Online virtual worlds are essentially social environments, open for users to create rich visual and audio experiences for themselves and others. These environments can be themed to host an extremely wide range of activities but participation remains based within social collaboration with other real people, enhanced by rich digital constructs. This paper will discuss only non-gaming scenarios and will use the virtual social worlds (VSWs) provided by Second Life and Qwaq as examples.
Controlling an avatar (graphical figure that represents your presence within a virtual world) and using it to communicate to other people via their avatars requires only basic gaming skills, but learning to read and quickly adapt to the social etiquette and demands of any new virtual simulation does take practice. The protocols of any given simulation, whether explicit or implicit and a participants adherence to these, are what completes the illusion and helps to make the virtual world environment feel real.
The extent to which social and other educational learning within a virtual world can be translated into valuable real world knowledge and experience, depends upon the extent to which the simulation's illusion affects the users and the depth to which they engage with the established setting. Effective simulations can spin participants into diverse activities and behaviours, leading to previously unimagined situations, challenges and personal discoveries.
If simulated correctly to enforce workplace protocols then serious business scenarios can be set up in virtual worlds for courses, presentations, e-learning and meetings. With or without facilitation, these can help participants focus upon core interests, cut through peripheral issues and by the use of simple record and review techniques, help individuals to develop beyond bad practices or disruptive habits. This can help to create efficient proceedings allowing geographically dispersed individuals to collaborate in a socially rich and highly functional setting from their own desktop. By providing a socially successful virtual workplace and reducing the need to travel to meetings, a company can make significant increases in productivity while at the same time greatly reducing costs and environmental impact. By experiencing such positive learning scenarios in world, the desire to emulate this in real world situations can also help to fuel the crossover of good practice from the virtual learning or practice space. When offered access to a world where you are free to do anything you like and create what ever you desire, you are for the first time truly free to experiment socially, mentally and graphically with no limits, confines and without the consequences of failure. If harnessed in a positive way this can be a tool for discovery and innovation.
Developing new social skills, practicing professional behaviours or learning business workflows can all be undertaken within virtual simulation spaces. However, such unconventional suggestions and approaches create a wide range of challenges. This paper outlines an attempt to instigate the use of virtual worlds within an international oil company.