Thursday, July 12, 2007

A Second Look at Second Life Geography

1) Introduction

It has been said that the geography of Second Life is “quite disorienting” ( Although this is the case for a variety of reasons, there is a spatial organization to Second Life, albeit one that is different from that found in the real world. Furthermore, the differences are interesting and revealing about how we humans spontaneously organize ourselves spatially, and the subject deserves a closer look.

One company has proceeded to develop a mapping service for Second Life ( This highly useful function requires some scrutiny, however, because of the differences in the functional geographic organization with regard to the real world. We humans require synthetic overviews that are spatially organized, but simply reproducing what is done in the real world will have limited effectiveness if the geographic principles of Second Life are not understood and incorporated.

2) Differences between real world geography and Second Life geography

The most obvious and most frequently cited difference between the two “worlds” is the ability to move about via teleportation and flight. This ability clearly breaks up some of the tendency of nearby places to be devoted to similar activities (Tobler’s Law). However, human beings feel at home with spatial proximity, and hence, despite the means of transport, there remains a certain expression of “neighborhood” even in Second Life. The size of uniform neighborhoods will vary considerably, however from one location to another. One of the reasons there is such a high interest in islands is that it is possible to enforce more similarity in the landscape.

The second, obvious difference is that Second Life topography is created by humans, albeit different ones than end up inhabiting the space. Again, islands form an exception here… island owners have greater control over the topography than do mainland land owners. Therefore we shall limit most of the discussion to the geography of the mainland, and leave the islands to another time. Presumably the Lindens, who create the topography, do so based on some combination of their perception of the landforms that interest residents of Second Life, and their global vision for the overall development of the Second Life metaverse. There are also technical constraints on topographic design, due to the way the Second Life simulation is organized. Hence there are no true rivers, only inlets of the seas, nor are there lakes except as elements of the sea. Also, there are no true underground spaces – topography is a flat surface that does not permit overhangs. The global SL topography is organized in terms of long ridges between inlets of the sea. Hence topographically speaking, the world is divided into regions of similar topographic characteristics, and this does have an effect on global spatial organization.

Third, there are no seasons, nor is there any kind of erosion. There is a diurnal cycle, but the night/day transformations occur much more frequently than in the real world. Some snow-laden regions exist within Second Life, however. These are permanently winter landscapes.

A somewhat less obvious distinction, although long time residents of SL are usually conscious of this, there is a high turnover in land ownership. Because of the speed at which building and rebuilding may occur, the landscape my change radically in a very short period of time. This makes navigation by landmarks awkward, as the landmarks one used yesterday may no longer be there today. This is one of the sources of the geographic confusion people feel.

Another more subtle distinction between SL and the real world is that SL has a built-in global spatial reference system… the Grid. Absolute referencing in SL is rarely a problem. However, as we shall see, Second Life lacks a good qualitative reference system at intermediate granularity.

Another distinction that has an effect is the ease of construction in SL. Because construction costs next to nothing, it is easy to disregard the constraints of a given topography and build arbitrary structures. In the real world, construction costs are higher over water, or on slopes, than on flat ground, and hence topography will affect what gets built. In SL, this is not the case. This process will tend to diminish the influence of topography on land use.

A significant source of difference is the fact that land ownership extends almost a kilometer into the sky, and with the stability of structures at any altitude, a huge amount of building goes on in the skies. The effective geography of SL is therefore 3D in a way that it cannot be in the real world. However, human beings do not, in general, formulate effective 3D visualizations of the navigable world – rather our representations of space are layers of 2D (Fontaine and Denis, 1999). Since skyboxes may be found at any altitude, it is difficult for us to come up with a fully visualized 3D mental representation of the space. Instead, we map the ground and associate skyboxes with their ground plots, when we make the effort to understand locations. (Of course, we may teleport in and away from a location without ever developing any sense of where it is located in the world of Second Life.)

The existence of residential areas in Second Life would, a priori, appear to be a similarity with regard to the real world, not a difference. However, the notion of a residence in Second Life is substantially different than in Real Life, and we should be careful here. In the real world, a residence provides shelter from the weather, privacy, a place to sleep and eat, and a space to share with others and invest in community. In Second Life, a residence serves partially a need for privacy, and partially serves as a place for community, but in no way supports survival functions in the same way as in the real world. It may also serve as an expression of identity, a way of reflecting who one is to oneself and to others. Privacy in Second Life is hard to guarantee absolutely, but relative forms of privacy are readily accessible. Although Second Life is considered to be a highly social environment, one can never encounter more than about thirty people at a time, due to technical limitations to the way the environment functions. Most of the time, one is spatially isolated from other people, or one can arrange to be so isolated. Residences may serve such a function.

3) Spatial organization in Second Life

As indicated in the beginning of this article, it is tempting to assume that, given the ease of transportation “at a distance”, that spatial proximity doesn’t matter at all. The difficulty we have, when moving about in Second Life, to develop a global sense of spatial context reinforces this idea. However, there are a number of reasons why it is premature to draw such a conclusion.

To a great extent, as in Real Life, land use is determined by land occupation, by who owns the land. Hence within a given lot, the activities maintained are likely to be similar. Furthermore, people being social creatures, and given that Second Life is an environment that encourages social interaction, like-minded individuals tend to form into groups, and these groups often buy neighboring lots of land. Indeed the whole process of land development is highly dynamic in Second Life. In the early era of Second Life, there was a program to make available small lots of land at a very low cost to new land owners. This was called “First Land”. The system was disbanded early in 2007, largely because people had found a way to use this program to aggressively market land at a large profit, and the “little guy” was being left out. Today, land is for the most part sold in large chunks to “developers” who divide the land into small pieces and sell it. Often a developer will build a “themed environment” before reselling the land, hence producing a mini-neighborhood. Over time (sometimes very quickly), buyers will come in with very different ideas of how to use the land and the themed nature of the environment will shift to something more heterogeneous. Still, as indicated earlier, groups do form and land is re-aggregated into larger lots with similar uses. Second Life consists therefore, for the most part, of a fine-grained landscape of neighborhoods of varying size.

Another “force” or “process” at work in the landscape is the production of “lag”. Lag is the term used to describe what happens when too many processes are going on in a given region for the computers on which the region is maintained to handle. As a result, even simple tasks one undertakes with one’s avatar, such as walking, or even chatting, become delayed by a few seconds. The interaction one has with the environment changes from being sharp and snappy, to being slowed, as if one were moving through a dense, thick liquid. It can be very frustrating. Certain kinds of land uses may generate a great deal of lag (for example, running a night club), and this may cause others to leave the area, to sell their land and move elsewhere. This process acts to homogenize certain areas of Second Life into more commercial environments. Once the ground area fills up with a large number of commercial buildings, it becomes less interesting as a site for residences, and hence a division between commercial and residential areas emerges, as in real life, but for somewhat different reasons.

Another reason people may seek to group lots concerns the way objects are constructed in Second Life. Complex objects are built out of simpler ones, called “prims”. Prims are associated with land ownership – the more land one owns, the more prims one can create and maintain on the land. To support large construction efforts, more land is therefore required. This is another process at play that groups lots together and hence uniformizes more the landscape.

In a nutshell, space in Second Life is organized at a finer granularity than in the real world, but there are larger regions that form spontaneously from the collection of processes in play. Nonetheless, developing an intuitive grasp of the spatial organization of the landscape is difficult, in the same way that the idea one forms of a city is different if one navigates the city only by the use of its underground trains.

Although topographic maps are useful, in that they give an idea about different terrain types, and these terrain types will have some influence on land use, the division of the landscape into predominantly commercial, predominantly residential, open spaces and mixed regions (on the ground) would provide a more meaningful division of the landscape to help develop a global sense of the space. Maps of population density only respond partially to this issue.

Another form of spatial visualization that would probably be useful would be maps that identify common communities in relation to neighborhood regions. This may be more difficult, since many communities in SL are clandestine and protect themselves from intrusions by non members. Indeed the micro-granular nature of SL geography may be one of the factors that supports the existence of such groups.

4) Insights gleaned from SL geography that concern real world geography

What we learn from the study of SL geography is that people organize themselves geographically as a result of competing processes, some that break down the effect of proximity and some that augment its presence. Because the nature of these processes in SL are somewhat different than in the real world, the organization of the landscape, in terms of land use and land occupancy, is different in SL than it is in the real world. Interestingly, the predominant process that increases the importance of spatial structure in Second Life is the need to create communities.
Communities require spatial proximity to function, even in a virtual world.

The relationship between space and community is often hidden in the real world behind other factors that affect spatial proximity (e.g. biophysical processes). In Second Life, our perception of the relationship is clearer, because there are fewer confounding factors. This also suggests that Second Life may provide a unique environment for further exploration of these relationships.