The Online Universe: An Old Fogey's Guide

Ask most people under the age of 30 about online games, and chances are they'll wax enthusiastic about their favorite, whether it's Neopets for the kiddies or World of Warcraft for twentysomethings. For everyone else, the most likely response is: Huh? Here's a primer on these strange new worlds.

What the heck are they?

They're like video games, except you're online with thousands of other people playing at the same time. Some are medieval adventures, others are set in space, and still others are little more than online chat rooms.

So what do you do, exactly?

Oh, kill things. Join up with other people in "guilds" so you can kill bigger things. Play roles like warrior or wizard. Earn imaginary gold and gain the power to do more activities in the game. Or, in less scripted worlds such as Second Life, you make everything up along the way, creating your own virtual world.

Wait, first tell me how I get started.

Fire up your personal computer (a newer one that can handle the whizzy graphics), download the software from the game's Web site, and sign up for an account. Then you create an avatar to travel around that particular digital world. Uh -- avatar?

It's a graphic representation of you inside the world. In Second Life, avatars typically look more or less like humans, though they can be modified in such detail -- different hair, eyes, body type, even clothes -- that each one is unique, sometimes bizarre. You see the game from the perspective of your avatar, viewing whatever is in your avatar's line of sight and seeing or hearing only the conversations of others nearby.

O.K., so tell me about this Second Life.

It's a three-dimensional online world, set up by Linden Lab of San Francisco and its CEO, Philip Rosedale. Unlike in other virtual worlds, you and the other 170,000 users create just about everything inside it. Software menus make simple construction from basic shapes easy. But with a little more work using Linden's own programming language, you can build nightclubs, casinos, beaches, skydiving services, retail stores -- you name it.

How do I check all this out?

Using your mouse and keyboard, you walk or fly your avatar around the digital landscape. The arrow keys move the avatar forward, backward, and sideways. Use the page-up button to jump up or fly and look around.

What does it cost?

You can get a free basic membership, which allows you to customize your avatar and explore Second Life. If you want to own land on which to put a house or garden or other objects, you need to sign up for a premium membership, which is $9.95 a month. Buy more land, and monthly fees rise.

Why would anyone go to all this trouble?

You own whatever digital objects you create within Second Life, whether they're elegant avatar dresses or a cool motorcycle. So if you want, you can open your own business selling your virtual creations, like thousands of Second Life "residents" already do.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.