Interest in virtual worlds increasing

During a Sept. 22 politics forum, William Ball, chair of the political science department, lectured on virtual worlds, a social phenomenon that has been around for years, but has recently shown an increase in growth and public interest.

An example of one of these virtual worlds is “Second Life.” In its advertisements, “Second Life” describes this world as a “3-D digital online world imagined, created and owned by its residents.”

“Second Life” is similar to the computer game “The Sims,” where players can manipulate characters and participate in everyday activities that mimic real life. For the technology savvy, or those who just want to exercise their imagination, “Second Life” has no limits.

There are 20 major online simulations just like “Second Life,” which are categorized as “massively (or massive) multiplayer online role-playing games” (MMORPGs). Since January 1997, over five million subscribers have netted over $2 billion in commerce and fees.

“The growth of these (games) can be attributed to more affordable computers with better 3-D video cards and streaming technologies,” Ball said. “Also, broadband Internet is becoming increasingly more available.”

Linden Labs, the producer of “Second Life,” claims that its game is unique in comparison to other MMORPGs. In its version, there is no goal and there is complete freedom of construction and representation. Participants use Linden dollars that can be converted to U.S. currency to make their purchases.

Once a participant purchases real estate or a car, they legally own that virtual item. Communities are built as “city-states” that have their own laws and constitutions. “Second Life” is no democracy. Linden Labs acts as “Big Brother,” and there are behavioral guidelines that could result in warning, suspension or banishment from the game if not followed.

“Can’t get married in real life? Get married in “Second Life!” Yet another slogan suggests the appeal of a virtual relationship. In the simulation, “partnership licenses” representing a union between two players can be purchased. There are even detective agencies within the game that offer their services to those who feel that their “spouse” is cheating.

Gary Woodward, professor of communications studies, finds people’s dedication to the virtual world to be somewhat unbelievable.

“Perhaps this kind of pseudo-cyber politics offers a kind of perfection of life that actual experience does not,” Woodward said. “(However), it’s hard not to believe that these folks would be better off engaging in the life of their own communities, where the payoffs can positively affect real people.”

On an even more realistic level, companies are starting to see MMORPGs as the economic jackpots that they are. People make their living selling items in “Second Life.”

Advertising within virtual communities has already begun. Wells Fargo purchased a private island within the simulation to help participants learn better fiscal responsibility.

Educational purposes have already been pursued as well. University of California-Davis provided a class with the ability to see life through the world of a schizophrenic. Its simulation of the game provided sounds and visualizations to suggest such a mindset.

Basically, every conceivable fantasy can be lived out in “Second Life.” Race and gender are flexible “costumes.” The world itself is a 3-D canvas, ranging from full replicas of Amsterdam to representations of M.C. Escher paintings.

In this dream world, people can fly, play in giant bowls of fruit loops or make their character a giant bunny. The simulation will go as far as your mind can take you.

There are currently 52,000 active members in “Second Life.” Despite popular belief, the majority of players are women in their 30s. “Second Life” is an adult community, and members must be 18 or older.

“The idea of living in a virtual world is too strange for me, I could never see myself participating in such a game,” Steven Myers, freshman biology major, said.

“I find it very unsettling that the line between the virtual world and the real world is getting so blurred; that people are satisfied with letting animated versions of themselves live out their lives,” he added. “How long is it before we just plug into our computers and live through the Internet like today’s science fiction movies?”