Throughout 2008 the corporate world was exposed to the reality of virtual worlds, which has seen a growing influence on how companies train, market, advertise and communicate. This is a trend that is expected to continue into 2009 as organisations begin to recognise the merits of incorporating gaming into their basket of communication tools.
The trend was largely driven by the rising influence and profile of virtual online worlds, which allow users to create alternate realities such as that offered by Second Life, and in a similar vein the computer game SIMS.
While discussions have revolved around the benefits these environments offer business, there have been as many articles rooted in the experiences of early adopters who critiqued the actual value they managed to extract from these tools. This largely because, from a South African perspective, high data costs and bandwidth constraints led to early adopters experiencing issues unique to the local environment.
Less of an issue
But this limitation is less of an issue and today, nothing stands in the way of organisations joining the virtual revolution.
It is safe to say therefore, that through 2009, we can expect more, rather than less, uptake of the opportunities offered by these environments. There are several reasons for anticipating this, some of which are rooted in the economic experiences of late 2008 and those expected in early 2009, while others are driven by the desire for innovation and competitive advantage endemic within corporate culture.
As a social dynamic, computer gaming is a growing and influential reality. People under 35 grew up in a world influenced and informed by computer gaming rather than traditional board games. If we consider that society has always used games to teach children the skills they need to be successful adults, the role and influence of computer games is going to grow and increase within the corporate world - driven by the fact that an increasing segment of our employee demographic have had their values and worldview influenced by computer gaming.
Growing social effect
This growing social effect is one of the drivers behind the probable increase in virtual world activity, by the corporate world, through 2009.
For those who have never played a computer game in their lives, virtual worlds look foreign, sinister, scary, and like a waste of valuable corporate resources. However, for those who grew up in a world where they played virtually, their expectation of being able to apply the consequent life lessons will be expressed in their expectations of the work environment. Computer gaming, and the associated virtual worlds, will, as a result, be seen as an increasingly important infrastructural consideration.
The economic meltdown experienced through late 2008 and early 2009 has and will continue to see companies seeking out ways to save money and extract costs out of the business. Appealingly, virtual worlds and business simulations, built using computer gaming technology, offer significant cost savings.
Economies of scale
Virtualising training programmes allows a company to achieve significant economies of scale related to the costs of delivery, but also the costs of supporting the training. As the environments are robust and largely self-contained, less trainee support is required when delivering material. Furthermore, this training can be delivered directly into the person's working environment using existing internal infrastructure.
This means that training can be effectively performed using a 'Just in Time' model - consequently no time is wasted on unnecessary training. Training won't need separate venues booked, and employees dragged away from their work environment for days on end. In the economic climate that will dominate much of 2009, these benefits will add significant value to companies that pursue the path of virtualisation.
Many of the early adopters of this technology applied it in the marketing and advertising sides of their business. One of the lessons learned is that the value of virtual worlds, to the marketer, doesn't lie in the volume of players through a site, but rather in the technology's inherent ability to target advertising at specific demographic segments.
Traditional advertising places collateral into media, and everyone who interacts with that media gets the same generic message. Advertising and marketing in these virtual environments can be connected to login information unique to the player. This will allow for more targeted and effective advertising and marketing. The initial embracing of these environments by the marketing industry will continue, and grow, once marketing executives come to terms with the unique opportunities offered by them.
'School feeds' for 2009
Finally, the lessons of the early adopters that have been publicised in 2008 will serve as 'school fees' for 2009. Companies that engage in the virtual and game-based business simulation areas through 2009 will have adjusted their expectations accordingly. Virtual environments will be used less for marketing and product placement, and more for global project teams and collaboration, along with a healthy dose of training activity.
While activity in generic environments such as Second Life will grow marginally, the real growth will occur in companies investing in the development of their own environments and applications. These environments will mimic their real-life environments and processes so that they are able to use the virtual environment to leverage internal intellectual and human capital in a way that delivers contextually relevant competitive advantage.
In this space, in 2009, South Africa will still largely be a trend-follower rather than a trendsetter. But, with the rise of local companies building applications specifically for the local market, with its own unique constraints and dynamics, significant local innovation can be expected by the end of 2009.