Researching 'virtual' worlds to learn more about the 'real'
|From the issue dated September 30, 2005|
The Avatars of Research
Students and professors join popular virtual worlds like Second Life to study the real-world interactions they represent
At a recent instructional workshop at Elon University, a group of eight professors and staff members take their first steps in a virtual world called Second Life. Seated around computers, they tap their keyboards and move their mice so that their online characters walk around a virtual swimming pool.
The digital scene looks like a pool party attended by the world's clumsiest guests, as one after another stumbles into the water.
"I'm drowning!" cries Gerald Gibson, an assistant professor of communications, as he watches his online character go down in several feet of water.
"Hit page up and then control-c," advises Karen Marsh-Lovvorn, an instructional technologist at Elon, who led the summer workshop for professors, hoping to entice them to use Second Life in their classes. Mr. Gibson complies, and his character shoots up out of the water and lands poolside.
Though all this online frolicking may seem frivolous, the professors' interest in virtual worlds is strictly professional. These cartoonlike environments -- called massively multiplayer online games -- which can be played from anywhere in the world, have become popular laboratories for scholars to study individual and group behavior or test their entrepreneurial skills. Other virtual worlds studied by researchers include World of Warcraft and Everquest.
Second Life, in particular, has become a magnet for researchers because the world places few constraints on them. And Linden Lab, the San Francisco-based company that created the game two years ago, allows college students and scholars free entry to its make-believe world of 50,000 players worldwide. Other people paid a one-time fee of $10 to explore the world until this month, when Linden Lab announced free entry for everyone. Nonacademics who want to own "land" on which to build such things as virtual homes and entertainment areas must pay $10 a month for the rights. Participants mask their identities, taking on the roles of animated characters, known as avatars. They socialize, build neighborhoods, form groups of friends, and, in some cases, even marry. The connections and tensions that develop among avatars speak volumes about the behavior of people and organizations in real life, which is intriguing to sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists, among other social scientists.
Business professors are interested in Second Life because subscribers create, buy, and sell the colorful characters, costumes, virtual belongings, buildings, and neighborhoods that populate the cyberuniverse. The digital inventions are purchased with a virtual currency called "Linden dollars," which can be exchanged for real money. Indeed, a few people make a living by selling real estate in Second Life for real money. Virtual goods worth an actual $18-million are sold among Second Life participants each year, according to Linden Lab.
"Going up and setting up a business in Second Life is fundamentally not that different from setting up a business in the real world," says Kevin Werbach, an assistant professor of legal studies and business ethics at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. "You have to have a core set of skills in defining an idea, implementing it, selling it, and managing the processes, which is really the essence of being an entrepreneur."
Students, too, are drawn to this new world of research. Jon Maggio, a senior here at Elon, is fascinated by sociology and virtual worlds. So when a sociology professor suggested that he combine his two passions into a research project, he jumped at the opportunity.
Over the summer, Mr. Maggio followed a blog about goings-on in Second Life and was intrigued by what he read: Participants in the community strive for social acceptance, hire private investigators to spy on virtual spouses, hurl harassment charges at each other, and debate whether a virtual marriage ceremony performed by a minister's avatar is -- well, real. In one scandalous case, two virtual characters reportedly developed such a strong connection that their human operators ditched their respective spouses and moved in together.
"There's so much here," says Mr. Maggio. "I could spend the rest of my life studying this thing."
He originally planned to center his sociology research project on Second Life. But he has recently expanded it to include two more popular virtual environments -- World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy 11, which are more action-oriented than Second Life and offer the chance to slay dragons and monsters.
Mr. Maggio's research focuses on the intersection between virtual and real worlds, more specifically on the potential for abuse in the buying and selling of digital objects. Some allege that entrepreneurs have set up small offices crammed with computers where workers in developing countries, such as China, spend all day in virtual worlds in order to create and acquire the digital goods therein, which their bosses then trade for real money on sites like eBay. The bosses take most of the money and pay the workers less than a dollar an hour, according to reports, including a February column by Tom Loftus on msnbc.com.
Eventually Mr. Maggio plans to do graduate work in the budding field of cyberculture studies, studying the sociological aspects of virtual worlds.
He was introduced to Second Life by some students of Megan S. Conklin, an assistant professor of computer science at Elon, who is a self-described campus "evangelist" for Second Life.
She has asked her students to use the virtual community as a laboratory to explore issues concerning marriage, gender identity, social status, religion, and monetary policy, among other topics.
"I can get my students to understand in five minutes what I would normally have to lecture about for five hours," Ms. Conklin tells her colleagues at the Second Life workshop, which she leads along with Ms. Marsh-Lovvorn.
Ms. Conklin shows the Elon professors her avatar, named Professor Radiks. Dressed in a Victorian-era bustle and wide-brimmed hat, she moves around online amid the professors' avatars. These include Tatsui, a woman in a skintight red outfit; Liniope, a large, muscular man with a creepy gaze; and Ms. Marsh-Lovvorn's own avatar, Echinacea. (A gardener, the technologist named her characters after herbs.) The character looks like its creator, dressed in a purple shirt and black sweater-and-pants set, the same outfit worn by Ms. Marsh-Lovvorn during the workshop.
Computer scientists are not the only scholars making use of Second Life.
Architecture students at the University of Texas at Austin and at the University of California at Berkeley have used Second Life to create virtual buildings and public spaces to see what they might be like to inhabit. At the Wharton School, students are interested in testing their entrepreneurial and marketing techniques by setting up businesses in Second Life to bring in virtual cash.
Aaron Delwiche, an assistant professor of communication at Trinity University in San Antonio, had his students use Second Life in the spring of 2004 to study game design. They took advantage of object-creating tools in the virtual world to develop games that could familiarize new players with the software. Mr. Delwiche also had an expert on virtual worlds who lives in Copenhagen deliver a guest lecture to his class remotely, using the Second Life environment.
This month Linden Lab announced to Second Life participants that students from eight colleges would roam the virtual world during the fall semester. The students are enrolled in architecture, computer science, international business, sociology, and urban-planning courses, among others. In each class, the last name of the students' avatars is the same, so other avatars can easily spot which players are doing research.
Participants in Second Life don't always take kindly to being the subject of researchers' fascination, however. Some have complained that students are coy about their research or ask repetitive and inane questions.
Students in Ms. Conklin's class, all of whom are known in Second Life by the surname Radiks, were taken aback by some of the angry messages they received.
"I'm afraid I've had just about enough of these questions from Radiks," one avatar wrote in an online forum. "I'm not some kind of strange subject, here to be analyzed and questioned and interviewed and watched and photographed for a scientific or anthropological study at whatever rubbish uni they're from. I'm a person and I'm sick of this."
Ms. Conklin defended her students in the same online forum, saying they were abiding by Second Life's research-ethics policy, which requires researchers to identify themselves and to get the permission of a participant before publishing his or her comments.
Linden Lab never anticipated that its environment would be widely used by college students, says Robin D. Harper, vice president for community development. But once professors began encouraging students to explore the online community, company executives put policies in place to entice college classes to the site.
Before the company began offering free access to Second Life this month, only students and professors in a class could explore the virtual world at no charge. Each class gets a parcel of virtual land on which to build housing, public parks, or casinos, for example, to test students' design skills and to attract other participants. For classroom use, the company waives its monthly "maintenance fee" of $25 for one acre. After the course ends, students can keep their avatars and continue using Second Life free.
Linden Lab has found that students and professors give the company useful advice on how to improve the virtual world, says Ms. Harper. Three years ago students in a class in architecture and urban planning at the University of Texas at Austin recommended that the company allow Second Life participants to join multiple groups in order to create closer social networks. The advice was taken.
"The challenge is for new teachers, who aren't that familiar with Second Life," to find the tools to create things, says Ms. Harper. "So our focus is more on helping them locate the resources they need."
Ms. Marsh-Lovvorn assumes that role at Elon. During the workshop, she shows the professors that by clicking on the "edit" and "appearance" menus in Second Life, they can modify their avatars' bodies, facial features, or race. They can make themselves as ordinary or freakish as they want, giving themselves oversize heads, long torsos, or fluorescent eyes. One character, Araiya Bomazi, appears to be part-human, part-squirrel.
Mr. Gibson, the communications professor, decided to change the gender of his avatar. "I'm tired of being in touch with my feminine side," he declared.
Ms. Conklin also presents the professors with a list of possible assignments for their students. Among them: Interview Second Life participants to determine why the avatars have a certain appearance or dress; investigate how the community's economy works; and discuss whether class hierarchies have emerged, and if so, how they work.
Ms. Conklin's students were able to experience firsthand the effects of tinkering with Second Life's internal economy.
In a popular activity within the community, participants spend Linden dollars to rate other avatars on their appearance and behavior, an activity that determines avatars' social status. (All Second Life participants are given a small sum of Linden dollars upon entering the world.)
In the middle of Ms. Conklin's three-week course in the winter term, Linden Lab raised the cost of rating an avatar from one to 25 Linden dollars, in order to tighten the money supply. "Some economics students immediately were able to start doing graphs and thinking about supply and demand and talking about monetary-policy issues," said Ms. Conklin. "It was really great."
Along with their online explorations, Ms. Conklin's students viewed the movie The Matrix and read Snow Crash, a 1992 science-fiction novel by Neal Stephenson that explores an alternative social world in cyberspace. (The avatars' surname, Radiks, is a reference to Radikal Kourier Systems, a company in the book.)
Second Life mimics much of what goes on in real life, but not everything. A player can change night to day at any time, an upheaval that registers only on his or her own computer screen. And Ms. Marsh-Lovvorn shows the professors that by clicking on the "fly" tab, at the bottom of the screen, they can take off like birds.
The professors do so and soar to Forcythia's Fantasy, a maze of walls, caverns, and greenery that includes animals in a stable, tents in recreation area, and a castle.
Not every professor who has been introduced to Second Life is sold on it as a teaching tool.
Barth Strempek, an associate professor of business administration at Elon, says he is skeptical about using the software to teach business skills. "If I want to teach my students how to sell, I'm not sure this is the right place," he says. "I want them meeting people face to face." He also worries that the virtual environments could cut into young people's outdoor activities, like playing sports.
Ms. Conklin responds that because students are going to play around in virtual worlds anyway, they should be able to think critically about what is happening in the emerging social spaces. When students visit virtual worlds for class, she says, "at least they're doing homework in them."
Section: Information Technology
Volume 52, Issue 6, Page A35