Prompted by an reporter from one of the large dailies contacting my co-supervisor, Dr. Denise Wood, and myself, here’s some of the answers I gave to his questions. They may be of value to you, too…
1. What are the main virtual worlds at the moment? Do you have stats on patronage?
The main virtual worlds can be split between those aimed at kids and those at adults. Taking some of my stats from K-Zero’s latest quarterly report, for kids the stand-outs are ‘Habbo Hotel’ (100m members), Neopets (45m), Stardoll (21m), Poptropica (20m), Club Penguin (19m), and BarbieGirls (15m)
For adults (over 18) it would be IMVU (20m, although it has a fair number of teenage users, probably more under 18 than over it) and Second Life (16m) as the two ‘biggies’, but it is expected that Football Superstars (just launched) and Sony’s ‘Home’ (still in beta but ‘live’ on every PS3) will give both a good ‘run for their money’ [although there is still some very valid speculation as to whether 'Home' will be any good at all -- see Eurogamer and Wagner James Au.]
2. Where is patronage growing and falling? Why?
It doesn’t appear to be falling anywhere. In fact, usage is being reported as ‘up’ across all virtual worlds, in line with findings from the Great Depression and the Second World War that during times of hardship or stress people immerse themselves in entertainment as an escape mechanism.
Of more interest is the amount of money being invested in virtual worlds. As reported by Virtual Worlds Management, the following sums have been invested:
Q3 2008 – $148m in 12 virtual world companies
Q2 2008 – $161m in 16 virtual world companies
Q1 2008 – $184m in 23 virtual world companies
Looking at those figures, you might think that there has been a gradual decline of investment in virtual worlds reflecting a decline in the whole virtual world environment, but that is not the case. The number of virtual worlds in ‘startup’ phase is growing, not shrinking. What is occurring is that micro-niches are beginning to develop, mostly around topics like sport, music and computer/video games.
As an aside, did you know that women comprise 40% of US gamers, 26% of whom are over the age of 50? Or that the average age of computer/videogame players has risen to 35? Or that women aged 18 or over represent a significantly greater proportion of the game-playing population (33%) compared to boys aged 17 or younger (18%)? [Thanks to Gary Hayes for this data]
These micro-niches will fill the gaps that larger, catch-all worlds like Second Life cannot adequately cater for.
3. How is Second Life going and who is there now? Can people actually make money there? Or is it being used more for research now?
People are still making money in Second Life, although some recent policy and pricing decisions by Linden Lab, the owners of the Second Life platform, have affected some previous high-earners. Previously land developers were the primary income group, however it would appear that retailers of digital goods are the primary earners. Each month around 60,000 businesses are reported to be ‘cash flow positive’ in Second Life – anywhere from L$5 (about 2c Australian) to $5,000 Australian. There are still, despite the recession all around us, many people who make their living in Second Life.
But the amount of tertiary institutions using Second Life as a development platform for their own research is still growing healthily. As uber-legend Gary P Hayes points out, most tertiary level instruction is still focused at frames-per-second game development, not social or simulation virtual world conceptualisation and understanding, and there needs to be a shift in thinking about digital media, otherwise the course offerings will be increasingly and rapidly irrelevant as the traditional media falls into the ‘whatever happened to…?’ category.
4. What do people doing on the various worlds?
Most people use social virtual worlds to, surprisingly, socialise. The human need to ‘connect’ with others of similar tastes and viewpoints is arguably more greatly felt than ever as we negotiate an ever-fracturing, confusing and discombobulated world. Numerous studies into the use that denizens put virtual worlds have repeatedly shown that ‘connecting’ and ‘making friends’ with others is a key driver to online, in-world behaviour, even more so when those denizens might be denied ‘real world’ opportunities to ‘connect’ because of their own locational remoteness, disability or handicap. [D, I presume you will have much to add here ]
5. What is the appeal?
The appeal of virtual worlds is as old as the first story, as told by Ug to his cavemen colleagues. It is the inbuilt desire we all share to find fellowship with others, to immerse ourselves in another world that allows us to forget the trials and tribulations of this one, even if just for a short while.
As a race we have shown ourselves sublimely willing to disassociate from the day-to-day and take ourselves off to far away times and places via books, movies, radio plays and theatre.
Today’s virtual worlds are the next logical extension of that propensity – a place where all of the world’s books, movies, radio plays and theatre can be re-lived and re-enacted by us whenever we choose.
Just as the wardrobe was the entrance to a magical kingdom of Narnia, so today’s computer is the entrance to a magical kingdom every bit as rich, as deep and as nuanced; only now we have the opportunity to be not just a passive reader but a very real and active participant.