Last Friday, an American company named Utherverse expanded the bounds of virtual reality. It began allowing members of its x-rated online world, Red Light Center, to use recreational drugs. They'll now be able, according to a report in Technology Review, "to enter a virtual rave, take virtual ecstasy, smoke a virtual joint and even chow down on some hallucinogenic virtual mushrooms".
The introduction of virtual dope marks an exciting new phase in the existence of avatars, the computer-generated characters that crowd alternative universes such as Second Life and World of Warcraft.
Up until now, avatars have led fairly narrow lives. Their main pursuits have been limited to fighting ogres and dragons and having simulated sex using artificial genitalia. Virtual reality, in effect, hasn't been far off a pornographic version of Middle Earth.
Now avatars have a third and more modern alternative: abusing substances. Fighting, screwing and getting wasted: virtual life is becoming more like real life every day.
Brian Shuster, the chief executive of Utherverse, tells Technology Review that early users of the artificial intoxicants "have reported the effects of these virtual drugs to be surprisingly realistic and lifelike". That means, he argues, that virtual dope will have a socially beneficial effect: "To the extent that users can enjoy both the social benefits of virtual drugs as well as the entertainment associated with drug use, all with no actual drug consumption, the value of taking actual drugs is diminished."
If you're reading that and very stoned, it makes perfect sense. But beyond the entertainment value, the arrival of virtual dope points to an important new commercial opportunity. If avatars are able to take recreational drugs, it seems obvious that they'll also be interested in buying therapeutic drugs. Pharmaceutical companies may find a large and lucrative new market in cyberspace.
Because it costs so much to develop new medications, drugs companies are desperately keen to find new customers for their wares. Just this month, Eli Lilly introduced a version of its popular Prozac pill for dogs. The new drug, called Reconcile, comes in the form of a beef-flavoured chewable treat. Aimed at the 10 million dogs that Lilly estimates suffer from anxiety and melancholia, it will compete against Novartis's canine antidepressant, Clomicalm.
Avatars would seem to be at least as likely as dogs to fall victim to psychological maladies and amenable to drug therapy. The sexually freewheeling world of Second Life, for instance, is rife with gender confusion, performance anxiety and meaningless couplings. The warriors of the hyper-violent World of Warcraft face the unrelenting pressure of battle, the constant threat of annihilation and the spectre of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Antidepressants, tranquillisers and sleep aids promise to be particularly popular in cyberspace. But other drugs would also sell well. A virtual form of Viagra, for example, would be a boon to some of the more elderly and infirm residents of Second Life. They would no longer be restricted to voyeurism. They could become active participants in the priapic amusements.
And if Red Light Center's nascent drug culture takes off, avatars will soon be clamouring for effective treatments for addiction and withdrawal. Even in the virtual world, there is such a thing as too much entertainment.
But there's bad news here, too. The introduction of illicit virtual drugs will no doubt bring calls for tough new regulations and aggressive law enforcement. The streets and alleyways of Second Life will soon be filled with jack-booted cops, drug-sniffing dogs and hypocritical politicians railing against hippies and other degenerates. Trust me: It'll be the 60s all over again.
If there's one thing that people can't stand, it's seeing other people having fun. I'm certain we're going to discover very soon that avatars are just as prone to that sad affliction as the rest of us.
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