When I talk with museum people about virtual worlds, the conversation usually centers on Second Life. And sure, by some metrics, it's the biggest, most fully realized 3D world out there, full of user-generated content, sex shops and waterslides, and a whole lot of buggy, experimental experiences.
But Second Life isn't the biggest, and it isn't the fastest growing. It's just the most open.
If you want to see where the real action is, waddle over to the igloo. Chances are if you know a kid between 6 and 12, you know a kid who uses Club Penguin or Webkinz, or both. Club Penguin is subscription-based and purely on the web; Webkinz requires the purchase of a plush toy (with an active virtual life). These virtual worlds are, as one father put it, "the cuddly G-rated version of Second Life." And they're booming. Club Penguin has 700,000 subscribers (at $6/month), about 12 million users, and was just sold to Disney for $350 million with a $350 million additional earn-out. And unlike Second Life, Club Penguin is 2D, highly controlled, and its primary users are too young to type.
But not too young to fall in love with virtual worlds. In January, there was an interesting CNET article about "Generation We"--kids growing up today who are constantly plugged in, not to their own personal gadgets, but to a larger social network. They expect their computer experiences, like in-person play experiences, to be social. While there's not much interest in playing with strangers, kids as young as 6 will make plans with school friends to meet up in the virtual igloo afterschool for scripted chat and simple flash games.
Talking to kids about these worlds, I've learned they know how to game the system (removing those pesky parental controls). But they don't use it to swear. They use it to play. They love the way it fuels their desire to quickly jump from one activity to the next. Now we're making pizza! Now we're playing hockey! It's not just one game, so it doesn't feel constrained. It emulates real social imaginative play and provides a realized (if virtual) environment for interaction.
They also love a part that creeps me out: the commercial aspect. Much of the gameplay in these worlds focuses around earning virtual money to buy virtual goods. And I can see the appeal; I felt the same excitement playing Lemonade Stand, filling pitchers and raking in the imaginary text-based dough. Whether healthy or not, acquiring, saving, and scheming with money is a classic child preoccupation--and one that cannot fully be realized in the real world.
One of the best places to get a good idea of Club Penguin without strapping on a beak is through their blog. Blogging may seem like an adult (or at least teenage) activity, but the Club Penguin creators realize that their users are enthusiastic and want to be involved in the action. You get a feel for the emphasis on new! improved! content, events, and the extent to which kids really feel this is "their" world. If only museums' blogs got such a wealth of poorly spelled comments. "THE MISSION IS AWSOME I WANTED TO BEAT THEM ALL AND I DID THANK YOU SO MUCH CP I LOVE YOU." Indeed.
So what does this mean for museums? Someone recently said to me, "the mass audience for virtual worlds is growing up with the technology." It isn't the Second Life early adopters for whom this technology will be ubiquitous: it's the young penguins in their virtual igloos. Adults may not expect social networks and virtual extensions of real experiences in museums, but within ten years, adolescents raised on Club Penguin and Webkinz will. In the same way that today's teens have grown up with the mobile phone technology, today's pre-teens are growing up with social networks and virtual worlds. If you are going to invest time looking into virtual worlds while thinking about future audiences, perhaps it's time to start getting out on the ice. Or, as the Club Penguin blog would put it, waddle on!