Huck’s absolute beginner’s guide to Second Life for the coronavirus curious

Registrations are up. People are rediscovering Second Life.

Which makes sense, because one of the first things you realise after a couple of days of self-isolation/working from home is just how much we all need contact with other human beings. It’s so important that we stay at home right now, but that doesn’t mean to say we have to stop socialising, and SL offers that possibility.

But what about the people who have never been in SL before? This guide is for them. I’ll only cover the absolute basics here – the very first few steps on the SL learning journey. I’ll be frank: it’s a very long learning journey. But it’s a very, very rewarding one, if you stick with it. Get properly immersed in SL and the Covid-19 period will just fly by.

Let’s get to it.

What is Second Life?

Second Life is a virtual world. Sometimes, people refer to it as ‘The Grid.’ This is because the world of SL is divided up into thousands of square regions (these are also called ‘sims’), each measuring 256 metres by 256 metres.

A ‘virtual world’? Is that the same as virtual reality?

Not really, no.  ‘Virtual reality’ usually refers to a 3D space you look at through a virtual reality headset. Second Life is experienced on a regular computer screen.

But it’s a game, right?

A few years back, there was a long (and, frankly, torturous) debate over whether or not SL could be called a game. The prevailing view is that it is a game, though plenty of people are not convinced by this. If you think that anything on a computer where you move a character around in a 3D environment is a game then – fair enough – SL is a game. If, on the other hand, you think a game consists of some sort of scenario whereby you follow rules and there is a win/lose outcome then SL is not a game. My view is that SL is best regarded as a place.

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Dawn breaks over a Second Life residential district.

Do I need to install something on my computer to use it?

Yes. You need to download a piece of software called a ‘viewer’. There are actually quite a few different viewers that you can use for SL (just like there are quite a few different browsers for viewing the web). The ‘official’ viewer is made by Linden Labs (the company who created and maintain SL) and can be downloaded here. A popular alternative viewer you might hear people talking about in SL is called Firestorm (often abbreviated to ‘FS’), which you can download here. All viewers are free.

Do I need to make an account?

Yes. You can sign up for an account here. The basic account is free. For this, you will get a basic avatar (a person that represents you) that you can use to wander around SL in. There is also a ‘premium’ account for which a monthly fee is charged. The main advantage to this is it comes with a home for you in SL. There’s a variety of homes you can choose from, including houses and houseboats. If you want, you can trade this in for a piece of empty land somewhere else on the grid and buy your own home to rez there.

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Outside one of the homes provided with a premium SL account.

‘Rez’? What does that mean?

You’ll hear this term a lot in SL. It basically means to make something appear. So if you buy a house, for example, then it gets delivered to your inventory – a space where all your SL stuff gets stored that you navigate in the same way that you browse files on your computer (ie, things are stored in folders); to make the house appear you need to click on the file in your inventory and drag it to the ground: this is called ‘rezzing’ an item.

So… I have to buy stuff?

You don’t have to buy stuff. If you just want to visit places in Second Life, most regions can be accessed for free. You can also attend events such as live music, DJ sets, open mic poetry sessions, or just get together with a friend for a chat.

If you do decide to invest a little money, however, you can buy houses and furniture and plants for the area outside your house. The biggest sellers in SL, however, are things that improve your avatar’s appearance. These include clothes, accessories, hair styles, skins, body shapes, tattoos and animations. The basic free avatar stands rather stiffly and doesn’t do all that much, so it’s fairly common to buy something called an ‘animation override’ (frequently abbreviated to just ‘AO’), which gives your avatar much more naturalistic movement.

There are places here and there that sell avatar stuff for free (or a very cheaply) however most of these items are out-of-date and/or low quality. It’s important to understand that, for many SL residents, avatar appearance is a very big deal. One of the most popular activities in SL right now is fashion photography, with thousands of people taking pictures of themselves in various different outfits (and in various different places) on flickr.com. Long-term residents who’ve spent a lot on their appearance can be quite snobby about cheap looking avatars. Sorry about that.

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At the Second Life recreation of Notre-Dame cathedral.

What exactly do you mean by ‘out of date’?

Second Life has been around for 17 years now and over this time its appearance has changed hugely. Many of these updates you don’t really need to know about, but when it comes to avatar appearance there are broadly three ‘generations’ of appearance to be aware of, since products from all three can still be found in various shops.

First, there was the era of what is now called the ‘system avatar.’ System avatars are extremely basic in appearance. They’re easy to spot by their chunky fingers and blocky feet. Their clothing looks a bit like it’s been painted on them though there are a few exceptions: skirts made out of wavy sheets of fabric, for example (called ‘flexi-prims’). System avatar stuff is generally derided by long-term residents. Amazingly, you still see it on avatars quite a bit.

Next came the era of ‘sculpties‘ or ‘sculpted prims.’ Sculpties were a huge deal at the time, since they enabled far more detailed clothing to be made than had previously been possible (though they were still worn over the basic system avatar). But sculpty outfits consisted of a myriad of parts and putting them together to make up an outfit was like building a model.

Finally came the age of ‘mesh,‘ which is even more detailed still. Mesh is now the standard for items in SL. Clothes, buildings and furniture are all made out of it. Many people wear also mesh bodies for their avatar (these are worn over the basic system avatar), giving them a much more realistic appearance.

Mesh outfits are more simple than sculpty outfits in that there is just one item to wear (no assembly required), however that’s not to say that they don’t come with their own complications. The main complicating issue with them is their compatibility with mesh bodies. There are a number of popular body creators in SL and clothing has to be made ‘to fit’ these bodies or you’ll have patches of skin showing through them. A workaround has been found for this, however: most bodies now come with an in-screen interface that allows you to make invisible specific parts of your body. This doesn’t work in all cases, but it helps a lot.

In summary, then, if you want to invest in your avatar’s appearance, be prepared to spend some money. Buy a good mesh body. Try to buy mesh clothing that’s made for it.

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Picture postcard SL.

So how do I know what avatar stuff is good to buy?

There are masses of  SL fashion blogs to consult on this subject. This page lists 75 of them. I mentioned it was a long learning journey, right?

I’ll also mention my friend Elemiah Choche’s fashion blog, since – inexplicably – it’s not mentioned on this page. You can visit that here.

And where/how do I buy it?

There are two ways of buying things in SL. In my opinion, the most straightforward of these is the Second Life ‘Marketplace.’ This is a huge website that works a bit like Amazon. Stuff is organised into categories and you can also search the site. When you buy something on the Marketplace it’s then delivered to you in SL.

The second way to buy things is to visit a store in Second Life. Just like real shops, you have to walk around to find the things you’re after. For me personally this is a laborious process, but some residents vastly prefer this method. For one thing, you can get a better sense of how things will look (especially things like furniture) when you see them in an SL store than you can on the Marketplace (where you just get a few pictures of the item).

One thing you need to be aware of is that there are two ways in which SL purchases are delivered to your inventory (regardless of whether you buy on the Marketplace or in an SL store). The first way is just to deliver items straight into a folder there, so you can start using them straight away (for example, if you buy a sweater you can immediately wear it). The second way, however, is to deliver it in a ‘box’. Boxed items have to be rezzed on the ground and then unpacked – and then your purchase will be loaded into your inventory for you to use. The catch to this is that not all places allow you to rez boxes on that particular piece of land. Most residents tend to go to their homes to rez these boxes, therefore – but this means you have to have a home. The other option is to go to a place called a ‘public sandbox’ where anyone is allowed to rez things. If you’re thinking that selling things in boxes is therefore ridiculous, since it makes things more difficult for customers, I agree completely. I’m baffled that this is still a thing.

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Checking in.

How much does all this stuff cost?

Mesh bodies can be quite pricey, with the top brands starting at a thousand Linden dollars. I should also probably mention at this stage that mesh bodies typically don’t come with heads, which you have to buy separately (I could have mentioned this earlier, but I’m drip-feeding you here). However, you don’t need to buy these all that often (a good head and body might last you a few years before it starts to look out-of-date). Good quality clothing tends to be priced at around 200 – 300 Linden dollars, though it can be more (or less) than that.

Wait – what are ‘Linden dollars’?

Linden dollars (sometimes just called ‘Lindens’ and often shown as L$) are the currency of Second Life. Like any currency, the exchange rate varies. At the moment, one US dollar will buy you about 250 Lindens (check here for the current exchange rate). So that thousand L$ body is actually only just over four dollars in ‘real money.’ That 200 L$ suit is about 80 cents. And there’s plenty of good quality stuff to be had for considerably less than this. Every Friday, for example, loads of content creators make selected items from their stores available for the knock-down price of 50 Lindens (about 20 cents) – this is known as ‘Fifty Linden Friday,’ and you can find out what’s on offer each week here.

You can buy Linden dollars when you are in Second Life via the viewer you are using. Somewhere in the viewer it will show your current balance (in Firestorm – the viewer I use – it’s up in the top right corner of the window) and nearby is a button to buy more. Of course, you will need to have entered your financial details for this to work (which can be done in your account on the Second Life website).

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A hotel spa.

Is there any way to earn Linden dollars so I don’t have to buy them?

There are various activities you can do in SL to earn money, yes. But don’t get your hopes up here – most residents don’t have any sort of income. Also – as is the case with RL enterprises – most SL occupations will require you to spend some money first.

Activities which can earn you Lindens include:

  • Any activity in which people can tip you, the most popular being performing music, performing some sort of reading, delivering a class or talk, performing a DJ set, hosting an event, and so on.
  • Creating SL content (clothes, furniture, houses, etc). All of the stuff you see in SL has been created by its users – this is something that many of us are very proud of, by the way. Creating new things, however, is quite complex and requires its own set of skills. Unless you’re already a 3D artist, you’re not likely to have these skills from the onset.

Neither of these activities is likely to make you enough money to make a real life living, but they might earn you enough to keep you in SL outfits if you’re good at them. But you do need to be good at them.

So what exactly do I do in Second Life?

Well that’s up to you and what sort of thing you enjoy. My advice is to sample as many things as possible: you might be surprised at what you end up finding an absorbing occupation. One of the reasons why long-term residents are so passionate about SL is that it enabled them to discover a whole new side of themselves that they didn’t realise existed.

Popular things to do in SL include:

  • Exploring sims. There are lots and lots of stunning sims to explore in SL. Over the years, as the quality of items has gotten better and better, a number of people with a great eye for how things go together have created visually amazing regions. Beach and countryside sims are very popular, as are city and sci-fi themed regions. If you’re looking for places to explore, a good place to start is the Second Life destination guide. New sims open every month, though often they will close after a few weeks so that the creator can work on a new idea.
  • Taking photographs. Second Life viewers include a built-in camera enabling you to take photos of locations you like (if you save these photos to your inventory then each one will cost you ten Lindens, but if you save them to your computer – which is most people’s preference these days, since it allows for much higher resolution pictures – then this is free). Since the introduction of mesh and the huge leap in quality that this brought to both settings and avatar appearance, Second Life photography has become a massively popular activity. There is a huge community of SL photographers on Flickr. Check out some of my favourite SL photographers’ pictures here, here and here. Also, be sure to check out Cajsa Lilliehook’s regular focus on the best in SL photography here.
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A picture by Billie Tomstone, one of my all time favourite SL photos.
  • Creating places. If you like visiting beautiful spaces, why not create one yourself? It will come as no surprise to learn that if you want to create a whole sim then that’s going to cost you quite a bit of money. A lot of people get a great deal of satisfaction from just arranging their own homes the way they like them. There is such a huge variety of furnishings available on the Marketplace – in a wide range of styles – that your imagination really is the only limit. Myself, I love the look of 60s/70s decor and have arranged my own home in that style. It’s kind of like dolls houses for grown-ups. Don’t knock it – it can feel hugely therapeutic to spend time arranging your place just the way you like it.
  • Connecting with other people. Unless you already know someone in SL (who, perhaps, has talked you into joining), you will likely enter our world knowing no-one. If you attend events that appeal to you, however, that will soon change. One of the great things about SL is it enables you to make friends with like-minded (and, sometimes, not like-minded) people. The primary method for communicating with other people in SL is through text chat, either in public (so everyone nearby can view what you’ve typed) or in a private message window with just one person (called an IM window). You can also communicate in voice with a headset, which can also be done in public or in private. As well as attending events with friends, many just like to get together in their homes for a friendly chat. There are even functional board games you can play with them.
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Playing Connect 4 in my 70s style apartment.
  • Attending events. As I’ve already indicated, there’s a whole range of events that take place in SL. DJ events are very popular – with a whole range of musical styles to chose from – where the resident DJing streams music from their computer. Live music events (guitarists, pianists, etc) also attract big audiences. If you’re a writer like me then open mic events, where you can read aloud your work, happen on a daily basis. There are also workshops and classes. There are also art galleries, which hold opening parties for new exhibitions. Also very popular are shopping events, where well-known creators release exclusive products, sometimes around a specific theme. Linden Labs (creators of SL) maintain an events diary here – though not everyone advertises their events in this way. Most event venues will have their own ‘group’ that you can join, so that when they put on an event they can send out a message about it to all group members. If you comes across a venue that you like, then, join its group so that you can find out about more things happening there.
  • Learning/teaching. SL has tremendous potential as a learning platform, because it allows interaction with other people in a way that’s really hard using other online methods (speaking as someone who has just spent the last week figuring out how to use Microsoft Teams for teaching, I’ve become acutely aware of just how complicated this is).
  • Role play. There is also a big role playing community in SL, with whole sims dedicated to in-character interaction.
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Delivering a writers’ workshop in SL.

How do I get to all these different places?

Whilst it’s possible to walk (or fly) from sim to sim in some parts of SL, the common method of moving big distances is ‘teleportation’. That sounds a lot fancier than it really is. What it really means is you can follow a link to a destination in just the same way as you can follow a link in a web page to a different web page. We call links to places in SL ‘landmarks’ or ‘LMs’). So if you see a place on the destination guide you like the look of (or get a notice about an event from a group you belong to) then just click on the landmark link and it will take you there in SL.

Here’s your first LM: clicking here will take you to my place in SL, a seven storey building in 70s decor. Feel free to take a look around. Use the special teleporters to move from floor to floor (they’re the round flashing things on the ground – just left-click on them and select your floor from the blue menu that pops up). If you find me in my office, say hi.

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Come say hi to me in my office.

Isn’t SL where people go to have ‘cybersex’ (cough)?

Sex is something that happens in SL, yes. Just like in real life. Also just like in real life, plenty of other stuff also happens there. So let’s be grown-up about this. An easy way to avoid SL sex if you find that sort of thing offensive is simply not to go looking for it.

I mentioned earlier on that SL is divided up into regions. Regions can be one of three categories: general, moderate and adult. Regions rated ‘General’ should have no adult activity going on in them at all. Regions rated ‘moderate’ might have adult activity going on in them, but behind closed doors – for example, in someone’s private home (and, often, private homes are set so that someone standing outside of them cannot see any avatars that are inside them). Regions rated adult speak for themselves. A region’s category is usually shown in your viewer across the top of the main window.

If you stick to regions rated ‘general,’ then, you’ll see no more sex in SL than you would wondering around in real life. If you also include ‘moderate’ regions then you might see something, though in most cases you’ll need to be reasonably nosy to achieve this.

How do I know if a woman I meet in SL is actually a woman (or a man is actually a man)?

You don’t. And it doesn’t matter that you don’t. People in SL are being whoever they need to be – and it’s amazing that they can do that.

So… is that everything I need to know?

Not even remotely. But if it was easy then it would get boring, right? Hopefully, though, the information on this page should help you orientate to that crucial first hour a little better.

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Reconnect with nature in SL.

Is there anything else I should know before I start?

Yes! Welcome to our amazing world. Be nice to people here. That’s especially important right now.

Stay safe, everyone. And stay at home.

 

This article was updated on 25 March to reflect current Linden dollar exchange rates more accurately (see comment below).

3 thoughts on “Huck’s absolute beginner’s guide to Second Life for the coronavirus curious

  1. This….is brilliant! LL really should give you a medal, your own sim and a place on the board!
    But seriously…it’s concise, a good read in itself, and gives just enough info to pique the curiosity and – hopefully – encourage the uninitiated to give SL a visit.

    See ya there people!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for this article! It’s a great introduction. I’ll have to come visit.

    Where are you buying L$320 for US$1? The current price on the LindeX is L$270 for US$1.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you found it helpful, Tonya! Do come visit :)

      Did I say 320? I thought I said ‘about 300’ – I suspect you clicked on the link I provided for the 320 figure, which is where I got that info. You make a good point, though – LindeX does indeed list the current exchange rate as 271 (and since I started typing this I note it’s dropped back to 270). The problem is you have to have an SL account to access LindeX and I wanted to provide a link for people who don’t yet have one. Like I said, exchange rates vary (over time and between providers), so ‘about 300’ was meant to be a ballpark figure. I think, though, I’ll change the article to 250 – probably better to delight new residents when they get a better rate than they were expecting than to disappoint them with a lower one.

      Liked by 2 people

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