It really is a brave new world

6 Jul

July 6, 2006

By Geoff Meeker

Typical conversation around the dinner table:

“So, son, what did you do today?”

“Oh, I played Capture the Flag with friends from Halifax, London, Australia and Hong Kong.”

They are ‘virtual’ friends made through online role-playing games. Popular with children and even moreso with adults, these games have vaulted from obscurity to massive popularity in the last little while.

To participate you create an animated character – called an avatar –which essentially becomes your alter-ego online.  Do you wish you had bigger muscles? A sharper chin? Heck, you can even swap genders, if that’s your thing.

Navigated by the keyboard or mouse, your avatar walks through a world populated by thousands of other avatars, from all over planet earth. You converse with each other by typing messages, like online chat.

There are dozens of online games available, one being Runescape (www.runescape.com) which my children play. Most online games are complex and have adult themes, but Runescape seems friendly to children aged 10 and up (inappropriate language is detected and deleted instantly and there are strictly enforced rules of behavior).

Runescape is set in a medieval world, where the only weapons are swords or sticks and fighting is not the central activity. Instead, you wander the landscape looking to solve puzzles and find neat items, which you collect in a personal folder and barter for things like houses, weapons, armour and so on. It’s free to join and play a basic game, but the purchase of a membership ($7.50 per month) opens new realms and activities, including the Capture the Flag game.

Capture the Flag is actually the best thing about Runescape (the quest at the centre of the game seems endless and thereby pointless, in my view). With Capture the Flag, you join a team of 20 or more avatars and work together to capture the enemy’s flag and return it to home base, within 20 minutes. There is some mild violence as you fight the enemy team, but it’s a real blast, knowing that the players are real people.

There are a host of other games, such as the adult-oriented and apparently addictive Warcraft, which at last count had more than 6 million subscribers. But one of the most popular and intriguing online games isn’t really a game at all, unless you’re talking about the game of life. Because that’s what Second Life (www.secondlife.com) is all about. It is pushing the boundaries and redefining the ‘rules’ of the Internet; if indeed there ever were any.

In Second Life, you create an avatar and step forward into a virtual world, but it’s modern day and real life, with a social and economic dynamic that is a wonder to comprehend.  The world has its own currency, called ‘Linden dollars’, which you can buy online. Or you can earn them by selling your services or products to other game players (as in real life, some people are there just to spend, spend, spend).

What’s incredibly innovative is, you can sell the dollars back online, and put real money in the bank. If you come out of Second World with more money that you brought in, it’s real cash. Legal tender. And according to a story in Business Week magazine, the virtual economy is so strong that it is “importing goods and services from the real-world economy.”

I know what you’re thinking: how do you manufacture stuff with a keyboard and mouse? This is another of the game’s real innovations: the apparent ease with which one can create the objects of their desire.

“Unlike in other virtual worlds, Second Life’s technology lets people create objects like clothes or storefronts from scratch, LEGO-style, rather than simply pluck avatar outfits or ready-made buildings from a menu,” says writer Robert D. Hof. “That means residents can build anything they can imagine…”

There are examples of people earning almost $100,000 per year (in real dollars) creating virtual items that avatars want to buy. It’s a booming frontier; the Fort McMurray of the Internet.

Basic membership to Second Life is free (though you have to buy Linden dollars to purchase stuff) so I joined up while researching this article. I’ll let you know how I make out in a future column.

If I don’t return in three days, send in a search party!

Useful links:

http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/06_18/b3982001.htm

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