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Hyde Park, London, is alive tonight. The stars are out and a breeze rustles through the trees. Couples sit on benches holding hands, friends stroll around in groups chatting about the latest gossip, strangers meet underneath gas lamps to flirt, and a fox and a young Victorian woman clad in black lipstick play a friendly game of chess. Wait — a furry fox and a 19th century woman playing chess?

This is the world of Second Life, a popular online role-playing game where players can meet, socialize and travel the world under the guise of customized avatars.

Within the realms of this virtual reality the Great Wall of China is only a click away and it is possible to be anyone you want to. Want blond hair? Want to be skinnier? Want your own private loft in New York? Done. Just go to options and your avatar can sport the latest fashion, be ten pounds lighter, and live in the slickest bachelor pad in the city. With endless possibilities like these, it’s no wonder that millions of players log in everyday to experience the online thrills of Second Life.

And surprisingly enough, the average age of a Second Life player is 26.

“The appeal of Second Life is that it’s a new platform for social networking … musicians can play shows … filmmakers can show films,” one 24-year-old Second Life player explained.

Launched in 2003, Second Life has indeed become a launching pad for many artists. Concerts are periodically held at in-world venues, from bands like Duran Duran and Regina Spektor taking advantage of this online novelty by playing live gigs through their 3-D avatars

Take, for example, up and coming Second Life socialite Paulina Sazon, age 34. Sazon joined Second Life along with a group of friends as a simple way of exploring their identities, going from “fat to thin, animal fetish to stepford wife.”

Soon, Sazon began realizing the marketing potential of Second Life and created Maple Grove. The virtual city grew to include big names like Toys ‘R’ Us and Sears, where actual merchandise could be purchased through the world of Second Life and shipped the next day. Maple Grove soon became the center for Canada’s music life, boasting a concert hall where featured Canadian artists and other Second Life musicians can play their music. Sazon’s “social experiment” ended up making over $20,000 in real-life sales.

Yet not everyone agrees with the social and commercial impact Second Life has made. UCI film and media studies major Jeremy Steinberg was first introduced to Second Life as part of an assignment for his Film 85C class. Despite understanding the appeal of Second Life for many of its users, “I can’t imagine spending my free time doing that…its just weird playing a game that’s not real,” Steinberg said.

Despite such abjections, Second Life has already made a formidable impact at UCI. Libraries on campus have purchased an island in Second Life called Anteater Island, a place where students and instructors can come together to collaborate on a virtual level. Classes like Culture and Technology (US 12) and Reasoning and Modeling with Graphical Models (ICS 295) even held class on Anteater Island in previous quarters. Students in these courses teamed up to build computer games in Second Life and explore its online resources. The possibility of allotting parcels of the island to individual classes for an entire quarter has also been expressed.

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