Second Life’s Little Secret

In my extended family, the children (pre-teens) sign.

This isn’t because they are deaf – or include a deaf child.  No, they have evolved sign as a secret meta-language in which they can serenely communicate, undisturbed, unheard and uncomprehended by adults.

It happens that a couple of the adults in the family can sign.  One taught her very bright eight-year-old and he picked it up and ran with it, teaching it to his contemporaries across the family so that the younger cousinage, when they meet, can communicate.  And, like most meta-languages, it has evolved to meet their needs.  I’m not sure if people fully conversant with conventional BSL would be able to follow their evolved dialect – it serves its purpose in that none of the familial adults can.

Second Life's Secret Users?
Second Life’s Secret Users?

Private generational communication has been an aspect of the evolution of social media (and perhaps one spoken about anecdotally, but less studied than other issues, such as online gender). Here’s a couple of examples.

Back in the day, we were all on Live Journal, chatting and sharing.  A friend of mine would, occasionally, complain about her job. Then one day, she was shocked to read a helpful response from her aunt who had recently joined. And then, suddenly, a load of strange people started appearing, offering chirpy advice – and occasionally referencing the aunt.  “Yes, dear,” said the aunt when questioned. “I told my bridge club. They’re all on Live Journal now – such fun! And I told them my niece had a wonderful Live Journal so they all friended you!”

Back to my family again … and a generation that was cheerfully sharing on Facebook had a Moment when they realised that parents were starting to make accounts – in order to share family info and gossip. The look of naked shock and horror when the young adults realised that aunts, uncles, parents … were there, in their play space, invading their cyberspace fun … well, it was quite something.

People looking at Second Life from the outside (especially journalists and doubly journalists working in the tabloid market) look at the avatars in Second Life and are fascinated by the gender choices of residents. The men who choose to explore their feminine side. The women who choose to take on a masculine role in a virtual world.  Even in Second Life, apocryphal tales abound about the prevalence of Gorean slave girls with surprisingly gruff voices, or the discovery that this or that well-known Second Life Lothario is, in fact, female.

Second Life's Secret Users?
Second Life’s Secret Users?

And let’s not even get in to the questions asked about people who choose to live their online lives as vampires, dragons, or children – and maybe cross-gender there too.

Suffice it to say that over the years, the question of gender in virtual worlds has formed the fodder for a wide variety of newspaper and magazine articles and several well-regarded academic studies in the wider world, some fascinating blog posts from inworld and a hideous amount of Outrage and Shock and Hurt on numerous twitter and plurk streams.

But one area that has been comparatively overlooked – and it’s one that I think has an important bearing on some of the problems that Second Life faces today (and some of its potential strengths that could ensure its longevity) is the demographic of age.

First of all, let me make one thing abundantly clear – this has nothing to do with avatar age as it is conventionally understood, with adults choosing to play juveniles.

This is about something quite different.

It was some years ago that Tateru Nino looked at the demographics and said that, given the preponderance of the demographic, skewed to over 35 and female, it was clear who was using Second Life – “It’s your mother.”  And that hasn’t changed.

Let’s think about this …

You are a brilliant software engineer.  You create – or help to develop – one of the most advanced and stunning game systems that exists.  In many areas the capabilities of your product outstrips the top ranked and best selling computer games of all time. Cutting edge? You are so far the other side that the cutting edge is a flashing light on the horizon behind you. Be proud because you have made something so unique and exciting that it’s the favourite game for … your parents.

And when things go wrong – and, oh boy, do they go wrong – you have your parents on your back, or your aunts and your uncles and their bridge club … except it’s not a bridge club any more, because they’ve discovered Second Life and so it could be their night club or their sex club, or their dragon clan, or their pirate chapter or their very upmarket yacht club … but it’s their community and it’s going wrong so – Do Something About It, Young ‘Un!

Second Life's Secret Users?
Second Life’s Secret Users?

As is often the case with avatar gender, many people know – it’s just not something that’s generally talked about.  Occasional references give the game away: college aged children. Grandchildren. Sometimes even the fact that people have ample time for Second Life without the urgent need to make a living suggests … a period of life when the drive to support a growing family has passed – although this is not to discount other reasons why people may spend a large amount of time inworld.

And this is also not to say that everyone in Second Life is pulling down a pension – I doubt that many are. But there is a sizeable number of people who have followed the evolution of computer technology from the 1980s to the 2010s, and who have settled down in Second Life.

In marketing terms, these people are the grey panthers.  They have leisure and disposable income. They also have energy and creativity in bucketloads – and it’s coupled with life experience.  These people enjoy a Second Life because they can bring to bear a full First Life … and Second life gives them a chance to try something different. And they create wonderful things.

But, in computer terms, the obsession is always with the new.

Once, a group of us on our way to a holiday in Tuscany met up with an American couple. They expressed their dissatisfaction with much of what they had seen (they must have been a very unusual pair of American travellers in Europe – everyone else I have met adores it).  When they were asked why, they looked disgusted and said, “It’s not new!”

That became the catchphrase of our holiday. Looking at the Duomo in Florence, the amazing pavement at the Cathedral in Sienna, the towers of San Gimignano, the central square of Volterra … we would exclaim: “It’s not new!” and collapse in fits of laughter.

Of course, an obsession with the new has long been a feature of every attempt to sell anything – and so too has the desire to acquire a new audience by appealing to the young, the hip, the cool.

Second Life's Secret Users?
Second Life’s Secret Users?

But … what if Second Life wasn’t the place to attract a young audience? What if it was, instead, a perfect place for people of more mature years (with larger, if more shrewdly managed wallets)?  What if Linden Lab should be luring not the young gamers of Steam, but another audience entirely?

This isn’t to suggest that Second Life should be slipping ads into Saga magazine and Retirement Planning Monthly and ignoring all other audiences.  There are as many brilliant young designers in Second Life as there are more mature ones, and the same goes for event planning, sim ownership, club management etc. Targeting one particular audience at the expense of all others hasn’t worked so well in the past (remember the drive for the business customers, anyone?). But making Second Life more grey panther friendly (for example, making sure that the info hubs where newbies arrive aren’t packed with idiots shouting sexual abuse at each other) could certainly help.  As would some thinking about grey panther friendly policies for residents. Because these residents have the capacity to be long stay, faithful customers.

Growing your business by constantly looking for the young, trend-setting demographic is one way forward.  But there’s a very substantial business to be built on the discerning mature customer – ask any cruise line.

And yet … it’s not sexy (in so many senses of the word).  It’s also not the way most Second Life users would want to be regarded – they are here, after all, to live a very different life.  Ages ago, I made over a Second Life house for someone who told me, “Some friends came over to visit us, and said our house looked like it was created for a couple in their sixties. Well, actually, we are in our sixties – but we don’t want to be seen that way!”

Second Life's Secret Users?
Second Life’s Secret Users?

So there is a demographic that loves Second Life, and whose participation in Second Life could probably be expanded.  But … how to target them without alienating them? And is there any will at the Lab to sell the game to … well, their parents’ generation?

Perhaps it will remain Second Life’s little secret …


  1. Actually, the big danger for LL in the not so young is that we’re mostly just hanging around waiting for OSGrid to get good enough.

  2. I would consider myself one of those “grey panthers” (my contact with computers is now circa 40 years- since meeting them in college), and I continue to be pleased by the number of my age cohort that I find in Second Life. However, I also enjoy having in-world contact with others less than half my age- it is refreshing and stimulating to have the variety of backgrounds and viewpoints.

    However, there is another aspect of Second Life that brought me here, and keeps me here after more than six years,whereas I never really took a liking to video games previously; it is a place where I can exercise my creativity, and socialize with other creative people, without the overlay of violence and competition that is the reason for being for the vast, vast majority of online games. (Yes, I know there are war-gaming areas of Second Life, but they are easy to avoid). How many of the video and online games are based on violence, warfare, or its stylized surrogate- sports?

    I feel that the appeal to many of we older Second Life residents is just this- “first life” has far too much warfare, and violence, and cut-throat competition- here we can create a space free of much of that. I, and I think many others, will continue to hope attempts to ‘gameify’ Second Life can be kept at the other end of that “ten foot pole” we won’t touch things with…

  3. You see, this is why at 47 years old I still do NOT tell my dad about SecondLife! 😛 To this day he has no clue that SL is where Yak & I met. LOL
    I just told him it was online in a group social network site. 😉

  4. I’m 39, I run a store. I’m in SL probably 15 hours a day between working on store stuff, being on my adult avatar and child avatar. My girlfriend is about 35, My Mistress in SL is 39. A friend of mine, who is about 39 as well, he joined SL but got bored, preferring games like WoW. But you know what? His mother, who is about 17-20 years his senior, joined SL, and is there every day, with a huge breedable horse farm.

    Now, I tend to hang around the fetishy side of SL, The people who play bondage games in shiny catsuits, or who want to be transformed into dolls, mannequins, robots, etc. People who tend to be very big on being changed into something, and there’s usually an element of desiring a firm hand to guide/force them. But one interesting fact I’ve noted in these circles, is that its about 99% female avatars, and about 50% describe themselves as RL transgendered women, again though, most seem to be in the 30+ age range that I’ve gotten the chance to get close to. Come to think of it, I can only think of one person in that community who identifies as male in RL, and he doesn’t generally share that information.

    It’s possible, it should be noted, for someone to ‘say’ they’re transgendered in RL, and that not be true. It’s also possible for it to be true, but for them to still be closeted/pre-transitive, or “wish they were brave enough”.

    The few “mostly male” people that I’ve known in RL who I’ve shown SL to, have gotten interested mostly in trying to build a shop and make money, often making very generic or silly things (without a lot of demand), then got either bored, or overwhelmed by the amount of work involved, and left.

    I don’t know what this all says for the general population of SL, but in terms of the fetish community, it seems mostly to be populated by female avatars run by women, or transgendered women, or people who wish they were women.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that. If anyone deserves a beautiful fantasy life, it’s people who can’t have everything they want in RL.

    I wonder tho, how much of our “not enough male avatars” problem is related to that.

  5. Very interesting article, especially as it relates to a semi-open secret (ask in any Steamlands chat who’s over 30 vs. under 30, and the ratios are definitely weighed towards the former).

    But does this mean that LL may have been right to eliminate the discount pricing for educators? If Second Life’s most natural appeal is to people who’ve pretty much left undergrad far behind, where does that put efforts to draw younger users, whether through Steam or via a university sim?

    (For the record, I discovered SL while in grad school for a career change, via career press/lit)

    1. If the demographic is skewed in favour of the older generation, that will include many teachers who will see the benefits of using it.

      I’ve certainly heard about Second Life and Open Sim used as a teaching tool, and even when students are too young to log on, they participate through a mediator (their teacher) and seem to enjoy the experience. We’ve come across a number of projects (through Designing Worlds) where that has been happening.

      So perhaps the ideal audience is the under 18s and over 40s (30s)?

  6. Learning in a virtual world does not necessarily need to be just for younger residents. Lifelong learning is a compelling use case, be it a new language, technology skills, or even practical skills like we teach at Cooperative Extension’s Virtual State Fair at Morrill (131, 5, 24)

  7. This is an extremely well written and thought out article, and I think you hit on a very important aspect of Second Life. The attraction to older people, like myself at age 58, is something very unique. I don’t care for shoot em up, violent games. I love the opportunity to be creative, and equally important is the fact that I have met a great group of friends in SL who are (gasp) my own age!

    I started in SL in 2004, at the age of 49, and I am still here at age 58. I retired young, in 2005, and I have time to spend in SL. I love to create and am working on a rebuild of my sims on a medieval theme right now. Some role play is fun, and it gives me a reason to dive in and learn more about the era. Anything that keeps the grey cells active is a good thing! It has given me a reason to learn scripting, and 3D modelling programs to make mesh, and Photoshop to make clothing and textures. For kids, video games can be bad, taking time away from physical play, meeting friends and socializing, and desensitizing them to violence. For people my age, SL is a good thing, keeping us learning and our minds active and sharp. If you love Grandma and want to help her fight off the effects of an aging brain, bring her into SL!

    The friends I have met are very important to me. They are my age for the most part with a few youngsters (over 40 but under 50) thrown into the mix. These are my peers. We have similar lifestyle, life experience, concerns and problems that make it easy to relate to each other. We know who we are and we are secure in our identity. We have a maturity level that eliminates a lot of drama. I have known them in SL for about five years, and some I have known for longer than that.

    SL gives us a chance to talk, forge very real friendships, and have a blast. A group of us were playing Greedy Greedy one evening out side the castle, near the fountain. Suddenly two dragons (two other friends) flew into the sim and started blasting flames about us. I leapt up and grabbed my crossbow and started to fight the dragons, firing arrows into the air, and running to the castle ramparts to fire cannons at them. Despite my best efforts, they set the dock buildings and the brothel on fire. Now my friends are telling me that it had to be my imagination, that there are no such things as dragons. I swear I saw them, and I have the singed eyebrows to prove it.

    In short, my friends and I are having a blast, creating and playing together. It keeps us young. I can wear clothing that would shock my children, and heels so high that in real life I would probably fall off of and break a hip. It keeps me young.

    I do want SL to work to attract new people, my age and younger. We need a supply of new blood to keep us going. They are aware of our demographic and they are already making us happy.

    In my opinion the greatest barrier to SL for most people is the level of technology required. Cheap laptops and tablets cannot access SL. Technology will get cheaper and catch up with SL, and that is when we will see more people using it.

  8. Wow, I don’t think I have every met anybody in SL who is younger than 50 in RL and some of my SL friends are in their upper 70’s. I didn’t think that was a secret at all, LOL.

  9. It’s no secret amongst the fashionistas that 35-45 year old women (and those who identify as women) are a large demographic.

    And it might not surprise some that SL has been discussed on transgender related message boards, though that’s not where I first heard about SL and not where I decided to join.

  10. When I very first came to SL about 5 years ago, I was SO afraid that all those “young kids” would find out I was “an old fart”. But as time went on, I found out that there were almost NO young kids…and that many of the people I met were and older fart than me! So after a bit, age became something I did not think too much about, I just assumed that most of the people in SL were over 30…and most were/are. The REALLY nice thing about it, is that I met my NOW RL partner in SL. We were partnered for a year in SL before taking the plunge to be together in RL. We have been together 2 1/2 years now….WONDERFUL years….all of them. I never thought that at this stage in my life I would find the man of my dreams…but I did. And the real kicker is/was that he is 20 years younger than me! In SL it did not matter, of course…and so we met and fell in love and lived together as two very young adults. But when RL questions started to be asked and answers shared, I was TERRIFIED that he would leave me when he found out my age. Especially when he told me his. But thank god, that SL seems to attract the types that think outside the box! And for him, it did not matter. He knew ME, the REAL me, the me that never ages and lives inside this crumbling shell. I was glad…so glad that he still loved me and wanted to be with me in SL. Of course, I never in my WILDEST dreams thought that we would be together in RL. He lived 5000 miles away from me on the other side of the world and there were just SO many obstacles in our way, not the least of them, our 20 year age difference. I was scared. When he asked me to come to live with him I just KNEW that once he saw “the REAL me” he would bolt. We had spent LOTS of time on skype, but I always tried to make sure the lighting was bad so he would not be able to see all my wrinkles, bags and grey hair. But the first time he saw me in RL, he threw his arms around me and hugged me, kissing me in the elevator and I knew it was going to be ok! He makes me feel like the prettiest woman alive. He is TRULY all I had ever hoped for. I am SO grateful to SL for bringing us together. We do not spend much time there together anymore. I blog, so I am there quite a bit. And he spends most of his time in OpenSim and has done some AMAZING things there, but there are times….wonderful times….that we both meet up in SL…and that same magic that brought us together in the first place starts all over again! What a lucky “girl” I am….:))
    (Sorry for the long post…:/)

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