Saturday, February 9, 2008

Why virtual worlds (like Second Life) are the next big thing

I like to think that I am a "skate to where the puck is going to be" sort of person, and I've been thinking a lot of late about why Second Life, and environments like it, will be the next big thing in learning. Virtual worlds are the most compelling technology-mediated learning environment that exist today. We're also very early in their development, and things are only going to get better. It feels an awful lot like the Web days of 1993 all over again, and we all know how that played out.

Where this post is about my experiences from working in Second Life, this is not a post about Second Life. It's just the system that I know. There are others virtual worlds that function much the same way, and there are many more in development.

Here are some of the things that are propelling Second Life to the fore-front of educational innovation. I'm sure there are additional items I could put on the list, and I could have looked to see what others have said, but I wanted this list to be an off-the-top of my head sort of effort:

It is collaborative (not competitive) - it isn't a game in the traditional sense in that it has no built-in objectives. There is no winning or losing, killing or conquering. Where there is nothing to stop someone from introducing competitive elements it's not part of the Second Life DNA. This is an essential component for learning that should not be ignored.

It embraces creativity - it offers a multitude of ways for people to express themselves be it design, architecture, music, art, fashion, scripting, teaching... Where the Web is primarily a text driven environment where people express themselves by writing, Second Life is a place where people can express themselves in many different ways.

It supports peer-production - I'm always amazed that everything you see in Second Life has come from residents working together to create them. It is without question a social networking site. There are some incredible builds that show what people can do when they organize, collaborate, and combine their skills to express their collective talents. What is happening in Second Life reminds me a great deal of the sort of incredible productivity you see in Wikipedia. It's the same peer-production dynamic and it is nothing short of phenomenal.

It is social - It's the richest technology mediated environment to be found for interacting with other people. It supports many modalities for interaction. I like to think that I am the master of multi-tasking, but Second Life brings me to my knees. I dare you to try to multi-task while in Second Life. This is not an environment where you can run multiple tabs and bounce around. It commands your full attention. It engages.

There are few rules - there are a list of basic values that read like the Golden Rule. There is no built-in hierarchy or roles. There are few controls. People are free to explore and to push the boundaries of what is possible.

It is inclusive - it's like that old expression, on the Internet no one knows you're a dog. I can't count the number of interesting people I have met from all corners of the globe in-world. It makes the real world a smaller place. I'm not delusional, there are real people in-world and they bring their own prejudices, but it's much easier to get around these obstacles in a virtual environment.

I trust Linden - they embody the modern organization: they are transparent, have open-sourced the client, and seem absolutely committed to open-sourcing the server software. I don't believe they are interested in "controlling" anything. They are very progressive in matters of intellectual property. They know this is bigger than any one company, and that if it is to truly reach its potential they will have to set it free. We are headed to a day of many interconnected and inter-operable virtual worlds. Just like with the Web, we are going to see millions of machines connected in the coming metaverse. (See: Metaverse Project, Croquet Consortium, Open Simulator, Sun's Wonderland )

It is poised to explode - there are lots of smart people working on taking virtual worlds to the next level. These disparate efforts will be merged. This is completely related to the Lindens beginning to open up the environment. When you bring a bunch of smart people together working in an open environment great things happen. We've seen this same dynamic play itself out many times in the past. It's happening again in this space, and the results will be nothing short of world changing.

This was a quick stab at capturing some of my thoughts on what is happening. I tried to stay at a 10,000 foot level so I didn't get into things like exploiting the Z scale, and other things that can be done in-world as compared to other environments. I could also make a list of what is wrong with Second Life. That would be too easy. My old Apple II, that I purchased in 1979, and the Commodore PET I used before that had quite a few flaws as well. I can remember using the text-based Web before there was Mosaic -- that had a few rough edges too. Most of us had no trouble seeing through the flaws to the massive potential these technologies embodied. Same with virtual worlds - things are only going to get better, and they are going to get better very quickly. This is a space that you ignore at your own peril.

NEXT POST: What educators need to be doing right now to get ready for what is coming. (As suggested by Sue Waters.)

Thanks to Sue Waters and Beth Raney for their contributions to this post.


Heartaday said...

I think it could still be the next big thing, but not for another five years at least. Right now it's still mainly a paradise for people acting out their shadow sides. It's impossible to trust anybody in there, which makes it very difficult to do real business. If you are, and you're making money, and it's worth all the time you spend in there...more power to ya! Been there, done that...wasn't worth it.

Peg Boyles said...

I believe! But I so wish we could get it together here in First Life, the only one so far where I can commute by bike, grow (and taste) a cabbage, and take a hot bath.

Anonymous said...


In this county we bus children 15 million miles a year. Virtual worlds could be much more environmentally friendly, and the kids would have more time for riding their bikes instead of buses.


Peg Boyles said...

Point taken.

But Kevin, if we posit virtual worlds as ideal learning environments, without a simultaneous commitment to improving First World learning, who can say for sure that children (or adults) would choose to spend that extra time growing cabbages or riding bikes?

The virtual worlds and the product/service economies that will spill out of them into First World will probably win hearts and minds. Virtual worlds could create even better consumers than brick-and-mortar schools do now.

Growing cabbage and riding a bike require a producer mindset.

Peg Boyles said...

Reading Doc Searls; he makes my point (about the importance of getting rooted in First World) so simply:

So I guess we just keep walking on our clay feet, just because it’s the only way to get around.

Anonymous said...


Actually, I think the ideal learning environment would be blended. There are all sorts of things that would still require people to come together. (Even to produce.)

I just think we need to start asking harder questions as to the "why" of coming together -- the content, the real reasons... Just like I thin we need to start asking ourselves questions like, "What is the purpose of an office when your work is in the community?"


Anonymous said...

Oops, that last comment should have said "context" instead of "content". My bad.

Theory Shaw said...

In regards to your bulletpoint on peer production, you might be interested in how our group Studio Wikitecture is using Second Life as a platfrom for the peer production of architecture and urban planning. Our group has, over the last year, been using SL to conduct ‘Wikitecture’ experiments to work out what an open source approach to practice of architecture might look like.

We are currently in the final stages of the third experiment, which involves the design of a real world health clinic for one of the poorer regions in western Nepal, a competition project sponsored by the Open Architecture Network (

If interested, here's a video of the evolution of the design so far.

Anonymous said...


Wow, that is very very cool. I spent quite a bit of time at the Web site, watching the machinima, etc.

I'm going to elevate this out of the comments so that lots more people can see it. Great stuff!

Thank you for sharing this with me.


ryan dot cooper at gmail dot com said...

I agree. Except virtual worlds need to be easy and simple. Second Life is a mess to the average user.