Essay: Spatial planning – Learning from Second Life
Written by Joop de Boer from Studio Golfstromen – strategy, planning and design on the city.
In the virtual world ‘Second Life’ everything is possible. That’s most obvious in the way how space is organized. There is no government which regulates, checks and takes an important role in the spatial development. Everyone can build whatever he likes and does so, in contrast with the usual building practise in the ‘first life’. The result is amazing: Second Lifers are creative, real builders and they take clearly responsibility for the public space.
In a bar people are dancing on nice music which also sounds through the speakers in my house. The manager of the virtual club apparently has saved no effort to create a pleasant spot in which people can meet each other. On couches groups of people are chatting with each other, and high in the room a kind of a furnace bridge has been made for the DJ. The club has some gambling machines and real disco lightning, and in the middle of the place some palm trees are planted. I take a seat at one of the couches, starting a bull shit conversation effortlessly.
Second Life (SL) is a virtual world on the internet where everyone with a digital alter ego (‘avatar’) can be and do everything what is lacking in the ‘first life’. The game becomes a true hype with already more than two million members (although not all very active). Almost everyone is beautiful, everyone can fly and everyone talks with each other, dances, and has sex. There is even an official currency (the so-called ‘Linden dollar’) that has a real exchange rate with the dollar. The digital surroundings of Second Life are totally created by the users. There are real estate companies, project developers, Second Life architects, and users. This means that something like a spatial planning process really exists in SL. The only thing that is not there is an overall land use plan. Two characteristics of the spatial scheduling in SL are interesting as a reflexion on the spatial scheduling in real living. First, the freedom for the individual to create, and as a result, the responsibility Second Lifers take for the public area. Second, the large importance of ‘perception landscapes’ and the high appreciation for aesthetics and captivating spatial design.
Building is simple in Second Life. Everyone can build all kinds of objects by means of a simple design toolbox: from clothing and pieces of furniture to complete buildings and even nature. But, only when an object is placed on a piece of ground which is owned by you, a permanent spatial artefact is created. Such an object remains property of the builder then. This way houses, shops, clubs and gardens are being made. The most important difference with the real world is that building does not have to meet technical architectural requirements, because physical strengths do not exist in a world which is built out of pixels. The government (or: Linden Lab, the makers of the game) has withdrawn itself almost entirely from the process of spatial planning. Nevertheless, they threw up a couple of conditions to spatial transformation. The first has just been mentioned: one can only build on own space. In the second place, a landlord can indicate the accessibility of his property and delimit it against undesirable cruisers. Those rules make the landlord most decisive in the spatial planning process of Second Life. The designers of the game have their only part in selling the ground.
The construction freedom for the individual is visibly appreciated. Like already said, Second Life is for most of the people an expression of everything they cannot fulfil in real living, such as building houses, running a hotel or casino, and making a swimming pool in the garden. The need to creative expression and the wish to design one’s own spot is apparently lost within the regular planning process.
Because Second Life inhabitants from all over the world form the space jointly, an international eclectic style arises. Mostly designed by amateurs, but not tasteless at all, since the aesthetic aspect is an important value in Second Life. The beautiful spots turn out to be popular places where the property turnovers and sale and rent values are highest. The observation that spatial perception is an important value in Second Life is interesting in relation with the first world. The relative soft ‘experience’ dimension in spatial planning does not always get as much attention in real life.
Why then is in Second Life the effort taken to make everything really beautiful? And why does one feel himself much more responsible for the common space and for the total irradiation of an area in Second Life? Restricted the construction costs seem to be the main explanation: building in Second Life itself costs nothing, therefore making a contribution to the surrounding is cheap. It is however a paradox that creating aesthetic extras are relative expensive when it comes to time and money. One has to create or buy special scripts, textures or objects. Some large companies do even hire design offices to pimp up their property in SL. Aesthetics are like a creative signboard in Second Life. Much more than in the real world, where creative development and personal identity do not seem to be something to project on the environment.
‘Age of Experience’
A second explanation. Second Life is all about chatting with unknown people, walking and looking around. All Second Life inhabitants are there for fun and pleasure. Second Life is a prediction for what I would call the ‘Age of Experience’. In this upcoming ‘Age of Experience’, the relation between the individual and space is all about perception and (new) experiences. A new spatial identity appears, strongly focused on individual excitement. An example is the need for ‘monitor nature’ in this virtual world. A project developer in Second Life starts, after buying his property, with planting trees and developing ‘nature’. This is remarkable. Especially in a virtual world, where ‘nature’ lacks any form of functionality, the perception of nature is fully recognised. Obviously a sentiment which one has kept from ‘first life’. There nature has an intrinsic value, but lacks any policy attention.
The real world
The experience relation which Second Lifers have created with their self-made virtual world, is in contrast to their relation to space in the ‘first life’. The real world does not sufficiently provide the need for experience. However, in the long run this need for entertainment, excitement and experience will make the step from the digital world to the real world. This will have two major consequences. On one hand a strong spatial claim for ‘fun landscapes’ will arise. This will consist of new created nature as well as urban playgrounds and festival fields. On the other hand, a larger role for beauty, excitement and experience in overall spatial scheduling will be demanded. Finally, the one thing that becomes most clear from Second Life, is what people do miss in real living. Related tot spatial planning, these are: (1) exciting spaces with imaginative power and possibilities to explore, and (2) the possibility to apply creativity to one’s surroundings.
This article has been published before in the Dutch magazine ‘Building Innovation’, May 2007.