Utopia goes digital

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Is the real world grating on you, with its wars, overheated summers and incessant Tom Cruise updates? Just hop online and create a digital you that lives in a utopian cyber-realm. There, you can buy a pixilated house on a lake, go ballooning with like-minded souls and even open up a virtual business that delivers real-world cash.

Second Life persona Chandra Page created this unibike to tool around the massively multiplayer online community.

While you're busy processing that, a few more folks are joining Second Life, a growing adult community — woe to anyone who calls it a game — created by Philip Rosedale, the boyish Bay Area techie at the helm of Linden Lab.

"It's a bit like The Matrix," Rosedale says, tapping away at a keyboard as he ushers his avatar — a digital alter ego that can take almost any shape but frequently appears as a buff or buxom humanoid — into Second Life. "We provide the land, and the community builds the actual world, which gives everyone a huge sense of being pioneers in a great experiment."

The appeal of a place like Second Life, a turbocharged version of The Sims, is visceral. It's like being in a hip world that mates Friends with Star Trek, a global coffee klatch where your custom-designed proxy can make eye contact with humans cloaked in digital finery.

Second Life belies the accusation that technology alienates humans from each other: The community is used by two dozen adults with Asperger's syndrome to work on social skills without having to interact face-to-face.

Using avatars to interact online is a booming trend. It was non-existent a decade ago, but today there are an estimated 5 million subscribers worldwide to dozens of massively multiplayer online games, known as MMOGs. With names like World of Warcraft and EverQuest, most challenge players to reach specified goals, usually with some degree of mayhem and derring-do involved.

But Second Life stands apart in a sea of goal-oriented MMOGs. It has no mission other than the same ones found in real life: Look for a nice place to settle down, build a home, start a business and find fun ways to blow off steam. It is remarkable in its simplistic and, yes, scary ability to provide a way to live a parallel life online.

There also is evidence that once people get a taste of Second Life, they're hooked. Mmogchart.com, which tracks online-game statistics, shows sharp drops in activity among MMOGs with gaming at their core once the game has been mastered. But the trend line for Second Life is a steady march north, evidence that people are not only curious about joining a virtual community to just, well, hang out, but they also stay involved once they get there.

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