A Second Life for journalists

Archbishop Desmond Tutu recently entered a thriving virtual world called Second Life to be interviewed by Reuters bureau chief Adam Pasick. Somehow this doesn’t seem as strange as it would have a few years ago.

During a presentation at the World Editors’ Forum in Cape Town, Adam Pasick, known as Adam Reuters in the game, explained that Second Life has a real economy and real culture, and therefore real news. "There are six million people who live in Second Life right now, and the economy generates over $350-million a year in real currency trade," said Pasick.

Pasick’s style of journalism is the stuff of science fiction. He jokingly refers to Desmond Tutu as "the Arch" as he rotates the realistic three-dimensional avatar (a virtual body) that he created for the interview.

The question about why people would immerse themselves in a virtual world is no longer relevant. The fact is that they do. In April 2007, Second Life citizens spent a combined total of more than 18-million hours inside the game and spent more than $5-million in real money trading with each other.

The average Second Life resident is thirty years old and the gender distribution is roughly equal.

But as the economy of the game has begun to boom, one of the hottest commodities in Second Life remains real-estate development.

Several companies specialise in buying and developing property in the game and selling it on the in-game auction system for a profit. Some produce objects using the game-scripting engine that others buy as accessories — for instance a fly that buzzes about your avatar’s head or a little furry pet that follows you around as you traverse the polygon universe.

The presence of a Reuters reporter in the game is indicative of the influence that events inside the virtual world are beginning to have in the real world.

Pasick points out that the electoral candidates in the recent French elections had a presence in Second Life and the French newspaper, Le Dauphiné Liberé, organised a virtual debate between six politicians and then posted the transcripts of the interviews on their websites.

The Washington Post reported on a protest outside the virtual election headquarters of French right-wing presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, where protesters and security guards clashed.

Pasick is probably right when he says Second Life isn’t really a game in the traditional sense of the word. It seems to be moving into the same space as instant messaging and email as an environment where the communication can be real, serious and even more engaging because of the 3D world it takes place in.

As Reuters continues to report on the financial and social events in the game, and as other similar games begin to grow their communities and economies, some of the key questions that will emerge in the next two years relate to matters of governance, policy and taxation for virtual returns. For now, however, it seems to be a lot of fun — until someone gets hurt or begins to lose money.


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A Second Life for journalists