Finally, You Can Buy Something Real With Play Money

Virtual money earned playing 'Second Life' can now be used to buy computer hardware.

At the online store Second Life Boutique, trees, cigarettes and new body parts are for sale. And that's not the weird part.

Those items are all virtual, and just a few of the many accoutrements you can purchase at online stores with real U.S. dollars in order to improve your life in the online world known as "Second Life."

What's genuinely unusual is that earlier this week the store's owner started selling something real — computer hardware — and he did it by attaching a price tag that's figured not in greenbacks, Euros or even pesos but with Linden Dollars, the virtual money earned by playing "Second Life." You heard right: Shoppers are able to use play money to buy something real.

"I'd be completely lying if I said I knew which way I was going to go with this," said the Boutique's owner, Tim Allen, who in real life works as a tech specialist in Pennsylvania but appears as the purple-haired FlipperPA Peregrine to those who meet him in "Second Life." For now, he is just experimenting with a new sales strategy designed to cater to users of an online world whose developers claim plays host to $240,000 worth of buying and selling of virtual goods each day.

"I just started to think it would be interesting with the amount of dollars going through on a daily basis to challenge people to think of it as a foreign currency rather than as Monopoly money," Allen said. So buttressing his storehouse of virtual goods this week, he added a new category, "Real Life Products," nestled right between "Poses & Animations" and "Tiny Critters." That category currently houses one item: an XFX GeForce computer graphics card. It is going for 20,000 Linden Dollars, the currency traded in "Second Life." That equals about $73.

Allen acknowledges that that price, which includes shipping and handling, might not beat larger online retailers, but thinks that it's competitive and could prove a convenience for those not looking to cash out their Linden Dollars into real bills. It could also transform the idea of what virtual money can be used for, if it catches on. In the first 24 hours of availability, Allen said he received numerous inquiries — but no buyers just yet.

A second company, SLHosting.com, has announced plans to begin selling real-world items for virtual money starting in February, but could not be reached for comment by press time.

"Second Life," a virtual world with a population that just cracked 100,000, according to its developers, has generated a reputation for being a testing ground of the online virtual frontier. Far smaller than the 5 million-strong "World of Warcraft," it is also more malleable, so much so that its supporters bristle at it even being called a game. Instead of levels, enemies or scores, it presents a virtual, three-dimensional landscape that, at launch, was essentially devoid of goals but allows anyone with rudimentary technical skills to build up the world. Users navigate characters across what was once a blank canvas but is now populated with places and events created by its users: skyscrapers, nightclubs, demolition derbies, support groups, charity walks, sex shops, gun stores and even a re-creation of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb.

Catherine Smith, a spokesperson for Linden Labs, said that Allen isn't quite the first to try selling something tangible for Linden dollars. A couple of years ago another "Second Life" user had tried to sell real T-shirts for virtual money. "That didn't go anywhere," she said. "Flipper's experiment is much more ambitious."

In the last couple of years there have been many headlines about transactions in massively multi-player online video games such as "EverQuest" and "World of Warcaft," but the transactions tended to work the other way around: the sale of virtual goods for real money. "EverQuest" users would play long enough to win a rare item and then sell it on a site such as eBay for real money to people interested in buying their way — rather than playing their way — to the top. Last year, "EverQuest" developer Sony Online Entertainment opened an official site for these kinds of transactions. Meanwhile, "World of Warcraft" players had sharp disagreements in 2005 over an influx of "gold-farmers," who are real-world players, supposedly often located in China, who play the game in marathon sessions just to win gold and sell it back to American gamers. Critics said gold-farmers were getting in the way and ruining the spirit of the game's adventures.

For all that financial activity, Edward Castronova, an expert in online gaming economics and author of "Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games," said SLBoutique's sale of the real goods for not-so-real money is a notable step. "It is a surprise to me," he said, noting that most of the effort in virtual salesmanship has involved attaching real-world value to virtual goods rather than to virtual cash.

Still, many avid online gamers don't like this sort of thing, saying they don't want the real world bleeding into the virtual, or vice versa. "As an economist it appeals to me," said Castronova. "As a gamer it doesn't. I'm not into games that do that. I'm not into games that cross those boundaries."

That stance isn't lost on Allen, who said he only plans on offering real goods that have a connection to the virtual world, such as computer hardware. He's also hoping to sell an upcoming book, "Only a Game," which deals with the exploits of two journalists who report from within online worlds.