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Living A Second Life

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Posted 05 October 2006 - 08:22 AM

The Economist recently examined Linden Labs' Second Life, exploring the virtual world's unique online niche. The article offers an example of Second Life's use as a teaching tool before delving into its user created content and land speculation driven economy.

Linden Lab does not sell advertising; instead it is a virtual property company. It makes money when residents lease property—an island, say—by charging an average of $20 per virtual “acre” per month. Only about 25,000 residents, or about 3% or the population, lease property, but that already amounts to 53,800 acres, which, in real life, would be bigger than Boston. This works out to monthly revenues of $1m, not counting the commissions that it takes on currency exchanges between Linden dollars and hard cash. As a private company, Linden Lab does not disclose its exact revenues, although Mr Rosedale says the firm is “close to profitability”.

A common reaction to such numbers is astonishment that anybody should pay anything at all for something that exists only in a metaphysical sense. But “there's actually no economic puzzle in this; all kinds of things derive their economic value only from the realm of the virtual,” says Indiana University's Mr Castronova. The American dollar, for instance, is virtual (aside from the value of the paper used for the bills) in that it requires consumers to have faith in its worth. In the context of online games, virtual economies much bigger than Second Life's have existed for years. Many people in poor countries, called “gold farmers”, play games such as “World of Warcraft” professionally to score weapons, points or lives to sell to lazier players in rich countries. But Second Life is unique in that residents conceive what they sell. As such, says Mr Lanier, it is “probably the only example of a self-sustained economy” on the internet.
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