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The authors of “The Second Life Herald” offer a startling statistic: More than 10 million people maintain an alternative, virtual existence in cyberspace. Players enter the most popular programs, such as Second Life, in this “metaverse” not to slay dragons or earn gold coins, but to do their laundry, exercise a pet or have sex. “The word ‘game’ doesn’t come close to describing much of what takes place in an online world,” Peter Ludlow and Mark Wallace write in this lively new book. Second Life, for example, bills itself as a “3D digital world imagined and created by its residents.” It has a stock exchange; people buy and sell, practice religion and marry.

In the London Review of Books earlier this year, writer Jenny Diski called Second Life “a replication of the regular world. It’s less a case of do it better than do it again: in fact, this seems to be its chief attraction.” Ludlow and Wallace argue that this is merely a framework that allows for the creation of “a shared culture and narrative that gives everyone a stake in the proceedings.” For the truly enterprising, they explain, the metaverse is boundless.

They should know. Ludlow, a University of Michigan philosophy professor and author of several books on cyberspace, started a virtual tabloid in the Sims Online world, which was created by gaming pioneer Will Wright. In TSO’s “open, undirected” city of Alphaville, rendered in vivid Technicolor, with “little in the way of entertainment or engaging diversion,” Ludlow noticed that users formed clans and spoke a specialized meta-language, refined by months of continual interaction.

He documented this emergent culture in the Alphaville Herald, reporting on a “synthetic society” that was rapidly growing in scope and ambition. A cyber-prostitution ring had sprung up alongside a sizable banking industry; some users were netting real-world dollars by selling property or trading currency. In its first few months, the Herald churned out hundreds of stories on graft, fraud and the influence of nefarious competing gangs.

On Dec. 10, 2003, in a scandal reported by such real-world media outlets as the New York Times and the BBC, Ludlow’s TSO account was terminated for “severe and/or repeated Terms of Service or Rules of Conduct violations.” He launched a publicity campaign to prove his innocence, convinced that he’d simply dug up too much dirt.

Reporters were fascinated with his story, tying it — correctly — to a revolution in the online community. New games like World of Warcraft were irrevocably changing the genre: More than merely interacting on a 3-D plane, millions of players were forming “relationships with as much complexity and enthusiasm as anywhere on earth.” But as Ludlow’s dismissal from TSO demonstrated, there was a rip in the client-server relationship — some players were being penalized while a privileged few skated under the radar. Many virtual-world devotees wanted to exercise total control over their avatar, without fear of intervention from above.

In 2004, Ludlow migrated to the then-fledging world of Second Life, a program whose key innovation was customization. Its players, Wallace and Ludlow write, were “unconstrained by the inconveniences of real-world physics”; they could dress up as a giant squirrel or spend the afternoon creating a towering hammer made of marshmallow.

Ludlow quickly opened a news bureau and eventually hired Wallace as his managing editor. The pair set up a new office and, by 2005, had recruited several more correspondents to help “tackle the broader question of what life in the metaverse was” and what it could become.

“The Second Life Herald” is full of discursive plot lines and polemics. But it does present a comprehensive history and analysis of the virtual landscape, a subject often relegated to dry academic studies or jargon-laden blog reports, in vivid accessible language. The authors, for instance, debunk a popular misconception among non-gamers: that kids plugged into computer screens are somehow removed from reality.

In fact, Ludlow and Wallace write, “most of the ‘game’ has been stripped away . . . [and] social interactions . . . are overwhelmingly the main ingredient of what goes on in such places.” Users aren’t running away from the real world; they’re running into another, full of slighted hearts and pixelated grins, where every emotion is magnified.

However, the book is also an argument against corporate malfeasance. The authors’ major gripe is with such companies as Linden Lab, creator of Second Life, which they argue are botching stewardship of virtual worlds. It’s an intriguing position that has much support in the metaverse. But the authors, who have an emotional stake in the debate, never give the companies a voice despite their discussion of press freedom.

Still, they eventually arrive at a simple, elegant solution for running a metaverse: “The best recipe would be one the users cooked up themselves.”

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