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Online Game 'Second Life' to Charge for Customized Character Names

The online fantasy world "Second Life" will soon introduce the virtual equivalent of vanity plates, allowing residents to customize their characters' first and last names.

"Second Life " spokesman Alex Yenni said the feature, likely to cost $100 up front and $50 a year, would debut by the end of the year.

Currently, participants in the popular alternative universe can give their digital proxies — called avatars — nearly any first name they'd like.

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But nearly everyone has to select from a rotating stock of surnames — conventional surnames such as Geiger, Felix and Lancaster, or futuristic, foreign or odd ones like Cioc, Stenvaag and Pugilist.

The 3-D fantasy world's operators, San Francisco-based startup Linden Research Inc., have approved special names to only a select group of high-profile members, including IBM Corp. Chairman Samuel J. Palmisano and Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards. So far the company hasn't charged for them.

The company's business development team decided to create a vanity name feature in part to help legitimize the growing number of executives, political candidates and other famous people who stage rallies and give stump speeches in the virtual world.

With the new feature, Linden Research will try to verify that avatars with high-profile names belong to same-named owners. For now, it's nearly impossible to determine the offline identity behind any avatar.

There are already "Second Life" avatars named John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Wesley Clark, but Yenni could not say whether those avatars were controlled by the presidential hopefuls, members of their staffs or random poachers.

As of Wednesday, no one in "Second Life" was named Barack Obama, Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney.