The virtual tourist: using the virtual world to promote the real one.INTRODUCTION
In the age of Web 2.0, Gibson (2007) observed that it is important to remember the "newness" of the Web and living online, stating: "The Internet is a new human activity in, I imagine, the way cities were once a new human activity. And we're still coming up with novel things to do in cities. So the Internet has some ongoing novelty value" (n.p.). Today, as never before, people from around the world are becoming connected in whole new, novel ways, most notably in the virtual reality of virtual worlds, which have been categorized as being "the next great information frontiers" (Bush and Kisiel, 2007, p. 1). They are known rather synonymously as: MMOGs (massively multiplayer online games); MMORPGs (massively multi-player online role playing games); MUVEs (multi-user online virtual environments); or NVEs (networked virtual environments). Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs)--the umbrella term that will be used in this report--can be defined as being: "graphical two-dimensional (2-D) or three-dimensional (3D) videogames played online, allowing individuals, through their self-created digital characters or 'avatars,' to interact not only with the gaming software but with other players" (Steinkuehler and Williams, 2006, n.p.).
Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Reeves, Malone, and O'Driscoll (2008) differentiated Second Life from MMOGs in the following manner: "unlike online games, virtual social worlds lack structured, mission-oriented narratives; defined character roles; and explicit goals" (p. 62). In the virtual social world of Second Life, there are no quests, no scripted play and no top down game plan (Sharp and Salomon, 2008). There is no embedded objective or narrative to follow. There are no levels, no targets, and no dragons to slay. It has been hailed as nothing less than the "evolution of the computer game," as rather than having a ready-made character with a fixed purpose, one creates his or her own avatar with an open-ended existence (Hutchinson, 2007, n.p.). Thus, rather than being a Star Wars-like character or an armed, rogue warrior whose mission it is to shoot as many other characters as possible or to collect enough points or tokens to advance to the next level, the Second Life avatar traverses a virtual world--often flying "teleporting" from virtual place to virtual place.
Virtual worlds are fast becoming an environment of choice for millions of individuals--and a very big business. Since its launch in January 2004, the number of residents in Second Life has grown rapidly--to over 13 million in early 2008 (Linden Lab, 2008). Second Life is, in truth, but one slice--albeit a tremendously important one--of the overall virtual worlds' marketplace. In fact, both in terms of population and revenue, Second Life is dwarfed in size by what Sellers (2007) aptly termed "men in tights" games, medieval-styled fantasy games such as--World of Warcraft, Runescape, Lineage, Ragnarok, and Everquest. In fact, in January 2008, World of Warcraft--the largest MMOG--surpassed the astonishing mark of having 10 million active subscribers--at least a quarter of which are based in the U.S. and Canada (Smith, 2008) and almost half of whom are based in China (Au, 2008a). MMOGs are the fastest growing category of online gaming, with the total number of MMOG players has been estimated to be in excess of 150 million worldwide (Varkey, 2008). Indeed, Jeff Jonas, who is the Chief Scientist for IBM Entity Analytic Solutions, recently observed that: "As the virtual worlds create more and more immersive experiences and as global accessibility to computers increases, I can envision a scenario in which hundreds of millions of people become engaged almost overnight" (quoted in O'Harrow, 2008, n.p.).
While Second Life is not the largest or the first virtual world, it has gained general acceptance as a platform that has drawn the most attention (Rollyson, 2007). In late 2007, Gartner predicted that by the end of 2011, fully 80 percent of all active Internet users "will have a 'second life,' but not necessarily in Second Life" in the developing sphere of virtual worlds (n.p.). Overall, Second Life and the entirety of virtual worlds are still very much in their infancies. Analysts have speculated that we are not even at "the DOS era of virtual worlds" (Lamont, 2007, n.p.). In the view of Colin Parris, IBM's Vice President of Digital Convergence, the 3D Internet is nothing less than "a transformational opportunity" (quoted in Greenfield, 2008). That is why IBM, Google, Microsoft, Linden Lab and many other large and small technology firms are working toward the concept of a 3D Web "that would allow the entire Internet to become a galaxy of connected virtual worlds" (McConnon, 2007, n.p.). Indeed, there is a growing belief that virtual worlds may well "replace the web browser as the way we interface with the Internet" (Last, 2007, n.p.).
Virtual worlds have been increasingly utilized in a wide variety of intriguing ways, including for marketing, for education and training, and for collaboration. One of the more intriguing uses of virtual worlds to date has been by national, regional, and local governments establishing presences in Second Life, specifically oriented to be virtual outreach sites for both tourism and/or economic development. In this article, we examine the efforts carried-out to date, both in the United States and abroad, in this vein. Then, we analyze the future of such programs and provide guidance to those governmental and private sector leaders who may seek to become the "second wave" of virtual pioneers in this area.
TOURISM AND EXPATRIATE OUTREACH
As noted by Yuen-C and Hou (2007), people will increasingly base their real-world impressions on their digital encounters with online manifestations of peoples, cultures, and nations in virtual worlds. While there have been many virtual reproductions of cities and landmarks built in Second Life by individuals and companies--from virtual New Orleans to Amsterdam, we have also seen governments recognize that the virtual world can be an important, virtual gateway to their region--both in the U.S. and abroad. These are the focus of this research effort, exploring such sites in Second Life.
In the United States, while various tourism agencies and Chambers of Commerce are--or at least should be--looking at how to use virtual worlds as gateways to their locales, the American best practice example is Galveston, Texas. In May 2007, the Galveston Convention & Visitors Bureau opened a virtual Galveston Island in Second Life (http://slurl.com/secondlife/Galveston%20Island/31/96/27). The aim, according to Jim Cordell, Vice President and Chief Creative Officer at Galveston.com, was "to give digital travelers a chance to introduce themselves to the best aspects of Galveston Island" (quoted in Zimmer, 2007a). Thus, on the island's virtual island, visitors can visit a number of recreated attractions, including the beachfront, the sea wall, and The Grand 1894 Opera House. They can ride a downtown trolley or a roller coaster at the virtual Moody Gardens. A video tour of virtual Galveston Island can be viewed at http://www.galveston.com/video/secondlife.
Au (2008b) observed that Europeans are at the forefront of using Second Life as virtual gateways to their countries and regions. A "best practice" example can be found in Tuscany. The Intoscanas Fondazione Sistema Toscana, which is the official tourism foundation of the Italian region of Tuscany, opened Toscana Island (http://slurl.com/secondlife/toscana/85/215/105) in Second Life in late March 2007 (Zimmer, 2007b). On Toscana Island, visitors can explore Tuscan arts, culture and landmarks, including: The Tower of Pisa; The Piazza del Campo; The Piazza Grande; The Ponte Vecchio; and The Duomo in Florence.
The site has grown to a virtual archipelago of six islands. It includes the Intoscana Store, at which virtual world visitors can purchase real-world items from the region. Also, in response to visitors who wanted to vacation or live in virtual Tuscany, the tourism agency opened up an island where avatars can build or rent their own virtual villas or beach houses (Fondazione Sistema Toscana, 2007). In October 2007, Toscana Island hosted the "Festival della Creativita" (Creativity Festival), in which visitors could enjoy a number of special events, including the opportunity to take lessons in Italian from Scuola Leonardo da Vinci, a leading Italian university (Villiger, 2007).
A number of countries have opened virtual embassies in Second Life. These include:
* The Maldives--In May 2007, the tiny Indian Ocean island nation of the Maldives became the first country to open a "virtual embassy" in the Diplomatic Quarter of Diplomacy Island in Second Life. Maldives Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid remarked that the virtual embassy "offers another channel for us to provide information on the country, to offer our viewpoint on issues of international concern, and to interact with our partners in the international community" (Anonymous, 2007, n.p.). The virtual embassy, which resembles a beachfront retreat, offers tourist information, as well as information and links to official government offices. The site was built by Maldives' officials, working in cooperation with the Diplo Foundation (www.diplomacy.edu), a non-profit foundation, based in Malta, which works to assist all countries, particularly those with limited resources, to participate meaningfully in international relations (Talamasca, 2007). The virtual embassy is seen as a point of pride for the island nation, as Stewart Gibbon of the Maldives Mission to Switzerland noted: "The Maldives is not the wealthiest island in the world. This can give people a contact with the Maldives that they might not otherwise have" (quoted in O'Mahony, 2007, n.p.).
* Sweden--The Swedish Embassy in Second Life is a virtual representation of Sweden's embassy in Washington D.C. This virtual "House of Sweden" provides visitors with information about Sweden and links to the Swedish government's online portal. Olle Wastberg, the Director General of the Swedish Institute, an agency of the Swedish foreign ministry, said of the virtual embassy: "Reaching out internationally, to an increasingly selective crowd, calls for an inventive and progressive way of working with communication. It is of great importance that we find our target groups where they are most likely to be open to our information, in their own context. Second Life is one of many alternative channels we ought to look further into" (op. cited in Cummins, 2007, n.p.).
* Estonia--In late 2007, the Eastern European nation of Estonia opened an official embassy in Second Life. The goal of operating the virtual embassy is to help promote Estonia as a real-life destination for not just tourism but business, technology and even artistic interests. Estonian officials see their Second Life presence as a way to connect with countries where the nation does not have a "brick and mortar" embassy, so that their Second Life island indeed functions as a "virtual embassy." Indeed, the embassy is routinely staffed by an avatar representing the "Estonia Republic," who can answer questions and help guide visitors through the embassy, which includes meeting places, information, and an art collection (Riley, 2007). The site is unique amongst Second Life embassies, as it emphasizes Estonia's push for a high tech economy and an information society (Llewelyn, 2007).
* Kazakhstan--In the Republic of Kazakhstan, city administrators, working with private developers--established "Second Astana" in Second Life, creating a virtual gateway to the capital city of Astana. The virtual environment features the major tourist destinations in Astana, recreating a major section of the city--from the central block of the modern Astana Baytereka Pyramid to the Palace of Peace and Accord. The developers' plan is for other major tourist destinations in Kazakhstan to be made into virtual form as well (Anonymous, 2008).
Finally, while not aimed at tourists per se, perhaps the most unique Second Life outreach application in this area is being undertaken by the government of Serbia. The Serbian government estimates that there are between two and four million Serbs living abroad. Thus, it has a Ministry of Diaspora which seeks to reconnect Serbs to their homeland. In late 2007, the Diaspora Ministry announced a partnership with Publicis Groupe, a European advertising and marketing agency, and Telekom Srbija, the country's phone and Internet provider, to create a virtual Serbia in Second Life. Minister Milica Cubrilo believes Second Life will aid her agency's outreach efforts, stating: "Many [Serbs] don't know there is Ministry of Diaspora, or they are on negative terms with official institutions. This way we hope to make connections in a less formal way of communication, with people who usually don't approach state institutions" (quoted in Kimban, 2007, n.p.).
As we have seen with the examples reported here, a virtual world presence can significantly enhance the ability of a city, region, area, state or nation to expand its online presence. In Second Life, one can create virtual gateways to an area. Tourism agencies and conventions and visitor bureaus, working either independently or, hopefully, in conjunction with local development partner private sector firms and/or local colleges or universities, can create virtual environments that will entice new visitors to a region. At the same time, this may also serve a greater good providing virtual tours to those who, for whatever reason--time, economic, disability, etc.--may never be able to visit a certain area in first life, but be readily able to do so in their virtual lives. In Second Life, as we have seen done by pioneering governments in this area, one can create not just informational sites (with multimedia to "show" potential visitors what they can do and see in an area), but involving sites. Why not create a virtual roller coaster, aerial ride, or rafting trip that will take visitors' avatars on a pre-programmed "experience" that will take them past major landmarks and sites of interest in your region. By doing so, one can open-up a world of experience to everyone about a locale, building-up the image of and interest in a specific corner of the physical world to everyone who is in the virtual one.
Just as national and local governments are fast discovering the efficacy of establishing virtual tourism sites, so too will economic development become a significant and achievable goal of 3D Internet projects. Virtual world sites will likely prove to be an excellent, low-cost showcase for an area or a region in pursuing economic development activities. One can well imagine that sites can be tailored to take prospective business owners and developers on virtual tours of one's region (yes, likely in a hovercraft or a monorail, just for fun). In doing so, the often unexciting economic, demographic, geographic, educational, and workforce statistics can be made to come alive in a way that no PowerPoint slide show could ever do. One could even "customize" a visitor's experience for their particular economic development project, say showing the virtual model of the city in a way that would allow corporate executives of a potentially expanding or relocating manufacturing firm to tour after their plant has been built. One could even test the impact of new development and whether or not the projected benefits of a new development would outweigh negatives, like increased traffic, increased school crowding, and environmental impacts. While computers today can "crunch the numbers" and convey potential outcomes, virtual world environments could both tell--and sell--the story in a manner far more convincing and immersive than anything comparable today. Such virtual world testing and modeling will likely rise in importance not just for government agencies involved in economic development but for both corporate interests and interest groups. Indeed, one can even envision competing virtual world experiences and models showing different outcomes.
Finally, as we have seen from experience in-world, whether it be on a corporate site or a site for an artist or a musician, holding events--special or otherwise--are key to drawing interest and visitors to one's virtual world presence. Thus, special events, such as concerts, author readings, lectures, conference presentations, even sporting events, all draw avatars--and the real people behind them--to virtually participate in events and experience them in new ways (Foster, 2007). People gathering in a virtual space to "watch" an event changes the dynamic, as one can not just watch an event online alone (as with today's live streaming video and even archived podcasts), but participate in a 3D Internet environment with others "watching" the event together in real-time. It is important to realize that such virtual world events will draw visitors to a virtual world site not just for the special event but also to "nose around" and explore other material on the site.
In the final analysis, we may well be moving quickly to the day--2 to 5 years from now--where it may become commonplace, even universal, for countries, states, regions, and cities to have virtual gateways in virtual worlds. However, there is the question about the ROI (return on investment) potential for such ventures into Second Life and other virtual environments. Christopher Collins, a senior analyst for The Yankee Group, cautioned that any venture into Second Life at this point is experimental, as one must--for the foreseeable future--answer "no" to the question, "Is it a great, cost-effective way to reach a mass audience?" (quoted in Shields, 2007, n.p.). For most organizations then, the prospect of ROI in their Second Life ventures is very long term in nature at best. As Greg Verdino, who is Vice President of Emerging Channels for Digitas, concluded: "Can you, as a business, look at the Second Life of today and say it's a viable marketing channel? Can you draw direct lines between what people do in Second Life and what they do in real life? No, you can't. Certainly, Second Life is innovative, but it's far too early to start calculating ROI, or expect any real-world deliverables to come of it" (quoted in Metz, 2007, p. 74). However, it has been suggested that one can look at a variety of indirect return measures, including media mentions of their Second Life operations and potential cross-promotions aimed at in-world residents to shop in the real world (Jana and McConnon, 2006). In such tourism and economic development outreach efforts as discussed here, governments and non-governmental organizations can look to a wide variety of such indirect measures, including not just press mentions and blog postings about their in-world ventures, but also more direct measures, such as leads and inquiries generated through visits to such virtual worlds sites. In some ways, these sites promise greater potential for determining metrics to guide decision makers on the effectiveness of such in-world efforts and investments.
Anonymous (2008, February 29). On the Net lies second Astana. CNews. Retrieved March 4, 2008, from http://www.cnews.kz/news/top/index.shtml?2008/02/29/104460.
Anonymous (2007, May 23). Maldives enters Second Life. Agence France-Presse. Retrieved July 30, 2007, from http://www.news.com.au/story/0,23599,21780232-7486,00.html.
Au, W.J. (2008a, January 17). China plays duplicitous game with online gamers. GigaOM. Retrieved April 2, 2008, from http://gigaom.com/2008/01/17/china-plays-duplicitous-game-with-online- gamers/.
Au, W.J. (2008b, March 12). All politics is virtual. The Huffington Post. Retrieved March 13, 2008, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/wagner-james-au/all-politics-is-virtual_b_ 91139.html.
Bush, R., & Kisiel, K. (2007). Information & behavior exploitation in virtual worlds: An overview. A Report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity. Retrieved April 13, 2008, from http://blog.wired.com/27bstroke6/files/info_exploitation_in_virtual_ worldsiarpanov07Lp df.
Cummins, H.J. (2007, February 1). Second Life: Reality growing in the virtual world for business and government. Government Technology. Retrieved December 19, 2007, from http://www.govtech.com/gt/print_article.php?id=103707.
Fondazione Sistema Toscana. (2007, August 27). Press release: Tuscany gets even bigger--on "Second Life"! Five additional "lands" added to the virtual territory. Retrieved January 3, 2008, from http://www.intoscana.it/intoscana/vivere_in_toscana.jsp?id_categoria =1281&id_sottocate_goria=1283&id=116927&language=en.
Foster, P. (2007, June 30). Wimbledon fans get chance of a Second Life facing the stars. The Times of London. Retrieved August 29, 2007, from http://technology.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/tech_and_web/article2007872. ece.
Gartner (2007, April 24). Press Release: Gartner says 80 percent of active Internet users will have a "Second Life" in the virtual world by the end of 2011. Retrieved September 13, 2007, from http://www.gartner.com/it/page.jsp?id=503861.
Gibson, W. (2007). The novelty of being one step ahead. New Media Age, 3(28), 8-10.
Greenfield, D. (2008, March 8). Doing business in the virtual world. Retrieved March 13, 2008, from http://www.eweek.com/c/a/Infrastructure/Doing-Business-in-the-Virtual- World/.
Hutchinson, R. (2007, June 30). Reality bytes--Review of Second Lives: A journey through virtual worlds. The Scotsman. Retrieved August 29, 2007, from http://living.scotsman.com/books.cfm?id=1021002007&format=print.
Jana, R., & McConnon, A. (2006, October 30). PLAYBOOK: Going virtual--How to get a Second Life. Business Week. Retrieved January 16, 2007, from http://www.businessweek.com/playbook/06/1030_1.htm.
Kimban, D. (2007, November 19). Serbia has big plans for Second Life. Second Life News Network. Retrieved November 21, 2007, from http://www.slnn.com/article/serbia-island/.
Lamont, I. (2007, November 14). Second Life: What's there is potential. Computerworld. Retrieved November 20, 2007, from http://www.computerworld.com/action/article.do?command=viewArticleBasic& articleId=9045079.
Last, J.V. (2007, October 1). Get a (Second) Life!: The avatars are coming. The Weekly Standard. Retrieved October 16, 2007, from http://weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/014/ 145mliuh.asp.
Linden Labs (2008, April). Second Life: Economic statistics. Retrieved April 16, 2008, from http://secondlife.com/whatis/economy_stats.php.
Llewelyn, G. (2007, December 28). Estonian embassy opens in Second Life. Gwynethllewelyn.net. Retrieved January 17, 2008, from http://gwynethllewelyn.net/2007/12/28/estonian-embassy-opens-in-second- life/.
McConnon, A. (2007, August 13). Just ahead: The Web as a virtual world. Business Week. Retrieved September 29, 2007, from http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/07_33/b4046064.htm.
Metz, C. (2007). The Emperor's new Web. PC Magazine, 26(9), 70-77.
O'Harrow, R. (2008, February 6). Spies' battleground turns virtual. The Washington Post. Retrieved February 8, 2008, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2008/02/05/ AR2008020503144_pf.html.
O'Mahony, P. (2007, May 22). Sweden trumped by Maldives in Second Life. The Local. Retrieved March 4, 2008, from http://www.thelocal.se/7379/20070522/.
Reeves, B., Malone, T.W., & O'Driscoll, T. (2008). Leadership's online labs. Harvard Business Review, 86(5), 58-66.
Riley, D. (2007, December 5). You're not in the USSR any more: Estonia opens an embassy in Second Life. Tech Crunch. Retrieved December 15, 2007, from http://www.benchmarkcapital.com/news/sv/2007/12_05_2007.php.
Rollyson, C.S. (2007, October 27). Virtual worlds and gaming. Innovation/Web 2.0: The Global Human Capital Journal. Retrieved January 30, 2008, from http://rollyson.net/download/GHCJ/Forrester-virtual_worlds.pdf
Sellers, M. (2007, December 20). A virtual world winter? Terra Nova. Retrieved January 7, 2008, from http://terranova.blogs.com/terra_nova/2007/12/a-virtual-world.html.
Smith, M. (2008, January 24). World of Warcraft crosses 10 million milestone. Yahoo Games. Retrieved March 19, 2008, from http://videogames.yahoo.com/printview_feature?eid=1182041.
Sharp, D., & Salomon, M. (2008). White paper: User-led innovation--A new framework for co-creating business and social value. Swinburne University of Technology. Retrieved February 2, 2008, from http://blog.wired.com/sterling/2008/04/user-led-innova.html.
Shields, M. (2007, October 29). CNN to launch bureau in Second Life virtual world. Media Week. Retrieved November 13, 2007, from http://www.mediaweek.com/mw/search/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id= 1003664297
Steinkuehler, C., & Williams, D. (2006). Where everybody knows your (screen) name: Online games as "third places." Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(4). Retrieved January 6, 2008, from http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol11/issue4/steinkuehler.html.
Talamasca, A. (2007, May 23). The Maldives virtual embassy. Second Life Insider. Retrieved July 30, 2007, from http://www.secondlifeinsider.com/2007/05/23 /the-maldives-virtual-embassy/.
Varkey, M. (2008, February 1). Gamers freak out on cyberspace for adventure. The Economic Times. Retrieved February 6, 2008, from http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/articleshow/msid-2747511,prtpage- 1.cms.
Villiger, N. (2007, October 24). Experience an Italian language lesson in Second Life. PRWeb. Retrieved April 22, 2008, from http://www.prweb.com/releases/2007/10/prweb563705.htm.
Yuen-C, T., & Hou, C.H. (2007, August 21). Govt agency buys island--in cyberspace. Singapore Straits Times. Retrieved September 10, 2007, from http://www.straitstimes.com/Free/Story/STIStory_150344.html.
Zimmer, Linda (2007a, January 15). Galveston, (oh Galveston) CVB comes to Second Life. Business Communicators of Second Life. Retrieved November 29, 2007, from http://freshtakes.typepad.com/sl_communicators/2007/01/galveston_oh_ga. html.
Zimmer, Linda (2007b, March 13). Tuscany comes to Second Life on March 30. Business Communicators of Second Life. Retrieved November 29, 2007, from http://freshtakes.typepad.com/sl_communicators/2007/03/tuscany_comes_t. html
David C. Wyld (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Professor of Management at Southeastern Louisiana University.