Making virtual consumers of us all

Our games are becoming polluted with advertising and the values inherent in them are preaching consu

In his keynote speech at the Virtual Worlds Forum, held in London this October, Lord Puttnam expressed concern at the values espoused by many online virtual worlds aimed at young people, asking: "...are we absolutely sure that this is the very best we can offer young people? ... Do we really want them to think of themselves as not much more than consumers?"

Puttnam's concern stemmed from the number of toy and entertainment firms entering the rapidly-growing market of virtual worlds, with products such as Mattel's BarbieGirls, or Disney's recently-acquired Club Penguin.

Virtual destinations

Puttnam's concern doesn't just apply to the young. Virtual worlds and online games, be they services aimed at young people like Habbo Hotel, virtual worlds such as Second Life or games like World of Warcraft, are becoming more and more popular destinations in which people spend their spare time. It's important to remember that they are "destinations" - the concept of being "in-world" is very different to "being online" for players and users of such services. We are bombarded with enough advertising, online and off every day; why should our leisure spaces be equally polluted? And yet that is the trend that seems to be emerging.

Virtual businesses

Still, Lord Puttnam's fears may not be entirely justified. Young people are surprisingly good at knowing when they are being sold to. There is little to be done if they are happy with being sold to but it's hardly games and virtual worlds that set that ball rolling. And, it's worth remembering that all virtual worlds - however uncontroversial - are businesses: they cost money to make and more money to run. They can recoup that cost through subscriptions, through virtual trade, or by writing it off as an advertising expense, but somewhere, they are going to encourage money to change hands. Online, little is truly free.

Values implicit in games

Doug Thomas, of the University of Southern California, recently expressed similar sentiments to Lord Puttnam in a panel discussion. But while Lord Puttnam's concerns were about virtual worlds being used as marketing tools, Thomas seemed more concerned about the actual content of the games themselves, and the "conflation between consumption and consumerism and citizenship" within them, saying that "...our kids are being taught that to be a good citizen of this world you have got to buy the right stuff."

The point Thomas makes raises an interesting angle: what values are taught by - or are inherent in - the mechanics of these virtual worlds?

World of Warcraft, for instance, tells us that to improve our status, we must "grind" our way up through repetitive tasks. It also tells us that the rewards for such labours are treasure, better equipment, and more beautiful armour. The consumerist culture is at the core of World of Warcraft. There are even sweatshops in China where underpaid workers "farm" in game currency, which is sold for real money over the internet. The exchange rate is currently about eight cents to the virtual gold piece.

And consider Second Life, the poster-child of virtual worlds. It's not a game, but a space that can be whatever the inhabitants want it to be. It gives its inhabitants the abilities to create buildings and objects, and to program those objects with new behaviours. Second Life is a space that encourages creativity first and foremost, and so its economy began as an arts-and-crafts culture: inhabitants buying items each other had made for reasonably low real-world prices.

Lucrative real estate

That culture quickly became trumped by the far more lucrative real-estate market, in which inhabitants bought up areas of land, developed them with impressive buildings and furnishings, and sold them on for profit. A year ago, Second Life's first property millionaire made the cover of Business Week.

The Second Life economy has moved on from real estate, into advertising and marketing. No one quite knows what to do with it but they want to be there; hence firms like American Apparel have established virtual stores to sell virtual t-shirts. As Second Life has become more mainstream, just like the web, television, and radio before it, it has become ever more swamped by advertising and marketing. The slide towards consumerism seems to be one that is hard to escape.

The arguments put forward by Puttnam and Thomas may seem critical, but we should heed them. After all, both are very aware of the many positive aspects of virtual worlds. What they are calling for is greater media literacy about the places we play online. That seems to be a reasonable request, given that the values of any society stem as much from its inhabitants as its rulers.

With greater understanding of the medium, inhabitants will be able to better interpret and shape the values of their online communities. That can only be a good thing.

This game could save your life

Medics are learning to treat blast victims by using video games.

TruSim, the serious games branch of leading game developer Blitz Games has linked with learning solutions design experts VEGA Group plc and several UK universities to devise Triage Trainer, a game which simulates the effects of a city-centre explosion, to help doctors decide how best to treat casualties.

Different casualties are randomly generated each time the game is played; their condition deteriorates during the game in real time with accurate displays of respiration, circulation, skin colour and behaviours, demonstrating the potential of games technology in healthcare training.