Virtual worlds have lessons for the world we live in

Every day, millions of people across Earth interact in computer-simulated environments known as virtual worlds. These worlds let participants project virtual representations of themselves in a real-time computer-generated environment. Virtual worlds are often fun, but they are more than just games and communities. They can help us understand how people behave offline as well as online.

Researchers have already made use of virtual worlds to study human behaviour. In medicine, Eric Lofgren and Nina Fefferman of Tufts University School of Medicine explored the spread of an unintentionally unleashed virtual disease called ‘Corrupted Blood’ across the four million inhabitants of Azeroth, the world of the popular online computer game World of Warcraft. Observing the spread of the 2005 outbreak allowed Lofgren and Fefferman to examine, among other things, the human behavioural responses to the uncontrolled spread of a highly contagious disease.

A group of counter-terrorism experts in the United States, the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies, have expressed interest in studying bioterrorist attacks inflicted on the online population of Azeroth by manic inhabitants. They want to know more about the manner in which these bioterrorists infected themselves purposely with an infectious disease, and mingled in population-dense areas; a virtual suicide bomber, if you like.

Virtual worlds are also useful tools for studying economic phenomena. Many successful virtual worlds have developed sophisticated internal economies, with virtual currencies, role specialisation and trade.

One such world is Norrath, the virtual environment of the online computer game Everquest, founded in 1999. Edward Castronova, of Indiana University, compiled economic statistics on the world of Norrath in 2001, when the world housed around 400,000 regular participants. He calculated an exchange rate between Norrath’s internal currency and the United States dollar. Combining this measure with an estimate of Norrath’s gross national product (GNP), Castronova concluded that GNP per capita of an inhabitant of Norrath was, at 2001 prices, US$2,266, roughly similar to Russia’s per capita GNP. The analysis of Norrath by Castronova illustrates the surprising results that can be achieved by viewing virtual worlds as a serious subject of study.

These are all examples of virtual worlds illuminating specific research questions. At a ‘big picture’ level, different virtual world designs may be a useful way to analysing social and economic systems.

For instance, suppose a researcher wants to test the merits of an unregulated entrepreneurial society respecting private property, and without parliamentary oversight or dictatorial direction. This could conceivably be done in a virtual world with a correspondingly appropriate social and economic design. To borrow a metaphor of the economist Friedrich Hayek, as a gardener tends to his plants, a dedicated researcher could develop a world he believes will cultivate growth.

Alternatively, institutional design in existing virtual worlds can be scrutinised. A recent three-dimensional virtual world, Second Life, was developed by Linden Labs with the intent of being a free market, non-interventionist society. Members of the Second Life society pay real money to acquire virtual land which they can use however they desire. In an interview with The Economist, a founder of Second Life, Philip Rosedale, uses Adam Smith’s invisible hand metaphor to describe the guiding philosophy of Second Life.

The positive (or negative) performance of Second Life over time can supplement more theoretical analysis about how such a society would work. The advantage of studying virtual worlds is the opportunity to observe real human behaviour.

Virtual worlds could satisfy the research interests of a polymath, including medical issues, national security, economic phenomena and sociology. As participation in virtual communities increases over time, so will the attention given to events in, and the design of, those environments.

Callum Jones is a Perth-based economist. This piece is based on an article in Policy Magazine, published by the Centre for Independent Studies.