Second Life

Taking a new direction in 2007

Early in 2007, I was watching a business news program on television when they started discussing the marketing and advertising potential of virtual worlds. They talked principally about a compter program called Second Life. I had heard of this program before but I'd always imagined it as some kind of trivial game. It was a surprise to me then that the commentators were taking it so seriously. It piqued my interest and I decided to investigate.

I joined for free and was allocated an avatar to represent me in the artificial world. I was then given a brief tutorial to show me how I could customise my avatar's appearance and then proceeded to an orientation area where I could practice guiding my avatar around. It felt strange at first but after a very short time I began identifying with my avatar and experiencing the streets and buildings in much the same as I did in the real world.

As I moved around, I encountered many other avatars, some of then strikingly attractive and wearing highly fahionable clothes.Some of these avatars spoke to me (through a chat dialog box on the screen). As I explored this artificial world a little more, I discovered shopping malls where avatars could buy items to improve their appearance: new body shapes, new skins, exotic clothing and hair styles. I then saw how there could be such a variety of different avatars and why so many of them looked so attractive.

Of more interest were the purchasing transactions in the shopping malls. Items were bought and paid for in a local currency called Linden dollars. This was not a fictional currency, it was a currency that could be exchanged for real money - at any time, in any of many exchange booths located in the artificial world. (A real dollar account and a Linden dollar account has to be set up to facilitate conversions between real and Linden dollars - simple to do).

I quickly discovered that it was easy to buy property in this world - from small plots of land as small as 512 sq mtrs to whole islands with an area of 65, 000 sq mtrs. Each purchase included a contract to pay a monthly rental on the land. However, I soon learned that any land bought could be sold on, divided up, rented out - in much the same way as property developers do in the real world. The value of land bought can be enhanced by the use of building tools, which can be used to create buildings on the land. I then discovered that completed houses can be purchased fom the malls together with a vast variety of adornments, furniture and lighting. Tools are available to sculpture the land you own in a variety of ways to provide, lawns, beaches, lakes and even mountains - enabling you to provide any kind of setting you desire.

The range and scope of the wares selling in the malls is breathtaking - all created by entrepreneurial residents who learn to use the building tools with great skill and ingenuity.

An exploratory trip around this world soon sees how the businesses of buying and selling is driven by peoples' compulsion to compete with each other to look the best and to have the best places in which to reside. In essence, the act of "living" in this artificial world was inducing the same emotional compulsions that were motivating people in the real world.

Suddenly, the penny dropped. This was a classic example of a stigmergic system - similar to the way ants construct their complex nests without any centralised control or guidance. People are acting instinctively, driven by individual emotions, to create this artificial world: seeing something in an environment and instinctively reacting to what they see by adding improvement. This is what stigmergy is about. It is the same phenomenon that has led to human civilisation and the World Wide Web. Order and complexity emerge spontaneously becoming increasingly more complex and organised as time goes by - without centralised planning or overall control.

What makes this a stigmergic system? What makes it different from other multi-player on line games that use avatars to represent people? The answers lie in the philosophy and commercial business model of Linden Lab (the creators and owners of Second Life).

The philosophy is based upon that of open source projects (another example of stigmergy in action), where programmers work independently and without specific direction to improve a programming environment. Open source projects have been spectacularly successful, often competing successfully with corporate products that have been financed with millions of dollars to hire teams of specialist programmers and system designers.

The problem with stigmergic systems is that they can get out of control, losing connectivity and organisation - like a badly managed corporate project - resulting in chaos and confusion. But, this tendency for stigmergic systems to get chaotic is also its virtue. It is the driving force that causes the system to improve and progress beyond any rational expectation. Nature's evolutionary strategy gives direction to chaotic activity by imposing restrictions - selecting out the negative chaotic fluctuations and retaining the beneficial. In its simplist form this is known as "survival of the fittest". This same strategy is employed by Linden Lab (the creators and owners of Second Life).

Effectively, the business model is based mainly upon the very simple expedient of selling and renting server space. The virtual world is split up into regions of 65,000 sq mtrs that are each represented as a square in an expandable grid of similar squares. Each of these regions is run by a separate dedicated central processor unit (CPU), each having its own copy of the simulator program to simulate its region independently of any other. As avatars cross between different regions, the avatar information is transferred from one CPU to another. Linden Lab is now using class 4 and 5 servers that can each run four independent CPU units. Together, the whole system constitutes a single server farm consisting of hundreds of servers and thousands of CPUs. The system is flexible in the sense that servers and CPUs can be added to the system at any time and if one CPU or server goes down its function can be quickly transferred to another backup in the system.

By charging residents a fee for land and imposing a monthly rental (a tier), Linden Lab is effectively charging for server space and receiving a monthly fee to cover running and development costs. (Note: charges for premium residency are also an income but they are not the prime income of the business and do not substantially contribute to the stigmergic influence).

The importance of this business model, to the success of this Second Life, is due to the evolutionary selection pressure brought about by these costs to landowners. It ensures that only the successful enterprises survive. Casual users and non-profit making ventures cannot justify the costs and quickly sell on their land ownership. Initiative and competition are the driving forces. Just like biological evolution, the less able to adapt drop out of the system and the successful survive to reproduce (that is their ideas and innovations). This is the classic combination of stigmergy harnessed by an evolutionary strategy, which leads to ever increasing complexity, order and organisation.

Already, after only four years in existence, there is undeniable evidence of increased complexity, efficiency and organisation emerging spontaneously from self motivated individuals without any central control. There is every evidence that this environment will continue to evolve at an ever increasing rate: going in a multitude of different directions which in this moment in time are beyond our imagination (Second Life has two mottoes: "Your Life. Your imagination" and "The only rule is that there are no rules").

For me, this is an exciting enviroment to be in. To be able to take an active part in a truly stigmergic system when it is still in its early stages of evolution.

Peter Small

July 2007