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Last Updated: Friday, 27 July 2007, 10:57 GMT 11:57 UK
Game worlds show their human side
Game worlds in use in social science lab, Science
Social scientists think virtual worlds could be good laboratories
World of Warcraft and Second Life are proving a boon to social scientists who are using them as virtual laboratories.

Researchers are getting insights into real life by studying what people do in virtual worlds, reveals a review in the journal Science.

It suggests virtual worlds could help scientists studying ideas of government and even concepts of self.

Others are looking at behaviours peculiar to online worlds and how they differ from real life.

Mirror worlds

Online worlds offer great potential to social scientists because they overcome some of the problems these researchers encounter when gathering subjects in the real world, Dr William Bainbridge, head of Human-Centred Computing at the US National Science Foundation, wrote in the journal.

For instance, he wrote, social scientists often face problems finding subjects fast enough or securing funds to carry out the research.

The popularity of online worlds such as Second Life and World of Warcraft meant there was a ready pool of subjects that could be recruited over long periods of time for little cost, he said.

The game worlds also gather huge amounts of data about what players do that could easily be analysed by social scientists, wrote Dr Bainbridge.

Screenshot from Second Life, Linden Lab
Social scientists are already studying interaction in Second Life
The validity of this approach was shown by the fact that early work in online worlds revealed that players exhibit many of the behaviours and social conventions they adhere to in real life.

Many game commentators have noticed that characters and avatars in game worlds keep about the same distance apart as people stand in the real world, suggesting that players act the same way in both.

The differences between online worlds such as Second Life and World of Warcraft were also revealing, said Dr Bainbridge.

In Second Life, participants often only create one alter-ego or avatar and identify closely with it. By contrast most Warcraft players maintain several "alts" and regard them as possessions.

Both could throw light on how people create identities and how they seek to project themselves to others, wrote Dr Bainbridge.

Second Life was proving most popular with social scientists as it let them build their own objects to test the reactions and responses of gamers, he wrote.

The games could let scientists carry out large-scale studies of alternative governmental regimes that would be "next to impossible in society at large," he wrote.

For instance, Dr Bainbridge wrote, the ongoing conflict in World of Warcraft between players of different factions for valuable minerals could be seen as a field experiment in "how individuals can be induced to cooperate in producing public goods".

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