In 2009, I launched Betterverse as a means of chronicling and highlighting the ways that virtual worlds were being used to promote the public good in the real world. I was led by the hypothesis that the metaverse as an imagination space was fertile ground for supporting the public sector, charitable work, and social justice causes. In the brief amount of time that I've been reporting on this space, I've found a remarkable number of innovative projects and initiatives.
In no particular order, here's are my Top Ten best public good initiatives in the virtual world...
Top Ten Virtual Public Good Projects
1. Linden Lab's $10K Linden Prize
in 2008, Linden Lab, the owner's of Second Life, offered a Linden Prize in virtual cash to the best project that "advances the human condition" using their platform. This was awarded to two very neat projects: Wikitecture and Virtual Ability. This year, Linden Lab is going one step further and offering US$10,000 to the best project.
Linden Lab in my opinion is one of the best examples of a technology company trying to make a profit while also living by their principles.
2. Farmville Raises $700K for Haitian Charity
While not strictly a virtual world, the Facebook-based online game Farmville has raised the profile of virtual goods as a means to fund charities. Zynga, the makers of Farmville, incorporated charitable giving into the gameplay by making available a new virtual item called "Sweet Seeds for Haiti" that costs 25 FV or about US $5. Zynga states that 50% of the proceeds from each Sweet Seeds for Haiti sold will be donated to the Haitian charities FATEM and FONKOZE.According to Mother Nature Network, this effort has raised over US $700,000 to date for the Haitian charities! Other virtual worlds organized their own charity drives in 2009, including Second Life, Metaplace, Wizards101 and Club Penguin.
3. WhyReef Teaches Tens of Thousands of Kids about Coral Reef Protection
In April, the Field Museum of Chicago teamed up with the tween virtual world Whyville to launch Whyreef: a virtual educational experience for young people to teach them about biodiversity and ecosystems. In Whyreef, you are challenged to observe different coral reefs and carefully record the species of animal and plantlife you encounter there, such as the spinner dolphin, the hawksbill sea turtle, and the humphead parrotfish. This is a powerful combination of top-notch educational content and a smart usage of virtual world affordances that has already reached tens of thousands of young people around the world.
4. Federal Virtual World Challenge: US Army Asks Public for Best Ideas in Virtual Training and Analysis
This year has witnessed a number of unprecedented efforts by government agencies and departments to integrate virtual worlds into their online activities. From State Department Dialogues in Second Life, to virtual FCC hearings, and a virtual address by the White House Deputy CTO. One of the most interesting was the Federal Virtual World Challenge, a competition to get the public to submit ideas for "innovative and interactive training and analysis solutions in virtual worlds." Sponsored by the U.S. Army Research and Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM), this is an effort of the U.S. military to solicit proposals from the general public on how to best use virtual worlds for training and data analysis.
When the US military is looking to the general public for guidance on how to use virtual technology, you know we've come a long way. And this was just one of many government tenders referencing virtual worlds.
5. Obama Address Broadcast in Two Virtual Worlds
No, President Obama did not log into the virtual world to give an address (although he is probably the geekiest President the US has ever had). But a landmark speech Obama gave in Africa was re-broadcast live into both Second Life and Metaplace. Avatars in both spaces were able to exchange live text messages with each other while the US president was speaking. And guest panelists after Obama's speech gave a richer context to his themes of economic development, security and intercultural understanding. A truly innovative use of virtual world technology to reach citizens across borders and encourage civic discourse.
In related developments, there was a virtual community meeting in October as part of the the Obama administration's National Educational Technology Plan.
6. Yoko Ono's Imagine Peace Tower in Second Life
On October 9th, musician and artist Yoko Ono unveiled the "Imagine Peace Tower," a life-long dream for Ms. Ono finally come to fruition in Reykjavík, Iceland. In addition to the real life tower, Yoko Ono also commissioned the creation of a virtual Imagine Peace Tower in Second Life. Not only can you fly up to the various viewing stations to see the Peace Tower, you can also leave a wish for peace on a wish tree and watch a video of Yoko Ono explaining how the Tower came to be created.
7. University of Texas launches Massive Virtual Campus in Second Life
In September, the University of Texas announced that they were planning a massive development of 50+ sims in Second Life to bring all 15 UT campuses into the virtual world. As the first statewide extension of classes and education into Second Life, it represents the growing acceptance of virtual environments as fertile venues for learning.
For more on the vibrant educational community in virtual worlds, check out the RezEd community site.
8. The Friday Nonprofit Commons Community Meeting
The reguiar Nonprofit Commons community meeting in Second Life over the past couple of years has become a supportive and vital hangout for nonprofit activists and organizers from all over the country to share news, problems, projects and gossip with each other. At past meetings, I've found volunteers, learned about requests for proposals, got technical questions answered, and made a ton of friends. The Nonprofit Commons meeting occurs every Friday at 8:30am PST at the Plush Nonprofit Commons amphitheater (click here to teleport.) Sponsored by TechSoup, presided over by the gracious and talented Glitteractica Cookie.
9. Avatars Hold Vigils for Iranian Protestors
New World Notes, Foreign Policy in Focus, and others reported about the Second Life vigil for Iranians killed in the democratic uprising. While not as broad-based as the Twitter and YouTube actions in solidarity with the Iranian protesters, virtual worlds are richer environments for shared dialogue, emotional support and on-the-fly collaboration than these Web2.0 tools.
In related news, Hamlet Au reported about anti-Israeli protests in Second Life in January.
10. Supporting Military Amputees Through Virtual Worlds
Although this project has not formally launched yet, I think that it has such potential for opening up virtual worlds to a whole new demographic that I had to include it here. In October, Dusan Writer reported that "ADL Company Inc. and Virtual Ability, Inc. announced the start of a project to establish best practices and protocols for the provision of on-line peer-to-peer support services to [the military amputee] community, with funding from the Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC) of the US Army Medical Research and Materiel Command (USAMRMC)."
I'm incredibly excited to see the fruits of this innovative use of virtual worlds. Returning veterans with amputated limbs are a population that can make a very strong case for the public good possibilities of these digital tools.
My heartfelt thanks to my dedicated readers and supporters of Betterverse, who have contributed story ideas, corrected my mistakes, and helped enrich the stories I've written up here. Thanks also to friends and colleagues covering the metaverse who have given me tips, advice and ideas over the year, particularly Hamlet Au of New World Notes, Tateru Nino of Massively, Max Burns of Pixels and Policy, Malburns ridiculously speedy Second Life coverage, the inimitable Dusan Writer, and so many more that I'm sure I'm forgetting.
Looking forward to even more amazing virtual adventures in 2010!