Revisiting Virtual Worlds Reseach

I recently came across an article by Villi Lehdonvirta on the dichotomous thinking regarding Virtual Worlds i.e., a lot of virtual worlds research assumes that online virtual worlds and the offline "real world" are somehow fundamentally different. The implication of such dichotomous thinking with respect to virtual worlds is that it leads to characterizing them different with respect to space, identity, social relationships, economy, law etc with respect to the offline world. However if we look at how the game players themselves interact with the virtual worlds as with each other the separation between the online and the offline world are not as distinct. Dmitri Williams, with whom I have worked with, points out in his recent Mapping paper that there is close mapping between many online behaviors and their offline counterparts and Travis had pointed out in a previous post this line of thinking has a long precedent. As the idea of Gamification permeates the general society to a greater extend, I think that this may become an irrelevant question in the not so distant future because the virtual would have greatly permeated the "real" for a significant percentage of the population.

Ultimately the question of connectedness and seperatedness of the virtual and the offline world is an empirical question. I have had the good fortune to be with the Virtual Worlds Observatory project since its inception in 2008 and I have seen many cases which leads me to think that the online and the offline have a strong coupling. Thus many people expected that given the nature of the internet, most of socializing on and grouping in these virtual worlds would be across large geographic distances. Yun et al (2009) discovered that in EverQuest II this is actually not the case and geographic proximity has a greater role in socialization. One of the reasons for this phenomenon is that people usually play with others that they know in the offline world. This is in line with Steinkuehler and Williams' (2006) view that virtual worlds can act as Third Spaces where people go to socialize. Unsurprisingly the economies of the offline and the online world behave in a similar manner (Castronova 2009). When it comes to mapping between the online and the offline worlds there are other unexpected surprises e.g., my own research on gold farmers with Brian Keegan has revealed that there are surprising similarities between the social networks of gold farmers and the networks of drug dealers.

The real promise of virtual worlds research lies in gaining insights from these environments which one cannot learn from the offline world mainly because of limitations in collecting detailed data in the later. Thus consider the study of comparison of real world and virtual world economies, given that these are sufficiently similar at the macro level, the virtual world offers us opportunities to gain possible insights about the offline world which may not be possible in the offline world because of resource constraints. Thus economists can see the effects of implementation of different fiscal policies and how people react to them in large numbers in virtual economies. Something which was not possible before the advent of virtual worlds.

(Thanks to Cindy Shen for pointing out Lehdonvirta's article.)

Revisiting Virtual Worlds Reseach by Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

One Response to “Revisiting Virtual Worlds Reseach”

  1. HH says:

    Very Interesting article...virtual worlds are like microcosms of behaviors of people in the offline world...

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