For a small monthly fee, you can have a new life, with a new body, a new pet, a new house. As diverse as the people who design them, online virtual worlds offer a means to explore the human imagination in ways that might rival reading, television and movies. While some of these games are still frightfully boring, thriving economies, exchange rates and entrepreneurship blend the virtual with the real.
While these sites raise eyebrows with their sales of virtual items (brilliantly putting a price on nothing?), virtual reality delivers the unexpected and the bizarre. By allowing participants to recreate their physical bodies, people are able to experiment with ideas of identity, exploring both themselves and the artistic creations of others. Perfect for armchair tourists, virtual reality offers both privacy and intimacy.
Time will tell if these worlds offer something tangible or if they are merely sophisticated diversions, allowing grownups to play with dolls. Regardless, these dolls have real human counterparts. As one of my fellow tourists observed, we are all spirits here.
The year is 2094 as I log on to Cybertown. This is civilization for the virtual age, or so the website claims. It’s complete with virtual homes, pets and roles. There are 50 citizens now online. A busty blond with short hair points to a scene of a pyramid with a couple of spaceships whizzing by. I am intrigued. There is no obligation, “nothing to lose and lots to gain.” If I become a member, I am promised a private 3D VR (virtual reality) in-world home complete with my own personal chat, inbox, message board and e-mail. I am encouraged to invite friends.
Cybertown has shopping malls and flea markets for my impulse buying and selling needs. Of course, I will want to buy things to furnish my new cyber home. I can even get a virtual pet to guard my virtual home when I’m away. I can customize my virtual body for use in this 3D world.
It doesn’t say, but I bet this is easier than jogging in the park or lifting weights. It’s a cyber dollhouse for grownups: virtual bodies, virtual houses, virtual pets and virtual taxes – all for real money.
I can take part in existing role-playing games and clubs, or I can start my own organization for extra experience points. There are movie theaters and music concerts, and the Black Sun Club where I can dance (moving my fingers, not my fanny). I can attend live events, celebrity chats and even get a virtual job earning CityCash that would help me “become a respected citizen of a large intergalactic online community.”
Membership or “immigration” is $5 a month, but I can try a month free. I can also, and this is my choice at the moment, enter as a visitor.
Suddenly, I am in the Cybertown Plaza and privy to a chat between “keltic” and “mickeyw.” They are discussing what they had for dinner. I read on for a while, eavesdropping on what has got to be the most boring conversation in all of cyberspace. I click “next” and find that there are 25 places I can visit. Some options include: Jail, Outlands, Employment Office, Flea Market, Stadium, Club for Newcomers, Shopping Mall, Club Mystique, Inner Realms, Sacred Paths, Theater, Pool and the Ninth Dimension.
Comments in the Club for Newcomers include “i love u,” “hay,” “how do this work,” and “anyone in here?” Obviously, I have joined a realm of winners. I click out in the nick of time. Virtually, boredom is about to kill me. I decide to try something more promising: the Ninth Dimension. I am enticed by different time periods ranging from the Age of Kings to Valhalla. I click on the Age of Kings, and a sword in a rock appears. Now there are new options: King Arthur’s Court, Sherwood Forest, King of Kings, Thieves Den, Dragon’s Realm, and Wizards and Sorcerers. I shut my eyes hard against a flashback from high school. Who might be lurking amidst these pages? Bravely, I run my mouse over “King Arthur’s Court.” A map appears. At first glace, I think I am staring at an aerial view of a bombsite in Iraq, but no, I have landed in King Arthur’s Court. Funny, I thought it would be greener.
Lots marked “free” are available for my new home. Alternatively, I can enter a member’s home. I click randomly, selecting the “House of Peace and Quiet,” but am barred from entry. I wonder who else I can bother. Subsequent attempts return only what appear to be cheap knockoffs of MySpace style pages.
My journey to Cybertown must come to an end whilst I have enough interest to remain conscious. But no, I inadvertently activate Mina, the site’s virtual guide. Mina promises me a 3D house, a virtual pet and a job. I will automatically earn CityCash just by coming to Cybertown (50CC per day).
“But of course,” she advises me, “that is never enough for life in the cyberlane, so you’ll want to get a job.” But that’s the last thing I want. This isn’t the reality I was looking for. Maybe what I really need is a Second Life.
Second Life, the online virtual reality “game,” was created in 2003. Not really a game, Second Life is a place to hang out and explore (virtually, that is). Second Life has sleek graphics and is rapidly gaining worldwide popularity, boasting over 500,000 residents. It offers the usual elements of the online virtual experience: a body to design (an avatar), some virtual money (Linden dollars), and the opportunity to buy virtual property where you can design a virtual residence. It’s all very real. Second Life allows you to walk or fly, as you prefer, and has a host of nifty features, which, as a college student, I don’t have time to master – but maybe once I retire.
To check out Second Life, first, take advantage of the free membership. Then pick a name. You get a choice of last names to choose from, but you can create your first name or (gasp) enter you own true name. Then, of course, they want your information, your birthday and your e-mail address. Now it’s on to pick out a body or an “avatar.” This body is temporary – just to get you started. Girl choices are: “Girl Next Door” (long brown hair, tight fitting clothes, belly showing), “City Chic” (black hair, pony tails, tight fitting clothes, heels?), “Harajuku” (black hair with blue fringe highlights, spandex and nice thick platform shoes), “Cybergoth” (black clothes, white skin, red lipstick, and thin!), “Furry” (furry humanoid cross between bunny and cat?) and “Nightclub” (lots of exposed belly, dirt-style jeans, red hair). The male choices mirror the female choices, but sorry, due to the ethnically myopic view of the game’s creators, you can only be white. Later on, you can change this if you want. A smidge more paperwork and you’re in.
To receive 250 Linden dollars (L$250), you have to enter a credit card number or PayPal account, but you can bypass this step. I chose to take the free Lindens even though I wasn’t too happy about giving out my credit card information. By paying $9.95 per month you can “own” a 512-square-meter parcel of “land” on which you can build, entertain or run a business. If your friends hang out on your land, there are additional perks to be had. Premium account holders receive an additional one-time grant of 1,000 Linden dollars (L$1000), plus a weekly allowance of L$500. You can “earn” more Linden dollars by hosting events, making and selling items, and playing games. If you join, you get a regular allowance based on the type of membership you select. Second Life even has its own newspaper (of sorts) called New World Notes. This is a Second Life news blog that is accessible at www.nwn.blogs.com.
First, I walk around until I find the orientation area. I learn that I am on Help Island. Sadly, I never venture off of Help Island, but I hear “out there” is a mystical, marvelous place full of things to do and people to meet. There are guidelines and etiquette to follow within Second Life. One rule is you can’t run around buck-naked. This was a source of great distress for me because, although I could figure out how to take my clothes off (my avatar, of course), it took me a while to figure out how to put them back on. Luckily, no one seemed to notice.
One interesting thing about Second Life is that anything you design or create while in-world is yours. You retain the rights to it and can buy, sell or trade items with other residents. This has created a booming Second Life economy. The Marketplace supports millions of U.S. dollars in monthly transactions. U.S. dollars can be converted to Linden dollars (Second Life’s currency) in online currency exchanges. There are several ATMs in-world. With enough Lindens you can do whatever you want, from starting a business to creating a game, fighting dragons or building skyscrapers. You are limited only by your own imagination, your system requirements and your ISP (dial-up just won’t cut it).
There are a host of games within Second Life, although with my second-rate Second Life skills, I admit I did not find them. Promised are dozens of first-person shooters, strategy games, puzzles, adventure games, casino games and board games. There are regions that resemble medieval towns, futuristic cities and, of course, malls. Weapons and combat vehicles are sold throughout Second Life. Companies such as Wal-Mart and Intel have established storefronts in-world. Clearly, Second Life has a lot to offer.
For more virtual realms to visit, explore Active Worlds. Active Worlds first opened in June 1995 and is a diverse global community whose users are of varying nationalities, ages and locations. Although the social calendar for November didn’t grab me (offerings included Festival Flight, Bingo, Poetry Night and a TeePee Party), I could see the possibilities. There are extensive community pages and even an Active Worlds university.
Not yet ready to commit to a monthly fee of $6.95, I am admitted to Active Worlds on a “tourist visa.” Appearing in the middle of a garden under a large sphere resembling our earth, I stand dressed as a tourist complete with Hawaiian shirt, sunglasses and sunscreen on my nose. I am facing a gigantic clock. Birds are twittering, and I can see others in generic tourist outfits walking and flying around. An immigration officer greets me when I arrive. Intel’s blue man is there, as is Jeanie, from I Dream of Jeanie. Eagle Scout men are posted in various areas to answer questions.
Getting around in Active Worlds is intuitive. I don’t have any trouble exploring this 3D environment. Down one path is a Japanese pagoda bordered by a stream and further out is the ocean. I can jump in a boat or onto a magic carpet and go for a ride. Several people arrive in world. From their chat, I can tell that they have called in from different locations. I watch as they have fun exploring the world together, wishing my own friends and family were here.
At the top of a hill, I find a large circular courtyard lined with about a dozen earths all suspended in mid air. Each of these planets represents a different Active World that I could access upon becoming a member. The Active Worlds website offers over 1,000 unique worlds to explore. The home page promotes Godzilla World and The 13th Floor, which were designed by Centropolis Studios to promote their blockbuster films. Other recommended worlds include: Rick’s Cafe, Pollen World, Fantasy World, Castles World, Knights World, AW Sci-Fi World, Fibbles World, Mars and the Moon.
Active Worlds allows users to create their own 3D virtual realities and add them to an extensive number of already existing environments. They are currently hiring Graphic Designers and computer programmers to handle the volume of increased interest. This is a user-friendly environment that even I could access without hiccup. Active Worlds seems the perfect place to conduct a conference call or a group meeting for individuals in offsite locations.