Though Delia Lake's hair is streaked with gray, in her tight purple turtleneck and high heels she looks young and sexy, like just about everyone else here -- even those who don't appear fully human. I met her on the island of Better World at the Center for Water Studies, an environmental education outpost dedicated to "increasing the appreciation and understanding of water habitats." Like many nearby places I've visited, the center is dark and deserted, but Lake tells me how to remedy that. "It might be easier for you to see if we set the sun to noon," she says. I click on the "World" menu, hit "Force Sun," and let there be light.
I'm visiting Lake in Second Life, a virtual universe designed by the nearly 2.75 million members (and growing) who've joined since its 2003 opening; more than a million have logged on within the past 60 days. Part MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role-playing game), part online networking community (like MySpace or Friendster), Second Life is a developing world in the most imaginative interpretation of the term, "a global community working together to build a new online space for creativity, collaboration, commerce, and entertainment," according to its literature. In Second Life, or SL, as users call it, U.S. dollars can be exchanged for Linden dollars, the local currency, enabling enterprising users to make a killing in both Linden and real dollars selling everything from virtual leather pants to virtual solar panels. You can attend virtual events like dance parties, writing workshops, and garage sales, or buy virtual land and build houses or shops or forests or anything you like out of "prims," the building blocks for SL objects.
Though it exists only in two dimensions, to many people -- and companies -- the dividing line between SL and Real Life (or RL, as it's referred to) has begun to blur. Reuters assigned a reporter to cover business and finance news here. Corporations like W Hotels and American Apparel have opened SL outposts. And while there's plenty of adult activity -- virtual nightclubs and pick-up joints and the like -- the SL phenomenon reaches beyond traditional online fantasies of sexual liaisons, warfare, and commerce. There's also a burgeoning activist movement here, made up of those who see the promise of SL as an electronic world that may help improve the natural one through its capacity to spread ideas and trends among users.
Second lifers begin by creating an avatar (an online identity), choosing a body -- human, android, animal -- an outfit, and a name. Once you've done that, type "sustainable" and "environmental" into SL's search function and a variety of people, groups, events, and places pop up. I found a handsome avatar who goes by the handle WilliamThewise Goodman, a goateed fellow in a charcoal oxford shirt and tie who started his own SL venture, Eco-Topia, almost a year ago. A neighbor in his Colorado co-housing community had been raving about SL, prompting Goodman to join and create a virtual "new town" (walkable, not oil-dependent, modeled on New Urbanism) so people who wouldn't otherwise get to visit one could have access. "I was just fascinated by the possibilities of Second Life," he says, or writes; instant messaging is the preferred method of communication here. "You've got this blank slate where you can create whatever you want." Goodman aims to harness SL's educational potential -- the power to introduce concepts in a way a textbook, a chat room, or other forms of communication can't. Here you can experience the real thing, so long as you're able to suspend a modicum of disbelief.
In this way, SL resembles video games such as The Oregon Trail, which teaches schoolchildren about the settlement of the American West -- a history lesson disguised as recreation. SL activists see the same possibilities: Tap the real brain behind every Second Life gamer. The difference is that SL wasn't designed specifically as an educational tool; some of its users are turning it into one.
At the Center for Water Studies, on a hilly island surrounded by pine trees and a perpetual dapple of snow, you can see an animated pond freeze in winter and breed tadpoles in spring. Delia Lake and her colleagues are now creating an ocean environment that will allow users to click from clean to contaminated water to see the effects of pollution on an underwater ecosystem: a textbook illustration come to life. "We can all use what we learn about water habitats in SL to better care for our precious water resources in RL," Lake writes.
Lake joined SL for fun, not activism. "I didn't have any mission at all when I came here," she writes, though she identifies her RL self as an avid outdoorswoman who belongs to the Responsible Business Association of Boston. But SL allowed some eco-activism to blossom in her, and this may be a common phenomenon. The Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School recently reported that nearly two-thirds of online community members who are involved in social activism on the Internet weren't familiar with their chosen cause before joining such a community. Of the 200 study participants, about 44 percent said that they have become more politically active since joining an online social network.