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Never mind: American Apparel closed a ­virtual store it had in Second Life.

If you had to say exactly when the wave of media hype about the online virtual world Second Life crested, you could probably point to the night America got a good look at Dwight Schrute’s avatar.

The October 2007 episode of NBC’s hit comedy The Office in which the insufferable, bad-tie-wearing lead salesman Dwight was revealed to be a longtime Second Life “resident”—complete with an elaborate virtual sales office he had built there and a bad-tie-­wearing little 3-D-graphical version of himself—topped a year and a half of steadily increasing Second Life buzz. With its vast, user-crafted environment of floating mansions and flying avatars, population growth of a million new accounts a month, and bustling virtual markets fueled by a robust currency (the Linden dollar, readily convertible to U.S. dollars at about 260 to 1), Second Life had been on the covers of BusinessWeek and Newsweek. Its virtual economy had been hailed as fertile ground for small-time entrepreneurs and big-brand marketers alike, and its “more intuitive” 3-D interface had been tipped as a potential replacement for the Web browser itself. If people still didn’t get it, all you could do was sigh and wearily break it down for them the way Dwight did for his office nemesis, Jim Halpert: “Second Life is not a game. It is a multi-user virtual environment. It doesn’t have points or scores. It doesn’t have winners or losers.”

“Oh, it has losers,” replied Jim, deadpan. And three years later, the score is clear: Second Life and the company behind it—San Francisco-based Linden Lab—haven’t come close to meeting the expectations produced by the buzz. “By 2011, four of every five people who use the Internet will actively participate in Second Life or some similar medium,” the 2007 Newsweek story declared, citing a study by the market research firm Gartner. But even then, many of the major brands that had flocked to Second Life as a cutting-edge marketing space (among them American Apparel, Toyota, and Coca-Cola) were running up against an awkward fact: of the millions of Second Life account holders they were there to reach, only a fraction bothered to log in much. By the end of 2008, the corporations’ lavish virtual storefronts were largely abandoned, and Second Life’s growth slowed. By mid-2010 the respectable profits Linden Lab had long enjoyed—by the ingenious means of keeping Second Life land in scarce supply and selling it to users at up to $15 per virtual square kilometer—seemed to be in trouble too, as Linden cut staff and shuffled CEOs. Seekers of the next big thing had moved on to the richer fields of Facebook and Twitter and Apple i-gadgets.

But what if Second Life deserves a second look? After all, it didn’t die when the hype did. The traffic and revenue that remain (800,000 monthly active users who generate more than $80 million a year, by the latest estimates) suggest that it will be with us for a while—maybe even long enough for those who have written it off to realize that what Second Life does best has never been and never will be what everyone seemed to want it to do.

Behind the fascination with Second Life’s economic productivity lurked an almost transcendental vision of what Second Life was ultimately about. The essence of that vision was a sci-fi concept that had inspired Linden Lab almost from the start: the “metaverse.” The name came from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, but the idea was all over science fiction in the decades before Second Life’s 2003 launch. It could be found in William Gibson’s “cyberspace” novels, in the Wachowski brothers’ Matrix movies, in the ethereal computerized realms of the 1982 Disney classic Tron. For many virtual-world developers, both within and outside Linden Lab, it had become a given that one day we’d all experience the networked digital universe much the way the characters in these fictions do: as, literally, a universe. “Metaverse,” more precisely, referred to a parallel, immersive world of concrete data in which our bodies would move with the speed of thought and where much of our productive activity would take place.

By the time Second Life was booming, its more or less official long-range plan was to become the metaverse—the dominant portal to a brave new 3-D Internet. The radical efficiencies made possible by logging in to virtual worlds rather than traveling to physical places—offices, classrooms, shopping malls—became the central selling point for Linden Lab. For the company’s charismatic founder, Philip Rosedale, erasing distinctions between the real and the virtual was almost a form of enlightenment, a way of understanding life on its deepest level. “Things are real because they’re there with us and we believe in them,” Rosedale says in a remarkable moment early in Life 2.0, Jason Spingarn-Koff’s 2010 documentary about Second Life. “And if they’re simulated on a digital computer versus sort of simulated by atoms and molecules, it doesn’t make any difference to us.”

This, in its purest form, is the Second Life that blew the media’s mind: not an escape from or even an imitation of reality but an expansion of it, potentially suitable for almost any human purpose. But as Life 2.0 testifies, the Second Life that blew the media’s mind turns out not to be the Second Life its inhabitants have made. This Second Life—documented in the film’s three in-depth portraits of more or less typical users—is less transcendent but no less profound. And it’s something that can’t really be recognized without understanding Second Life to be precisely what we’ve so often been told it’s not: a game.

To be sure, the activities we see in Life 2.0 aren’t games by any standard definition of the term. In the first portrait, a married man in Canada and a married woman in the United States meet in Second Life, have a passionate affair by way of walks in virtual forests and avatar sex, and end up leaving their marriages for an ultimately failed attempt at living together. In the second, a young man engaged to be married spends several months in Second Life obsessed with playing the role of a little-girl DJ, for reasons he struggles to understand. And in the third, we meet a woman who lives with her parents in working-class Detroit and makes a real if unreliable living selling impossibly luxurious houses and fashion in Second Life. However serious the stakes in these pursuits, there is no escaping the element of play in all of them—of fantasy and make-believe—and the ways in which the dollhouse world of Second Life is uniquely suited to it.

The warts-and-all intimacy of these profiles is discomfiting at times, and it’s no surprise other Second Lifers have complained about Spingarn-Koff’s choice of stories. Could he not, perhaps, have interviewed some of the many now happily married couples who met in Second Life? Or how about some role players who aren’t skirting the edge of pedophilia? Or some of the many creative artists who use Second Life as a canvas, or the even greater number of Second Life “fashionistas,” whose blogging about in-world fashions and endless buying and selling of virtual styles turns out, apparently, to be the single most popular activity in Second Life?

He could have. But the common thread running through almost any configuration of Second Life stories would have been the same: Dressing up. Flirting. Philandering. Playing records. Playing house. Building castles and curiosities out of endlessly editable virtual objects (“like the building blocks you had as a kid,” one Life 2.0 protagonist tells us). Second Life as it is really lived doesn’t even gesture toward the broad utility its creators aimed for. It’s not the promise of the metaverse. It’s just a lot of people giving rein to one form or another of a basic human impulse: playing.

To insist in the face of all this that Second Life is not a game is to miss out on the way it illuminates what’s becoming of that impulse. Yes, Second Life lacks points, built-in goals, and other features we have long thought definitive of games. But ever since Dungeons and Dragons introduced us to the hitherto unheard-of concept of a game that never ends, we have been living in an era that requires us to constantly revise our definitions. The evolution of video games has been a furious and ceaseless reinvention of the form. We have games now being woven into otherwise utilitarian aspects of social life, like Foursquare, and games like FarmVille that straddle the line between work and play. The future of play has never looked more open-ended, protean, and complex—or, to put it another way, more like Second Life.

Julian Dibbell is a freelance writer living in Toulouse, France. His work has appeared in the Best Technology Writing series, and he is the author of Play Money: Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot (Basic Books, 2006).

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