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Except Rosedale's creation wouldn't be a game: Second Life had no rules, no levels, no dragons to slay.

Many people are coupling the Second Life chat technology with Skype, the popular audio Internet software, so they can talk out loud while interacting inside the virtual world.

Or they use live streaming video to talk and see each other in real life (sitting in front of a computer screen), as well as through their avatars inside Second Life.

"The unique thing about Second Life is that it's immersive," says Michael Rowe, head of IBM's digital convergence team.

"There's a huge opportunity here, just as in the early days of the Internet."The medium sucks people in.

But they've been dating for more than two years—in Second Life.

The detachment of meeting through their avatars allowed them to open up to one another in a way they might never have done in the real world.

"I flourish in Second Life," says the 33-year-old, who heads a disability-consulting firm called Enable Enterprises, out of his home in England.

"It's no game—it's a serious tool." Rhonda Lillie and Paul Hawkins live thousands of miles apart—she in California, he in Wales—and until this week, had never met face to face.

FBI agents are investigating possible gambling operations, and the German TV news program "Report Mainz" recently revealed allegations of child abuse in the virtual world.

(Adults were purportedly using their avatars to have sex with the avatars of minors; they were expelled.)See all of the in these slideshows Back in 1998, Rosedale simply hoped to create a vivid three-dimensional landscape in which graphic designers could create likenesses of their real-world ambitions—houses, cars, forests, anything one might find in a virtual game like Ever Quest or World of Warcraft.

In the past year, membership has soared to more than 8 million users—2 million having signed on in the last two months alone.

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