Read an Excerpt
Leaving the real world behind
In August 2004, Derek LeTellier, then a nineteen-year-old student teacher from Chicago, entered a competition on some land near his home, to see who could stack objects the highest. Derek’s entry was a skyscraper, forty stories tall, built entirely out of wooden blocks—a triumph of effort and will over gravity and friction. He didn’t win the competition, but the land was empty and so LeTellier began to come back every few days to see what else he could stack. At the end of each day, he knocked the towers down. His experiments became a kind of regular neighborhood sideshow: Each week, a handful of locals would gather to watch his towers fall. Derek worked out how to stand on the towers as they came crashing down, and surf the tumbling blocks to the ground. Then a friend, James Miller, mentioned that the tower reminded him of the World Trade Center. Another friend who came along that same week had lost a relative in the real 9/11 attacks. He mentioned he would like to see what it was like to be inside the towers as they collapsed. So, at his friend’s request, Derek built a second tower, next to the first. The two men, along with a handful of others, climbed inside.
Derek’s intention hadn’t originally been to re-create the World Trade towers. “A lot of what looked like symbols for 9/11 mostly were due to practical reasons,” LeTellier told me. “The shape of the buildings, the size, and the placement of people inside them.” I asked Derek if he had been wary of any controversy the collapse might cause. “A little bit, especially when we put that second tower up,” he said. “At that point I got a little disturbed about what we were doing. How eerie it looked. Before that, it’s only an experiment. At that point, it became something more.”
Derek had also developed a tradition: As he knocked over his towers, he shouted a single word. The day he and his friend sat next to each other inside the tower, he shouted it aloud—“Die!”—and the two towers fell again.
And, as a result, the world ended—or at least part of it. The two buildings, which had taken Derek just five minutes to build, were among the largest constructions that area of the world had ever seen, and when they fell, as if in a rising pall of smoke, the world went black.
Literally. Because all of this was nearly, but not quite, happening. Derek was in his apartment in Chicago. Others were in their offices in San Francisco, and all across the United States. Derek’s re-creation of the World Trade Center attacks took place in the Olive district of a virtual world called Second Life. The towers, which had taken just a day to build, were the largest constructions Second Life had ever seen. When they fell, the world crashed. Every player was ejected.
Second Life is a virtual world: a computer-generated place, created by real people from all across the world who log on to live other lives online. The players—known in Second Life as “residents”—see these worlds as 3-D computer-generated images on their screens. They can watch their virtual selves on their monitor as if through the eyes of their online self, or, more often, from behind their head, a perspective called the “third-eye view.” Using their keyboard and mouse, they can watch their virtual selves wander over digital terrain. In the real world, of course, Second Life exists only as ones and zeros on the hard drives of seven hundred Debian Linux servers in a San Francisco data warehouse. The Second Life computers function like Web servers, only, instead of serving up Web pages, they serve up a whole 3-D world. All the buildings, objects, and terrain Derek and his friends could see on their computer screens were digital; the other people, who also paid to inhabit this virtual world, also looked computer-generated, but at the helm of each was a real person, somewhere on the real globe.
In virtual worlds, you are born fully grown: Each new character is an adult, albeit one who doesn’t yet know how to “be.” In every virtual world, you can walk, talk, and move things around using your keyboard and mouse—but in each world these controls are different, and have to be learned anew. Second Life’s solution to this problem is for each character to appear first in Orientation Island, a jumble of tropical hills and beaches where, like rehabilitation in fast-forward, you learn how to operate your self and inhabit the world. When I first logged on, under the virtual sky—perfect shades from blue to white, like the sky seen from a 747—I wandered the island. Here and there, placards—which I clicked on to read, and which appeared as text on my screen—taught me how to walk, how to talk, how to move objects at a distance, how to fly. (If the first part felt like rehabilitation, the second part felt like superhero school.) At the end of the final lesson, a teleport button transmitted my virtual self into the wider virtual world, where all the other people were.
In Second Life, you can move around, talk with others using the keyboard or a microphone, interact physically with others’ second selves–hug, wave—and, although I didn’t know this when I began my journey into virtual worlds, you can get married, make money, commit crime, and almost forget the real world even exists. And although only a handful watched Derek LeTellier’s towers fall, the dream they shared, of entering a new place and leaving the real world behind, had already begun to colonize the imagination of millions.
Derek’s experiments were a local affair, but virtual worlds were already on the scale of entire nations. By 2004, around twenty million people were regularly logging on to virtual worlds like Second Life; at the time of this writing, that figure has more than doubled. Between fifty and seventy million people worldwide—far more than passed through U.S. immigration at Ellis Island in the whole twentieth century—now regularly log on to these new online spaces to abandon reality in search of a better place. This time, though, our new lands have no indigenous inhabitants to dispute our claim to the territory. Virtual worlds are empty except for us, and are shaped entirely to our desires.
In the past, mankind could only dream of such utopias. Heaven, Eden, Oz . . . lands somewhere over the rainbow. But now, through computer technology, we have built ourselves a new kind of heaven: perfected virtual worlds, where we can finally move in and take up residence. Through computer screens in homes, offices, libraries, cyber-cafés, military bases, colleges, and schools, more people than inhabit Australia have stepped through the electronic looking glass to create second lives. In virtual worlds, it seems, we can finally break free of the forces of nature: We can shed gravity (in most games, you can fly) and we can rid our lives of friction (in online worlds, nothing takes any physical effort at all).
For the most part, these millions play what are known as massive multiplayer games: playful but constrained virtual spaces like Sony Online Entertainment’s Dungeons & Dragons–style world, EverQuest—the planet’s fifth-largest virtual world, with half a million players—or Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft, the most popular game in the United States, with 8.5 million players worldwide. In Southeast Asia, I discovered, the numbers are huge. In 2005, one South Korean game series, Lineage and Lineage II, boasted four million active accounts, and the numbers are rising exponentially. More people reside in Lineage and Lineage II than reside in Ireland. The population of virtual worlds seems to almost double every year. “I expect there will be two to three million more people in the U.S. that come on board in the next two years,” David Cole, president of the multimedia research firm DFC Intelligence, told Salon magazine in July 2002. The actual figures were in the top range of his guess—and eight million more residents have joined since then, attracted by a freedom of movement and expression that is harder to find in the real world. (And that’s not even counting the millions in Southeast Asia.) In 2002, game designer Brad McQuaid, one of the creative forces behind EverQuest, predicted virtual worlds “will rival the movie industry in the next five to ten years.” We’re well on the way. In 2005, Hollywood took in $9.2 billion in U.S. box-office receipts (worldwide, that figure rose to $23 billion). In the same period, the combined annual revenues from these new virtual worlds were estimated at $3.7 billion, a figure predicted to rise to $19.3 billion by 2009. By then, if current trends continue, virtual worlds will make more money than American football, baseball, and basketball combined, and, each year, more people worldwide will visit a virtual world than will visit a McDonald’s restaurant.
The economies of virtual worlds, I discovered, ran far beyond the income of the people who created them. In each world, there were virtual currencies, and the mass exodus from the real world had brought with it such a mania for virtual items that people were now willing to pay real money to acquire them. People who want, say, a more powerful sword, or their own virtual Frank Lloyd Wright–style cantilevered home by the virtual seaside, but don’t have time to construct it themselves, will pay substantial sums of real-world money instead. The money is paid via credit card, on websites in the real world, and the goods are delivered inside the game. I knew virtual worlds had their own currencies (in EverQuest, I had killed rats for a week to scrape together a single gold piece), but I had had no idea how these initially fictional currencies had begun to affect our own real-world ones. The largest virtual items broker, Internet Gaming Entertainment—a bit like a hedge fund, with a collateral of virtual swords and property instead of stocks and bonds—will sell you virtual currency from one of fourteen nonexistent places, for real-world cash.
The income had become so reliable, I discovered, and the exchange rates between virtual currencies so stable, that enterprising businessmen in poorer areas of the world—Mexico or China, for example—had set up “virtual sweatshops”: offices where employees worked (and sometimes slept) at their PCs, working in virtual worlds to make gold and other items for their bosses, in exchange for a real-world salary.
In 2001, economist Edward Castronova, then a professor at California State University, studying welfare, spent many evenings online, inside the virtual world of EverQuest. He noticed that players were selling virtual items and virtual currency for real money on eBay—the game had an economy, which intersected with the real one. In his 2002 study On Virtual Economies, he examined this economy of EverQuest, then the planet’s second-largest virtual world, with just under half a million residents. He found that EverQuest had a real, consistent U.S. dollar exchange rate, which put the average wage of each player—the virtual money he or she earned while playing the game, hunting for virtual booty and creating new virtual items—at the equivalent of $3.42 per hour. One EverQuest platinum piece, he found, was worth about one cent: more than one yen or one lira. From that, Castronova calculated the virtual world’s gross national product (GNP): $135 million. EverQuest, he concluded, had a per capita GNP of $2,266—richer than India, Bulgaria, or China, and almost on a par with Russia. By these measures, the world’s seventy-seventh-largest economy was a subcontinent that only nearly existed. Since Castronova’s study, virtual business has boomed. In 2002, virtual game items—nonexistent things—were sold for more than $15 million on eBay alone (despite a ban, instituted by eBay in April 2000, at Sony’s request, on sales of EverQuest items). In October 2004, Castronova, by then an economist at Indiana University, estimated the global market in virtual goods at around $90 million. By 2005, a company that specialized in trading virtual goods put the market at over $700 million. (By then, Castronova was hedging his bets; he placed the market at between $200 million and $1 billion.)
These online worlds offer a powerful enchantment: an entire alternative life. To some, the liberation afforded by these second lives is seductive to the point of obsession. When I began my journey, one in ten Second Life players spent eighty hours or more per week logged into their online alter egos. When I spoke with the EverQuest design team in 2002, they told me EverQuest residents inhabited their virtual selves for an average of twenty hours per week. In another Castronova study, from 2001, a third of EverQuest residents claimed to spend more time in their virtual world than at their real jobs, a figure supported by studies of other virtual worlds. In interviews with Castronova, one in five players claimed they thought of EverQuest—not their house or apartment—as their actual home. For these people, the real world was where they worked in order to buy time to really live online. The word virtual has roots in the power of certain qualities—virtues—and has come to mean possessing essence and effect without possessing form; something not quite physical, but with a measurable impact on the real. True to their name, virtual worlds had begun to have an effect on the real. Virtual residents hold online weddings, where they swear devotion to partners other than their offline spouses. In the summer of 2005, Sony, as makers of the sequel EverQuest II, launched a competition to find a real-world look-alike for the queen of that virtual world, Firiona Vie. But they were too late; Firiona already had a real-world incarnation. In January 2005, Tabitha Ayers, an American virtual world resident and committed EverQuest player, named her real-world daughter after the virtual elf queen. The devotion to virtual selves isn’t always so harmless. In June that same year, two twenty-nine-year-old South Korean parents were so enchanted by their favorite virtual world, World of Warcraft, that they left their four-month-old baby alone so they could sneak off to the local Internet café. When they returned five hours later, their baby had suffocated. In China, a runaway boy had supported himself by stealing entirely virtual objects and selling them for real money. In the United States, a husband hacked into his wife’s game account and staged her virtual suicide, in order to make her seem unbalanced and influence a real-world custody case in his favor. In Korea, where game scores are read out on television news, there is an entire police division dedicated to cyber-crimes, almost all related to a single virtual world—Lineage: The Blood Pledge—that has four million Korean residents. Elsewhere, others have used virtual worlds to plan their dominance over the real world. The U.S. Army, I read, had commissioned one virtual world company to build a model of the entire real world (built to half scale in relation to the virtual size of each soldier) where thousands of virtual soldiers could rehearse conflict anywhere on the globe at a moment’s notice.
From the Hardcover edition.