Second Life: Virtual world training wheels for corporate America

Summary:As you may know, I'm not a huge fan of the Second Life buzz and especially the now-cliche Second Life meeting-press conference-party-brainstorming session. My biggest hurdle: I just don't get the appeal for companies or gamers.

As you may know, I'm not a huge fan of the Second Life buzz and especially the now-cliche Second Life meeting-press conference-party-brainstorming session.

My biggest hurdle: I just don't get the appeal for companies or gamers. My other nagging question: Are corporate activities in Second Life--the hotels, the PR firm offices, the news bureaus, meetings and brainstorming sessions--all that cutting edge? Why exactly are all these companies popping up in Second Life? Where’s the value added?

Aside from the off-the-record corporate answer--a Second Life office gives us some cheap press--I was hurting for any insight on what value a Second Life island provided a company.

At the Terra Nova State of Play conference in New York Friday I found my answer. "Companies flock to Second Life because it's not threatening to businesses," says Edward Castronova, an Indiana University professor who runs the university's Synthetic Worlds Initiative. "It's like a Web 3.0 product. It's a 3D Web page. For visitors, a Second Life visit is the equivalent of saying 'I went to the company's Web page.'"

Castronova argues that there are more interesting possibilities for companies experimenting with the dynamics of multiplayer games such as the World of Warcraft. A few companies are studying virtual world design and how it could impact their structure. The problem with selecting a more advanced role playing game over Second Life: "It's a bigger step for a company to allow employees to be a wizard," says Castronova.

He's not kidding. Picture IBM CEO Sam Palmisano's current Second Life avatar (suit, tie, same eyeglasses). Now picture him in wizard garb and hurling fireballs and collecting weapons.

Bottom line: There's a better way for corporations to use virtual worlds, but we're still in the training wheels stage.

Rutgers professor Greg Lastowka summed it up at a State of Play panel:

"There's this fuss about Second Life in the news and famous names making an appearance. There's a lot of media interest in this and a desire to see something radical. It makes me wince. The headlines are like: 'Virtual cow gives virtual milk."

Topics: IT Employment

About

Larry Dignan is Editor in Chief of ZDNet and SmartPlanet as well as Editorial Director of ZDNet's sister site TechRepublic. He was most recently Executive Editor of News and Blogs at ZDNet. Prior to that he was executive news editor at eWeek and news editor at Baseline. He also served as the East Coast news editor and finance editor at CN... Full Bio

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