Second Life, World of Warcraft and a growing legion of similar online communities are becoming more than games. They offer nothing less than a new form of human expression

This article appears as part of the April 07 issue of PC Advisor, available now in all good newsagents

An online game is an odd place to have your reputation precede you. But that's exactly what happened to me not long ago in the massively multiplayer universe of EVE Online. My character there, a spaceship pilot named Walker Spaight, was minding his own business one day when I got a message from another player, who wanted to know if I was "the same Walker Spaight from Second Life", another 3D online world.

Indeed I was, I told him. And the response I got back was curious. The player was excited to meet what he called a "virtual celebrity". In EVE I may simply be a mid-level combat pilot, but in Second Life – an online community somewhere between a game and an alternative lifestyle – I am among the best-known figures.

As editor of the Second Life Herald, an online newspaper covering events in Second Life, I have been digging up stories for the past two years, profiling players and their creations (and, not infrequently, their crimes), reporting on the businesses emerging there, and taking to task the company that runs the world.

3D virtual worlds such as Second Life are becoming a very real component of people's lives, and over the next 10 years they will begin to shape the way we work, play, and define our identities. To Philip Rosedale, founder and chief executive of Linden Lab, the creator of Second Life, online worlds constitute nothing less than "a new means of human expression".

More than a game

As PC Advisor went to press, the world of Second Life was inhabited by nearly 3 million people – but that's peanuts compared with other MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games). Game worlds such as Ultima Online, EverQuest, World of Warcraft and EVE Online are used by anywhere between 20 million to 40 million people around the world, and that number continues to grow.

But 'persistent worlds' such as Second Life are more than just games. In Second Life, players don't get points for slaying orcs or blowing up spaceships. Instead, users are given a framework in which to create whatever they please – from houses and cars to clothing, and so on.
In fact, the entire landscape is composed of such creations; the company that runs the world provides only the virtual land that residents occupy. In that sense, worlds such as Second Life function more as platforms than as games – they're places where both fantasies and useful tools can be constructed. Residents rely on the same spirit (and much of the data) underlying Web 2.0 sites to freely borrow, build on, and blend together each other's ideas in an environment with unparalleled expressive powers.

Aficionados often refer to this intersection between 3D worlds and networked data as the 'metaverse', a term coined by Neal Stephenson in his prescient 1992 novel Snow Crash. And the impact of that combination can already be felt today.

"Entertainment, education, art and business are throwing spaghetti at the metaverse to see what sticks," says futurist Jerry Paffendorf, who convened a Metaverse Roadmap Summit last summer to plot the course of such technologies.

"Over the next few years, we'll see this kind of technology mature to the point where it will not be uncommon to follow hyperlinks from the web into immersive virtual spaces filled with other people."

Doing business in the metaverse

Constructing virtual spaces within the metaverse has already yielded some interesting opportunities. In early 2006, 26-year-old Ron Blechner left his job as a mobile network technician to set up shop in Second Life. The small company he founded, Out of Bounds Software, specialised in creating a virtual presence for non-profit agencies and educational institutions, and developed a '3D wiki' that's being used to collect community feedback for the multimillion-dollar redesign of a public park in Queens, New York. The pay wasn't great, but Blechner's business steadily grew. By the end of the year, he had merged his virtual-world services shop with a larger one

"This has been the best decision I've made in my life," he says.
Although they're just beginning to take hold, such online 'places' are increasingly becoming a part of real-world business, marketing and design plans. Architects now use Second Life to create design prototypes.

Emergency-services departments use it to develop crisis-response strategies. Starwood Hotels uses it to design and advertise properties. And the entertainment industry has caught on in a big way. MTV built a virtual version of its hit television show 'Laguna Beach' in, where fans can meet and socialise in a recreation of the show's locations. And in August 2007, Duran Duran will open a 'futuristic utopia' in Second Life, where they'll give concerts and chat with fans. Nick Rhodes, the band's keyboardist and songwriter, says it's "the most substantial move forward in entertainment technology that I've seen almost going back to MTV".

Following hot on the heels of the entertainment industry, major banks, PR firms and car manufacturers have virtual-world projects in the works. Small firms such as Blechner's – not to mention larger counterparts such as Rivers Run Red (the company responsible for bringing Duran Duran to Second Life) and the Electric Sheep Company – are helping to turn those projects into realities.

New ways to communicate

For true believers, all this represents an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of what promises to be a world-changing technology: an easy-to-use interface with immense expressive power, through which people can share new kinds of information and interact in new ways.

Although the metaverse is unlikely to replace the web – reading the news is easier on a flat PC screen than in a 3D world – it will expand the internet's usefulness in ways that may revolutionise people's lives no less radically than the web has over the past 15 years. Imagine reading a news story, clicking through to a 3D recreation of the place where the event occurred, and walking around it in the company of other people who are reading the same story.

Of course, the pirates, pranksters and thieves who currently plague the web will eventually make their way to this new medium. Second Life events are regularly 'griefed' by users who delight in building cages around others' avatars, for instance. Designers of virtual worlds must develop tools to deal with these issues and to make their environment more conducive to harmony than hostility.

Recent online success stories – such as the web community and the photo-sharing site – demonstrate the strength of people's desire to express themselves online easily and richly, and to share what they have to say with the world. Philip Rosedale believes that 3D worlds are destined to play a critical role in extending that power of expression and interaction.

"The real world is not as malleable as we would like it to be," he says. "Because of the degree to which Second Life is alterable, it is likely in a few years that everyone will have an identity in 3D worlds. Your identity there – the representation that will be your body, your persona in Second Life – will probably be a more accurate depiction of who you are mentally than the body you walk around in."

Harnessing 3D worlds

Email, instant messaging, chat, VoIP (voice over IP) and video-conferencing connect people with varying degrees of richness. But none of these possesses the power of even the simplest interactions in a virtual world. Nick Rhodes was fascinated to see a group of avatars in Second Life all look in the same direction at something happening nearby. That never happens on a chat channel. Online worlds such as Second Life allow you to observe, collaborate and interact at a new level. You can attend a talk by Kurt Vonnegut or a live concert by Suzanne Vega. Even politicians are getting in on the act: in January, US House representative George Miller gave a presentation in Second Life.

You and your friends or colleagues can build a venue for similar talks, then track the project's status. Once your shows begin, you can track who attends and how long they stay, and upload this data to a website for analysis.

Web-based tools and 3D online spaces are already beginning to converge. A group of employees have built an interface for searching Amazon's inventory from within Second Life, while Dell is using the platform to sell PCs. Social software, shopping sites, web applications and even search engines have begun to take on new and more powerful three-dimensional forms. Imagine a Google Earth that you can not only zoom into but also walk around with other people. And think of all the useful ways Google Maps could be extended into three dimensions.

The future of information

What we're describing is more than just a portable worldwide web. It's a way to collect and access information that changes depending on where you go and who you're with – whether those places and people are real or virtual. It may sound a bit sci-fi, but the advances of the past 15 years suggest that we'll continue to integrate our physical selves more and more tightly with the informational processes going on around us.
There are lots of questions to answer, and many hurdles to overcome – but none are insurmountable. As millions of people experience virtual worlds, technologists, legislators and developers will face new challenges. It's not too early to start thinking about these issues. The online world of the future is already here.

World of Warcraft

Matt Egan

World of Warcraft – or WoW – is a hugely popular MMORPG set in the 'Warcraft Universe', a virtual setting first introduced 1994's Warcraft: Orcs & Humans. From a slow start WoW has become a huge hit, both financially and in terms of its massive user base. It's the world's leading subscription-based MMORPG. At the time of going to press, WoW's developer, Blizzard, estimated that the subscriber base for World of Warcraft stood at a cool 8 million players worldwide. That includes more than 2 million players in the US, a massive 3.5 million players in China, and more than 1.5 million players in Europe. In mid January, more than 2,000 keen gamers queued at a London branch of HMV for the release of The Burning Crusade, an extension pack for WoW. Similar scenes were played out throughout the world. On top of paying a monthly subscription fee to play WoW, fans are expected to pay another £18 which has sparked mixed reactions from members of the game's community.