November 28, 2005

Academics Experimenting With Virtual Worlds

"Virtual Worlds" started out as bare-bones text-based fantasy environments or MUDs ("Multi-User Dungeons") populated by a few geekish techies, but have come a long way. As they have developed in complexity and support from entrepreneurs and commercial game companies, they've attracted an increasing following from those unable to tell a string of pearls from a script of perl. Increasingly, the attention is coming from academic scholars in the fields of law and economics.

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Edward Castronova, an economics professor at Indiana University, has written several articles on the synthetic economies that emerged from MMORPGs such as EverQuest. Edward Castronova - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. His 2001 article on the synthetic economy of the virtual world of Norrath, SSRN-Virtual Worlds: A First-Hand Account of Market and Society on the Cyberian Frontier by Edward Castronova (2001), has been downloaded over 32 thousand times and examines an economy that he estimates to be larger than the GNP of Bulgaria, despite its totally virtual existence.

Robert Shapiro, Undersecretary of Commerce in President Clinton's administration, in 2003 wrote for Slate how he was impressed by the fascination of economists with such virtual worlds and with the apparent lack of need for a powerful government in the development of Norrath Fantasy Economics - Why economists are obsessed with online role-playing games. By Robert Shapiro (Slate 2003).

Second Life is one of the leading platforms for a these Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game or "MMORPG" - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Since June of 2005, its population has grown from some 30,000 "citizens" to 90,000 as of this posting. Unlike other MMORPGs, Second Life has opened its platform up to citizen creation, enabling its citizens to design and create a visually rich environment and to "own" their own individual village-sized parcels of virtual "land."

This freedom has also led to increased creativity in the more ugly aspects of freedom ... harassment, abuse and land grabs, leading to and virtual warfare between adjoining virtual territories with conflicting interests. Which have been followed by a growing "third estate" of journalists and bloggers dedicated to following the self-organization in Second Life. See, e.g., The Second Life Herald: Essay: A History of the Second Jessie War (Sep. 17, 2004). Some of these have addressed the ongoing controversy between those adamantly opposed to group organization and those finding it an essential response to "griefers." Gwyneth Llewelyn: "Roots of Self-Organization Are Grafting in SL" (June 15, 2005).

Virtual worlds are now turning up as topics of serious university courses, with syllabi like those discussed at Terra Nova: Virtual Worlds 101: Draft Syllabus (Aug. 26, 2004).

Providing grist for thought leaders like Yale Law's Jack Belkin "Virtual Liberty: Freedom to Design and Freedom to Play in Virtual Worlds (90 Va.L.Rev. 2043, Dec. 2004).

They are spurring entrepreneurs to experiment with virtual investment banks and stock exchanges. Terra Nova: After currency (August 2, 2004).

Internet Week brings us more up to date with a look at the creation of Democracy Island in Second Life, as a project of NYU Law's Institute for Information Law and Policy. InternetWeek | Online Virtual World Is Part Fantasy, Part Civics Experiment. (Nov. 8, 2005)

I suspect that we're just beginning to scratch the surface of the potential of complex virtual worlds as experimental laboratories for law and economics scholars, especially as they become large and complex enough to more closely simulate the real complexities of large human interaction systems.

Posted by dougsimpson at November 28, 2005 01:31 PM