We took a tour of the abandoned college campuses of Second Life


Once upon a time, in the year 2007, people were really excited about Second Life.

Businessweek ran a cover story with the headline “Virtual World, Real Money.” Brands opened stores in Second Life malls. It was even featured on an episode of The Office.

Colleges were among those that bought the hype of the Linden Lab-developed virtual world. Many universities set up their own private islands to engage students; some even held classes within Second Life.

Most of these virtual universities are gone –– it costs almost $300 per month to host your own island –– but it turns out a handful remain as ghost towns. I decided to travel through several of the campuses, to see what’s happening in Second Life college-world in 2015

First, I didn’t see a a single other user during my tour. They are all truly abandoned.

Second, the college islands are bizarre. They mostly are laid out in a way to evoke stereotypes of how college campuses should look, but mixed in is a streak of absurd choices, like classrooms in tree houses and pirate ships. These decisions might have seemed whimsical at the time, but with the dated graphics, they just look weird.

And weird is the overall theme of this trip, which begins in Arkansas.

Arkansas State University

This was probably one of the prettiest digital campuses (digitampuses?) on the list. I’ve never visited ASU, so I don’t what its meatspace campus is like. But its Second Life grounds mimicked the classic college quad look.

Other Arkansas State highlights include its large empty rooms, …

… its “private” collection of SI art and two-dimensional cut-outs of people …

… and this nightmare hell-being I had to climb a rope to see.

East Carolina University

I had not heard of this school, but apparently it’s a public university in Greenville, N.C. Its Second Life campus is flat, has weird flowers and … a pirate ship?

Yep, that’s a pirate ship.

With a board room.

And lounge chairs and a warning about test anxiety.

That’s enough from East Carolina University.

Northern Virginia Community College

This school appears to have actually used Second Life for classes. Real, numbered, non-computer science classes.

The class areas themselves turned out to be just flat boards showing what appear to be PowerPoint presentations, each of which is labeled by a sign that just says “Test Questio.”

I also found an area here labeled “office hours,” consisting of some easy chairs assembled around a campfire. If you were a Northern Virginia student and ever attended office hours here, please e-mail me immediately.

I only have two words to describe the rest of Northern Virginia’s campus: “Get comfy.”

Ohio University

Ohio University’s campus greets you with an advertisement for its virtual worlds certification, coming in 2009. I couldn’t find any mention of this certification on the university’s website or through Google.

But I didn’t get far onto Ohio’s campus before finding something I had not seen on my entire adventure: Actual signs of activity! In the middle of the campus square, I found this sign left behind by some “freeloaders.”

I decided to check out their “wonderful paradise” and clicked the sign, which teleported me to a floating island far, far above the campus. That sounds cool, but it turned out to actually be pretty boring up there. Unlimited imagination and the best the vandals could come up was something that looked like the home of a minor James Bond villain.

University of Wisconsin: Milwaukee

Where do I even start here? The glowing, irradiated fountain? The balloons? The bus? The dance floor? I have a headache just taking it all in.

All of this emptiness raises the question: Who’s paying for these virtual campuses? Second Life’s website currently lists private islands costing $1,000 to set up and then $295 a month to maintain. We contacted each of the schools in this list to see if they’re paying to maintain these spaces and will update if we hear back.

In the meantime, I actually like how most of these islands represent an attempt by education institutions to embrace the weirdness of the web. The current crop of education startups seem bland and antiseptic in comparison to these virtual worlds. I can’t take a Coursera class on a pirate ship, or attend office hours in front of an edX campfire.

And honestly, that’s probably a good thing. But it makes the web slightly less interesting.

If you’d like to comment on this article, you can find me on the dance floor of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s island.

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