Children have always enjoyed make-believe. Now, some new websites are letting them live out their fantasies in virtual worlds using self-designed avatars.
Unlike the often-violent world of videogames, virtual sites such as Stardoll, Doppelganger, Club Penguin and Gaia Online hark back to a more innocent time of tea parties and playing outdoors -- and they are winning young users in droves.
The success of Second Life, one of the most popular virtual lifestyle sites for adults, with even its own banks and real estate agents, has helped to raise interest in the genre.
At Stardoll, young girls can create their own online 'MeDoll' identities from a template that allows the user to choose everything from skin tone to eyebrow shapes.
Most important, it allows the user to dress-up their avatar in the latest teen fashion.
Stockholm-based Stardoll, which only started four years ago, has been a huge hit with girls aged seven to 17 years.
The founders say they have over 7 million users in dozens of countries, even though Stardoll only very recently became available in four languages other than English.
"Role-playing is a hugely important part of growing up, especially for girls," said Matteus Miksche, chief executive of Stardoll, whose backers include venture capital firms Sequoia Capital and Index Ventures.
Like many new-generation Web sites popular with youngsters, the attraction is as much in the ease of use as it is the ability to interact with others.
Stardoll users can measure their popularity by the number of "friends" they accumulate on their page, just as they might do on MySpace or Facebook -- except the photos are not real.
And as in real life, popularity has its benefits.
One of the most obvious on Stardoll is that you can be a "cover girl" of the Stardoll fashion magazine by getting the most votes for your MeDoll.
Fashion is important for young girls who buy the latest clothes and accessories from the various virtual stores in Stardoll with made-up fashion brands.
Another virtual life site, Doppelganger, was built to support music, media and fashion.
Aimed at a slightly older crowd than Stardoll, users can throw parties, attend live shows and recordings of talk shows.
Doppelganger has tied up with major fashion and entertainment names in the real world, including ex-model and talk show host Tyra Banks and youth fashion brands like Rocawear and Kitson, the Los Angeles brand made famous by Paris Hilton.
Acts like Maroon 5 and the Pussycat Dolls have also performed on Doppelganger and given virtual interviews.
"The fashion element is a big part of Doppelganger," said founder Tim Stevens. "It's like a virtual Hollywood."
Most of these sites also have virtual economies with their own currencies, which users can earn or buy with their parents' credit cards, other online payment systems or premium text messages widely available in Europe.
On Gaia Online, another rapidly growing site, users earn 'gold' to buy virtual goods -- usually clothes for their avatar. "Up to 99 percent of the experience online is free at Gaia," said Gaia Online Chief Executive Craig Sherman.
"In a world where teens are constantly packaging and branding themselves, whether it's on MySpace or in their high school, Gaia is a place for them to get away from it all to just hang out and be yourself," Sherman said.
Stardoll's Miksche agrees, saying the young visitors to his site are not in as much a hurry to grow up as adults might think. For his users, he says, it's more important to be who you want to be.
"Part of our success is that some users are maybe getting tired of having pages where they feel forced to look sexy or cool or write some outrageous stuff in order to stand out."