How Second Life Works

By: Jonathan Strickland & Chris Pollette  | 

Second life avatar
An anonymous woman, 42, shows her avatar (virtual character) on the Second Life website. She is severely obese, has a disabled child and finds Second Life is a welcome escape from reality. Tina Stallard/Getty Images

When it started in 2003, Second Life (SL), the three-dimensional virtual world where users can pretend to be whomever — or whatever — they want to be, got tons of attention. 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 users (called residents) create virtual representations of themselves, called avatars, and interact with other avatars, places or objects.

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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, 3D 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.

Second Life was a huge hit in the mid-2000s, though interest has waned since then. In 2018, it was reported to have 500,000 active monthly users (down from more than 1 million in 2013) [source: Buscemi]. But registration picked up in 2020, because of the COVID-19 pandemic keeping people at home. So, whether you're a former or current user or just curious about Second Life, we'll explain to you how it all works.

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Second Life Avatars

Second Life 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 Learning 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.

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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 a half-cat half-girl creature, 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.

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Walking and Talking in Second Life

Second Life Flying
Flying in Second Life is as easy as clicking the "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 — in 2009 only about 10 percent of all users who made accounts ever bothered 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.

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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.

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Second Life's Tech Specs

Second Life uses the Havok physics 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.

Residents can hear and view streaming audio and video inside Second Life. Second Life supports audio in MPEG and Ogg Vorbis formats. 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.

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Second Life is compatible both with PCs and Mac computers. Minimum technical requirements for the PC include:

  • A high-speed internet connection
  • Windows 10
  • At least an Intel Pentium 4, Pentium M, Core or Atom processor, or an AMD Athlon 64
  • At least 1 GB of computer memory
  • An nVidia GeForce 6600 or ATI Radeon 9500 graphics card or the Intel 945 chipset

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 10.9 or better
  • 1.5 GHz or greater Intel-based CPU
  • Graphics cards: nVidia GeForce 2 or GeForce 4, or ATI Radeon 9500

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

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Creating Things in Second Life

Second Life Vehicles
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:

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  • Click the "build" button at the bottom of the screen
  • Right-click on the ground or any empty space and choose "build" from the top menu in the Viewer
  • Press ctrl-4 or ctrl-B (cmd-4 or cmd-B 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 (or for Mac, cmd-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 and Java. There are many websites 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.

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Second Life Population and Rules

Second Life Dance Club
This popular dance club shows a variety of[b]residents 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. In 2007, some observers marked the churn rate as high as 90 percent, meaning only 10 percent of all the people who visit Second Life came back after the first visit [source: New Scientist].

By its 15th anniversary in 2018, Second Life reached some 57 million subscribers but most of those weren't active. In fact, only between 500,000 and 600,000 subscribers regularly logged in, and around 150,000 users accounted for 90 percent of logged-in time. Linden Lab no longer releases stats on its users, so these were from other sources.

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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 list several kinds of behavior 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. Invasion of Personal Space/Comfort Zones: Failure to respect the personal space of others' avatars with your own
  5. Inappropriate Content: Posting content in Second Life that breaks the rules in the Content Guidelines, and restricting adult content to the areas permitted
  6. Disclosure: Revealing personal information about another resident
  7. Disturbing the Peace/Global Attacks: 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. Making interpersonal disputes public and encouraging angry responses from others are also included.
  8. Impersonation: Claiming someone else's identity as your own or taking credit for others' content. Linden Lab will close the accounts of anyone trying to act like one of its own employees.

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.

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Second Life Economy

Second Life Jewelry Shop
At this Second Life jewelry store, you can buy accessories using Linden dollars.
Second Life

Second Life's economy is based off a unit of virtual currency called the Linden dollar. 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. In August 2021, you could exchange a U.S. dollar for 320 Linden dollars. (To put it another way, one Linden dollar was worth $0.0031.) Most transactions within the game world use Linden dollars.

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In May 2020, Linden Lab announced that U.S. dollar transactions would be handled by Tilia, Inc. Although it may seem that someone else has come in to handle Second Life's economy, it's really the other way around. Tilia is a part of Linden Lab and now operates virtual economies for other online environments as well. As of August 2021, Upland and Sansar both use Tilia technology in their online worlds in addition to as Second Life. Sansar, a virtual reality world, was originally developed by Linden Lab but sold to Wookey Projects in March 2020.

Resident Ailin Graef became the first person to become a real millionaire through transactions in Second Life in 2006. 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

Not all purchases use Linden dollars — land sales and auctions usually require real cash. If you want to buy your own land in Second Life, for example, you'll need to put down $349 for a set-up fee and pay $229 per month for maintenance. This will buy a 65,536 square meter island (an entire region). For this fee, you get to choose the island's terrain and location. You can pick up a homestead for $149 set-up fee and $109 monthly maintenance. A homestead will allow 5,000 prims and no more than 20 avatars at a time, but the full region allows up to 20,000 prims and up to 100 avatars at a time.

Your land use fee pays for renting space on a server. The monthly premium membership fee entitles a resident to 1,024 square meters of land at no additional charge. As a user purchases more land, the land use fee increases.

As of August 2021, the land use fee ranged from $4 per month for ownership of up to 512 square meters of additional land to $175 per month for up to 65,356 square meters of land. Linden Lab bases the land use fee off the maximum amount of land a resident owns during each 30-day billing cycle.

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

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Second Life and the Real World

Second Life WWF
You can have virtual holdings in Second Life.
AFP/Getty Images

Some people believe that the future of the internet is in 3D virtual worlds like Second Life, where users will navigate through creative landscapes in search of information and entertainment. As a result, some organizations jumped into Second Life hoping to get in on the ground floor before the community's popularity explodes. More than 100 companies and organizations had online presences in Second Life. Many owned islands and host events like press conferences or concerts. Others use Second Life to promote charitable organizations or political philosophies. Some companies created 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 appeared 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.

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Other companies use similar strategies. In 2006, 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: Siklos]. Starwood Hotels used Second Life to test building and room designs, taking suggestions from residents and incorporating them into real building plans. Some companies have even used Second Life as a recruitment tool, seeking out residents who are particularly adept at creating user-generated content [source: Benner].

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.

The COVID-19 pandemic boosted Second Life's economy by 30 to 40 percent, according to a Linden Lab representative. However, it was one of many online communities to which people flocked during the lockdown. Nintendo's "Animal Crossing: New Horizons," an online experience based on the Animal Crossing franchise launched in 2001, became a hit when millions used the platform as a social retreat. Fortnite, Minecraft, Among Us and Roblox were also popular among younger players.

Although the hype about Second Life has died down, the service continues with a dedicated subscriber base. As online personalities such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg promise a coming "metaverse," Second Life, now an established online destination nearing its 20th anniversary, stand to benefit as people embrace opportunities to meet and spend time together.

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Originally Published: Nov 8, 2007

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.

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