Get a virtual life

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 November, 2008, 12:00am

Two recent reports show the crazy results of immersing yourself in a 3D virtual world.

A 43-year-old Japanese woman was arrested last month in Sapporo after 'killing' the avatar, or 3D digital representation, of her online husband in the interactive game Maple Story. The woman, angry about a digital divorce, hacked into the game using his password and other information to carry out the virtual murder.

A woman from North Carolina, in the United States, was charged with plotting the real-life abduction of a boyfriend she met in the internet -based virtual world Second Life. She drove to his flat in Delaware with a stun gun, handcuffs and duct tape but fled when he called the police.

Tom Boellstorff, 39, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, knows more about the virtual world the most.

He entered Second Life in June 2004 using the avatar 'Tom Bukowski', whose digital home and office is in 'Ethnographia'. The results of more than two years of living among and observing residents of virtual worlds can be found in his recent book, Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human.

It is the first such study of a virtual world where residents buy property, meet in bars, attend weddings, buy and sell virtual goods and services, make friends and fall in love.

Boellstorff recalls entering this fantasy realm as being sometimes unnerving but mostly positive.

Thanks to Second Life, launched in 2003 by US-based internet firm Linden Lab, some users have become bolder in the real world. One told Boellstorff it became easier to have conversations with strangers at a real shopping mall after practising online.

A stroke survivor, who had been confined to a wheelchair for two years, credits Second Life for gaining more confidence in the real world.

Second Life has also become an environment for academic work. Singapore-based online graduate school U21Global last year launched a campus on Second Life to promote higher learning.

'Most participants in the make-believe universe venture more of their personality than they care to admit,' says Boellstorff.

Other Second Life residents sign the names of their avatars on real-world cheques, while others try to right-click real-life objects, expecting a user interface to pop up.

This detachment from reality seems strange because Second Life is not entirely convincing.

'I think I'll keep participating in virtual worlds for a while and in Second Life in particular as long as it's around,' says Boellstorff.

He admits that Second Life, like any society, has its irritations, such as 'griefing' - being annoying, or worse. He recalls an avatar pointing a machine gun at him, saying: 'Achtung. This is a robbery. Give me $1,000 to live.'

Boellstorff declined and his avatar survived. The researcher says he has no plans to pursue legal proceedings.