Abstract: Second Life is an online virtual world created by Linden Labs. This paper aims to
analyze the efficacy of Second Life for various purposes with intent to assess whether it is useful
for libraries to adapt the technology. Relevant articles are discussed in conjunction with the
author’s own Second Life experiences to conclude whether it is beneficial for libraries to develop
a presence in Second Life.
Second Life is an online interactive virtual world created by Linden Labs. Although
calling it a virtual world might suggest to some that Second Life is a video game; that perception
is far from reality. Users customize an avatar, a virtual representation of themselves in Second
Life and are then free to explore the world of Second Life. Unlike a traditional video game,
there are no missions or levels to complete. Users are essentially free to do whatever they wish,
a level of freedom which may be confusing to some. In this sense, the moniker of “Second Life”
is an accurate description of the user’s experience in “playing” it.
B. Overview of Second Life
Second Life is free to download and explore, though users must be willing to pay for a
more complete experience. Free users are essentially limited to a basic avatar shape, clothing,
and hair. Some free samples are available, but the most fashionable accessories must be bought
with Linden Dollars, 250 L.D. being roughly equivalent to $1 U.S. Also, free users are unable to
build anything except in public areas known as “sandboxes” created specifically for that purpose.
Anything constructed within a sandbox is usually deleted from Second Life within a few days.
To build anything lasting, users must purchase land or join an organization that lets them use
some land in Second Life.
First time users are automatically deposited on Orientation Island, an area expressly
created to acquaint new users with the basics and common courtesies of Second Life. In my
experience, however, Orientation Island’s overall effect is mostly akin to trying to teach a child
to run before it is even able to stand. It accomplishes little in helping users master even the most
basic aspects of Second Life. This, in combination with the level of difficulty inherent in Second
Life can create a frustrating experience for many users and doubtless causes some to quite before
they have even really gotten started in Second Life. I was fortunate enough to be acquainted
with a long-time Second Life user who was able to guide me to a more efficient Second Life
Nowhere is the difficulty in mastering Second Life more evident than in the building
process. The basic building blocks for everything in Second Life are fairly basic geometric
shapes called “prims,” which can be stretched, elongated, colored, or changed in textural
appearance to create whatever the user wishes or is able to construct. Complex structures are
created by joining together numerous prims.
Users can travel throughout the world of Second Life in any of three ways: walking,
flying, or teleporting. Walking is slow and extremely inefficient as a method of transportation,
but is the easiest to control. Flying is significantly faster than walking, but it can be difficult to
control precisely, making fine movements and landing somewhat difficult. Teleportation, as its
name suggests, is the fastest method of transportation and is the only way to access unconnected
areas or “islands” as they are called in Second Life. The only downside is that users cannot
always teleport to a specific location.
C. Article Review
There have been numerous studies about possible applications for Second Life. Some
possible applications that researchers have done studies on include scientific research,
educational uses, collaborative uses, and applications for libraries. William Bainbridge (2007)
wrote an article about the potential for scientific research in virtual worlds, which focused
primarily on Second Life and World of Warcraft, a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing
Game (MMORPG). One benefit of conducting research within virtual worlds that Bainbridge
notes is the high numbers of potential research subjects as both World of Warcraft and Second
Life have millions of users (p. 473). In addition to the ease and high potential for recruiting
research subjects in virtual worlds, Bainbridge also wrote that “SL offers scripting and graphic
tools that allow anyone to build a virtual laboratory building, functioning equipment to run the
experiment, and incentives to motivate participation” (p. 473) before adding that Second Life
also affords researchers the opportunity to conduct research that would be either impossible or
illegal in the real world. For example, studies into the nature of governmental systems that are
currently not in existence can be created within the world of Second Life.
Bainbridge also pushes the point that now is an extremely crucial time to study the nature
of virtual worlds, while they are still in the process of development (p. 474). Some possible
areas of research that he suggests are of particular importance are studies of issues over
intellectual property rights in regards to virtual worlds and the sociotechnical implications of
online misbehavior (p. 474). One of the chief ethical issues that he raises about conducting
research in virtual worlds has to do with the level of emotional investment players have in their
avatars, which he also suggests is an area for further research, positing that it is likely to be
higher in Second Life, where avatars are meant to be virtual representations of their users, than in
World of Warcraft, where a player can have multiple avatars for characters. Since Second Life
users are more closely associated with their avatars, Bainbridge believes that issues about the
protection of identity might come into play if research is done there (p. 474).
Bainbridge’s comments about the ease of subject recruitment and possibility for
otherwise impractical research in virtual worlds do have some merit. However, the amount of
effort necessary to create case studies in Second Life might effectively make some of the
otherwise technically possible research difficult to justify in terms of effort that would be
necessary to set them up. It will also be difficult to get users to take the research performed in a
virtual world seriously. It might be slightly more likely in Second Life than in World of
Warcraft since Second Life has the advantage of being only an online virtual world and not being
a video game as well. Also, the possibility of real world applications of research done in Second
Life or any other virtual world will automatically be subject to question is also a point against the
likelihood of research done into real world phenomena being performed within Second Life.
Finally, the urgency that Bainbridge seems to believe exists for the performance of research into
issues about virtual worlds is highly debatable. Although World of Warcraft is fairly popular, it
is technically a game first and foremost and a virtual world second. Second Life, which is purely
a virtual world, is still far from being accepted in the mainstream culture, despite having users
numbering in the millions. It is also questionable whether it will ever achieve mainstream status
since the creators haven’t made many efforts to make it more accessible. Until virtual worlds
achieve mainstream cultural status, there will be ample time to perform the research that
Bainbridge sees as urgent.
Jarmon and Sanchez (2008a) wrote an article about their research into the possibility of
collaboration in Second Life, performed on a group created specifically for the purpose of
collaboration among educators. Their study focused on the Educators Coop, a group of forty-
two Second Life users who shared an “island” in Second Life. An island in Second Life is
essentially a square block of land that may or may not be connected to other islands and may be
either public or private. Their findings suggested that sharing an island did lead to increased
collaboration among the group members, both within Second Life itself and in the real world (p.
75-79). In some cases, Second Life relationships also led to real world collaboration between
members that had never physically met each other (p. 80).
One of the chief problems with their study is that it lacks a control group for the
dependent variable: the residents “living” on the same island in Second Life. It should have
included a study of users who do not “reside” within a common area in Second Life but come
together for collaborative purposes would have been a good counterpoint to assess the validity of
their hypothesis that it was the sharing of a common space that led to the increased level of
collaboration among the members of their group. Until such a study is done, their hypothesis
cannot be considered proven due to the possibility of confirmation basis. If such a study is not
performed, it is possible that the increased level of collaboration that they witnessed could be
attributed to the Second Life experience itself, rather than to the fact that the members of the
group “lived” in and shared a common area.
Jarmon and Sanchez (2008b) also accompanied their above article with another article
about their research into collaboration within Second Life. In this article, they focused on the six
ways the members of the Educators Coop used the group: to collaborate, to learn, to work, to
network with neighbors, to build, and differently than they had planned (p. 5). Their finding that
“some members also expected Educators Coop continuously populated but often, like any school
building, the virtual island was empty” (p. 7) was of particular interest to me, since it seems to
reinforce the idea that it might be the Second Life experience itself that led to community among
the group members rather than their sharing of an island.
Jarmon and Sanchez also found that “many residents reported that the Educators Coop is
a place where they can work in peace and quiet and that it is a place where they feel less rushed
and are able to explore and experiment with the affordances of Second Life” (p. 6). While that
statement may seem to speak in favor of the idea that sharing the island was a definite aid to the
group members in their efforts at developing in community and in collaboration, I have to
question whether it is truly necessary to own a private space in Second Life to find a place to
work in peace. Based on my own experiences in Second Life, finding an abandoned spot to meet
and work would not be that difficult. Granted, there is the remote possibility of someone
suddenly teleporting into the area, but that chance is rather small. I have signed into Second Life
at various times during the day and have been lucky to encounter more than a handful of people
other than at a planned event. Most of the time, I had to actively seek out people if I wanted to
Mayrath, Sanchez, Traphagan, Heikes, and Trivedi (2007) did a study on the benefits of
using Second Life as part of the curriculum for an undergraduate course in English. They tried
two methods of using the Second Life System for educational purposes. In one semester, the
students had to construct a building, which inevitable led to competition as to who could build
the best building. Due to the competitive nature of the exercise and the difficulty of building
anything in Second Life, many students found the exercise unenjoyable. In the second semester,
a role model exercise was employed in which the students customized their avatars to look like
famous historical figures and had a role-playing session and discussion, which the students found
considerably more enjoyable (p. 4-5). Based on their research, Mayrath et al. constructed a list
of best practices in using Second Life for general instructional purposes. They found that it is
• Establish and communicate clear connection of activities with course objectives –
anchor activities in the learning context.
• Provide training, support, and clear directions for Second Life activities.
• Match Second Life activities to students’ Second Life skills.
• Design activities to tap into the strengths and interests of students.
• Keep participation in activities low stakes – minimize competition.
• Set limits on the time students spend in Second Life
• Order activities in a way that builds user skills and confidence (p. 5).
The helpfulness of their list of best practices is questionable. Each rule is delivered in
deliberately vague terms to be applicable generally. In practice, however, the vagueness of their
list will make it difficult to implement. Firstly, each student has a unique learning style and
preferences. It is definitely impossible to please all of the students. Furthermore, just because
the majority of the students in the study disliked the competitive activity; it does not
automatically suggest that some did not enjoy it. For example, students in science-oriented
courses might find such competitive activities more enjoyable. It is also practically impossible
to accurately tailor Second Life activities to the students’ capabilities. Firstly, forming an
accurate assessment of each student’s would be too time-consuming. Secondly, unless all of the
students are new to Second Life, their skill levels will vastly differ. Even if all of them are new
to Second Life, some will inevitable grasp the basics faster than others. In effect, tailoring the
activities to the students’ skill levels will most likely mean adjusting them to the level of the least
experienced student. This will probably cause a great deal of boredome on the part of
experienced Second Life users and the fast learners. In the end, it is simply impossible to please
all of the students all of the time, although their list of best practices might please the majority of
Sanchez (2007) also wrote an article to qualitatively analyze the students’ Second Life
experiences after the first semester of the course mention in the article he co-authored (see
above). Overall, Sanchez concluded that “a lack of instruction within this Second Life
implementation along with technical and interface difficulties coupled with studen’ts not
understanding the purpose of the activities led to feelings of anger” (p. 1243). He also noted that
students felt a sense of accomplishment upon completing their assignments and an ability to
express themselves creatively with the tool. His students also indicated a preference for social
learning activities, finding in enjoyable to interact with other avatars (p. 1243).
Sanchez’s report of his students’ Second Life experiences essentially mirrors my own.
The interface has not changed significantly over the past two years. Although I did not
encounter any technical difficulties of the sort they noted, slow load times remain an issue. The
slow load times caused a level of cognitive disconnect the first time I saw someone changing
their avatar’s clothes in a public area. Because of the slow loading times for images in Second
Life, his avatar appeared naked for quite some time on my screen while he was talking with
another user. It was quite disconcerting at the time as I was still fairly new to Second Life and
was not yet used to the slow load times. On occasion, I have been exploring in Second Life only
to find that a building has suddenly materialized around me. These issues will probably never be
fully resolved and users will most likely have to continue to learn to adapt to them. The system
for building has not been changed and is likely to be made more intuitive any time soon. The
reasons for Linden Labs sticking to this model for construction are perplexing as it seems to me
that the difficulty of building things is a major factor in the low retention levels of new users in
Although Second Life does have a variety of potential applications in achieving real
world goals, the question of whether or not it is appropriate for libraries to jump on the
bandwagon remains. In my time exploring Second Life, I saw that some libraries have already
established somewhat of a presence in the virtual world. Many had elaborately constructed
buildings with various resources inside both for the actual library and about Second Life in
general. Some even had audio books that could be listened to while in Second Life. However,
no matter what time I checked out the library facilities, there seemed to be one constant. I never
really saw any other people in either the university library or public library facilities with one
exception. That one exception was a staff member from a university library, who, during a short
interview, confirmed that visitors were relatively rare.
Stimpson’s article “Public Libraries in Second Life” (2009) only served to confirm my
findings about the infrequency of visitors to library facilities in Second Life. In particular, her
reports about her visits to the Cleveland Public Library facility in Second Life were enlightening.
Although the Cleveland Public Library had put a great deal of effort into creating a decent
facsimile of their main building within Second Life, the building was essentially abandoned (p.
13). Interestingly enough, although I made several efforts to locate the Cleveland Public Library
myself in Second Life, I was never able to find it and was forced to conclude that it shut down its
operation in Second Life. For libraries to maintain a solid presence in Second Life, they must be
willing to devote a great deal of time, energy, and money to the project for what might be only
minimal rewards. First of all, land in Second Life must be either bought or rented. Either option
is fairly expensive as even buying land forces you to pay a monthly upkeep pay in Second Life.
Secondly is the problem of constructing adequate facilities within the game itself. It either
requires a great deal of learning on the behalf of the library staff as to how to build things within
Second Life and then the time to actually construct the building, or a professional Second Life
builder can be hired to construct a building. Finally, if the library is to have any hopes of
attracting clientele, they are both going to have to advertise their presence in Second Life and
have someone from their staff logged in to welcome any visitors that may or may not come.
Stimpson argues that “people do not spend time in Second Life in order to be passive consumers
of the landscape” (p. 18). I found this to be fairly true in my experience. If a place was
abandoned, I found myself unlikely to go back there, unless I happened to notice another person
there on the map. For most libraries, I would suggest that the costs of adapting Second Life far
outweigh the relatively small benefits and would not recommend implementing a presence in the
virtual world. Only large libraries with big staffs and excess funds should even consider it.
Even in that case, I think it is currently likely to be a waste of resources that could be better spent
elsewhere. Second Life is just not popular enough yet to justify either the monetary or
manpower expenditures necessary in establishing a presence there.
References (APA format)
Bainbridge, W. S. (2007). The Scientific Research Potential of Virtual Worlds. Science
Jarmon, L., & Sanchez, J. (2008a) The Educators Coop Experience in Second Life: A Model for
Collaboration. Journal of the Research Center for Educational Technology 4:2.
Jarmon, L., & Sanchez, J. (2008b). The Educators Coop: A Virtual World Model for Real World
Collaboration. Proceedings of the American Society for Information Science and
Mayrath, M., Sanchez, J., Traphagan, T., Heikes, J., & Trivedi, A., (2007). Using Second Life in
an English Course: Designing Class Activiities to Address Learning Objectives.
Sanchez, J. (2007). Second Life: An Interactive Qualitative Analysis. Proceedings of Society for
Information Technology and Teacher Education International Conference.
Sanchez, J., & Stimpson, J. (2007). Library Technology Reports 45:2.