Whither Virtual World Research?
As previously noted, I spent much of Friday and Saturday at the joint State of Play / Terra Nova symposium at the New York Law School. I’m always happy to spend a couple of days talking virtual worlds with a lot of smart people, and the symposium was no disappointment in that regard. Great panels were held on governance, methodologies of study, diversity, taxation and learning, but what was hardly touched on were the putative topics of the meeting: “How did we get here?” and “Where now?” As revealed below, however, there was much to be learned about both those topics at the symposium.
How Did We Get Here?
The opening panel, titled “How Did We Get Here?”, was more of an exercise of “Where are we at?” Ted Castronova, Julian Dibell, Ren Reynolds and Richard Bartle all offered perspectives, but Ren’s was probably most pertinent to the title of the panel. “It assumes that we’ve moved anywhere,” he said, “and I’m not sure that we actually have.” I share his view somehwat, but I’ll save my comments for further down in the post.
Ren speculated there may be little sense of movement because so much of the discourse on Terra Nova is about legal issues, and such questions tend to be determined less by the research community than by action in the courts, which has been slow to materialize. But he was somewhat optimistic about the ability of the community to broaden its range of interests. “What is changing, potentially, is certain discussions about things like the legitimacy of various fields,” he said.
Ren also pointed out the fact that virtual worlds are now reaching into the lives of more people than ever before, especially in the form of social worlds and worlds for young people. Such places have been given somewhat short shrift by the research community recently, which has been more interested in World of Warcraft and other game worlds. “One of the things that has changed is scale,” he said. “The issues have not changed in principle, but the impact has. I think we’re coming to some kind of resolution on these issues becoming more more important. We are getting a larger public policy engagement in what we’re talking about. At the moment that’s probably largely negative and misunderstood, but at least they’re arguing with us.”
“I think the major things we’ve missed are things like Habbo Hotel and the kids. There are really important things going on in the pre-teen and tween communities, stuff like Coke Studios, Disney’s Virtual Magic Kingdom, branding, data mining. This is one of the most massively important things in virtual worlds and we virtually never talk about it.”
The other panelists had less to say about the course the community had taken than about what they were looking for in the immediate future. Richard Bartle simply called for “better games,” Julian Dibbell pondered the meaning of the grind, and Ted Castronova gave a pitch for some of his upcoming work and flagged the cool-sounding Ludium II to be held next year.
Where To Now?
The closing panel, titled “Where To Now?”, featured Dmitri Williams, Greg Lastowka, Tim Burke, Nic Ducheneaut and Gordon Calleja, as well as comments from conference organizer Dan Hunter and others.
The panel illustrated the tensions that are beginning to arise between academic approaches to virtual worlds and approaches that are more “mainstream” or “experiential,” for lack of better words. Several of the panelists called for more and better data on virtual worlds. But Greg Lastowka, for one, thought this was all well and good but that even more value might come from more researchers actually using the things they’re studying. “What I want is cyberlaw professors to experience virtual worlds. They almost have an obligation, because these are such intense examples of all these other things that are going on.”
Similarly, Tim Burke, a historian by training, called for a more empirical approach. “Historians say, things are what they have been and will be what they will be,” he pointed out. Rather than theorizing about how to cause virtual worlds to become something different or more than they are at the moment, more researchers should focus more closely on “what these things have been, what they are and what they plausibly could be,” he said. This speaks directly to the muddying of the waters that arises when players or users seek to make end-runs around the software. It’s not necessarily the job of the research community to find ways to prevent this or to say whether it’s good or bad, but only to look at how it happens, and perhaps shed some light on why.
Whither Virtul World Research?
One of the issues that came up regarding the Terra Nova blog specifically and its associated community was whether or not it was willing or equipped to bring non-game worlds into its ambit at all. This wasn’t really answered at the symposium (it would have been surprising if it had been), but to me these are some of the most important questions facing researchers and chroniclers of virtual worlds. Where does your interest start and end? Are you looking at game worlds only? Are you looking at all virtual worlds as if they were games? (Not all are, a point that some people often miss.) Are you looking at only the mechanics of these places? The social dynamics within them? Their impact on their users? Their relation to the broader culture and what goes on around and outside them? Are you looking at virtual worlds (or some subset of them) as leisure, as a communications medium, as functional platforms not unlike a kind of 3D Web?
What was clear to me was that few of the people present had really answered these questions for themselves. As a journalist, I have the luxury of not really having to answer these questions, but researchers work under stricter conditions than I do. It’s not that the entire research community has to address this as a whole, but unfortunately there is still occasionally the sense that individual biases lead people to disparage research or reportage in other areas, as if their view should be the community’s. I suspect this will die off as the community broadens, though.
And the community will have to broaden. Two examples from the conference illustrate this: First, someone mentioned in the context of privacy that “we make a bad deal” when we put personal information about ourselves onto the Web. I.e., we don’t get the compensation we should for giving away details about ourselves to companies and individuals. But that’s a very narrow interpretation of “compensation,” and the evidence is that younger generations place great value on having their personal information available on the Web. It’s part of how they construct their social networks and their identities, in a way that older people (i.e., those above 25 or so) don’t do as naturally. That’s an important thing to keep in mind when looking at virtual worlds, and if the research community is to grow and stay current, it will have to take this into account.
Second, the contention was made that “the very lack of things in the real world is what drives people online.” Again, I find this an assumption that speaks from a lack of experience of what’s going on among young people, both online and off. The evidence is that time spent online is not eating into offline socializing, but rather taking time away from things like television. And in any case, the Internet isn’t there for nothing: it has become an incredibly useful tool for enriching people’s lives, and one of the ways it does this is through games and virtual worlds. There’s a definite danger in spending too much time online, whether in virtual worlds or elsewhere, but that’s an issue for yet another branch of research.
I think in the end most of this debate comes down to the fact that interest in virtual worlds is growing so fast that a small community that’s grown up around a pioneering blog can no longer adequately contain it. This is both good and bad. It’s great that more people are becoming interested, in part because it’s just one more piece of evidence that these things are not going away, but also because it will add to the richness of the material that’s produced. Better quantitative studies, more experiental work — it’s all good. While there is perhaps a need for people to better differentiate between game worlds and other worlds, there will no doubt be room for all comers.
But as a couple of people pointed out, it would be unfortunate if virtual world studies were to ossify into discrete university departments, hamstrung by the need to compete with each other, publish and gain tenure. Games are fun; studying them should remain so as well. (Another reason I’m glad I’m a journalist.) This is perhaps the biggest challenge the research community faces: how to keep virtual world studies a lively, engaging pursuit.
I’m cautiously optimistic. The exigencies of academia could make for a difficult time, and there remain many questions to be answered, both on an individual level and collectively. That said, there are so many interesting people studying so many interesting things in so fascinating a field that I don’t see how the work that’s produced could become very boring. Stuff like Ted’s Ludium is a great example of how to keep it lively.
Anyway, I’ll shut up now. What do you think?
If you’re interested in some further reading, look at these links (and collections of links):