The huge increase in Internet bandwidth and in the power of personal computers has made possible a new sort of digital pastime: the so-called "Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games" in which thousands, if not millions, of virtual individuals, the "avatars" of real human beings, interact in an equally virtual world.
When these games first started, you were most likely to be a troll 3 metres tall with an axe and magic powers, but the virtual world most talked about today is very different. In Second Life, for instance, you are an individual, admittedly sometimes a little peculiar and able to fly, but ultimately very similar to a "real" human being: in it you can wander around, earn and spend virtual money (but that you can convert into real US dollars), you can buy clothes or a house, be sexually or politically active. It is therefore another life, a chance for a banker to become a disc-jockey, or for a civil servant to play at being a farmer or to speculate in real estate.
It is thus a social phenomenon worth studying, since the players seem very keen to re-invent themselves in another life, in some ways very similar to real life yet very different too, involving strange, uninhibited and role-playing social relations. It is possible to have several avatars in Second Life and a man can be a woman, anonymity being the best disguise. It is also a techno-social phenomenon, in that Second Life further blurs the boundaries between the real and virtual worlds, the perfect symbol of the disembodiment of places and climate (it never rains on the virtual islands), and a new indicator of the omnipresence that is so much talked about.
Finally, perhaps the most surprising aspect of Second Life is economic, whether or not it lasts: an innovative economic model is emerging, apparently creating new markets into which daring firms and entrepreneurs are throwing themselves. In this article Serge Soudoplatoff explores this hypothetical vision of future commercial transactions.