The Failed Promise of Virtual Worlds

Second Life

This post continues our week-long series around the theme of communication, identifying key communities and offering insight on how to reach them.

By Jason Brandt (@Jasondmg3)

The phrase “virtual worlds” is more likely to be met with a raised-eyebrow smirk than with a professional interest. Games like World of Warcraft conjure up images of addicted players spending lives in darkness, existing to fight imaginary battles. Communities like Second Life have become shorthand for online experiences with massive technological dedication and minimal real-world effect. One of the most popular virtual worlds, There, survived for seven years, but closed just weeks ago.

On the other hand, children’s virtual world environments like Neopets, Webkinz andClub Penguin appear to be thriving – and anyone on Facebook has seen how popular Farmville, Mafia Wars and other games created by Zynga have become.

This offers food for thought. Why is this so? First, they’re connected to larger entities, so they don’t have the negative connotations that can go with stand-alone. Second, they are appreciated as offering safer environments than the internet at large.

Game designer Jane McGonigal spoke at TED about the promise inherent in harnessing game-playing for real-world forces of good. She outlined how games, with their immediate welcome, collaboration, and assignment of a level-appropriate job toward achieving an ultimate goal engage and motivate players.

Is there an opportunity here, in the virtual universe, for useful applications in health care? Possibly.

Online patient communities often thrive because of their anonymity and their ability to make geography unimportant. A support group for embarrassing or controversial conditions can get more member activity online than it would meeting at the town hall. And a group for a rare condition can grow larger online than it can in one town. In both cases, virtual worlds hold promise.

But most companies’ explorations into immersive environments don’t last. How could a healthcare project be different?

First, if it were sponsored by an entity that did not rely on the virtual world to succeed financially.

  • Nickelodeon owns Neopets; Disney has bought Club Penguin; and toymakers Ganz own Webkinz.
  • Very similarly, it would make sense for a major pharma company to develop a virtual world if it would be of use to its target customers.

Second, if it offered a chance to improve healthcare in the real world without the risk of harming real patients

  • A virtual world could teach psychiatric-ward nurses how to manage combative virtual patients without risking the health or safety of either group.
  • Emergency professionals could learn how to manage crises situations in their actual neighborhoods with a program that could overlay a virtual environment on Google Earth-type satellite imagery.

Third, if it offered experiences to patients that they could not have in the real world due to their condition.

  • Multiple sclerosis patient Alice Kreuger created a nonprofit for Second Life communities – first for people with MS, then with autism and blindness.
  • Immersive virtual reality experiences have been shown to reduce the strength with which burn victims experience real-world pain.

While virtual worlds may have been oversold, the fact remains that their original promise is still offering exciting opportunities. Some applications have already helped patients. Can you create more?

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3 Responses to The Failed Promise of Virtual Worlds

  1. I hope this doesn’t come across as overly self-promotional but we’ve been fortunate enough to be working in healthcare/pharma for 10 years and virtual environments for 3. One of our projects is supporting military amputees through peer-to-peer support.

    The sense of presence, the ability to feel safe (either through selective anonymity where required or because sessions could be moderated and facilitated) and the ability to have both educational and social contexts for sharing and learning aren’t easily duplicated in any other medium other than face-to-face (often difficult for this target group).

    The same technology that provides this group with support strikes me as transferable to, say, a group with breast cancer, diabates or HIV. Tools that allow patient communities to support each other, attend educational events and interact with rich content.

    We’ve also used immersive environments for nurse training, soft skills training for healthcare administrators, and other applications.

    Finally, through our show Metanomics we’ve demonstrated the power of “event broadcasting” where the community is able to deeply engage with experts and have plans to launch a health-specific version of the show.

    I’ll also point out a recent Wall Street Journal article which examines other uses of virtual worlds for training in hospitals:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703909804575124470868041204.html

    Thanks for indulging me – not doing so for promotion but rather to expand insight into the different ways immersive environments are being used in health and wellness.