As Ted Castronova has already announced, a fascinating conference is coming up at Emory University, called "Virtual Worlds and New Realities." There are going to be a number of panel discussions (the last of which will be broadcast live into Second Life and on Second Life Cable Network as part of the Metanomics weekly interview series.)
To spark discussion on the panels, the conference organizers have asked me to distribute the following survey links. Even if you are not going to attend the conference, we would love to have your responses to the key questions, which address research questions, research methods, collaboration opportunities, and “commercial, social and political possibilities.”
The link to the survey is here.
Below the fold, I list the questions themselves, and give my stab at some of the answers. You don’t have to write as much as I have—after all, your responses will be private (unless you want to post them here publicly, as I have. I am sure that just a few bullet points would be a great help.
1. QUESTIONS THAT MATTER: What research questions or inquiries are important with regard to studying virtual worlds in the next several years (think 2008-2015)?
I answer this question from several directions. First, what research questions can virtual worlds help us answer? Virtual worlds are particularly valuable for studying economic and regulatory issues. The power of virtual world economies is shown quite clearly by high degree of market activity in user accounts and assets, even when explicitly banned by the Terms of Service. Thus, I hope and expect to see virtual worlds used to answer basic policy questions, like:
--How does tax policy affect investment and economic growth?
--How do financial regulations (including those governing insider trading, market transparency and financial disclosure) affect capital flows and economic growth?
--How do markets and economies behave in the face of lax (or non-existent) regulations?
The second direction is to consider what we need to know about virtual worlds in order to conduct more effective research on other topics (like economics, as described above). This leads to questions like:
--How can we make virtual world roles entertaining enough for players that we can build a large and committed subject pool, while not violating the tenets of experimental economics (which emphasize that all participants are motivated primarily by financial incentives)?
--How does the use of avatars affect individual behavior, particularly in business/economic settings?
--How can researchers implement experimental controls over participants in virtual-world experiments? Challenges include identifying participants uniquely, controlling participant-to-participant communications during and between research sessions, etc.
A third direction is to study how for-profit, not-for-profit and governmental enterprises are using and should use virtual worlds for education, simulation, research, outreach, marketing and other uses? Virtual worlds seem to be particularly amenable to entrepreneurship, so this should be a focus of study as well.
Finally, for the political animals out there: how will virtual worlds affect democratic institutions in the real world (by allowing community building, etc.)? What governance works within virtual worlds? And how do we ensure egalitarian access to virtual worlds, which currently require pretty expensive hardware and internet connections?
METHODS: What research methods and approaches are valuable in the study of, and study in, virtual worlds?
Research on and in virtual worlds is exceptionally interdisciplinary. I have found my training in business, behavioral economics and experimental economics extremely useful. But lately, I wish I were a macroeconomist! Sociologists are also making great headway, and I think as they start working with econometricians, we are going to get some fascinating looks at the networks that arising in these spaces.
Legal and political issues loom large in the metaverse. Sometimes these groups don’t play so well with social scientists (who are almost always data-driven these days, while legal/political researchers are more qualitative). I think virtual world research provides some opportunities for collaboration here, because it is easier to do comparative analyses (virtual worlds may differ less from one another than countries in the real world do).
I just walked out of a 3-hour meeting on survey research, much of it devoted to the difficulties of conducting phone surveys in a cell-phone world. What will surveys in virtual worlds be like? My head hurts just thinking about it!
COLLABORATIVE INITIATIVES: What might be some ways to effectively establish more multi-university and multi-institutional research, both with regard to studying virtual worlds as well as using virtual worlds to facilitate research collaborations?
Many of us have been talking about a <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supercollider"> "supercollider model" </a> for virtual world research—an attempt to get massive funding to create a platform for virtual worlds that researchers of all stripes could use. Of course, the original supercollider project failed, but the model seems more likely to succeed given the relatively low cost, rapid translation into commercial application, and distributed financing (one problem with the supercollider was that it had to be in one location, raising the question of who would get to/have to host it.)
OK, I’m out of time and steam right now, but I wanted to get this post started. I will add my answers to the remaining questions as a comment later on. Here are the questions, which address "commercial, social and political possibilities will influence the design, adoption, applications and implications of virtual worlds":
What, with regard to the current state of virtual worlds, is important and noteworthy to you?
What interesting institutional changes might take place as virtual worlds spread with regard to business, government, and society?
How might virtual worlds change the socio-political environment and nature of human interactions?
What radical changes with regard to virtual worlds might we expect in the two to five year horizon, or beyond?