All this is happening because Second Life is a different kind of virtual world than almost any other. It's not a game, but it contains multitudes of games. (In fact, one resident scripted an in-world game that was then licensed to a real-world game company for a sum "in the low five figures.") The "things" of the world can't be touched, but they are real enough to earn you a living. No one minds if you do, since Linden Lab grants residents the intellectual property rights to whatever it is they create in SL. And the stories that can be created there are so rich and complex that they are less a Second Life than an extension of your first one. For many people - and this goes for the players of more traditional MMORPGs as well - the stories they're creating in virtual worlds are very much a part of their real lives. It's just that most of those stories don't have an impact to the tune of $100,000 a year.
But they do have an impact, both in terms of entertainment and in terms of economics. That's why the important questions to ask, as we go on creating the shared narratives that take place in virtual worlds, have to do with more than just what makes a great game and whether RMT is spoiling immersion. The real-money trade in so-called virtual items isn't going away. In fact, it's just going to grow. Trading MMORPG items and designing pixellated clothing are now viable alternatives to trading bonds or designing clothes you can actually wear. What we don't yet know is what laws will govern such ventures. Game companies' Terms of Service - which always include a "we can do whatever we want" clause - will not be enough. Eventually, these things will become more clear, either because the courts step in, because game companies come to embrace what's already happening, because some open-source model of the future is developed or because the power of the players and residents of online worlds to create the narrative that's taking place within them will grow too great for anyone to resist. And as that happens, online worlds, and the commerce that takes place there, will be forced to come out of the "virtual" closet and admit that they're not virtual at all.
You can't touch Aimee Weber's virtual panties, unfortunately. But it's worth remembering that they're very, very real.
Mark Wallace is a journalist and editor residing in Brooklyn, New York, and at Walkering.com. He has written on gaming and other subjects for The New York Times, The New Yorker, Details and many other publications.