It sounds like a fantasy from a Philip K Dick novel – ‘Minority Report’ or the ‘Total Recall’ of the future. But it’s not. It’s actually starting to become a reality.

Virtual communities have long been ticking over since the days of The Well, Tripod and Geocities. But this year they look like becoming a fuel-injected business as new technologies arrive to turn them into entirely new propositions.

One of the first of these new virtual communities includes The Sims Online. Launched last month, the site is tapping into the growing niche of online role-playing. In the game, published by Electronic Arts, players must tend to their avatars’ health, hygiene, comfort and energy. The goal is to acquire virtual wealth, material and spiritual, by being an active part of the community.

The great thing about The Sims is that there are very few real risks to this escapist pursuit. Electronic Arts reports that over half a million virtual kisses were exchanged by Sims during 5,000 online parties on New Year’s Eve. Quite who these people are that play The Sims on New Year’s Eve I’ll leave for you to decide. But the game clearly has an amazing draw on its audience.

The owners of, which launched its trial last week after four years in development, call it ‘the first online getaway’, as if it were some sort of package holiday. In this $33m (