Since gravitating to Second Life for entertainment, though, Mead has become a successful entrepreneur, opening up four shops, all of them called Bits and Bobs. Using an animation program, Mead creates and sells unique dances, walks, and other activities for avatars, particularly couples, to do together. People from all over the world not only give Mead suggestions for new creations but are also willing to pay good money for his offerings. And because Linden dollars, the currency in Second Life, are convertible to U.S. dollars, this is real income; Mead says it varies, but he makes about $1,700 a week from his sales. In fact, both Entropia Universe and Second Life say they have thousands of people who make a profit from what they do in a virtual world. People who use Entropia can even use an Entropia Universe Cash Card at any real-world ATM in Europe to withdraw money earned in the virtual world.

The growing popularity - and influence - of virtual worlds raises some important questions. Castronova envisions the onset of a slew of policy and legal issues. "You realize what is happening inside Second Life is an economy and that real values are being exchanged. What a disaster if the government decided to intervene, regulate, and tax," he says. "On the other hand, if Second Life says its currency is freely liquidated against the U.S. dollar, why should that be tax free?"

Eventually, these topics are certain to be debated by policy makers. But of even greater­ importance are the societal implications of so many people spending so much time in a world separate from their everyday lives. Steiger of Millions of Us predicts the possibility of, five or six years from now, virtual worlds becoming the "organizing principles of society," taking on the historical role of clubs and local churches. The difference, of course, is that few or none of these people will have actually ever met. "It's just easier to find like-minded people and to assemble with them," he says. "It is, depending on one's perspective, either massively dystopian or very encouraging."

For his part, Steiger can understand why this is happening. In the real world, individuals feel like they have very little control, particularly over the physical world surrounding them. In places like Second Life, though, they are in complete control. "When I travel through America and see the strip-mall culture and the Wal-Martification of America, that really depresses me," he says. "Second Life, what makes me excited about it is it's got a baseline democracy to it and a kind of a leveling of the cultural playing field that is really very nice."

Castronova can even see how the popularity of virtual worlds is akin to the waves of migration of Europeans to America in the first 100-plus years of our country. What drove them, he says, was dissatisfaction with their lives and how European society functioned. It may be the same thing luring people to virtual worlds. "If we want to know how important this is going to be, we have to ask ourselves, how many people are going to find the fantasy existence preferable to the game we're building out here?" Perhaps, he says, people will take the things they like about their virtual lives and apply them to the outside world. "My gut feeling is we have to change what we're doing out here."