Living in a virtual world, making real money

MMORPG or
massive multiplayer online role-playing is already one of the most popular
forms of entertainment on the Internet with more than 15 million users in 2006.
It is also a business opportunity whose revenues are expected to reach over a
billion dollars by 2009, according to recent studies.

{mosimage}Second Life
is one of the most popular virtual worlds. It has nothing to do with
interstellar wars or medieval battles. As its name says, Second Life proposes
an alternative life in a virtual 3D world where people (or avatars) meet and
chat, assist in lectures and concerts or do business, buying and selling land
and items. To enter this world one just needs to create a free account through
the website and download a small program. More than two million users have
already done it. The avatars can dress up prettily, flirt with each other or
walk naked in the nudist beach

Since its
launch in 2003, Second Life has attracted the attention of mass media. The BBC
and the New York Times have echoed every day’s happenings in this virtual world
and news agency Reuters has developed the Second Life news center. However,
among bloggers and analysts there is also criticism that has accused Second
Life of just being a hype, since a large percentage of the more than two
million residents do not actively participate in the virtual once the account
is created.

 

Doing business

Second
Lifers own the virtual goods they create and retain their copyrights. This way,
they can traded in Linden dollars (L$), which have a real world value: around 260
L$ equals 1 US $. Linden dollars are necessary to buy land or to get married (marriage
fee is 10 L$, but divorce gets more expensive, up to 25 L$). Some users are
starting to earn a living from working in the virtual world, for example
through virtual clothing design. The more dramatic voices have already suggested
that the Second Life world could be used as a money laundering centre.

The virtual
world has produced its very own millionaires who have become very wealthy
people in real life. Last year Anshe
Chung
(or Ailin Graef) became the first online personality to achieve a net
worth exceeding one million US dollars from profits entirely earned inside a
virtual world. The avatar even made it to the cover of Business Week last May.
Chung made her first stake of money as a virtual escort, and soon moved to
virtual real state. She buys up land in Second Life, develops it (building
houses, adding rivers, mountains, etc) and then rents it or sells it to other
users. It is a continent she named Dreamland.

But
entrepreneurs and corporations are not always well received in Second Life.
Recently Anshe Chung’s interview with CNET was interrupted due to an attack
with animated items. Some corporate events are met with protests by
placard-waving avatars and the Second Life Liberation Army fights for voting
rights for avatars.

This year
seems to be a milestone in finding out if big business operations in Second
Life can pay off, especially since it recently opened its source code.
Available under the GNU Public License any developer can legally modify the
software. A good bunch of add-ons and bug fixes is expected.

 

Media circus

Last
August, Suzanne Vega was the first
major recording artist to perform live in Second Life avatar form. Lectures and
cyberclasses are organized by professors and colleges. Newspapers are read and
video and music can be streamed while living in the virtual world.

The game
expands the community possibilities of the web. Gates between the real and the
virtual world can be created with SLurl, link that connect a website with a
location in Second Life. Movies made by second lifers and starring by avatars
are broadcast on popular sites like YouTube and film festivals are organized in
the virtual world. Whether the next generation of supermarket will be a 3D room
on the Internet is still to be seen.

 

Finland’s own virtual world

{mosimage}With less
hype other virtual world exists and even predating Second Life, in 2000 Finland's
Sampo Karjalainen and Aapo Kyrölä created Hotel Habbo, which has
been expanded to 29 countries already. Around 80% percent of its users are
teenagers between the ages of 12 and 18. Instead of complicated 3D environments,
Habbo uses simple cartoon graphics, creating a pleasant retro look. Users can
create their own character, their rooms in the hotels and even their own
virtual worlds to interact with others.

The rules
are strict in the Hotel Habbo. Conversations and comments in the community pass
through a filter before they appear in the screen. Swearing, racist and sexist
terms are not allowed.

In six years
online, Hotel Habbo has gathered 70 million registered users. Each month 7.5
million unique users visit the hotel and play. Some of these are pretty
popular. In 2005, the band Gorillaz performed a virtual world tour around twelve
Habbo hotels.