Virtual worlds have been making headlines in higher ed for a number of years now. From The Sims  to Second Life , all-encompassing video games have caught the attention (favorable  or otherwise ) of faculty and administrators as well as students. But it's safe to say that few have explored virtual realities with the fervor of sociologist William Sims Bainbridge.
Bainbridge -- who is currently co-director of Human-Centered Computing at the National Science Foundation and adjunct professor of sociology at George Mason University -- spent over 2,300 hours (that's more than a year of 40-hour work weeks, if you're counting) playing World of Warcraft as part of the research for his latest book, The Warcraft Civilization: Social Science in a Virtual World  (MIT Press). Bainbridge spoke to Inside Higher Ed via e-mail, discussing what he's learned from and about virtual worlds -- and the vast potential they offer for future research.
Q: Your study of virtual worlds over the past few years marks a noticeable shift from your earlier work, which focused largely on religion and cults. What prompted you to turn your attention to video gaming, and specifically World of Warcraft?
A: Actually, my doctoral dissertation and first book was a social history of the space program, and I have published as much in the social science of science and technology as on religion, plus I published four methodological textbooks a couple of decades ago including many software programs I had written from scratch myself, including some educational games. When I was studying religious groups, I quipped that "cult is culture write small," viewing these tiny subcultures as societies comparable to those in which all people lived thousands of years ago. Thus I saw religious movements as an excellent laboratory for studying fundamental social processes, and the same is true for the small societies in virtual worlds.
I like to say that I owned my first computer game 53 years ago. It was a Geniac educational computer that would play tic-tac-toe and solve the puzzle for getting missionaries and cannibals across a river without eating each other. But it had zero bytes of RAM, and you had to wire it from scratch for every different problem. My elder daughter, Wilma, who now is a cognitive science major at Yale, did a major research project when she was 15, that led to a website and wiki thoroughly documenting and analyzing 750 major programming errors in popular video games. My younger daughter Constance, now a music major at Boston University, uses her computer for composition as well as recording and editing music. Thus I am convinced these new technologies can provide a range of excellent learning experiences for students. Even casual players of online games learn a good deal about logic, calculation, planning, cooperation, and many skills in managing information technology, while those who go the extra step to do research inside these environments benefit still more.
Q: What were your major goals for this project – and to what extent were they realized?
A: Virtual worlds and massively multiplayer online games are a major emerging area of research in the behavioral, social, computer, and information sciences. In fact I have spent over 200 hours in each of these other examples: Second Life, The Matrix Online, Tabula Rasa, Anarchy Online, Entropia Universe, Dark Age of Camelot, Age of Conan, The Lord of the Rings Online, Pirates of the Burning Sea, A Tale in the Desert, and Star Wars Galaxies. This week I started the new Star Trek Online. Many scientists and scholars are using a range of research methods, quantitative as well as qualitative, to do generalizable research that both tests old theories and develops new ones. For example, many of them study how cooperation and enduring social groups emerge, as people help each other and develop ties of trust and affection. My short textbook from Morgan and Claypool, Multiplayer Online Games, summarizes some of this literature.
My own intellectual focus is on using these worlds comparatively, to deepen our understanding of major social issues in the so-called real world. While light-hearted and fun, World of Warcraft raises questions about how humanity should live, if it proves impossible to build a world in which there are sufficient resources for everybody. This grim issue lies behind many other issues today. Suppose the only way members of one society can survive is to be successful warriors who kill members of other societies. That seems to have been the case in the ancient world, and it may become the case in our own future. As members of the Horde and Alliance compete, in the wider story they exist during a brief period of balance, in which the Orc invasion of Azeroth lies in the past, and the two factions have temporarily occupied different territories. Eventually, the original struggle between Orcs and Humans must lead to the extinction of one or the other, just as early modern humans killed off the Neanderthals. In contrast, The Lord of the Rings Online is based on a somewhat abstracted Roman Catholic view of the world, in which it is possible for all intelligent beings to unite under a single moral code, but this requires them all accepting a very modest style of life under extremely idealized Medieval conditions, without much wealth and without modern science and technology.
Q: One of the book’s recurrent ideas is that WoW and other virtual worlds have enormous potential as a means of carrying out research. What possibilities does WoW present as an aid or environment for research -- and have you seen any sign that it is already being utilized this way?
A: Virtual worlds like WoW contain complex economies, evolving social groups, and many of the interactions between individuals studied by social psychologists. For social scientists, the added bonus of virtual worlds is that data are so much easier to collect than almost any other setting. For example, in World of Warcraft you can type in "/chatlog" and all the text-based communications will be stored on your computer's hard disk. All these worlds make it easy to take screenshot pictures. The Warcraft Civilization was written for a wide audience, non-technical as well as technical, and I save my more complex statistical analysis for journal articles. Vast data about millions of World of Warcraft characters can be found online  and many of the other worlds have features that permit collecting theoretically-relevant quantitative data that it would be hard to get in any other setting. Most importantly, students can do research projects for term papers or even doctoral dissertations on topics of general scientific interest, collecting solid data inside virtual worlds, at very low cost. To do so, of course, they need a combination of creativity plus a critical mind, so they invest some time developing adequate research methods and interesting connections to theory.
In some of my own quantitative research on WoW, I have run an add-on program called CensusPlus inside WoW, to get a list of names of characters online during the selected period, along with a very few variables. Then I manually enter the names into the Armory, getting multiple web pages for each character. I then save these as XML files and write a parser program to extract the variables I want. A team at PARC headed by Nic Ducheneaut  is creating a program to do all this automatically, giving them a thousand variables for each of tens of millions of avatars, plus information about guild and arena team memberships. Doing this repeatedly allows researchers to watch all kinds of change over time.
WoW is by no means the only appropriate virtual world, and at NSF I have had the honor of managing  funding  of a  $1 million project  to do systematic quantitative research on EverQuest2.
Q: You also argue that virtual worlds merit attention as an area of study in themselves – and of course The Warcraft Civilization represents a step in that very direction. Why should we study virtual worlds, and what might we hope to learn?
A: Many reasons, but here are mine. Each well-designed virtual world is based on a coherent theory of human society, history, and our options for the future. Thus, this is like an entirely new field of literature or a laboratory that develops and tests social theories with actual human beings, somewhere between philosophy and social science but also with utopian qualities. For example: Pirates of the Burning Sea is set in the Caribbean in 1720 and reflects a general view of society often called political economy. A Tale in the Desert, set in a kind of utopian ancient Egypt, illustrates principles of industrial supply chains, and fits theories of technology as ritual originally proposed by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. Star Trek Online (which opened only two days ago) is based on the cultural relativist principle "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations." Tabula Rasa expressed a well-developed ideology of space exploration, and our avatars were actually taken up to the International Space Station. Of course The Matrix Online was built on European theories of false consciousness. In the 1960s I started studying utopian communes and religious movements, because I saw them as valid if risky experiments on new directions for humanity. That's what virtual worlds are today.
Q: The book gives the impression that the WoW experience is shaped both by the values of its creators (who include themes of environmentalism, for example, and gender equality) and those of its players (who often seem to foster an environment of sexism and homophobia). Do you see WoW, overall, as more a reflection of existing Western culture or a vector for social change? In the case of the latter, how might that come about?
A: Seen as an educational experience, World of Warcraft does not belabor any one perspective, but offers people experiences relating to real social issues in a manner that encourages them to reach their own conclusions. In fact, the people who inhabit Azeroth are remarkably nice people, usually adults and with reasonably mature personalities, making the environment rather safe for the many teenagers who also flock to it. While I cited a few examples of prejudice, I think they are rare, and people push back against them.
Of course, people have a range of viewpoints on issues of today that are reflected in their behavior in Azeroth, although mutual respect is almost universal. The guilds in WoW are created by like-minded people, who develop ties of trust and affection, thereby increasing the satisfaction of a wide range of players. Separate versions of WoW differ in terms of the extent to which the rules do or don't favor conflict, so people can select their preferred level of aggression.
Several regions of the virtual world have suffered environmental degradation, many quests relate to it, and some of them involve combating polluters. People can pay attention to environmental themes of quests in these areas if they wish, and gain increased sensitivity to sustainability, or they can ignore the themes if they prefer. Other issues highlighted in WoW include colonialism, the limits to economic growth and technological innovation, and how to balance loyalty to one's own group versus principles of universal fairness. Thus, WoW does not indoctrinate people, but it allows people with a diversity of viewpoints to explore realms that are meaningful to them.
Q: In 2008, you staged an entire academic conference, “Convergence of the Real and the Virtual ,” within WoW. What was achieved at the conference? And would you like to hold another?
A: The conference was remarkably successful, and for the three major plenary sessions about 120 avatars representing scholars spanning the globe from Australia across North America and Europe to Russia exchanged ideas and developed professional relationships. A scientific book growing out of the conference, Online Worlds, is being published by Springer. We joke that we encountered absolutely no technical problems, although one scientist drowned and another was eaten by hyenas, and this reflects the maturity of virtual world technology such as represented by World of Warcraft. We now have extensive experience holding conferences and formal decision-oriented committee meetings in virtual worlds, for example on an "island" I operate in Second Life.
World of Warcraft is the biggest and the best gamelike virtual world, and there is much to learn from it. The Warcraft Civilization is my best effort to learn, through an expedition that bought back many insights I hope readers will find valuable. But there now are many virtual worlds, and some of the very smallest have great things to teach us as well. A Tale in the Desert has fewer than a thousand subscribers, one ten-thousandth of the peak population of World of Warcraft, yet it would be a fine environment for an academic conference, and it contains much that would be useful for school or college classes. Thus The Warcraft Civilization and the May 2008 conference I organized in World of Warcraft open the gates to a myriad of virtual worlds that may be the subjects of future books and the venues for conferences.