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May, 2007


The Meaning of
Second Life

Japanese and American students are bridging continents in a virtual world called "Second Life." Tony McNicol reports.

There probably aren't many English teachers in Japan who go to work carrying a samurai sword, dressed in battle armor, and with a large Stars and Stripes strapped to their back. Happily for Chris Flesuras though, in 3-D virtual world Second Life, nothing is impossible.

In real life, Flesuras works at Kyoto Gakuen High School, but his Second Life alter-ego "Flo Federal" resides in the Pacific Rim Exchange Island—an online project between his school and its sister schools in the city of Modesto, California. From the start of the Japanese academic year in April, over 100 American and Japanese students will share the specially constructed virtual island.

They will communicate in English, and work on joint projects together in preparation for when the American students visit Japan next April. "There are many things we hope the [Japanese] students will get from the program," says Fleuras: "improving their English skills, learning how to build 3-D objects, and collaborating amongst themselves and the American students."

The Pacific Rim Exchange Island is on Teen Second Life, a special section of the virtual world for under 18s. The main Second Life now has over 4 million inhabitants—and recently the population has been doubling approximately every two months. Owned and run by San Francisco-based Linden Labs, Second Life has attracted much press attention, not least because of its booming in-world economy of land and goods.

Stan Trevena, director of Technology for Modesto City Schools, is assisting the American students as they start to use the program. He's a Second Life pioneer himself, having helped test the first commercial version in 2003. At that time there were just a few thousand people in the world, he remembers. "Friendships form fast and they are as real as normal friendships," he says. "It is often easier to get to know someone in a virtual setting than in real life." He hopes that the Japanese and American students will be able to make friends online before they meet in person.

Claudia L'Amoreaux, a community developer at Linden Labs, is equally enthusiastic about the project. "Pacific Rim Exchange is the first project working with teens on intercultural exchange. It's a beautiful project," she says. "We look forward to hearing what they learn. They are pioneering new territory."

The whole of Second Life is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan. Now more than half of its inhabitants are from outside the United States, including tens of thousands of users from Japan where Linden Labs has recently opened an office. One resident, Japanese artist Saiki Koji, has been using Second Life since June 2006 with his somewhat alarmingly named alter ego of "Randy Kamaboko." (Kamaboko is steamed fish paste.) He designs temples, houses, and gardens for private and corporate clients from all over the world—pictures of which decorate the virtual office where we chat. "It's borderless... it doesn't matter whether you are an individual or a company, you can compete in exactly the same space," says Saiki. "Real world walls don't exist here, and age doesn't matter."

Elsewhere in Second Life, Dithean Ringo (her in-world name) shows me around a virtual Heian period (794–1185) palace she and her husband have recreated in cyberspace. She proudly shows me a standing screen decorated with calligraphy, and leads me to a gorgeous cherry tree in blossom in the garden. (It is always spring in Second Life.) The palace must have taken some time to program? I ask. "We enjoy the Heian period, and don't want to misrepresent Japanese culture. So we take our time," she says. According to Dithean, around half of the visitors to their palace are Japanese people. They are "usually astounded," she says.

Second Life is astounding, and to many of its inhabitants, it is about the biggest thing to happen to the Internet since the birth of the World Wide Web itself. I pay a visit to Claudia L'Amoreaux on one of Linden Lab's islands and ask her whether virtual worlds are about to become mainstream in the way that the Internet did a decade or so ago. "Yes, I think it has many similarities to the birth of the World Wide Web," she says. "This is the birth of the 3-D web." Sipping on the cup of virtual green tea L'Amoreaux has served me, I wonder how long it will be before instead of visiting someone's web page, Internet users will pay a visit to a virtual office like Randy Kamaboko's.

Chris Flesuras says he is looking forward to seeing what his students will do with the world. "I think that the kids will appreciate the freedom that Second Life offers them. It's exciting to be able to create anything you want without any limitations." He describes how one of the American students has already constructed a catapult capable of flinging himself halfway across the island. "The stuff that Stan and I have come up with is pretty impressive, yet it's nothing compared to what the kids will eventually make."

The interviews for this article were all conducted in Second Life by Burton Nozomi.
Tony McNicol is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Tokyo.