A couple of weeks ago I was catching up reading posts on a list that I am on (which has nothing to do with autism). While doing so, I followed a link to an article about the virtual world, Second Life.
This article intrigued me, for a number of different reasons. Buddy Boy, over the last 4-6 months, has gotten interested in playing computer games. For now this has been limited mostly to a "Monster's Inc." game where you basically roam around, gather energy, and smash things, or a couple of "Game Boy" games that we have gotten for him. Occasionally he'll branch out into other online games, but the Monster's Inc. and Game Boy have gotten the bulk of his attention. As his interest and time has expanded we have found it necessary to limit his time on the computer somewhat, otherwise he would gladly spend upwards of 8 hours playing on the computer.
Another reason that I was intrigued by this is that the small amount of research I am involved in involves validating simulations as testing tools in medicine. Most of our simulations utilize computer controlled mannequins, but there are other research groups that are starting to explore simulations in virtual worlds. I have worked with simulations for more than 10 years, and I have seen people learn things during simulation that they then carry over into the real one.
Finally, the thing that got me hooked and following other links to read more about Second Life was a reference to an "island" created in Second Life solely devoted to Aspies and their caregivers.
But back to basics. "What's a virtual world?" you ask. At it's most basic level, it's a bunch of servers hosted by a company called Linden Labs. It's not really a game, as there are no points to be gained, or declared winners. Second Life has an introduction on its web site that says the following:
Welcome to Second Life. We are a global community working together to build a new online space for
creativity, collaboration, commerce, and entertainment. We strive to
bridge cultures and
welcome diversity. We believe in
free expression, compassion and
tolerance as the foundation for community in this new world.
Sounds good so far. One can join for free, but if you want to "own land" in Second Life, or start a business there, then you need to pay a fee (upfront costs as well as monthly maintenance). People make money there (commerce is carried on using "Linden dollars", which can be exchanged with U.S. dollars. As this article reports, companies such as IBM have a presence there, and some universities are teaching classes there.
John Lester, a researcher at Harvard University, has started a private island in Second Life called Brigadoon. This island is a place for those with Asperger's syndrome and their caregivers. My impression is that Lester is using this as part of a research project.
Basically I have mixed feelings about Second Life (and granted, I have not signed up and visited there-like I need another thing to take up my time). On the one hand, I can easily see any kid getting so involved in a virtual world that they ignore their responsibilities in the real one. On the other hand, having seen how skills learned during simulations can carry over into the rest of a person's life, I can see where a person might pick up socialization skills in a virtual world that could carry over. On the third hand, I'm sure that for people that are much more comfortable communicating via computer rather than f2f (face to face) it can be nice to have some online friends that share your outlook and interests when you might not find that locally.
So I'm soliciting opinions from others as to what they think about virtual worlds. Let me know what you think.