Those of us who are veterans of Second Life (and I have been a part of SL since spring of 2007) tend to forget the steep learning curve which tends to perplex newbies, and often leads to many of those new users to give up somewhere along the onboarding and orientation process, walking away from SL and never coming back.
Well, as it happens, I am sitting in and auditing a new graduate-level interdisciplinary course this Winter 2024 semester at the University of Manitoba, where I work full-time as a science/agriculture librarian. The course, co-taught by a computer science professor from the Faculty of Science and an interior design professor from the Faculty of Architecture, is titled Building Virtual Worlds: Users, Techniques and Tools.
Here’s a quote taken from the course syllabus:
The course will investigate the tools and techniques used to build virtual worlds for both 2D and 3D platforms. Students will be introduced to a variety of different virtual world platforms used for coworking, socializing, education, exhibitions, and meetings/conferences. Students will work in interdisciplinary teams to learn virtual world building tools and create various types of virtual spaces across multiple assignments and projects. Critiquing of the spaces created, and the tools used to create them, through both environmental design and human-computer interaction lenses, will be an ongoing aspect of the course, aimed at helping students develop a holistic understanding of virtual world building.
I have been invited to lecture the class about Second Life, as an example of a 3D virtual world platform (an invitation which I accepted with alacrity!). I’m also acting as the in-class Second Life expert and resource person, who will be helping the students get up and running in Second Life, which leads me to the purpose of this blogpost.
Linden Lab (LL for short) has spent quite a bit of time—and money!—over the past year to improve the onboarding process for new Second Life users (notably, creating a brand new Welcome Hub staffed with experienced volunteers to assist newbies, and introducing the Senra line of starter mesh avatars).
So, given all this recent work by LL, and in order to provide some up-to-date, step-by-step instructions to the Masters and Ph.D. students taking the Building Virtual Worlds class at the University of Manitoba this semester, I have decided to write up this blog post (which of course, also benefits any readers who are curious about Second Life, who want a guide to get started with the least amount of fuss).
Ready? Let’s dive in. We’re going to do this step by step, in four steps:
- Create a Second Life account (and style your starter avatar)
- Download and install some Second Life viewer software (Firestorm)
- Run Firestorm, enter Second Life and go to the Welcome Hub for an orientation and to get extra help if you need it
- Explore Second Life using the Destination Guide
Even just limiting it to these 4 steps, this is a long, looong blogpost, made longer by the fact that I am trying to write it for people using a variety of web browsers and using different operating systems: Windows, Mac, and Linux. I also have made an attempt to explain how people who speak languages other than English can change the default language of both the Linden Lab website, and the Firestorm software.
I want to express my heartfelt thanks to those people who volunteered to go through a draft of these step-by-step instructions and provided valuable feedback, which has largely been incorporated. Thank you!
Step 1: Create a Second Life Account (and Style Your Starter Avatar)
However, if you are using the Safari or Chrome web browsers (on a Mac), or Chrome on Windows 10/11, you do not get the Choose your starting avatar page after pressing the Join Free button. Instead, you get a Provide your account information page, which looks like the Complete your registration page pictured below, excpet that there is no avatar displayed on the page, and there is a Continue button instead of a Create my account button! So, depending on what browser you are using, you might see the two main sign-up screens in reverse order. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
A heartfelt thank you to the beta testers of these instructions (notably Flame Soulis and passTheKutechup from the 720-member RyanSchultz.com Discord server), who uncovered these differences. I have zero idea why the sign-up screens for new users are presented in a different order, depending on your web browser and operating system!
In my opinion, this is just bad and unnecessarily confusing user design on the part of Linden Lab (and it makes writing up step-by-step instructions just that much harder!).
To use the virtual world of Second Life (SL for short), you will first need to create an account. Any avatar(s) you create—in fact, everything you own!—will be tied to that account, so this is an important first step.
Visit the official Second Life website at https://secondlife.com/, and click on the purple Join Free button in the bottom-left–hand corner of the screen, as shown here:
QUICK TIP: Second Life has users from all around the world, and you do not need to use Second Life in English! Click on Language in the menu in the upper right corner of the Second Life starting webpage to go through the sign-up process in one of nine languages: English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, Italian, Turkish, Russian, or Japanese.
Don’t worry if your language/culture is not represented on this menu; SL is full of so many different cultures and communities, that you will easily find a place to speak your native tongue! Also, you will be able to set the default language in the Second Life client software you use—but we’ll get to that in a later step.
You will be presented with a screen titled Choose your starting avatar, which looks like this:
On the left side, you can choose from one of a dozen different male, female, and non-binary body shapes. Notice that there are four tabs there: in addition to the body shape options (under the head-and-shoulders icon), you can select a skin tone (the colour wheel icon), an eye colour (the eye icon), and a hairstyle (the head with hair icon). Play around with these options until you find an avatar shape, size, and skin/hair/eye colour combo you like.
On the right side, you can select clothing to dress your starter avatar. There are four tabs: tops (the shirt icon), bottoms (the pants icon), dresses (the dress icon), and shoes (the shoe icon). Click through all the options and try different outfits on, until you find something you feel comfortable wearing while strolling around Second Life! Please note that all clothing and shoes can be worn by all body types, so if you want to be a masculine avatar rocking a dress, you can!
In the centre, you see what your avatar looks like right now, so you can instantly see the results of any changes you make on the left and right menus.
Thank you to my beta tester passTheKetchup for pointing this difference out!
QUICK TIP: See the little dice icon in the upper right-hand corner of your avatar display in the centre panel? Click it to completely randomize your avatar’s looks!
Give it a try; you might accidentally come across a random combination that you like!
Once you are happy with your starter avatar, click on the blue Continue button, located at the feet of the avatar display in the centre panel (see below). Don’t worry; you’re not stuck with any particular avatar appearance! In fact, it is very common in Second Life for people to change the way their avatar looks to other avatars frequently. It’s actually quite common for men to have female avatars, or women to have male avatars.
You will see the following screen, titled Complete your registration, where you will create your Second Life account. You will need to select a username and password, as well as provide a valid email address, your birthdate (you have to be at least 16 years old), and a security question with an answer, which will be used by support if for some reason you forget your password.
QUICK TIP: You will find that, after 20 years of operation, that the Second Life username options are pretty much completely picked over, so don’t be discouraged if you find your preferred usernames are not available because somebody else beat you to it! If the username you picked is already in use, you will get a red ban icon and the message This username already exists. Please try another (see image, right).
Also, please note: once you have chosen your username, you can only change it by paying a fee (US$49.99 for Basic accounts). So pick your username carefully!
While SL usernames must be unique, you’ll later have the option of setting up a display name, which can be anything you want (up to 31 characters, with at least one alphanumeric character; you can include most Unicode script characters, spaces, and some punctuation). Other avatars may have the same display name as you. More information on usernames and display names can be found here, including how to set up your display name.
Please remember that you are stuck with whatever case (uppercase, lowercase) you type into the Second Life username field (e.g. velma, Velma, VELMA, veLmA), and your SL username will be displayed to other avatars, along with any display name you choose, in a little sign over your head when in-world. Also, you can change your display name once per week.
Once you have picked a valid username, and filled out the rest of the required fields, click on the blue Create my account button as shown below:
At this point, Linden Lab will try to upsell you to pay for one of three different kinds of premium (i.e, paid-for) account. Just scroll down to the very bottom of the screen, and click on the Select Basic button at the very bottom (see red arrow in the diagram below). A basic account is free, and you do not need to provide a credit card.
At this point, you will receive the following message:
Now, go into your email (for the email address you provided when you registered), and check for an email from Linden Lab, with the title Please Verify Your Email Address for Second Life (check that it didn’t land up in your spam folder). Click on the link provided in the email within 24 hours to verify your email address.
Step 2: Download Second Life Viewer Software
Now, if you clicked on the Download Second Life button from Step 1, it will have downloaded an installer program for the official Second Life client (or viewer) software for your Windows (or Mac) desktop computer. (From now on, I am going to use the word viewer, which is what most people using SL call it.)
However, you do need to know that most people who use Second Life do not use the official Second Life viewer. Over the past 20 years, many third-party software developers have made a number of alternative SL viewer programs (here’s a full list). Sometimes, a new viewer was created to meet a specific need. For example, the Black Dragon viewer is most often used by people who want to take the highest-possible quality pictures and videos in Second Life, and has a number of special features often used by SL photographers and machinima makers. Another client, Radegast, is a non-graphical client designed for low-performance computers, and it is especially popular among the visually-impaired community in Second Life.
The most popular viewer program for Second Life is called Firestorm, which is created and supported by the Phoenix Firestorm Project, Inc., which describes itself as follows:
The Phoenix Firestorm Project Inc. is a non-profit, incorporated organization whose mandate is to improve the user experience in Second Life and other virtual worlds by providing an advanced open source viewer with greater features, options and interface flexibility than the standard offering by Linden Lab. The project has approximately 80 volunteers working for it and are managed through departments divided up as Development, Support, Quality Assurance and Gateway. We provide live support 24/7 in nine different languages inside of Second Life through our support groups and on the web via our issue tracker.
After using the official Second Life viewer for many years, about a decade ago I switched to Firestorm, and it is the viewer that I strongly recommend you install, even if you are new to Second Life. It’s easy to use, and has features which are not in the official Second Life viewer.
“Firestorm” viewers from other websites are known to contain viruses and malware, and are to be avoided. Be especially careful about any viewer which promises you things like “free Linden dollars” (the in-world currency used in Second Life), or the ability to copy other people’s possessions (copybot). More information here.
First, go to the Firestorm Viewers download page at https://www.firestormviewer.org/choose-your-platform/. Click where is says Download Firestorm Viewer for Second Life. Please note that you want the version of the software for Second Life, not the one for Open Simulator (which is a spearate virtual world).
On the next page, click the icon for your operating system: Windows, Mac, or Linux (yes, you can run Firestorm on Linux, something you cannot do with the official Second Life viewer!):
Note that most Windows users will install the version for a 64-bit computer with more than 4 GB of memory (although there is a version for less powerful computers). If you want, you can even download older versions of the softeare, but most often, you will want to download and install the latest version of Firestorm.
Download the Firestorm installer file to your hard drive. Then find the installer in your downloads directory, and run it to install the Firestorm viewer. You will be prompted to select the language of the installer: English (the default), German, Spanish, French, Italian, Polish, Russian, or Japanese. Then you will accept the Vivox Voice System License Agreement (this service is used for voice chat in Second Life).
Then, you will be prompted to select the directory on your hard drive where you want to install Firestorm (I usually just leave it as the default, although you can choose to install the viewer in another directory). Click the Install button.
You will be asked if you want to create an entry in the start menu (I usually say yes). Then the installer does its work, pausing only to ask if you wish to register Firestorm as the default handler for virtual world protocols:
I always answer “Yes,” because I want Firestorm to load automatically when I click on a Second Life address (often called a SLURL, short for Second Life Universal Resource Locator) on a web page, in a text chat, in a post on a Discord server, etc. An example of a SLURL is the address for the new Second Life Welcome Hub (a place which we will discuss in Step 3):
(If all has gone well, you will receive a message that the installation of Firestorm has completed, and you can click the Close button (and, optionally, start Firestorm):
If you are a Mac user, the download is a .dmg file, when you open it, you get the following app window:
To install the app, all you have to do is click-drag the Firestorm-Releasex64.app into the Applications folder icon. That’s it for the install, you can then close the Firestorm Installer window. (Thank you to passTheKetchup for these instructions, as I am not a Mac user!) Then, to run Firestorm, open your Applications folder and double-click on Firestorm-Releasex64.app.
Sorry guys, I know only a little about Linux, and you’re on your own! But I would think you’re probably already quite used to that… 😜 Here are some instructions from the Firesotrm website.
Step 3: Enter Second Life and Go to the Welcome Hub
If you chose to immediately run Firestorm in Step 2 (or if you just exit the install and choose to run Firestorm later), you will be prompted to enter your username and password from Step 1 at the log-in screen (see the green arrows in the picture below). Leave the third box as Last Location (which is actually kinda meaningless, since it’s your first time!), and click on the orange Log In button. That’s it!
Check the box next to the statement that you have duly read all the fine print, and click on the Continue button.
QUICK TIP: For more information about the Firestorm viewer, there is no better place to get it than from the official Firestorm user guide, which can be found here: https://wiki.firestormviewer.org/. It’s an absolute wealth of information!
QUICK TIP: And, if you wish, you can use Firestorm in a language other than the default English! Just press Ctrl-P to pull the Preferences window, stay on the General tab, and select your preferred language using the Lanuage drop-down menu: English, Azerbaijani, German, Spanish, French, Italian, Polish, Russian, or Japanese. Remember to click the OK button at the bottom of the Preferences window to save your selection. You will then need to exit and restart your Firestorm viewer to use the new language (see the Exiting Firestorm section at the bottom of this blogpost).
Your new avatar will automatically land in a randomly-selected new user orientation region, along with other new avatars (and the occasional troll, so watch out!). It will look something like this (the orange clouds are avatars that haven’t loaded yet in your viewer, so you can’t see them fully).
One of the things that you will have to get used to in Second Life is that the landscape and the other avatars—even yourself!—might load in slowly, and in bits and pieces (the slower your network connection and the more complex your environment, the longer it takes to load). This is just the way things normally work in Second Life, as opposed to, say, a game like Fortnite, where you might have to wait several mintues for the gameplay area to be fully downloaded and set up before you can enter. Nope, not here! You just get plopped right in, while everything and everybody loads around you!
QUICK TIP #1: Notice that every avatar has a name over their head (if there are two names, the top name is the display name, and the bottom name is the actual Second Life username—refer back to Step 1 where we talked about that). If there are three names, then the topmost name is a group name, like Second Life Mentor (see Step 3, below).
QUICK TIP #2: Most people in Second Life use the four arrow keys (↑↓→←) to move around, but if you are one of those people that are used to using the WASD keys to move around, you will have to make one small change in your preferences (please see the above diagram when following these step-by-step instructions):
First, look at the tabs along the top of the Firestorm viewer, and click on Avatar (it’s the first one on the left). This will open the Avatar menu. Near the bottom, look for an option called Preferences, and select that (the shortcut keystroke for this is Ctrl-P, which is what I use all the time rather than digging through the menus).
This opens the Preferences window, which has a column of tabs along the left-hand side. Look for the tab that says Move & View, and click that. You will see a listing of options on the right-hand side of the Preferences window, with five tabs across the top. Click on the Movement tab (it’s the middle one of the five tabs), and check the box next to Pressing letter keys affects movement (i.e. WASD) instead of starting nearby chat.
Then be sure to click the OK button at the bottom of the Preferences window before you exit, or else the change won’t be saved. After this, you can use your WASD keys to move around instead of triggering the online chat in Firestorm.
Now, you can choose to stay where you landed and use that orientation, or you can choose another one. However, I would very strongly urge you to go through at least one new user orientation! In fact, Linden Lab has set up a brand new Welcome Hub, staffed with volunteers who are experienced Second Life users, who can answer your questions and help you get started. So I recommend that.
Now, you might have landed in the new Welcome Hub already! But, it’s probably more likely that you haven’t. So here’s how to get to the shiny, new Welcome Hub, step by step (see the following diagram which illustrates each of these five steps):
- First, look at the row of buttons running along the bottom of your Firestorm viewer screen, and click on the button with the magnifying glass icon. This will open a window called Firestorm Search, where you can search for places, people, groups, and events in Second Life. (You’ll be using it often.)
- In the Firestorm Search window, there are tabs across the top. Click on the fourth tab, labelled Places, since you are look for a specific place.
- In the search box (under Enter search terms:), type in “welcome hub” (without the quotation marks; for some strange reason if you keep the quotation marks in, it doesn’t work!). Note that you will need to press Enter/Return to do the search.
- From the list of places on the left side of the window, click on the one that says Welcome Hub (or Welcome Hub Social Plaza, which is the space right nearby).
- A picture and a brief description of the Welcome Hub will appear. Look for a Teleport button underneath it, click on it, and away you go!
Congratulations, you have just done your first teleport in Second Life! You’ll soon become quite used to the Firestorm viewer screen briefly turning black, and that signature whooshing sound, as you teleport around from region to region. We’re going to be doing a lot more of that in Step 4.
Once you arrive at the Welcome Hub, look for a crowd of people (or orange clouds, if you have a slower loading connection). In particular, look for the people in the crowd who have a sign over their heads saying Second Life Mentor. They are the volunteers who can help you if you have questions.
Now, the only possible problem is that I have told you to download and use the Firestorm viewer, and the mentors are probably expecting you to be using the default, official Second Life viewer—but you’ll find that most of the common tasks you will do are pretty much the same between the official Second Life viewer and the Firestorn viewer, so you should be okay (crosses fingers).
Most of the Second Life Mentors will be familiar with Firestorm as well (it’s by far the most popular viewer), so they should be able to help you, and of course, there are many things about Second Life that are not Firestorm-specific. For example, perhaps you want some recommendations of newcomer-friendly places to go, or live music events to attend, or public sandboxes where you can work on your building skills. Or perhaps you just want to know how to move around, how to run and jump, how to communicate in text and voice chat, and how to sit down and stand up! (See also the section on the Orientation area at the Welcome Hub, a few paragraphs down.)
If there are no mentors nearby, you can always page one by clicking on this device (just look for a bright green circular button on a short pedestal, as shown here). These mentor pagers are scattered throughout the Welcome Hub. When you click the green button, a blue screen will pop up in the upper right-hand corner of your viewer, with the option to let one of the mentors know that you need assistance. Please click on each of the images in the picture gallery below to see them in full size:
Feel free to wander around the Welcome Hub, there’s lots of helpful information to help you get started in Second Life. My personal recommendation is to start by going through the Orientation section (ask a Mentor for directions, or just look for the large blue Orientation sign). Just follow the blue arrows on the floor to go from station to station, and you will pick up the basics in no time!
Once you have gone through the orientation, pay a visit to the Second Life Academy:
QUICK TIP: Second Life uses both voice chat and text chat, but while text chat is universally used, voice chat is only available if the region owner has turned that capabilty in the location you are in. So don’t be too surprised to find that you are using text chat more than you are used to! This is because SL is full of older people who were around well before voice chat was available, and who just got into the habit of using text chat to communicate (unlike, say, VRChat, where voice chat is much more common).
If you want to talk with other Second Life users, you can use the Second Life Destination Guide (see Step 4) to find voice chat-enabled areas. In fact, if you scroll down the Destination Guide screen, there is a category called Voice Chat Hot Spots in the left-hand column (see the red arrow in the attached image). Just click on the link to see a list of regions where you can make use of your microphone!
Step 4: Explore Second Life Using the Destination Guide
The best way to get a feel for Second Life is to go exploring, teleporting around from place to place. And the best way to find great places to visit is to use the official Second Life Destination Guide, which is found at https://secondlife.com/destinations (please note that you will be asked to sign in with your newly-created username and password; this is because you will then be able to teleport directly from any entry in the Destination Guide to the corresponding region in Second Life).
What I like to do is have Firestorm already running, then open my web browser, and sign in to the Destination Guide. Then, whenever I find a place I want to explore, I click on the title to go through to the full entry, and just hit the big purple Teleport button. A teleport link automatically opens up in Firestorm, for me to click on. It will look like this in Firestorm. Just hit the Teleport button and go!
Along the left-hand side of the screen in the Destination Guide is an alphabetical listing of broad subject categories (some of which have subcategories). Click on a link to see what regions have been assigned that category/subcategory by the compilers of the Destination Guide. For example, if you click on Bars, Pubs, and Restaurants, you get a list of places to visit, each with a picture and brief description. Just click through to find a fuller description, and a handy Teleport button.
See the little numbers underneath each picture, next to the people icon (the green arrows in the picture below)? That gives you an indication of how many avatars are at that location. Useful information to know if you are looking to meet new people! (Keep in mind that this is a new feature, and it is not always accurate.)
Another new feature is that you can now do keyword searches of the entire Destination Guide. Just enter a word in the search box in the upper-left corner, and it will pull up entires which mention that word. For example, a search on “dinosaur” pulls up three regions, with the searched word highlighted in yellow (note that it can take a minute for keyword search results to appear, so please be patient and wait for all the search results to load):
So, why not spend your first few hours in Second Life exploring the grid? The worst that can happen is that you get totally lost, and you can use the step-by-step instructions I gave you earlier to get back to the Welcome Hub!
QUICK TIP: Second Life regions have one of three maturity ratings: General, Moderate, and Adult. By default, your newly-created avatar can access General and Moderate regions, but not Adult regions. If you try to teleport into a region with an Adult rating, you will get the following message (see first image, right). Also, you will not be able to search for Adult-rated regions in the Destination Guide.
To change your account preferences to include Adult regions, press Ctrl-P to open the Preferences window in your Firestorm viewer, stay on the General tab, and click the drop-down menu under the heading I want to to access content rated: (it’s right below the Lanuage settings; please see second image, right). Select General, Moderate, Adult, then click the OK button to save the change.
Please note that an Adult rating on a Second Life region does not necessarily mean it’s an R or X-rated region! For example, the beautiful northern Italian village region of Basilique has an Adult rating, because in addition to being a scenic tourist spot, it also rents out houses to tenants, who may wish to set up beds and other furniture with adult animations, to use in the privacy of their rented homes. 😉
For more information on these maturity ratings and what they mean, I refer you to the official Linden Lab page, where they are explained in great detail. You must be at least 18 years old to access Adult-rated regions.
There are three ways to exit a Firestorm session:
- Click on Avatar in the top-level row of menus in the Firestorm viewer to open the Avatar menu (it’s the first menu on the left). At the very bottom of the menu is an option called Exit Firestorm. Click that.
- The keystroke shortcut to do the same thing is Ctrl-Q (on Windows; I believe it would be Command-Q on the Mac).
- The one I use the most often is just to click the X in the upper right-hand corner of the Firestorm viewer. You will be prompted to confirm you wish to exit Firestorm. (Again, this is probably slightly different for Mac and Linux users.)
There’s so much more than I can cover in one blog post, and this is already a mini novel, but that should be enough to help you get started as painlessly as possible. See you in world!