Virtual worlds have been flying under the radar lately, and that's probably a good thing. For a while there, the buzz in the social space sounded something like this:

“SecondLifeSecondLifeSecondLifeSecondLifeSecondLifeSecondLifeSecondLifeSecondLife SecondLifeSecondLifeSecondLifeSecondLifeSecondLifeSecondLifeSecondLifeSecondLife SecondLifeSecondLifeSecondLifeSecondLifeSecondLife …”

BillyMapp As much as we like Second Life, even we were getting a little sick of hearing about it.

Despite the hype machine's slowdown, virtual worlds are alive and well — thriving, actually. Accounting educators around the world — the MACPA included — continue to hold classes and explore the possibilities of 3D learning. Regulators like the FASB and the IRS have built virtual offices. Large and small firms alike are recreating their real-world offices in virtual spaces and touting them as extensions of their brands.

Along the way, they're finding some concrete benefits of setting up shop in virtual worlds:

  1. Death of distance: We’re able to learn, network and collaborate anytime, from anywhere.
  2. World-class content: With a few connections, we can learn from the top thought leaders in their fields without having to travel and pay top-dollar to do so.
  3. Practice and preparation: We're using virtual worlds as playgrounds where we can create and solve problems without real-world consequences. Call it virtual crisis planning.
  4. Engagement: Shy students and colleagues open up and participate more freely in a virtual setting.
  5. Collaboration: Folks in many locations are gathering virtually to work and learn together.

Beyond that, much of our interest in virtual worlds comes down to shear numbers.

Virtual strategist and entrepreneur Claus Nehmzow says the number of people using virtual worlds has jumped from 400 million in 2009 to more than 1 billion today. That's almost 1 million new users per day using these virtual environments. Seventy-five percent of them are between the ages of 10 and 25, and the majority of those users are between the ages 10 and 15.

These are our future employees, members and colleagues. These young people are using virtual environments to learn from one other, solve complex problems with one another, think strategically and collaborate. What will the impact of all of that be once they enter the workforce?

While you're digesting that, let's talk about the gaming culture — specifically, the multi-player virtual games that allow players to team up with fellow gamers around the globe. By some estimates, we're spending 3 billion hours per week playing such games.

The typical non-gamer's response is, “What a flippin' waste of time.”

Jane McGonigal, though, is thinking, “What a huge, untapped source of human innovation.”

McGonigal is a Ph.D. and a renowned designer of what she calls “alternative reality games.” She sees gamers not as lazy time-wasters but as an untapped human resource that, if correctly motivated, could help us solve really big societal issues.

You simply must listen to her ideas. They're revolutionary.

The bottom line: Virtual worlds and games aren't games anymore.

I talked about all of this at the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy's 2011 CPE Conference in San Diego. Check out the slides and notes from that session:

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