Teachers have had great success by moving the classroom into virtual worlds
Teaching in virtual environments can be very productive, says Bill Thompson.
Although it's common to hear technology entrepreneurs and investors express concern about the possibility that Google will move into their market niche and take away their business, the reality is that neither Google nor anyone else is guaranteed success in a new area.
Google's social network, Orkut, has not challenged MySpace or Facebook, online calendar services like 30boxes are still doing well despite Google's Calendar offering, and the recently-launched voice and video add-on to Gmail is unlikely to supersede Skype as a business tool.
Last week Google announced the closure of Lively, the web-based virtual environment it launched in July, in order to 'prioritise our resources and focus more on our core search, ads and apps business', as the announcement puts it.
Lively was only ever available as a plug-in for Windows users, and looked more like a 3-D chatroom than a serious challenge to more established virtual worlds such as Second Life, so it is unlikely to be missed.
But its demise should comfort anyone who thinks that large, rich companies can simply move in on their businesses.
In online tech journal The Register, the closure of Lively was greeted as another example of the failure of virtual worlds, with Chris Williams asking, "Could it be there isn't a pot of gold at the end of the Sadville rainbow?" "Sadville" is the dismissive name the site has used for Second Life in a series of articles describing its failures, defects and inadequacies.
Second Life may get much less press attention than it used to - Reuters has withdrawn its much-trumpeted Second Life correspondent - but it is still being used by many people as a space for socialising, experimentation and, of course, cartoon-like sexual encounters.
It is also the most popular virtual world for teachers and education researchers, perhaps because there are fewer orcs than you typically encounter in World of Warcraft or the more quest-oriented worlds.
Second Life lets people create and control an avatar
I met quite a few of them last week at ReLIVE08, a conference on the education and research uses of virtual worlds. I was an invited speaker on the second day, and the conference covered my expenses although didn't pay me to attend.
I'm not sure what my "outsider" perspective added to the proceedings, but I learned a great deal about the imaginative ways in which these new environments are being used in areas as disparate as language teaching and urban planning.
Perhaps the most useful paper given at the conference came from Sarah Robbins-Bell, a graduate student at Ball State University in Indiana. Ms Robbins-Bell really knows her stuff, as co-author of the book Second Life for Dummies and editor of the Second Life Education Blog.
She looked at 75 different virtual "worlds" and has drawn up a classification scheme that makes clear the similarities and differences between such diverse worlds as Everquest, Club Penguin, Second Life and World of Warcraft.
She identified characteristics such as the type of interaction between characters, whether the worlds were text- or image-based, whether interactions were competitive or collaborative and whether users could change the game world themselves.
Her classification system is a valuable research tool in its own right, as the 10 facets she identified can be used to describe new environments.
They also help us understand the constraints on how worlds work. Ms Robbins-Bell noted that in games where the environment is hostile, such as World of Warcraft, each character can only belong to one group - or guild, in WoW speak.
She believes this is because a strong identification with the group sustains the character when the world is trying to attack them.
Perhaps most importantly, though, her research will help those who want to use virtual worlds for research or teaching to determine which is best suited to their needs, rather than assuming that everything has to be shoehorned into Second Life.
This may not be the best outcome for Linden Labs, the company that built Second Life and is trying to make money out of it. But it will certainly help the teachers who want to go beyond using websites, whiteboards and chat rooms when they venture online with their students.
One barrier that will need to be overcome is the terminology. It has been clear for a while that calling the sophisticated entertainments available on modern consoles "games" makes it easy to dismiss them as less important than books and films, and the phrase "virtual worlds" does something similar here.
Second Life and World of Warcraft are not really "worlds", whatever their proponents might claim.
They are sophisticated 3-D environments that allow for a much greater degree of engagement than other tools, and they offer tools for interaction and creative expression that browsers, chatrooms and e-mail do not. However, the grandiose terminology makes it too easy to dismiss their importance.
The organisers of ReLIVE08 seem to realise this. In her paper, Ms Robbins-Bell talked about virtual worlds, but the conference as a whole was concerned with "Researching Learning in Virtual Environments", a broader and far less confrontational term.
We just need to persuade Linden Labs to rebrand "Second Life" as "Additional forms of screen-based interaction". I'm sure it will catch on.
Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.