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The Centre for the Study of Synthetic Worlds held its inaugural conference or Ludium in Indiana from Sept 29 to October 1 2005.
As a result of the conference, the Arden Institute for Virtual World Research has been formed, to explore synthetic worlds technology and "use it to build synthetic worlds for public interest purposes of research and education."
The conference was called 'Ludium' because it "inaugurate[d] a new form of academic conference...[which]... collects experts in a field and embeds them in a dynamic game of information exchange.... While similar to workshops and charettes in form (for example, by breaking participants into groups), a ludium differs in that it actively deploys game design to motivate participant behavior. Most especially, a ludium recognizes no boundary between play and work, but rather mingles the two so thoroughly that productivity and entertainment become equally significant outcomes of the process."
The Ludium was attended by several of the big names in synthetic worlds - eg Edward Castronovo and Cory Ondreika ("co-creator of Second Life") - and a Mr Dick O'Neill from the US Department of Defense.
But it's still all about big business. The blurb for the confrence says that it will produce: "path-breaking ideas ... that will lead to significant policy and cultural changes as well as extremely lucrative intellectual property". Sponsors appear to include Eli Lilly and Microsoft - at least, their logos are on the site.
There is now a report on the Ludium (24 MB, 150 pages with graphics). I haven't had time to read it in detail. Participants developed five threads or games:
Ghost Pirates: A Virtual Overlay of the University Campus
Evolutionary Psychology Theories of Female Play
Disasterville: Communities in Extreme Conditions
The Virtual Research Foundation
Island of the Lost Survivor: Online Reality as Experimental Test-Bed
and generated ten additional ideas for research uses of games, including:
- Determining the Validity of Eyewitness Testimony
- Studying the Economics of Charity
- Fraud Insurance
- Testing Democracy
(You might argue that Second Life is going through the latter stage at the moment, given the "Impeach Bush" saga, but that's another story...)
You can also download a 28 page .pdf about the Arden Institute, an initiative by Prof Castronova. The basic idea seems to be that social scientists can use virtual worlds to perform the sort of 'experiments' which until now have not been possible in the 'soft sciences' ("Until now, all a social scientist could do was pure theory, small experiment, ethnography, or the comparison of historical data. What synthetic worlds contribute is a large scale experimental method."). The total 3 year budget ($5.777m) is set out in detail in the .pdf. - I'm not quite clear if this is an appeal for funds, or a list of funds already secured. (The website home page talks about the Institute as if it already exists, the .pdf as if it is still at the proposal stage. I've emailed the Institute to ask.)
To start with, the Arden Project will launch a new "synthetic world" based on the age and works of Shakespeare: "Arden’s goals are, for users: 1) to encourage self-discovery, and 2)to break down cultural barriers between themselves and Shakespeare’s work. For the world at large, Arden has the additional goal of enabling social science research."
I wish Prof Castronova well. To dull people (like me) raised in the Protestant Work Ethic, who have a sneaking feeling that synthetic worlds are a waste of time for everybody except their investors, this attempt to give them 'meaning' makes sense.
But there are lots of people out there who don't share my view - they just play games for fun - and their participation in this project is essential. Prof Castronova has to find out what makes them tick, and what will make them play his games in large enough numbers to be a base for solid 'experiments'. As well as being serious, they've got to be ineresting/ amusing/ exciting/ whatever, and I'm not sure if you can will that sort of creativity into being, however good the cause.
There's also two methodological questions. 'Second Lifers' (etc) are a self-selected community. Are they sufficiently representative of the 'real world'? Statisticians are well aware of the dangers of generalising from an unrepresentative sample.
Secondly, do people have different standards and behavioural patterns when they know they're in a 'synthetic world'? (Surely that's part of the appeal, eg of Sociolotron?)
But if anyone can answer these questions, it's Prof Castronova.
Incidentally the 'market research' section of the Arden prospectus has a good summary of the issues, and includes a list of "Noteworthy synthetic worlds operating in North America as of Fall 2004." These are
1.Asheron’s Call and Asheron’s Call 2, Turbine Entertainment
2. City of Heroes, NCSoft
3. Dark Age of Camelot, Mythic Entertainment
4. EVE Online, CCP
5. EverQuest and EverQuest II, Verant/Sony Online Entertainment
6. Final Fantasy XI, Square Enix
7. Lineage II, NCSoft
8. Second Life, Linden Research Corp.
9. Star Wars Galaxies, LucasArts/Sony Online Entertainment
10. There, There Inc.
11. Ultima Online, Origin/Electronic Arts
12. World of Warcraft, Blizzard Entertainment