It’s free to join Second Life with a basic account (you’ll need to pay money if you want to own ‘land’ within the game or if you want to kit out your avatar with more than the basic set of clothing and accessories). You are given a number of surnames to select from and can give your avatar any first name you choose – since my intent here was to find out as much as I could about how perfume works in a smell-free world, I decided to name my character after one of my favourite fragrances. Jicky Effingham sprang to life, dressed in something which looked like it had been put together by a febrile teenage boy. Tweaking by the user is allowed at this point. I was surprised to find it was actually pretty easy to create an avatar that looked a fair amount like my real-world self (with considerably longer limbs, but I have always considered being 5’2” to be a real pain in the bum), to adjust the skin-tight, animal-print trousers until they looked a little less like the legs of a frightened baby giraffe, and to comb my virtual hair into a reasonable simulacrum of my most obnoxious night-on-the-town pompadour.
Second Life isn’t like a role-playing game with plot and computer-generated characters. Everybody you meet will be a real person hammering on a keyboard somewhere, and there’s no pre-mapped story for you to follow; users can do pretty much anything you can do in the real world, and create their own narratives. Some people actually make a real-life living here (the in-game currency, the Linden Dollar, is actually exchangeable for real US dollars), designing clothes and body-types for your avatar, marketing real-life produce, or writing in-game scripts which will allow your character to do all kinds of things, from rolling sushi to piloting hot-air balloons. If you can imagine it, it’s probable you can do it (or attach it to your person) in Second Life. This being the internet, though, a lot of the business on offer is what my mother would call ‘earthy’; the insecure can buy alarmingly massive…attachments for their virtual crotches, and early in your stay in Second Life you’ll find that the ways you can accumulate those important Linden Dollars without spending real money are limited to the tedious or sexual. An excellent reason to forbid your twelve-year-old to sign up for an account.
Thinking about the concept of marketing fragrance in a world made out of pixels is a bit of a stretch. To find out exactly how this works, Jicky made her way, via a virtual Segway, a spot of sledging and some pleasantly dreamlike, non-powered flight, to osMoz Island.
What is this entity with the horrible capitalisation? OsMoz is the consumer research arm of Firmenich, a perfume and flavourings company which produces fragrances like Flower by Kenzo, CKOne and Acqua di Gio. They’ve already got a strong presence on the traditional internet (lord knows when the internet became traditional, but just play along with me for a bit). You may already have come across their site , which offers a really good introduction to perfumery concepts like olfactory groups and certain scent extraction techniques like enfleurage and distillation, and gives some historical background to the whole industry. This being a customer research group, there are also a number of questionnaires and quizzes to fill in – but being brought up on a diet of Just 17 magazine in the 1980s, questionnaires are as meat and drink to me, and I find the site a fun way to waste a bit of time.
In Second Life, the feel of the osMoz website has been expanded and given shape. As I closed in on osMoz Island, I was extremely surprised to note how very beautiful it is. Much of Second Life is pretty jarring to look at; after all, it’s largely put together by people like me, who have no aesthetic sense at all, and whose entire house-building experience to date has involved a box of Lego and some dolls. Not so osMoz Island, which is lush with flowers and trees. It’s packed with outsized perfumery ingredients – here’s a giant sprig of jasmine, there’s an enormous, quivering mango. Attractive buildings stud the island, and you’ll find a gallery full of realistic photographs of items from a particular olfactory family, with long accompanying descriptions. I happened by the gallery on a spices month – there are also fruit months, white flower months and so on. Notice boards around the island will teach you about scent pyramids. There’s an opinions area, where you can take a quiz to find out which family of fragrances will best suit your personality. And there’s a fragrance bar, where you can try out the perfumes on offer on your avatar.
This is where I hit the fourth wall and things became very obviously unreal. There’s no way you can actually sample perfumes here with your nose, because everything is mediated through a screen and a pair of speakers. So your avatar is offered a bottle of something whose colour depends on what you’ve selected (pink for orientals, yellow for citrus and so on) which, when applied, will sort of puff off your body in obnoxiously coloured clouds. OsMoz Island was, sadly, completely deserted every time I visited – after the initial marketing push in 2007, its popularity seems to have waned, so there was nobody there to talk to about the attraction of virtual fragrancing. Nobody on the (virtual) staff answered my in-game messages. Worse still – the samples are free, but are short-lived, so they’ll have worn off by the time you get off the island, and for a lasting application you have to pay osMoz some Linden Dollars.
I needed a full bottle if I was going to see what other users thought of virtual perfume. If, like me, you’re a Second Life bankrupt, there are a couple of ways in which you can make money. You can fill in questionnaires in places which, unlike osMoz Island, do not guarantee the safety of your email address and which will infest your computer with advertising pop-ups in return for a piffling sum (no money is on offer on osMoz Island, although they do run a monthly photography competition). You can ‘camp’ – this means being paid for standing around doing nothing for hours in one of many locations which want to build up a large population to increase their advertising revenue. Or you can entertain other users for pennies by dancing. Usually with a pole.
Thus it was that Jicky Effingham found herself trying to earn enough money to get her polygonal hands on a bottle of virtual pink vapour by dancing lewdly, but fully clothed, in an underground room decorated like a chess board with added glitter balls, where a bald woman in a yellow prom dress with a very small cow clenched between her knees kept offering her virtual cocaine. Eventually Basenotes took pity and sent some funds to pull Jicky out of a life of vice – but by now it was two days later, and there still wasn’t anyone on osMoz Island.
I bought a bottle of greeny-yellow clouds (a chypre, apparently) on the deserted island, wandered around a bit admiring the plants, squirted it liberally on Jicky and then consulted the in-game directory to find somewhere where people would talk to me without asking me to pole dance. Emanating green vapours, I found a packed virtual ski-lodge, played a game of whack-a-mole, then wandered around trying to look friendly for about ten minutes while everybody ignored me. Finally, I found myself addressed by someone wearing skis and toting a small kangaroo in a pouch.
“Have you farted?”
It is with absolute certainty that I can tell you that my real-life perfume has never elicited this response.