Virtual worlds: Prototyping Canvases and new methods for Human understanding

by New Idiom


Overheard at the Foster El stop in Evanston between two [seemingly] college-aged students, one donning a black hoodie and the other slightly larger built wearing a red coat.

black hoodie: I didn’t even finish my homework for this class, I was addicted to second life last night talking to Erica and I fell asleep.
red coat: Are you serious? I can’t believe you use second life. Seems like the nerdiest thing ever.
: What do you mean?
: Just shoot me the day I stop having social interactions with friends to go on some online world. It’s just not the same.
: and how often do you check your Facebook?
Oh, all the time. but that’s different..
[train approaches]

Why do we ostracize second lifers as pariahs that “can’t fit in” to the real world, but twitter away to our heart’s content and update our Facebook status on an hourly basis? How many of us (if we consider ourselves early adopters) have seen the number of friends who use social networking sites increasing dramatically within the past year or so?

I’ve been interested lately in the exploration of virtual communities (and particularly games) as a venue for researching users. I started thinking about this first during my research I conducted for MacArthur’s Electronic Learning Record project. Those of us in the design community acknowledge that understanding patterns of behavior is important before synthesizing modes of use (products, services, experiences) for those people. We invent detailed methods into gaining insights about human lives, and routinely practice these methods to get better at eliciting the golden nugget that will transform an industry.

There are five main reasons why I think that observation of interactions in the virtual world may be even more interesting than ones in the meatspace:

1 Acceptance. As I alluded to earlier, the “nerd” stigma around using social networking tools has diminished. We can certainly see how with the addition of higher and higher fidelities of applications (e.g. scrabulous) that plug into these tools, we are in essence approaching a virtual world. In other words, it’s entirely plausible that it won’t be long until you log into your regularly scheduled social networking site and take a stroll in the park having a conversation with your friends about how “superpoking” them was so 2007.

2 Suspension of Disbelief. Just like watching movies, virtual worlds are a vehicle for the suspension of disbelief. Even more than movies or traditional entertainment, virtual spaces give inhabitants free rein to try different things they might be unwilling to do in reality. Games and virtual worlds are designed (and thus bounded) only by people’s imaginations. Edward Castranova, who’s an expert in the field of virtual worlds, has pointed out accurately that people mention getting “addicted” to a game. He uses economic reasoning to posit that the virtual world is thus a more attractive environment to many than the real world. People gain more social acceptance and possibly more utility out of their virtual lives than their real ones. One reason might be that the agents in a game or virtual world are essentially created with equal sets of assets (so society, being more egalitarian is more agreeable).

3 Reach. There are a more and more people trying out virtual worlds. Oftentimes, many of these people live in rural or suburban isolation. Though very much a part of the economy, their social connection to the global community is increasingly through a virtual world. Isn’t the easiest way to learn about these people through their normal modes of interaction, when the alternative is driving a van with expensive video equipment and your research team to Iowa? Moreover, these normal modes of interaction are during a period of play. We already know that humans learn and create during play. Doesn’t it make sense to learn about people through this natural observation, instead of interview them?

4 Prototyping is cheap. Relatively speaking, it is cheaper to produce a digital good than it is a physical one. I am aware that you can’t prototype everything for a virtual world (who would want to clean with a Swiffer in the virtual world? It’s bad enough to have to clean your real kitchen). Increasingly, however, as we create more digital interactive goods, the virtual world modality is a perfect test bed for prototyping. Prototyping things with potential consumers early and often and learning from it is absolutely fantastic when the costs to validate are almost zero.

5 Participatory and Co-creative. Virtual worlds, by their definition, are participatory. Second life owes much of its digital assets to a robust and imaginative developer community. What a great place to get people to make stuff.


Perhaps more important than any of the reasons I already mentioned, is that reality and virtuality are on a crash course to intersect soon. Our perception of online personas is changing rapidly; Our tendency to relinquish the physical and embrace the virtual (while variant by age perhaps) is accelerating.

A futurist I truly respect, (despite his ego I might add), Ray Kurzweil, has this to say:

In virtual worlds we do real romance, real learning, real business. Virtual reality is real reality.

It makes complete sense. When you change your relationship status on the Facebook or ‘throw spaghetti’ at a secret crush, you are sending a message to a world of very real people using a virtual medium. Why diminish it as being an artificial interaction?

The next time you think of doing research, why not consider the metaverse? I look forward to future projects like the Electronic Learning Record that will encourage us to invent new design methods for this exciting new medium.