In my last post, I asked readers to comment on my proposal to use virtual worlds to study real world business. Many of the comments pick up on the tension between the academic's need for control and the inherently uncontrolled nature of virtual worlds. One reader even wondered if I 'haven't managed to strip away just about everything that is interesting about virtual worlds.'
In this post, I want to ask readers to comment on one possible way to deal with this tension, embedding a carefully controlled serious game within an uncontrolled (and more interesting) virtual world.
For starters, let's assume that I am interested in studying oligopolies--situations in which a small number of firms compete for business in a single product market. My favorite models are the ones that start by assuming that consumers are spread out geographically and have fixed preferences for different types of goods, and that there is a cos to transporting goods. The simplest models would also make assumptions about where the businesses are located, and how much the products are differentiated from one another (are they all identical, or did some producers sacrifice quality to reduce cost, or simply change the color?). More complex models would allow the businesses to choose their locations.
Virtual worlds seem to be excellent tools for studying oligopolies. They have geographies, and one could program in transportation costs. One could also construct a consumer good with a variety of dimensions (color, flavor, etc.), along with the production functions that convert other game inputs (e.g. character skill, time, money, capital goods) into outputs (the quantity and attributes of the consumer good produced). One could also program non-player characters to act as consumers with preferences over good attributes).
Think now of placing some kind of oligopoly game into a business oriented version of World of Warcraft ("World of Bizcraft.") It could simply be a quest...a player walks up to an NPC who says "start a business on the Isle o' Ligopoli and return when you have stayed out of bankruptcy for at least 10 moons." The player makes his way to the Isle, and starts competing.
This setting has some problems as a serious game (one intended for research or education). Would there be one other player or 10? What if one were a newbie and had no idea what they were doing, or had played the quest many times and therefore were ringers? What if the world allowed extensive user-created content, and someone built a device that reduced transportation costs or altered production functions? Any of these possibilities would limit (or at least alter) what students or researchers could learn from the game.
We can address some of these concerns by exercising more control: creating an "instance" of the setting that admits exactly a predetermined number of people of specified levels, just as dungeons are created in World of Warcraft. We could also dramatically limit user-created content. But we would have to do that within
But this still isn't quite enough....what if one player comes into the instance with a tremendous amount of money, skill or capital goods? That would also interefere with the oligopoly game.
My solution is to create a version of the glovebox. Scientists dealing with dangerous or sensitive materials put them in a box that has gloves built into it, and seal the box tightly. The scientist can then put her hands into the gloves, manipulate the materials without ever letting them out, or contaminating them.
Now, imagine an oligopoly instance/dungeon that is just like a glove-box. Just as a scientist slips her hand into a glove,, the player slips inside a prefabricated avatar--a glovatar. The glovatar has its own skills, level and inventory. Voila! A carefully controlled serious game embedded in a virtual world that can allow as much persistent user-created content, identify play and freedom as you please.
Does this sound useful? Have others discussed or tried this before?