October 24-26, 2007
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Paper: Life 1.5: Creating A Task Based Reward Structure In Second Life To Encourage And Direct User Created Content

Lars Wieneke, Jürgen Nützel, and David Arnold, University of Brighton, United Kingdom


Tools for end-user oriented content creation and aggregation, like wikis, blogs, forums and recently multi-user-virtual-environments like Second Life, are becoming more and more popular for museum use. Therefore an understanding of the conditions and limitations for their successful and sustainable application becomes increasingly relevant. In this paper we will discuss an organizational model and technical setup that tries to balance the demands of institutional stake-holders in the museum for quality control and agenda setting, while encouraging at the same time more end-users to participate. To this end, our setup interweaves interaction across multiple platforms – terminals in the museum, Web sites and the Second Life environment – in order to create an engaging and rewarding experience for the visitor.

Keywords: user created content, participation, Second Life, quality control, motivation, interweaving real and virtual environments


Over and over again technological progress and social adoption of technology bring to life environments that offer new and exciting ways to engage museum visitors. As these environments seldom emerge from within the museum community but leak over from other domains, their specific use value and application need to be explored before museums can apply them successfully. Despite their potential, museums often hesitate to explore such environments due to the high financial risks of exploration. In recent years an alternative to the cost intensive, traditional model of development and exploration is emerging: user-driven environments, often described by the term user-created content, that have the potential not only to provide continuously new content for new digital media but also to engage users to become productive members of focused communities and to generate the necessary innovations that help to shape and evolve new genre in digital media.

Nevertheless, most successful applications like Wikipedia (Bryant, Forte, & Bruckman, 2005), forums and the so-called "game modding"-communities in computer gaming (Banks, 2005) have developed as bottom-up approaches with policies, codes of conduct and definitions of content quality emerging out of their everyday practical use (Wenger, 1998). How can museums as top-down organized institutions with existing and well-defined policies and quality demands interface with user-driven communities? How can museums maintain their demands for levels of quality without simply exploiting the good will of their users? And how can we integrate with the real world exhibition space in order to motivate visitors to contribute and engage with virtual environments?

In this paper we present an approach that tries to encourage visitors to become active contributors of museum-related content for two different domains: the main Web site of our application and the multi-user-virtual environment Second Life. To start off we discuss the potential of Second Life in terms of its application in the museum environment before we point out some of the benefits and limitations of user-created content. In the last section of this paper, we present our approach from a technological and organizational perspective. Due to the very nature of the process, our setup is still developing and emerging, and the description given here therefore represents rather a snapshot of an ongoing development.

Second Life, Another Uncharted Territory

Second Life belongs to the growing group of multi-user-virtual environments (muve). Whether Second Life itself will turn out to be the final incarnation of the three-dimensional internet, add itself to the list of precursors, or turn out to be a dead end towards this development is hard to tell from today's evidence. In its current state of development it might be comparable to services like Compuserve in the early 1990s where walled gardens and proprietary services dominated the mass market of interconnected networks.

Similar to its current competitors Active Worlds and There, Second Life offers a persistent three-dimensional world that is accessible over the Internet using proprietary client software comparable to a Web browser. In general, muves are not considered to be games, although they use a computer game-like interface and have a similar graphical appeal. The decisive difference between muves and massive-multiplayer-on-line-role-playing games (mmorpg) like World of Warcraft is that users can freely interact with each other and the virtual environment without the need to achieve certain pre-defined objectives. Nevertheless, this definition is not exclusive, as environments like Entropia offer both mmorpg and muve related features.

Second Life Features And Limitations

In the context of other Web applications, Second Life offers not only a three-dimensional representation, but also a unique blend of features that distinguish it from competitors. As a complete overview of all the features that Second Life currently has to offer would go beyond the scope of this paper. For a comprehensive overview of the initial ideas of Second Life and its current development compare (Ondrejka).

Real-Time Chat And Instant Messaging

Second Life offers real-time communication by means of instant messaging for private and chat for public conversations. The ability to chat with visitors to a virtual space allows new means of cooperation as well as new kinds of services. Besides that, visitors of an area in Second Life not only become visible – the opposite to most Web Sites, where an awareness of concurrent users is hard to establish – but can also be interviewed. A feature that offers new means of user evaluation.

Figure 1
Figure 1: The Second Life user interface at the International Museum of Spaceflight

Integrated Authoring Environment

Like the prominent wiki-technology and the initial ideas that led to the development of the world wide Web by Tim Burners-Lee, Second Life offers integrated authoring tools that allow the creation of new objects and the modification of pre-existing ones. The authoring system itself doesn't follow conventions for the production of three-dimensional objects as they have been established by 3D construction software like 3D Studio Max, Maya or Blender, but requires a rather specific workflow. In comparison to There, where only pre-defined objects can be purchased and combined, Second Life implements a concept of atomistic construction (Ondrejka) that allows every user to create substantially new objects based on a limited set of universal building blocks called prims.

Virtual Land, Ownership And Rights Management

Although users don't need to own virtual land in order to build and construct new objects, virtual property becomes relevant whenever objects are created that will have persistence in the virtual environment. Land owners can define the features of their virtual property in different ways: They can terra-form the environment, allow other users to create objects on their property and also modify features of the interface – like the use of avatar based scripts or the ability to fly.

Deeply rooted within Second Life is a concept of asset management. Whenever a user creates an object, he owns any associated rights. Based on a granular rights system he is able to define whether other users can modify, copy or even sell the object he created. Furthermore exchange prices in Linden$ can be defined. All objects that exist in Second Life are created with the integrated authoring tools.

Content and Interactivity

Due to the nature of the presentation and the peculiarities of the authoring environment, content for Second Life has needed to be developed specifically for this environment. Only recently, a currently rather limited option to import existing 3D content by means of color maps as so called sculpted prims has been introduced. Nevertheless, all objects that are created within Second Life are bound to the environment and cannot be exported from it. This limitation significantly confines the use of Second Life as a durable and reliable environment to store and preserve 3D content as the objects will only persist as long as the infrastructure of Second Life itself is available.

In order to give objects interactive features, Second Life includes both a physics engine and a scripting language. While their combination allows for the construction of fully interactive objects with physical behaviors that respond to user inputs, the scripting language can also be used in order to connect objects with external Web services on the Internet (Ondrejka).

Micro-payment and Economy

Within Second Life extensive use is made of the in-world currency Linden Dollar (L$). This currency is exchangeable both from and to real world currencies (mainly the US$). In combination with a pre-paid in-world digital wallet, one-click micro-payments become available and are applied to services and the exchange of objects. As Ondrejka (Ondrejka) points out, the ability to freely exchange assets based on a free market economy is expected to be a major incentive for the creation of innovations by Second Life users.


Access to Second Life is limited not only by rather intense hardware requirements and broadband demands, but also by a general limitation of access. As some areas within Second Life offer rather risqué content, users need to be at least 18 years old. In a different incarnation of Second Life called Teen Second Life, only persons below the age of 18 are allowed to join in. Both instances are kept deliberately separate and therefore make the administration and construction of two separate versions necessary in order to address both age groups.

Museums and Second Life

Recently Second Life received not only intensive media coverage but also increased attention in the museum community ((Rothfarb & Doherty, 2007; Urban & Twidale, 2007)). Although different museums all over the world either are currently evaluating the use of Second Life or have announced the intention to establish subsidiaries (compare the announcement of (ZKM, 2007)), few have taken action so far. As one of the main benefits that Second Life could give to museums Rothfarb and Doherty (Rothfarb & Doherty, 2007) regard its ability to create experiences that go beyond to what is possible in real life. Virtual exhibitions should therefore not try to simply mimic the real world exhibition but to identify the potential of the interactive environment in order to generate new and complementary experiences.

Although real world museums seem to adopt Second Life rather slowly as an environment for museum learning and communication, different museums already exist in Second Life that have no real-world counterpart. Besides special interest museums like the Star Trek museum or the reconstruction and re-enactment of a Roman village, the International Museum of Spaceflight stands out as an extraordinary example of a virtual museum space. The design of the ISM often cites and mimics real world museum features, like descriptive texts and even simulated audio guides.

Overall, Second Life provides tremendous potential for a new means of museum communication. Operating at the friction point between social interaction and technological development, Second Life constitutes a place where innovation happens on a daily basis. Nevertheless, it should be recognized that Second Life is still a relatively exclusive environment: not only because of its hardware and broadband demands, but also because of the peculiarities of its interface. Even basic features like navigating in Second Life require initial training.

Like few other environments, Second Life relies on the creativity of its users (compare (Ondrejka)). As Rothfarb and Doherty (Rothfarb & Doherty, 2007) point out, productive users can also become a constant source of innovation for the virtual representation of a museum. In order to find out how museums could benefit from the creative power of users in Second Life, we will further discuss the engagement of users in the broader context of user created content and its implications when applied in museums.

Properties And Perspectives Of User Created Content

The emergence of user-created content as we know it today is a phenomenon that relates both to technological as well as social change. With the widespread use of digital media in everyday life, the previously passive consumer-user has turned into a potential producer-user. Users are already enabled to use different kinds of production and publication tools both on-line and offline. The computer game industry in particular benefits significantly from this development. The "game mods", which are now common, are user created modifications of existing commercial computer games, add value for other users by providing new content in the form of new levels, models, story-lines and features (Banks, 2005; Sotamaa, 2003). By tapping on this creative potential, game manufacturers can extend the lifetime and attractiveness of their often costly game engines. Game mods have also proved to be a major source of innovation by creating a whole new genre of computer gaming (a prominent example for such innovation is the development of the controversial game-mod Counter Strike based on the original Half-Life game engine. See (Sotamaa, 2003) for further details).

Some authors already argue that user-created content could become a full alternative to conventional content production models. The use of the term crowdsourcing became popular to illustrate this concept; compare also (Banks, 2005) and (Howe,). Nevertheless, we would like to argue that user-created content is not a substitute for, but rather a different mode of production, and operates only under certain conditions.

Motivation and Incentives

One of the main conditions that influence user created content is related to the question of why users contribute at all. In comparison to conventional production processes, where employees or contractors provide content in exchange for a mainly monetary incentive, the relationships that characterize user created content mechanisms are more complex.

As a point of departure for our research we suggest that users create content in order to gain a personal benefit that is not necessarily monetary. Similar to the idea of user innovation – as it is propagated by Eric von Hippel (von Hippel, 2005) – users don't intend to operate on a given market, but focus on the benefits that either the outcome of the creation process or the process of creating content itself gives to them. The expected and perceived benefits can thereby be very diverse across and even within different applications, varying from the benefit of sharing photographs with friends on flickr.com to gaining reputation in a productive on-line community like Wikipedia. It is important to note that current evidence suggests that a diverse set of different motivations provides the basis for contributions and not a single incentive alone.

Participation Rates

Despite the fact that user created content relies on a principal symmetry of production and publication means, existing applications show a high asymmetry in the participation rate between users who actively contribute and those who don't participate at all. A recent survey of Web applications conducted by Hitwise (Tancer, 2007) showed that, in applications like flickr.com, photo uploads make up only 0.2% of the total page visits. A similar ratio can be found at youtube.com where video uploads account only for 0.16% of the page visits. As a general rule of participation, Nielsen introduced the 90,9,1 principle (Nielsen, 2006). According to this principle,

  • • 90% of the users don't actively participate at all
  • • 9% do minor contributions and
  • • 1% are responsible for the majority of contributions.

Overall, these figures illustrate, on the one hand, that user-created content applications rely to a large extent on the contributions of a motivated minority. At the same time, it could be argued that these figures don't reflect the complex interactions that happen between the different user groups. As striking as this quantitative data might be in the first place, its significance is limited. Will youtube.com or flickr.com benefit from a higher participation rate at all, and is a higher participation rate necessarily better?

As Bryant (Bryant et al., 2005) points out in regard to Wikipedia that contributions happen on different levels and according to different roles which participants choose for themselves. Even users who don't actively contribute by publishing content share in the creation of the overall application as they provide an audience that selects and therefore supports or neglects contributions by other users.

As the nature of these contributions and the relevant roles differ between applications, research needs to be conducted in order to find out the nature of these functional roles for each specific application. It should be noted furthermore, that roles and functions are often not defined from scratch but emerge and change during the evolution of the application (Bryant et al., 2005).

New Players In The Game

As users become an integral part of the production process, they can not only influence the outcomes of this process but also heavily influence and alter company policies. The case of the hd-dvd encryption key and digg.com illustrates this problem: In April 2007 a 16-digit key that is used to encrypt the content of hd-dvds was hacked and published on the Web (see (Doctorow, 2007)). Users of digg.com, a Web service devoted to user recommendations of Web sites, put several recommendations to the site that published the key. As the site and its content became top-recommendations of that day, the owners of digg.com where asked to remove all links to the key by the AACS Licensing Agency which considered the publication of the key a violation of copyright. As digg.com also continued to delete all further recommendations that led to the key, users started to revolt against this decision by flooding the site with links to sites and blog entries that contained the key. On May the 1st, the founder of digg.com announced that

[…] after seeing hundreds of stories and reading thousands of comments, you’ve made it clear. You’d rather see Digg go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company. We hear you, and effective immediately we won’t delete stories or comments containing the code and will deal with whatever the consequences might be. (Kevin Rose, blog post in (Rose))

Users of digg.com were able to demonstrate that they could lead a company to its ruin if company policies interfere heavily with the attitude and perception of its users.

Communities, Bottom-Up Design And House-Keeping

Productive users often organize in communities that develop to some extent in analogy to the concept of Communities of Practice ((Bryant et al., 2005; Wenger, 1998)). Therefore policies (norms of behavior as well as concepts of content quality) are not designed, but emerge out of the interaction and cooperation of the users. This approach could nevertheless lead to strong hierarchical organization structures, but due to its bottom-up nature, companies and institutions which may already have defined policies could face problems when trying to interact with these communities.

Besides these obstacles, companies, institutions and especially museums should try to support and foster the development of communities of productive users due to their adaptive and flexible nature. Self-emerging administrative structures, driven by the users, for example, may not prevent vandalism and digital garbage, but can cope with its consequences and reduce its negative impact to a minimum. (Compare the self-chosen role of administrators in (Bryant et al., 2005)).

The Role Of Technology In User Created Content

While the majority of current research in user created content and user driven communities has been conducted from a social science perspective, the role of digital media technology as a facilitator of communication, production and publication has so far been largely neglected by technical disciplines. Nevertheless, technology plays an important role in enabling users to create content. The requirement to lower the entrance threshold for publication and production must be addressed from a technological perspective to include and engage a broader spectrum of users.

User Created Content In The Museum

If museums want to make use of the creative and productive power of user-created content and user-driven communities, the role of the museum needs to be re-defined. Museums need to identify the kind of quality they expect and whether or not they can accept and expect this level of quality from user-created content. While visitors usually trust museums, museums do not necessarily trust their visitors, particularly when it comes to including their user-created content within the range of material associated with the museum’s reputation. Therefore a common ground needs to be developed for the creation of mutual trust.

Although museums have already started to focus on the individual visitor and his demands and expectations towards the museum, the integration of user-created content poses new questions in terms of interfacing with visitors and turning visitors into users.

Museums have a long tradition of integrating volunteers in their day-to-day business (Rothfarb & Doherty, 2007). Nevertheless, the transactional costs for motivated visitors to help out in the museum are usually too high. Due to museums’ demand for trust, smaller contributions become almost impossible as often only long-term engagement becomes valued by museums. Instead of being able to contribute – because they want to – visitors who have the abilities to cooperate or contribute often need to spend extensive amounts of time in order to find out whom to ask or to find out where to help. Museums are sometimes rightly reserved in integrating external parties, especially those who cannot be controlled or held accountable or whose quality of service cannot be guaranteed, but at the same time, this reservation ignores a lot of potential that could be tapped. Therefore, applications that want to integrate user-created content in the museum environment need to create technical as well as organizational interfaces between the museum staff and productive users in order to enable museums to express their demands.

Interweaving The Real And The Virtual Environment

Although museums can extend their reach and importance by employing Web services that are accessible worldwide, visitors to the physical environment not only are the main target audience of museums but also (normally) fulfill the basic criteria for engagement: a general interest in the subject matter. A close connection between real and virtual environments is therefore a necessary condition for the creation of a museum experience that extends beyond the visit itself (compare (Barry, 2006) and the concept of the virtuous circle) and also a means to identify interested visitors and foster their interest. Therefore we considered the aspect of interweaving the real world exhibition and the virtual environment to be of uttermost importance in our application.


As a central component of the overall application as depicted in figure 2, a central Web server stores all user and interaction data and controls the dispenser units in Second Life that provide users with their rewards. As users already need to log-in to Second Life by providing a unique user-id and password they are automatically logged-on to all services on the Web server, when accessing the server through Second Life.

Figure 2
Figure 2: Architecture of our application

Scenario & Concept

Our application targets grown-ups in the age group between 18 and 35. The following scenario illustrates the use of our application in the context of a space exhibition at a museum of Science and Technology:

Alex is visiting the Museum of Science and Technology for the first time. In the Space exhibition Alex gets a set of printed cards that challenge him with different quests in the context of space-flight. Alex engages with the real world exhibition in order to solve the quests. Every quest he conducts now provides him with points and virtual objects as rewards.

Back home, Alex logs in to Second Life and visits the virtual exhibition of the Museum of Science and Technology. Here he collects his rewards: an astronaut suite that enables him to visit the zero-gravity chamber and the first three parts of his own private satellite. A quick look at the scheduled virtual space flights shows him that there are three hours left before the next virtual rocket could take his satellite into space. Alex decides to conduct some further quests in order to collect the missing parts for his satellite. One and a half hours later his satellite is ready to be taken into virtual space and Alex gains the rank of a space ensign.

Trivia & Quests

Within our application we make intensive use of a game-inspired "trivia and quest" approach. In our case, the concept of trivia covers questions that can be answered by selecting an answer from given alternatives. In contrast, quests require users to identify the question itself before they can provide an answer. Our approach provides

  • • a low threshold for interaction, as users are in general already accustomed to trivia games through media and personal experience
  • • an appeal and a challenge that attracts visitors, as game-like approaches can create engaging experiences (Danks, Goodchild, Rodriguez-Echavarria, Arnold, & Griffiths, 2007).
  • • media-independent integration into the existing communication and information infrastructure of the museum. By providing quests and trivia as separate entities, visitors can make use of different kinds of existing information and communication media in order to come up with a solution.
  • • a basis for exploring the real world museum environment. In order to find answers to the questions provided, visitors need to explore the museum environment in their own accord.


After engaging visitors to conduct quests, a computer game-inspired concept of rewards, points and levels has been implemented in order to further engage visitors after the museum visit itself. In this context, the rewards that are given to the visitors provide an incentive to visit the related Web Site as well as the virtual environment in Second Life. The rewards are designed in such a way that they are either objects that users can attach to their avatar in order to reflect their status within the application – in the case of our scenario the rank of a space ensign that Alex achieved – or objects that users can combine and use in the virtual exhibition environment.

By providing users with pre-made objects we try to lower the threshold for initial participation. Every user that collects and uses his rewards in Second Life automatically creates an individual three-dimensional object within Second Life and therefore content that other users can experience. While the overall value of this automatically-produced content could be considered quite low – as its impact is limited by the concept of crafting and therefore modifying existing objects instead of creating new objects (compare Doctorow’s discussion of crafting versus creating in (Doctorow, 2007)) – it nevertheless offers initial motivation for users to become members of a productive user community. This concept of low-threshold participation has been derived from the concept of legitimate peripheral participation (lpp) as it was introduced by Lave&Wenger (Wenger & Lave, 1991) and applied to the process of becoming a member of Wikipedia as described by Bryant (Bryant et al., 2005).

In order to start the virtuous circle again and motivate users to re-visit the museum, additional privileges and benefits can be gained in the virtual environment. Benefits could be discounts or free re-entries whereas privileges might even include special abilities in the real world museum, like for example allowance to take pictures.


Levels are used both as a vehicle to motivate users to progress in our application as well as to create mutual trust between the museum and the users. As levels depend on points which in turn relate to the interaction of the user with the application – either by solving quests and answering trivia in the beginning, or by publishing content during later phases – these levels reflect the involvement of a single user with the virtual exhibition. By creating a profile of point acquisition for every user, the museum is provided with a basis for giving privileges and real world rewards to higher-level users.

For early-stage users, new levels can be achieved by acquiring points that are associated with the successful completion of trivia and quests. In this context, our concept of levels is closely related to the use of levels and ranks in computer games where these mark status and depict the progress players make in a game. As soon as a user reaches the threshold defined for a new level, he is awarded this level. Points can be gathered not only by fulfilling quests and solving trivia, but also by interacting with the application. Similar to the use of total posts in forum software, every publication a user conducts is awarded points if other users mark the publication as useful.

After completing a certain level, users cannot achieve new levels by acquiring points anymore, but only by being promoted by two other users to a higher level.

As a point of departure for future research, we would like to experiment with this concept by applying functional ranks, where high-level users get privileges that alter their abilities in the application; e.g. high level users would then be allowed to delete forum postings if they were marked as garbage.

Furthermore, a detailed model of levels, depending on the function each user chooses for himself, could also help to identify functional groups and in turn enable a more detailed evaluation.

Interaction In The Museum

As a means of persistent user identification in the museum environment, both RFID (radio frequency identification) tags and barcode have been used in various projects (compare (Benfield & Griffiths,; Danks et al., 2007) for recent applications of these technologies). Despite their virtues, both technologies put high demands on the technical infrastructure of the museum as their use requires not only RFID or barcode readers but also networked terminals. We therefore decided to use the low-tech alternative of collector cards. Inspired by the use of such cards in the alternate reality game PerplexCity the cards contain a descriptive text that either resembles a trivia or a quest to be conducted in the museum, the number of points that can be acquired by solving the quest or trivia, the associated rewards, a unique card id and the website of our application (see figure 3 for an example). After users log in to the Web site they need to enter the unique card-id in order to answer the quest or trivia. If they provide the correct answer, users receive their points and rewards. Users can get new cards either by printing out the freely available cards from the Web site or by buying double-sided cardboard prints in the museum shop.

Figure 3
Figure 3: An example collector card

The use of such collector cards provides an interesting alternative to some uses of barcode and RFID:

  • Selling cards in the museum store provides new sources for revenue
  • As physical objects, the cards can serve as memorabilia for the museum visit
  • Local museums that focus on a common subject can create series of collector cards together and therefore encourage visitors to visit other museums in order to "collect them all".
  • Combinations of different cards can provide new features
  • Printed cards don't require access to specific computer terminals in the exhibition
  • By using "social" cards – cards that are perforated into different sections and therefore separate-able – small groups of visitors can play together

Fostering User Contributions

The trivia/quest structure serves as an initial attempt to engage people with the on-line components of the application. In order to foster user contributions that go beyond answering pre-defined material, the concept of trivia and quests needs to be widened up into a concept of tasks. These tasks don't demand a specific behavior of a single user, but define a more general agenda for contributions. By giving the privilege of task definition only to the museum, tasks provide the interface between the museum and its users. Further research needs to be conducted on the nature and limitations of this approach and the abilities of museums and museum staff to identify their own demands and to translate these demands into tasks. Currently we can only estimate that a rather broad definition of tasks would be beneficial. In the context of the given scenario, a museum could challenge its user community, for example, with a "Race to Mars" scenario, where users are asked to provide all the necessary steps to create a Mars mission. Although this approach doesn't offer museums direct influence on the nature of the produced content, a deliberately blurry definition of tasks creates a common aim and gives users at the same time the flexibility to organize themselves according to their own ideas.


User-created content doesn't come for free and is unlikely to substitute for existing production processes. Museums can nevertheless benefit from this alternate mode of production, if they succeed in engaging their visitors with an on-line environment that motivates them to become productive users. In our future research we will evaluate our approach in order to achieve more detailed insights into the nature of user created content.


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Cite as:

Life 1.5: Creating A Task Based Reward Structure In Second Life To Encourage And Direct User Created Content, in International Cultural Heritage Informatics Meeting (ICHIM07): Proceedings, J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. 2007. Published October 24, 2007 at http://www.archimuse.com/ichim07/papers/wieneke/wieneke.html