The idea of developing transportable avatars – avatars that will be able to move both within and between different virtual worlds – has been raised in popular and academic forums for years. However, to date it appears that relatively little progress has been made on this front. While there are likely technical issues with developing such a large and complex project, it is also possible that some of the issues holding back this endeavor are likely to be economic in nature as companies seek not only to establish technical standards, but economic ones as well.
The Possibility of Transportable Avatars
Certainly some of the limits in developing transportable avatars are practical and technical. Given that virtual worlds are coded in different ways and based on different platforms and engines, the ability to move avatars from one world to another is currently restricted. This difficulty is further exacerbated by the fact that while some worlds are based on the world wide web, others run on their own Internet-based application programs. As a result, standards have to be created (and first of all agreed upon) that would work to universalize avatars and their paths through virtual environments.
Despite the potential issues with developing technical standards, it is also likely that some of these limits are financial, especially if there is a possibility that transportable avatars would be able to move between social worlds and game environments, and could possibly take their virtual assets with them. For companies that profit from their virtual economies, preventing the transport of avatars between virtual worlds can also mean protecting their economies and, perhaps more importantly, protecting revenue.
Virtual Economies in Social and Game Worlds
Perhaps one of the more interesting elements of transportable avatars is the fact that Linden Lab, the developers of one of the biggest virtual social worlds, was reported by Businessweek to be involved in the development of transportable avatars. Linden Lab profits from in-world land and from selling Lindens to residents, both which may prove to be an issue with respect to transportable avatars. The first issue facing the company is whether residents would necessarily want to maintain land within Second Life if their avatar could be moved around between different worlds. The second issue is that if residents were able to purchase currency in another economy (and possibly one that is subject to inflation and devaluation), such as is common within the closed worlds of video games, then move it Second Life, Linden Lab could lose money while the resident could profit.
Beyond social worlds, issues also arise around the possibility of transportable video game avatars. In order to have value to players, video games require structure in order to ensure that the game is attractively challenging. This structure also ensures that gameplay is fair, which makes challenges meaningful as well as making competition possible, since participants are provided a standardized way to judge their achievements relative to other players.
In order to ensure equality, many games close their internal economies to offline influences. While these restrictions can be broken, the intent is at least partially to ensure that players remain equal in their interactions, and are not advantaged over one another. However, the possibility of buying virtual currency for a game world in an environment where these practices are acceptable, then taking it back to the game in question stands to put players who elect to move money in this way – as well as have the money to spend on virtual currencies – in an advantageous position within the game.
Perhaps even more serious, at least from an economic perspective, is the possibility that avatars could generate virtual currency through a game and then move to a world in which these currencies could be exchanged for offline money. In many games riches are easy to obtain through the completion of quests and the sale of “loot” left behind when monsters are killed. Under this system, it could be possible for players to quickly generate a wealth of virtual currency to be moved and then traded for offline money, effective generating money for nothing.
While it is possible that the development of transportable avatars will happen in ways that are, as of yet, unanticipated and even unexpected, the structures of virtual worlds, avatars, and economies as they currently exist are not necessarily amenable to these changes. Although these issues are not insurmountable, they do present a number of concerns around the development of transportable avatars that will need to be answered prior to the widespread development and availability of these virtual entities.
Given the possible issues with avatars, assets, and currencies moving within and between drastically different virtual worlds, there remains a need to consider not only the technical implications of such a project, but also the economic ramifications. Certainly some of these issues, such as the possibility of generating money for nothing, are of such great economic consequence that they would not make it past even the earliest stages of development. However, they are issues worth considering both if transportable avatars are a possibility in the future, both in terms of their development and their potential effects on virtual as well as offline economies.