August 9, 2005 -- How would you like to live in a world where you could be anything you want, look any way you want, and create any object you can imagine?
That's the premise behind the online world of "Second Life," a computer-simulated 3-D environment where everything -- including you -- can be tinkered with, and all of your virtual friends and neighbors are real people just like you.
While some online computer games let you slay dragons, wage war in the future or hunt down mysterious artifacts and hidden treasures, "Second Life" users are left to their own devices.
Some, like Aimee Weber, have opened virtual fashion boutiques where they sell their own line of personally designed virtual clothing for the world's currency, called "Linden dollars."
Cubey Terra has built a successful business designing, building and selling virtual vehicles from giant blimps to one-man airplanes.
Here, players don't compete for high scores, gold coins or to gain power. In "Second Life," it's all about giving you the tools to be and express yourself, virtually.
As the makers of "Second Life" strived to allow players more and more freedom to interact with and alter their environment, they've run into some real-world problems and also found they can help with a real-world illness.
Linden Labs, which makes the game, noticed from the program's inception that about half of the people interested in joining the online community were between 13 and 18 years old.
"When we first launched 'Second Life' we made it '18 and up' because obviously you can do anything and people do just about anything in 'Second Life,' so there is mature behavior," explained Linden Labs CEO Philip Rosedale.
So the company created "Teen Second Life," a continent off the coast of the "Second Life" mainland where teens aged 13 to 17 can do all of the same things as their adult counterparts, but in a safer, more controlled environment.
"It's protected in a special way, so if you're 13 to 17 you can only go there and you cannot go there if you're over 18 from the mainland," said Rosedale.
In fact, in what Rosedale says is like "leaving Eden," when one of "Teen Second Life"'s inhabitants reaches 18, there's a graduation ceremony that sends them off to the mainland.
Just like in life, Rosedale says, "you can never go back."
Technology Imitates Life
"Aesop Thatch" -- as he's known in the program's virtual world -- says he's been drawn in because of the connections he's made with other players. The 16-year-old asked that his real name not be used for fear of some of the Internet's less scrupulous users.
"Most of my friends I have in real life are more casual acquaintances than close friends," said Thatch, who's been playing since June. "Here [Teen Second Life] it's really, I wouldn't say intimate, but it's much more personal."
So much so that when one of the teen community's more famous members turned 18 and was cast off to join the adults on the mainland, the entire continent felt the loss.
"Everybody got really depressed because he wasn't there anymore," said Thatch. "People were looking all over for him and got really sad when they found out he was gone."
Programmers Insist: This Is No Game
"Second Life" is many things to many people: a sandbox where they can bring their imagination to life, a playground where they can simply play or a place to meet and socialize. Just don't call it a game.
"I've never gotten into games that much, and the reason I didn't get into them was they weren't real," Rosedale said. "They didn't allow me to be creative and so I wanted to build something that was."
Rosedale, a former executive at RealNetworks, wanted to create an online community where people weren't limited by a storyline or a programmer's code.
Thatch says that unlike when he plays computer or video games, it's not so much an escape as an extension of his real life.
"It's like people who go out to the mall and hang out -- this is our mall," he said. "This is our hang-out spot."
Also, unlike massively multiplayer online games like "World of Warcraft" or "Everquest," which strive to create polished and consistent online worlds, there is little or no consistency to the constantly changing canvas of "Second Life."
Helping With a Real-World Problem
For John Lester, a research associate at Harvard Medical School and president of BrainTalk Communities, an organization devoted to studying and helping people with various neurological disorders, "Second Life" is one of the greatest research tools he's come across.
"I'm focusing on real-life applications of 'Second Life' technologies both for education, for simulation and that also includes things like health care," said Lester about his research.
Lester owns and operates a private island in "Second Life" called Brigadoon for people with Asperger's syndrome and their caregivers.
"The main problem with Asperger's is a lack of, I guess you could call it, innate socialization skills," he explained. "Things that come instinctively to people without Asperger's, like how to walk into a room and have a conversation with people, how to feel comfortable in groups working together on projects -- all of that is not instinctive to people with Asperger's."
Lester explains that although people suffering from Asperger's can learn these skills, it requires practice. Brigadoon was created for just that purpose.
"Some people in Brigadoon have done things like build little homes and little gardens where they have people over," he said, "they just sit around and talk about their struggles and their issues dealing with Asperger's on a daily basis."
Not dissimilar from work being done with virtual reality to treat phobias, Brigadoon offers a controlled environment where patients feel comfortable and can learn at their own pace.
"It's been shown that virtual reality environments help people with specific types of phobias and because it's a simulation it's less fearful for people," said Lester. "But at the same time it is close enough to reality so that the benefits gained from using these virtual environments will spill over into the real world."