Primer: Who Uses Virtual Worlds?

Virtual worlds are used by people from every demographic around the globe. Game worlds are generally more popular than social worlds and have become a thriving part of the culture in some East Asian countries like South Korea. User demographics in specific virtual worlds can vary widely, but there are a few marked trends. This section features a summary of information expanded on further in the Statistics section of this Virtual Worlds Primer.

Game Worlds : In the West, the average age of game world players is 26, although the range is huge – from pre-teens to seniors. The majority of players are male . Registered users of individual game worlds can reach into the tens of millions, especially in South Korea and China.

Social Worlds: Both Second Life and There.com have a roughly 50:50 split between male and female users . The peak age range for Second Life is the 24-35 group, but they employ a separate space for users under 18. The average age of There.com users is lower, but they are a single ‘PG’ safe space. Registered users of social worlds targeted at an adult or broad age range tend to be in the hundreds of thousands or several million. These figures are dwarfed by kids’ virtual worlds (see below).

Social Worlds for Kids: Habbo Hotel users range from roughly 8 years old to 15, while the average user of a world such as Whyville (with a registration base of more than 2 million) is a 12 year-old female. Worlds such as Club Penguin and Webkinz tend to be at the lower end of this spectrum and even reach children as young as 5 or 6 (together with their guardians / parents and grandparents).

Kids’ virtual worlds (games and social) are currently the largest part of the virtual world market with Habbo Hotel having around  100 million registered users (note: definitions of user numbers are explained later in this report) and Stardoll being the number one online destination in the UK for under 12s.

Brands

As the popularity of virtual worlds has increased, so has their commercialisation in varying ways. In game worlds there have been several approaches to the integration of brand advertising – the issue being that brands should not interfere with the world fiction. For example, Anarchy Online used in-world advertising, but Anarchy Online was a Science Fiction genre game where ‘real world’ brands would not be out of place. Some media brands have also extended fully into the game world space, examples here include: Lord of the Rings Online, The Matrix Online, Star Wars Galaxies, Age of Conan – Hyborian Adventures and the soon to be released Marvel Universe (Star Trek, Firefly, Stargate and other media brands are also said to be in development). Here there is an argument that being ‘in brand or the world can be a richer experience for the fan than consuming traditional media.

In social worlds there tends to be no overall fiction, hence there is no apparent barrier to the inclusion of brands. However there have been examples of community resistance to branding e.g. disquiet over Levis and Nike in There.com and protests over McDonalds in The Sims Online. Currently the dominant model is the custom-branded virtual world, particularly for those aimed at kids. The current examples such as vMTV and Webkinz are being joined by a host of brands such as Barbie and Hello Kitty. The commercial argument behind such worlds is that rather than being exposed to a brand for seconds (with an advertisement) or maybe minutes, with a branded world users are exposed to the brand for hours, possibly every day.
As virtual worlds grow they are themselves becoming brands and expanding into retail areas such as merchandising (see business models for more information)

Education, Training and Learning

In tandem with the rise in popularity of virtual worlds for game and social purposes, there has been a rise in their use for education, training and learning. Examples span all virtual world types.

Forterra Systems uses OLIVE – a virtual world platform based originally on the same code as There.com – and is a market leader in the area of virtual simulation for military, medical and other sector training.

A large number of universities and other educational intuitions now have a presence and run classes within Second Life. It is worth noting that many of these classes have nothing to do with Second Life itself or any other virtual world or technology, they merely use the virtual space a medium for providing content and inspiring learning.

Schools and organizations such as Global Kids use Teen Second Life and other spaces for a range of education projects aimed at children. In addition, there are specific programs such as the UK Government FRANK drugs awareness campaign, which has a presence in the form of a ‘bus’ in Habbo Hotel UK.  Also, a small number of worlds, most notably Whyville, are embedding learning within the fabric of the virtual space.

It is worth noting that in the previous discussion, ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ are seen as separate uses. This distinction is drawn because one of the distinguishing factors often cited as a benefit of virtual worlds is that they act as catalysts to individual learning.

Corporate

Companies such as IBM are promoting the use of virtual worlds as corporate spaces. In addition to training virtual worlds are being seen as places where the widely distributed knowledge workers of today can meet in virtually enhanced teleconferences or corporate events. Virtual worlds are thought to bring back elements of the social that are being lost through increased home working and globally distributed organizations.

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A PDF version of this complete primer is available for download.
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