Virtual World Research, Part 1: A Place to Experiment

Universities and government agencies are conducting all kinds of research, both scientific and sociological, in virtual worlds — but is this merely a newfangled boondoggle or is the research really real?

“My general perspective is that virtual worlds are at least as real as many parts of the so-called real world,” William Sims Bainbridge, program director in human-centered computing at the National Science Foundation (NSF), told LinuxInsider. “Is religion ‘real?’ Is music ‘real?’ Is the stock market ‘real?’ These institutions are real only because many people take them seriously. They are socially and culturally constructed, rather than being innately real.”

In the Heat of the Meet

To bring his point to a fine head, Bainbridge recently conducted a scientific conference in a game world to discuss research in game worlds. Certainly it was the ultimate of demonstrations, virtually speaking. The conference was the first ever held in “World of Warcraft” (“WoW”) and it had its upsides: None of the scientists had to physically travel and none had to buy any additional hardware. But it also had its downsides: Not everyone was familiar with the game; newbie levels limited access to key meeting places in the game world; in-game chat communications require a minimum typing speed of 50wpm; and, newbies are the natural diet for any number of monsters in the game.

Several attendees met their deaths, as in plural, on the way to the various conference dinners, events and meeting places. A few gave up after one or more resurrections. All of the near-300 attendees ended up “dead” at the end of the conference. The recently deceased lauded the success of the entire operation.

Mirror, Mirror, Where Did Your Ethics Go?

While the allure of a game world is attractive in itself, the research conducted in virtual worlds is the end-goal of the play.

“Key advantages to virtual world experimentation include the ability to conduct research on sensitive issues including ethical and even racial dilemmas,” Aimee M. Roberts, analyst of digital media at Frost & Sullivan, told LinuxInsider. “Additionally, due to the nature of virtual worlds, experiments can be conducted with greater flexibility than those conducted in the real world.”

Scenarios presented in virtual worlds mimic real life scenarios that provide researchers the opportunity to gain insight into real-world responses as well as human behavior, Roberts said.

Experiments, including modern adaptations of the ethically controversial 1960s psychological experiment conducted by Stanley Milgram, provided confirmation of previous results. The test asks subjects to administer shocks of increasing voltage to an individual who incorrectly recalls a series of word pairs. With each incorrect recollection, voltage would be increased. In Milgram’s tests, the person being “shocked” was in no pain and only acted out the suffering. But the person administering the shocks didn’t know that.

“Results in the virtual world were just as startling as in the real world,” says Roberts. The study’s conclusion: Test subjects made no distinction between real and virtual tortured victims.

Getting Real in Second Life

Second Life is a popular virtual world for creating a wide variety of scenarios for an incalculable number of uses. Children’s Memorial hospital in Chicago, for example, has built a three-dimensional hospital, complete with the exact streets and scenery of Lincoln Park, to practice mock emergency drills for real-life responses. This would be nearly impossible for the hospital safety and emergency staff to simulate in real life and the virtual model allows for unlimited possible scenarios at a very low cost to help with future emergency planning.

WaterPartners International, a nonprofit that provides safe drinking water and sanitation to developing countries, used Second Life to host a virtual World Water Day concert to help raise awareness about this world issue.

Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine uses Second Life to give its students more practice time to communicate with mock patients with its virtual dental patient, Masha.

The Cost of Character

There’s nothing virtual about real dollar costs — in either world. Turns out, though, that going virtual is the same as going on the cheap. For example of the savings: Virtual worlds cut out all need for real-being travel and related expenses, and no one gets sued if the test subject dies. Virtual worlds also cut the construct of custom environments to the cost of a few hours of a coder’s time, and if an existing game world will suffice, there may not even be an admissions fee. Certainly there are no costly regulations to meet.

The creators of Second Life have enabled residents to do virtually anything which has ultimately led to a low-cost way to experiment in a virtual setting. “While we do work with educators and researchers to help them get the most out of their Second Life presence, they don’t need our permission to conduct research as long as they do so in a way that is respectful of our community standards,” John Lester, operations director at Linden Lab, the creators of Second Life. Lester is known as “Pathfinder Linden” in-world.

The experiments are easy to set up in Second Life, speaking in terms of code, of course. “Second Life provides an open platform for creativity and experimentation. That makes it very popular with academics, who use it to research everything from urban planning to computer science to psychology,” explains Lester.

Bainbridge’s conference cost attendees a mere US$15 to attend, though Bainbridge himself spent hours constructing the venue to his liking — but that was as much due to his love of the game as it was to the needs of the conference itself.

It all raises the question: When a game comes to life, is life still a game? Who knows these days, but the stakes are sure real.

Virtual World Research, Part 2: Reality in a Can

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