Miércoles 9 de Noviembre de 2005, Ip nº 134

A virtual holiday in the virtual Sun
Por Mark Wallace

IMAGINE relaxing in a tiny private cove, on a lava beach near the mists of a waterfall. The sun is shining, a tropical bird cries somewhere in the distance and the cares of the working world seem a million miles away.

It's an idyllic vacation spot, but the best thing about it is that it takes less than five minutes to get there from anywhere in the world. In fact, you can reach it without ever leaving your home. That's because it exists not in any physical location but in one of the many virtual worlds that millions of people now travel to every day with the help of nothing more than a decent computer graphics card and a broadband Internet connection.

Though most of these worlds take the form of multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft or Star Wars Galaxies, a few are simply open 3-D environments whose members can get away from it all in a place filled with colorful diversions and other cyberexplorers like themselves. Even in game worlds, many players log on not to slay orcs or blow up death stars but to spend time with friends, see the sights and take a small vacation without ever stepping foot outside their door.

More than 10 million people around the world travel to such imaginary destinations regularly. They get there via software that lets them guide their onscreen representatives, known as "avatars," through places built entirely of pixels where they can interact with one another. Their destinations include virtual dance parties and nightclubs, auto races and yachting events, "Star Wars"-style cantinas, whimsical underwater jazz clubs and much more.

In a world called Second Life, especially (where the virtual Hawaii described above can be found), so many people visit that profitable businesses have sprung up that earn their proprietors real money, not just virtual currency - in fact, a handful of people earn six-figure incomes there. There are discos, casinos and other sites that can be rented for private parties or even for the virtual weddings many people hold.

"Coming to Second Life was a nice way to get away from the stresses of real life," said Amy McKenzie, a full-time mother of three in Madison, S.D., whose avatar goes by the name Diamond Hope. "But mostly it's a place I can meet my friends and just have a good time."

One California woman, whose avatar is known as SweetBrown1 Mfume, spends many of her after-work and weekend hours socializing with friends in Second Life. (Like most of the people interviewed for this article, the woman asked to be referred to only by her avatar's name. Each person's identity has been verified.) In cyberspace, she said, she can spend time with them no matter their differences in location or time zone. "We can dance, hug and kiss, all across the U.S.," she said.

Edward Castronova, associate professor of telecommunications at Indiana University, uses a game world in a similar way. He is often away from home at conferences, and from time to time will keep in touch with his wife by meeting up with her in the online game World of Warcraft. To Mr. Castronova, such worlds are more than just games. "These things are really communications devices," he said.

Entering a world like Second Life is relatively simple. Free trial memberships are available at secondlife.com. Software is downloaded over a cable modem or other broadband connection, and on first entering, new members find themselves at a place called Orientation Island.

After a few minutes spent mastering the basic techniques of movement and how to give your avatar a rudimentary makeover, you're released into the wider virtual world to explore the sights and sounds of a place that contains the virtual equivalent of 25 square miles of land and is growing every day.

PRACTICALLY everything in Second Life's world was created by its residents, who come from 80 countries around the (real) world. Linden Lab, the company that runs Second Life's world, provides a set of content-creation tools that its members have used to create everything from nightclubs and movie theaters to coffee shops and bars to airships, automobiles and clothing stores, a few museums and one or two libraries and nature preserves.

The company itself creates practically none of the buildings and other sites in Second Life, but provides only the rolling landscape on which the more ambitious of its members build.

On FairChang Island, for instance, one of the 1,000-plus "regions" of Second Life (each covering 16 virtual acres), a simple mouse-click allows members to purchase virtual sailboats that can be sailed around the waters of the virtual world. Prices start at less than a penny, and the money goes to the "resident" who created the item. Payments are made using a virtual currency called "Linden dollars" that can be bought and sold freely with real money on eBay and other sites.

In contrast to most virtual worlds, Linden Lab doesn't mind having its currency bought and sold, and even grants Second Life members ownership of the intellectual property rights to whatever they create in the world. But to create anything of permanence, members must "own" a plot of virtual land (on which they must then pay monthly fees).

A robust economy has sprung up as a result, with one of the most profitable areas being the virtual real estate business. Large tracts of land can be "purchased" at auction in Second Life, often for more than $100 an acre, then subdivided and sold at a profit.

But that doesn't make for much of a vacation. For a cheaper thrill, free balloon rides are available that take you soaring over those plots of land and the fantastic creations that occupy them. Virtual Nascar races are held several times a week on Silver Island. And there are ad hoc events and other attractions that can be located using the directory function built into the Second Life interface.

Many regions are more outlandish. The island of Montmartre, for instance, is filled with fantastical sculpture, floating bridges and platforms and playful spaces to explore. And as more people enter the world, new creations spring up (and sometimes are torn down) on a regular basis. One recent addition, Sleezywood, features trailer homes, junkyards and more than one virtual velvet Elvis.

"It's very interesting to be inside somebody else's vision of what the world should look like," Philip Rosedale, the founder and chief executive of Linden Lab, said. "Unless you're concerned with taste and smell, Second Life provides an almost perfect canvas for creating escapist environments. It's an incredible tourist destination."

For those interested in a more permanent stay, or who just want a sharper outfit for their avatar before venturing onto the virtual dance floor, there are a number of fashion boutiques scattered around the world.

"In real life, I love to shop," said a member who uses the avatar named Rynah Quinn, and who often shops at the Midnight City Mall. "Here I get the same satisfaction, but it's more fun because you can pick the colors and it will always fit."

Others enjoy the many activities on offer. One popular spot is the Neo Realms Fishing Camp in Second Life's Alston region. Created by a team of five residents, Neo Realms lets virtual anglers buy a fishing rod for less than a quarter and then while away the hours casting from the small pier or from lily pads that float nearby. Fishing tournaments with cash prizes are held each week. There is even a Web site (http://fish.neorealms.com) where competitors can check their tournament standings.

The imposing Moonshine Casino in the Mullett region and the Edge nightclub in the Da Boom region are also among the most popular spots in Second Life, and are often crowded with avatars both day and night. In fact, there's a thriving dating scene in Second Life, and avatars are regularly "married" in ceremonies large and small.

LIKE most virtual worlds, Second Life also sees its share of cybersex, in which two people will use a private chat channel within the world to type suggestively to each other, a practice that dates from the early days of chat rooms.

But Second Life adds a visual element to cybersex that chat rooms lack. Poses and animations can be had that allow avatars to engage in all kinds of sexual positions and activities. In addition, there is a virtual sex industry that includes virtual lap dances, virtual escort services and virtual prostitution.

To guide members in what they can expect, Second Life is divided into "mature" regions, where anything goes, and "PG" regions, where sexual content and swearing are not allowed. (The world has a minimum age requirement of 18, but for younger cybernauts, Second Life offers a separate "teen grid" as well.)

A smaller club called the Shelter, in the Isabel region, is designed expressly for those new to Second Life and for those looking for a night out free of sexual overtones.

"Being somewhat of a haven is our primary mission," said Steve Meyer, a Detroit systems engineer who owns the club. Nothing at the club costs money, and instead of disco, hip-hop and "escorts," the Shelter features pop tunes from the 1980's and 90's to dance to, lotteries, game shows and items like virtual clothing and vehicles, all available free to get people started in the world. And if dancing isn't your thing, there's a pool on the patio to relax in.

Although many people keep in touch with their real-world loved ones in virtual worlds, some find relationships that develop in the opposite direction. Ms. McKenzie not long ago met a man in Second Life, lthen met him in real life and is now married to him. The couple were married in South Dakota, and plan to have another ceremony online.

Although worlds like Second Life can be useful for staying in touch or even for forming new relationships, for most people they are simply a casual getaway.

"I like meeting new people, but this is strictly a game for me," a member whose avatar is named Gina Fatale said of Second Life. "Plus, in Second Life I look better."


  28/10/2005. The New York Times.