Last night I was co-moderator of a panel on "virtual world journalism" at New York Law School's annual State of Play conference (co-organized by my Berkman Center colleagues). The panelists were all people (all men) who report about what goes on in virtual worlds like Second Life, Sims Online, etc.
One of the panelists has quite the cool job: Wagner James Au is an "embedded journalist" in Second Life - and his job (salary paid by Second Life) is to report on events, people, and phenomena in that one particular virtual world.
As a somebody who has spent no time in these worlds (although some would argue that the blogosphere is another virtual world), I asked why the panelists think news editors ought to care about coverage of virtual worlds. The answer: increasingly, things that happen in virtual worlds are having a real-life impact. One example: people are actually making real incomes by selling virtual goods created for other members of their virtual worlds to buy with virtual cash, which actually translates into real cash. There are also fund-raisers to help fund real-life causes - albeit sometimes done in more, er, outlandish and creative ways than you would see in the real world. As people's activities in virtual worlds increasingly have real-life impact on people's economic and social situations in the real world, coverage of virtual events will become more important.
A couple of the panelists made another rather interesting point: that virtual world journalism as a genre is much more experimental, interesting and creative than real-world journalism, because people are free to do whatever they want and must be inventive to capture the attention of their fellow gamers. Might virtual world journalism start influencing the techniques of real world journalism? Perhaps we shouldn't dismiss that possibility.
James Au made another interesting point: virtual world games like Second Life are worlds created and built by the users. There is no set plot or set endgame: the people who join create their own avatars (personas), homes, neighborhoods and countries - through which online societies evolve. He believes this is the ultimate form of "user created content", and is thus ties in with the world of blogs and other forms of participatory media.
As somebody who hasn't played a video game since Tetris in the early 90's, the session certainly gave me a fresh angle on the future of citizens' media, broadly defined.