Computer games have been around for decades. I can remember Pong when it first showed up in the pizza parlors in Palo Alto and a friend noted that there might be a business there. Unfortunately, I was more interested in satellites, systems development and cool technology firsts like using VLF signals for tropical wind-finding to support global weather modeling.
Role forward several decades and I find myself pondering the utility of online experiences enabled by World of Warcraft and Linden Lab's Second Life while at the same time relishing the solo gamer experience on a high end gaming PC (personally built) with dual-core processor, DirectX 10 capable Nvidia graphics, 2 GB DDR2 RAM, Creative SB X-Fi sound, 24 in LCD display, etc.
What's it all mean to me? You will find some commentary in an article on my website www.PleiadesTechnologyFutures.com on the topic of "Internet addiction" that I made regarding a story about someone who found their "real" life seriously disrupted by hours spent managing a guild in WOW. In short, I believe virtual environments are here to stay. Managing the time and experiences between the real and virtual is just another adaptation we will be making. Take for example that just recently, IBM has let it be know that more than 1600 IBMers are "experimenting" with Second Life as one of their innovation projects. This is only a surprise in that a large multinational is actually encouraging so much employee time in understanding the new rules enabled by virtual environments.
Having worked for a global multinational recently, I can appreciate the challenges of collaboration across time zones among widely dispersed project teams. Communication, and more importantly, the intangible social connections that encourage effective collaboration are very hard to maintain. Good virtual environments allow bringing in the communication tools and scenario simulations (See Fortera Systems Inc.) of the real world along with some of the social features necessary to establish high-performance teams. As one IBMer remarked (paraphrased) "After the SL workshop on Almaden Island, all of us stepped outside the conference hall and had an 'avatar' party for a half hour. It was more fun than we thought." Avatars seem to offer an avenue for personal expression that may actually give a better insight into a person who cannot express the same via their "real" body and resources in the real world.
As the role of virtual world economies become more visible with financial transactions of virtual creations for real world money make the news, it becomes apparent that something is going on that can become a significant part of the global economy with time. This is enabled as communication bandwidth, computing power and effective human interfaces become both cheaper and more powerful. Going into space is very expensive and only a few can be supported to cross those unknown seas - like the sailors of the first millennium and a half. But developing and creating in a virtual environment is much less expensive, and may become even more attractive as real world consumption of real goods expands with the concurrent expense of challenging environmental baggage.
I commented to Jonathan Chapman regarding his early 2007 New Scientist interview article "Better by Design" regarding his book "Emotionally Durable Design" -with the following:
"I also recognize the environmental impact of ever increasing developed world consumption – having some of those habits myself – and see as well that challenge of the rise of consumption in the developing world, especially in East Asia where 2.5 billion potential consumers in China and India are marching rapidly up the economic ladder. One potential safety valve is perhaps shifting the satisfying of human needs per Maslow’s "Hierarchy of Needs" into the virtual environments experience. We now have the ability to create quite compelling experiences in games like World of Warcraft, user-created worlds like Second Life, and even economic transfer of virtual wealth to real wealth. So perhaps much of the human need for changing experiences can be more easily met in terms of environmental impact in the virtual communities on the Web rather than [entirely] in the real world. And what is learned in the virtual, the best of the best, can then perhaps be what is actually built in the real world. So our Darwinian selection [for great products] is done in the virtual world rather than through the trash of the real world. "
Stickiness can be a problem in today's virtual worlds (like early web sites) as the "utility" is far from mature save for maybe some "Serious Games" virtual simulations and entertainment from Massive Online Games like World of Warcraft. However, if you believe computing power and communications bandwidth will continue to follow somewhat exponential improvements described by Gordon Moore, Phil Edholm and Marty Cooper, the barriers to utility will fall with time.
As for me, as I occasionally find time to explore the scenic green and blue archipelago of "Far Cry" (64-bit), the eerie story line in "F.E.A.R.", the expanses of "Oblivion: The Elder Scrolls IV", the stealth challenges of "Hitman: Blood Money" or "Splinter Cell: Double Agent", the City 17 environment of "Half-Life 2", the real-time strategy of "Company of Heroes", the world of aviation with Microsoft "Flight Simulator X" and compare those experiences to Pong of the 70's, it seems clear that Today's teenagers will find virtual environments a natural place for both work and play.