Friday, May 16, 2008

Research Conference in World of Warcraft

I had the pleasure of attending Saturday’s session of last weekend’s “Convergence of the Real and the Virtual,” a conference that took place inside World of Warcraft. Attendees had to be on the Earthen Ring server and have a Horde character. The locations varied by day, but on Saturday the session took place in the sewers of the Undercity.

I’ve attached some photos of session discussion (click to enlarge) that I took as well as a group photo (courtesy of Joanna Robinson) taken during the expedition to Booty Bay.The conference consisted of a research discussion followed by an expedition to different parts of the world. The expeditions were designed to highlight some of the more spectacular views and locations in WoW. The topics for each day were as follows:

Session 1: Research and World of Warcraft (May 9)
Session 2: Relationships between WoW and the "Real World" (May 10)
Session 3: The Future of Virtual Worlds (May 11)

Detail on the activities and discussions can be found on the conference wiki, including screenshots and video footage. Additional information on the conference is available from Virtual Worlds News and Science.

I found the session I attended to be interesting and insightful. I’ve posted the chat log from Saturday’s session for those interested. Tim Burke, a history professor at Swarthmore, made the following observation about the research value of virtual worlds:

My first angle of approach with virtual worlds is always to treat them as "accidental social simulations". They're richer and more complex than any model in normal social science. But they're simple enough to study in ways the world at large cannot be… Models in social science are predictable. Scholars can make them do what scholars want them to do. Virtual worlds aren't predictable: they have all the organic character of human society….So that's my answer to whether research in World of Warcraft is useful for understanding the real world. Of course it is. (and vice-versa). Yes, with very firm limits, but yes nevertheless.

It was also kind of exciting to be conducting a research-oriented discussion inside WoW, especially seeing all the other participants’ avatars ranging from Undead warriors to Tauren shaman Blood Elf thieves. The expedition was also an enjoyable group excursion. The underwater reefs off of Booty Bay were particularly neat to see (until, that is, I strayed too far from the group and was killed by a murloc).

Beyond the benefit of the session discussion itself, I left the conference with a couple important impressions. It seems desirable to see serious applications of MMOGs. In the real world, the most popular places for conferences are Tampa, San Diego, Atlanta and New Orleans. They are not places like Duluth, MN in January, or Odessa, TX in August. No slight to those cities, but people want the location of their conferences to be fun and exciting. The same goes for virtual conferences. If you are going to have a conference in a virtual world, why not hold it in a MMOG, where you can hand out goodie bags and participants can make friends for adventuring as well as research? In addition, to put a slightly different spin on the same point, it seems evident that such serious applications of MMOGs are inevitable. After all, as the most profitable sector of the virtual world market, MMOGs are more likely to produce technologically advanced worlds that attract serious applications. These impressions simply reinforce the points discussed in my earlier post, “Apples & Oranges, or Shades of Grey?”.

The conference was organized by Bill Bainbridge and John Bohannon. Bainbridge is currently affiliated with the Center for Social Complexity at George Mason University and is Co-Director of Human-Centered Computing at the National Science Foundation, while Bohannon is author of the Gonzo Scientist column in the AAAS journal Science.