Falling Down and Getting Back Up

 An interesting discussion about marketing mistakes in virtual worlds is going on over at Clickable Culture. It centers on a quote by Chad Stoller, executive director of emerging platforms for Organic, that appeared in an Ad Age article about marketers in virtual worlds. Stoller said, “There’s an opportunity here for marketers to communicate the real meaning of their brands… Think if Snickers puts its candy bars in Second Life, and they gave players real energy,” which most comments (and the original blog post) find to be a very bad example of the type of advertising that’s possible in a virtual world.

I chimed in over there on the subject (and invoked the idea of a potato chip-branded Sword of Saltiness that could be used to destroy evil water monsters in some video game), but I think this discussion raises an interesting question:

What’s so wrong with testing new ideas anyway?

This is a favorite topic of the lab’s director, Lori H. Schwartz, and I’m sure she’ll have some comments on the subject, but I’ll try to provide a little discussion on the subject.

Right now, we don’t know a lot about how virtual worlds and marketers should interact. Because it’s a relatively new question, there’s just not a lot of evidence either way on the subject and the evidence we do have isn’t conclusive. Marketers, users and even the creators of virtual worlds, are still trying to come to terms with what this stuff really means.

What we do know, though, is that gaming is quickly moving from a wind of change to a gale force hurricane. World of Warcraft, the most popular online game at the moment, has over 6.5 million players. That’s a population larger than 38 of the states in the U.S.. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average age of a game player is 33, 69 percent are heads of households, and 25 percent were over the age of 50.

As detailed in the new book Play Money, by Julian Dibbell, within just a few years, a multimillion dollar industry sprung up which specialized in the trading of in-game dollars. People were spending millions of dollars each year buying and selling virtual property that not only didn’t exist, but wasn’t actually recognized are legal form of property.

Worlds like Second Life, which allows content creators to own intellectual property rights to their creations and has a real-world currency exchange that fluctuates based on economic indicators, are providing interesting opportunities for us. And our only possible recourse is to test.

To some extent, I understand the indignation that residents of these games feel when big businesses start to become interested in them. Some of their fears are normal, like the possibility that the addition of a big business may attract unsavory elements to the world (compare, for example, the strong outcry against Walmart stores in some communities with what happened a few years ago when a ton of world war two aficionados entered Second Life and caused rampant violence when they attempted to kick homesteaders off their land.). Virtual worlds don’t worry about things like the destruction of a virtual rainforest, though (it could be virtually replanted just about as easily as it was destroyed), but instead the clear-cutting of the culture that has already developed organically within the game. And marketers do need to be conscious of that.

But how does a virtual Snicker’s bar affect the culture of a game like Second Life? If you look past the fact that what’s being described is outside the bounds of that specific virtual world (Second Life residents neither suffer hunger nor do not have any “energy” per se that could be increased by a chocolate bar), this is just a new idea — A way of trying to harness a world that we don’t know much about.

Sure, the first few attempts may not work out perfectly (some may even be abject failures), but innovation requires failure just as much as it requires success. There’s really no history to look back on yet and say, “That was the wrong way to do things. This is the right way.” We’re writing that history as we speak.

Virtual worlds, and emerging technologies in general, are a lot like how F. Scott Fitzgerald described how America must have looked like to Dutch sailors’ eyes:

For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

That’s one of my favorite quotes not only because it’s beautifully written, but also because it perfectly describes what’s going on with the media landscape. We’ve been sailing along doing things the way we’re used to and now we’ve discovered new land. What are we going to do with it?