By Eleanor Isaacs

Escaping into an imaginary world is nothing new. Alice took a brave step through the Looking Glass, Jonathan Swift?s hero Gulliver sailed to Lilliput, and of course, Dorothy disappeared into the eye of the storm to visit the Wizard of Oz.

The latest version of these imaginary worlds is Second Life (www.secondlife.com),
a virtual, synthetic 3D world that lets us escape into an imaginary journey with several radically different characteristics:

1. The hero is you, making constant decisions and choices in each new stage of the story
2. There is nothing permanent about identity ? you can pick gender and physical characteristics
3. There is no particular goal ? for many, just socialising with friends is an end in itself
4. Anonymity can be assured, which drops away inhibitions and accountability for actions.

These characteristics explain why a growing number of people find that the time they spend in a virtual world is not merely a curiosity, but a psychologically complex and fascinating journey which reveals truly novel insights into the human soul. They find it easier to empathise with the way other people think. They find it almost frighteningly easy to form deep and resonant attachments to individuals they may never have met before, will never meet in real life at all, and who form part of communities with intriguing, and rapidly evolving morals.

Revheads welcome

Why do people find Second Life so liberating?

One of the reasons is that, in Second Life, nothing stops you from hooning around in a red V8 if you want to. It?s not going to hurt the environment and it?s not even going to burn a hole in your pocket. Moreover, it?s quite possible to ensure that no one will ever know that the hoon in the V8 is you, allowing anyone to indulge their passions without compromising their professional prospects.

The ?you? driving the V8 is called an ?avatar,? a graphical representation that you design as one of your first acts in Second Life. Avatars can depict anything you want, with some Second Life residents even boasting animals? heads on human bodies.

Life begins at the orientation islands where new avatars learn how to move around, and some of the fundamentals of life in a virtual world. Once you are in the world, there are few limits to what you can achieve.

Butcher, baker, candlestick-maker?

Visitors to Second Life are able to create content ranging from personal accessories like tattoos and hairdos through to boats, cars and houses. It is interesting that people are willing to do this at all, given that no one necessarily pays them ? the pleasure and satisfaction of creation can be reward enough in itself. Most significant however is the fact that the creators own the intellectual property they create ? they can sell it and build a global reputation based on it.

And there are few practical limits on what you can create, as Telstra?s efforts in Second Life illustrate.

Telstra?s central island is called ?The Pond? and includes representations of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Sydney Opera House and Uluru.

More than 50 billboards have been set up around the islands and Telstra hopes advertisers will want to be represented on them. The possibilities are amazing: you could click on a billboard to start a movie and at the same time send your web browser to a page where you can buy the goods that you found in Second Life.

Be what you wanna be

Second Life also offers different experiences. After you create an avatar, neither you nor your avatar merely sit back and watch. Instead, the Pond offers the chance to dive into the Pond?s underwater zone and almost feel the warm, clear water against your skin. Hire scuba gear and marvel at the procession of fish, coral, shipwrecks and dangerous sharks. There?s buried treasure, dolphins to ride ? and manrays to dodge.

Help comes in the form of a tour guide who will whisk you through the highlights of the islands ? the cinemas, shops, dance clubs, boating and sport ? in just a few minutes.

Or do your own thing. Dance. Build a house. Start a business.

No one knows now whether any of this will work. Telstra does not know if people will come to a Telstra shop that offers virtual services in Second Life. BigPond does not know how many avatars will take up the offer it will shortly make of rental properties allowing people to live and work permanently in Second Life.

But what is not in doubt is that Second Life represents something very significant and new that deserves fearless and energetic exploration.

How to go to Second Life

To have your own adventures in Second Life, you need a reasonably modern computer (computers up to three years old should be fine) with a graphics card and a broadband connection.

The game has different levels of membership, with only the ?Premium? level, which costs $US9.95 each month, offering the full experience such as the right to buy land.

To start your adventure go to bigpond.com and choose 2ND Life. Then click on ?Join?. You?ll be asked to download software as part of this process. Install the program on offer and you?ll be on your way to a Second Life of your own.

Second Life chews through a lot of bandwidth but it?s unmetered for BigPond members, so it pays to be with BigPond if you plan to spend some time here.

Source: Australian GO magazine