My kids spent more time on the computer than I did over the holidays—they each received three Webkinz from various relatives, and they quickly became addicted to the site that lets them play with and care for their “pets,” make mystery friends (who, thankfully, can only converse with them through pre-set messages), and play a variety of mildly educational games for fun and virtual profit. My kids are Luddites—or, rather, my husband and I are when it comes to our kids. They don’t have their own cell phones or iPods. They don’t know how to do much more with the television than turn it on. And except in school, they rarely spend any time on the computer, let alone the Internet.
That all changed when Bob, Max and various other cuddly friends entered the Turek household. My kids are transfixed. And they’re not alone. A recent article in the New York Times notes that online playgrounds are big business these days, churning out millions in profits for corporations big (Disney, Time Warner) and relatively small (Webkinz). There’s a reason for that: The sites let kids do what they always do—role play, especially at being grown up. They can try on different personalities while experimenting with having control, through “caring” for creatures or otherwise interacting with the site and its members. But role playing is what kids do; sites like Webkinz and Disney’s Club Penguin simply let them do it in a new way. When my kids aren’t on the PC, they’re creating a Littlest Pet Shop world in their room. Or they’re outside, pretending the sledding hill is a mountain, and they’re arctic explorers. You get the point—for kids, it’s all about imagination.
Grown-ups, not so much. Sure, there are millions of registered “residents” on Second Life. But assuming a good percentage of those accounts are used for a week and then left dormant, and another good percentage represent multiple accounts for a single live user, that leaves many more millions of people not on Second Life. And there’s a reason for that. Most grown-ups don’t really want to play at being grown up; we’re already being grown up every day in the real world. According to the Times’ article, Club Penguin attracts seven times more users that Second Life, and Electric Sheep, an online marketer for virtual worlds, recently laid off a third of its staff.
All of which has consequences for companies looking for ways to leverage virtual worlds in the enterprise. Network World recently reported on IBM’s attempts to get its own employees used to collaborating in a virtual environment. Despite the article’s rah-rah tone, the story suggests that IBM is having a bit of trouble getting employees to buy into its “Metaverse.” Michael Ackerbauer, who is building the virtual world, boasts that people are having meetings “under water and up in the air.” But any of IBM’s 370,000-plus employees could surely be forgiven for wondering, “Why would I want to meet under water or up in the air?” (Although that might make for an interesting bonding activity for an in-person corporate retreat, especially if you work for Richard Branson…)
As I’ve said before and will say many times again, technology in the workplace must add simplicity, not complexity. Ackerbauer says his team has spent lots of time looking at online RPGs and sites like Second Life. But adults who play RPGs do so for fun—they are, after all, playing a game. At work, we want tools that make it easier to get information quickly, to meet with colleagues, and to get the job done. If I have to create a persona or don a virtual wet suit to brainstorm on a new idea, I’m likely to disconnect from the session, and the underlying technology, pretty quickly.
I don’t mean to harsh on IBM, which is actually doing interesting work in this space. For instance, the company recently announced IBM Atlas for Lotus Connections, a corporate social networking visualization and analysis tool that’s designed to help users find content experts, see how they’re connected, and leverage their own contacts’ contacts to build their virtual networks. That’s technology I can use, without pretending to be someone, or somewhere, that I’m not.