The pilot project, known as Stagecoach Island, is a digital environment intended to help young people learn financial responsibility. Visitors there can skydive, fly hovercrafts, dance and shop. But woven into the experience, to which Wells Fargo has been inviting groups of people in San Diego and Austin, Texas, is a series of financial messages intended to help them learn something about money management.
Stagecoach Island takes place on several private islands inside Linden Lab's virtual world, "." But while "Second Life" is open to the public, the Wells Fargo islands are accessible only by those who have received invitations from the bank and, thus, is branded entirely as a Wells Fargo environment. Regular "Second Life" members cannot access Stagecoach Island.
"We're just happy we were able to do something to help young adults with financial education," said Tim Collins, Wells Fargo's senior vice president of experience marketing, "and we were able to do it in a fun, engaging way."
Collins explained that Stagecoach Island players are given $30 in imaginary money with which to buy clothes, pay for rides and the like. The idea, though, is to teach the players to save money--they earn 10 percent per day on "deposits"--and to learn new things about money management through a series of quizzes that, when completed, reward players with $5 of new funds.
In "Second Life," members--who pay nothing for basic access--enter an open-ended virtual world where they can fly, chat with others, drive fanciful vehicles and do many other things. The idea is that anyone with design or 3D-modeling skills can build or design almost anything they can imagine. Indeed, almost all the content in "Second Life" is created by its users.
Linden Lab makes its money by in the digital world and subsequently charging landowners monthly fees. The company's CEO, Philip Rosedale, recently told CNET News.com that land sells for about $129 an acre and owners pay an average of $25 a month in maintenance fees.
Observers of virtual worlds like "Second Life" say they can't remember any other examples of a partnership like the one between Wells Fargo and Linden Lab. As such, it appears to be a groundbreaking piece of marketing.
"This might be one of the first times, I hesitate to say (definitively) the first," said Betsy Book, who runs the Web site, Virtual Worlds Review, "where a world has just licensed its technology to have a completely separate world within a world."
Julian Dibbell, who writes frequently about online games and is a co-editor of Terra Nova, the leading Web site about virtual worlds, said he couldn't think of any other cases, though he did say that Coca-Cola had commissioned a digital environment from the makers of the popular online game, "Habbo Hotel."
But Book explained that the Coke effort was self-contained.
Ron Meiners, the community manager for the virtual world, "There" and an expert on online games, recalled that Adobe had hoped its 3D environment "Atmosphere" would become a platform on top of which other companies could build.
Still, neither Book, Dibbell or Meiners could recall any other projects that put a third-party branded game completely inside a virtual world.
For some time, Linden Lab has maintained that "Second Life" is not a game. It prefers to call it a platform, and to Dibbell, the Stagecoach Island pilot validates that argument.
"This is definitely proof of concept of that position," Dibbell said. "It's obviously a platform that people can come in and make of it what they will."
According to David Fleck, Linden Lab's vice president of marketing, all of the design and programming work for Stagecoach Island was done by "Second Life" members.
"The core development was done by developers in 'Second Life,'" Fleck said, "that run successful businesses and have great design skills based on our tool set."
And to Book, for Linden Lab to rely on its members for such an important project is impressive.
"It's very smart, but it's also risky," she said. "They have to trust their members and who they refer this company to. You're talking about big brand names, and you want to make sure they're professionals."