Why Walk? Virtual Walkathon Helps Raise Money For Cancer Research

'Second Life' leads charitable gamers past Taj Mahal, Brazilian rainforest this weekend.

Can you have a walkathon where no one actually walks? Can you raise money for charity if you’re using play money?

This weekend, the online world of “Second Life” will host the second annual Second Life: Relay for Life to benefit the American Cancer Society. The walkathon will span an in-program track that stretches through Times Square, the Taj Mahal, the Brazilian rainforest and more than a dozen other international sites built by 26 volunteer programmers. Organizers hope to advance the point made at last year’s relay: Real-world charitable events can be transplanted into the virtual world. (Check out the virtual Big Ben, Taj Mahal and more from the “Second Life” walkathon .)

“I found it to be a really noble effort, and I’m really proud to be involved in it,” said Aimee Weber, a New York “Second Life” user who created the rainforest part of the path and who said her day job is building things in “Second Life.” One of her recent gigs had her creating the first American Apparel store set in “Second Life” (see “GameFile: Chamillionaire’s Ridin’ Virtual, ‘Saint’s Row’ Has A Surprise, Anti-Game Laws Gain Steam And More” ).

Weber was speaking by phone in a joint interview with Atlanta resident Randal Moss of the American Cancer Society, the project’s liaison, and Keith Morris of Omaha, Nebraska, who dreamed up the virtual walkathon concept last year.

During their interview with MTV News, the three weren’t just tethered by phone lines. They were all in “Second Life,” three boldly colored avatars set on a brick road ready to give a walking tour in order to explain just how the whole thing works.

“Now would be a good time to turn your pedometer on,” Morris said. Last year’s walkathon had been set upon a giant path shaped like the word “Hope.” It was big, but not as big as this year’s effort, which spans a dozen “SL” sims, each of which is about 16 acres. The pedometer could track the length of the walk, but neither Keith, Aimee nor Randal had run it through the course yet.

In real-life walkathons, it matters how far a person walks; participants can get sponsors to pledge a per-lap donation. That’s not the way it works in the virtual arena. The pedometer is for fun. But along the pathway are short, white posts called luminaries. Walking through Weber’s rainforest, a walker can click on one. A prompt comes up encouraging a donation. Payment is made in Linden Dollars — the currency of “Second Life” — but since the company behind the whole program, Linden Labs, supports real-world currency exchange, it can be turned into U.S. dollars for the American Cancer Society.

The Brazilian rainforest dropped some virtual rain during the Tuesday tour. About 161 meters in, the path wound its way to Weber’s second contribution: a small Mexican town set beside a massive Aztec pyramid.

” ‘Second Life’ is made up of residents from all over the world,” Moss said. “And we wanted to pay homage to the global effects of cancer.”

The tour of nations carries on with the United States — represented by Times Square and a miniature Central Park — and then Canada, Ireland and England. Each is the creation of one to four core designers — all volunteers from the “Second Life” user community. Linden Labs only creates the land and depends on the creativity of its users to cover that land with interesting stuff.

Builders hadn’t just created a tour of nations for the cancer benefit; they’d also stocked it with activities: skeet shooting in Central Park, musical performances in Dublin’s Blarney Stone pub, sailboat races around a miniature Australia and sky diving next to the Eiffel Tower in fake Paris.

The tour guides agreed that the most striking site was the Taj Mahal, created by a user called Barnesworth Anubis — not to be rivaled in naming ingenuity with London co-designer CoyoteAngel Dimsum, of course. Morris said the building is best viewed at night.

The sunset isn’t something one has to wait for in “Second Life”; it’s just an option users can click. In fact, the sky can reflect a different time of day for every user. But Morris said he can force the default lighting to nocturnal.

“Traditionally, the [real-world] Relay for Life takes place at night,” Morris said. “So we’re going to control the sunset to mimic that.”

Moss hopes that as people marvel at the sights, they will be compelled to donate. Fundraising has already begun thanks to 15 teams of volunteers that have roamed through “Second Life” since June 1 soliciting donations at in-world parties. Last year, he said, 434 people donated a combined $5,869.13.

“My hopes for attendance and donations were to double both,” Moss said about this year’s walk. “We have already raised five times more money, and I would love to see five times more people attend.”

The walkathon path was still under construction Tuesday. The “chunnel,” meant to link London to Australia, wasn’t working yet. The waterfall in Japan looked like it was made of wood, because the designer hadn’t applied a water effect.

By the end of the walk, an hour had passed and the results were in. Distance traveled, including a little bit of wandering: 6,039.7 meters. The whole affair is one of the largest projects constructed in “Second Life” — bigger than the replica of Peter Pan’s Neverland, bigger than the baseball stadium built to depict this year’s All-Star home-run derby. It’s also the biggest charity event concocted in a world that saw significant building and giving following Hurricane Katrina.

But it’s a temporary project. The only things that stay in “Second Life” are the things that are built on land rented from Linden Labs; the walkathon path is just on loan. According to Morris, the whole thing is set to dissolve back to blank terrain late Sunday or early Monday.

Morris is happy with the achievement, especially since his grandmother and an aunt died of cancer. Beyond that, he just thinks it’s right to bring more charity to the digital world.

“I’m kind of interested in what kind of cool things people can do in ‘Second Life,’ to be honest,” he said.

Moss said he hopes to do it again next year. And maybe, he said, a version of this can be built into the hottest online world going: “World of Warcraft.”

“That would be very funny seeing Orcs walk around a track.”

For more information on how you can participate in the American Cancer Society’s Second Life: Relay For Life, check out cancer.org.