Virtual Worlds Explained

My interest in Virtual Worlds was recently sparked by Caja Thimm’s fascinating research on Second Life (SL) and Larry Pixa’s intriguing work on simulation platforms for disaster training. I was therefore eager to read David Wyld’s new report on “Government in 3D” which explains the in’s and out’s of virtual worlds.

What follows is a series of short excerpts that I found particularly interesting. These range from terrorism and money laundering to game-wide epidemics and the role of the media in virtual worlds.

The Past and Future of Virtual Worlds

  • The US military originally developed the term “serious games” as a more acceptable way to talk about war games with Congress and the public.
  • Simulations for military training can be traced as far back as the Roman Empire, with Roman commanders’ “sand tables” which were a small copy of the physical battlefield used by commanders to test their battle strategies.
  • Just as the radio gave way to the more immersive experience of television, today’s flat, single-user websites will morph into more interactive, immersive multiple-user experiences.
  • There is a growing belief that virtual worlds may well replace the web browser as the way we interface with the Internet. The web allows you to call up information but the virtual environment allows you to experience and visualize data.
  • The word avatar has a specific historic and religious significance, taken to mean in the Hindu tradition the physical embodiment of a divine being.
  • There will be a market need for helping people manage their digital identities.
  • One of the distinct challenges for organizations operating in virtual-world environments will be to make their interface and content available on mobile devices.
  • There will be a need for verifiable data on virtual worlds and activity within them. This will present a collosal market opportunity for firms seeking to become the “Nielsen Ratings” equivalent for virtual worlds and for companies that make it easier to capture quantifiable metrics from these sites.
  • Research will in time become one of the primary products of virtual worlds as we’re building petri dishes for social science with environments such as Second Life.
  • If in five years, Second Life experience is as good as watching the movie Shrek, there will be uses for it that we don’t understand yet.

Intelligence and Terrorism in Virtual Worlds

  • The new Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) office is setting up a virtual world code-named “Babel Bridge” in which members of the intelligence community could securely meet, interact, and exchange information such as audio files and images from spy satellites. This “digital war room” is expected to facilitate collaboration and decision-making.
  • Second Life has drawn attention from the FBI and other agencies on matters such as gambling and money laundering.
  • Terrorism in one form or another has been a part of Second Life for some time. Among the terrorist incidents in-world have been bombings at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s headquarters and the Reebok store, a shooting at an American Apparel store, and a helicopter being flown into the Nissan building.
  • Real-world terrorists’ use of virtual worlds is a growing concern. Intelligence experts have speculated that virtual worlds will be conducive for real-world terrorist groups to recruit, organize, and even simulate possible attacks.
  • The “Reynard Project“, a proposal by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, (ODNI) would seek to identify the emerging social, behavioral and cultural norms in virtual worlds and gaming environments. The project would then apply lessons learned to determine the feasibility of automatically detecting suspicious behavior and actions in the virtual world.
  • Some are concerned that virtual worlds provide terrorists with an anonymous arena in which to swap information—and even funds, as virtual-world currencies can be potentially used to move money around the globe in a relatively hard-to-detect manner.
  • The Maldives, Sweden, Estonia, Kazakhstan and Serbia each have embassies in Second Life.

Training and Simulations in Virtual Worlds

  • Crisis response training in virtual environments can provide unique learning strategies. For example, if first responders in a simulated environment fail to put on their reflective jacket when approaching the scene of an accident, their avatar may be hit by a car—a negative reinforcement that could not occur in a real-life training.
  • A disease called “Corrupted Blood” was unleashed into World of Warcraft in 2005 to be a hindrance to act as a hindrance to high-level players as they battled a powerful creature named Hakkar. However, the infection quickly spread by characters moving throughout the game (as in a real-life epidemic), causing an uncontrolled, game-wide pandemic. This episode was addressed as a case study in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, showing lessons that could be learned by real-world epidemiologists and health professionals.
  • In-world activities can pay positive health dividends for the real person behind the avatar. Indeed studies have shown that individuals having their avatars excercise in virtual worlds are more likely to engage in excercise in real life.

Finance and Economy in Virtual Worlds

  • Visitors in Second Life (SL) can exchange their real dollars for Linden Dollars and vice versa. The size of the SL economy has been estimated at $300 million or more, meaning its virtual economy is larger than the gross domestic product of some real nations.
  • There is more trade in Linden Dollars and exchanges between Linden and other currencies than many real-world currencies.
  • There have been well-publicized success stories of Second Life entrepreneurs, including most notably Anshe Chung, a German citizen, who is the first real-life millionaire based on being one of the largest owners of virtual real estate in Second Life.
  • An analysis published in the Harvard Business Review estimates that in-world sales of virtual goods dwarf the external trade of such items−by 20 times more.
  • Second Life had difficulty with “banks” operating in the virtual world, unfettered by real-world banking regulations, reserve requirements, and interest rates in the low single digits. In fact, it had been labeled a “Wild West” financial atmosphere, replete with banks appearing and disappearing, and with virtual bank runs.
  • One of the biggest parts of the Second Life economy in its formative stage was gambling.

Media and Film in Virtual Worlds

  • The news media today are not just reporting on Second Life; they are reporting directly from Second Life. The Reuters news agency has embedded a reporter in-world for over three years. CNN launched a bureau in Second Life, a virtual version of it’s I-Report, whereby Second Life residents routinely submit their news stories and photos of in-world news and events.
  • Machinima is a new type of computer animation (or videos) created entirely within the confines of a virtual world. The term is based on the phrase “machine cinema” and machinima videos can either capture unscripted, live action or can follow scripts and actual plots as determined by the machinima filmaker.

Patrick Philippe Meier

9 responses to “Virtual Worlds Explained

  1. this is very informative, thanks mate

  2. Thank you for this entry, which is well-informed. Our company has a presence in Second Life and we find much benefit from collaboration and networking with innovative pioneers in this space!

  3. I’m very interested to see how far all this goes, and how soon.

  4. Shame there is nothing about entertainmenthere – how entertaining vws could be – in my opinion the reason they have failed to take off – despite having been around for a very long time in web terms – is that the discussion is all about money or worthiness… Facebook, Twitter etc didn’t becomne ubiquious by talk of metrics and training…

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  8. An interesting take on virtual worlds, in particular the usage for military training. It isn’t a secret that the US army always has been keen to set up simulated training environments to train their troops. On the other hand there are other platforms besides Second Life to train troops

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