Miércoles 31 de Agosto de 2005, Ip nº 124

Utopia goes digital
Por Marco R. della Cava

Is the real world grating on you, with its wars, overheated summers and incessant Tom Cruise updates? Just hop online and create a digital you that lives in a utopian cyber-realm. There, you can buy a pixilated house on a lake, go ballooning with like-minded souls and even open up a virtual business that delivers real-world cash.

While you're busy processing that, a few more folks are joining Second Life, a growing adult community — woe to anyone who calls it a game — created by Philip Rosedale, the boyish Bay Area techie at the helm of Linden Lab.

"It's a bit like The Matrix," Rosedale says, tapping away at a keyboard as he ushers his avatar — a digital alter ego that can take almost any shape but frequently appears as a buff or buxom humanoid — into Second Life. "We provide the land, and the community builds the actual world, which gives everyone a huge sense of being pioneers in a great experiment."

The appeal of a place like Second Life, a turbocharged version of The Sims, is visceral. It's like being in a hip world that mates Friends with Star Trek, a global coffee klatch where your custom-designed proxy can make eye contact with humans cloaked in digital finery.

Second Life belies the accusation that technology alienates humans from each other: The community is used by two dozen adults with Asperger's syndrome to work on social skills without having to interact face-to-face.

Using avatars to interact online is a booming trend. It was non-existent a decade ago, but today there are an estimated 5 million subscribers worldwide to dozens of massively multiplayer online games, known as MMOGs. With names like World of Warcraft and EverQuest, most challenge players to reach specified goals, usually with some degree of mayhem and derring-do involved.

But Second Life stands apart in a sea of goal-oriented MMOGs. It has no mission other than the same ones found in real life: Look for a nice place to settle down, build a home, start a business and find fun ways to blow off steam. It is remarkable in its simplistic and, yes, scary ability to provide a way to live a parallel life online.

There also is evidence that once people get a taste of Second Life, they're hooked. Mmogchart.com, which tracks online-game statistics, shows sharp drops in activity among MMOGs with gaming at their core once the game has been mastered. But the trend line for Second Life is a steady march north, evidence that people are not only curious about joining a virtual community to just, well, hang out, but they also stay involved once they get there.

Growing 10% a month since its debut in June 2003, Second Life membership surged 34% in July, to 40,000. "It's still comparatively small now, but I see endless potential," creator Rosedale says. "Realize that 10 million objects have so far been built by our members. I'm stunned by people's endless desire to create."

Although aimed at adults, Second Life isn't neglecting teens. This month, Linden Labs rolled out a teen-oriented version.

Also in play is Finland-born Habbo Hotel, a teen site where Hobbit-like visitors pay to furnish rooms where they can lure fellow Habbos in for a chat or to play a game. Over the past four years, 31 million Habbos have been created in 13 countries, including the USA.

And then there's MTV Networks, which recently paid an estimated $160 million for Neopets, a tween-focused site where children, represented by mystical creatures, play games to help feed their furry friends. About 30 million children have signed up. A Warner Bros. movie is in development.

More of the worlds

"These virtual worlds will grow," says David Johnson, visiting professor at New York Law School. He helped organize the school's State of Play conferences, which explore the future of online realms.

"Interactions with other people via avatars have an emotionally arresting quality that text-based interactions lack. (These applications) make the idea that there is a real cyberspace quite tangible."

Indeed, this online world already functions much like an authentic community.

Members convened a virtual candlelight vigil last month after the first series of bombings in London, and this weekend they will host an American Cancer Society Relay for Life, in which avatars will walk a course within this world's 122 to-scale square miles and raise real dollars.

If that sounds intriguing, here's what it takes to fly — yes, fly — yourself into Second Life. It starts with buying an avatar for $10. You get a human-looking figure who, at the click of a mouse, is able to soar high above Second Life, the better to decide on an interesting place to alight. Whether it's at a disco or a Vegas-style game room, other avatars can be coaxed into conversation by facing them and typing in a text message. And, if you were wondering, avatars can have sex.

The next level of involvement is buying land at roughly $2 for 512 square meters, which comes with what amounts to a leasing fee — the prime source of Linden Lab's revenue — of $9.95 a month.

Once you're a virtual landowner, you can add anything from stores to homes on your property. You can build them yourself at no cost; everything is painstakingly constructed from "prims," or primitives, that can be manipulated through mouse and keyboard. Or simply buy a ready-built item from someone who has done the work.

At slboutique.com, a beach house goes for 250 Linden dollars (the equivalent of $1); a Learjet costs 600 Linden. Sites such as gamingopenmarket.com and ige.com allow users to exchange real currency for Linden dollars.

Chip Matthews is a freelance artist from Germantown, Md., whose skin (most popular: Mediterranean tone) and clothing for Second Life avatars earn him $1,000 a month.

"Some people have a tough time grasping the concept of people paying for virtual goods," says Matthews, who goes by Chip Midnight online. "But I feel the same way about people spending money on hideous plaid pants for golf."

For many Second Life entrepreneurs, operating a Second Life business "isn't about the money, really, it's about having your imagination returned to you," says Nanci Schenkein, a retired wedding and bar mitzvah planner from Scottsdale, Ariz., whose Second Life persona, Baccara Rhodes, is an in-demand event planner. "You get together with people regardless of age, race or sex and create these amazing things," she says. "But people do think we're nuts."

A boost for self-esteem

Online-world creators are banking that this stigma will fade as more homes get wired for high-speed Internet access. "We'll be in position as kids increasingly move from watching TV to interacting with each other on the Web," says Timo Soininen, CEO of interactive game company Sulake, the folks behind Habbo Hotel.

James Horton, 16, of Warrington, England, has seen shy Habbos blossom fast. He likes to lend a hand by volunteering at the hotel's help desk. "People have told me that they're not as confident in their real worlds as they are here," he says.

Second Life serves just such a self-esteem boosting function for a group of residents with Asperger's, a high-functioning form of autism that impairs social interaction.

A year ago, John Lester, director of information technology at Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital, spent $1,000 to buy a private 16-acre island in Second Life that he dubbed Brigadoon.

As creator of the support site braintalk.org, Lester had seen the benefits of having patients interact via e-mail. The more realistic setting of Brigadoon has produced even greater breakthroughs.

"I see them making strong social connections that I'd never seen before," Lester says. "When they're ready, I've asked them to try and leave the island and visit the rest of Second Life."

Which is what creator Rosedale is doing now, soaring past lush hilltops and snowy fields en route to a little fun. But his instantly recognized avatar can't seem to fly two feet without amazed comments popping up in the chat box.

Rosedale flies into a car dealership to check out the goods, then drops in on a bingo-like game called Tringo. Finally, he spots a hot-air balloon and asks for a ride.

As the balloon takes flight, the world below Philip Linden looks eerily familiar, from its misty white sky to its dark blue oceans.

Is this all just a 3-D chat room for lonely hearts? A safe haven for self-expression? A glimpse of the 22nd century? Whatever it is, something is up down there.

"Everything you're seeing now, the community built," Rosedale says as the balloon banks left into a cloud. "It's part of a new weird nation where all bets are off. Here, the future is yours to create."


  21/08/2005. USA Today.