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I've been a SL user/player/whatever for a while now, about 4 years in a few months. I've come across many "newbs" that ask things like "what do i do in this game" or "whats fun in this game" and things like that.
I'll attempt to explain it simply, clearly and without too many words.
Think of SL as a virtual reality type of thing and not a game, somewhat like the matrix from the movies. Imagine that you are walking around in a blank world. Now imagine that about 20 other people are in the virtual reality with you. About 5 of you start making things. One person makes a building, a few people make clothes and one makes dance moves (or animations). Now the rest of you would like some of these things. One of the builders gives his stuff to everyone, another person sells his stuff for the money inside the virtual world. This is basically SL without the reality part and on a much much bigger scale. For a more in depth explaination of SL keep reading.
Thats the simple way to explain it. There are no NPCs (unless someone creates them with building blocks and advanced scripting which has been done) and there are no common goals. When you go into SL you can do literally everything and more that you can in real life. You can log in, go shopping, make yourself look nice (there are plenty of freebie places and ways to earn money wihout spending real money) and you can go look for friends.
If you are creative, you can building things set up a shop and sell stuff yourself, buy and sell land, or even be a hooker (there are player created animatons and items that allow this). Everything in SL is player created, the buildings, the hair, the animations, the sounds, the textures, skin, clothing, everything. Witheverything being player created, theres a ton o adult content (you can even buy private parts!). Thats why you have to be 18 years or older to play SL. But you have to varify you are 18 and up to access adult areas (theres many ways to do, the best way if you are american is probably through the last 4 digits of your SSN) For those under 18, theres teenSL. They don't allow adults in at all. In fact you have to prove you are under 18 just to log in at all. I assume its safe. When it comes to SL though, I wouldnt want my family playing due to all the mature content. But friends and stranger? Why not?
Back to making things, scripting lets you create things like weapons, combat systems, guitars, toilets even, anything you can think of.
If you enjoy pvp people have created combat systems and there millions of weapons out there (i create and sell weapons myself). There are places where you role play as a samurai or ninja and fight others. Theres plenty of Naruto places where you can join the clans and stuff, theres dragon ball Z places that people have made and theres a very popular final fantasy 7 area where you can fight and roleplay. There even completely original sci fi, fantasy, modern, adult, western, etc etc role playing areas.
The most popular things to do in SL from what I've seen:
Watching your avatar dance at clubs and listen to music (notice i didnt say go dancing at clubs )
Go to combat sims and fight or even use one of the popular mmo like level up systems
Enter various contests (building contests, costume contests etc)
Find your true love (I think its potentially a good way for older people (30+) to hook up. Most people I come across seem to end up being crazy. But maybe its became of the age barriar (I'm 22 going on 15). Also, everyone on my friend list is a female. Theres more women in SL than there are men believe it or not. Yes, theres voice chat to confirm.Most of them are older women though.
SL suffers from the curse of being called Second Life. So people assume thats whats its used for, a second life. For some people that is very true. I know of a real couple (married) that have a kid. They are partnered in SL and adopt other people to be their SL child (there are adoption agencies). They pay about 35 dollars a month for a house to live in a house they rent from someone (people rent out their land just like in real life.) Some people may say this is sad or funny, but these kind of people keep SL content creaters in business. They buy clothes and random items like furniture and houses and stuff. Its the circle of life.
Making money in second life?
Many people will tell you you can get a job, but its not easy unless you have friends that can hire you. The easiet job to get is a dancer/stripper because theres literally thousands of dance/strip clubs. You just sit there and your avatar dances, people tip you and the club takes a % and you take off your clothes little by little. You have to look decent though, no one will pay to to look at an ugly avatar. (lol)
You can pretty much guess what other type of jobs are,like customer service and manager pretty uch. Anything else is just pretending (security, police, babay sitter, maid, etc)
Theres other ways of making money like selling stuff, but you need a store. You can rent a store or mall spot from other people, or you can buy land and set up a store yourself. You'll need to already have money though. I only know of one hooker (commonly called escorts in SL) to save up money in order to set to up a store. She made the mistake of buying land and settup up a store without having anything to sell. She wasn't too bright...
The best thing to do is find something you're good at and can sell, make some products and then invest about 30 to 50 dollars to getting a store set up and advertising. With some effort and some luck and decent products, you'll make your money back and profit. I've put in about 40 dollars into SL. 4 years later I've made over 5,000 in profit. Its nothing to live off of, but it makes great pocket change. Its helped me pay my real life rent, got me a PS3 and nice gaming PC. I think I spent most of it on SL exspenses. But I'm at the point where I'll never need to put money into SL again. Some people are able to make a living with just SL. I can see myself doing it, but it would require way more motivation and effort than I have in me.
SL can be a game if thats what you want it to be
SL can be a good tool for creativity
SL can be good way to earn money
SL can be used to make friends or find love
SL can be used to live out a new life
SL can be used in place pr0n
The only reason a lot of people quit is because when you first play, its not that fun unless you get past the learning curve. ITs not fun when you have no idea what to do. So hopefully this will help some people see potential SL has. Theres plenty of things people havent created so who knows how many people could have potially been the next big thing but they gave up too early.