holdings in Second Life.
have virtual holdings in Second Life.

Some people believe that the future of the Internet is in three-dimensionalvirtual worlds like Second Life, where users will navigate through creative landscapes in search of information and entertainment. As a result, some organizations have jumped into Second Life with hopes that they can get in on the ground floor before the community's popularity explodes. More than 100 companies and organizations have an online presence in Second Life. Many own islands and host events like press conferences or concerts. Others use Second Life to promote charitable organizations or political philosophies. Some companies create a space in Second Life with no clear strategy on what to do with it, which usually backfires -- no one wants to go to a location that's just a big advertisement.

Other companies try to avoid that mistake. Coca-Cola, for example, held a competition in which residents submitted designs for a virtual vending machine. The winner of the competition will star in a video about designing a Second Life object. By creating interactive content, Coke avoided the pitfall of jumping into Second Life without contributing to the world's content.


Other companies use similar strategies. Reebok let users design shoes for their avatars, then order a custom-made copy of the shoes for themselves to wear in real life [source: New York Times]. Starwood Hotels used Second Life to test building and room designs, taking suggestions from residents and incorporating them into real building plans [source: Business Week]. Some companies have even used Second Life as a recruitment tool, seeking out residents who are particularly adept at creating user-generated content [source: CNN Money].

While companies continue to experiment with an online presence in Second Life, a few Internet security experts caution that the virtual world isn't the safest environment in which to conduct business. They point out that griefers can find ways to listen in on confidential conversations or sabotage a company's Second Life location. Most companies only use Second Life as a marketing tool rather than for remote meetings. Some companies are creating virtual environments of their own in order to avoid the security dangers in Second Life.

Some colleges even have a presence in Second Life, holding classes and studying human psychology and sociology in the virtual world. In 2006, Harvard University held a class called CyberOne: Law in the Court of Public Opinion. It was open to the general public of Second Life, where residents could view lectures and participate in discussions [source: Harvard]. Other colleges have experimented with holding classes in the virtual world with varying degrees of success.

Second Life might seem strange and foreign to those of us who are only used to the real world but to residents, it's an important community that's just as valid as any physical environment. Still, whether Second Life marks the future of the Internet or just a passing fad remains to be seen.

To learn more about Second Life and other topics, explore the links that follow.


Second Life FAQ

Is Second Life free?
The basic membership of Second Life is free and allows you to create an avatar and wander around. However, if you want to have a private home, receive a monthly stipend or get expanded customer support, you'll have to upgrade to a premium membership.
What can you do in Second Life?
In Second Life, you can go to social gatherings, live concerts, press conferences and even attend college classes. You can buy land, shop for clothes and gadgets or just visit your friends. You can also do some things that are impossible in the real world like flying or teleporting to almost any location.
Is Second Life safe for 13-year-olds?
The creators designed Second Life to be an adults-only online community. Users who are over 18 can use any public area of Second Life, while users who are 16 and over can visit the general area of Second Life, according to the platform's content guidelines and maturity ratings.
How do I put something on the marketplace in Second Life?
The Second Life Marketplace is a place to buy virtual items sold by other residents. If you want to put something on the marketplace in Second Life, first go to any "Marketplace" page. Now, click "My Marketplace" in the upper-right corner and click "Create a Store." Read and check the "Terms of Service" carefully to give your agreement to the Second Life Marketplace Fee and Listing Policies. Lastly, scroll down to the bottom and click "Continue." Once your store is set up, you can start posting your items for sale.
Can you make real money on Second Life?
Yes, the residents of Second Life can make actual money in this virtual world by cashing out their virtual currency. Second Life resident Anshe Chung, aka Ailin Graef, became the first real millionaire through transactions in Second Life, but it's not easy to do.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

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