In the Hindu religion, an "avatar" is an incarnation, in tangible human or animal form, of an ethereal deity. But the word has also come to have almost the opposite meaning. The appearances, voices, and quirks of real people are manifesting themselves as never before in an intangible, electronic form.
On about eight million computers worldwide, you can explore a virtual world called Second Life. In that world, real people create their own avatars, or online identities, in humanesque, somewhat cartoonish form. As the folks at Linden Research in San Francisco, which created Second Life, put it, you can "create anything you can imagine."
Second Life avatars walk, run — but also fly — or can be instantly transported to new locations. They can meet other virtual people at parties, play games and listen to live music that real Second Lifers pipe in. Anatomically correct avatars even have virtual sex, an extremely popular activity in this make-believe world. In fact, the site is so realistic that, according to an Australian newspaper, some terrorists use it to practice. And it's so creative that several U.S. colleges use it as a teaching tool.
Second Life is not a video game. There are no points or competitions. Linden Research makes money because "residents," as Second Lifers are called, buy what's called "Linden Dollars" from the company. These are used to purchase virtual property, virtual clothes, and other virtual items on the Web site.
All this simulation requires some pretty powerful and pricey personal computers. And critics point out that pretend-living in this fantasy world can be so intoxicating that people can all too easily lose touch with reality. But then again, what is reality any more?