A little over a week ago, Raph Koster wrote a fascinating and intelligent blog post about his views on the future of virtual worlds entitled "Are Virtual Worlds Over?". You can not read it without thinking of Raph's recent experience as the head of Metaplace, an ambitious web-based virtual world that crashed and burned in December. Raph concludes on a mostly pessimistic note that virtual worlds, at least as we understand them, are not going to reach mass audiences for awhile. As he writes:
"Virtual places as they exist now cannot be a mass medium any more than a single restaurant can."
While I agree with many of Mr. Koster's points, I do think that there are specific sectors where virtual worlds are very attractive. I would contend that virtual worlds are growth markets for the education and nonprofit sectors to reach new audiences and promote their missions.
Raph analyzes the various attributes of virtual worlds, concluding that the three principal ones that set virtual worlds apart from other digital media are:
- and synchronous interaction and strong ties
Interestingly, these are just the attributes that make virtual worlds well-suited for different educational and nonprofit applications.
From an educational standpoint, the ability to travel to an imaginary, immersive space can lead to profound and lasting learning experiences. More than 44,000 students from around the world have learned about various school subjects by exploring and playing in the virtual world of Quest Atlantis. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of young people have learned about coral reef protection and ecology through visiting the "Whyreef" in the world of Whyville. Virtual worlds enable the student to travel to places in ways that no other digital medium can, from ancient Stonehenge to the polar ice caps to outer space.
Pseudoanonymity is a useful attribute of virtual worlds in particular for those that work in youth development, counseling, diversity training, and conflict resolution, among many other fields. Quasi-anonymous spaces can permit higher levels of disclosure and empathy, enabling richer interactions than even face-to-face communications. At Global Kids, we've had frank discussions in our Teen Second Life space with teens talking about homophobia, self-injury, abortion, and many other sensitive subjects. Counselor Coughran Mayo has been delivering online counseling services to rural Missouri youth who are recovering from substance abuse using OpenSim.
For activists and media producers in repressive regimes, virtual worlds might prove to be another useful, semi-anonymous means for getting their message out when YouTube, Twitter and other more traditional channels are blocked.
Synchronous Interaction and Strong Ties
For recreating real-time experiences involving people being in the same place at the same time, no other form of social media can compare to virtual worlds. For educators and nonprofits, this provides many benefits to their work, greatly expanding the reach of their programs to anyone with access to a computer on the internet. Some examples:
- Two groups of teenagers in Chicago and New York met in real time with paleontologists in Zambia as they learn about fossils in their own virtual dig in Second Life
- Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan addresses hundreds of people in There, Whyville, Second Life and Teen Second Life simultaneously
- Activists in Copenhagen for the climate change talks stream live into Second Life and interact with the virtual audience
There are many more examples I'm sure that exist where placeness, pseudoanonymity, and synchronous communications are useful for nonprofits and educational institutions.
At the end of the day, it seems to me that it's about bandwidth. But not just bandwidth as in pushing the most bits through a pipe, but bandwidth as in delivering the richest and most powerful experiences out to users. Virtual worlds provide voice, agency, and intimacy in ways that are qualitatively different than other forms of social media, and even different than face-to-face.
For teachers, counselors, community organizers and activists, virtual worlds are enormously attractive means to reach our goals with the people we serve. While this may not represent the billions of dollars in profits that the next World of Warcraft or Farmville might reap, we are a significant market that does have the power to influence the online and offline activities of millions of people around the world.