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December 22, 2007

Virtual Worlds and Second Life: A Changing Media Environment

Virtual Worlds & Second Life: A Changing Media Environment

Philip Rosedale and his avatar

Philip Rosedale the founder of Linden Labs who run Second Life alongside his avatar.

Introduction

One of the most fascinating developments in new media is the growth of virtual worlds with Second Life currently the leading virtual world in the marketplace although there are other ones being developed. Here I start to examine the growth of the virtual worlds and discuss whether phenomena such as Second Life should be considered as a game, a social networking site, or as something else in its own right. A quick search on Amazon UK reveals 11 titles currently available on Second Life. But these are largely not academic more like Lonely Planets Guides. An academic one just published is linked below. It is the first in a stream that will undobtedly appear in the next 18 months.

This page has developed out of my attempts to encourage my AS students to investigate Teen Second Life as part of their Audiences and Institutions: New Media Technologies Unit. It would be interesting to develop a media teaching environment in there so any media teachers / lecturers teaching this age range please drop a comment in the box. 

Game or Not: A Convergence?

The Uvvy wiki points out with a clear position on whether it is a game in the opening to its entry:

Second Life is a 3-D virtual world entirely built and owned by its residents. Since opening to the public in 2003, it has grown explosively and today is inhabited by millions of people (August 2006) from around the globe. Second Life is not a videogame, but a complete platform for business and entertainment. ( My emphasis: Uvvi wiki entry 22 / 12 / 07)

Uvvy itself can hardly be said to be neutral on the issue as they are:

uvvy is a full service Internet, Virtual Reality and Metaverse consulting and engineering team

Here some of the ideas are explained:  

The uvvy is the ultimate p2p communication device invented by the mathematician, computer scientist and science fiction writer Rudy Rucker. The uvvy does not exist yet but maybe coming soon.

Academia hasn't quite caught on to the fact that computer games represent the convergence and the flowering of the most ambitious frontier efforts of the old twentieth-century computer science: artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and artificial life." Rudy Rucker, "The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul" (My empahsis).

Well this gets us around the question of whether it is a game or not - sort of!

The Virtual Worlds Review 

Virtual Worlds Review has a useful page which analyses several types of virtual world:

A virtual world is an interactive simulated environment accessed by multiple users through an online interface. Virtual worlds are also called "digital worlds," "simulated worlds" and "MMOG's." There are many different types of virtual worlds, however there are six features all of them have in common:

1. Shared Space: the world allows many users to participate at once.

2. Graphical User Interface: the world depicts space visually, ranging in style from 2D "cartoon" imagery to more immersive 3D environments.

3. Immediacy: interaction takes place in real time.

4. Interactivity: the world allows users to alter, develop, build, or submit customized content.

5. Persistence: the world's existence continues regardless of whether individual users are logged in.

6. Socialization/Community: the world allows and encourages the formation of in-world social groups like teams, guilds, clubs, cliques, housemates, neighborhoods, etc. 

Below there is an interesting attempt to develop a more politically astute environment.

Agora Exchange

This site has led me to an interesting  site in which a political game is being devised. It is taking a range of ideas from contributors who must first of all log in. It has actually been commissioned by the Tate Gallery online:

Commissioned by Tate Online, through funding from the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science and Technology. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Changing Concepts of Cyberspace 

The 07 Siggraph Conference brought out some interesting ideas relating to virtual worlds. As Amy Bruckman suggested in a paper reported by the BBC. 

Already online worlds such as Second Life challenged notions of what was meant by "cyberspace", said Amy Bruckman, associate professor in the College of Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Coined by William Gibson, cyberspace has been defined as the "place" where a telephone conversation appears to occur. Increasingly it has been associated with online spaces, often games, where people go to play and socialize and are represented by an avatar.

However, said Prof Bruckman, it was becoming obvious that blogs and MySpace and Facebook pages were also in cyberspace, even though they also had strong links to the real world, because they were used to showcase events such as birthday parties, excursions or the birth of their children.

How will the Audience Develop?

Exodus to the Virtual World

Published by Palgrave in the US in November 2007 by Edward Castronova  this is one of the first of what will soon be a stream of academic publications on developments in Virtual Worlds.  

The appeal of online virtual worlds such as Second Life is such that it may trigger an exodus of people seeking to "disappear from reality," an expert on large-scale online games has said. (Edward Castronova, Associate Professor in the Department of Telecommunications at Indiana University to the BBC)

But he stressed there will be a group of people that spends all their lives there, and that the big question is the size of this group. (Ibid)

Castronova goes to some pains to differentiate between escapism - somebody avoiding a  situation say a weak marital relationship -  compared to a refuge from the world in which somebody can make a go of things whilst in conventional life they were being discriminated against. He also comments that it is likely to have a strong appeal to those in low paid low skilled jobs. however wherever people congregate there is usually exploitation and they will be paying to be exploited twice just like going to the movies, but if they enjoy themselves and they feel there is some element of control in their lives maybe it won't be so bad.

However if you check out the Densu Virtual Tokyo initiative below they are aiming to use Second Life to conduct high added value services like selling real estate. Clearly there are a number of ways in which this world might develop its audiences in the plural.  

Identity in Virtual Life

It is remarkable to see the reactions of people when one talks to them about Second Life and the possibility of spending a considerable amount of time in one / several virtual worlds. Is the fear / attraction of escapism from "the meat" as William Gibson describes it?

One thing is for certain the issue of identity is likely to be the core one when it comes to the success of these worlds. Many of my own students either quickly expressed an interest or reacted quite strongly against the possibility.  

Historically it might be possible to equate these virtual spaces to the societal role of the masked ball or issues of carnival written about by Bahktin. These are spaces where people can legitimately "transgress". Psychoanalytic accounts based upon Lacanian thinking will probably come to analyse these spaces as ones of the remainder. Probably different worlds will develop different codes of behaviour and perhaps different worlds will prove more attractive to different classes and types of people and come to be understood as functioning differently there are after all lots of different types of pubs and clubs and Bourdieu's notion of cultural capital will, I'm sure, be applicable in due course. It is if course far to early in the development of these worlds to be anyhting more than speculative.   

Here is a long paper by Judith Donath teaching within the MIT media department on "Designing Sociable Media" in 2001. It is quite an old paper now but the issue of identity and deception is even more important now than it ever was. Donath's course had many intersting elements. Here we can see that she is applying her research into the early MUDs into the beginnings of the developing online virtual worlds:

Nearly all of the avatar systems in current development (or in fiction for that matter) are graphical versions of real-time conversation systems (Rossney 1996). This is not surprising, since many social cues that are needed in a real-time conversation - such as emotional expressions, indications of attention, turn-taking signals, and awareness of presence - are problematic in a purely text-based world. Many of the distinctive vocabularies and discourse patterns (smileys, emote commands, etc.) that have evolved in these environments are attempts, given the very limited communicative channel, to introduce expression and other non-textual components of real-world speech (Cherny 1995). Graphical interfaces provide a promising new medium for conveying this information. (From Donath: Inhabiting the Virtual City). 

Donath's key point here is that avatars will effectively become and already are much more effective means of communication incorporating a wealth of non-verbal communication. It might not be real life but then it's not meant to be! It is a media and communications system.

Avatars from Worlds Away

Donath has illustrated her paper with this image of avatars from the World's Away environment dating from 1996. Obviously things have moved on a lot since then.  This environment  originally run by Fujitsu is now owned by VZone

Making Life Easy or Making it Worse?

As we increasingly move towards shopping on the internet there could be distinct advantages in doing this in a virtual world environment points out Philp Rosedale the founder of Second Life:

Shopping on Amazon might be much easier and enjoyable if you could turn to one of the other 10,000 or so people on the site at the same time as you and ask about what they were buying, get recommendations and swap good or bad experiences. (Philip Rosedale in BBC interview - 14th Dec 2007)

The Developing Institutional Context

Thus far it seems as though the media giants haven't invested in Linden Labs and Second Life yet however I'm sure Rupert Murdoch has a close eye on it especially its possible business applications. computer companies are definitely getting very interested and IBM once one of the largest companies in the world is linking up with Linden Labs to develop Avatars:

A virtual character, or avatar, for all the virtual worlds in which people play is the goal of a joint project between IBM and Linden Lab.

The computer giant and the creator of Second Life are working on universal avatars that can travel between worlds.(BBC Technology pages)

The project started by IBM and Linden Lab aims to create a universal character creation system so people only have to create a digital double once. (ibid)

Clearly there is an expectation on the part of IBM that virtual worlds are going to grow and this development could make it much easier to move through a great variety of these worlds. If this sounds strange to some readers now remember it only about 12 years since the web started up with a graphical user interface and things have moved exponentially since then!. 
If you don't believe me then take a look at the impressive line up for the forthcoming virtual worlds conference in 2008 and also take a look at the topics being covered.

The Future Media and Communications

Dentsu in Second Life

One of my AS students kindly added this link from the Financial Times Aug 2007. The advertising agancy Dentsu has spent an enormous amount of money with Second Life establishing a virtual Tokyo:

Virtual Tokyo gets a virtual Second Life Tokyo 

By Mariko Sanchanta in Tokyo, FT.com site
Published: Aug 22, 2007

Dentsu, which spent about Y10m ($870,000) to acquire the 85 hectares in Virtual Tokyo, is aiming to recoup its investment by lining up 30 or so blue-chip companies to build a virtual presence within the first year.

Mr Aihara said: "We're aiming to create a virtual Japanese Wall Street, where major Japanese financial institutions will have a presence.

"For example, users would be able to negotiate a virtual home mortgage with a bank to then buy a virtual flat. (My emphasis). 

Virtual Business Tools for Second Life 

Just as this site uses Google Analytics to monitor usage and to help develop pages and audience relationships so a range of business tools are being developed for Second Life. This image comes from Maya Realities who have develop a Second Life Analytics.

Maya Realities Analytics Screen

Equally important to where visitors spend time on your land is where they are located in real life. The above map helps determine what languages to offer your products and services or what cultures warrent focused resources.

Work in Progress on Virtual Tokyo 

The Japan Times of Oct 25th 2007 reprots the following:

A work in progress, Virtual Tokyo so far houses online representations of such entities as Keio University, the TBS television network, Mizuho Bank, as well as a takeoff ramp for ski jumping and a sports stadium.

Sceptical and Critical Views of Second Life

The Phoney Economics of Second Life

Summary

The more I research about virtual worlds the more convinced I am that they will be normal for a lot of people in advanced industrial societies in 10 -12 years time. The enormous potential for interactivity will make older media forms seem like the dinosaurs they are. As the number of these world's increases we are likely to see the smart media money from the Rupert Murdoch's of this world move into the arena once it becomes a little more established. In world advertising will probably drive these environments making the cost of entry very low in order to attract mass audiences. Obviously the broadband systems will need to be far better. The likely outcome if this scenario unfolds is for low grade TV channels to disappear. Who wants so called reality TV when you can have a much more intersting time online elswhere? I would rather put my pension fund into Linden Labs than ITV (The current 84.4p, up 1.4p on Thursday) that's for certain !

For my students I'm hopefully preparing them for what will become more important in media, communications and cultural studies departments at an undergraduate level when they get to university. Right now a lot of research that has been going on will come on stream and new courses will start to emerge just as these worlds are likely to take off.  

As can be seen above the prospect of a multiplicity of virtual worlds is upon us. Just like early colour TV sets there will be much that is a bit flakey in terms of quality. But it seems clear from this brief round up of things as they stand at the back end of 2007 that the future of virtual worlds is currently a rosy one. Despite some figures suggesting that Linden labs has lost some members in November it is sensible to take a medium term development view. Dentsu a big advertising (media company) is clearly a large early adopter and is making a clear developmental push to develop quite a sophisticated audience. It is likely that this trend will continue. As the dollar equals around 2 Linden and the Pound Sterling is around $2 there are clearly some entreprenuerial opportunities awaiting! I still wonder whether there will be avatars queuing out of the Second Life Banks on a Satureday morning though! Things seem to have moved on steadily from a year ago and the the pieces are gradually moving into place for a much larger adotption rate of residents to begin who will swamp the pioneers. Lets hope Linden have got enough servers!

Webliography and Online Resources 

Search Term on Google: Identity and Virtual World. This leads to a list of scholarly articles. The ones at the top of the list are the classic ones. You will need to go down a couple of pages to find more up to date material

B. Book. Moving Beyond the Game:Virtual Social Worlds

Stephen Webb : Avatar culture: Narrative, power and identity in virtual world environments (You will need to pay for this one or have subscription rights).

BBC money Programme: Virtual world Real Millions

Elizabeth Daniel is Professor of Information Management at the Open University Business School check her blog here.


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