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Traversing a Parallel Universe

By Mike Musgrove,
a consumer tech reporter and columnist for The Post's Business section
Thursday, February 28, 2008

SECOND LIVES

A Journey Through Virtual Worlds

By Tim Guest

Random House. 277 pp. $25

It'll still be cool to visit New York City after we live almost entirely in online, virtual worlds, promises the chief executive of the company behind the virtual world called Second Life -- "but in the same way that it's cool to go see the Mayan ruins."

The first virtual worlds were started for computer game fans wanting to act out their sword-and-sorcery fantasies with each other, but in recent years, a trickle of business and government clients has begun to explore Second Life as a convenient "place" to hold meetings and training exercises. As newcomers have logged on, the population of users has roughly doubled every year, with the total number of virtual world users now estimated to be as high as 30 million.

"Second Lives," by British journalist Tim Guest, is more or less a complete recap of the oddball stories that have emerged as video games and online worlds such as Second Life blur or bounce against the real world. In one chapter, the members of Duran Duran fret over which designer should handle their virtual clothes for an online band appearance. In another, a soldier talks about how real-world firefights remind him of playing the Tom Clancy video game Ghost Recon.

Some players of the online game EverQuest figure out how to duplicate items in the online fantasy world and turn their discovery into serious real-world dollars. Other sets of players fall in love and marry each other in the game, though they have not met in the real world. This being the Internet, there's the occasional instance of gender confusion between boys and girls who have logged on as girls and boys. By now, in virtual worlds, this has been repeated many times -- in all possible permutations and sexual orientations.

Don't be afraid of the upcoming virtual revolution, Guest urges. By his argument, the world we inhabit is already virtual, and has been so for a long time. After all, isn't recorded music, to pick one of his examples, just a technologically assisted attempt to replicate the experience of hearing musicians perform in person?

Well, maybe. Sort of. Depends on how you look at it. As Guest leads the tour, he tends to draw parallels between the real world and the virtual one that sometimes seem overblown. In the real world, he notices buildings in his neighborhood going up in six months. In Second Life, a similar construction, built from lines of software code, takes closer to two weeks. Somehow, the reader is supposed to understand, this is another area where the virtual world has a leg up on the real one.

Guest also suggests that people who pay monthly subscriptions to participate in "massively multiplayer" games, are, in fact, a new type of population deserving of admiration for their adventurous and independent spirit, guided by dissatisfaction with the disappointingly banal real world. "We hadn't just chosen to live in virtual worlds," Guest writes; "we had also been driven there, in the same way American colonists were driven to leave Europe."

Guest's first book, "My Life in Orange," was a memoir of his childhood spent in a commune. This book, too, includes personal touches as Guest relates his increasing involvement in the virtual world, setting up a virtual office in Second Life to meet with the subjects of his chapters. He gets sucked in, and in a big way. He credits Second Life with calming him down about his real-world anxieties and, by extension, helping him smoke less. And the virtual world looks only more appealing after he packs his bags to meet some of his subjects offline, and is subjected to the travails of modern real-world travel.

In some passages of this amusing book, a reader's eyes might start to cramp from the involuntary eye-rolling induced by the characters Guest turns up, such as a tough-talking virtual thug (a customer-care representative in real life), who sets out to build a version of the Mafia in Second Life.

Organized crime, as practiced by the crowd Guest runs with briefly, is modeled after the real-world counterparts: sports betting, virtual escorts and the occasional "hit." In the virtual world, it turns out, "whacking" someone involves coercing them into doing or saying something in Second Life that will get their accounts banned by provider Linden Lab -- for instance, getting a target to admit he is under 18, the minimum age of participation on the free service.

The reader who doesn't already have a high-ranking game character in World of Warcraft is bound to wonder, as Guest does himself, "Who had the time to lead two lives? I barely had time to live one." Sure enough, the most powerful player in the online realm of one Korean game tells Guest he is completely exhausted by the dual demands of restaurant management (his real-world job) and kingdom management (his virtual-world job). As the "king of kings" in the game, he always has to look over his shoulder for challengers, while also levying taxes and paying the bills to keep his castle in good repair.

Guest tells the reader that pop songs are written about online games in Korea and star players are sometimes recognized by fans on the street -- but Guest's virtual king, a man in his 30s, has never had a real-world girlfriend. There's just too much responsibility. Whew. As one user asks in the book, when does Third Life come out so that we can escape our second one?

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