It was an ordinary day as far as ordinary goes in this place. I met a few people -- some looked normal and others looked, well, different. By different I mean some of them sported dragon wings, others had blue skin and some weren't human at all. I even encountered a kind of panda bear-type humanoid wearing what looked to be a leather diaper.

But the unusual is usual here in Second Life, an immense virtual world where almost anything goes. Second Life is an MMORPG -- a massive multiplayer online role playing game -- though most of its "residents" would bristle at the term "game."

More than 7 million people inhabit this rapidly expanding digital realm, fulfilling the dream of being and doing whatever they want. With a fully functional economy, media and an evolving social contract, Second Life is becoming a bona fide, albeit bizarre, alternate universe.

I recently spent a few days there for this article, and it was almost impossible to find something that wasn't odd somehow. For instance, flying and teleporting are favorite modes of transportation. There are few laws, and residents seem to live by a code of conduct rather than a long list of rules. Those who live there have built some extraordinary homes, many of which defy the laws of physics.

One of the most unexpected abilities I gained upon arriving was the power to create objects out of nothingness. Sadly my God-like capability went underutilized. The steep learning curve combined with my short visit to Second Life afforded me only enough skill to make a useless blue board.

Maximizing my time meant a lot of exploring. I visited an Second Life and reminiscent of Las Vegas. I found a skyscraper that reached into the clouds and overlooked a vast ocean. Nearby was a shopping mall floating in midair. I soared over a barren Second Life and and its owner who stood on the shore peering toward the setting sun. I even stumbled across a Reuters news bureau -- a pillar of reality in an unreal world.

The freewheeling and free market nature of Second Life is propelling the online world from obscurity to household name. Real estate can be bought and sold, merchandise of any imaginable (and unimaginable) sort can be had, and entertainment is everywhere. People's obsession with sex also is on ample display, thanks to the anonymity inherent to Second Life.

And this is just one of a growing number of virtual worlds that range from practical to utterly fantastic.

Inner Space
If governments want to be relevant in the future, they'd be well advised to start finding ways to go beyond a mere online presence and establish a virtual one. At least one government already has. Earlier this year, the Swedish government announced it would create an embassy in Second Life -- a place for virtual tourists to find information about visiting the real country.

Others also are discovering practical reasons for inhabiting the virtual world. As I walked around the Reuters building in Second Life, I ran into a fellow (well, his avatar) who heads up a tech staffing firm. We got to chatting, and he said he was exploring the possibility of establishing a virtual recruiting facility -- wisely figuring that many tech-savvy people maintained a persona in Second Life.

These two disparate examples show how a virtual world can do more than entertain. A growing number of Second Life users make a living entirely by selling virtual real estate or manufacturing virtual products.

It can be hard to wrap your head around. How does one make

Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.