The Evolution of Virtual Worlds

Despite their cutting-edge look, online virtual worlds actually go back decades. Inspired by the board game Dungeons and Dragons, they started out with participants typing in plain-text descriptions of the settings and the actions of their characters.

Since then, relentless improvements in computer graphics, coupled with increasingly pervasive high-speed Internet connections, have imbued these worlds with surprising realism and intense social role-playing.

Virtual Lives
A journey into a place in cyberspace where thousands of people have imaginary lives. Some even make a good living. Big advertisers are taking notice.

As you step onto the polished wood floor of the peaceful country house, a fountain gurgles softly and a light breeze stirs the scarlet curtain in a doorway.

Clad in a stylish blue-and-purple dress, Valchanus waves me to a low seat at a table set with jugs of beer. I’m here to ask her about her booming development business, which she has built from nothing two years ago to an operation of 17 people around the world today. As we chat, her story sounds like a classic tale of entrepreneurship.

Except I’ve left out one small detail: Valchanu’s land, the beautifully appointed country home, the rising throf on top of the beer jugs — they don’t exist. Or rather, they exist only as pixels dancing on the computer screens of people who inhabit the online virtual world.

Valchanus is an avatar, or onscreen graphic character,  and the sitting room in which Valchanus and my avatar exchange text messages is just one scene in a vast online diorama. Participants launch software on their personal computers, log in, and then use their mice and keyboards to roam endless landscapes and cityscapes, chat with friends and conduct real business.

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