In late 2006 the mainstream media latched onto Second Life as the latest tech freak show to amaze and scare the general public with. The momentum built throughout the first half of 2007 but then the scepticism and apathy set in. So has anything of note happened in Second Life since then? The number of Australians in Second Life has actually declined and is only now starting to climb back up.

Gambling and virtual banking without real-world backing has been banned and there’s a fair deal of scrutiny on inappropriate s-x play — if you like logging in as a six-year-old avatar and inviting others to simulate s-x with you, you’re out of luck.

Business has had a rocky time, some have been burnt and others are thriving. Market research firm Gartner released some data last week citing a 90% failure rate for business in virtual worlds but they remain bullish on future opportunities, believing 70% of organisations will have some sort of virtual world presence by 2012. Telstra is the most notable Aussie virtual world success story, with well over a year clocked up in Second Life and a growing user base.

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A very steady momentum continues to build in the education and health sectors. Teachers, academics, nurses, counsellors and doctors are in Second Life for a lot more than a psychological arms-length dance in a nightclub.

There’s research underway on issues as diverse as gender identity, micro-finance, virtual world economies, prototyping surgical technology and trauma response education. I know of a handful of Australians well underway with their PhD research on virtual worlds.

The well-known cancer fundraiser Relay for Life occurs in Second Life, as did a China earthquake relief appeal. The Australian Council recently funded a multimedia art installation that launched simultaneously in the NSW regional city of Lismore and Second Life.

The point is, virtual worlds are casting an ever-widening net and the real-life implications are gaining increased traction. Courts have started to hear cases claiming intellectual property theft in relation to virtual goods and governments are starting to twig that there’s a significant stream of taxation revenue being overlooked.

There may not be the weekly headlines on Second Life anymore but don’t take that as a sign of a fading fad. It’s more a sign that virtual worlds are part of the landscape now. With more than 60 million people involved worldwide, virtual worlds are no Furby or Tamagotchi.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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