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.


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Turning Words into Pictures: A Pixels and Policy Proposal

Virtual communication allows for all sorts of fun and interesting innovations on the traditional written word. Here's one of my favorites. This is a word cloud that contains the most-used words in Pixels and Policy's recent article, "A Commentary on the Ethical Dilemmas of All-Virtual Workplaces."

Wordle: Virtual Work

Click the thumbnail for a full-sized image.

Not surprisingly, virtual was the most-used word, but honesty and communication also pop up frequently. I'm considering including these word clouds at the top of every article to give readers in a hurry the quick gist of a piece. 

Data and content visualization is an emerging hobby of mine, and I think it makes for a much more interesting reading experience – in addition to providing something that both looks good and offers a bit of content consolidation.

What do you think?

The Future of Pixels and Policy: Expanding and Refocusing on Analytical Research

It's rare a blog gets to say it will be reducing its publication rate due to an excess of success, but I'm proud to say this is the case for Pixels and Policy.

As readers know, I recently took up the position of Editorial Coordinator for the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research. This position, though demanding, is a great privilege and a chance to help publicize some of the best virtual worlds research out there. It's published work from a wide range of professionals including Robert Bloomfield of Metanomics, Garrison LeMasters, Edward Castronova, and Dor Abrahamson.

I love the work and feel it will result in a much better product coming from Pixels and Policy, both in the form of guest pieces from established researchers and in the form of a renewed look at our analytical style and focus. Since its inception, Pixels and Policy has been about innovation and staying ahead of the curve. I intend to keep the blog fresh and novel with periodic facelifts and new features.

What readers may not know is that the success of Pixels and Policy's research and engaging articles goes well beyond features in the BBC's Magazine Monitor, Foreign Policy in Focus, Truthout, and other news and research organizations. Pixels and Policy's unique approach to analyzing how virtual worlds are affecting our real-world public policy and international relations was integral in my application packet to The George Washington University's prestigious School of Media and Public Affairs.

I'm proud to say The George Washington University sees as much potential in Pixels and Policy and the role of new media in setting policy agendas as I do. I'll be joining their fantastic team both as a student in the Media and Public Affairs program and as a research assistant to a professor and long-time advocate of the role of media's influence – both old and new forms – on the international relations scene. 

This offers unique opportunities for Pixels and Policy, but it does come at a cost. As a result of my work both with The George Washington University and the Journal of Virtual World Studies, in addition to other concerns, I've decided the best course of action is to scale Pixels and Policy back to publication three times per week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday instead of our current six times per week. This will provide the time necessary to write deeper, more analytical pieces that do justice to the blog's original mission of shedding light on the growing importance of virtual worlds and digital communication in the business and policy spheres.

Pixels and Policy isn't going away. In fact, it's in a stronger position than ever to bring together a wide range of industry and academic voices. This is already underway, with recent guest pieces by everyone from virtual world entrepreneurs Ariella Furman, Pooky Amsterdam and Gary Arthur Douglas II to planned pieces from educators making use of virtual world technology to bridge the achievement gap in troubled schools. Pixels and Policy will even be adding a new regular columnist and a junior researcher, finally allowing me to use the royal "we" that is the symbol of so much P&P controversy.

I look forward to continuing this journey with you, and as always, I invite your questions or comments. Feel free to leave them in the comments section of the blog, or shoot an e-mail directly to me at I'd love to hear your thoughts about the downshift in publication frequency.

Video: Your Thoughts On Our Appearance on Tonight Live with Paisley Beebe

Pixels and Policy would like to thank Paisley Beebe and everyone involved in the production of Tonight Live for the great interview we had on Sunday, February 28th. Paisley asked some great questions about the evolution of virtual currency and its importance to the real-world economy, and we even got a chance to give due credit to the virtual currency work of Jon Matonis over at The Monetary Future.

Below you'll find the recording of the show, courtesy of Would love to hear your thoughts, and we'll be putting up some further analysis a little later in the week! Thanks to everyone who came out to see us and for all the great commentary we've received via e-mail and Twitter!

Stanford’s Avatar Study: Sexualized Female Avatars Increase Rape Myth Acceptance in Players

Yesterday we discussed the potential business applications of Stanford's recent study on avatars and their real-world impact on player behaviors. Companies, we argued, can take advantage of a player's tendency to mimic the behaviors of their avatar by pumping effort into making avatars look more like their real-life counterparts.

Stanford's study also addressed another, more serious matter: In some circumstances, the appearance of avatars in a virtual space can affect how we assess real-world situations. The bad news? It isn't all fun and games, especially when it comes to super-sexualized female avatars like those in World of Warcraft and other online games.

Pixels and Policy takes a look at why avatars change the way we view the real world, and the potential problems super-sexualization creates in both the real and virtual spheres.

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Stanford Study: Avatars Have a Big Impact on Our Real-World Decisions (Pt. 1 of 2)

One of the most interesting areas of study in virtual worlds has to do not with what we bring into the environment, but how an entirely virtual ecosystem changes the real-world player. Stanford University has been doing some very interesting research on the subject, and one of their most recent findings has the mainstream media paying attention.

According to research recently released by the Stanford University Virtual Human Interaction Lab, one of the leading virtual world research facilities in the country, players can be heavily influenced by what their avatar is doing.

Today we look at the first in a two-part breakdown of Stanford's most recent study. Today's article focuses on the potential business implications of the VHIL's findings. Saturday we'll take a look at what these findings tell us about the sociology and psychology of gamers and their avatars.

Continue reading Stanford Study: Avatars Have a Big Impact on Our Real-World Decisions (Pt. 1 of 2)

Looking Deeper: Should We Preserve Important Content from Virtual Worlds?

Virtual worlds are drawing in millions of new users, many of whom have no connection to their adopted world's original launch.

Is it worth the effort to preserve the history of virtual worlds for those who arrive late?

The Metaverse is an ethereal
beast, with entire worlds flitting in and out of existence. Pixels and
Policy looks at whether developers should make an effort to preserve
especially important constructions for the historical record.

Assessing the Value of Virtual Creations

the virtual world is so liquid and content creation is a persistent
part of worlds like Second Life and others, many displays of
cyberculture exist only in the collective memory. Late arrivals to the
virtual landscape would have to do extensive research to uncover
evidence of major events, buildings, and community gatherings from the
early days of a virtual world.

Wagner James Au chronicled the major debate about the role of expression and speech in the virtual world
that came to a head in Second Life's Jessie region. It was here that
users squared off with virtual weapons and constructed a massive wall
that came to symbolize the tension of the early grid. Now the majority
of the region is gone, and virtual historians are left with little to
work with.

Continue reading Looking Deeper: Should We Preserve Important Content from Virtual Worlds?

Pixels and Policy Joins the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research Editorial Team!


Building and Rebuilding an Idea

Between the unsolicited article submissions we receive, our current backlog of guest bloggers, and the work Pixels and Policy puts into providing thought-provoking and useful information about the interplay of virtual worlds and our daily lives, we've had precious little time to sit down and take everything in. 

Pixels and Policy is rapidly outgrowing its original site layout – we've already updated and upgraded once to deal with traffic and content management issues – but we continue to provide the kind of research and analysis that finds interested readers at organizations like The Markle Foundation and Congressional Quarterly's Homeland Security newsletter.

That said, it comes as a serendipitous surprise to announce that Pixels and Policy will be partnering with the Virtual Worlds Institute, publisher of the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research.  

The great team over at JVWR is headed by Jeremiah Spence, a great academic mind and the Editor of the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research. Jeremiah's great journal has published forward-thinking work by everyone from Metanomics' Robert Bloomfield to Indiana University virtual world researcher Edward Castronova. Its editorial team carts out great thinkers and writers like NOAA's Eric Hackathorn (Hackshaven Hartford) and Garrison LeMasters of Georgetown University. Now we're proud to say Pixels and Policy joins this great group of individuals.

Our partnership with the Virtual Worlds Institute will result in a better experience for Pixels and Policy readers. Not only will our content be migrating to a larger server with better features, you can also expect another – even better – website redesign coming in the future. Pixels and Policy Editor Max Burns will also be joining the staff of the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research as Editorial Coordinator in the coming weeks, expanding Pixels and Policy's initial mission even more.

Pixels and Policy has always been about exploring how virtual worlds are changing the way we conduct public discourse, formulate public policy, and live our daily lives. By partnering with the Virtual Worlds Institute, Pixels and Policy gains access to the resources necessary to dig even deeper into stories and events that often go overlooked in the mainstream media. 

We hope you'll check out the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research and its top-tier writing, as well as staying tuned to the improvements and changes we have in store for Pixels and Policy. Thanks again for keeping us running these first six months.

Could Standardizing Virtual Worlds Turn Off Consumers?

3059934552_c9b5be27d9 One of the major impediments to widespread use of virtual worlds is standardization. What virtual worlds need for mainstream success, the theory goes, is unification across platforms.

One article argues that this means the ability to carry one avatar between worlds.

Pixels and Policy takes a look at why consumers may not stomach the shift.

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Study Shows Virtual Therapy Outperforms Real-World Shrinks


Could virtual worlds be used to provide therapy to those who lack access to a real-world practitioner?

That's the premise of a recent article outlining the multiple ways virtual worlds could provide essential mental health services to more patients than ever before. But what about the possible caveats of virtual head-games?

Pixels and Policy takes a look at the compelling academic studies of just how effective virtual world psychotherapy really is. 

Continue reading Study Shows Virtual Therapy Outperforms Real-World Shrinks