At one point I thought virtual worlds were the greatest thing since sliced bread. While I didn’t quite reach the Tammy Faye Bakker level of evangelism, I enjoyed talking with others about the promise of virtual worlds and investigating all sorts of ways it could change how we did things. But like many who truly believe, I’ve had a crisis of faith; I still think virtual worlds are great, but am beginning to wonder if there are limitations in what they can offer. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about coming into SL to have fun and create things, but more about the ways in which Second Life can be used as a tool for real world applications.
The best parts of Second Life seem to lie within what Grace McDunnough describes as “weak ties,” recreation (and if I wanted to be geeky, I would point out the parallels between the idea of “re-creation” and a second life. But I don’t want to be, so I won’t!), creativity & artistic expression, and the ability to do things that could be prohibitive or limited in the atomic world. All of these things are all pretty great and offer tremendous potential. I love that there are mock-ups of nuclear reactors that can help new staff train on equipment and develop a clearer expectation of what to expect. Or the idea that conducting military strategy and training exercises in Second Life could prepare people for complicated missions (thanks, Zoe Connolly!). And work done by Gentle Heron of Virtual Ability and Keystone Bouchard of Studio Wikitecture, winners of the Linden Prize offer some amazing opportunities. We all know this sort of list could go on and on.
Okay, so maybe calling it a crisis of faith is an overstatement. It is simply that I’ve grown to believe that the best uses of Second Life are the ones that strive to take advantage of the ability to do things that would be prohibitive or not possible to do in real life. I’m not trying to be a wet blanket here and maybe it is a function of virtual worlds being a relatively shiny and new idea, but it seems like there is a school of thought that just because you can do something in a virtual world means that will somehow be revolutionary. We’re entering an era of new ways of doing business! Digital platforms can revolutionize education! To explain what I mean, we need to look no farther than the massive fail of atomic world businesses that came to Second Life and tried to replicate their business model in SL. Somehow this sort of thinking still seems to pop up regularly and there is still something about operating in a digital world that doesn’t seem to resonate with people at large.
Given all of that, what I’ve started to wonder is this: Are we really pioneers on the leading edge of what may promise to be a significant movement? Or, given what currently stand as most effective uses of SL, are we power users of what might turn out to be a platform that is ideal for targeted uses for niche groups of people? I’m starting to come down on the latter but I’ll be the first to admit that maybe I’m overlooking or missing something. I know that there are unexplored avenues for creativity and creation of content and I believe that virtual worlds – and the uses for them – will continue to evolve, but it seems as if we’re far far away from the ability to be revolutionary.
How about you dear reader? Where are you placing your faith? In a platform that has valuable uses? Or in a brave new world?