Virtual worlds fill the gaps our real lives leave behind.
Now, before everyone grabs their pitchforks and torches, do a little examining as to what baggage you're bringing to that statement, because in truth, the statement is neutral. I don't know anyone who has a perfect life. Even people who have "perfect" lives have moments where they wish something were easier or somehow different.
If you ask people why they maintain Second Life accounts, you will get as many different answers as the people you ask.
However, they all share that one commonality: Second Life allows us to do things that would be physically impossible, logistically difficult, and/or financially prohibitive in real life. What those things are, why they interest an individual, and why they are difficult in real life varies, but the principles remain the same.
That's not a value judgment. It's an observation. Put your torches down.
Several articles have come out recently talking about how in the past several years, Second Life has been actively courting corporate and other real world business concerns at the expense of the majority of residents (account holders) who are primarily there for play and entertainment, to the detriment of the user base. I can see that argument, and I don't really think it's largely untrue.
I think that the powers that be at Linden Lab (who own Second Life) were trying to ensure (perhaps misguidedly) that those same residents continued to have an ever-evolving place to be entertained, due to the influx of cash from big business.
Unfortunately, as Linden Labs has learned, with money from big business comes strings, and with strings come more and more restrictions as to what is acceptable and what isn't. With an entire platform devoted to not only unlimited creativity but unlimited freedom to do as you like (again you can't physically hurt anyone -- there's no way to permanently "die" in SL unless your account is deleted), these restrictions haven't been met positively by the user base.
Most people are there to play. They listen to music, they socialize, they have romantic and sexual relationships, they shop, explore, and create. In short, they do a good many of the things they do in real life in their second life as well.
Extroverted people get to socialize with folks from all over the world, and participate in a limitless variety of activities essentially for free, without having to leave their homes (which is especially valuable if they live in remote areas or have a physical disability that limits their movement -- I have a friend with a bad back, and SL allows her to get the social time she needs to be psychologically healthy while not endangering her physical health).
Also, it's a way to make up for the lack of the physical presence of your loved ones (I heard a story recently about a military serviceperson who comes into SL whenever he can to have family time with his RL family, including a house, etc. to maintain as much "normalcy" as one can under the circumstances).
It allows ways to experience other cultures and meet people from all around the world (there's a fantastic recreation of Dublin in SL) without the expense of travel, which may be prohibitive. It allows introverted people to control the amount of socializing and face-to-face time they're forced to endure while still allowing them to explore and be creative.
A lot of disparaging things have been said about the way people use virtual worlds over the years. Somehow, by virtue of the fact that [insert activities here” are being done in a virtual world somehow makes them "less," and brands those people as losers or worse. It's nonsense. So let's deconstruct that a little bit.
Sure, there's a lot to laugh about when it comes to pixelated sex, and there is no denying that it isn't the same thing as sex IRL.
But let's look at the upside. It is, 100 percent of the time, safe. No one is going to catch an STD. No one is going to get pregnant. No one is going to wind up with a life altering or potentially fatal medical condition.
In the case of sexual roleplay, such as BDSM or those which take place on some of the roleplay sims, no one will be physically harmed. There will be no trips to the emergency room. You can explore your fantasies (whatever they are) safely.
The slogan of the BDSM community is safe, sane, and consensual, and there's nothing more safe, sane and consensual than sex in a virtual world.
That being said, and because I promised I would mention it, problems do occur when people take their roleplay and decide that everyone on the grid is part of whatever that roleplay is (whether it's sexual or not.)
Just because you've decided you're Lord Gobbledygook and every woman on Earth is your slave doesn't mean that every woman will allow you to continue your little fantasy. Or just because you've decided you're a vampire princess doesn't mean that everyone on the grid is going to address you as "Your Blood Sucking Majesty." The real world rule of "the right time and the right place" still applies, lest you find yourself muted at best, and banned at worst, with a whole range of other things in between.
Still, there's no denying that sex and the industry surrounding it is huge in SL and an enormous money maker. Speaking of...
Most people never actually make a nickel out of Second Life. That doesn't mean that it's impossible.
Where SL differs from other platforms and games (I don't think of SL as a game, which is a long-standing philosophical debate that has been covered innumerable times, even within LL itself) is that it has a real, functional, two-way economy by design.
For most other platforms, you can use RL money to buy game money. That, by the way, is where it stops. Once you've converted real cash into game cash, there is no way to get it back out again.
This is not so in SL and it's very important to understand this. If you buy Lindens (the currency used in SL), you can also sell them back and cash that money out for US dollars.
When you sell things with your SL business, you can take the money you earn and cash it out for real world dollars. This is not only crucial, but really unheard of anywhere else.
Many people fund their entire in-world experience by working in-world, and never using any RL money to fund their second life at all. Several people make an actual, real life income from SL by being content creators. It can be done.
Hundreds of millions of dollars pass through the SL economy each year. But it's not a get rich quick scheme.
Where this falls into my initial premise though is simple: starting a business in real life usually requires a lot of paperwork, a capital investment, perhaps even a loan. It's subject to various strict regulations and taxes.
People can be very creative in SL and start a business with essentially nothing (really, we're talking about an investment of probably less than $5 at most) and if it fails, or you get tired of it, you don't lose much, either. You won't be financially ruined for life.
There's no limit to how many businesses you can own, or (with few exceptions) what kind of business it is. This simply isn't possible for most people in real life. They can't afford to fail, and many can't afford the start-up costs associated with whatever idea they may have had to begin with.
SL allows people to explore those ideas safely, but with little to no restriction on their creativity. That, folks, is awesome.
Sure, people get famous in SL. It's no different than in the real world, honestly.
SL has its celebrities of various types. Linden Labs employees (Hi Torley!), models, musicians, artists, DJs, designers. The list goes on.
But it's also a place where RL celebrities can simply be anonymous. They can interact with people who would otherwise treat them differently if they knew who they were in real life. It's a way to experience normalcy in a virtual world coming from a real life that is decidedly not typical.
Like I said, no one has a perfect life. It's just a matter of perspective.
Oh boy, does SL offer opportunities to be glamorous. You can look like anything you want -- and you can change that infinitely on a moment's notice.
Male, to female, to furry, to robot, to animal, to cardboard box, to Kool-Aid man, to a banana. Whatever makes you happy.
Hair color and style? Sure! Eye color? Absolutely. Height, weight, skin tone? Go for it.
Most people in SL don't look anything like their real life self. The reasons why vary, of course, and you get as many of those as people you ask. Some people look quite closely like their RL selves.
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine referenced an academic study that showed a correlation between how closely you resemble your RL self and where you fall on a scale from extroverted to introverted (this theory holds up where I personally am concerned). But in SL you can be as outrageous or subdued, as glamorous or plain as you want at any given moment and what's more, you can do it inexpensively (as covered in my previous article about clothing).
What may be utterly financially prohibitive or downright physically impossible in real life is just a few mouse-clicks away in SL. What's not to like about that?
While it's true that SL can create problems that don't exist in the real world, the only thing that changes is the manner of their delivery, not the problem itself.
People may be unfaithful to their partners in SL, but they do that in RL too. They may behave in ways that get them in trouble in SL, but they do that in RL as well.
There are more similarities than differences, which I suppose is the entire point, and why they're ultimately so successful.