Escape reality with these virtual worlds

Now you can listen to music, play games, or just hang out in the virtual playgrounds of the internet. Rebecca Amstrong logs on.


Second Life

What can you do?

Live another life online. Create a business, buy an island or become a cheerleader - this game is all about living your dreams. The best-known virtual world, Second Life is an online three-dimensional society created by its "residents". To become a resident, all users have to do is download the software, register a character and start exploring. The idea is that you create a computer-generated version of yourself, called an avatar. Founder Philip Rosedale of Linden Lab says he wanted to create a world "better than reality but without political or religious issues". While it may not be big on politics, Second Life has a booming economy that has seen users netting real cash for their virtual endeavours.

Who uses it?

There are about 1.5 million residents, 100,000 in the UK. Some 50,000 visit every day, for about four hours each. It's become a prime space for big brands to target, with Vodafone planning to launch virtual telephones, the record company Sony BMG supplying music, and Adidas creating a virtual 3D version of their new Predator trainers. The news agency Reuters recently announced that it was opening its first virtual bureau in Second Life. Under-18s can play by signing up for Teen Second Life.

What does it cost?

It's free for a basic sign-up but, to have access to the whole of Second Life, players take out a subscription for $9.95 (about £5) a month. Residents use real money to buy virtual cash, called Linden Dollars (LD). The current rate is about 275LD to one US dollar. In fact, more than 3,000 residents make an average of £10,000 each a year from Second Life and the top 10 entrepreneurs currently rake in an average of $200,000 a year from the game's residents.

www.secondlife.com

Virtual Ibiza

What can you do?

Flirt in a 3D world based on Ibiza's hotspots, featuring faithful (if cartoon-like) recreations of the real island. Users create an avatar, then it's all about making friends and dating. The site is like a virtual holiday resort.

Who uses it?

Grown-ups; party guys and gals who appreciate the hedonistic Ibiza spirit. It's a forum to meet new and old friends and get advice on club nights and holidays. It doubles as a dating site, although access to personal information is for serious subscribers only. The site bans abusive members and recommends that users keep personal details secret and be careful if meeting virtual friends for real. There's a discussion forum; postings include "How do I become a Club 18-30 rep?" and "What is the worst thing you've ever got a man for Christmas?"

What does it cost?

It's totally free. A loyalty scheme allows users to earn points that bring a range of benefits with them.

www.virtualibiza.com

Dreamville

What can you do?

Become part of a stylised, seriously cute world. You choose an avatar who looks like a princess, the Tin Man or even a robot. Dreamville is a social networking site that offers users a homepage, blogs, photo-sharing, instant messaging and an online theme-park. Users can join families and clans to share chat and virtual presents. In Themepark, users have a field and a room to decorate with furniture and other items. When logging in for the first time, you can buy your first home with the Game Money (GM) you get. Dreamville was launched in Malaysia in 2004.

Who uses it?

The young and tech-savvy; Despite the bubble gum colours and cute characters, Dreamville is tricky to navigate and often baffling to new users.

What does it cost?

Initial registration, which includes a basic avatar and a homepage, is free. Extra clothing and accessories must be bought with e-game Points (eP) that can be bought via a credit card; 50 eP cost $1.99. To buy furniture, Game Money must be used, which is a bit confusing. A house costs 30,000 GM but users are given 35,000 GM when they sign up.

dreamville.e-games.com.my

Coke Studios

What can you do?

Make new friends, create your own music and decorate your virtual studio. Users generate a "v-ego" version of themselves then make their tunes, turn them into demos and share them with other members. Users can then receive ratings for each mix. These allow members to earn "decibels", which can be used to purchase virtual furnishings for their personalised studio areas. This American massive multiplayer online community (MMOC) began life in 2002 and there are now a number of in-game locations including New York, London, Mombasa and Rio de Janeiro. Coke Studios is what's known as an "advergame" - although it provides many of the same functions as other virtual worlds, it was primarily designed as an advertising tool.

Who uses it?

Over seven million people. The site is aimed at teens and young adults, who are deemed to be one of the hardest groups to market to. While the music-making options and free messaging are fun, there is no escaping from the fact that Coke Studios is a corporate vehicle to get more teens drinking, rather than listening to, pop. Drinking virtual cans of Coca-Cola - helpfully distributed at regular intervals - earns players decibels which they can use within the game.

What does it cost?

Nothing, but since the site is aimed at potential customers, there are promotional quizzes, games, and contests for Coca-Cola and its partners. The site sponsors a number of US events, including American Idol, and this is reflected in-game, with limited-edition items made available to users during a sponsorship deal.

www.mycoke.com

Club Penguin

What can you do?

In this world, all the avatars are penguins. Pick a name for your penguin, choose a colour, then type messages to chat with other penguins - or join in games like "Find Four" (think Connect Four), go ice-fishing and sledging, or just hang out at the ice-rink.

Who uses it?

For kids of eight to 14, it's a safe playground backed by the Better Business Bureau's Kid's Privacy Seal of Approval. It takes its responsibilities seriously; there's a detailed Q&A section for parents, and moderators check conversations; inappropriate language or behaviour will lead to a ban. Members can become "secret agents", helping new users and reporting rule-breakers. Adults can log on, but if you're over 18, your penguin gets a Zimmer frame.

What does it cost?

Free to join but - parents note - you'll need to subscribe ($5.95 a month, $29.95 for six months, or $57.95 for a year) to use some features. A shop sells real toys and T-shirts.

www.clubpenguin.com

Habbo Hotel

What can you do?

Check in to a virtual hotel and hang out with friends online. Habbo Hotel is a functioning world that has attracted bands as big as U2, whose virtual versions will be hosting a pub quiz later this month. Gorillaz held a world tour on the site, and record company Innocent has even launched a virtual band, 365, to exist only in the Habbo World.

Who uses it?

This super-cool online world is popular with teens and consequently is being used by record companies keen to crack this crucial market. Launched in Finland in 2000 to promote a band, Habbo Hotel is now available in 29 countries and has 66 million users.

What does it cost?

Signing up is free, but users need credits to buy furniture for their suites, and to join the Habbo Club, a members-only section of the site. These credits cost 10p and can be bought by text, phone and money order, letting teens without credit cards spend their - or more likely their parents' - cash.

www.habbo.co.uk

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