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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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In the virtual sun
Colourful diversions: You can reach idyllic vacation spots without ever leaving home

Imagine relaxing in a tiny private cove, on a lava beach near the mists of a waterfall. The sun is shining, a tropical bird cries somewhere in the distance and the cares of the working world seem a million miles away.

It’s an idyllic vacation spot, but the best thing about it is that it takes less than five minutes to get there from anywhere in the world. In fact, you can reach it without ever leaving your home. That’s because it exists not in any physical location but in one of the many virtual worlds that millions of people now travel to every day with the help of nothing more than a decent computer graphics card and a broadband Internet connection.

Though most of these worlds take the form of multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft or Star Wars Galaxies, a few are simply open 3-D environments whose members can get away from it all in a place filled with colorful diversions and other cyberexplorers like themselves. Even in game worlds, many players log on not to slay orcs or blow up death stars but to spend time with friends, see the sights and take a small vacation without ever stepping foot outside their door.

More than 10 million people around the world travel to such imaginary destinations regularly. They get there via software that lets them guide their onscreen representatives, known as “avatars,” through places built entirely of pixels where they can interact with one another. Their destinations include virtual dance parties and nightclubs, auto races and yachting events, Star Wars-style cantinas, whimsical underwater jazz clubs and much more.

In a world called Second Life, especially (where the virtual Hawaii described above can be found), so many people visit that profitable businesses have sprung up that earn their proprietors real money, not just virtual currency ' in fact, a handful of people earn six-figure incomes there. There are discos, casinos and other sites that can be rented for private parties or even for the virtual weddings many people hold.

“Coming to Second Life was a nice way to get away from the stresses of real life,” said Amy McKenzie, a full-time mother of three in Madison, South Dakota, whose avatar goes by the name Diamond Hope. “But mostly it’s a place I can meet my friends and just have a good time.” One California woman, whose avatar is known as SweetBrown1 Mfume, spends many of her after-work and weekend hours socializing with friends in Second Life. In cyberspace, she said, she can spend time with them no matter their differences in location or time zone. “We can dance, hug and kiss, all across the US,” she said.

Entering a world like Second Life is relatively simple. Free trial memberships are available at secondlife.com.

On FairChang Island one of the 1,000-plus “regions” of Second Life (each covering 16 virtual acres), a simple mouse-click allows members to purchase virtual sailboats that can be sailed around the waters of the virtual world.

Like most virtual worlds, Second Life also sees its share of cybersex, in which two people will use a private chat channel within the world to type suggestively to each other, a practice that dates from the early days of chat rooms.

But Second Life adds a visual element to cybersex that chat rooms lack. Poses and animations can be had that allow avatars to engage in all kinds of sexual positions and activities. In addition, there is a virtual sex industry that includes virtual lap dances, virtual escort services and virtual prostitution.

To guide members in what they can expect, Second Life is divided into “mature” regions, where anything goes, and “PG” regions, where sexual content and swearing are not allowed. (The world has a minimum age requirement of 18, but for younger cybernauts, Second Life offers a separate “teen grid” as well.)

A smaller club called the Shelter, in the Isabel region, is designed expressly for those new to Second Life and for those looking for a night out free of sexual overtones.

Although many people keep in touch with their real-world loved ones in virtual worlds, some find relationships that develop in the opposite direction. Ms McKenzie not long ago met a man in Second Life, then met him in real life and is now married to him. The couple were married in South Dakota, and plan to have another ceremony online.

NYTNS

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