Time runs fast in virtual worlds

While researching heritage in Second Life, I noted that time speeds up in virtual worlds. Events that took place only months ago are referred to as part of the world’s history. When your world is only five years old, anything that survives for a few years begins to look like a venerable antique. Second Life’s most ancient antiques therefore include a statue, and a a beanstalk and a beach ball.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve attended two virtual worlds events: ‘Virtual Worlds 2008‘, organised by JISC in Stirling, and ‘Creating Second Lives‘ at the University of Bangor. I’ve found that not only does in-world time run fast – the associated research moves on at a remarkable pace.

A year ago I was complaining that papers I went to on Second Life tended to be straightforward reports of things the researchers had done in world. What they had done was often uninteresting, totally lacking in theory, and often involved the pointless recreation of a real-world building in the virtual world.

This year, interesting research and events are all over the place. I’ve heard papers on identity, depictions of nature, the role of architecture, library design, paramedic training, avatars in the stock market and in-world surgical operations. Research on virtual worlds has come in from the cold – it is no longer a couple of sessions as it was at CAL and ALT last year, or a fringe interest, as at Handheld Learning 2007. This year, it is a major research topic with conferences taking place every week and at least one new journal.

I’m also impressed by the extremely high level of interest from higher and further education. Looking at the delegate list for Virtual Worlds 2008 I see the University of St Andrews, North Highland College, Glasgow Caledonian University, University of Edinburgh, University of Abertay, Queen Margaret’s University, Coventry University, University of the West of Scotland, Adam Smith College and Jewel & Esk College – and that’s just the delegates whose names begin with J!

Can this level of interest be sustained – or is it just a flash in the pan? The figures suggest that persistent environments, if not virtual worlds, are here to stay. Three years ago they were generating revenue of $500 million worldwide – next year they are projected to generate $1 billion in the US alone. Active subscriptions currently stand at around 17 million worldwide. In terms of education, three years ago universities in Second Life were few and far between. This year, three-quarters of universities in the UK report that they have a presence there.

by Rebecca Ferguson

About Rebecca

I am a research fellow at The Open University. My research interests focus on how people learn together online and in blended environments, and I have studied blogs, online conference and interaction in both Second Life and Teen Second Life.
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