“A whole new world/A new fantastic point of view/No one to tell us no or where to go/Or say we’re only dreaming…” – “A Whole New World” – music from Disney’s Aladdin

The recent rise of virtual words like Second Life and massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft and EverQuest has given researchers new insights into human behavior. In addition to giving role playing and fantasy enthusiasts a place to fight orcs, these virtual worlds often put human social behavior under the microscope with an unprecedented level of transparency. Although the worlds may be virtual, the human behavior exhibited online can have real implications and lessons for the rest of us.

There are several examples of how virtual worlds can help scientists learn more about human social behavior, in a variety of fields:

  • Epidemiology: In 2007, the virtual world World of Warcraft experienced a terrible disease outbreak. The incurable “corrupted blood disease” killed thousands of characters. Epidemiologists watched this episode with interest, as this unsimulated outbreak of a virtual disease showed a realistic example of how people might behave in real life when faced with a deadly epidemic. For example, some players tried to flee the city to avoid the disease, other players acted with altruism to try to help other characters (even if that meant putting themselves at risk) and other players deliberately tried to infect others. While skeptics might say, “It’s only a game,” researchers who studied the outbreak noted that the online gamers took the disease very seriously. Professor Nina Fefferman from Tufts University noted that “The players seemed to feel they were really at risk.” Although there are limitations to using a virtual world to model human behavior in a disease outbreak – some people might behave more recklessly or act more anti-socially in a virtual world than they would in real life – most researchers believe that these limitations can be controlled and accounted for. Dr. Gary Smith of the University of Pennsylvania said that studying human behavior in virtual worlds might represent an “opportunity for study that we might not otherwise have.”
  • Economics: In 2007, a virtual investment bank on Second Life known as Ginko Financial went virtually bankrupt – wiping out $750,000 of real-world money along with it. Economics researchers have used this story as a case study of the kinds of consequences that can occur in an unregulated financial market. Ginko Financial was a “bank” that attracted deposits of Second Life’s currency, “Linden dollars” (worth approximately 250 Linden dollar to 1 U.S. dollar). Ginko Financial was promising investors 40% interest rates (and demanding similarly high rates on loans), and finally succumbed to a “bank run” when panicked investors tried to withdraw their money (and Ginko Financial didn’t have enough cash in reserve to pay up). Second Life is a valuable “test platform” to study real-life economic behavior because players in Second Life can operate as entrepreneurs, using virtual tools and resources to create businesses, buildings, and sell products and services. The “free market” of Second Life has given economists some interesting examples of how people behave in a free market economy – without the costly consequences of real-life business failures.
  • Social interactions: Researchers have found that certain attributes of avatars on Second Life can correspond to certain personal behaviors. For example, avatars that are more attractive are more likely to be outgoing, friendly and revealing about themselves. People with taller avatars are more likely to be aggressive negotiators. Just as in real life, people tend to be more confident depending on their personal appearance – even if their “person” is just an avatar. We’ve written before about how virtual worlds like World of Warcraft are often focused on relationship-building and teamwork – allying with other players to create “guilds” to work toward common goals. Social interactions online can be just as “real” as in real-life.
  • Psychiatry: Peter Yellowlees, a psychiatry professor at the University of California, has used Second Life to make online videos that simulate schizophrenic hallucinations (based on interviews with schizophrenic patients) to help people have a better understanding of what it is like to have schizophrenia.

Although virtual worlds will always be different, to some degree, from “real life,” there are still several important lessons and insights that can be gained from studying human behavior online. When people are given an online environment to interact in, their behavior and interactions are not so different from what we might expect in real life.

Virtual worlds can be used to study, measure and model human behavior based on various factors that might not be able to be created in a real-life experiment. In this way, virtual worlds are helping us all to understand a bit more about what makes us human – and how we can make a better “real-life” world for us all.

About Ike Singh

Ike Singh Kehal is a seasoned business professional with 15+ years of marketing, sales, and business development experience. His latest company, Social27 was founded in 2007 to take advantage of the growing need for social media and game dynamics integration in virtual events. Prior to starting Social27, Ike drove numerous startup projects, including Indiabulls Retail, where he was CEO. Previously, he held various business strategy positions at Microsoft, spread over a seven-year period. Ike is a committed member of the virtual events community and contributes regularly to the discussion at http://www.virtualeventshub.com

Join the conversation. Agree with me? Good. Disagree? Even Better! Tell me why…

How does your organization use virtual worlds for training, product development, market research, or connecting with customers? What is it about the virtual world environment that creates such a rich array of human behavior?


One Response to What Virtual Worlds Tell Us About Human Social Behavior

  1. Ginko FInancial and many other so called Second Life “banks” disappeared in 2007-2008. I lost a lot of Lindens back then which equaled a lot of lost US$ for me too.

    Fortunately, things are more stable within Second Life these days, although people always have to be aware of scams. I took over a stock market simulation game within Second Life in January 2011, and have been trying to bring back Second Life finance. We now have 50 virtual companies listed on the exchange, and we’re growing every month. We average between L$8,000,000-L$10,000,000 in monthly trading activity, which isn’t much compared to the “wild west” banking days, but it’s a respectful start. We don’t promise any rate of return and do not pay interest on ATM deposits. Because of this, the exchange is much more stable (and profitable) than the old Second Life banks.

    Thanks for the article.

    Skip Oceanlane
    CEO and Majority Shareholder
    Capital Exchange

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