If you haven’t read the other two parts in this series, I encourage you to start there, since I gave more of an overview of the state of virtual worlds. Here is a link to Part I with background on virtual worlds. This listing provides some additional examples of how non-profits and other organizations are experimenting with virtual worlds. We are all still trying to figure it out!
Non-Profit Organizations/Social Activism
“Green” Earth/Social Awareness campaigns – Second Chance Trees in Second Life is an island where avatars can plant one of 10 different types of endangered trees for about $1.50 each (L$300). For each tree planted, Plant-It 2020 and the social media marketing group Converseon will plant a similar tree in the real world in its indigenous forest. With a combination of technologies like Google Earth and a 3D avatar with real-time data layered over the Google images, whole new vistas arise for virtual eco-travel that has no impact on the environment. Common Ground and World Scout Jamboree have started islands in Second Life. Unfortunately, many of these islands are not available to the public. Virtual events have a “second life” even after the event has passed by using machinima techniques to record and present it. One example is a short video on the virtual rearguing of the famous Dred Scott case, commissioned by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard.
Fund Raising Events – The American Cancer Society raised $75,000 from a virtual Relay for Life walk-a-thon held in Second Life in July. It built a custom track in a virtual 96-acre park for avatars participating in the event. Groups of supporters went an extra mile and set up donation kiosks throughout the world, letting other users contribute L$ in advance of the event. Here’s a video. When Save the Children ran out of live yaks for its popular sponsorship program, it created a virtual “Yak Shak” in Second Life where people could buy a “virtual” yak for about $4 each. They also conducted yak races, a yak beauty contest and taught avatars to knit sweaters from yak wool. A virtual avatar walk across the U.S. to raise money for breast cancer research. For $3 a participant can create an avatar and “walk” across 31 virtual cities in the U.S. The “Gal to Gal Virtual Walk” allows a participant to create a 2D animated avatar with a customized appearance and “walking outfit” and then log in each day to see the avatar pass over a photographic background of the city-of-the-day. It’s easy to imagine a more elaborate version in a 3D environment where the participants actually walk their own avatars across a variety of 3D locations or retrieve items in a global treasure hunt, or have virtual chapter meetings. The March of Dimes has just established an island in Second Life, and there is a fund raising memorial to the 9/11 World Trade Center event.
Protests – In 2005, a protest taking the form of purple robot kangaroos marching into the assembly hall was staged during a speech at the virtual United Nations in Second Life as protest against the support for the UN and its policies. Last year in Second Life, a group set up a protest against genocide in Darfur by creating a replica of a refugee camp and erecting billboards with actual photographs, demanding world leaders to take action. In July, PETA and Stella McCartney staged a virtual anti-fur protest. Last week, a group of disgruntled IBM workers in Italy staged a protest on IBM’s Second Life site to publicize their struggle over pay and conditions. IBM was forced to stop a virtual company meeting that was underway and close all of its SL islands to outsiders for most of the day until order was restored. This week, the ‘”Human-Chain-for-Burma” protest was staged virtually in Second Life to show solidarity with the protesting people of Myanmar. On Better World Island in Second Life, social activists congregate and form “drum circles” with their avatars to share ideas. There is even a virtual Guantanamo Bay prison calling attention to conditions of the prisoners.
World Affairs – New Media Consortium received a MacArthur Grant for its efforts to bring world leaders into Second Life for discussion and interactions that could potentially translate to solutions on real world issues. Clear Ink, a Berkeley-based Internet marketing firm, created a virtual Capitol Hill space in Second Life to make it available for political forums. They encourage bi-partisan civic discussion and welcome members of Congress, policymakers, press and the public to participate in the ongoing discussions. Terrorism is a concern even in the virtual worlds. The Australian High Tech Crime Centre, said jihadists may be using the virtual world to master skills such as reconnaissance and surveillance. Europol has recruited security consultants to advise on the use of Second Life for fraud, money transfers, and terrorism. The FBI has even been in Second Life examining unusual transactions, and, as a result, all virtual casinos in SL were shut down, because they were believed to aid international money laundering.
Museums – The American Museum of Natural History has an island in Second Life, as well as some smaller art museums.
Play as Work – In the past few years a new way of making money has grown up from MMO games such as Everquest and World of Warcraft. In many Asian countries, “gold farms”, where workers are hired to do repetitive tasks in popular games to earn virtual items and coins, have sprung up. The so-called gold farmers amass virtual coins and items that are then sold outside the game to other players worldwide for real world money, creating an economic benefit for the Asian countries. Both gamers and farmers can “craft” or manufacture items that other players buy with the currency of the virtual world. A booming economy exists in the real world for valuable virtual items from multiplayer games like World of Warcraft, Everquest, EVE Online, Halo, etc., which are sold for real world currency on eBay or on direct marketing web sites. Author Julian Dibbell says, “Play is doing the work of work.” He speculates on a multiplayer hospital game where players might perform crafting tasks, such as reading X-rays. Once the player achieves a certain proficiency, real X-rays could be interspersed with false ones, giving the medical organization free interpretation of X-rays from trained observers and the players a way to advance their game skills. Using one of the indestructible $100 laptops Nicholas Negroponte is championing, this could provide an economic means for third world countries potentially to have access to skilled diagnostic support worldwide at no charge.
Musical concerts – Not only have big-name artists like U2, Suzanne Vega, 50 Cent and Duran Duran played concerts in Second Life as avatars, classical musicians are also experimenting to connect with a new audience. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic built a replica of its concert hall in England, and in recently performed the first classical symphonic concert using avatars for an avatar audience.
News – Reuters created an impressive high rise building in SL that segregates content topics on separate screens near seating areas. The screens display realtime headlines and stories on a wide variety of topics. Reuters established a Second Life news bureau, and features not only real time, real world stories, it also features stories within and about Second Life. Anyone can take away a free copy of the news story board for their own use. In addition, SL has spawned its own in-world newspapers like the popular online newspaper Second Life Herald, and media outlets discussing only SL events and issues. There is even a Second Life News Network (SLNN) similar to CNN.
Sports - Many groups in virtual worlds conduct sports events and competitions, from car and motorcycle racing to Whack-a-mole to chess to surfing. Major League Baseball got into the action this past summer with a simulcast of its home-run derby within Second Life, with video streams of the event shown on screens within a digitized Yankee stadium. IBM satisfied the tennis cravings of hardcore fans who could not go to Wimbledon this year by creating a faithful reproduction of the courts in Second Life, and then using real time data fed in to reproduce the matches just moments after each shot was played in England. An interesting exhibit about the technology and how it’s used can be found just up the escalators by the stadium.
Propaganda – Games such as America’s Army that I wrote about previously are viewed as combat training by the Army, but as propaganda by many people in the world. Islamic militants are suspected of using Second Life to hunt for recruits and mimic real-life terrorism.
Religion – Anywhere people can be found, missionaries can be found spreading their messages. That includes virtual worlds. While I came across Adventist Education Island in Second Life, for the most part religious activity takes the form of small churches and chapels on private islands, reproductions of cathedrals like Mont St. Michel in France, Wiccan enclaves, or Buddhist stupas. Even Jesuits are being encouraged to see Second Life as a new missionary territory and go in to proselytize and save (virtual?) souls.
To reprise, virtual worlds are the worst now they will ever be. The number of organizations and people that are willing to engage with them anyway demonstrates how powerful they are. We are several years away from seeing fully how they will change education, work and social interactions. To quote the Second Life Geospatial Informatics Society, “Metaverses matter.”