Being a researcher interested in the user experience of interactive technologies, I have always been following how video games are employed as a platform to explore certain topics and practices, especially in social sciences/psychology. The use of such kind of platform has already been discussed in the human computer interaction field for a long time. In psychology, especially, you have papers from 1995 about "Video games as research tools" by Donchin or some statements by HCI researchers (like Holmquist in "The right kind of challenge").
Several scholars have stressed the interest of using virtual environments like video games as research tool for psychological investigation by citing three major reasons.
First, computer games are motivating and fun, and successful experimentation is easily achieved. Maintaining one’s undivided attention in video games is certainly easier than in other experimental environments. The use of a game metaphor has the advantage that it allows the presentation of complex problem solving tasks in an enjoyable environment, thus maintaining a high level of motivation amongst subjects. Besides, recent developments in augmented reality described by Nilsen have highlighted the motivational value of using game in HCI. Second, a game, especially a mobile computing one, involves participants in a context with a certain ecological validity. A game in public space indeed creates a certain kind of complexity with passers-by or real-world features. Another useful aspect is the fact that they attract “participation by individuals across many demographic boundaries such as, age, gender, ethnicity, educational status and even species” (quoted by Kowalski). We thus expected participants to have a higher level of involvement in a game than in another kind of complex task. However, these statements only hold for subjects that find such games enjoyable, those with little interest in games can fail to engage with the game, finding both the task and the interface difficult and confusing. Therefore, we chose to design simple games to avoid failures and misunderstandings.
What is intriguing is that psychologists often use virtual environments as a way to study phenomenon in physical space that can be difficult to explore. Virtual environments are then used as a substitute, which draws questions concerning the transfer of results from virtual environments to the physical. As described in a paper by Yvonne Slangen de Kort, this is not trivial:
"Whether research in VEs will – to a smaller or larger degree – substitute for research in the real world remains to be seen and will definitely require significant progress in technology and a more thorough understanding of the human factors issues involved. However, the fact that VR-technology has already been embraced by large numbers of professionals in design, urgently calls for research to increase our understanding of person-environment transactions in virtual worlds. The need for more research that addresses applications of perceptual simulations in general and related questions of validity and reliability has been stressed ever since the emergence of environmental simulation as a research paradigm."