Bainbridge offers a review in the 27 July issue of Science (PDF here) on the scientific research potential of virtual worlds. I wonder if this kind of work would face the same criticism as studies of animal behavior in zoos rather than in the wild (a issue revisited in my recent posting on the bonobo ape). Here is the abstract:
Online virtual worlds, electronic environments where people can work and interact in a somewhat realistic manner, have great potential as sites for research in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences, as well as in human-centered computer science. This article uses Second Life and World of Warcraft as two very different examples of current virtual worlds that foreshadow future developments, introducing a number of research methodologies that scientists are now exploring, including formal experimentation, observational ethnography, and quantitative analysis of economic markets or social networks.From his conclusion, "Human Challenges"
Figure: Three avatars in SL making a door. In a virtual design studio, two scientists are admiring the work of a student intern (center) who is creating a set of displays demonstrating human-centered computing. After the combination lock has been set and made smaller, the door can readily be moved to its final location. Similar methods can be used to construct laboratory facilities and experimental equipment.
Many virtual worlds may foster scientific habits of mind better than traditional schools can, because they constantly require inhabitants to experiment with unfamiliar alternatives, rationally calculate probable outcomes, and develop complex theoretical structures to understand their environment (60–62). Probably for better, but conceivably for worse, virtual worlds are creating a very new context in which young people are socialized to group norms, learn intellectual skills, and express their individuality (63). The "graduates" of SL and WoW may include many future engineers, natural scientists, and social scientists ready to remake the real world in the image of the virtual worlds.