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They start young these days.

Eric Hartman is only 23 years old but he already has a decade's worth of experience programming computers. He's still in school, studying Web development in Virginia, but his latest creation is garnering attention around the world. Blockland, a free, on-line game, is a 3-D virtual universe where players can team up to build structures using Lego-like characters and, well, blocks.

Once you download the game ( http://www.ageoftime.com/blockland), you enter a world populated by smiling little men with yellow heads and jet packs. You can pick up a spray can to paint your structures, a hammer to tear down unwanted additions, and variably sized pieces, from windows to roof tiles. The interface is simple, but the buildings and interactions can be startlingly complex.

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When contacted early this week, Hartman said 20,000 people had downloaded Blockland in the 10 days since it "became big."

And those thousands of players, besides building towers reaching into the clouds and dream homes, have already changed the dynamics of the game. The little yellow-headed guys are now hitting each other with the hammers, either to attack other people's structures or to defend a favourite creation.

"Destroying the bricks is a necessary part of building. You have to be able to make changes," Hartman says. "Of course, people being what they are, they often decide to 'make changes' to structures that don't belong to them. By default, the weapons in the game do not hurt other players, but people have made modifications to the game that allow you to kill each other."

Thus, Blockland has seen the whole of human history -- from early tool-users to warring nations -- in less than two weeks.

In these security-challenged times, Hartman has also noticed a regular fixation on incarceration. "There have been cases of people building prisons," he says. "Either they build completely around the spawn area so that any new players who join the game are trapped, or they just build a box and see how many people they can lure into it before sealing them inside."

Besides being a free and accessible introduction to the on-line world, Blockland is also a throwback to the days when commercially viable games were made by one or two programmers coding away in their spare time. Hartman's advice for getting in on this world-creating fun is to modify an existing game, since PC developers make the codes, or engines, for titles such as Unreal and Half-Life publicly available. Programmers who know their way around these engines then add or change the variables in the games, introducing Barney the purple dinosaur to Doom, for example.

As for Blockland, Hartman says his ultimate goal is to create a game where players define the rules -- "I give them little interactive bits and they decide how to win or lose," he says -- but he has not yet started thinking about financial possibilities. He does acknowledge, probably wisely, that "any kind of commercial endeavour would have to be endorsed by Lego."

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The toy makers have not yet contacted him, nor have game developers looking for employees, but as Blockland continues to spread, Hartman may want to stay by the phone.

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