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Can Web-based worlds teach us about the real one?

Researchers are eager to study millions of online gamers that live in 'virtual' communities such Second Life, hoping to gain insight into our 'real world' behaviors.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 23, 2008

An avatar from Second Life.

Courtesy of Linden Research, Inc.


With last week's stock market sputter and re­­newed warnings of a recession, policymakers and presidential candidates are hawking countless plans to jump-start the economy. These proposals are often complex, sometimes controversial, and almost always conjectural.

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If only there were a way to take them for a test drive.

Robert Bloomfield is tinkering with such a plan. As an accounting professor at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., he researches virtual worlds – a nascent, but growing, field in the social sciences.

His studies in economic policy lead him into digital realms where the laws of gravity don't apply. But what about the laws of supply and demand?

Immersive online worlds such as Second Life and World of Warcraft attract populations that outnumber Sweden's. And now, scientists are following players down the rabbit hole in hopes of learning more about the real world.

By tapping into the behavior of an estimated 73 million online gamers, Mr. Bloomfield and others hope to study the effects of public policy with an ease and specificity that only computers can deliver. The tools are not yet perfected. But the potential is too strong to ignore, says Bloomfield.

"I got into this because I was talking to the Financial Accounting Standards Board," which develops standards for publicly traded companies in the US, he says. "They have a lot of questions about the effect of legislation, and it's very difficult for them to see before the fact what the policy effects will be."

So, inspired by the popularity of online worlds, several economists imagined creating their own immersive environments. They would design two identical worlds with the same virtual currency. And, sticking to the scientific method, the worlds would differ in some subtle variable.

Then, attract players. Let them loose. Sit back and watch.

The Standards Board loved the idea. But there was a hitch.

"What's missing? Lots and lots of money," Bloomfield says with a laugh. While games like World of Warcraft have multimillion-dollar budgets and teams of programmers, most researchers rely on grants and grad students.

For now, experiments have been repurposed to take place within the commercially successful worlds. And even though this setting is not ideal, several big reports have emerged.

Educators and epidemiologists have published studies on how players react to pandemics in World of Warcraft and the social game Whyville, which markets to young teens. IBM found that team captains in fast-paced fantasy games develop strong leadership skills – talents that the company says are applicable and highly prized in the corporate world.

Bloomfield is combing through data from a virtual stock exchange within Second Life, where avatars buy and sell shares in digital companies, earning in-game currency that is tied to real-life dollars. He's studying how unregulated markets behave. (Early analysis shows that small investors don't fare very well compared with the CEOs of the companies in which they invest – especially companies with heavy concentration of power in one person. The more distributed the control of a company, the better the returns for investors.)