I was in London. He was in Munich. We were lounging side by side in deckchairs overlooking the ocean. “We should teleport to Rachel’s place,” he said. So we did.
We were in the virtual world Second Life, where Bernhard Drax, known in Second Life as Draxtor Despres©, operates in many dimensions. First and foremost he is a user or “resident”, a fully paid-up enthusiast, with friends he hangs out with and islands to populate as he chooses. Second, he’s a student, having first ventured into Second Life 15 years ago as a radio presenter and then, in-world, learned the skills that saw him emerge as a filmmaker and “documentarian”. Third, he produces most of the social media videos for parent company Linden Lab. Last but not least, he hosts the weekly Second Life Book Club, featuring writers from Matt Ruff and Charles Yu through Larry Niven to Heidi James and Jonathan Lethem.
It was Lethem’s ocean we were looking out over, or rather the set Drax created for him. Apparently Lethem chose to manifest as a yellow duck. James was an eagle. Niven, on the other hand, adopted the persona of mediator, from his novel, The Mote in God’s Eye.
Linden Lab employs Drax to make weekly videos highlighting destinations in Second Life and what its residents are getting up to. It’s a promotional role, but Drax sees himself principally as a storyteller. “I serve a global community that is very diverse,” he tells me, “the most diverse that exists, from ages 18 to 88, from all walks of life, with all different interests. On Monday I might be telling a story about the far east; on Tuesday about an artist with Lou Gehrig’s disease who operates Second Life with his eyes; on Wednesday I’m meeting a guy who makes breedable little pets that jump around; and on Friday I’m looking at the history of Bulgarian socialism.” While we’re strolling through a world created by a Polish artist from her own illustrations, he moving gracefully, me bumping into walls and at one point disappearing into a tree, we run into a friend who mentions a place where you can take a balloon ride. “A balloon ride?” Drax says, “oh cool!” He was up for that, if she could supply the coordinates.
The book club is a personal project. He’d tried it previously, in what techies used to call “next-generation virtual world” Sansar, compatible with premium VR headsets and also created by Linden Lab, but it hadn’t gained much traction. In Second Life, however, it had taken off. Drax is a big reader. By dint of infusing a love of books in a world that is primarily visual, he believes the club has reignited an interest in reading for many of his guests. “The audiovisual realm is dominant in our culture, and I work in it, but people engaging deeply with text is on the decline. Publishers tell us they’re selling more books than ever before, but that’s not the same thing. To host a book club in Second Life is a no-brainer, because we can take visual elements that we retain after reading the text and immerse ourselves within it.”
The book club has its own private island. It’s one of thousands scattered around the mainland. An island is a chunk of blank 3D space where you can build up to 4000 metres. On the book club archipelago, Drax has built new platforms every 100 metres, each one hosting different worlds inspired by the books of specific authors. Somewhere across the virtual ocean an Australian professor of Chinese has created a Chinese island, where his students can role-play both tourist and immigration officer at the airport in avatar form, but inside the actual visualisation. Elsewhere, architects meet their clients on site, irrespective of where they may be in the physical world, and consult on decisions as they move around their dream home. “You can raise the roof or change the stairs in real time. You’re not just moving dots around a screen.”
The mainland is a fantastical world owned by Linden Lab, and also by private residents who bought into Second Life early on. Sale of property by auction is managed by Governor Linden, and many owners donate land to the public via co-ops to be used as art galleries or community centres. Because the mainland is a bunch of interlinked servers, you can travel around it by any means of transport – the private islands, by contrast, are separate servers, which means the only way to go island-hopping is by teleporting.
Compared to mainland prices, island rental is relatively expensive, but at roughly $200 a month, still “a bargain compared to return on investment” if you are planning to start a business in the virtual goods and services sector of Second Life. But you can visit, as I did, and hang out freely for as long as you wish, as often as you want, for the few dollars it costs to adopt a basic avatar. There are community stores where you can get free clothing, gateway programmes that enable you to learn new skills, and sandboxes where you can build your own items for free. “It’s depressing to see the privatisation of everything,” Drax says, referring to both physical and online spaces. “With Facebook, you play on someone else’s playground and it may be free, but your data is extracted.” Not so in Second Life, where there are no third-party ads. “You can play, chat, and build objects for free; you can keep these objects in your inventory or list them on the Second Life marketplace for free, on a free account. If your goal is to become an entrepreneur, you can do that with minimal barrier of entry. You don’t even have to have land. If you want to become a master carpenter who sells chairs, you can go into a sandbox and learn how to build chairs, without paying for a storefront or premium subscription membership.” Once you are happy with your chairs, you can sell them, should you choose to; you might even earn enough to buy a little place of your own.
Drax tells me about two guys who created “a satiric love letter” to Second Life on YouTube, a sort of cinéma vérité documentary called Ticket to Hell. Having rocked up in-world penniless, they ask themselves: how can we make money here? Here’s how: we can rake up people’s leaves and they’ll pay us. But we don’t have a rake. How much is a rake? Five Linden dollars. Let’s just beg for money. They put out a hat in a replica of London – one of the top five islands, with thousands of visitors daily, along with 1920s Berlin – and raked in 2,000 Linden dollars in an hour. “We want to start a gardening business,” they told passers-by, “but we don’t have money for a rake.” Performers can choose to charge an entry fee for large-scale events or operate a tip jar. Drax cites a musician from Colorado, one-man-band multi-instrumentalist Oblee, who has been known to earn $50-100 an hour, playing solely for tips.
The Linden dollar is tied to the US dollar, so not subject to the extreme fluctuations of other virtual currencies, with one dollar being roughly equivalent to USD$500; the LindeX allows residents to trade L$ for USD$ and vice versa. A chair built by a master carpenter might cost as little as 1c in-world, and can be duplicated as often as you want, should you wish to open a restaurant or theatre. All you need is a little bit of skill to navigate the 3D space and arrange your objects as you might do with Minecraft.
“Second Life is a gigantic marketplace full of tens of millions of objects that other people make,” Drax explains, summoning up a glowing triptych that materialises before us as he speaks. “I could slap a ‘for sale’ sign on that,” he muses. There are billions of transactions every day. Annual volume is around $600m in user-to-user transactions of virtual goods and services. Linden Lab extracts a transaction fee as per other digital platforms such as Spotify and iTunes, but a much smaller percentage. Prices are small, but scale is big. The guy who makes trees – and beautiful trees they are – sells a whole lot of leaves.
There’s no point resisting virtual reality, according to Drax. “In 20 years everybody will have an avatar and we will partially live our lives there.” He is referring to the evolution of society, but it’s clear he means the two of us as well. His mother was a special needs teacher, and as a young child he would often hang out with her at school; in Second Life he gravitates naturally towards the stories of the disability community. “What I have learned is that we will all be disabled at some point in our lives. Mobility impairment is a given. Intellectual impairment? We can hope and pray and knock on wood that it is not so severe and is delayed.”
He shares a video of (now) 84-year-old American singer and dancer Toni Harper. She isn’t lonely or needy. But in the physical world she spends some of her time in a wheelchair. Not in Second Life, where as Asiza Wolf she can still perform to an appreciative audience in a body of her choosing. “I’m not afraid of it,” she tells Drax, “I get a kick out of SL.” She has a purple grand piano in her favourite virtual room. “I have a beautiful family. I love them to pieces. I’m busy doing my thing, and they’re busy doing their thing. They’ve got their lives to be living. They’re breathing their own air, and I’m breathing mine.”
What is worth resisting, Drax insists, is Facebook. “Second Life is a place where you can build a business,” he says. “With Facebook, you are the product being sold. The Facebook business model is based on data extraction, then your data is monetised by someone else. You get to share your baby photos, and in exchange you are rendered completely transparent, to both Zuckerberg and the ad agencies. It goes deeper than Amazon. Facebook x-rays the person. It’s a very uneven playing field.” Twitter is the same, “but like a little tug boat next to this huge ocean liner”.
This dystopian scenario is not applicable to Second Life. “The Second Life business model is that you pay Linden Lab a fee for your land, then you can do whatever you like there, so long as it complies with the laws of your [physical] country.” They still know where you are, but they don’t care that you are in the UK and like a certain kind of shoes. “It’s perhaps the last little place on the internet that is not algorithmically driven, where conversation and community are paramount.” The only ads you see in Second Life are posted by in-world content creators, signs of the mom-and-pop model of commerce: maybe someone is opening a bike shop, and they put up a billboard saying they have a free bike you can run around on.
The digital sovereignty of indie worlds like Second Life is under threat from monopolistic Meta. “There are places in the world where Facebook is synonymous with the internet,” Drax says. “Now they’re in a position to dominate the virtual world in the same way, buying up the competition and shutting it down.” Will the Metaverse be better, I ask, more immersive? Given that it uses headsets and Second Life doesn’t? “That’s highly debatable,” Drax says, even among social scientists. Discussion is heated. There are those who say VR without headsets is not VR at all, but Drax suspects they may be parroting the industry, which needs to sell headsets. Second Life residents, in his experience, aren’t bothered. “To them immersion has to do with the ability to create worlds and live inside their waking dreams, build community, and feel included with others. Think of the immersive power of a love letter: written on wrinkled paper with bad handwriting, it can be way more immersive than a 4K-resolution assault on your visual cortex.”
Like video games in general, Second Life is mediated via the screen and your body movements are not mirrored by what you see through your avatar’s eyes. With modern VR headsets, when you move your head, the world moves and you can see your body move in real time in accordance with your physical body. “This is no doubt pretty cool, but visual fidelity and synced body movements are not the only factors for feeling immersed within a world or a community. This is a very reductive view.” He points me to Mark Zuckerberg in his trailer. “He is tying his proposed Metaverse service to the Oculus headset, which he purchased in 2014 for this very reason, and will give away premium headsets for free. There are alternative headsets from other makers, so this won’t make him the ruler, but the nature of his pitch is that he will have the highest fidelity world.” But according to Natalie Clayton, writing in PC Gamer in November 2021, “virtual worlds are already better than the Metaverse will ever be”.
What brought Drax to Second Life in the first place? Turns out he’s a musician by training, a graduate of the Munich Conservatoire who used to play with a pop band signed to a major label. In 1995, at the age of 25, he was lured to Los Angeles by a friend whose father was a record producer. The band broke up, but Drax never gave up playing and composing. In 2007, the year Second Life was founded, he was working on a soundtrack, and a friend from his old band was mixing it. The friend said: I miss touring. Drax said: I don’t. We could have a virtual band, the friend said, in this virtual world; his son had told him all about it. “Something ignited in my head,” Drax says. He hung up the phone, looked up Second Life, signed up for it, and went straight in. He typed his friend’s name into the search engine. Nothing. He called him back, saying “I’m in. Where are you?” To which the reply was: “Me? I’m not in there. I’m not wasting my time on that nonsense.”
Meantime Drax was working in radio, where he met his future wife, a lawyer who wanted to move into media. She was doing the morning news bulletin, he the evening. They set up home in Pacific Grove before eventually returning to Germany so their son could go to university, bypassing the exorbitant American fees. “I’m privileged,” Drax says. “We own this apartment and live rent free. I don’t have the pressures others have, only to provide for my family. But I’m also not motivated by monetary gain. If you can find a way to live with small running costs, you can have tremendous freedom if that is what you value.” He’d worked on big Disney-style soundtracks: it was “a lot of money, but so many cooks at the table. For me, what is important is creative freedom.” He’s content to earn enough to get the next project going, doesn’t feel the need for three vacations a year. “This is the life I designed for myself and I’m pretty happy.” His passion is for human interest stories: “gratifying content, great feedback, and content that is meaningful to communities”. It struck me that his attitudes to “life design” across physical and virtual worlds were remarkably consistent.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, use of Second Life grew by 60 per cent in the first month of the pandemic. Drax believes it’s because Second Life supplies the everyday interactions, or “weak ties”, that we so missed during lockdown. “You run into different people as you might in a bar, or when you’re out walking the dog, or picking up something at the store.” But although he’s an enthusiast, he’s not an evangelist. “If we want to write a shared script,” he says, “by all means let’s do it in Google Docs.”
I had the clumsiness of a newborn calf on my first visit to Second Life. But I like to think I would find my feet just as quickly. And I could not have felt more welcome. Drax prides himself on having streamlined the onboarding process: “In 45 minutes I can teach a person who has never even played a 3D game how to sit, walk, communicate, move objects, open doors, teleport to other places, and build.” He wants guests to feel comfortable on the book club archipelago, so they can focus on the conversation and dig deep into the text. “The proof of the pudding is when a guest is sufficiently relaxed to look around and say: ‘OMG, there’s a snake in the audience’.”
I asked Heidi James, author of acclaimed novels So the Dove and The Sound Mirror, about her experience as a book club guest in 2021. She told me how she chose to be an eagle because she is interested in non-human being, but also because she’d love to be able to fly and “eagles are fierce”. “It was a really fascinating experience,” she recalls. “A present/absence that connected differently with so many others. It allowed for less self-consciousness, I found. The conversations and questions it made space for were incredible. Drax has created this open thoughtful space.”
Draxtor’s feature-length documentary Virtual Cultures in Pandemic Times releases on 18 March.
https://www.independent.co.uk/independentpremium/long-reads/bernhard-drax-welcome-to-second-life-b1999349.html Bernhard Drax: Welcome to Second Life