A life less ordinary

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 September, 2007, 12:00am

Filled with funky avatars and hip hangouts, Second Life has become a global phenomenon with more than nine million users.

Developed by Linden Lab, a US-based company comprised of experienced software developers, Second Life was launched in 2003.

It is a virtual reality game which enables users (called 'Residents' in 'The World') to create their own world and interact with others.

The game is so popular that big companies such as IBM and Reuters have set up virtual outlets to reach the online population.

Recently, Hong Kong has also jumped on the bandwagon, with locals mingling with overseas users in virtual communities and retailers promoting their wares online.

With the introduction of a 3D orientation programme aimed at the 400 new students from the School of Hotel and Tourism Management, Hong Kong Polytechnic University has become the city's first academic institution to create a presence in Second Life.

Fitted with lecture theatres and information centres, the innovative orientation island - PolyUSotel - enables students to interact with professors and senior students and to become familiar with their new learning environment.

'The island allows students to learn about their school at their own pace. The flexible programme fits in with their schedule,' says Paul Penfold, the school's educational support manager.

Second Life's online classrooms and libraries have heralded a new learning style.

'Instead of devoting the bulk of their time to books, today's young people like to play on computers and socialise in online networking sites. Besides the traditional chalk and board, we want to use games and computer techniques to interest them,' says Mr Penfold.

Besides the education hubs, The World is filled with cool places to hang out and swanky holiday resorts.

The key to Second Life's popularity may be the fact that users can make the impossible possible in their lives online.

'Uninhibited by social conventions, users can express themselves freely in Second Life,' says Russell Williams, assistant professor of Hong Kong Baptist University's department of communication studies.

'You can take on a completely different avatar from your real-life persona and do things you can't or won't do in real life.

'Some people actually feel safer in the virtual world where they are less likely to commit mistakes that would embarrass them or their families.'

Annette Lee from California has been 'living' a Second Life for a year.

'You can completely lose yourself in the alternate reality.

'Second Life was something I heard about a few years ago. My friends at university were playing it. It's a virtual world created and controlled by the people who use it - it can be addictive.'

Critics accuse the game of alienating youth from reality.

'Such games do not involve 'true' interaction.

Sitting in front of the computer all day, addicted players live in a world of their own, which hinders their social development,' says Dr Williams.