I only become aware of the extensive academic interest in virtual worlds relatively recently, through my Terra Nova experience, and reading Edward Castronova's Synthetic Worlds, R.L. Taylor's Play Between Worlds, and Nick Yee's MMORPG research. Many virtual world researchers were on hand to discuss their work in Singapore. My panel included Henrik Bennetsen, a Stanford researcher who has spent the better part of six months inside Second Life; Aleks Krotoski, a Guardian columnist and University of Surrey PhD candidate who is studying social networks and online social influence; and anthropologist Thomas Malaby, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who is in the midst of writing an ethnography of Linden Lab and its relationship to Second Life. I also met Ted Tschang, a Singapore Management University professor who has conducted some very interesting research into video game development.
The panel went well. It was entitled "Understanding Virtual World Inhabitants", and was described as follows:
As the virtual world landscape matures, industry and academic researchers are developing systematic methods of measuring user behaviors and understanding resident attitudes. This panel explores the value of quantitative and qualitative approaches to such investigations.SoP V co-organizer Dan Hunter led the panel, which was in presentation format with a Q&A at the end. The others gave recaps of their respective research methodologies. I talked about the qualitative and quantitative approaches used by journalists, speaking from my perspective as a Computerworld editor and graduate student conducting media-related research at the Harvard Extension School. My main points: There is some stellar coverage relating to virtual worlds in the popular press and industry publications (I pointed to Wired and the New Yorker's Will Wright interview), but for the most part, journalists are quite limited in terms of the amount of time they can spend conducting research, restrictions relating to length and editorial focus, and problems finding and using quantitative research. Sensationalism, generalization, and poor use of statistical data are problems in many countries. I was able to give several examples from the American, Chinese, and Taiwanese media.
I concluded that the news media will play a major role in shaping the attitudes and understanding of the 90+ percent of the world's population that currently has no concept of social or gaming virtual worlds. I also revealed the results of some database searches I conducted, which support this conclusion: According to LexisNexis Academic, the number of references to "virtual world" or "virtual worlds" in "major US and world publications" (consisting of English-language newspapers and magazines from all parts of the world) has trended as follows, over the last three years:
July 2005: 45 results
July 2006: 81 results
July 2007: 199 results
I also searched Factiva for 虚拟世界 (xu1ni3shi4jie4), the simplified Chinese for "virtual world") in all languages, all companies, and all regions (which indexed results from publications in China, plus a few in Hong Kong and Singapore), and came up with the following numbers:
All of 2004: 271 results
All of 2005: 553 results
All of 2006: 624 results
2007 to June 30: 472 results
Assuming that the higher numbers reflect increased coverage, as opposed to the databases including more news sources, the data indicates that more people are indeed being exposed to virtual world-related concepts through the mass media. It will be interesting to see how their perspectives of virtual worlds and acceptable behavior in these worlds is shaped by what they see in the news in the years to come.
Besides the academics, State of Play V had large legal and industry contingents. The legal focus should come as no surprise, considering the history of the conference and its organizers, which include the Harvard Law School's Berkman Center, Yale Law School, and New York Law School. The industry representation was dominated by people and companies working with social virtual worlds -- Second Life, There.com, HiPihi -- as well as several marketing and consulting firms. I've already talked about There.com on Computerworld, and hope to discuss HiPiHi on a later post here or on my Computerworld blog.
There are also supposed to be "video timecapsules" posted to the SoP V website at some future date. Henrik and I taped an interesting, half-hour discussion about Second Life, emerging software and hardware technologies, and issues relating to media coverage of virtual worlds. I'll post a link when it goes online.
Many thanks to Dan Hunter, Aaron Delwiche, and the staff of Harvard's Berkman Center for making my trip to Singapore possible!