A group of virtual world advocates say "yes." They just can't prove it yet.
"Character rancor is much different on blogs, Twitter, (and so on)...It can get very petty," Jaron Lanier, scholar in residence at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology at the University of California, Berkeley, said here Wednesday at the AlwaysOn technology conference.
"In Second Life, it's almost more like theater," Lanier said. "I don't see people getting into petty interpersonal knots with each other. But this is anecdotal."
His theory is that people behave better in virtual worlds because they can be economically tied to their property, for example, and as he described it, they have "more to lose if they're creepy." Lanier's other theory is that seeing people, even in the form of an avatar, evokes empathy.
Lanier, a pioneer of virtual world technology who coined the term "virtual reality," acknowledges he's biased. In the 1980s, he founded VPL Research, the first company to sell virtual reality products; its patents were acquired by Sun Microsystems in 1999. His most recent venture, animation software company Eyematic Interfaces, was bought by Google. And he's an adviser to Linden Lab, creator of the popular virtual world Second Life.
Lanier played host to a panel at Stanford University that included Philip Rosedale, CEO of Linden Lab; Irving Wladawsky-Berger, vice president at IBM; and Chris Melissinos, chief gaming officer at Sun. To be sure, all of the panelists have a stake in seeing virtual worlds take off more widely with Internet users, corporations and advertisers, so that they can become viable economic engines. A major factor in that growth will be in showing the intangible benefits of virtual worlds, such as fostering human relationships that are more polite than say, anonymous posts in Internet forums, according to the panelists.
"We've studied this," Rosedale said. "We have forums and we watch them fight in forums and then see them be civil to each other in Second Life."
Wladawsky-Berger backed up this notion by saying that virtual worlds present information technology in a much more human way. "As a result, we'll be able to do a tremendous amount more. Enterprise resource planning will be reinvented for virtual worlds," he said, giving the example that hospitals could manage their operations in a virtual world in a way looks more like their hospital.
IBM has 5,000 employees in Second Life, and according to Wladawsky-Berger, "virtual worlds are a godsend for meetings." He said that IBM has a code of conduct for staff in Second Life that they need to "be nice" and dress their avatars "appropriately" in meetings. But when among friends in the virtual world, they can do whatever they like, he said.
"Training and meetings are the killer apps of virtual worlds. Don't underestimate any technologies that help us do those things in a more human way," Wladawsky-Berger said.
Lanier joked that IBM staff "can't help it that they compulsively go to meetings."
Rosedale admitted that Second Life is just barely getting off the ground. "It's still hard to use 3D, the interface is still awkward," he said. Despite this, Second Life is growing rapidly, with 30 percent of its residents from the United States, the bulk from Europe and a growing number signing up from Japan, he said.
Second Life is about 250 square miles in digital atoms, or five times the size of San Francisco, he said. And it has about 830 residents who make more than $1,000 a month in the virtual world. The economy in SL, he said, is about 100 percent larger than it was six months ago. And that might be buoyed by the launch of new voice technology next month.
"We're going to close the world much more rapidly using these technologies than with the Web," he said.
To hammer home his point, Lanier then added: "Civility is killer app of virtual worlds."