At a UK conference yesterday on virtual worlds, David Puttnam (that's Lord Puttnam to you commoners) gave a keynote that laid out all the promise of virtual worlds in glowing terms, but then suggested that there might be a snake in the garden.
Puttnam has had a long history in media, winning Oscars for his work with films like Chariots of Fire and serving as the head of Columbia Pictures for years. He now sits in the House of Lords, and his views on media carry significant weight.
So when Puttnam put an end to 16 minutes of praise for the promise of virtual worlds and turned to the challenges that such worlds face, people paid attention.
Addiction is one of the dangers. "Why wouldn't a personal paradise become addictive?" he asked the audience, but pointed out that he was old enough to remember similar worries over movies, video games, and the web. Though just about any human activity can give rise to addictive behavior, Puttnam doesn't see why virtual worlds would prove to be any more harmful than other forms of media, but he wants to see more research done in this area.
Regulatory issues also surround virtual worlds. Questions about whether virtual money should be taxed or whether virtual property is "real" property or whether avatars have any legal rights are currently being taken up by governments around the world. Some of these questions have no simple answers.
Identity and communications issues are also a concern in virtual worlds. Can people form trusting relationships with others in such places? How can (or how should) developers try to prevent antisocial behavior within the world?
ButPuttnam's most compelling question addressed the fact that many new virtual worlds, especially those targeted at children, are sponsored by brands or backed by companies with a product to sell. Puttnam wondered whether it was enough to shelter children from predators and keep their e-mail addresses private. With virtual worlds limited only by the human imagination, aren't there better uses for such creations than as tools to move widgets?
"Are we absolutely sure that this is the very best we can offer young people?" he asked. "Do we really want them to think of themselves as not that much more than consumers?" His alternative was using virtual worlds to "encourage [kids] to exercise those same values and skills we wish to see them exercise in the real world."
The whole of Puttnam's speech (and he has a wonderful speaking voice) is available from the conference website.