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Donahue '11 cashes in as virtual arms dealer

First-year's mom got him into Second Life

Before setting foot on Brown's campus, Evan Donahue '11 made thousands of dollars creating weapons to summon damned souls and create rifts in space-time fabric to suck in adversaries.

The weapons systems were for the virtual world of Second Life, a popular online role-playing game. But the money - more than $20,000 - was very real.

"Second Life is like an empty world in which users can do whatever they want," Donahue said. "Some people can meet friends and talk or build fantastic landscapes. Some people fight with each other. I program things for people to fight each other with."

Started in 2003 by Linden Labs, Second Life is an online world with a similar concept to EA Games' The Sims. In Second Life, a player creates an avatar and then is free to network, get a job, buy a house, buy clothing, have sex or fight other "residents" - as users do in the video game World of Warcraft. Some companies (Toyota and Calvin Klein), bands (Oasis) and even presidential candidates (John Edwards) have a presence in Second Life.

Second Life is built to mimic real life. Following the lead of Wikipedia - the pages of which can be edited by anyone - any user can create programs for this online world. But unlike in The Sims, Second Life users can create items and then buy or sell them for "Linden Dollars," which translate into real U.S. Dollars. Thousands of Second Life users have bought Donahue's combat systems, which cost between $4 and $12.

In February, users made $328,122 in transactions in Second Life, according to the Second Life Web site. The Web site also says that there are more than 12 million Second Life users, and about 1.3 million have logged on to the world in the past 60 days.

Somewhat strangely, Donahue discovered Second Life through his mother. Donahue said his mother, an English professor at Duke University, was looking at the virtual world's social aspect and had the program up on her computer.

"I was bored and clicked on it and realized what I can do, but I didn't really expect to make money," he said, adding he created one weapon system a couple years ago, and the other before coming to Brown last summer. Second Life itself provides tools for anyone to create items and programs within the virtual world. Donahue took some programming courses in high school, but said mostly he figured it out on his own.

Donahue thinks that his weapons, which he said at one point were the second-most popular item sold in the Second Life marketplace, are so successful because of their complexity. These aren't simple guns that obey real-world laws of physics - instead, the weapons "basically allow you to do a wide range of nasty things to people and wide range of ways to protect yourself," he said.

One of the combat systems is the "Souls of the Damned Summoning Crystal." The weapon's title is self-explanatory - the Second Life Exchange, a marketplace similar to eBay, describes the crystal as something that will "command the undying souls of ancient warriors and direct them to kill, torture, or imprison your opponent, or protect you and alert you to danger."

The other system Donahue designed is the "Overlord Combat System." It provides users with a package of offensive and defensive weapons, such as "dark rift," which "tear(s) open the fabric of space-time to create a void that will suck in nearby avatars," according to the Second Life Exchange

"It is an interesting exercise in programming in a unique environment," Donahue said. "You want to create something that can beat the things that everyone else can create."

Weapons are only one aspect of Second Life's bustling trade. Products from clothing lines, animals - even Michelangelo's frescos to decorate your Second Life house - are sold and traded every day for real money. This means that people like Donahue are making quite a lot of money.

In 2006, Wired Magazine reported that Anshe Chung was the first person to make $1 million on Second Life through real-estate developments in the virtual world. That same year, Jennifer Grinnell quit her job as a furniture-delivery dispatcher to earn four times as much as a clothing designer on Second Life, Wired reported.

"People sell basically whatever you can imagine," Donahue said.

But Second Life isn't just a marketplace. Many universities around the country, including Harvard and San Jose State University, in California, use Second Life as teaching tools in their classrooms.

With more than $20,000 in his (real-life) bank from only two programs, Donahue has no immediate plans to program more products for Second Life. And he doesn't seem to know what to do with all the money he's already made.

"I'll probably hold onto it until it doesn't seem like that much," he said.

Other than the money, Donahue's experience with Second Life has given him the opportunity to speak about the virtual world at Duke and in MCM 0230: "Digital Media" at Brown.

"I think anything that sort of captures this evolution of a social phenomenon deserves this academic analysis," he said. "Professors are using Second Life as a looking glass for ideas about globalization, identity and place."


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