Analyzing the Growth of Virtual Worlds as Scientific Research Tools

Virtual worlds have grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years, and their applications in expressing political messages and building competitive online-based businesses seem to expand with each new release. But what about scholars at universities and think tanks who hope to use virtual worlds and the social microcosms they create as part of serious academic study?

Pixels and Policy has been skeptical about how some news agencies have looked at virtual worlds as pop-sci "fun fact" generators, but for those willing to invest the time and resources in virtual world research, the Metaverse can yield very interesting and useful data on how people interact, work, and manage a second life in the virtual realm. Pixels and Policy takes a look.



Building Up Social Sciences in Synthetic Spaces

Virtual worlds as modifiable simulation tools are finding a foothold in all levels of academia and professional research, and the names and organizations being linked to virtual world research are no longer unknown fringe researchers. This is because the mechanics behind virtual worlds are evolving with emerging technology, and because institutions like the University of Texas are making virtual worlds a research priority instead of a secondary or tertiary concern.

The great visual effects community blog Vizworld has some excellent reporting on just how expansive virtual world-based research has become. Among Vizworld's best points? The emergence of virtual therapy – something we covered a week or so ago – and the potential ethical questions raised as an old discipline adapts to the shifting and nebulous rules of a virtual landscape:

Several psychologists and sociologists view SecondLife as a rare sandbox of human behavior.  The open nature of the system removes several of the restrictions found in online games, allowing more natural interaction between avatars, but also allows people to assume whole new personalities.  The distinctions between the user’s real persona and their chosen avatar has been the subject of many psychological studies and books.

Books like John Suler’s ‘Psychology of Cyberspace’ is a great resource that discusses the observed group dynamics and psychological behaviors monitored inside virtual worlds, and lays out possibilities for psychotherapy and clinical work inworld.

Vizworld writer Randall Hand notes that, disconcertingly, little 'hard' science is conducted in Second Life. This is a legitimate criticism of virtual world research as it stands – the great palaces of research organizations seem to serve as libraries of completed and pending research instead of virtual field labs for virtual experimentation. But as more open-source and behind-the-firewall worlds come about, that paradigm is changing. As it turns out, getting researchers in front of virtual worlds may yield a long-term dividend for applied science.

Putting students and researchers in front of virtual world technology – be it Second Life or something else – creates familiarity, and with familiarity comes the confidence to create ever more refined social and scientific experiments. In time, graduates with research experience in virtual worlds could develop their own virtual worlds – an interactive laboratory of indefinite size and scope, suitable for any number of experiments that real-world limitations may render impossible. UT Dallas made a name for itself building virtual laboratories in Second Life. The future of virtual research will be much more ambitious.

The standards for this kind of in-world research are already being debated in academic circles. A recent conference session over at the New Media Consortium focused on best practices in respecting the privacy of researchers and research subjects in virtual social experiments. The presentation's PowerPoint notes are available at the aforementioned link, and they make for fascinating reading. When universities begin looking at virtual world research in earnest, they'll lean on the best practices developed by forward-thinking organizations like NMC.

Vizworld is also contributing to the collaborative nation from which these best practices and research standards are emerging. Hand brings up some of the limitations of Second Life as a scientific platform, criticisms that could also serve to optimize virtual worlds that hope to bring in major scientific or academic landholders. It even appears Hand recognizes that other developers will almost certainly pick up Second Life's slack:

  • SecondLife doesn’t lend itself to the same geometric design constraints as simulation outputs.  Everything in SL is built from ‘Prims’, while most Visualization and Analysis packages work with raw Triangles.
  • SecondLife also does not lend itself to extremely large models, most models are limited in the few thousand “prims” and not the millions of triangles typically required.
  • SecondLife costs money
  • Putting a simulation result in SecondLife requires that the owner effectively “give up” the dataset, putting it in the world for whatever nefarious means it may come to.

Everything I said in this article could possibly be rendered moot by tools like OpenSim & Second Life Enterprise, as these “Grids” could run in entirely enclosed networks, unavailable for me to access.  So perhaps data analysis and other tools are widely popular and used everyday, but not in a public-facing network where we can see them.

All of these are valid concerns, but if the past has been any indicator, research groups will adapt to the situation either by creating made-to-order virtual research worlds or simply organizing as a consumer group and forcing change within the currently existing virtual world market. As virtual worlds dedicated to providing world-class digital research facilities emerge, they will find buyers in the large think tanks and academic institutions around the world — it's a powerful market force, and one that risk-taking developers will want on their balance sheets.

It seems research innovation, like business innovation, is proceeding at an ever-increasing clip. Once again, virtual worlds supply the fuel.