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Making a virtual impression

Golf in Second Life image

Jane Lindholm: I started by renting Caddy Shack. Great flick.
Then I rang up business expert Seth Godin to find out whether or not golf really is still important in the corporate world.

SETH GODIN: Getting the boss to like you, getting your customers to like you, is always going to be important.

Then I drove over to the Wilshire Country Club to see about a membership. I didn't even get past the guard. He took one look at my dusty '97 Toyota Corolla and laughed. I'm not kidding, he actually laughed in my face! And then he pointed me to the exit. But not before informing me that it cost $150,000 to join and $20,000 a year for a membership. So let's be honest, the exit was really my only option anyway.

But I'm an intrepid journalist. I can't be beaten down by one -- all right five -- snooty Los Angeles country clubs! There has to be another way. My boss has a teenage son, and she seems pretty impressed by the virtual world games he likes to play. So, why not give that a try?

Ed Castronova is the author of "Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games." He says there are 37 million golfers in the U.S. and 148 million video gamers. And he told me that, in one way at least, gaming is even better than golf:

Ed CASTRONOVA: This would be sort of like a golfing environment that you can instantly teleport yourself into it at any moment.

Castronova also pointed out that I don't need to worry about the status of my car in the virtual world. I may not have tons of money, but I've got my youth.

CASTRONOVA: There is a leveling effect where younger professionals know everything. They're experts. They've zoomed ahead and they're at the top of the social hierarchy. And here's the 55-year-old fumbling with the very basics.

I'm in that younger-zooming-expert demographic, but I've never played any of these games. I drove up to San Francisco and called in on my childhood friend Peter Gulezian. He's now a contract computer programmer.
He couldn't believe I thought golf was still relevant.

PETER GULEZIAN: Do doctors and lawyers still do that? Like, if you graduate from Stanford Law, do you have to, you know, get a minor in golf?

So he graciously offered to show me around the neighborhood in one of these virtual worlds.

GULEZIAN: The game is called World of Warcraft. It's a standard, massly multiplayer, online, role-playing game where you go in and you take a role as whatever kind of character you want to be.

Nearly 7 million people play World of Warcraft. Most of them, like Pete, belong to what are called guilds -- groups of guys and girls on their computers typing life into their characters. There are priests and druids and night elves and they basically go around slaying dragons and other creatures.

But that doesn't answer whether or not games can mimic the role of golf as a way to network or make deals. Pete was skeptical himself. But I asked him if he would ever use the game in a similar manner.

GULEZIAN: If I was looking for a job, I would make that known to my guildmates. In the guild, you know people and you know what they do with their life, and hopefully they have a good opinion of you from their interaction with you in game, and it is networking.

I'm not sure I can see myself slaying dragons with my boss. So I checked out another virtual reality game, called Second Life. This one looks a lot more like real life. There are shops and homes and cars. And in the crowd at the Second Life Convention last month I found the guy who created golf in Second Life.

WESLEY VOSHELL: I'm Kanker Greenacre in world, and Wesley Voshell, out of world.

Voshell's version of golf is just like the real thing -- except, of course, that it's on the computer. There are nine beautifully manicured holes, a clubhouse, membership dues. But it only costs about a dollar to play for three hours. That's a far cry from the country clubs I was turned away from.

Voshell works in the aerospace industry. He says he would never invite his boss to play a round in Second Life.

So there goes my theory, right? Well, not so fast. He may not want to invite his real-life boss, but he's not above using golf to climb the virtual social ladder. He built his simulation to impress another top exec: the creator of Second Life itself:

VOSHELL: I've always had in the back of my mind the fact that Philip Linden wanted to have a golf game in Second Life. So, I'm sure all the content creators were like, how can we appease Philip Linden or get him on our good side?

So I guess it all depends on who you're trying to impress. If your boss is a tech-savvy, forward-thinking mover and shaker -- as mine is -- she might be up for a little virtual-world schmoozing.

But, then again, she might not. Bottom line for me is, I guess I'm going to have to let my work speak for itself.

In Los Angeles, I'm Jane Lindholm for Marketplace.

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