We Are Living in a Virtual World: Part 1

Screen shot of HealthInfo Island on Second Life

HealthInfo Island on Second Life

When the team first started hearing about virtual worlds, we were intrigued–and a little confused. Terms like “avatar Exit Disclaimer” and “in-world meetings” were unfamiliar. Places like Second Life Exit Disclaimer, Whyville Exit Disclaimer, Club Penguin Exit Disclaimer, and Habbo Exit Disclaimer seemed mysterious.

NIH, CDC, and NASA have been Federal pioneers in virtual space. To learn more, we spoke to Erin Edgerton at the CDC; Andrew Hoppin, from CoLab at NASA; and Lori Bell and Carol Perryman from HealthInfo Island on Second Life–an NIH-funded project.

Our colleagues told us that virtual worlds are computer-based simulated environments Exit Disclaimer where you create your own character–or avatar.

Virtual worlds look and feel like playing a video game, but unlike a video game, you don’t win or lose. They’re places you inhabit and interact with others.

Participation in virtual worlds is increasing at an average of 15 percent per month, according to the Gartner Group Exit Disclaimer. By 2011, they estimate that 80 percent of Internet users will take part in virtual worlds.

How can we use virtual worlds to improve public health?

Screenshot of AIDS and HIV Center on Second Life

AIDS and HIV Center on Second Life

Virtual worlds can provide an immersive experience where users can get health information and practice healthy behaviors. Modeling good health behaviors in the virtual world can help turn these virtual activities into real-life behaviors.

Carol told us, “At NIH we discovered that consumer health information was one of the most important services we could provide in the virtual world. As more and more people of all ages use the Internet and spend increasing amounts of time online, we want to reach users where they are.” There are a number of medical agencies in Second Life, including professional organizations that are looking at it for training purposes, medical libraries, and support groups for people with medical problems (e.g., HIV/AIDS, Asperger’s Syndrome).

Andrew told us that NASA became interested in virtual worlds because they were looking for a space to collaborate with entrepreneurs, volunteers, and students. Once they began participating in Second Life, NASA discovered new uses for this virtual world: training, virtual prototyping, and building new partnerships. Andrew told us that, in a typical week, over 700 people visit NASA’s space in Second Life and spend approximately 650 hours per week interacting in the virtual NASA.

Screen shot of Virtual vaccinations in Whyville

Virtual vaccinations in Whyville

For two consecutive years, CDC has worked with Whyville to promote virtual vaccinations for seasonal influenza. Erin told us the CDC selected Whyville to encourage flu vaccinations “because it focused on science and education, and because of its previous research on in-world vaccinations.” Whyville citizens had the opportunity to be virtually vaccinated–preventing them from catching the “Why-Flu,” which caused red spots to appear on avatars’ faces and made them sneeze while chatting. During the first six-week activity in 2006, almost 20,000 unique Whyvillians were vaccinated.

Virtual worlds, like Whyville, aren’t just for young people. When the CDC introduced the Why-Flu, for the second time, in November 2007, they created opportunities to engage people of different generations. Once Whyville members were vaccinated, they could send invitations to their grandparents, inviting them to be virtually vaccinated. This resulted in nearly 41,000 virtual vaccinations, and over 1,800 grandparents participated.

Another addition to the 2007 activity was a two-way information exchange between CDC subject-matter experts and Whyvillians. At an in-world vaccination party, kids and grandparents talked with a live CDC expert to get answers to health questions and learn more about the CDC.

Venturing Deeper into Virtual Worlds

On July 1, we’ll finish the second part of this two-part series on virtual worlds. For the next two weeks, however, we’ll be focusing our blog posts on National HIV Testing Day (June 27) Exit Disclaimer.

In the meantime, we encourage you to spend some time in a virtual world. It is easy to sign up for a free account in Second Life, Whyville, Club Penguin, or Habbo. Each offers a unique experience and the best way to learn about these worlds is to jump in!

Hope to see you there!



  1. Felicita ( Real Life name) Lizzette Zenovka (Second Life name) says:

    In June 2007 I joined Second Life and I saw the opportunity to ue this virtual world as a venue to increase HIV Awareness, So thanks to Fleep Tuque the owner of Chilbo Community Building Project for providing me a building in which to house the SL HIV Prevention and Education Center in Madhupak. Since that time I had over 100 visitors to the center and have expanded the center to include information on STI’s and other Women Health issues. I have provided Risk Reduction Counseling to a few member of SL as well as Counseling to PLWH/A. In April 2008m,Ethan LeSabre (SL name)the manager of the AIDS Memorial Garden asked me to open the SL HIV Prevention and Education Annex which has been visited by at least 35 members of SL. Ethan and I are presently working on the developement of the Second Life HIV/AIDS Support Network Headquarters in Upadhyaya region. So, if you are a SL member or are planning to become a member please visit the sites mentioned above and drop me a note card and let me know what you think.

  2. Its a pretty good idea to use virtual worlds for learning and even maybe virtual training in jobs etc soon. I assume its easily accepted since the generations up to those who are now in their 40’s would have been part of the video game generations. Atari, Commodore 64, etc and that’s one thing the video game generations have said at one time = ” these video games just keep getting better, can you imagine what they’ll be like in the future!” The video game generations expected the new technology to make it so that one day you play the video game from inside a virtual world. That technology has probably not explored even a remote percentage of what could be done, in my opinion.

  3. Since the early 1990’s, our scientific team has been developing and testing interactive interventions and media as a vehicle for reducing risky sexual behavior (especially for men who have sex with men). We’ve found in two longitudinal studies that these interactive technologies (using interactive videos) can be very effective for reducing risky sexual behavior over time in high risk populations. These engaging interventions address the factors (e.g., cognitions, emotions, lack of skills) that are related to riskier and safer decisions. There are somewhat different interventions for individuals by ethnicity (African-American; Latino; Caucasian). We are currently developing an interactive “serious game” with virtual avatars that are considered “intelligent” — these are special avatars (using artificial intelligence) that can be differentially programmed to have different important goals, beliefs, and so forth. Then the users (who create their own character) interact with other avatars on a date as they would in real life. This enables us to give users more personalized interventions as users learn to better address various challenging risk situations (where they may have made risky choices previously). The goal is to better optimize each individual’s virtual and subsequent real-life decision-making. This new serious game intervention, built on our earlier successful work, will be tested experimentally to see if participants at risk for contracting HIV reduce their risky behavior subsequently. If efficacious, it will be readily made available over the web nationally to our targeted populations as serious game interventions.

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