Tag Archives: Second Life

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

Gene Sharp, Civil Resistance and Technology

Major civil nonviolent campaigns are twice as likely to lead to sustainable democratic transitions than violent campaigns. This conclusion comes from a large-N statistical study carried out by my colleague Maria Stephan (PhD Fletcher ’06) and Erica Chenoweth. Recently published in International Security, the study notes that civil resistance movements have achieved success 55% of the time while only 28% of violent campaigns have succeeded.

Another colleague, Chris Walker (MALD Fletcher ’07), wrote in his excellent Master’s Thesis that “techniques associated with strategic nonviolent social movements are greatly enhanced by access to modern information communication technologies, such as mobile telephony, short message service (SMS), email and the World Wide Web, among others.”

It stands to reason, then, that increasing access to modern communication technologies may in turn up the 55% success rate of nonviolent campaigns by several percentage points. To this end, the question that particularly interests me (given my dissertation research) is the following: What specific techniques associated with civil resistance can tactical uses of modern communication technologies amplify?

This is the question I recently posed to Dr. Peter Ackerman—another Fletcher Alum (PhD ’76) and the founding Chair of the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC)—when I described my dissertation interests. When Peter suggested I look into Gene Sharp’s work on methods of nonviolent action, I replied “that’s exactly what I intend to do.”

In The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Gene identifies 198 methods of nonviolent protest and persuasion. The majority of these can be amplified by modern communication technologies. What  follows is therefore only a subset of 12 tactics linked to applied examples of modern technologies. I very much welcome feedback on this initial list, as I’d like to formulate a more complete taxonomy of digital resistance and match the tactic-technologies with real-world examples from DigiActive’s website.

  • Quickie walkout (lightning strike): Flashmob
  • Hiding, escape, and false identities: Mobile phone, SMS

Do please let me know (in the comments section below) if you can think of other communication technologies, Web 2.0 applications, examples, etc. Thanks!

Patrick Philippe Meier

Social Web: Carrotmob, Anonymous and Second Life

The final panel I attended at the social web and networked political protests conference included interesting case studies on Carrotmob, Anonymous and Second Life.

Professor Caja Thimm gave a fascinating presentation on avatars in politics. Caja is particularly interested in studying Second Life (SL) as a new political platform:

Various politicans have their personal look alike avatars, from the French presidential candidate Le Pen to the presidentials hopeful Barack Obama. Various states (States of Hungary, Sweden ) run their virtual embassies to attract cyber visitors. SL is not only a place for political marketing or political campaining, it is also starting to function as a plattform for political activism. Avatars engage in demonstrations, in protestmarches, human chaines and smart mobs. Causes are many: for human rights in Burma, against the right wing French Le Pen, against nuclear energy, against the G8 summit and more. Recently, rising problems of a virtual society have become an issue. Sexual assualts, child pornography or vandalism call for political actions by the SL Residents on various levels.

Caja’s research focuses on how avatars and their human counterparts try to organize and (perhaps) democratize their newly created world. I find this a truly fascinating research topic and can’t wait to read Caja’s upcoming book on the subject. We happened to take the same train back to Frankfurt after the conference and it was interesting to hear some of the reactions she has had vis-a-vis this research topic. Only younger scholars seem to “get it”, others just miss the point entirely.


This raises another issue, or rather concern, that struck me while at the two-day conference. Here we are, the vast majority of us scholars, talking about the social web as experts, and yet only a tiny fraction of us at the conference actually have a blog. Of the sixty-or-so participants, three are on Twitter. Fewer still have avatars or a YouTube account. It is incredibly important that we actually use these social web tools if we want to study them. My understanding of blogs, their power, their network-effect and their negative side has completely and utterly changed after I started to blog. The same goes with Twitter. Which is why I went on Second Life this morning and created my first avatar.


Mundo Yang presented his very interesting research on Anonymous. Mundo’s paper, entitled “Bringing ‘A for Anonymous’ and Public Sphere Together” is available here (PDF).

On Carrotmob:

It’s often said that you vote with your dollars, and what you buy sends signals to companies. But what if, rather then as individuals supporting businesses we like, or boycotting them en masse, we as a crowd were harnessed to financially reward companies that make the most change, as compared to other companies competing for the honor? What if we dropped the stick, and put out a carrot, that carrot being that you will have a “Carrot Mob” descend on your store and make a point of buying from you on a specified date, and perhaps even ongoing? That, I imagine, would be quite the motivation for a business to extend itself to make the effort to change or improve how they do business, generating immediate financial returns, positive press, and longer term goodwill from consumers (source).

Patrick Philippe Meier