'Second Life' is free for users with basic accounts, and reported over 16 million registered users worldwide in 2008 and players of the game create online alter egos who live full lives, including having jobs, relationships and children.
But, despite instances of pornography and "cheating" spouses, the web-based platform is also used to educate people about illness, train physicians, nurses and medical students with virtual simulations, enable disease-specific support and discussion groups, fundraise real-life dollars for medical research, and to conduct research.
The researchers found that health-related activities in the virtual world have significant implications in the real world.
"Virtual worlds and the social networks that populate the Internet offer a new domain for healthcare. Although it is early in the development, there is a great opportunity to use these platforms for education, research and even disease surveillance," said Dante Morra, Medical Director of the CICC.
Jennifer Keelan, the Principal Investigator on the project, suggested that a major feature for users is the "relative anonymity where patients can seek out information and share health experiences in a safe environment.
She added: "There is also a great potential for patients to practice being patients by virtually experiencing a mammogram or navigating a hospital's virtual ward-they can gain insight into medical procedures and processes to become more informed."
"There is a great opportunity here to understand the design features of social media that make it so appealing and accessible to people. Once we understand what pulls people to Web 2.0, we can design and apply more effective communication strategies both within and beyond the Internet," said Leslie Beard, the designer on the team.
The findings have been published in the open access publication Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR).