On NFTs, and thinking back to Second Life

Left: My digital roving reporter in Second Life, circa 2010, because you know those sickos in Second Life dropped everything at the chance to talk to an attractive woman over a milquetoast white guy. Right: The NFT gorilla.

Folks, I once was told “Write what you know”, which is why I’m writing an article about Second Life. But although I understand the benefits of sharing primary information from my expertise, I find more pleasure in complaining like an asshole on a public forum. So that’s why I’m also writing about NFTs, something which I know nothing about, but truly hate on its face.

Let’s start with the story about Second Life. In the year 2010, during my freshman year at the great institution Ithaca College, I took a class called Games and Society in order to fulfill a social sciences requirement. You may ask: “They let you take a class about video games for college credit?” Yes, oh yes. This was the same school that considered a class on Flash animation a “natural sciences” course. I literally made something fit for Newgrounds and got a 4.0 for it.

Anyway: In this Games and Society class, our professor based the curriculum in Second Life, the family-friendly virtual world where folks can look however, create whatever, and do almost whatever they want. Did I say family-friendly? Ha ha. I misspoke. Nothing about Second Life is family-friendly. You’re either walking through barren wastelands of abandoned polygons and item boxes or wandering into a fiesta of furries or a place of unlawful carnal knowledge. I speak of Second Life in the present because to my knowledge, that hell world carries on to this day outside of the laws of either God or humankind.

For my final project in this strange class, I decided to explore the dark underbelly of the Second Life club scene. Back in 2010, clubs in Second Life were bumping, as the idea of going dancing with friends, hooking up with strangers, or letting your freak flag fly without leaving your home was still revolutionary. These clubs were run like real businesses. Sometimes you had to pay a cover, although the 50 Linden dollar ($L) cover equated to about $0.25 USD. Dancers were paid by the hour, and if you caused a ruckus, you got kicked out. The owners and developers of these clubs worked hard to make sure everything felt as real as possible, shelling out hundreds of dollars in real money to do so.

Of note: My avatar in Second Life was a woman, since I figured more folks – especially the patrons, who were mostly sickos looking for a quickie in an abandoned parcel – would talk to a young and spunky female roving reporter over some generic milquetoast white dude.

I talked to patrons of these clubs, as well as dancers, other hired staff, managers, and owners. Quite a few of them were more than happy to let their guard down and talk about the real-life implications of their Second Life activities. Many more of them just tried to hit on me. Second Life is nothing if not disgustingly horny. But my biggest question for all of my interviewees was: “How much value – financial, emotional, or otherwise – does your time in Second Life really have to you?”

Some folks – mostly patrons and employees – laughed that Second Life was just a game, a place to let loose, to be someone else, to do things they could never do in real life. But many of the folks I interviewed put a lot of stock into their Second Life activities, creations, and businesses. The owners of the clubs certainly took pride in their work; they put money, time, and effort into it, after all. Their patrons found a lot of value in their virtual lives as well; they’d worked hard to refine their looks, their relationships, and their personalities in Second Life, even if it had nothing to do with their first lives.

So because of that, I guess – I guess, God damn it all to Hell – I understand the allure of NFTs.

Yes! We’ve made it to the second subject of this post, the hellscape of digital trading and murky ethics that circles around the concept of the non-fungible token. The most basic way I can explain NFTs is that they’re essentially proofs of purchase. Consider this: Let’s say you buy a box of cereal at the supermarket, which is like buying whatever digital asset you like on the NFT marketplace (such as a piece of art, a song, or… a box of cereal. I wish I was kidding, but food is becoming NFTs. See the following tweet and become as confused as me, folks.)

Anyway, you buy your box of cereal. You use currency to pay for this box of cereal: In the real world it’s dollars, while in the digital marketplace it’s some form of cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin or Ethereum. But you’re not actually paying for the box of cereal when it comes to NFTs. You’re paying for that NFT, or that proof of purchase. You can buy that kind of cereal anywhere, but not your specific box, because your box has a code that is special just for you. In fact, that code is so special that it’s written down in the blockchain, or a digital ledger where every other proof of purchase is scrawled in blood – uh – code.

And basically, what makes these NFTs valuable is not so much the product attached to the NFT, but the value that people place on the NFT. That image of a gorilla isn’t actually worth $400, but people in the marketplace have treated it with the kind of attention that would place its value at $400. It’s sort of like a piece of fine art or a collectible Pokemon card. That Rembrandt or Monet or first-edition holographic Charizard may not actually be worth thousands of dollars, but if a lot of people would buy it for that price, that’s the value the item will have. That value, of course, can change on a dime.

Personally, I get the concept of NFTs, but I just can’t get behind it. We’ve had the ability to connect people to products and works of art and events using code for a long time without NFTs. I know folks are using NFTs to track ownership of a specific item or protect their intellectual property or form little clubs of collectors or sell NFTs that guarantee access to VIP events and groups. But at the end of the day it’s just another way for tech sharks to put more strain on the grid. After all, NFTs are just another part of the crypto world, and as more folks get into the NFT marketplace, the people running the show will just buy up more land in Iowa to build more warehouses. Unless they’re able to at least counter their carbon footprint, they’re just going to contribute more to the sucking of the Earth’s natural resources. Bitcoin and crypto mining is already doing enough of that. Why are we continuing to find ways to ruin the real world on behalf of the virtual one?

It’s almost ironic that the idea of the NFT – something which gives something else value – seems to have no value on its own. Second Life was revolutionary before it fell off the cliff; it had its own economy, it allowed for almost limitless creation, and it was a conduit for creating worldwide relationships. It provided overwhelming value. You could say that NFTs do all of that as well, but the infrastructure was already there before NFTs came along. NFTs were falling off the cliff before they even became well-known to the general public. How good is your concept if you can’t justify its existence to a wide audience?

Anyway, I’ll probably never buy or sell an NFT. But after writing all of this, I do think I’ll log back into Second Life and see what kind of digital detritus is out there in the virtual landscape. After all, the Linden dollar still trades at about $L250 for $1.00 US, so maybe there’s a fortune to be made in virtual reality yet.

(Note: I got an A in that Games & Society course. Then again, it was an easy A. My classmate and friend got a B-, which pissed him off for weeks.)

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