Thursday, October 19, 2006

previous entry | main | next entry | TrackBack (0)

It's my virtual idea!! Mine!! Mine!!

It's been quite the week for news coverage of virtual world. Today the New York Times dogpiles on, with this story by Richard Siklos about how corporations are making their presence known in Second Life:

This parallel universe, an online service called Second Life that allows computer users to create a new and improved digital version of themselves, began in 1999 as a kind of online video game.

But now, the budding fake world is not only attracting a lot more people, it is taking on a real world twist: big business interests are intruding on digital utopia. The Second Life online service is fast becoming a three-dimensional test bed for corporate marketers, including Sony BMG Music Entertainment, Sun Microsystems, Nissan, Adidas/Reebok, Toyota and Starwood Hotels.

The sudden rush of real companies into so-called virtual worlds mirrors the evolution of the Internet itself, which moved beyond an educational and research network in the 1990’s to become a commercial proposition — but not without complaints from some quarters that the medium’s purity would be lost....

Philip Rosedale, the chief executive of Linden Labs, the San Francisco company that operates Second Life, said that until a few months ago only one or two real world companies had dipped their toes in the synthetic water. Now, more than 30 companies are working on projects there, and dozens more are considering them. “It’s taken off in a way that is kind of surreal,” Mr. Rosedale said, with no trace of irony.

Beginning a promotional venture in a virtual world is still a relatively inexpensive proposition compared with the millions spent on other media. In Second Life, a company like Nissan or its advertising agency could buy an “island” for a one-time fee of $1,250 and a monthly rate of $195 a month. For its new campaign built around its Sentra car, the company then needed to hire some computer programmers to create a gigantic driving course and design digital cars that people “in world” could actually drive, as well as some billboards and other promotional spots throughout the virtual world that would encourage people to visit Nissan Island....

Entering Second Life, people’s digital alter-egos — known as avatars — are able to move around and do everything they do in the physical world, but without such bothers as the laws of physics. “When you are at you are actually there with 10,000 concurrent other people, but you cannot see them or talk to them,” Mr. Rosedale said. “At Second Life, everything you experience is inherently experienced with others.”

Second Life is the largest and best known of several virtual worlds created to attract a crowd. The cable TV network MTV, for example, just began Virtual Laguna Beach, where fans of its show, “Laguna Beach: The Real O.C.,” can fashion themselves after the show’s characters and hang out in their faux settings....

All this attention has some Second Lifers concerned that their digital paradise will never be the same, like a Wal-Mart coming to town or a Starbucks opening in the neighborhood. “The phase it is in now is just using it as a hype and marketing thing,” said Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, 50, a member of Second Life who in the real world is a Russian translator in Manhattan.

In her second life, Ms. Fitzpatrick’s digital alter-ego is a figure well-known to other participants called Prokofy Neva, who runs a business renting “real estate” to other players. “The next phase,” she said, “will be they try to compete with other domestic products — the people who made sneakers in the world are now in danger of being crushed by Adidas.”

Mr. Rosedale says such concerns are overstated, because there are no advantages from economies of scale for big corporations in Second Life, and people can avoid places like Nissan Island as easily as they can avoid going to Nissan’s Web site. There is no limit to what can be built in Second Life, just as there is no limit to how many Web sites populate the Internet.

Linden Labs makes most of its money leasing “land” to tenants, Mr. Rosedale said, at an average of roughly $20 per month per “acre” or $195 a month for a private “island.” The land mass of Second Life is growing about 8 percent a month, a spokeswoman said, and now totals “60,000 acres,” the equivalent of about 95 square miles in the physical world. Linden Labs, a private company, does not disclose its revenue.

Despite the surge of outside business activity in Second Life, Linden Labs said corporate interests still owned less than 5 percent of the virtual world’s real estate. (emphasis added)

If corporations are moving into virtual worlds, it's just a matter of time before there are virtal anti-corporate protestors. And when that happens, well, then there's an opportunity for virtal professors of global political economy to enter the scene!!

Fletcher had better watch out. If I'm offered a virtual endowed chair, with the ability to mutate into any animal on earth, and a virtual Salma Hayek catering to my every whim... [You're going to the bad place again--ed.]

Somewhat more seriously, the growth of virtual worlds suggests an entirely new testing arena for social scientists. For example, the highlighted section suggests an intriguing experiment for a marketing professor: what is the power of branding independent of economies of scale?

An even more interesting meta-question -- does the virtual nature of the world remove ethical constraints that exist in real-world testing? Could someone run a virtual version of the Milgram study?

Question to international relations scholars who know something about these virtual worlds -- what IR hypotheses, if any, could be tested in these virtual worlds?

UPDATE: In related virtual news, the Joint Economic Committee has fired a warning show across the bow of the IRS on the question of taxing virtual profits. In related real news, further progress has been made towards an invisibility cloak.

posted by Dan on 10.19.06 at 08:37 AM


I've found that it's hard to test IR hypotheses (particularly systemic theories) in computer worlds. For example, in Civilization 3, you can "win" by being elected Secretary General of the UN, indicating that it was probably not programmed by realists. You could certainly test IR hypothesis regarding the behavior of populaces, but there are certain rules of the universe that may or may not be programmed in. Also, are there even nation-states in Second Life? Or political units of any kind?

posted by: Phil on 10.19.06 at 08:37 AM [permalink]

In terms of ethical constraints in the virtual world, there's a famous incident of a "sexual crime" that happened in a virtual world. Here's the wikipedia link:

posted by: Klug on 10.19.06 at 08:37 AM [permalink]

For example, in Civilization 3, you can "win" by being elected Secretary General of the UN, indicating that it was probably not programmed by realists.

You can also win by destroying everyone else.

I suspect the programmers of Civ 3 do not adhere to any one philosophy of IR (altho it is interesting to see how Communism can run a largish empire into the ground. It is quite obvious that none of the programmers are marxists).

posted by: rosignol on 10.19.06 at 08:37 AM [permalink]

ps: the turingbot is still broken.

posted by: rosignol on 10.19.06 at 08:37 AM [permalink]

No economies of scale for big corporations in virtual worlds? Just tell that to all the companies cashing in on gold farming in WOW.

posted by: asg on 10.19.06 at 08:37 AM [permalink]

Asg, but those companies don't gain any economies of scale by having a lot of gold farmers. If anything there might be declining marginal revenue as more farmers might mean potentially more supervisors to make sure they're doing well.

An interesting online game for IR theorists to look at is Planetarion, where you gain resources and use them to build warships or upgrade technology. Players are grouped into "galaxies" of 25, which was supposed to be the atomic unit of the game (my galaxy against all others). However the creators were very laissez-faire and a very different set-up organically was created. After the first reset (where everyone's planets were shuffled and brought down to nothing) a few top "alliances" made peace with each other and asserted hegemony over the entire game.

posted by: Polybius on 10.19.06 at 08:37 AM [permalink]

My virtual idea: Daniel blogs constantly mention Selma Hayek because he hopes the fame that comes from blogging may score him a chance with her.

posted by: Jeff on 10.19.06 at 08:37 AM [permalink]

Post a Comment:


Email Address:



Remember your info?