Understanding Evolution of Virtual Worlds Research: A Content Analytic Approach

Understanding Evolution of Virtual Worlds Research: A Content Analytic Approach

Manish Gupta (State University of New York at Buffalo, USA) and Rui Chen (Ball State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61350-516-8.ch002
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Virtual worlds are emerging as important socio-technical artifacts in contemporary society. Improvements in technology – both hardware and software performance and costs – have facilitated fast emergence of complex and near-real experience virtual worlds. Recent years have seen an unprecedented growth in number of users and corporations joining these virtual worlds. They have enabled unique business models in the digital economy and cast far-reaching impacts on the society spanning literature to leisure. The chapter analyzes 106 journal articles published in last decade to uncover a shift in focus of research on different aspects of virtual worlds. The chapter identifies six dominant themes of research on virtual worlds and then content-analyzes extant literature to show how these themes have emerged in research on virtual worlds. This presents unique insights into perceived relative importance of impact of different aspects of virtual worlds on individuals and organizations alike.
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Virtual worlds (VWs) are Internet-based online communities where people interact with one another and to their online environments in a three-dimensional space. The number of individuals and companies joining virtual worlds has exponentially increased in recent years. A Gartner research report (2007) estimates that about 80 percent of active Internet users will be participating in one or more virtual worlds by the end of 2011. A report by Strategy Analytics (2008) predict that the percentage of registered users that will participate in virtual worlds will increase from 10% in 2008 to 27% by 2017, which will amount to about almost 1 billion users. For example, registered users in Linden Lab’s “Second Life”, one of the most popular virtual worlds, has grown from 230,000 residents in April of 2006 to 8.5 million residents in August of 2007 (Calongne and Bayne, 2007). There are several million inhabitants of these virtual worlds across globe – from every age group – that have made these virtual worlds their second home (Williams, et al., 2008; Woodcock, 2008). In addition to individuals and companies a large number of educational institutions and government agencies have also started to use the offerings of virtual worlds for their operations (Kim et al., 2008; Warmelink, 2009). A recent Gartner report predicts that 80% Fortune 500 companies and of individual Internet users will have presence in virtual worlds by 2011 (Wagner, 2007). Prior reports also reveal annual revenue of $100 million for Cyworld in 2005, $360 million for Entropia Universe in 2006, and $700 million for Second Life in 2007 (Tynan, 2007).

Virtual worlds have emerged as “a rich and complex platform for research” (Mennecke et al., 2007). Castronova (2006) suggests that large multiplayer games are “social science research tools on the scale of the supercollider used by physicists”. They offer researchers a “laboratory” where people behave in ways that often are nearly identical to how they behave in the real world. As a consequence, virtual words offer scholars an interesting set of opportunities for examining social interaction, technology development, adoption and diffusion, business development and operations, and a vast array of other topics of interest to researchers in information systems and other branches of social science (Mennecke et al., 2007). Given the impact of virtual worlds on almost all aspects of our lives, it is critical that we understand how this technology can be leveraged in business and throughout society. In this paper, the authors review the status quo of the virtual worlds and discuss how this socio-technical artifact is transforming the real world. In particular, we examine the promise and potential of virtual worlds and explore the challenges of the emergence of virtual worlds.

Many researchers are investigating the merits, costs and benefits that virtual worlds have as a “field” for experiments and how social, legal and businesses are impacted by virtual worlds. Recently, National Science Foundation awarded half-million-dollar grant to the university of Central Florida at Orlando and University of Illinois at Chicago to investigate and identify opportunities for social science and other researchers towards development of digital versions of real people using a wide array of available technologies including AI, imaging and virtual worlds (Tucker, 2007). Dr. John List, an economics professor, and Dr. David S. Abrams, an economist, have begun a project to find feasibility and other options of conducting social experiments in virtual worlds by observing people’s behavior in virtual environments. Dr. List, who frequently conducts microeconomic field experiments, says conducting studies in virtual worlds are very cost-effective and convenient. However, he also says that it is still to be found out if people would behave similarly in online world as in real world for some of the tests that he is interested in (Foster, 2007).

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