MIT's Technology Review recently published an article on a $250,000 research project at Indiana University. The project was designed to create an online virtual world in which researchers could
test economic theories: by manipulating the rules of the game, [Indiana University professor Edward Castranova] hoped to find insights into the way that money works in the real world. Players can enter the game and explore a town called Ilminster, where they encounter characters from Shakespeare, along with many plots and quotations. They can answer trivia questions to improve their characters and play card games with other players. Coming from Castronova, a pioneer in the field, the game was expected by many to show the power of virtual-world-based research.
Unfortunately, according to Castranova,
"It's no fun." While focusing on including references to the [William Shakespear] he says, his team ended up sidelining some of the fundamental features of a game. "You need puzzles and monsters," he says, "or people won't want to play ... Since what I really need is a world with lots of players in it for me to run experiments on, I decided I needed a completely different approach."
Since the gameplay isn't engaging, it's of no value as a research tool either. Ideally, a World of Warcraft-style online game could attract many players and provide a testbed for a variety of theories. In fact, researchers at Tufts are looking at a 2005 virtual virus outbreak from WOW as an epidemiological model and are exploring ways "to run experiments that would be impossible or unethical to run in any other way."
While Castranova's research was unsuccessful in terms of his initial goals, it did point to future research. As he put it,
Social sciences need to be able to do controlled experiments, such as those done in the natural sciences, he says, and virtual worlds could be a good venue for that..."A virtual world is a tool like a petri dish," he says. "We need to find out what you can do with a petri dish, and what kinds of things need a live rabbit."