Life is full of ‘Second’ chances

Stefanie Buhrman

In the past few years, a new parallel universe has emerged in the Internet – a virtual reality game called “Second Life,” which is making its impact throughout the world, including at Iowa State.

Created by San-Francisco-based Linden Labs, “Second Life” was established in 2002 as a virtual world in which users could play a character, or “avatar,” living a virtual life.

“‘Second Life,’ the way I see it, is a 3D virtual environment created and owned by its residents,” said Lesya Hassall, an instructional development specialist in the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching. “Unlike a game, it is an unstructured environment. It’s messy, complex and organic. It is not just a simple application.”

“Second Life” has millions of registered users, or “residents,” but only about 10 percent use “Second Life” weekly.

“It’s just like the real world, except in ‘Second Life’ you can do anything,” Hassall said. “You can fly. You can go back in time. You could see Ancient Rome. Avatars live there and speak Latin. These things aren’t possible in the physical world.”

A resident can chat with other avatars, shop for clothes, own a business, dance, go to concerts, test-drive cars and buy and sell things with real U.S. dollars.

Signing up for “Second Life” is free for a basic membership, but in order to own land, a resident must have a premium membership, which costs between $6 and $9.95 per month. The monthly fee also entitles premium members to a monthly bonus of 300 “Linden Dollars” (L$), and users can buy additional Linden Dollars at an exchange rate of approximately L$270 for US$1.

Residents can use Linden Dollars to create islands or to buy existing land, and once a resident owns an island, he or she can control anything from occupancy to water height, texture and land use. Residents can also use their Linden Dollars to buy clothes, furniture, paintings and more, with prices set by the competitive market in “Second Life.” The “Second Life” market even spills over into real life, with many users buying and selling Linden Dollars on eBay, along with other “Second Life” assets such as islands and virtual business opportunities.

“Second Life,” like many online applications, requires the use of a credit card, which brings up many concerns about the debt it can cause.

“Student debt now is at all-time high, particularly at Iowa State,” said Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication. “I worry about any application that requires credit cards and, particularly, I worry about when you get nothing for it other than digital experience in a virtual world.”

“Second Life” is not only used for entertainment. Educators on campus are seeking its advantages.

“When I look at ‘Second Life,’ I look at how it can be used for higher education,” Hassall said.

In their attempts to use “Second Life” as a more interesting way to host online classes, educators are also looking to see how it would benefit students.

“We want to use artificial intelligence when we teach,” said Steffen Schmidt, university professor of political science. “There are a lot of online classes. I will eventually use ‘Second Life’ for teaching. It will be incredibly productive and fun for students. If a class is more interesting in ‘Second Life’ over WebCT, then I’m going to use it. “

The “Second Life” Web site lists universities involved in the game. On this list are universities across the United States, including Duke, Columbia and even Harvard. However, there is concern about what classes should be offered.

“I see really useless classes,” Hassall said. “I think it is a waste of time and there is a better use of time in real classes, but then I see really good, interesting classes. As a professor, I have to look at both the positive and the negative things. What is the goal? What are you trying to enhance? If you have really good, clear goals, then I am all for it!”


Just like in real life, there are many traps resident can fall into in “Second Life” when interacting with others.

“I am concerned that people will do stupid stuff,” Schmidt said. “Stealing identities, bad guys, phishing, getting private conversations picked up. I worry about ‘Second Life.’ People need to be told how to use it.”

Besides this concern for those who don’t know how to use “Second Life,” a lack of real-world communication also raises an eyebrow.

“People who are addicted are uncomfortable and don’t have a lot of friends,” Schmidt said. “If your Second Life is better, why not? Iowa girls run away to Minneapolis and they start doing tricks, then they get stuck into prostitution. That’s real life. If there are bad people in ‘Second Life,’ log out. You can say ‘I don’t need this crap.’ You can teleport and you are gone. No airplane ticket, no goodbye, no bills. People talk about ‘assault.’ Well, yeah, but it is better than getting assaulted in real life.”

The idea of cyber-assault may sound ridiculous to some, but there is a slew of activities in “Second Life” that make some people take a second look.

“You can buy body parts,” Bugeja said. “In fact, body parts are some of the most vended digital items on ‘Second Life.’ That’s not to say we are using ‘Second Life’ in that manner. It is, however, to say that we are exposing students to a world in which these are realities.”

A resident can choose from nine different styles of penises for an average price of 500L$. Along with a new virtual penis comes a virtual sex drive.

“It was also interesting to me for about five minutes to be hit on by avatars that seemed like other males,” Bugeja said. “And then I understood how women felt to be cat-called and harassed, because I have an androgynous-type avatar.”

Whether the consensus on “Second Life” is for or against it, the game is paving the way for other new technologies to enter the classroom.

“I think there will be a lot of different approaches to predicting online technology,” said Rex Heer, instructional development specialist for CELT. “In 10 years, there will be 3D virtual environments. It will give students an opportunity to interact with each other. In the future, I think it will continue to develop, but you need a decent computer with a high-speed connection. Not everyone has that. You don’t want to limit people based on their lack of current technologies.”