By Joel Warner
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By Alan Prendergast
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Lilith Forzane is looking for steamy geek love.
She's just popped in (having materialized out of thin air) at the entrance of the Science School, where the school's director, zazen Manbi, and I are about to embark on a tour. "I believe Lilith is an escort," says Manbi, eying her skin-tight catsuit and long black leather boots.
"A hot escort," corrects Forzane. And she is, if one considered her digitized curves and pixelated bedroom eyes "hot" in the traditional sense.
Forzane, Manbi and I are in Second Life, the online virtual world where activities, goals and even scenery are created by the users themselves. Since the program, which is essentially a video game, was launched by Linden Lab in June 2003, millions of people have created walking, talking digital "avatars" of themselves — which, using the game's open-ended design, can look like carbon copies of their user or resemble, say, a talking dolphin — and begun building virtual models of whatever their hearts desire.
It's sort of a three-dimensional version of the Internet, where roughly tens of thousands of Second Life "residents" are logged on at any given moment, exploring this vast realm, socializing with other users and creating and trading virtual property.
The strange online world, which observers have estimated nets Linden Lab about $40 million a year, features many of the quirks of real life. Countries like Sweden, Colombia and Macedonia have opened in-game embassies where people can learn about their countries. Second Life real-estate speculators sell hot-commodity virtual lands to other users, making hundreds of thousands of real dollars a year. Rock bands and theater troupes have performed in Second Life theaters, using microphones and instruments attached to their computers. Avatars waving digital signs have staged in-game protests on everything from IBM union negotiations to potential U.S. military action in Iran.
And of course, lots of people troll for sex. "I'd like to have a hot hour with a geek," Forzane informs us. She's not talking about real sex, but the virtual kind, involving naked, writhing avatars. And since she's an escort, this hot hour probably costs Linden Dollars, the in-game currency that Second Life users can buy with real money, the exchange rate holding reasonably steady at 266 Lindens to one U.S. dollar.
If she's looking for geeks, she's come to the right place, replies Manbi: "There are about fifty islands here for you to find one." The Science School and the tiny virtual island it sits on lie in the center of SciLands, an archipelago of in-game islands owned and populated by some of the foremost science and technology organizations in the world: NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Library of Medicine and the National Physical Laboratory, to name a few. They're constructing state-of-the-art exhibits, laboratories and classrooms here — things that would be too costly, complicated or downright hazardous to build in real life.
It's like one big science museum planned by some of the brightest minds around, open to anyone anywhere in the world and featuring no closing time and no admission fee. (It's free to sign up for Second Life, though users need to be at least eighteen or they'll be relegated to the Teen Second Life world.) SciLands' creators hope to give science education and advocacy a shot in the arm by invading the world of video games and Internet obsessions that have wreaked havoc on museum attendance rates and homework assignments. Who knows? It may even work.
But while there are certainly a lot of geeks in SciLands, notes Manbi, "chances are there won't be many takers" for Forzane's brand of hands-on experimentation, since everyone's too busy building digital rocket ships or holding in-game conferences on the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator. He should know: Manbi — or, rather, his flesh-and-blood counterpart, Jeff Corbin — helped found SciLands two years ago.
Forzane, discouraged, teleports away without another word.
That allows Corbin and me, through our avatars, to continue our tour of Science School. We stroll through a verdant landscape dotted with chess sets and solar panels — all of which were constructed by Corbin and other Second Life users with "prims," virtual building blocks. The three-dimensional visuals are impressive — far from photorealistic, but as good as those found in computer games circa 2004. We pass by portals that, with a mouse click, can whisk us to the various reaches of SciLands: virtual rocket lift-offs, a lunar landing site, habitats populated by "cobblefish," "jellypods" and other self-evolving creatures. Considering these exotic locales, our destination is almost mundane in its familiarity: a brick-by-brick re-creation of the F.W. Olin Hall at the University of Denver, digitally designed by Corbin in recognition of his employer.
Compared with the astrophysicists and museum curators behind many of SciLands' key avatars, Corbin, a part-time "media specialist" at DU, used to be small potatoes. But that's changed thanks to his work in SciLands: Corbin's avatar racks up nearly 2,000 hits on Google, he's been a celebrated guest star on the Second Life game show "Second Question," and he can literally move mountains.
"Wanna climb a mountain?" asks Manbi — and so we attack a sheer rock face sprouting behind Olin Hall. When the ascent becomes tedious, I hit a button on my keyboard and my avatar levitates upward, soaring to the top of the peak — where, amid goats and mountain lions, stands a re-creation of DU's Meyer-Womble Observatory on Mount Evans. "An optimized version of the once-highest observatory on earth," says Manbi of the structure, which, along with the mountain, he designed and paid for (buying property in Second Life costs real dough). Eventually, he hopes, the telescope will actually work, letting people all over the world peep into its eyepiece and see images beamed directly from its real-life counterpart.