Worlds Apart

UW-Milwaukee founded an online campus on Second Life in 2008 that remains active.

In the mid-to-late-2000s, hundreds of colleges and universities paid real-world money to purchase real estate within the virtual reality platform Second Life. These “islands” – places where player-controlled avatars could gather without the normal pressures of video games, such as enemies – cost the schools $1,000 to set up and another $295 a month in cyber rent to maintain. As a joiner in the trend, UW-Milwaukee founded an online campus in 2008 that exists to this day, a mysterious ghost town with a green misty fountain, a graffiti-covered bus, a sports car, a pool table and a multicolored dance floor.

The school’s virtual turf shouldn’t even be there: University officials say they haven’t paid rent on it in more than three years. “The fact that it’s still active,” says UWM spokeswoman Michelle Johnson, “I couldn’t tell you why that is.” UWM’s island was once a busy hub for classes – ranging from sociology to nursing – to carry out computerized role-playing exercises.

Students took control of avatars with “different racial characteristics or genders,” according to associate sociology professor Cary Costello, and walked around a virtual mall to see how they were treated differently by other users.

‘Worlds Apart’ appears in the November 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.