The number of people actively exploring an alternate existence in a virtual world just keeps on growing. With last weekend’s release of The Burning Crusade – an expansion pack for the online role playing game World Of Warcraft – the number of current users of the game has just topped 10 million; in terms of population, that puts World Of Warcraft somewhere between Serbia and Hungary. The makers of the game also stress that these figures exclude all free promo subscriptions and dormant users.

But while we’re well aware of gamers’ willingness to engage in virtual combat with imaginary foes, how are other virtual worlds doing, where the aims are more philosophical, and not so dependent on your stash of ammunition?

Second Life’s population recently tipped the 12 million mark, but closer inspection of their figures reveals that less than 1 million of those have logged in in the past month, while only around half of those have logged in during the last 7 days. This puts Second Life somewhere between Djibouti and Luxembourg – still not to be sniffed at, but certainly small fry in comparison to the mighty World Of Warcraft. Other worlds such as IMVU and There claim to have around a million users, but again, the active numbers are probably far smaller. Despite the servers running these games being able to log the number of users at any particular time, industry experts have admitted that it’s incredibly difficult to come up with accurate statistics.

Does it matter? After all, these are just idle distractions, aren’t they? Thing is, it has been proven that there’s money to be made – real world money – in Second Life; if you’re looking to be a virtual world entrepreneur, you want to have some idea as to whether your market is the size of Italy, or the size of the Pitcairn Islands. One thing’s clear though: ramp up the chances of either being killed or being able to kill in a virtual world, and you’ll get people flocking to join the party. Strange, isn’t it?