Saturday, October 06, 2007

Serious health issues and virtual world residents

The Washington Post reports that virtual worlds are a major source of support for many seriously ill people.

"....just a few examples of an increasing number of sick, disabled and troubled people who say virtual worlds are helping them fight their diseases, live with their disabilities and sometimes even begin to recover. Researchers say they are only starting to appreciate the impact of this phenomenon. "

Momentum is increasing in both education and healthcare to take advantage of the increased facility both socially and visually that an avatar and 3d environment brings.

We estimate that as many as one third of residents over 40 in Second Life have serious illnesses.

Do people with health issues come to an avatar community simply as a fight-or-flight response? It's both. Yes, escapism is the motivation for joining an online community, especially one that the media still describes as a "game". However, acceptance by a community provides them an ability to speak openly of troubles and receive support in return. They feel the simulator-side of a community in that they can be stronger, more clear and have a better external presentation using an avatar under the controlled conditions of a virtual community, then apply what they discover in themselves and in how they relate to others to their real life situations. An avatar based community promotes a level of friendship and intimacy that text does not achieve and that may not be as present in task based environments such as games. For many people an avatar based community is empowering. They can return to the fight.

For some this is the first such acceptance and support they have found in their lives. It can be overwhelming after struggling in the face of a misery, sometimes alone, to encounter tangible care and support, even understanding or ideas for solutions. Hours are spent connected to their community, drawing strength, ideas, and emotional release from ever-present tensions. How many hours? Second Life estimated an August average of 23.5 hours per person over that month. There are few other communications methods that engender such engagement levels without strong incentives such as prizes.

Avatar-based communication is most effective once a level of familiarity with the real person has been acquired. There is nothing more intimate than health issues. Let's find out how many people have significant health issues, how big is this market? Based on our research, it appears to be large and growing.

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