Work moves in to a virtual world

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 December, 2007, 12:00am

HK-based online graduate school functions on Second Life

Every day at work, Molly Chin, a senior marketing manager for Hong Kong-based online graduate school U21Global, fires up a program on her office computer that some people might mistake for a computer game.

Using her mouse and keyboard, she spends two to three hours every day in her office navigating her character on her computer screen through a virtual world online. If she sees an object she is interested in, she interacts with it. When she meets another person's virtual character, she stops and chats with them by typing on the keyboard.

For those new to Second Life, this is a game where the player gains an extra-dimensional identity that has a freedom to be and do far removed from the reality-restricted physical form initiating that change of state and status. From that point of virtual rebirth, virtually anything goes.

A person takes on an 'avatar', which in the virtual world concocted in computer generated space is simply another identity, set up to function as a second self that has an open-ended freedom. Thus, things can be done by an entity floated into that world only wildly imagined by the ordinary mortal.

Second Life came out of the phenomenon of MMORPGs, or massively multiplayer online role-playing games, popularised from about 1997 with such titles as Ultima Online and Everquest.

Unlike its predecessors, Second Life is billed as virtual environment rather than a straightforward computer game. Its goal is to create a world in which a virtual 'resident' - which number about 6.6 million at the moment - can interact, play, do business, and otherwise communicate. There is even a virtual currency, which is exchanged for real world currencies, called the Linden Dollar.

This departure from its computer gaming roots has meant that since its inception in 2003, numerous companies have set up shop in the virtual world, all busy trading and doing business. Earlier this year, the tiny island nation of the Maldives became the first country to operate an embassy in that virtual world.

Large commercial corporations which have set up shop in Second Life include the Reuters news agency, which opened a bureau last year. The bureau is staffed by reporter Adam Pasick, and modelled on the agency's London and New York offices.

Adidas also has an outlet in Second Life, selling a range of real-life shoe models translated into the virtual realm, and the carmaker Toyota has a dealership on Second Life selling virtual cars.

Locally, in early September, 2007, U21Global, a Hong Kong-based online graduate school, launched its U21Global Island on Second Life, to promote higher learning to cyber residents. The U21Global virtual campus occupies 65,536 square metres of electronic real estate.

While there are no reliable estimates on the number of commercial organisations which have been set up in Second Life, this flurry of virtual activity has meant a significant number of its residents work and earn a living - at least partly - in the virtual world.

'U21Global first conceptualised the idea of establishing a presence on Second Life back in March 2007. We hosted a company-wide discussion for a period of one month for all staff interested and got ideas as to what they envisioned the island to be. We subsequently formed a project team which consists of staff members from the various departments,' said Ms Chin.

Once the team had agreed on the design directions of the island, the next step was to shortlist and engage the right scripters, landscapers and structural teams to help shape the virtual campus.

Describing a typical day in the office, Ms Chin added: 'The project team members working on the Second Life project are full-time staff of U21Global but are only working on the project on a part-time basis. Typically, as the appointed project manager for Second Life, I spend roughly two to three hours a day logged on when I will be checking through the items on the island to ensure that everything works, handle any enquiries left in the guest book or survey forms, talk to SL people to come up with new ideas to attract visitors or for general island improvements.'

Ms Chin also deals with the frustrations arising from Second Life limitations as the programme requires a computer with really good graphic capabilities, something which is not found in general business computers. Bandwidth is another issue. At times the figures move in a manner that is robot-like rather that avatar-like or graphic objects take a long time to load.

'For me, the journey has been a very fulfilling one. Second Life, being a new project, is no doubt a challenging one, but it has allowed me to explore new territories and given me the opportunity to meet and work with many interesting people who are characters from around the world.'

A recent example was a treasure hunt where Ms Chin spent several days shopping and negotiating with business owners for good deals. After which it was a hectic two days to constantly advertise the event, place the gifts, monitor the traffic, do last-minute shopping, replenish the gifts and answer enquiries visitors may have. After that event Ms Chin unwound - in Second Life - by attending music performances that she finds relaxing and fun.

'Working in Second Life is different from an ordinary job in some ways,' Ms Chin added. 'Event management is very different. Murphy's Law works exceptionally well in Second Life ... and there's always things going wrong. It's about how to do damage control ... Second Life work is a mix of fun and fatigue, frustration and joy.'

If that was not enough to prove that Second Life is a serious workplace, consider the following. The members of Union Network International (UNI) and the Communications Workers of America, through its Alliance@IBM, carried out an online industrial action after IBM cancelled a provision in its contract with Italian workers that resulted in the loss of Euro1,000 (HK$11,548) per year for each employee. The works council, supported by the majority of IBM employees in Italy, had asked for a small salary increase. UNI is a global union for skills and services with 15 million members in 900 unions.

Some people simply stumbled into a job after coming across Second Life, one story circulating among the universe's residents has it that a guy began his job hunt the old-fashioned way then learned about a job opening online and sent off his resume. A recruiter then contacted him via a real phone to suggest he join Second Life and attend a virtual job fair his firm was hosting on a virtual island of TMP Worldwide, a recruitment firm in the United States. He did and got a job - so, as far as recruitment goes, Second Life works.

Jobs in Second Life that bring in a direct payment of real money are mostly in the arena of selling goods and services 'in-world' to those needing virtual elements. People are also employed by companies seeking to penetrate the Second Life market but unsure where the pathway to riches lies.

Also, public relations staffers and information technology workers make money setting up virtual meetings in Second Life as part of their job description and activities.

In the end though, people work for real money so what is the cyber-currency like in relation to real currency?

John Zdanowski, chief financial officer of Linden Labs, the company behind Second Life, was once asked by a journalist what it was like to operate a real market in a virtual world. The journalist asked: 'In the real world, demand for a currency is based on a number of factors -from interest rates to the level of economic growth. What is demand for the Linden dollar based on?'

Zdanowski answered: 'It's based on the fact that Linden dollars represent a limited license right to use certain features of Second Life. In as much as the features people want to use in Second Life are valuable, then the Linden is valuable as a virtual currency.'