Friday, October 1, 2010

Content Control: A Key Issue for Virtual World Success

Or, The Life and Death of the Flying Penis

I recently came across an article in the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research that, while slightly dated (2008), raised some pretty intriguing questions about VWs, including how they can and should be designed, used, monetized, and governed.  

Nothing really new there, as these kinds of issues and questions have been floating around the web since VWs came into existence. But, this was the first time I’d seen them discussed in a systematic way.

The authors extended a typology to virtual worlds that had previously been applied to categorizing more general virtual communities, like Facebook or MySpace. The result was a framework that can help educational institutions, businesses, and individuals think about, and talk about, VWs more clearly.

The typology focuses on five elements of VWs:

  • Purpose: Are specific themes or goals present in the VW, or are users left to their own devices?

  • Physical location: Are users spread out across the globe, or are they sitting across from each other at the kitchen table?

  • Platform: What are the capabilities and limitations of the virtual environment?

  • Population: How many users is the VW intended to involve, and what are the connections between them?

  • Profit model: How is the VW monetized? Are users charged an access fee, or does the VW rely on in-world advertising or the purchase of in-world products?

These help structure important questions about VWs, such as how businesses should engage their customers there, how schools should design instructional environments, and how an individual’s concept of self is affected by participating (which are all topics for future articles).  

One important issue the Virtual Worlds article touched on only indirectly, however, was content creation and control. While this is arguably a function of the platform and its abilities, it’s also a governance issue that potentially cuts across many key dynamics of VWs generally.

Users of Second Life, for example, take for granted the ability to create virtual objects, scripts, and clothing they can sell, give away, or destroy at will. This is an important part of the user experience that has generated considerable freedom of expression and a vast array of incredibly rich content.

Such unmediated and direct access to building and sharing virtual goods has become central to SL culture and has provided a key purpose for participating. Building and sharing also facilitates monetization through the selling of virtual goods themselves, and through the secondary markets created by texture vendors and other in-world products that support the creative process.

This flexibility has its downside, of course. The ability to build anything, anywhere, at anytime leads to the types of embarrassing debacles that taint public opinion toward VWs. Professional and educational events have been marred by the ill intentions of griefers and their ilk whose phallocentric obsessions have become legendary in some circles.

But, not all VWs allow this type of flexibility, including the new kid on the block, Blue Mars. 

Blue Mars relies on a top-down approval process that controls what products are made available to users. This eliminates the possibility of a flying penis drifting through the boardroom during an important in-world meeting, but does it also stifle creativity as well? Does controlling content put creative decisions in too few hands and lead to censoring the creative process? And, if so, what are the consequences of that?

Whether content control will be a boon or a boondoggle for Blue Mars is an open question, but it will almost certainly affect who does and does not participate. Businesses and schools will likely see content control as a positive feature that attracts them to the environment, while creatives may view it as a stifling form of censorship that keeps them away in droves.

The participation of both professional and creative groups is necessary to move VWs from being perceived as a silly waste of time to being viewed as useful environments where groups and individuals can both work and play creatively.

What’s your opinion about content control and how it affects the user experience in general? Does content control factor into your decision to use a particular VW?

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