Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Virtual Pets as a Social Experience

From standalone platforms, like Nintendo's Wii and the new Xbox Kinect, to general use web sites, social media sites, and of course MMOs, pets of the virtual variety are everywhere these days.

Wikipedia contributors have put together this brief article outlining the history and growth of the virtual pet industry, including its reported origins in 1986. Virtual creatures are as popular as ever over 25 years later, and, like much of the content created in the digital age, they appear to be increasingly used to enhance social engagement.

Some recent examples of their uses and popularity include:

Given the inherently social nature of virtual worlds, the popularity of virtual pets naturally extends there as well.  Pet-related activities abound, including this listing of virtual pets and animals available in Second Life. Ozimals have been a particularly popular choice in SL, especially their rabbits that have managed to raise hackles across the blogosphere, partly because of their popularity among Second Life residents.

Dogs are another popular Second Life virtual pet, including some very realistic creations by the Virtual Kennel Club, which notes on its web site that its dogs have unique artificial intelligence and physics qualities that separate them from the pack, so to speak. Here's a brief video that shows an interaction with one of their virtual creations:

VKC appears to be striving for a high level of detail in their virtual dogs, not only in appearance, but in behaviors as well, especially those involving interactions with owners or other pets. This focus on recreating, in nearly every detail, the connection between "human" and "pet" appears to be an important selling point amongst this particular brand of virtual creatures. And, VKC pet owners pay dearly for this type of realism, with some dogs running into the thousands of L$'s.

Flurbils, which are imaginary gerbil-like creatures, are among the newest entries to the virtual pet market in Second Life. Designed and developed by real-life husband and wife, Kanara and Unoti Quonset, Flurbils seem to represent a different approach from that of VKC or other virtual critter creators. An important focus of Flurbils is the social interaction engendered by participating with other Flurbil owners, including watching the little creatures interact in special enclosures, called habitats, as can be seen below:

Unlike VKC, that primarily emphasizes the interaction between virtual pet and owner, or even Facebook's Pet Pupz that creates asynchronous opportunities for users to interact with one another, the overall design of Flurbils appears intended to encourage ongoing synchronous and asynchronous immersive engagement amongst users.

According to Kanara Quonset, this was an important aspect of the original design modeled after real-world interactions between dog owners. Of this, she said " we were building and scripting, it occurred to us that it would be insanely fun to take your pets to go visit others, much like taking your dog to the dog park, while the humans sit on the benches talking about how wonderful their dogs are."

To increase this element of social engagement, players earn points (which are displayed on the official web site) by having their Flurbils interact with other Flurbils, other avatars, and even habitats owned by others; and the more people involved during specific aspects of the game, the more points available for all. As a result, players spend a great deal of time directly engaged with one another in a cooperative way.

During my visits to the Flurbils sim (SLurl), the social aspect was obvious. There were always at least 6-10 players present, relaxing and socializing while trading information and tips, and also touting the virtues of their individual Flurbils, much like one would see dog owners doing at the park.

There seemed to be general agreement among the players I talked with that Flurbils were not just "cute" and "fun to watch," but that they created an opportunity for virtual engagement that was inviting and compelling, even for new residents who sometimes lack the financial resources to participate in some of the other, more expensive interactive games in SL.

This was another design aspect highlighted by Kanara, "I wanted an experience where the newest SL players could jump in and play, but not feel it was impossible."  To this end, they offer a free starter kit that includes a Flurbil, a habitat enclosure, and directions. So, safe to say, inclusiveness, fun, and social engagement are strands that seem to run throughout the Flurbils design philosophy.

According to players, Furbils are highly addictive, and more than one person reported suffering a lack of sleep from keeping up with the little creatures’ activities. But, for Flurbil fans, this may be a sweet addiction indeed. Like one player commented, “they’re just like Pringles…you can’t have just one.” A ringing endorsement, to be sure.

So, whether you’re a Flurbil player or enjoy some other form of virtual creature, I’d really like to hear from you about your virtual pet experiences. Why do you own a virtual creature? What’s important to you about the experience? What would you like to see next from virtual pet creators?


Anonymous said...

Flurbils are interesting, and a lot of fun. Hard to explain, you really have to see them to understand. After a friend tried to explain them to me, I ended up at Dottyback and got the free starter kit, which includes a free flurbil. Now I am an addict! LOL

Anonymous said...

GREAT ARTICLE! But Ozimals are not popular. Nobody really lays Ozimals anymore because the creators committed damaging acts against their community, which you would have known had you actually read the article you linked too about Ozimals! It is a dead product and brand. The big thing now is Amaretto Horses, which are everywhere.

Sadly, turtles are dead, ozimals are deader than the chickens before them. research is your friend, especially when linking to a post on another resource that says something explicitly different than what you're trying to say here, i.e. Ozimals being "Popular".

Zero Calael said...

Thanks for the feedback. I did read the article I linked to, and that's why I wrote that Ozimals "raised hackles" across the blogosphere. My point was that the popularity of Ozimals was partly to blame for the problems they were causing for users.

I hadn't run across anything regarding the Amaretto Horses you mentioned, but I'll give them a look.

Thanks again for your feedback.