Second Life is not technically a game -- it is a simulated 3D environment, in which players can move about, interact with each other, and manipulate the environment. In fact, the system's documentation makes it abundantly clear that Second Life has no built-in activities for members to participate in: all content is created within Second Life itself. While other 3D games allow players to customize the appearance of their avatars, Second Life has a complex system with which "residents" (as they are known) can create any sort of three-dimensional object and script its behavior.
Thus, the world inside Second Life is filled with buildings, vehicles, and objects created by residents themselves. Some things are for sale in Linden Dollars, the in-world currency -- Linden Lab claims an exchange rate of about 200:1 between Linden Dollars to US dollars. Many residents expend considerable time and effort making objects or clothing in order to sell them to others -- just like artisans in the real world. Residents can purchase land, though a non-free Premium membership is required to do so, and the land is subject to "property tax" payable to Linden Lab.
But you do not need any of that to join in the fun. Even free, non-Premium membership lets you create objects and interact with other residents in the world, and you get a small allowance of Linden Dollars to boot.
Getting started in Second Life
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To get started, you must create an account at secondlife.com. Your first account is free, and the only restriction is that you cannot purchase land in the virtual world. You must have a credit card to sign up, even for the free accounts. The premium accounts start at $9.95 a month. The vast majority of the Second Life world is open to the public, though.
The Linux client application is available as a tarball. After uncompressing the tarball,
cd to the directory it creates and run
./secondlife. The in-game interface is built entirely with OpenGL, so you will need a card that supports OpenGL -- but Second Life doesn't depend on any secondary toolkits. Linden Lab doesn't specify system requirements, but the Linux client support forum (which is visible only to registered users) indicates that Linux users are successfully running the app on a wide variety of distributions and configurations.
As you might expect, the client has a few known issues and bugs. Some of the advanced OpenGL options caused my client to crash, and streaming audio does not seem to work at all. Also, some keystrokes were intercepted by my window manager, instead of by Second Life, though that may be a problem with Metacity rather than Second Life. The lack of audio means that you have to navigate the Second Life world in absolute silence, which when you are starting out adds a layer of creepiness to interacting with the zombie-like avatars of your fellow residents.
Once you get over that, though, the Second Life world is yours to have fun in. You begin life on a tutorial-filled island populated with other new residents like yourself. Here you can learn the basics of moving and navigating, interacting with objects, and customizing your avatar.
The Second Life Web site boasts approximately 140,000 residents in the system, with 3,000 to 5,000 of them online and active at any one time. To get to the mainland and explore, you "teleport" from the help island. It can be confusing at first, so even after you leave the relative comfort of the help island, you can look for volunteers who make themselves available as guides, and anyone you encounter in the game with the last name Linden is an employee of Linden Labs, and likely to be helpful as well.
The Virtual Public License? Only a matter of time....
After you have explored for a bit, however, you will want to start creating objects. Before departing the help island, be sure to take advantage of the detailed instructional "books" (I call them books, though in-game they really look more like giant billboards with page-turning buttons) that teach you how to create and modify objects.
Physically, all objects in-world are constructed out of geometric solids, over which you have control of material, physical properties, and texture in addition to shape. Complex objects are built out of primitives and linked together. So-called public "sandboxes" are available, in which basic residents can design and build objects. The landed gentry, of course, can do so in the privacy of their own backyards.
You can also program animation and interactive behavior for your objects via a full-featured C-like language called Linden Scripting Language (LSL). The in-world tutorial is a good place to begin, but far more detailed documentation is available at the game's wiki. You can edit LSL scripts within the Second Life client or with an external editor, and are attached to in-world objects. Scripts are then compiled into byte-code in the client app, and the result uploaded to the game server, effectively making the scripted object part of the world and independent of its creator.
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LSL is not hard to learn for a new programming language, but it really is flexible enough that it will take a concerted effort to get good with it. Beginners can be carving 3D solids in no time flat, but not everyone will want to go to the trouble of learning LSL and building complex objects.
Using LSL, residents have created very complicated structures, including mechanical devices and interactive games. Linden Lab features a showcase on the Second Life Web site, at which they highlight select examples of the best in-world content. Creating and selling objects seems to be the primary activity through which residents acquire in-world money, though there are tip jars and residents are free to pay each other money for any reason. Players also receive a $50L weekly allowance, as long as they sign in once a week.
But even though many residents are intent on selling their creations, the Terms of Service stipulate that all resident-created works remain the intellectual property of their creators, not Linden Lab. Residents can assign the equivalent of licensing terms to all of the content they create in-world -- including copyright (in the literal sense), resale rights, and permissions.
Worth a thousand words
I have barely scratched the surface of what the Second Life virtual world contains. In addition to creating objects and scripting them with LSL, almost every aspect of your avatar is customizable as well, including animations and gestures. Residents have created entire buildings and towns in-world, and schedule and hold events in the virtual world.