In a virtual world, you could be interacting with anyone. That night elf is a night-shift nurse. The girl with the pink hair and iridescent butterfly wings is a mid-level corporate exec. That boy flying by with the floppy brown hair and seriously customized kicks? He may be a high school student who's figured out there are much better ways to earn summer cash than flipping burgers and busing tables.
"Single-player games offer safe, controlled environments, but a virtual world like Second Life adds, ironically, realism. If a young person wants to experiment with running a business, they're not just engaging in thought experiments and case studies; they're actually working with real people and real money," says Joey Seiler, editor of VirtualWorldNews.com, an industry news source that's part of Virtual Worlds Management, a company that provides trade events, media, research and online services.
According to Virtual Worlds Management, more than 100 youth-oriented virtual worlds are either now live or in development, including offerings from MTV and Disney. Research firm eMarketer estimates that 24 percent of the 34.3 million users ages three to 18 used virtual worlds at least monthly in 2007--and that will jump to 53 percent by 2011.
Although some MMORPGs (massively multi-player online role-playing games) like World of Warcraft forbid selling in-world items and characters for cash, a few like Entropia and Second Life provide entrepreneurial opportunities for enterprising teens.
"Often, the amounts [to be made] are limited and the startup costs are relatively minimal," Seiler says. "In other words, you get the low cost and ease of setup of a lemonade stand, but you're competing and selling to a lot more people than just your neighbors."
Designing a Future
Both Mike Mikula and Eric Lomeli began selling in-world wares within a week of joining Second Life and Entropia, respectively. Mikula, whose avatar is named Mike Denneny and who recently turned 18, started exploring Second Life two years ago when he discovered its teen area. He was intrigued by the in-world design capabilities that allowed him to expand his interest in graphic design by learning 3-D design skills without expensive software.
"I've designed [in-world] school buildings. I've designed stores, homes, furniture, clothing," says Mikula, who lives in Racine, Wisconsin, and will be a high school senior in the fall. "I've made simple scripts that allow showers to go off, doors to open, stuff like that. But I'm most known for my architecture."
His skills have garnered him large projects like building a virtual school for Skoolaborate, a global education project based in Australia. His work in Second Life has convinced him to change his future plans from electrical engineering to architecture, and he even has an offer to visit a leading architect in Australia.
During the school year, Mikula brought in $2,000 a month. His projections are a little off this summer as he had to move to the adult Second Life on his 18th birthday.
"When I started on the teen grid, I spent my first year just talking and meeting everyone. I learned how the successful people there worked, and then, eventually, I became one of the successful people," Mikula says.
Now that Mikula is on the main grid, he's restarted and needs to make new friends. Still, he estimates he can make $4,000 a month--without any investment other than his own time.
One thing he enjoys about his virtual business is the ability to make a difference.
"I can't be in a job where I can't progress and get better," Mikula says. "In Second Life, I can see how I can change things about myself to keep doing better and better, instead of just being stuck doing one thing."
Some of the things he has learned during his Second Life entrepreneurial endeavors are "customer service, strategies to be more effective for the business, how to make sure that you don't talk bad about any other business, no matter if they're really competitive with you."
A Valuable Experience
For Eric Lomeli, time spent in Entropia cemented what he always knew about himself:
"I've always planned on owning my own business," Lomeli says. "[With Entropia,] I learned how to manage a business, how to manage capital and profits, how to watch markets and market trends. The experience that I gained was unmatched by any after-school job I ever had."
Lomeli, 21, started when he was 16. He first acted as a middle man, selling materials gathered by hunters to crafters. He soon had his own shop selling mid-level armor and weapons.
"I found most shops either focused on new players or 'uber' players. This left a great market void that I capitalized on," says Lomeli, who now has a non-virtual business, Entropiaoutfitters.com, with business partner Keith Ward. The site sells Entropia-inspired apparel and accessories, and the pair also offer consulting for those interested in Entropia.
While still in high school, Lomeli spent about three hours a day on his Entropia business. He invested $300 at one point and had $5,000 Entropia net worth when he graduated. A year later, he sold the company and made $17,000.
On the side, Lomeli owns two real-world businesses: one that restores and manages repossessed properties for mortgage companies and one multi-level marketing company that he says is still getting off the ground.
While Lomeli acknowledges he had some difficulty playing as a teen--he had limited time and resources compared to his adult competition--he still advises interested teens to start up now.
"The [Entropia] universe is only getting stronger, and the best time to get into a good investment is as soon as possible," Lomeli says. "The great thing about Entropia is it's fun. It's not your everyday investment. You get to hunt and play around while you make money. Where else do you get to do that as a teen?"
For those who want to get started, Seiler says the skills required aren't that different from real-world businesses.
"You still need interpersonal skills for management or sales, but now it comes in how you operate your avatar." Seiler says. "You still need product design skills and the ability to manufacture something (unless you're selling a service), but that comes in scripting or 3-D modeling instead of working with a hammer and nails. You still need to manage finances, but now you work with virtual currencies as well as real currencies."
Seiler does emphasize the need to learn the "ins and outs" of the virtual world you choose, as well as the product or service you hone in on.
"There's an inclination to view this as a get-rich-quick opportunity, where you need only set up a booth/website/virtual island, announce that you're selling something and wait for money," Seiler says.
Though no business takes such little effort, for teens already glued to a screen for many hours in a day, putting the time and effort into a virtual-world business is not only a fun way to make extra money, but also a way to learn vital business skills and change the course of their future.