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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.

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Many skeptics, however, say that results found online don't mean anything in the real world. While virtual worlds are more realistic and immersive than Pong, they are still video games. Motivations and incentives are purposefully skewed to make the experience fun.

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The second consideration is the test subjects themselves, says Danah Boyd, a social-technology expert and doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley. One thing that attracted many researchers was the sheer size of the population. Major national polls consider 1,000 respondents to be sufficient, but Second Life offers 11.7 million avatars that can be scanned for data.

But think about the people behind the avatars, Ms. Boyd says. They are young – on average 26 to 28 years old. They are early adopters. "They are not a random sample of Americans," she says. "When I'm looking at teenagers, I don't speak about senior citizens.... And when you're talking about Second Life, you're not talking about the population at large."

Proponents of online research counter with figures that the audience for today's "massively multiplayer" games mirror the general public far more closely than most other video games. And in hopes of quelling the skeptics, several studies are attempting to see if reality shines through in the online worlds of pixels and pixies.

"If something that we know is true doesn't work in one of these virtual worlds, then we know that there's a problem," says Edward Castronova, a telecommunications professor at Indiana University in Bloomington. He's working to conclusively document principles such as supply and demand in digital worlds.

Other studies look into which human social quirks still turn up when character movement is controlled by mouse clicks.

Before graduating with a PhD from Stanford University last year, Nick Yee found that concepts of personal space from real life have seeped into Second Life.

"There is a well-known rule in the physical world that both personal distance and eye gaze are indicators of intimacy," Mr. Yee says. "So, when you're in an elevator, because you're already so close to people around you, it would be incredibly uncomfortable to look them in the eye unless you were very intimate with them. And so, in an elevator, everyone just tries to look at the blinking numbers."

Yee found the same phenomenon in Second Life. Within a distance of about 12 (virtual) meters, avatars who don't know one another generally look away.

Nothing is conclusive so far, concedes Professor Castronova. But he's certain that with time and funding, major research will emerge from virtual worlds.

"We're building petri dishes for social science," he says. "And if we're able to calibrate this machine correctly, I don't have any doubt that the results will be huge."