Virtual Worlds Are Trade Schools In Disguise

Second Life, Minecraft, Roblox Collectively Taught More People To Code Than America’s Top Universities Have

Almost all my Gen X peers had some lightbulb experience as a child with their first personal computer. Whether command line, or graphic design, or playing a game and wanting to know what made it work that way, the beige box transformed our lives. How fortunate to be born at a specific time and place and privilege!

Across generations there’s also a cohort who got pulled into technology by participatory virtual environments — from the earliest text-based environments to the successive user-editable immersion of Second Life, to Minecraft, and now Roblox. You don’t even have to squint too hard to see MySpace and Tumblr as 2D worlds, and the kids who designed background, templates and the like for those.

a kid sitting with a computer and a night sky full of lightbulbs, digital art [DALL-E]

When I think about all this it’s not just nostalgia, it’s optimism. Software is the most powerful tool we have and while access is certainly not equal, it’s more available than the high walled professions that used to be drivers of social mobility. And so I still get wet eyed a bit when I hear stories of ‘coding changed my life,’ even more so when it happens to involved a product that I worked on personally.

Danilo Campos has a lovely post about his own ‘learn to code’ moment via Second Life (where I worked out of grad school). As builders we have choices in our products and Danilo talks about how the developer experience of Second Life was ultimately responsible for his career. The things he calls out, such as ‘co-created living documentation’ and ‘frictionless sharing’ should be aspirational in all of our designs. I’m going to quote some passages below, but you really should read the whole thing.

I have the career I do because eighteen years ago, by accident, I learned to code in Second Life.

What began for me as a series of experiments with scripted 3D assets evolved into my first business and my first software products. I made enough money selling content in Second Life to pay my real life rent, for months. With this experience in hand, I was prepared for the iPhone’s App Store indie developer revolution, which rocketed me to a career in Silicon Valley startups.

There’s immense gratitude I feel for this experience. I’m a first-generation knowledge worker. The leverage of a technology career isn’t something I grew up anticipating. I didn’t even think writing code was for “someone like me.” What a joy, to surprise oneself this way.

And after building some items to sell in Second Life

What a revelation this was, discovering firsthand that you could make money through the internet. My working class roots had nothing even remotely analogous.

I still remember the night my third robot launched. The money kept pouring in. Every few minutes, another notification would slide down, another jingling coins sound effect. While it was great to clear a month of rent in a weekend, what was even more exciting was more than 18 months of passive income. The robot sold steadily, until everyone who wanted a science fiction robot appearance had found and paid for it and the cash petered out.

Forever after, I would see the world differently.

And his hopes for the future (written Fall 2022)

As this technology cycle sputters to a close, a new one lurks around the next corner. I’ve always carried the hope that a new platform like Second Life could emerge.

Whether or not we find a worthy, broadly-adopted metaverse in our future, I think these lessons can help any developer tools project find some leverage for growth, positive impact, and creative power.

Thanks Danilo!