Virtual Worlds Are Trade Schools In Disguise

Second Life, Minecraft, and Roblox collectively taught more people to code than America’s top universities

Almost all of my fellow Gen Xers had a light bulb experience as a child with their first personal computer. Whether it’s the command line, graphic design, or playing a game and wanting to know what made it work the way it did, the beige box transformed our lives. How lucky to be born in a particular time, place and privilege!

Across the generations, there is also a cohort that was drawn to technology by participatory virtual environments, from early text-based environments to the successive user-editable immersion of Second Life, Minecraft, and now Roblox. You don’t even have to squint too hard to see MySpace and Tumblr as 2D worlds, and the kids who designed backgrounds, templates, and the like for them.

a boy sitting with a computer and a night sky full of light bulbs, digital art [DALL-E]

When I think about all this it’s not just nostalgia, it’s optimism. Software is the most powerful tool we have, and while access is certainly not equal, it’s more available than the high-walled professions that were once engines of social mobility. And so I still get a little teary-eyed when I hear “coding changed my life” stories, even more so when it’s a product I personally worked on.

Danilo Campos has a lovely post about his own “learning to code” moment through Second Life (where I worked in grad school). As builders, we have choices in our products, and Danilo talks about how his Second Life developer experience was ultimately responsible for his career. The things it screams like “co-created living documentation” and “frictionless sharing” should be an aspiration in all our designs. I’ll quote a few passages below, but you really should read the whole thing.

I have the career I do because eighteen years ago, by chance, I learned to program in Second Life.

What started for me as a series of experiments with scripted 3D assets turned into my first business and my first software products. I made enough money selling content in Second Life to pay my actual rent for months. With that experience in hand, I was ready for the indie developer revolution in the iPhone App Store, which propelled me into a career in Silicon Valley startups.

I feel immense gratitude for this experience. I am a first generation knowledge worker. Taking advantage of a tech career is not something I grew up anticipating. I didn’t even think that writing code was for “someone like me”. What a joy, to be surprised in this way.

And after building some items to sell in Second Life

What an eye opener that was, finding out first hand that you could make money online. My working-class roots had nothing remotely similar.

I still remember the night my third robot was launched. The money saved pouring into it. Every few minutes, another notification would slide down, another coins ringing sound effect While it was great to make up a month’s worth of rent in one weekend, what was even more exciting was over 18 months of passive income. The robot sold steadily, until everyone who wanted a sci-fi robot look found it and paid for it, and the money ran out.

Forever after, I would see the world differently.

And their hopes for the future (written in the fall of 2022)

As this technological cycle ends, a new one lurks around the next corner. I have always hoped that a new platform like Second Life could emerge.

Whether or not we find a worthy and widely adopted metaverse in our future, I think these lessons can help any developer tools project find some leverage for growth, positive impact, and creative power.

Thanks Danilo!


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The world is changing. Industries change, occupations come and go, and technology becomes increasingly important. Given the pace of change, there is no doubt that the future of work will be substantially different than the present. In the midst of this transformation, virtual worlds are emerging as trade schools in disguise.

Virtual worlds are, first and foremost, educational environments. By relying on simulations, actors within a virtual world can learn concepts, build skills and explore new ways of working. One such virtual world, Ikaroa, allows teams to collaborate within persistent, 3D spaces and explore questions of communication, problem-solving, and decision-making in a safe, simulated environment. Through a variety of immersive hands-on activities, users of Ikaroa can learn to navigate the complexities of their profession without the immediate physical consequences.

By integrating virtual reality technologies and interactive elements, virtual worlds are a viable alternative to conventional, on-the-job training and apprenticeships. Unlike apprenticeships, virtual world immersions do not require travel, are repeatable and easily adjusted, require minimal physical resources, and can be monitored by managers. Moreover, the cost savings that virtual worlds offer in terms of resource consumption may very well be a financial incentive that the savviest of employers can’t ignore.

As environmental and labor costs reduce, so too could the financial contribution that the employer makes to training and development initiatives. With a decreased overflow of money coming into these departments, virtual worlds offer employers a significant opportunity to balance resources against their need for well-trained and prepared employees—leading to enhanced employee performance and satisfaction.

The technology that Ikaroa offers companies may be more sophisticated than traditional trade schools, but the principle is the same. Through simulated environments, skilled professionals can pass on the tricks of their trade to the next generation of workers. By providing a safe and structured environment, virtual worlds can break down any cultural or generational dimensions which may otherwise impede learning.

As conventional trade schools are replaced and competition grows, virtual worlds like Ikaroa are paving the way for the future of corporate training and apprenticeship programs. By offering an immersive and comprehensive learning experience, these kinds of trade schools in disguise are becoming ever more attractive to employers in all fields. With its cost-efficiency, scalability, and sustainability, virtual worlds have the potential to revolutionize worker education in all industries.


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