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Students get a 'Second Life' in first 'metanomics' course

Anyone who thinks virtual reality is just a game should have a talk with Beyers Sellers, a virtual-reality character in the online world of Second Life. The flesh and blood behind the sandy-haired avatar (a virtual persona) is Rob Bloomfield, a Johnson School professor who uses the online virtual world Second Life as his classroom for a course that guides 10 students this semester through the complex economics arising in the "metaverse" of virtual worlds.

Business and Oversight in Second Life is a new directed-study seminar for graduate students. Required to create their own avatars, the students use Second Life to study the business and policy issues surrounding the largely unregulated "wild west" of the metaverse. Created by the company Linden Labs, Second Life has some 9 million subscribers and handles more than $1.5 million in exchanges every day.

Bloomfield, the Nicholas H. Noyes Professor of Management, has even coined a new word -- "metanomics" -- the economics of the metaverse, which answers to a distinct set of masters.

"Metanomics, by necessity, is an interdisciplinary endeavor," Bloomfield said. "There's a technical side, a legal side and a business side, as well as a game side."

Bloomfield also offers a lecture series in Second Life on how Second Life's metaverse relates to and influences the real world, at http://www.metanomics.metaversed.com/.

Through collaboration with the Web site Metaversed.com and its editor, Nick Wilson, the lectures and seminars can be attended either via Second Life or streamed live over the Internet. Events (which include some real-world activities) will run through December and feature such speakers as Dan Miller, senior economist of the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress; Anshe Chung, one of the first users to earn $1 million in Second Life; and representatives from IBM, MTV, Sun Microsystems and other corporations that explore the business potential of virtual worlds.

In his course, Bloomfield says his goal is to get students to understand business and regulatory oversight in the metaverse using thought from the real world. Some students start with what Bloomfield calls the "immersionist" view of Second Life -- using their avatars in the metaverse, as if it were the only universe.

Another perspective he teaches is the "augmentationist" view -- considering the metaverse a new feature of real life and analyzing how the metaverse affects business and policy in the real world.

Some large companies plan to use the metaverse to accomplish strategic goals, Bloomfield explained. Others, such as government officials, worry that the metaverse can be used to evade taxes or train terrorists.

He calls a third view of the metaverse "experimentalist," which considers Second Life "a test tube," in which people conduct controlled experiments. For example, researchers might create two worlds that differ only in how they regulate or tax businesses and compare how those worlds differ from one another.

Bloomfield pointed to Second Life's real estate market as something that bows to different trends and pressures than in the real world. "Location, location, location" in Second Life does not have nearly the weight of the real world, considering that in Second Life, avatars can teleport in an instant.

The question then becomes, How does the real estate market in Second Life behave? How do people deal with zoning, for example? These are all questions students can ask using their avatars' experiences, Bloomfield said.

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